Straight Talk From Straight No Chaser

Straight No Chaser’s Seggie Isho talks with Pollstar about working and touring with “10 dudes” who have astounded audiences with their a cappella brilliance.

Straight No Chaser began life as an a cappella group made up of students at Indiana University in Bloomington during the 1990s.  When former members established Straight No Chaser as a professional act, the group of students continuing the a cappella tradition at the university eventually took on the name “Another Round.”

While speaking with Pollstar, Isho described life in Straight No Chaser as being “about having a good time and being loud and … being as rowdy as possible.”  He also chatted about the recording session with Sara Bareilles for the group’s latest album, Under The Influence, the logistics of transporting 10 men from town to town, and how they turn songs into a cappella masterpieces.

Photo: Mike Oberg / Pollstar
William Saroyan Theater, Fresno, Calif.

If we were to go backstage right before a Straight No Chaser gig, would we find a lot of water, throat lozenges and other aids for the proper care and feeding of voices?

A lot of water, a lot of tea.  Some guys like to have a sip of whisky before the show to clear their throats a little bit.  We try to keep it as simple as possible.

How do you take care of your voice?

It’s difficult, especially when we’re fall touring, we generally do six shows a week.  It’s not like a concert where the lead singer can chill out for a second while the guitarist has a solo.  We’re singing all the time, every time.  There are no breaks.  We try to talk as little as possible during the days, get enough sleep, work out every day, make sure you’re fighting any colds or flues that are going on.  Drink a lot of water. … That usually does the trick.

That has to be easier said than done.  What with meet and greets and shaking hands with a new group of people on every show day, that must increase the chances of catching a bug.

Yeah. … We stick around after the show – they set up some chairs and tables – and we will sit there and talk to everyone, sign autographs and take pictures with anyone who wants to stay. … We do shake a lot of hands.  We try to be as practical as possible with hand sanitizers and such.

But out of 10 singers touring in the group, there’s probably someone that has a frog in his throat.  How do you cover for that?

One good thing is there are 10 guys. We essentially have two guys that sing the solos, Mike and Jerome. If Mike isn’t feeling good, his voice is kind of hoarse or whatever, we’ll take some of his songs out and swap in some other song featuring other guys in the group.  So we do have that advantage that with 10 of us we can pretty much cover for anyone. 

[Illness] does happen.  Most of the guys just fight through it and kind of suck it up. There have been instances where people have been extremely ill and haven’t been able to make it on stage. We’ve had to go 9 before. Most recently we had a summer show at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va.  Jerome was pretty ill and extremely dehydrated.  It was like 100 degrees out, the humidity was insane.

[Jerome] passed out about four measures into the second song.  We got him off stage, he got some water and came back out a song later and didn’t miss a beat.  It does happen.

How does Straight No Chaser select songs to sing?

We all have very different preferences in musical styles.  A lot of it is, we’ll hear a song on the radio … and have an idea of how it will fit in the show and how the audience will react.  You bring an arrangement to the group [and] we’ll try it out. … And if it works, we’ll throw it into the show.  If it works in the show, we’ll keep it.

There are times we’ve gone out there and thought a song would stick, and it just kind of flops. You live and learn, by trial and error, I guess.  It’s a lot of throwing [songs] against the wall and see what sticks.

There are songs that someone has [suggested] and [someone else] says, “I don’t think that really suits us or our fans that well.” Or maybe [it’s a song] by a specific artist that we don’t think our fans would be into. A lot of songs don’t get shot down right off the bat.  We try to give everything a chance.

It also depends on the show.  On the last tour we hit a really nice groove with our setlist and whatever anyone brought to the group wasn’t going to break into the setlist because we had a great flow, a really nice A & B product we put out there every night, we didn’t want to mess too much with that. 

There’s always room for new music and we’re always trying to put out new music as well as original music. I think that’s been a big focus with us this year.

Is the origin of a song – who wrote it or who had the hit with it – important when considering it for performances?

I think so.  We know what our demographic is when we look out into the audience.  I think we know what our fans enjoy and we know what they may enjoy that they don’t know.  For example, our last album, Under The Influence, we did a song by Ed Sheeran called “Lego House.” When we were recording the song he had just broken the U.S. market with his single, “The A Team.” Not a lot of our demographic really knew who he was but that’s a huge fan favorite right now. 

We take that into consideration.  Someone who we would like to introduce our fans to, we throw it out there. They grasp hold of it and start supporting that artist as much as they support us.

You have a version of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” that also features Elton John on vocals.  Did he come in and recut the vocal or did he supply you with a recording?

We recorded separately. … The only artist that actually came in and recorded with us was Sara Bareilles. 

She came into the studio while we were there.  That was an interesting experience.  A lot of us were expecting her to show up with a full entourage – a manager, an assistant, and bodyguards – especially when she’s walking into a studio full of 10 dudes.

