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Leap of Faith: Slow Gherkin keeps jumping even when life gets in the way.

Up in the Air

Slow Gherkin faces growing pains and the urge to get out of Santa Cruz

By David Espinoza

JAMES RICKMAN looks like he hasn't gotten enough sleep lately. Leaning over a slightly damp table inside Rosie McCann's and glancing out the window at Pacific Avenue, the lead singer of one of Santa Cruz's most well-loved and energetic bands seems rather beat. A year ago, the cause of Rickman's demeanor might have been the extensive touring and recording Slow Gherkin did in support of its sophomore album, Shed Some Skin. This year, though, Edgar Allen Poe is the culprit; Rickman has just completed a 10-page paper on the 19th-century writer and poet, bringing him roughly five months closer to graduating from UC-Berkeley with a bachelor's in English.

For the eight members of Slow Gherkin, 1999 has been a year of transition. Drummer Zack "Ollie" Olson got married; Rickman, guitarist A.J. Marquez and trombone player Matt Porter went back to school; bassist Zack Kent left the band and was replaced by longtime Gherk pal Rick Godnick (soon relocating to Mexico); keyboardist Peter Cowan planned a move to New Orleans; and everyone else got day jobs. (Full disclosure department: arts editor Rob Pratt was once a part of this shifting crew, playing saxophone from 1994-97.)

Amid all the ruckus, though, the band still managed to find time to record and is currently gearing up for Saturday's CD-release party at the Catalyst for a split four-song EP with Orange County's Rx Bandits done for Random Order Records.

Laid down in May shortly after the band's last tour ended, the two new songs, "Tap-Dancing" and "Salsipuedes," stay true to Slow Gherkin's hyperkinetic ska/punk/rock & roll sound. This time around, though, the group has added a bit of extra punch--just enough to daze the listener in a pleasant way. The response has been positive, with more than 1,000 copies sold in the first week.

"The new songs both took a really long time to write--I guess because the songwriting is very collective," Rickman explains between sips of his pint of Newcastle. "Rarely does a song come in complete where one guy has written the entire thing and all you have to do is show it to everyone else. Most of the time it comes in as a little fragment and everyone else builds on it, and gradually you figure out what the feel is," Rickman says.

Sitting next to the lanky vocalist is Godnick, who's been playing with the band for about a year. "I think if everyone doesn't put in, it won't come out as a Gherkin song," Godnick adds. "I'm amazed that people can just come with horn lines, because personally, as a guitar player, you can't just come up with one yourself."

"Right," Rickman pipes in and nods his head. "Guitar players can't write horn lines."

Godnick continues, "And so, to get the right piece in and have it be subtle but fitting, is very difficult."

ONE OF THE NEW SONGS, "Salsipuedes," is a peppy concoction of rock & roll drum beats, sporadic horn blasts and New Wave-era synthesizers--all with a lyrical salute to Santa Cruz. "It's a song about Santa Cruz, about growing up here and the pressure to move on and out to bigger things even though you've got everything you need right here," Rickman explains.

According to Rickman, the tune (written by Marquez) serves as a rebuke to the scolding of "elders" who say get out of town and make something of yourself. "It's something to the effect that youth is what you make of it, and it doesn't correspond directly to how old you are," Rickman says.

"In the song, it does state, though, that the time to get out of Santa Cruz will come," Godnick counters.

"Yes, there's a sense that it will end someday--it's kind of a carpe diem," Rickman says with Cheshire Cat grin. Slow Gherkin has been milking it for all it's worth for some time now. Since 1994, the band has been steadily rocking its way to the top of the local scene, releasing 7-inch records and full-length albums and touring whenever possible. The band has also appeared on countless compilations and has earned "best Santa Cruz band" accolades all over town. The result has been a sound that's ever expanding beyond the premise of ska.

"Everything they do has a new little wrinkle to it," Adam Levin, host of KZSC's Gangster Bop ska show and founder of Random Order Records, says. "If you just listen to [the band's first album] Double Happiness up against Shed Some Skin, you can tell that they're still developing. And if you look at the new songs that they play live that aren't even recorded yet, there's even more change."

For Rickman, the reasons for the evolution of Slow Gherkin's style are difficult to pinpoint. "Maybe it's pure fashion, with every band shying away from ska now--us included--or it's a kind of maturing, where you bring in more influence like rock & roll, pop or new wave," he says. Lately, it's been bands like the Cars, Elvis Costello and Devo that have topped the band's listening preferences.

"It's really just whatever strikes us at the time," Rickman adds.

NEXT YEAR, if all goes well, Rickman hopes to record and tour after graduation not only with Slow Gherkin but also with his side project, the Huxtables. Given time, Rickman says, he'd like to go to grad school in England, though giving up music is not an option.

"I can't really imagine not playing music a lot, and I think for all of us no matter where we are, we'll still be playing music in some capacity," he says. "There are all kinds of different possibilities."

In the meantime, there's always school, work and, most importantly, Slow Gherkin.

"In '98, we all decided to give up everything except for the band, and we really did do nothing but the band for a whole year," Rickman says. For many of Gherkin's members, this required saving money by living at home or having the band's budget cover some of the members' rent while they were away.

Unfortunately, just as in the fairy tale with the glass slipper, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, the band found its way back to Santa Cruz and back to routine lives. It's a point that comes up obliquely during the interview, that rock & roll always gets tangled up in that other thing called life. Of course, anything can happen in life, but as Rickman puts it, "Now that we've committed to school and work, it's a lot harder."

Slow Gherkin plays the Catalyst Saturday (Dec. 18) with Rx Bandits and Cara Dura. 9:30pm. $6, 16-and-over. (423.1336)

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From the December 15-22, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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