melodikats: musical precision

melodikats grainy pic

written by tamara styer

COMPOSED OF MUSICIANS WHO have been playing music since before the 8-track, the Melodikats out of the little town of Mountain Home, Arkansas are bringing back the classic songs that we haven’t heard in years. Why hasn’t anyone been covering these tunes? Have we forgotten the smooth soul of Michael McDonald? The feel good acoustics of “Change the World” by Eric Clapton? The clean and funky jazz of “Josie” by Steely Dan? The members of Melodikats have loved these songs for years, and have hand picked songs to cover from the 70s through today. (“Olivia” by John Mayer, anyone?) Deitra got the honor of chatting with these veterans about their musicality and tales from living the dream when being on the road was more of a reality.

DM: You guys play this ultra funky, laid back dance music. Is that something that everybody in the group has a passion toward? 

Pete Adams (electric mandolin / melodica / vocals): We picked these songs on purpose. We’re trying to pick the really great classic songs, either that bands never cover, or don’t play anymore. And everybody knows these songs that are older than 35 years old and people recognize that nobody plays those songs anymore.

Eddy King (keyboards / vocals): I think one of the things that we said when we got together – and Rob [Styer, our guitarist] was instrumental in that – we said, look there are lots of songs that we could do, so let’s stick to the ones that are good. Now that’s a matter of opinion to a greater extent. We are all of a similar generation, so the songs that we choose are back there in that special time in our lives when we remember them, and they move us in a way.

Adams: And they were great songs! If I didn’t know any of the players and I went to listen to this band, to me it would be hit after hit after hit.

Steve Kesler (drums): There are a few songs that we’re doing that are a little more current, like John Mayer’s “Olivia.” So to me there are some gems out there that are current, but most of the stuff that I like is the older stuff from the 70s, from before the commercial industry got their hooks into the musicians and you really heard what the musicians were about, not this machine that cranks things out.

Vonda King (vocals): My background is mainly in religious music, but I married into the Steely Dan type of music. I do love it, but I’m not really a musician like the rest of these guys. I’m a doo-wop girl.

DM: One of our favorite bands from that era is Steely Dan, and you guys nail those songs, including the difficult background vocals. 

Kesler: I think that’s one thing that will set us apart and make us unique because we’ve got good vocalists. It’s about the song. A lot of times the places you go to hear someone, you can’t even understand the vocals, and I think we have a passion to try to keep a balance where we can understand what the song is about. And I think that’s important.

Vonda King: especially with Steely Dan. I’m not sure you would even understand what the song is about even if you can hear the lyrics. (laughs)

For those readers who don’t know Steely Dan, or have only heard of them and not given them a good introspective listen, they are a jazz / rock band consisting of iconic musician / producers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Rolling Stone Magazine once called them the “perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.” Their eccentric lyrics are full of wry humor, sarcasm and themes of drugs, sex and shooting down your old man in Oregon. 

Though the common opinion of the band among local rock musicians seems to paint quite a bland, sterile portrait of their music quality and the way it’s recorded. For the layman – or the musician for that matter – that refutes their work: that silence you hear between instrumentation and chord progression is called obsessive perfectionism achieved by Becker and Fagen, rumored to use around 42 different studio musicians and 11 engineers on a single album project until they got it right. Yes, their music is clean and precise to the point of OCD. But 40 million albums is nothing to scoff at, right? Talk about being independent and doing things your own way. These guys were pioneers of indie in the 70s. To get a good taste, check out their DVD Two Against Nature… but enough about Steely Dan. On to their fans who continue to emulate their music, and who surprisingly get it right, down to the intricate and militarily precise background vocals.

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Eddy King: When Tim [Martin] joined the group as a vocalist, we really brought someone to the team that’s instrument was his voice, and vocally was as developed as an instrument as the rest of us are players. It really brought our vocals up to where they needed to be.

Tim Martin (vocals): I just pinch myself every time we’re together. I’ve never played with players this good. They can play this stuff that’s so complicated. I play a little bit of guitar and a little bit of piano, but these guys are really really good players, so it’s a real blessing to get to sing with them and harmonize with these great singers, Vonda, Pete, Rob and Eddy.

