Big Rude Jake’s smokin’ swing-punk nixes the nostalgia route



When Big Rude Jake answers the phone at his home in Toronto, I’m relieved that he doesn’t live up to his middle nickname and greet me with “Yeah, whaddya want?” He does sound a little out of breath, but it’s not because I’ve caught him at a particularly bad—or even (nudge-wink) good—time. The titular front man for the swing-punk sextet that opens for Big Sugar at the Rage on Monday and Tuesday (February 10 and 11) is actually exercising, preparing himself for the dual rigours of the road and the stage.

“I discovered a couple of years ago that I was in no shape to keep the pace up,” says the 33-year-old singer-songwriter, “especially when the shows were two hours long. So I quit smoking, and basically it’s been a slow divorce from all my bad habits. The problem with working out for someone like me is that it’s hard to stay with it, ’cause I’m not an athlete at heart—I’m just trying to do this to be a better singer, you know.”

Big Rude Jake used to box to keep healthy, but after injuring his wrist in the ring—and suffering for eight months whenever he played guitar—he opted for a less jarring workout regimen. He’s not Ron Zalko material yet, and he still puffs cigars, as seen on the cover of his new CD, Blue Pariah, but from the sound of that disc the crooner’s vocal cords are in fighting form. It was produced by Big Sugar guitarist-vocalist Gordie Johnson, whose brother Michael plays trumpet in Jake’s band.

“Gordie’s ability to look at the material in a fresh way has been very, very helpful to us,” claims Jake. “The biggest problem that we’ve had in the past with people who want to produce the record—or even make videos for us—is that they really wanted to go the nostalgia route. And that’s not really my goal.”

It’s hard to tell whether the smoky, ska-tinged brand of alternative jazz that Jake favours will ever make him a star, but the recent cocktail-lounge trend won’t hurt his chances. His group’s ’93 debut, Butane Fumes and Bad Cologne, held the top spot on the Sam the Record Man indie chart for nine months and managed to sell 5,000 copies without the benefit of a distribution deal. But radio airplay and video rotation haven’t come easy for the band, even after four cross-country tours.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher to be completely independent,” says Jake, “but in the end, if I can make a living without having to get any airplay, I’m totally comfortable doing that. I’m hoping that we’ll get enough support to be able to put one or two more records out before the year 2000, though, and really say a fond farewell to the music of this century, because it’s been a great hundred years.”

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