Santa Cruz’s Slow Gherkin reunites for two Bay Area shows this week
Ever had the kind of life-defining relationship you couldn’t give up, even long after it was over? Not even that you couldn’t, just that you didn’t want to, because you knew no matter how bad it ended, you’d never have anything like it again?
That’s the way the members of Santa Cruz’s former reigning ska band Slow Gherkin talk about their reunion shows. Lead singer James Rickman says the band tries hard to make sure it’s not like “breakup sex” every time they get back together again. Sax player Phil Boutelle says doing too many reunion shows could take away their specialness. And lead guitarist A.J. Marquez speaks of Slow Gherkin—whose core members he’s been playing with since sixth grade at Westlake Elementary School, more than two decades ago—with what can only be described as reverence.
“It’s mind-blowing and amazing,” to play with the band again, he says. “But you’re opening up a chapter of life that was totally closed. It almost feels like we shouldn’t be touching the Gherkin stuff. I almost don’t want to step on that sacred ground again.”
Ironically, though, he has a hard time wrapping his head around the idea that anyone outside the band even cares about their reunion shows.
“I never quite believe people will come out,” he says. “It blows my mind that there are still Slow Gherkin fans.”
He shouldn’t be surprised. Formed in 1993 when most of the members were still in high school, Gherkin was the defining band of the Santa Cruz music underground in the late 1990s. Riding the third wave of ska, but drawing on the punk energy of the strong local hardcore scene, they combined a wall-of-sound brass musical attack with raw rock power. After releasing their debut album Double Happiness in 1996, they signed with Mike Park’s Asian Man Records in time for their crowning studio achievement, 1998’s Shed Some Skin. But the band was always at its best live. Their run of half a dozen or so sold-out Catalyst shows were mind-warping experiences.
“Often bands have said, ‘You guys are a big influence on us because of your energy,’” says Boutelle. “It wasn’t intentional. It was just what came out of the music and this group of people.”
Like many bands that take over the scene for a particular era, though, Slow Gherkin never really broke out beyond their hometown. They called it quits in 2002, after the Run Screaming album. But the intensity of the band at their peak clearly left a mark not only on their fans, but on the band members, as well.
Rickman, for instance, was known at the time for his insane frontman antics, but despite taking on other projects in his adopted city of New York (including People Get Ready, which is releasing its second album), he’s never sung in another band. “I’ve learned over the last 12 years that I need those guys to feel that free and safe,” he says.
Gherkin will reunite for a show at the Kuumbwa on Friday, Dec. 19. Unfortunately—in direct contradiction to Marquez’s lingering doubt—the show is already sold out. However, for Gherkin fans who worry they might not get another chance, the band will also play in Petaluma at the Phoenix Theater on Saturday, Dec. 20.
Rickman says the band members have remained close friends—some of them still play together here in the Huxtables, Dan P. and the Bricks, and other projects—but there’s no doubt that times have changed.
“I think there are two of us who don’t have kids, everybody else does,” he says. “Those kids need to learn about the ska.”
Gherkin did play the Rio in 2011 as part of a celebration of Asian Man Records, but this week’s shows came about because of the experience the band had playing in New York’s Ska Fest in June. Boutelle says it was “fantastic, a total lovefest,” but for him the best part wasn’t even the show itself, but when the band got together beforehand in a small practice space in Brooklyn.
“We were in this little room, and it felt like the old days,” he says. “The vibe felt so good.”
For this week’s shows, the band invited “everybody ever in Slow Gherkin” to play—which is a lot of people.
“I can’t even count how many horns we have for this one,” says Rickman. “I just hope there’s somewhere for me to stand.”
PHOTO: Slow Gherkin at the Catalyst in 1998, after ripping apart a stuffed animal on stage. DAVE TISDALE