Rob Styer (lead guitar / vocals): I’ve only played in maybe one other band besides this band to where people weren’t running all over each other. You know, you couldn’t tell the difference between the keyboard player and the guitar player. Everything was crash, boom, bang. And like Steve said, you couldn’t hear the vocals anyway. But this band is like where I live. I feel what the other musicians are doing, and for some reason I just instinctively find a place that keeps it balanced, that keeps it from running all over each other. There’s nothing like that. If we’re not having fun doing it, I ain’t doing it. (laughs)

DM: That’s one thing that we noticed was that the music is so clean and it’s smooth. It’s not a bunch of musicians just trying to play all the notes they can play, and it’s really refreshing to hear that. 

Eddy King: The more people you have playing together or singing together, you have to create space for everybody to live, and you have to respect each other, and I think that’s one good thing about the team here, the fellowship of musicians… Ive never been in a band that everybody had that kind of respect to leave each other spots to play.

Styer: And actually like each other. (laughs)

Another rarity among bands. The risk for landing a diva in your band rises exponentially with each member added. And for a band of 7 musicians, Melodikats have cultivated a sweet sound and the well-adjusted attitudes that come from doing this for 35 plus years. 

Styer: I play guitar. In 1963 I was in 8th grade and I was sitting in our living room, and Ed Sullivan had a band from England. We sat there and my dad said, “Oh it’ll never last.” That was the first time the Beatles played in the United States, and I was hopelessly hooked. That same week at school, some kid brought a Fender electric guitar to school and I drooled all over it. My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for Christmas that year and I never looked back. My dad was in the Navy so we traveled all over and we ended up in Hawaii. It was kind of interesting because it gave me some opportunities and exposure that probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. When I was in high school, we played in lots of situations where we got to open up for big bands that came to Hawaii. We opened up for The Doors when I was a senior in high school. Later, we opened for Ten Years After, Jethro Tull and a bunch of others too. We weren’t any good, but they were. But it was amazing to be hob-nobbing with these people, and actually meet a lot of these people, and it was a huge influence on me. Fast forward, and I was on the road after that traveling all over the country and playing mostly dance clubs. I got into the funk scene, got exposed to jazz and fusion up in Minneapolis, and learned all of the stuff that gave me the foundation to be able to play in this band. There’d have been no way. Because before that it was three-chord rock and roll. Or three-chord country. So it’s just been amazing to me to look back all these years later. I’m 63 years old, and in 1963 was when I first picked up a guitar. And I’m having the best time of my life.

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Adams: I came from the Bay area in California. I had one piano lesson and got fired by the teacher. She inadvertently put the music upside down the first week and I played it by ear and she realized that I was cheating, so she left. In the Bay area, everyone was listening to the Beach Boys and surfer music in the 60s, and I was always attracted to George Jones, Merle Haggard and a lot of the country classics. I spent 7 ½ years touring with Dusty Drapes and the Dusters out of Boulder Colorado. We got to open for Merle Haggard, Earnest Tub and Jerry Lee Lewis, and we toured with Asleep at the Wheel and a couple of other bands. Years later, I ended up moving to Mountain Home, Arkansas. This is the tightest, best band that I’ve ever been in, and I’m playing all the stuff I’ve always wanted to play.

Mike Walker (bass): I’m the bass player, but I started out playing percussion in school. I wanted to get into bands, so I started out playing drums and we lost our guitar player, so I started playing guitar because it was easy to find drummers back then. Then I moved to the bass guitar because we lost a bass player, so I just kind of moved around. Bass was something that I fell in love with. I started playing school mixers. It was so fun back then. Then I started playing with some guys that wanted to move to clubs and doing those kind of things. Then I got an opportunity when a recording studio opened up in Jonesboro. I got hired to do car commercials and album tracks. But I’ve always loved the 70s music. I’m just a product of that. Steely Dan, Michael McDonald and those kind of things have been a love of mine, and I’ve never been in band that could tackle that type of music. I’m hanging on these guys that I’m playing with. They’re making me better every day. Two of them are engineers and they won’t let us play it wrong. (laughs) So I appreciate that about them. They make me better. I want to play at their level and they are dragging me along, so I’m just really enjoying that.