But she walked in by herself. Her and her purse.  I was like, “Wow!  She’s got some guts walking into a gauntlet of a bunch of dudes in a studio.

Speaking of entourages – does Straight No Chaser have an entourage?

We’re our own entourage. Anywhere we go it’s a table for 10.  If our manager is with us, our tour manager and our crew, it’s a table of 17.  It’s kind of tough for restaurants and whatnot.  We kind of carry our own in-house entourage.  But everyone is part of the family.

Considering all the time the members of Straight No Chaser spends together, is there a trick to getting along with each other?

You treat everyone like your brother. You realize that you are going to fight, you are going to argue, you are going to make up. We are definitely 10 brothers, we definitely fight, we definitely argue and we always make up. We’re all on the same team; we all have the same goal.  It just takes a minute to get on the same page, sometimes, but I think that happens everywhere.  At the end of the day we definitely treat each other like brothers.  In the back of your mind you know that no matter what you’re disagreeing on, you’re going to figure out a way to come to an agreement somehow.

Along the same line I’m guessing that the group closes ranks, so to speak, whenever there’s a perceivable threat to one of the members – kind of an all-for-one vibe?

Yes, but we are an a cappella group so I don’t know how many instances [of that] is going to happen. There aren’t going to be a lot of a cappella bar fights.

What moves Straight No Chaser from town to town?

We roll in two tour buses.  Depending on the size of the production we either have a semi or both buses carry a trailer.  We generally bring a set with us, obviously the mics, the sound system and the light system.  This fall we’re going to be stepping the production up even more, incorporating more video elements into the show.  We’ve done a really good job of kind of being on an uphill slant as far as the production values.  When we first started we were 10 guys on stage with 10 wired microphones and 10 stools.  Now we have a full lighting package, a set and choreography.  We realized that we needed to keep stepping it up so people can keep coming to the shows and get new experiences each time.

What do you see when you look out into the audience?

We see something not a lot of people get to see. We generally see fans from age 6 to age 90 and everything in between.  During the autograph line after the show, something we hear all the time is that people are thankful we put on a show that multiple generations of a family can all enjoy.  We do music from the ’40s all the way to music on the radio now. So there’s something there for everyone. There might be some super old school song that a teenager doesn’t know but we try to make it a little fresh so he can get into it as well. The next song will be an Ed Sheeran song, so that’s something for them. 

There was a time when members of bands would take on specific roles. That is, there would be a cute guy, a joker, a serious person and so on.  Do members of Straight No Chaser take on similar roles?

From the fans’ perspective, if they do have roles for us, then that’s just what we are. No one puts on any kind of character or anything.  At the end of the day we’re all a bunch of idiots. We all think we’re the funniest people we know.  The fans probably do have their choices of who’s the hot one, who’s the funny one, who’s the shy one.

Is there a lady’s man in the bunch?

Oh, yeah. All 10 of us.

Whenever you hear a song, say on the radio or TV, do you automatically begin breaking it down into a Straight No Chaser arrangement?

Absolutely.  We’re always looking for new material.  Not every song will translate well to a cappella.  It depends on the instrumentation of the song, the vocals, the opportunities for harmonies.  You listen for all that.  You listen to how you think you can arrange the song. … Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Something that a cappella does is it kind of ruins [listening] to music. You’ll know someone is an a cappella singer when they’re listening to a song.  They’re singing along but they’re not singing a melody.  They’re singing harmony with the melody. I always find myself harmonizing with a song on the radio.  It’s like, “I should be singing the melody.  What am I doing?”  You’re always thinking, “I’m on stage.  How do I make this work for us?”

What was your background before joining Straight No Chaser?

I went to school [Indiana University] for trumpet performance. I was a classical trumpet player.  After college I went to grad school for a while at USC in Los Angeles.  Then moved to Las Vegas and started working for my brother’s cell phone company. I put my music degree to great use [laughs].

I joined Straight No Chaser when I was at Indiana University [in my] sophomore year, just based on a friend of mine’s recommendation.  It didn’t sound that exciting at the time. She was like, “They’re 10 guys, they sing a cappella.” And I was like, “That sounds extremely boring.” Because everyone has their own preconceived notion of what a cappella is. You see these skits on Saturday Night Live or wherever it may be and that’s what you think it is.  Then when I went and auditioned, I realized it wasn’t like that at all.

Straight No Chaser at Indiana was essentially a fraternity. I think we partied more than any of the fraternities on campus. It was a lot of fun. It was a great way to get into all the sororities, a great way way to meet chicks and make new friends and create these bonds you’ll have for life.

Fast forward a few years later after we had graduated and I just got a phone call saying, “We’ve been given a record deal. Now what?” It’s kind of been a whirlwind ever since.

Are there acts you would like to work with?

