There’s always a place in the city for a big band that can really rip it up on the dance floor – especially a band that dresses the part and has the smarts to do more than simply rework some previous generation’s classics. So it is with Auckland’s 10-piece Sal Valentine and the Babyshakes, who employ the chassis of 1930s swing to build a graphically modern party bus. Sal Valentine and his Babyshakes’ alto-saxophonist Callum Passells did their best to convince Sam Carswell that there’s a spike-haired punk at the wheel.
Here’s an unusual situation. I’m sitting in O’Connell’s Freehouse listening to Sal Valentine, frontman of the throwback orchestral swing band Sal Valentine and the Babyshakes, wax lyrical about his love of AC/DC. Then again, having just spent the morning listening to their self-titled debut (which closes on the irresistibly catchy Drink Until I Pass Out), this shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. Maybe it’s because their music, which draws from soul, swing, boogie-woogie and “bubble-gum rhythm and blues,” before adding a modern twist, still feels very rooted in its influences.
After a bit of googling, I’m left with some questions: How can Sal Valentine and his Babyshakes get away with all this? How can they play shows with the likes of Rackets and still have their music maintain its McCarthy-era charm? How can they record an album with Bob Frisbee (known for recording the likes of The D4, Street Chant and The Transistors) and then go out and play at the Auckland Museum?
“I finally decided that it was okay to use an artist model as a starting point, which is what people had been telling me through music and art and drama and stuff throughout high school… I always thought it was it was a lot of shit… but it’s okay to start somewhere and use that as a method of developing your sound. And it has developed.”
Indeed it has. We’re talking about something much more than old-time R’n’B – closer, mostly, to the 1930s big band swing, but edgier. Sal, rather adeptly, if unexpectedly, points out the similarity between their situation and AC/DC’s origins.
“They weren’t ‘punk’ enough for punk music, which was happening at the same time, they weren’t metal enough for the heavy metal crowd, and they were too bogan for mainstream rock audiences. They were just these fucking munters that were just doing their thing and eventually people got on the boat… I hate to say it, but I think we’re kind of doing the same thing.”
I’d hate to compare the two bands too, but maybe he’s right. The Babyshakes aren’t jazz enough for the “jazz kids,” as Sal puts it. And to that alt crowd, it does sort of sound “… a bit like your dad’s favourite band.” But all those impressions change when people see them perform live – whether they’re playing with punk bands or on Fullers’ ferries. That, according to alto saxophonist Callum Passells, is what they’re all about. It’s exactly what comes through in the album, too.
The album was recorded and mixed at Frisbee Studios. Tracking was completely live (aside from the vocals), with the whole 10-piece band in the same room. Sal is adamant this was the best way of recording the band.
“What you hear on the record is what you’re gonna get live. I’m not going to go ahead a create this studio album that I can’t fully represent with my live ensemble – that’s why I’ve got 10 people.”
When asked to name their five favourite albums Callum mentions Mingus’ ‘Ah Um’ (Charles Mingus) and Sal agrees immediately. For those who haven’t heard ‘Ah Um’, what makes it such a distinctive record is that throughout the album, all through the solos and arrangements, you can hear the band yelling out whenever they feel the need. Whenever they like something. When it connects. I can’t help but sense that’s just the vibe the Babyshakes were aiming for when they recorded their album.
“That’s a reaction against the sort of, po-faced, boring nature of a lot of modern jazz,” Callum explains. “If you’re excited about something, yell out, like ‘Yeah! That’s great! Fantastic!’ I think all of us have listened to records where it’s made them a lot more enjoyable to listen to – it stops it from being turned into a sort of classical music, which I think a lot of jazz is, nowadays. The band and the audience being part of it, vocally, I think, is really important.”
“It’s one of the only forms of music in the world where it’s like performance is not sacred,” Sal picks up. “If you want to add something, you can. There’s a lack of pretension.”
Maybe they’re closer to punk than I thought.
Distaste for the academisation of jazz is by no means an excuse for simple music though. Most of the band having met through jazz education (both Sal and Callum have been through the University of Auckland’s jazz programme, with Callum currently working towards an Honours degree), as well as all playing in various other projects. The whole Babyshakes ensemble is highly skilled and incredibly well versed in their genre. They execute complex and often very demanding arrangements, usually within a simple 12/16/32 bar format.
Callum, who came into the fold 18 months ago after filling in for a previous band member, feels that most of the band being working musicians has given them the experience necessary to polish songs and perform them to a higher level.
“A song can be 90% complete in the time it takes to play it, and that wouldn’t happen in a band where, at least the horn section weren’t trained. We’ve all played in big bands and we’ve all done our time playing charts, which definitely helps the way we work.”
Sal picks up on this theme.
“I’ll present something to them and generally speaking, if it’s not completely over-the-top, it’s pretty good within a couple of tries,” he confirms. “The musical training gives us a base from which to work efficiently.”
Within such a large ensemble, there’s general consensus that there needs to be a leader. Someone has to be Sal, to the band’s Babyshakes. The tunes are written and arranged by him, with proof reading by Ben Sinclair (tenor sax).
“My arrangements are, harmonically, not as shit hot as they could be,” Sal admits. “Recently, there’s been a bit more of a group arrangement vibe, though it’s still pretty didactic, which is indicative of a lot of how this music used to happen. It’s pretty standard for a rock group to get together and write as a band, but that’s just not possible with a 10-piece.
Like many songwriters, Sal’s found that what he’s writing is slowly beginning to hit closer and closer to home. While there’s always been an autobiographical aspect to it, like Shirt Shop for example, his songs are starting to take on much more meaning.
“The writing’s getting insanely personal and cathartic.”
Despite the throwback in sound, the lyrics are anything but dated. With edgier subject matters, swearing and Facebook references, the Babyshakes have found success in keeping it relevant for the audience.
“We’re not living in the ’50s.”
Certainly that could be said about another side of the Babyshakes too – visual image. In the recent wave of retro-revival, they stand far outfield. Sonically and visually, there’s really nothing else quite like them. Similar to their music, Sal and the Babyshakes play on the old blues tradition of dusting off the suit to get on stage, but bring it up to date. None of the old trope of black, black and more black. The Babyshakes come preppily dressed in a band uniform of navy and white. Despite the fact that this could easily seem a gimmick, Sal and Callum are both quick to assert that it has more to do with themselves, as people, than it does with carving any sort of niche for the band.
“I think the important thing to note here, is that there is a lot of selling power in the image of the band and what we wear,” sums up Callum. “That’s not why we do it, though. Obviously the band has garnered a lot of interest because the sound and the look is different to what everyone else is doing; and it’s a throwback, and referencing an era which not a lot of people are referencing at the moment. But it’s not a cash-in sort’a thing, y’know what I mean? This is here because you [Sal] were really passionate about this music, and now we [the Babyshakes] are as well. It’s here because we really love this sort of shit,” he laughs.
It seems that, despite a case of the aforementioned AC/DC complex, Sal Valentine and the Babyshakes are the kind of band it’s hard not to like. Older fans can ignore any questionable themes they might object to, such as the wonderfully controversial Suck My Dick (“which isn’t actually how it sounds,” Sal disclaims), and just enjoy the music. Younger audiences are able to relate to the message, enjoy the music, and ignore the fact that, well, their dad is probably dancing alongside them.