The House Jacks: Pollinating the Aca-universe

Last night, The House Jacks announced that founding member Deke Sharon is leaving the group, as is bass Elliott Robinson. Deke formed the group in 1991 and has shepherded it through many iterations while consistently pushingdeke the boundaries of recorded and live a cappella music.

The House Jacks are an iconic group, but not the kind that rests on its laurels and cruises along playing the greatest hits. The band has many exciting plans in store for the future, which will include two “new” yet-to-be announced members. This is why we have decided to go all in on a series of features and interviews, our very own “House Jacks” week here at Acatribe and in conjunction with Acafanbase.

This first piece has been in the works for many months.  When The House Jacks released their album Pollen last fall, I was blown away. A compilation album with some of the best groups from across the globe is exciting, but one where a pillar of the community like The House Jacks collaborates with those groups to write new songs is even better. I sat down with John Pointer in December to discuss the creation of the album, and then decided to go one step further. I reached out to members of all 10 collaborating groups featured on the album. The reason this piece has not gone up sooner is simple: it’s difficult to get in touch with people scattered across five continents. If not for the band’s announcement last night, I might have waited longer to hear back from the four remaining groups.  Instead, I am pushing on to offer you a look inside the making of the first international collaborative album of original a cappella music.

 

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For more than twenty years, The House Jacks have been ahead of the curve. If you listen to their recording of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir today, it sounds pretty cool. If you listened to it in 1997, when it was released on their second album Funkwich, it was mind-blowing.  Layered textures, big booming Bonham-esque drums, and fuzzy distortion are commonplace in recorded a cappella now. In 1997 they were from another galaxy.  

“Studio tricks,” you might say, “big deal- they’ve worked with a brilliant engineer (Bill Hare) for most of their albums.” My response would be this, this, this, and this.  See you in about 30 minutes, or far longer if you search “House Jacks requests” in YouTube.  The group has been performing its patented request improvisation medley for years, and it is fun (though far from perfect) every single time. It’s a bold move from a group of musicians confident enough in their skill and showmanship to allow themselves to be vulnerable onstage.  I have never seen another group even try it.

There’s your proof that the House Jacks have been innovating for quite a while. Last fall, they released Pollen, an album which features 10 songs performed, recorded, and essentially co-written with 10 groups from 5 different continents. This struck me as a brilliant extension of the group’s quest to not only push the boundaries of recorded a cappella music, but also to take a cappella into the future. Online collaborations are not brand-new (Peter Hollens, for example, has been putting out collaborative videos for years) but the idea of a premier band creating music with some of the best international groups is truly revolutionary.

I reached out to John Pointer, baritone/tenor/beatboxer extraordinaire, and he agreed to sit down and discuss the process. What followed was a 2.5-hour discussion about the group’s history, the process of recording Pollen, and some possibilities for the future.

 

I then followed up by emailing each of the collaborating groups, eventually hearing back from members of Cadence, The Idea of North, BR6, Postyr, Maybebop, and MICappella with their thoughts on the process and the album.

 

The idea for Pollen began when the House Jacks worked with BR6 on the Brazilian sextet’s album BR6 For All in 2012.  Later that year, the House Jacks went to Brazil to perform at the RioAcappella Festival, hosted by BR6, and the two groups spent a lot of time together.  According to Cylan Delgado, engineer for the BR6 album and a liaison between the group and the House Jacks, Deke sent Quiet Moon a few months later, asking if BR6 would like to be part of the next Jacks album.  In that email, he invited the group to arrange the bossa nova song with a “Brazilian accent” (says Delgado) and when BR6 member Andre Protasio finished his arrangement, Sharon called it “genius.”  Pointer says the “beautiful languid melodies” BR6 brought to the song were perfect.  According to Delgado, BR6 felt honored and thrilled to be a part of such a project.  

This collaboration gave the House Jacks, which Pointer noted has “always been at the center of…advancing the contemporary a cappella movement,” an idea. What if they could work with groups from all over the world, and in the process show House Jacks fans some of the terrific global groups they might not otherwise know? Deke planned to write a song with Christine Liu from Taiwan’s Voco Novo which the House Jacks could perform on future trips to China, and the band members began to brainstorm reaching out to contacts in other groups from a variety of countries.  The plan, Pointer says, was to take songs that House Jacks members had written or sketched out and try to pair them with other groups, asking “who would do these songs well? Who would really rock [them]?”  When they later provided each group with a song, the Jacks clearly expressed that they did not want a “House Jacks” song. Instead, they wanted a truly collaborative tune, one which featured elements of each group’s personality. The results were stunning.

In some cases, the collaborators inquired about radically revising the original songs.  Pointer noted that Swingle Clare Wheeler (now Girard, yes married to HJ member Nick Girard), asked how much freedom she had with This Life, a song Pointer wrote and which the group had been performing live and even recorded in an earlier studio session.  Pointer told her to go crazy with it. The result was a delicate, lush song with a new time signature, more complicated chords, and something which fit perfectly with The Swingles style and talent. It may have taken Pointer awhile to revise his solo in the new structure, but he loved how the song came out.  He also mentioned Talk2Me as a track which Danish group Postyr radically revised, with thrilling results.

