MUSIC FOR CRIMINALS, BY CRIMINALS!
HOBO EROTIC, THE SAVIORS OF FRESNO SKA?
He's played in Checkmate and many other legendary Fresno ska bands
Manu Janssens (2nd from right) speaks about Hobo Erotic, ska in Fresno back in
the day and the current state of the scene.
Back in its heyday in the 90’s, ska was enjoying an appreciation from a loyal American fan base, which included Fresno. Though the ska brand of music has a rich history since its inception in 1950’s Jamaica, the music has endured through the years and sees revivals that cycle about every decade or so.
Manu Janssens has been there and back. A loyal ska fan right out of high school in the 90’s, he helped form a band called Checkmate, which later disbanded, but he didn’t stop there. He went on to form other bands, including Suspect 72, and Tabasco Fiasco. He then joined one of the bands at the forefront of the local Fresno ska scene, Let’s Go Bowling, briefly for a tour, before starting another band, Chico and the Hornets. Then he moved out of Fresno, and stayed away from music for about seven years. He then returned to Fresno, only to find himself wanting to scratch the music itch again. He found his way back into a local band to get some practice in and then left, with a strong desire to feed the fire of his ska roots. Soon, Hobo Erotic was born – a band he proudly calls a project that he nurtured and invested in, to join in what is now a ska revival in the Fresno area and beyond.
But even as Hobo Erotic satisfies loyal fans with its traditional ska rhythms, things aren’t quite the same since the 90’s.
“When I was in Checkmate right out of high school, it seemed to be the perfect time for ska,” says Janssens. “All we needed to do is throw a show and it would sell out because it was just the perfect time for ska. But now, we can have professional musicians and it’s just harder to get people out to ska shows, the appreciation just seems to fluctuate.”
But it’s now 2007, and that appreciation is back. The band is enjoying playing more and more shows in the West Coast, include the cities of Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tempe, AZ.
“We can always count on our local fans, and we’ve just started branching out,” says Janssens. “We have a good following in L.A., but we haven’t really broken into the Bay Area as much as I’d like to.”
Even so, they were able to strut their stuff this month at UC Santa Cruz and Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. The band will also take to Hollywood’s Knitting Factory for the fourth time this month, where they always draw a good crowd. Locally, they’ve played with bands that include, Let’s Go Bowling, Los Hooligans, and The Jokes. Recently, they opened up for The Skatalites, one of the premier bands that started the ska wave many years ago.
“It was a real honor for us, we were star struck,” says Janssens.
Bringing big ska names to Fresno is one of Manu’s goals as part of Hobo Erotic. Some names on the future band roster include Chris Murray and Hepcat. As part of the two-and- a-half-year old band, Janssens wants to help grow and support the local ska scene by bringing those bigger names to Fresno. He says the Fresno scene is growing, and even if it was dying, he’d keep playing because he just loves the music.
“It’s just good music. It doesn’t proliferate violence, it’s positive, not negative and you can dance to it,” he says.
The band’s current line-up has been in place for a year with Manu on tenor sax and vocals, Omari Jones on lead vocals, Jon McPhee on alto sax, Tweed Jefferson on guitar, Aaron Taunton on bass, Chris Estep on drums, and Dakota Iyall on keys. Meeting through mostly friends of friends, Janssens also recruited three members from Fresno’s Scooter Club, of which he is a member. As a steadfastly local band, Janssens says they don’t plan on moving anywhere anytime soon, even if moving to a bigger city might be easier.
“We’re always going to be a local band, I can’t imagine us being anywhere else,” he says.
Janssens describes the Hobo Erotic sound as serious. It’s not goofy, and they don’t do love songs. He says they try to sing about real life and “the street.” A slogan for the band is “Ska...for criminals, by criminals.” It might sound shady, but it came about from a conversation the original band members had where they all discovered that everyone in the band had a criminal record. Currently, one member does not, but they kept the slogan because it just felt right – for now. But Janssens maintains that the music, though real and gritty, does not promote negativity in any way.
“We don’t encourage violence, we don’t have a political agenda, we sing about stuff we know and stuff we see,” he says.
The band is a labor of love for Janssens, who spent a lot of time finding musicians who were familiar with ska for the band, and when he couldn’t, introducing musicians to it and trying to educate them in their understanding and appreciation of it. He says he is encouraged to see younger ska bands take an interest in the music and promote it, and that he really enjoys exposing younger audiences to the music. He also enjoys the unity that Hobo Erotic has, compared to other bands he’s been in in the past.
“What I really enjoy right now is I like playing with the guys in the band, we’re all on the same page, we’re all a little older, in our late 20s, early 30s, and when we get together to practice, it’s like a bunch of brothers getting together and having fun,” he says.
So does he see this growing interest in ska as a national, or even international trend? He says he sees the West Coast as the leader of a trend, and mentions a band out of Hollywood called The Aggrolites who just returned from their fourth world tour. According to conversations he’s had with some band members, their audiences in Europe went wild. He also points to a popular artist out of the UK -- Lily Allen, who incorporates strong ska beats in her music.
“I hope people realize – this is dance music. When you listen to it, you can’t not dance, resisting is futile,” he says with a laugh. “The music is built to get people off their chairs.”
And with the passion that Janssens has for it, the band will likely continue to keep audiences hopping.
“When people go to a Hobo Erotic show, I hope they just say, I danced my ass off and had a lot of fun and I want to go to their next show. I hope when people see the fun we have playing together on stage, that that adds to our allure,” he says. “We’re in a fun band, we work hard, but we like to have just as much fun as the crowd does.”
Hobo Erotic will be playing with the Chris Murray Combo, The Jokes and DJ’s from Beat Dynasty Sounds at Fresno’s the Starline on June 8 at 9 p.m. Cover is $7, all-ages.
For more info on Hobo Erotic, go to www.myspace.com/hoboeroticska.
Photos courtesy of Manu Janssens