Straight No Chaser are taking America by storm, but can they make a capella trendy? Carol Driver asks them …
Straight No Chaser look like the type of men your mother could only dream you would take home.
Couple this with the fact they are a phenomenal a cappella group, and it makes their appeal almost sickening.
It’s lucky for them, then, they’re all down-to-earth guys – the type you could spend hours chatting with over beers.
When I meet them in K West Hotel in Shepherd’s Bush, they’ve just finished an interview with the BBC to promote their album With A Twist. Each shakes my hand as I smile inanely while clutching a copy of their CD like a crazed fan.
Straight No Chaser are probably the biggest band you’ve never heard of.
Think a capella and, if you’re old enough, the Housemartins spring to mind. Or you’re probably thinking cheesy wedding band.
But covering songs such as I’m Yours by Jason Mraz mixed with Somewhere Over The Rainbow, the guys, who all hail from the US, are doing something different.
It’s a brave move – no instruments to hide behind – and one that’s paying off.
They became a group to take notice of when hits to their YouTube video spiralled from 100,000 to six million in a couple of months.
Indeed, Atlantic Records took so much notice that their CEO Craig Kallman took it upon himself to track them down and sign the group. That was in 2008 – when SNC weren’t even together.
Having formed in 1996 while at university in Bloomington, Indiana, the original band had since graduated and were working in various fields.
But their rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas, mixed with songs such as I Have A Little Dreidel and Toto’s Africa caught the imagination of the public – and the attention of label bosses.
Kallman called Randy Stine, who posted the video, asking him to reunite the band. The rest (three albums, awards, tours), they say, is history.
What did it feel like to receive the call from Kallman?
Don Nottingham: Randy thought it was a joke at first. Seriously!
Ryan Ahlwardt: He had been getting calls from shows like America’s Got Talent that wanted to exploit it. But he held off. Then Craig contacted him on YouTube first and said: “I’m Craig with Atlantic and you need to call me.”
RA: The first two years, we were pretty much doing it on our own time and our own dime. It was a big life adjustment to quit our jobs – it’s a risk. Some of us have wives and children.
Do you have any competition?
RA: Let’s put it this way: it’s not like in West Side Story – Sharks versus Jets! I think we’re competing to against what people’s preconceived notions of what a cappella is. People think it’s kind of cheesy. Our hope is that people who aren’t familiar with a cappella will embrace it and give it a shot.
So, what can fans expect?
Charlie Mechling: We do a wide range of music and have a good time. As much as we take the music very seriously, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
RN: Every night is a different show. It has a Rat Pack element to it, where we’re kind of poking fun at each other. We’ll sing anything from like 50s and 60s doo-op right up to Lady Gaga.
What songs are on the album?
CM: We just go with what we like, really.
DN: I have an ongoing list and anytime I hear a song I’m like, I stick it in my phone.
RA: I’m kind of an older soul, I like listening to Beach Boys, Beatles.
DN: The ten of us have somewhat divergent music tastes. I think that helps us in the show to make it a little more interesting for the audience.
SNC and the album are drink-related. What’s your tipple?
RA: What’s our favourite what? I’ve never heard that before in my life.
Tipple [puts on British accent]. What’s my favourite tipple? [Laughter]
CM: Over here, it’s beers because they are so much better than in the States.
DN: I’m a big whiskey drinker, neat.
CM: We have Scotch and whiskey at the shows. It’s good just to have a little shot.
SNC tour with barry manilow in May. He has, er, loyal fans…
DN: We have some of that! We have some great fans who are really committed.
CM: They call themselves Chasers.
DN: Ryan had a creepy one. Ryan is married but has no kids and someone brought him a onsie for a baby with “Angel” on it.
RA: It was inside a Dunkin’ Donuts bag.
I opened it and I’m like: “You realise my wife and I aren’t expecting?” And she’s like: “No, this is for when you do have kids.” And I’m like [sings the theme to Twilight Zone]. It was one of those moments.
You’ve sung with Katherine Jenkins. Who’s next?
RA: Michael Buble would be cool. It’d be fun to work with a female country star like Carrie Underwood. Gwyneth Paltrow did a great job at the Grammys with Seal. And you know, if she wants to let her husband, Chris Martin, hear our version of Coldplay’s Fix You on our album, that’s fine! You know, whatever! [Laughs]
Why have you been a success?
RA: We never sought out a record deal, we never sought out fame and success and, we’re still working on it. I think for a lot of people, just the fact that we’re ten normal guys resonates a lot. We don’t have this air of pretence surrounding us. Are we finished now? Cool, time for a tipple.
SNC will be supporting Barry Manilow for the O2 stretch of his tour.
Millennium Way, SE10 0BF O2, North Greenwich (0844 856 0202, theo2.co.uk). May 4-7.
Tickets from £65.