When people hear the word “detonation,” chances are that they’re picturing destruction, disorder and mayhem – rather than the creation of incredible music. And while it’s true that Ballyhoo! demolish every preconceived notion as to what incredible music is every time they enter the studio or seize the stage, the genre benders have definitely crafted an album for the ages with their newest release “Pineapple Grenade.”
Ballyhoo!’s frenetic frontman Howi Spangler chatted with me recently about the new record and the band’s explosively eclectic fusion of rock, reggae, punk and pop. Spangler and his bandmates – brother Donald “Big D” Spangler (drums), J.R. “Mista J” Gregory (bass) and Scott “D.J. Blaze” Vandrey (keyboards/turntables) continue to turn the world of music upside down with their diverse sound.
The group’s signature sound – perfected since their high school days in Aberdeen, Maryland – and their hardcore devotion to the road and their fans have earned them the title of America's favorite “feel good party band” – something that’s not lost on Spangler.
“Yeah, it’s good party music and a lot of people are realizing that. It’s been great. The band’s sprouting up and the fans are coming out. I knew from the first time that I played. I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do this forever.’ But then I was a kid, so who knows what can happen?”
“Once we started touring in ‘06 and we survived, the band caught on fire. We lost thousands of dollars from not getting paid because nobody showed up. It was the best and the worst tour ever. But once we got back, we were like, ‘S**t, I don’t like being home. Let’s go back out again.’”
“So we just kept going. We started getting radio play, shows with bands that we love and people singing the songs to us from the crowd. Those are all things that just go, ‘Yeah, keep going. You’re doing it right. Keep going.’”
While it’s true that Spangler and his youthful bandmates haven’t played the part of road warriors for that long, their musical journey began almost 20 years ago.
“Yeah. It’s pretty wild. It was summer of ’95 – July ‘95 actually. We’re 18 years right now. We were like 13, 14 years old and we just knew we wanted to be in a band. We just finally did it and started playing every day and started getting shows.”
“We put out a record in 2000 but only pressed 1,000 copies. I was pretty bad about following up and getting more made. We released our second record in 2006 and that’s when we decided, ‘Okay, are we gonna do this for real? We should tour. We should get out of town.’ So we decided to get a van and trailer and haven’t looked back.”
Ballyhoo! isn’t the first reggae rock band of musical brothers from Maryland to hop in a van and get out of town – Of A Revolution to name one. Even Spangler admitted that there must be something reggae in the water.
“That was just music that I fell in love with when I started writing songs. There were a couple of bands in the area that were more straight reggae, traditional style. And there was another one that was sort of a reggae rock band before anyone knew what to call it. We ended up becoming friends with those bands eventually. The one band kind of broke up and Jah Works is the other one. They play every now and then.”
“We just started getting more shows around Baltimore. I was mixing the reggae and punk rock stuff, like Sublime and Goldfinger and The Suicide Machines. We were two hours from the beach. I used to go every summer for a week. There’s just something about it. It’s festive and fun, instead of just straight forward rock and roll.”
Apparently, it took music fans longer to figure that fact out than Spangler and his band of merry musical men. “Three years ago, we would go into cities like Saint Louis. And then we stopped going there because nobody was showing up. There didn’t seem to be love for that style of music, so we stopped going.”
“And then maybe a year and a half ago we went there ‘cause it was on the way out of the tour and like, ‘Let’s try to make a little money on the way out.’ There were two reggae rock bands opening for us and the place was packed. I was like, ‘What the hell? What happened?’”
“They’re coming out of everywhere, places that you wouldn’t think. Even people from North and South Dakota are hitting us up. We went and played Alaska last year and had a great time. Crazy. People are just seeing the good vibe that it puts out. It’s all ‘beachy’ kind of stuff.”
Fans are finally appreciating the music to be sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s getting any easier for them to describe the vibe. Not to worry. Spangler has the perfect solution. “I've been calling it punk rock reggae ‘60s issue. It makes a nice hash tag on Twitter (laughing). But it’s all rock and roll at the end of the day. It’s just our take on it.”
“Most of the time if you pull up our Pandora station, all the bands they play are pretty much the same bands we always seem to get lumped in with – and there’s a reason for it. Pandora’s got the (Music) Genome Project where they match with the songs that you like to hear – it knows what you like because of the characteristics. And we always end up with those bands like 311 and Temper and Sublime and Slightly Stoopid and UB40 and whoever else.”
“Nobody’s ever said, ‘You guys sound like Nickelback’ or something like that. That would be f**king terrible actually. I don’t know what I would say to somebody if they told me that. So I guess it’s all rock and roll at the end of the day. Just have fun with it.”
The boys have certainly had fun with it – sometimes a little too much fun, which may partially explain the occasional fleeting episode of amnesia. “I forget where we were last night. It’s crazy and I remember a lot of weird s**t.”
“Sometimes it gets so hazy and drinking does add to that. But it’s also just from being in a different city every single night. It starts to wear you down and mix things up. When we started this tour it feels like ages ago. The show was awesome but it just feels like it was ages ago.”
“Ultimately everybody knows that this is what we want to do, so we just deal with the bulls**t. We deal with the pressure and the bad shows and whatever. We’re having a lot more good shows than bad shows these days, which is awesome.”
Methinks Spangler doth protest too much. Ballyhoo! has a lot more good shows than bad shows these days, which leads to more good shows and more good shows and – you get the picture. The frontman seems to have the perfect perspective.
“First show, last show, 10 people, 500 people, 1,000 – we give the same rockin’ show every time. We just kind of do the show, man and just keep moving on. There’s already stuff working out for the next tour and we’ll announce that real soon. Yeah man, it’s that tour life. Tour life.”
Yeah, tour life – can I get an ‘amen’ from all of the Ballyhoo! fans out there?
And speaking of tour life, here are the remaining dates of Ballyhoo!’s spring tour:
Feb. 18 Lawrence, Kan. The Bottleneck
Feb. 19 St. Louis, Mo. Firebird
Feb. 20 Ames, Iowa The Maintenance Shop
Feb. 21 Chicago, Ill. Bottom Lounge
Feb. 22 Columbus, Ohio The Basement
Feb. 23 Toledo, Ohio Bar 145
March 1 College Park, Md. Looney's Pub
March 7 Norfolk, Va. NorVa
March 8 Greenville, S.C. IPA
March 10 New Orleans, La. 311 Day Fan Party
March 14 Corpus Christi, Texas House of Rock
March 15 San Antonio, Texas Jacks Bar
March 22 Myrtle Beach, S.C. House of Blues
March 27 Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Revolution
March 28 St. Petersburg, Fla. Jannus Live
March 29 Satellite Beach, Fla. Sports Page Live
March 30 Orlando, Fla. House Of Blues
April 2 Gainesville, Fla. High Dive
April 5 New Orleans, La. Tulane University