Alum Profile: The Best Part of Wakin' Up . . .
Rockapella, which features vocal percussionist Jeff Thacher '90, is arguably the most high-profile a cappella group in pop music. The band has had lots of exposure on television and is looking to radio as the next frontier. From 1990 to 1995, the group was the house band on the popular PBS show "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" That put them before an estimated eight million young viewers each weekday afternoon. More recently, they were featured on camera singing that famous Folgers coffee jingle, "The best part of wakin' up is . . ." in two spots from the popular ad campaign. That exposed them to 90 million viewers. They frequently perform to packed houses across America and in Japan. Yet, despite all of this, they find that major labels and radio programmers are still hesitant to welcome a cappella groups into the fold of mainstream pop music.
"We constantly sell out shows and get a great response," says Thacher. "To hear that major labels feel they can't sell us is frustrating. A lot of people buy our albums at shows. We try to make the music so that it would fit in with radio; nothing is missing to the ear. You have percussion and bass with the vocals. It sounds like a contemporary pop recording. But marketing people are still afraid of it. We are not packaged like other boy vocal bands."
Rockapella 2, their second release for their enthusiastic indie label J-Bird Records, spotlights lead singer Scott Leonard's catchy original tunes that feature a variety of energetic grooves and lush vocal harmonies. The new disc also contains the two Folgers jingles.
Rockapella is banking on their hip-hop inflected cover of a classic song by the British group Squeeze to get the powers that be to give a listen. "We released 'Tempted,' as a single from the new disc" says Thacher. "We figured the only way to get under the skin of the radio programmers was to give them something familiar. We'd love to break down some walls that other a cappella groups could walk through. All it will take is for one group to break through."
Thacher grew up in Potsdam, New York. His father was an engineer, but Thacher points out that his grandparents were professional musicians. He earned his degree at Berklee after transferring from Boston University where he had spent two years as a nonperformance-oriented music major. "I was a chronic button pusher," says Thacher, "so Berklee's MP&E program was for me. I declared voice as my principal instrument, but I was not performance-oriented. Ironically, the first concert I did with Rockapella was in the spring of 1993 at the Berklee Performance Center. There I was standing on the B.P.C. stage performing in a capacity that I had never experienced in college."
Thacher, who was hired to add vocal percussion to Rockapella's sound, had been tuned in to the a cappella scene long before his break came. "I remember hearing the first Take Six album and seeing Bobby McFerrin live a few times in the late 1980s. After I left Berklee, I was looking for a job, and started working in television production and radio engineering. I was looking for a performance outlet and cofounded the a cappella group Five O'Clock Shadow. That group is still performing today. Back then, I only did vocal percussion on a few tunes; it was still very new."
Thacher quit his day job and Five O'Clock Shadow after deciding to move to Los Angeles to seek work. There, he saw an ad for a Rockapella audition in New York. The band was already well-established. They had three albums out in Japan and had appeared in a Spike Lee special called "Do It A Cappella." That led directly to their hiring for "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?". They had been using vocal percussion samples on their records, but wanted a full-time vocal percussionist. Thacher auditioned and got the job.
"It was a great step up for me," he says. "They started to work me into the act, and I did one season on camera with them on the Carmen show. Shortly before I joined the group, they had done a radio version of the Folgers ad. Procter and Gamble noted that the band was getting attention nationally, so they called us up and asked us to appear in it. We rerecorded the music with vocal percussion and then went out to Los Angeles to film what is supposed to look like a New York street scene. Since then, we did a Christmas ad for them too. It was a great benefit to our career."
This exposure plus guest appearances on all three network morning shows, the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," and many others, has helped them draw large audiences to their concerts.
"When I started working with this group," says Thacher, "the audience was made up of kids who watched 'Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?', their parents, and even their grandparents. We would do our own songs and some covers. We avoided the "doo-wop" sound and made the covers lean more towards the funk/pop side. As the years went by, those kids grew up. They are now the biggest segment of our audience."
Rockapella performs fully amplified with as big a sound as possible. Thacher's role is that of full-time drummer. "I use a hand-held mic and throat pickups to get some of the sounds," he explains, "like this sort of grunting noise that is the basic note of the drum. The throat pickup signal goes to the sub woofers with heavy compression to get a large drum sound. Some people have a very quiet percussion style; I have a more explosive approach. I like the sounds to be organic and big. I get a substantial drum solo spot in our show. It's to give me a solo as much as it is to prove that I'm the one making those sounds. Some people don't accept the idea until they see me do it by myself."
This summer, Rockapella is touring and planning their next record. On the West Coast leg of the tour, they sang the national anthem before a San Diego Padres game and played venues like the Troubadour in Los Angeles and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Up ahead, Folgers is planning to run the Christmas spots again this December. Despite the uphill battle for wider recognition of a cappella music, Thacher is optimistic that his group's efforts may help radio programmers and major label execs to wake up and smell the coffee.