For me, personally, anyone who wants to work with us, we’re definitely open to it. On the last album we have some of the biggest names of all time on there and it’s such a surreal feeling, especially now, looking back to it, reading the liner notes, “featuring Phil Collins and Elton John,”  All these artists. First of all, why the hell did they agree to work with us? None of these people need that for their careers.  It was great they leant their talents to us.  A cappella music is important.  It’s very raw and bringing music back to where it all started. 

What would you like to tell the world about Straight No Chaser and the upcoming tour?

I think I would say, especially for all the people who have no idea who we are, come to a show and I think you’ll find something there for you. Whether it’s the music or some of the songs or artists we cover or the original music we do, you’ll find something there for you. … I think we put on a show that not a lot of people can do.  It’s more of an experience than just a concert.  Give it a shot.

Upcoming Straight No Chaser shows:

Aug. 30 – Atlantic City, N.J., Harrah’s Atlantic City
Aug. 31 – Atlantic City, N.J., Harrah’s Atlantic City
Sept. 1 – Atlantic City, N.J., Harrah’s Atlantic City
Sept. 26 – Las Vegas, Nev., Pearl Concert Theater
Sept. 27 – Las Vegas, Nev., Pearl Concert Theater           
Sept. 28 – Las Vegas, Nev., Pearl Concert Theater           
Oct. 16 – Columbia, Mo., Missouri Theatre
Oct. 17 – Ames, Iowa, Stephens Auditorium
Oct. 18 – Davenport, Iowa, RiverCenter / Adler Theatre
Oct. 19 – Omaha, Neb., Omaha Civic Music Hall
Oct. 20 – Sioux City, Iowa, Orpheum Theatre
Oct. 22 – Billings, Mont., Alberta Bair Theater
Oct. 23 – Casper, WY  Casper Events Center
Oct. 24 – Loveland, Colo., Budweiser Events Center
Oct. 25 – Colorado Springs, Colo., Pikes Peak Center
Oct. 26 – Denver, Colo., Ellie Caulkins Opera House
Oct. 27 – El Paso, Texas, The Plaza Theatre
Oct. 29 – Midland, Texas, Wagner Noël Performing Arts Center
Oct. 30 – San Antonio, Texas, Majestic Theatre
Nov. 1 – Houston, Texas, Bayou Music Center
Nov. 2 – Dallas, Texas, McFarlin Memorial Auditorium
Nov. 3 – Kansas City, Mo., The Midland By AMC
Nov. 5 – Conway, Ark., Reynolds Performance Hall
Nov. 7 – Nashville, Tenn., Ryman Auditorium
Nov. 8 – Dayton, Ohio, Schuster Performing Arts Center
Nov. 9 – Normal, Ill., Braden Auditorium
Nov. 10 – Louisville, Ky., The Kentucky Center For The Performing Arts
Nov. 11 – Bowling Green, Ky., Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center
Nov. 13 – Memphis, Tenn., Cannon Center For The Perf. Arts
Nov. 14 – Knoxville, Tenn., Knoxville Aud. & Coliseum
Nov. 15 – Roanoke, Va., Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre
Nov. 16 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Chattanooga Memorial Auditorium
Nov. 17 – Richmond, Va., Carpenter Theatre
Nov. 19 – Pensacola, Fla., Saenger Theatre
Nov. 20  – Jacksonville, Fla., Florida Theatre
Nov. 21 – Melbourne, Fla., King Center For Performing Arts
Nov. 22 – Gainesville, Fla., Univ. Of FL Phillips Center
Nov. 23 – Clearwater, Fla., Ruth Eckerd Hall
Nov. 24 – Durham, N.C., Durham Performing Arts Center
Nov. 29 – Grand Rapids, Mich., DeVos Performance Hall
Nov. 30 – Chicago, Ill., Chicago Theatre
Dec. 1 – Detroit, Mich., Fox Theatre
Dec. 5 – Montreal, Quebec, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier
Dec. 6 – Reading, Pa., Sovereign Center
Dec. 7 – Hershey, Pa., Hershey Theatre
Dec. 8 – Uncasville, Conn., Wolf Den
Dec. 10 – Boston, Mass., Wang Theatre – Citi Performing Arts Center
Dec. 11 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Benedum Center
Dec. 12 – Baltimore, Md., Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Dec. 13 – Cincinnati, Ohio, Aronoff Center For The Arts
Dec. 14 – Cleveland, Ohio, Palace Theatre
Dec. 15 – St. Louis, Mo., Fabulous Fox Theatre
Dec. 17 – Milwaukee, Wis., Riverside Theatre
Dec. 18 – Fort Wayne, Ind., Embassy Theatre
Dec. 19 – South Bend, Ind., Morris Performing Arts Center
Dec. 20 – Evansville, Ind., The Centre – Aiken Theatre
Dec. 21 – Indianapolis, Ind., Murat Theatre
Dec. 22 – Indianapolis, Ind., Murat Theatre

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