That's what Manhattan, Kansas' most prominent purveyor of ska, Ruskabank, discovered during its first-ever swing through the West Coast with fellow area rudies O'Phil. "We did four shows with O'Phil in Arizona and Los Angeles and San Diego," reports Ruskabank keyboardist and co-founder Donnyves Laroque back at home between classes in Manhattan. "The shows were okay, but attendance didn't go as well as we wanted it to. I just think that there was a lack of advertising, but I didn't take it to heart that people weren't there. It was still a good experience for us.
"We weren't getting booed off the stage or anything," Laroque clarifies. "People liked us, and we impressed the people that were there. It was just our first time playing that far away -- you can't get much farther than Los Angeles -- so hopefully next time we go around, more people will be there."
The importance of booking and promotion is a tough lesson to learn on the road, and certainly isn't one the members of the eight-piece group will soon forget. Still, the band seldom deals with sparse crowds close to home, so witnessing fickle fandom firsthand proved somewhat disconcerting.
"It was a lot less comfortable," admits Laroque, "but we've been playing for five years, and there are plenty of times when we've played shows around here that had sort of low attendance and we just make the best out of it. Every show, we play as hard as we can, and we try to keep up the enthusiasm and try not to let it get down."
So far it's worked. Ruskabank was once described thusly by a fellow music critic: "Yes, I said they're ska, but not the boring stoner kind or the sped-up choppy kind. For some reason, it's good." And for once, this critic was right. Still, Ruskabank's new record, I Don't Think You Hear Me, Though, is vaguely reminiscent of some classic early '60s ska. The group plays a warm, mellow hybrid that is as influenced by North American pop music as it is any island rhythm, but this unique mix of pop hooks and two-tone riffs is what makes Ruskabank so easy for local fans of all tastes to swallow.
"That popular conception of ska is not really the way we hear things," admits Laroque. "I think we kind of try to shy away from sounding like the more popular version of ska. When I write music, I don't really think of us as a ska band. I just write what I like. People can call us whatever they want: third wave, fourth wave, whatever. I just think of us as more of a pop band with the influence of ska."
Perhaps, but an outdated version of the band's bio suggests it's a pop/ska band with the influence of prog-rock, as Rush is listed as one of the groups from which Ruskabank draws inspiration. While no one could mistake such lines as I wish I would have kissed you/are you thinking the same thing too for lost lines from "Tom Sawyer," Laroque confesses that he does hear some Rush sneaking in every once in a while, especially from behind the drum kit.
"Our drummer, Dave 'Doob' Darby, is a big fan of (Rush drummer) Neal Peart, and a lot of what he does with the drums, like with the cymbals and the high-hat opening up, is influenced by Peart. I'm not a big Rush fan, but I've heard enough to recognize them in his drumming, and he's a great drummer, and so is Neal Peart, so I think Dave picked a pretty good guy to model himself after."
It remains unknown after whom the other seven guys have modeled themselves, but the combination seems to have worked out well. Ruskabank just released its second album (the first with Noisome Records), and it's now primed for a few area release parties before hitting the road a bit this fall and laying the groundwork for the first ska craze of the new millennium. Not bad for a band that was formed purely for fun's sake.
"Things started happening, people enjoyed our music, and I just sort of kept with it," says Laroque. "I never planned on making any CDs or anything like that, it was pretty much whatever came along. But I feel like you only get one shot at being a professional musician, and I'm still young, so if something big comes along, we're definitely going to go with it."