Artist of the day: The Vodkanauts
For the Vodkanauts, two gigs from the past year stand out. One was on the center stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The other was at Tampa International Airport.
“At first they were terrified we were going to be way too loud, but it turned out to be great,” guitarist and bandleader Mark Warren said of the latter gig, part of the airport’s new “Friday Flight” happy hour concert series. “The best part is we’d be playing, and we’d see one of the monorails arrive, and people would get out with their bags, take a couple of steps, and be like, 'What the hell...?’”
It’s a good encapsulation of the Vodkanauts’ last 10 years. The group has performed their unique blend of surf-rock and lounge-cat covers in just about every corner of Tampa Bay, from oddball one-offs to huge corporate gatherings (the Forum gig, for example, was a party for the Tampa Bay Business Journal).
On Saturday, they’ll celebrate a decade on the scene with a four-hour, 10th anniversary showcase at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa. Past members will show up and take the stage, and the band will play selections from every aspect of their life, including portions of The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
“Some material, we haven’t done in a shockingly long time,” chuckles Warren, who’s also a manager at Skipper’s.
The Vodkanauts — who also include singer Jonathan Harrison, bassist John De Bellis, drummer Stan Arthur and keyboardist Ryan Arsenault — began when Warren was working as a graphic designer, collecting fonts and studying logos. One font he came across spoke to his creative side, and he thought, “Let’s make up an imaginary band for this font. Mid-century, atomic age, space race ... Vodkanauts!"
A Clearwater native who now lives in Temple Terrace, Warren had played in local bands for years — Mod-L Citizen, Leonard Croon Band, Barely Pink — and he and bassist friend Michael Hoag shared a love of surf music, “in particular the English band the Shadows.” They decided to start playing surf-spy-lounge-noir music, and booked a big gig, opening for Dick Dale at the State Theatre, before they’d even filled out their lineup. “It went over like frickin’ gangbusters,” Warren said.
As the lineup has changed over the years, Warren has tweaked the Vodkanauts’ sound accordingly, but his goal has remained steady:
“Throughout the whole thing, the idea has been to kind of create this idealized cocktail-culture soundtrack,” he said. “Back in the day, surfers and the tiki cocktail culture would not have met in the same room. One would have been the kids, and one would have been the parents. But now, of course, with time and fuzzy memories and reinvention, there’s a huge overlap between surf music and the exotica and cocktail culture.”
Some artists, like Frank Sinatra, the band will cover with reverence. Other songs, such as Judas Priest’s You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’, or a medley of Duran Duran’s Rio and Peter Allen’s I Go To Rio, get a loungey makeover. “I can be listening to a song and simultaneously be hearing it in another genre or tempo,” he said. “Which can be maddening.”
Warren makes it clear, though that he doesn’t see the Vodkanauts as a novelty act. “I personally have very little irony in what I’m doing,” he said. “We play Neil Diamond not because it’s funny, but because we love the tunes. We see people’s reactions, and there’s a certain amount of folded-arm hipster irony in the audience, but people genuinely love to sing along to Sweet Caroline.”
Warren said he has no real desire to produce an album of Vodkanauts originals, though if they could score the necessary cash, a collection of covers isn’t out of the question.
“I personally get my creative jollies out of arrangements, segues and medleys,” he said. “I’m a total nerd for putting together medleys and tempo changes and conceptual stuff. Like, we do a fast bebop-jazz version of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and then segue into Bowie’s The Jean Genie — pretty much so I can write on the setlist 'The Billie Jean Genie,’ because that makes me laugh."
-- Jay Cridlin