A ukulele band strikes a chord
A few months ago at a Venice Beach party called the Seventh Chakra Purple Party, the directive on the invitation was simple: “Wear purple and come with an open mind!”
Inside the upscale house, the most mind-opening part was a rather explicit makeshift museum celebrating the female anatomy. Outside, New Age types in their 30s and 40s mingled flirtatiously around a lavish yard featuring a trickling Zen waterfall, floor pillows and artificial grass. Most guests, however, were crammed in the backhouse, where they cheered ukulele cover band the Ooks of Hazzard as the nine musicians headed toward a “Purple Rain” finale.
“We’ve got tiny guitars!” Ooks member Charlie Diaz yelled out, rallying the crowd. The more audience members drank, the louder they sang along, drowning out the band’s renditions of songs by, among others, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Radiohead, Sublime, Aretha Franklin and Merle Haggard. “You show up with ukuleles and people think, ‘Here we’re going to have some Hawaiian music or Tiny Tim,’” says the Ooks’ Patrick Hildebrand. “Then you break out rock songs and soul songs and Pink Floyd.”
Covering the right song at the right moment is a cover band’s mission. On April 19, the Ooks of Hazzard got lucky in that respect, making its YouTube debut with New York art rock band MGMT’s biggest hit, “Kids.” Coincidentally, MGMT had excluded “Kids” from its performance at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival that same weekend, and disappointed fans began speculating on why the band had stricken the song from its repertoire. As if on cue, the ukulele cover band from Venice Beach stepped in to help.
The group recorded the “Kids” video in hopes of snagging a gig with it, says Diaz, who once charmed his way out of a ticket by playing ukulele for cops. “We decided to just put it on YouTube while we were finishing the mix, and it got 15,000 hits in the first few days.” Ten days later it was at 125,000, and it has now surpassed 250,000 plays.
Recorded at Live Rock Studios, the video’s soft-lit angles and sentimental cross-fades try to fit all nine musicians onscreen at once. Sitting in a row on a black stage, seven Ooks strum ukuleles, one plays accordion and another taps the cajón, dividing the song’s rhythms into nine distinct intricate parts.
“It’s all orchestrated,” says Ooks member Ed Marshall. “There’s the bass uke, the tenor, the concert and the soprano. You have a lot of voices there, and a lot of different timbres.” The camera pans beside each deeply engaged musician noodling a tiny guitar. They’re a lot older than MGMT. Not a shiny lamé legging or headband appears on them. Stripped of its hipness, “we turned it into a pretty uke song,” Diaz says.
To the Ooks’ surprise, music bloggers found the video and started spreading the word. The Ooks put the song on iTunes, where it peaked at No. 13 on the singer-songwriter charts. A 3-month-old unknown band, the Ooks of Hazzard soon was fielding calls from around the world.
Venice Beach is strange. For every spandex-wrapped muscleman cruising the boardwalk, there’s a crystal-toting chakra enthusiast living around the corner. Residents talk about the cosmos the way Merle Haggard talks about Jesus. Some Ooks of Hazzard members, in fact, believe that the band’s unusual genesis, as well as the unexpected “Kids” attention, boils down to interplanetary alignment. Such also is the ukulele’s power: “On the energy level,” Marshall says, “it’s one more thing that connects you to the planet. You can’t be in a bad mood with a uke in your hand.”
The ukulele’s vibey magnetism guided the band members to the same Venice jam session, where they found each other earlier this year. “You ever get nine people together of all different walks and talks? It gets pretty interesting,” Marshall says.
Hildebrand, Diaz, Marshall and cajón player Dave Botkin are surfers from Venice and Santa Monica. Nick Deane is a bit goth. He and Meredith MacArthur come from the theater world. When the Ooks formed, Jay Ponti was leaving on a spiritual quest. He took his soprano uke to India and traveled nomadically, playing ukulele. “He brought back the juju in time for our first show,” Hildebrand says. Danny Kopel is the patriarch on accordion, and Timm Freeman, “a well-rounded Northern California biker type,” plays bass uke.
“The spectrum of all of us is kind of bizarre. It normally wouldn’t mix,” Diaz admits.
New Age socialites and surfers aren’t the only ones picking up ukuleles lately. At this year’s South by Soutwest festival in Austin, Texas, " The Beatles Complete on Ukulele” showcase spent two days in presenting the entire Beatles catalog on ukulele. A new documentary, “The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog,” highlights the influence of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow” and Jake Shimabukuro, the ukulele’s Jimi Hendrix. The last few years, Paul McCartney, Amanda Palmer, Jack Johnson, and Rilo Kiley have been caught strumming the four-string chordophone in front of large audiences.
Until its recent resurgence, the ukulele hadn’t been cool since Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips with one in 1968. Perhaps, Hildebrand speculates, a gravitation toward organic ideas cultivates the interest in more simple musical forms and instruments — which leads to musical union.
“Given ukuleles, we become one,” Hildebrand says. “Strip it away, we are all human and know these songs and we want to be happy. The uke translates that energy of connectiveness between us.”