Upon the release of his group’s star-studded new album, Under the Influence, Walter Chase of Straight No Chaser was kind enough to speak with Mike Chin from The A Cappella Blog.
Before Straight No Chaser became one of the best-known professional a cappella groups in the world, it was a college group. Like many of today’s college groups, they competed.
Nowadays, groups rehearse, plan, and travel to far off stages to be a part of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, or ICCAs. When Walter Chase was in college, the tournament was still known as the NCCAs, a play off of the NCAA tournament (the N in both acronyms standing for National). Chase recalled his days singing with “the ten original guys. We had been together about a year and a half. And I was competing with another group as well, Delusions of Grandeur [which was] more comedic … I competed with them in the first act and Straight No Chaser in the second act and advanced with them.”
Indeed, Straight No Chaser went all the way to NCCA Finals in 1998, edging out Millikin University Chapter 6 and The Univeristy of Illinois Rip Chords en route to Carnegie Hall. Though The UC Berkeley Men’s Octet ultimately took home the championship that year, Chase clearly remembers the journey fondly, and recalled that the group brought two original songs to The Finals Stage, the Straight No Chaser Theme and “Dry Campus,” in addition to Montell Jordan’s “This Is how We Do It” and Jude Cole’s “Worlds Apart.” He said some of the groups competing were still “kind of old school, kind of cheesy” but that he felt Straight No Chaser was “pushing the envelope.”
Though Chase was no longer a part of the group by 2005, he pointed out that the college group of Straight No Chaser made another appearance at ICCA Finals then, competing at the same show at which University of Oregon Divisi finished in second place, spawning a sizeable portion of Mickey Rapkin’s Pitch Perfect book and inspiring the film to follow.
I asked Chase what advice he would give to today’s college a cappella groups, looking to make names for themselves.
“All you need to do is put one video on YouTube and wait a year for a record company to call,” Chase said. The joke is, of course, a reference to his group’s unexpected route to fame. Just one year after Straight No Chaser’s return to ICCA Finals, original member Randy Stine posted old videos of the group on YouTube, including their 1998 recording of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The video accumulated over eight million views before the CEO of Atlantic records called Stine and offered the group a record deal if they were to reunite.
Taking a more serious crack at why Straight No Chaser was so successful and how other groups might follow in their footsteps, Chase explained, “We were together year-round, including summers, three years. Looking back, those were my closest friends and we built camaraderie.” He went on to talk about the way in which the group grew closer through inside jokes, and that the good humor among them permeates what they do in performance. “We come out on stage and there’s never been a fourth wall … we love making fun of ourselves, we’re self-deprecating to the umpteenth degree.”
Though the group hadn’t performed together for seven years when they came back together, they had been to each other’s weddings and even made the trip to Mardi Gras together one year. In short, they kept the spirit of the group alive long after college.
On the note of tight-knit a cappella groups, Chase recalled his impression of the incarnation of Straight No Chaser to reach ICCA Finals in 2005. “I knew they’d be excellent because when I went and visited they were all hanging out, going to bars together, going out to dinner together, the freshmen were in the fold, and they had personalities that were strong. It’s a chemistry thing. If there’s not chemistry, it’s not going to work and it shows on stage … you have to have a bond, and a back and forth from spending time together.”
Chase and I discussed the trajectory of Straight No Chaser as a professional group since reuniting. “Our direction was somewhat driven by how we came to be known,” he said. “‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ got us the record deal, so our first album was going to be a holiday album, and the second one as well. We were initially known as a holiday group and we still get our loudest reaction from ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and ‘Christmas Can-Can.’ We still have the most shows October to end of the year for that notoriety.” Chase went on to explain that the group has since established other signature songs, including “Poison” and “Like a Prayer” and that their special on PBS really helped the group break out from the holiday music niche.
“And now we’re able to attract guest artists,” Chase said. “It blows our mind to have people like Stevie Wonder and Phil Collins on an a cappella album, let alone a Straight No Chaser album. It’s so surreal.”
The process of collaboration was different with each of the guest artists featured on Under the Influence. Chase described the process of working with Sara Bareilles as particularly exciting. He referenced watching the breadth of covers by Bareilles posted on YouTube, starting with “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and that the group thought “if we get to work with her, she’d be willing to do song that’s not hers.”
When the group entered talks with Bareilles, they threw out different artists they might cover, and knew The Jackson 5 were big influences on her. “She said in college she sang the solo on ‘I Want you Back,’ so it sounded like the perfect song for us to do. She was really excited about it.” Bareilles was hands off, trusting the group with the arrangement, then came into the studio in LA to meet with the group. “It was really refreshing and exciting to do a song that’s not in her repertoire … She’s an amazing person with an amazing instrument.”
Though the album features many more big names, Chase cited one of his other most cherished collaborations on the album not to be with one of the guest soloists, but rather with a prominent figure in a cappella who worked on production for a number of tracks and arranged the album’s closing track—Mark Kibble from Take 6. “Take 6 got me into a cappella in the first place, screaming my head off [singing along] in the car,” Chase said. “[Kibble’s] arrangement of 'Hallellujah' is my highlight of album … doing his arrangement was awesome.”
In wrapping up the interview, Chase indicated that Straight No Chaser is invested in helping a cappella spread and grow. He cited the guest soloists as figures who would resonate not only in the US, but internationally, and that through recording albums like this, connecting with other groups, and working in schools, the group seeks to represent a cappella to the world and “knock down walls” for the genre. With Under the Influence, I’d suggest Chase and company are off to more than a good start.
You can learn more about Straight No Chaser and their new album at their home page and please be sure to check back tomorrow for the ACB review of Under the Influence.