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For other songs, Pointer noted that groups took fewer liberties but instead “augmented” the original, staying “true to what [the House Jacks] sent.”  For example, “Your Love” was a song where the German pop-rock quartet Maybebop nudged it slightly from its original form into a “great 80’s rock tune.” Canadian quartet Cadence added “nice little lyrical spices” to Pointer’s Confessional, “turning ‘na na’s into a lyrical motif” which Pointer never imagined.  Cadence’s Carl Berger described how they basically followed their typical method of “experimenting with different musical ideas right in the studio,” which led to “a particularly playful and organic feel” to the tracks they submitted.  In fact, Cadence provided the Jacks with a variety of different options and were “particularly pleased with the ‘flygirl’ backgrounds that Ross [Lynde] laid in on the second verse of the song,” a minor detail which the guys threw in for fun but never expected to hear in Bill Hare’s final mix.  Cadence appreciated and took advantage of the freedom offered by the House Jacks, with delightful results.

There were also tracks which fell somewhere in the middle, procedurally. As It Falls Apart, the collaboration with MICappella, was more of a “studio construction,” with the group and MICappella’s Peter Huang trading versions with various additions and modifications to Austin Willacy’s original tune.

For some groups, the collaboration was an opportunity not only to work on an intercontinental project but also to step outside their own comfort zone.  Naomi Crellin, of Australia’s The Idea of North, called it a “luxury” to “move freely over, under, and through” the House Jacks’ existing parts and eventually create a song “outside of our usual style” with a “new flavour” after 21 years perfecting their trademark sound.  The result in Austin Willacy’s Crazy is “one of the most persistent ear-worms we’ve ever learnt,” said Crellin, to the point where the members of Idea had to “ban [each other] from singing it as it was so constantly playing in each of our internal soundtracks.”

In the end, the House Jacks decided to call the album Pollen because, over the 20+ years of the band’s existence, its ideas and influences have spread across the world.  Pointer says this as someone who only joined in 2011 after years of being a fan, so it doesn’t carry the faintest whiff of ego or arrogance. It’s a fact: the House Jacks have pollinated the definition, or perhaps the possibilities, of contemporary a cappella around the world. Postyr’s Tine Fris called it a “true pleasure” to work with The House Jacks, Maybebop’s Jan Burger called it an “honor,” and Peter Huang said MICappella was “humbled to be in the same list as some of the other groups” on the collaboration.

Of course, an international collaborative album is a terrific idea but one which presents unique difficulties for The House Jacks as a performing group.  Though they may occasionally be able to perform with one of the collaborating groups, more frequently they will have to find ways to modify and translate all of the layers and unique sounds in the recordings for House Jacks performances going forward.  Pointer noted the difficulties here are both practical and emotional, as he now desperately wants to reproduce the terrific “background James Bond” parts which Cluster added to Get What You Need, for example, but it is simply not possible.

One of the unique aspects of The House Jacks has always been the musical flexibility of each member, from multi-talented guys like former percussionist Wes Carroll and baritone Garth Kravits to long-time tenor (and now senior member) Austin Willacy, and of course Pointer himself.  I first commented on this back in 2012 when discussing the versatility of both Pointer and Nick Girard.  Each has a killer tenor solo voice and the ability to handle rhythm responsibilities: Girard with a traditional rock percussionist style and Pointer with his beatboxing.  The new members, whose identities will be announced very soon, will only further this tradition of extreme musicality.  Considering the abundant talent in the group, it seems likely they will figure out a way to perform the songs from Pollen in a way which at the very least pays homage to the collaborating groups’ contributions.

I asked Pointer whether the House Jacks have any other plans for the future (this was before they were officially changing lineups), and he suggested a live album was casually discussed: perhaps “Unpollinated”?  He also suggested the group’s work with high school choirs might yield a massive digital sing-along of a song like Confessional.  Other existing ideas may be revealed or suggested in coming posts right here and at Acafanbase, as well as on the group’s social media outlets.

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John Pointer wants to be in a vocal band that leads, and the House Jacks have been doing so, as an a cappella institution, for more than twenty years.  While Deke Sharon has indeed been at the front of the a cappella revolution for that entire time, it may well be Pointer, Girard, Willacy, and the new House Jacks that carry the torch into the next era of a cappella.

For now, we can simply press play on Pollen and appreciate the work The House Jacks put in to not only to craft a great-sounding album, but also to expand the reach of a cappella music across the planet.  Carl Berger, of Cadence, summed it up when he said “one of the best things about doing what we do is the great friendships that we develop with other groups and individuals all over the world in the a cappella community. More projects like this one can only serve to bring us all closer together.”

Here’s hoping for precisely that.