Rockapella doesn’t waste any time firing up its Christmas show after Thanksgiving.
The a cappella group will perform its version of many holiday classics and a few Christmas originals Nov. 30 at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo.
“We don’t do anything in a very stale way, nothing kind of dull. We like to keep things moving. We like rhythm,” Jeff Thacher, Rockapella’s vocal percussionist, told the Daily Herald. “We like to take a familiar melody and support it with a Rockapella sound, which is more often than not a bit funkier and always a lot of fun, and Christmas should be fun.”
We recently caught up with Thacher in a phone interview ahead of the concert. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
SARAH HARRIS: What are your thoughts about performing in Provo at the Covey Center?
JEFF THACHER: Well, we have a long history of performing in Utah, particularly in Provo and Orem. I think a cappella in general kind of hits the sweet spot in your community, that it’s a way to see something exciting and dare I say cool, we would hope, but it’s also, we keep it clean. So I think that that happy medium with good quality a cappella really hits home. And the first time that happened was during the beginning of the run of “Carmen Sandiego,” the PBS show that Rockapella was on in the early ’90s, and they came out to Utah, and it was shocking how many people were there, so it’s the power of television. And really, some of the biggest shows we’ve ever had have been in Utah, so we have a long history of coming there and enjoying music with all of you.
HARRIS: Is there anything else you would say about what makes the area or the people here unique?
THACHER: Everyone is so warm, and they really have an appreciation for music. I think that you really feel it when you’re there. That’s obviously a human quality everywhere to some extent, but in Utah, it seems to be hardwired in. And so we really love coming and sharing that with you because a concert is an interactive experience. Whether you’re singing or not in it, what the audience gives back to you helps the show. So we’re always excited to come back.
HARRIS: Could you tell me what Rockapella has been working on and some of your goals and plans for the future?
THACHER: We’ve been around a long time, and part of the fun of that is that we get to find new ways to keep things fresh. We will have a very talented new singer with us. His name is Jose, and he’s been on Broadway tours at some point, so we’re excited to integrate him into the show. And, let’s see, I guess I can tell you we’re hoping to have a live Christmas album for sale. I guess it’s OK to say that. And you guys will be probably the second show in the history of ever to be able to have the live Christmas album from Rockapella. We’ve never done a live Christmas album.
HARRIS: You’ve been part of Rockapella for about 26 years. Is that right?
THACHER: That’s right, 1993, yeah.
HARRIS: How have you seen the group evolve in that time?
THACHER: Many bands break up after five years sometimes, so it’s just really fun to see all the different iterations. Scott Leonard and I have been a part of the group since “Carmen Sandiego” and those days, but every time someone retires, we get to handpick those successors. So though some of the faces have changed, there’s still a couple that are the same. And we never take a backward step in quality, and so that’s been fun to kind of let the group evolve. And along the way, we’ve had amazing media opportunities, whether it’s commercials or television or all kinds of local and regional news and all kinds of unusual things. We’ve had video games using our music, and we’ve had the Folgers coffee commercial. We ended up on the Macy’s (Thanksgiving) Day Parade for that. And so all these different iterations of Rockapella, Scott and I have taken them through quite a lot of unusual experiences, touring in Asia and Europe and so forth. So I think Rockapella continues to be very much a living thing, and of course, we want to bring that to the traditional Christmas music you know. It’s very much a living thing. It’s not something stale. And coming right out of Thanksgiving as we are with you guys, everybody’s going to be excited because that’s really the dividing line for Christmas music. If you hear it before Thanksgiving, we should give Thanksgiving a chance to breathe, but after Thanksgiving, we’re ready to go, and I’m sure you guys will be too.
HARRIS: There’s also been an evolution of a cappella music in general over the years. Especially recently, there’s been a new excitement for a cappella with things like “Pitch Perfect.” What do you think is the state of a cappella in general in the nation right now?
THACHER: It’s very exciting that the past, I would say — it gets more every year, obviously — it’s probably maybe 12 years now that it’s had national attention beyond what we were used to prior to that. The first “Perfect” movie and the beginning of “The Sing-Off” on NBC, those are quickly moving into the past now. So now, we’re in the era of groups like Pentatonix touring the globe and having their own fan base that was pretty much unaware of a cappella prior to that. And we’ve got the explosion of YouTube, where anybody can do — whether you’re a solo performer or a group — you can do some sort of a cappella presentation on YouTube. So Rockapella’s seen that entire evolution, from where it was just us trying to convince people that it was worth it to the present day. … So I think that it’s very much alive. I think we have to be aware now more of the quality, that too much of a good thing may not be good. So we have to be very careful, and I say we, I admonish anybody doing a cappella to really think about how you’re doing it. Are you giving an original take on something? Are you putting your best foot forward in terms of originality, in terms of not just repeating what’s been done? And this is true for any musical genre, but I think a cappella is reaching that point now where it’s like, “OK, where is this going?” I think it has to go more in the direction of original music. Rockapella’s always had original music in our repertoire, sometimes more than anybody else. But right now, it needs to be everybody, not just Rockapella — Penatonix, whoever — take bolder steps to move the art form forward because it can’t just be a cover band for the rest of time. People will grow tired of it. So I think it’s a very interesting moment where we’re almost oversaturated and it needs to be kept fresh.
HARRIS: What is it that you hope people will take away from Rockapella’s music in general?
THACHER: That can have a pretty deep answer. I think that when you approach familiar songs, when you do cover songs, you should always put your own stamp on it. It’s very tempting to do a verbatim, or as close as possible to verbatim, arrangement. But the arrangement is the key for Rockapella, no pun intended. What you do with those background voices and the feeling you give it really sets apart what you’re doing, and it’s not easy. You can certainly listen to the guitar part on a pop song and copy that exactly with voices as best you can, but are you bringing something to the table? We can just go back to the radio and listen to the original. We don’t need the copy. Know what I mean? So I think that when you do something that’s familiar that it goes back to my previous statement, bring your own stamp. And we’ve always had that as our focus. That’s the ethic of Rockapella’s arranging style. We don’t take anything for granted. We don’t need to do a copy of something on the radio because you can just go to the radio and listen to it. We invent it in some way, even if it’s a small way. Change style, change tempo, have the backups echo another song behind that existing song. There are all kinds of options. So you’ll hear a bit of that in the Christmas music, certainly in our pop show as well.
HARRIS: Are there any other comments you’d like to add?
THACHER: I think that, although this is unlikely in Provo, if you’ve never been to a contemporary, professional a cappella show, you’re in for a treat. All the bases are covered, and it is amplified, and it’s an exciting time. And I like to say that we make the audience get comfortable right away. It’s like you’re in our living room with us; we’re just facing out of that living room. And I think it’s a terrific way to start the holiday season.