It’s just a little more than a week before the Jai-Alai Savant’s record-release party–which was at Darkroom on Thursday, April 5–when I meet up with guitarist and front man Ralph Darden. The first thing he asks me is if I know any trumpet players–he wants to add a horn to the band’s lineup for the show. This is typical Ralph: he comes up with ideas almost nonstop, and though he can barely focus long enough to follow through on any of them, he’s got the hustle to pull things together at the last minute.
I first crossed paths with him about ten years ago, when my old band Trocar opened for his old band Franklin, a reggae-tinged posthardcore outfit from Philadelphia. Since then he’s earned a measure of fame as the genre-mashing DJ Major Taylor, mostly with the same kids who’ve made Flosstradamus such a hit: like their shows, the parties he started spinning in Philly in the late 90s and transplanted to Chicago two years ago erase the barriers between indie-geek rock and hip-hop-based club music. And Ralph was there long before Floss–he helped soften up the ground for the likes of Diplo and Spank Rock. Right now, though, what’s occupying his hyperactive mind is the new Jai-Alai Savant record, Flight of the Bass Delegate (out April 10 on Gold Standard Laboratories), which he hopes will do for his band what mixing Joy Division with Juvenile has done for DJ career. That and finding a trumpet player.
If you know Darden only through his exuberantly hedonistic DJ sets, the Jai-Alai Savant’s dark, aggressive dub-punk will probably come as a shock. And if you’ve seen the band–their tour schedule has already taken them all over the country and four times to Europe, so it’s likely that more people have caught a concert than have heard their previous record, the 2005 EP Thunderstatement–you might still be surprised to learn that until recently the trio’s been split between Chicago and Philadelphia. Their tightly wound sets hardly seem like the work of a band whose members have to commute 800 miles for rehearsal.
Darden started the Jai-Alai Savant in 2002, and he’s been the only constant in its high-turnover lineup. On Bass Delegate the bassist is Michael Ali and the drummer is Jeremy Gewertz, but now Dan Snyder and Michael Bravine fill those spots. Darden says this is the first time he’s felt confident letting his sidemen develop their own parts, but what he’s even more pumped about is that they’ve both moved to Chicago. “The difference has been completely insane, the positive impact it’s had on us,” he says. “It feels like a far more motivated city than Philly. I’m still not grindin’ nearly as hard as I should be, but I’ve already been ten times more productive than I was in Philadelphia. It’s my whole Superman-kryptonite-yellow-sun theory, the yellow sun being the creative energy of Chicago. I had to leave Krypton.”
Darden finds the local talent pool especially energizing. “There’s an abundance of insane musicians out here,” he says, and several appear on Bass Delegate (as does Ikey Owens from the Mars Volta, who plays keyboard and melodica). The Watchers’ Damien Thompson adds percussion, Yakuza’s Bruce Lamont adds sax, Just a Fire’s Fred Erskine (who’s since moved to D.C.) adds trumpet–and Damon Locks of the Eternals contributes not only vocals and cover art, like he did on the EP, but a palpable overall influence. The new album, with its richly orchestrated punk-reggae fusion, is definitely a cousin to the Eternals’ recent Heavy International–but instead of meandering dub experiments it’s got a fairly straight-up pop sensibility.
Unsurprisingly, Darden’s definition of pop has a few wrinkles in it. “Fugazi wrote some really catchy, poppy stuff, but you wouldn’t necessarily classify it as pop because it’s so aggressive and balls-out,” he says. “‘Waiting Room’ is a pop joint.” There’s probably not a place in the Hot 100 for the dreamy groove of “Low Frequent See,” which Darden says lifts its basic form–it sets up a structure, then collapses into hazy jamming–from the dub reggae classic “Fisherman” by the Congos. But the rave-up “Scarlett Johansson Why Don’t You Love Me” and the disco-drummy “White on White Crime” wouldn’t sound out of place in rotation on Q101.
Movie samples crop up throughout Bass Delegate. On “Low Frequent See,” black kung-fu hero Jim Kelly invokes one of Darden’s biggest obsessions, drawling a line from Enter the Dragon: “Man, you come right out of a comic book.” Darden says his lyrics to five of the album’s thirteen tracks include bits of the story line for a comic he’s been meaning to put together for ages. (Here he shows me a book called Overcoming Procrastination: Practice the Now Habit and Guilt-Free Play. “I got a whole bevy of self-help books for Christmas,” he says. “You know, that’s fucked up, but thank you.”) He’s reluctant to call it a concept album, though, “because you’re not going to listen to this record and be like, ‘Oh, it’s about this superhero going crazy and fighting giant robotic invaders, yeah.'”
Darden himself is like something out of a comic book too, or at least he’s trying to be. “Major Taylor” was intended to be more than just a DJ handle–it was supposed to be a separate persona. The major would handle all the funky, dancey projects–beats, remixes, production work–and Ralph Darden would play in a band. Major Taylor does in fact have a mix tape to his name, and he’s contributing to a record by Spank Rock cohort Amanda Blank. He’s also got his own credit on the Jai-Alai Savant album. Darden likens his dual roles to the “Civil War” story line that’s tied together most of the Marvel Comics universe for the past few months, with all the ordinarily parallel narratives interfering with and influencing one another. “I like where you find out there’s this producer named Major Taylor that you never see,” he says. “Hold on, but you also find out that he’s the singer’s alter ego. But he’s also working on this EP with Spank Rock. It’s like how the characters in a comic-book universe all relate to each other. It all comes back to comic books.”
Darden has a third identity too, one that’s been foisted on him out in the real world: the black punk guy. Or worse: the other black punk guy. White hipsters have mistaken him countless times for Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio or ?uestlove from the Roots. (Last summer at Intonation a girl asked him if he was Gnarls Barkley.) Usually Darden responds by explaining patiently what’s so messed up about the assumption that any black guy you see in an indie-rock context must be one of the five you’ve heard of. As Major Taylor, he’s introduced a lot of white kids to black club music, and as Ralph Darden, he’s trying to reintroduce them to the idea of a black rock musician–a task that’s turning out to be the tougher of the two.
In the future, he says confidently, “seeing a black guy onstage playing guitar and fronting a band won’t be this crazy thing. History always repeats itself. Rock ‘n’ roll started out with black people. I’m just trying to steal it back.”
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Hayley Murphy.