Kesler: I’m from the Little Rock, Arkansas area, and I actually got started playing later on in life. When I was young I had a cousin that had a trap set and he was always playing and I tried to play when I could. And when I was little growing up I had some friends up the street that had a drum kit, and I’d go over and play all the time. But my parents wouldn’t let me play or let me have anything of my own, so I wasn’t able to play, and I ended up playing trumpet in school. Probably in my mid-twenties I decided to take up drums again. I joined a band called Ramblin in Little Rock and we played some of the local club scene, and later moved to Mountain home and met Eddy. I was in a band here for a while called Hot Ice, and then got involved with Eddy and started a country band called Crooked Creek Review, and we started playing some of the shows in theaters. One of the highlights that I can remember, we got to open for Randy Travis, and we really put a lot of work into it and we were really at a point where we had to choose a direction. A lot of people were wanting to go full time with it and Ed and I had good jobs as engineers and we couldn’t do that so we just kind of broke up. I’ve always wanted to be in another band and play the style of music that is really dear to my heart. I enjoy playing with really good players and I’m really blessed to be able to play with these guys. Because these guys are musicians, and I’m a drummer. There is a difference. (laughs)

Martin – I taught myself to play banjo when I was 12. It wasn’t really popular with the girls so I taught myself to play guitar. And I’m blessed with a pretty good voice and an even better ear. So I’ve been singing for 40 years in various bands. I sing in an a cappella band called First Day. We do about 25 dates a year. But this is a different kind of joy that I get from singing with these guys.

Vonda King: When I was about twelve I started singing with a southern gospel group, and really if I think about it, a lot of my life was shaped from that experience. We needed a piano player, and Eddy started playing the piano. We met, we got married and all the rest of that is history. So most of my musical history is in gospel music. I did a lot of classical stuff in school and went to college on a choir scholarship. But as far as this group, I had really no intention of being part of it, and then I kept getting invited to come sing background vocals. So finally I relented, and I’m really enjoying it. I’m glad they let me hang out with them.

Eddy King: I started playing with a group that Vonda was singing with when we were both 15, and it didn’t take long for us to start dating each other. The absolute best thing that ever happened to me was playing in that group and meeting my wife of 31 years. I wouldn’t change any of that. I played with Steve in Crooked Creek Review. We were floating around doing some musical things together, and then started working in church music. During that era of time I got to know all of these guys. I was always thinking that somehow we were going to do something musically, and here we are in this group together, doing music that’s from our era that we all really enjoy. All these years, I would sit down at the piano or keyboard and I would beat out on a Michael McDonald tune or a Steely Dan tune and I wanted to stretch myself in doing that kind of stuff, but I would always stop after a little bit, going, why am I doing this? I’m never going to have an opportunity to play any of these songs. Because there was just nobody around to do that kind of thing with to put anything like that together, so why am I even wasting my time doing it. But as it turned out, it wasn’t a waste of time and we are all pushing each other to be better and I certainly feel, here I am 51 years old and playing piano since I was 14 years old, and I’m the best I’ve ever been because of guys like this pushing. It’s the thing that I’ve really enjoyed about music over the years; I’m 51 years old and I’m not past my prime. I’ve not even reached my prime yet. I’m still looking forward to the times to come and I really enjoy everybody so much.

DM: So why “Melodikats?”

Adams: We picked up the melodica about 4 or 5 months ago. I just thought it would be a cool instrument because we don’t have a horn player.

Eddy: Pete and I were at a Steely Dan concert together and Donald Fagan pulls out his melodica at the end of the concert and is playing it in one of the song. Steely Dan actually uses that in a number of songs, so it’s kind of cool.

Adams: So we weren’t trying to emulate them, it’s just that it’s a neat, new sound.

DM: So where are you guys wanting to go with Melodikats?

Adams: We’d like to play a lot of fun gigs. I made a deal with myself a long time ago, if it’s not fun anymore, I’m not going to do it.

Walker: It’s already met all of my expectations, just being able to play with these guys. The great thing about it is none of these guys are trying to take the show or steal the show. We don’t have anything to prove. Their hearts are gold and none of us are trying to trump anybody. We’re just having a good time making music together and learning to play together, and that’s where we’re going. We want to share this with people who love music. We love it, and we want to take it out and let them enjoy it.

Adams: I think that if people came to see us, they would really get the feel that these guys are not only good musicians and technicians, but they really enjoy what they’re doing and really enjoy the music that they’re playing and trying to play it well, not just covering a tune and taking up time. They put a lot of time into that song, into molding it, and making sure the harmonies were right, and not that we’re trying to recreate the record, but that it was a really good rendition and good quality.

Kesler: We all want to grow. We all want to get better. In the process of having fun and enjoying it, and doing some of the style we like, we want to continue to improve.

Eddy King: When there were thousands of songs that we could do, we wanted to pick those songs that people would say that’s a great old song and nobody does that. And I’ve told each of these guys, I don’t care who the musician is, I wouldn’t add a person to this team that would break up the fellowship that we have. That’s most important.

Check out more about Melodikats’ upcoming gigs and hear their versions of these great songs on their website, www.melodikats.com