Harkening back to the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll when doo-wop bands flooded the airwaves, the a cappella group Straight No Chaser breathes new life into classic and recent radio hits with their own special vocal interpretations. The group kicks off a week’s worth of celebrations for the release of their latest album, “Under The Influence,” on Thursday, May 9 at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This will be the second time the group has performed at the theater, but their first non-Christmas show.
Straight No Chaser is a worldwide phenomenon, with albums appearing in the “Billboard Top 200,” national TV appearances and videos that have logged tens of millions of views on YouTube. All of that may sound strange for an a cappella group these days, but the group’s rise to fame is even stranger. Straight No Chaser originally formed in 1996 at Indiana University with 10 guys who liked to sing and who used contemporary songs to set themselves apart from other a cappella groups. When the group’s founders began graduating a few years later, replacements were chosen to keep Straight No Chaser as an ongoing group on campus. More than 50 members have passed through the group so far. It became such an institution at the university that the school hosted a 10th anniversary reunion show for the original lineup in 2006. Around that time, video clips from a 1998 concert caught the attention of Atlantic Records Chairman/CEO Craig Kallman, who quickly signed the group to a recording deal.
“A music career was definitely not on my radar,” said original member Randy Stine. “Getting the guys back together, not just for someone’s wedding or bachelor party, but to spend the majority of the year together touring and recording, is a dream come true.”
Fellow original member Charlie Mechling echoes those sentiments. “To think that the 10 of us could go our separate ways after college, start professional lives, and then commit to putting Straight No Chaser back together after all these years is nothing short of a minor miracle,” said Mechling. “With each opportunity to perform that comes our way, we are reminded of how fortunate and blessed we are to be able to do what we love to do.”
The group currently includes Walter Chase, Jerome Collins, Seggie Isho, Michael Luginbill, Steve Morgan, Don Nottingham, David Roberts and Tyler Trepp, in addition to Mechling and Stine. They were signed to Atlantic Records in 2008 and have released two Top 10 holiday albums (2008’s “Holiday Spirits” and 2009’s “Christmas Cheers”), two EP’s (2009’s “Six Pack” and 2011’s “Six Pack Volume 2”) and 2010’s full-length “With A Twist.”
Previous releases have tackled songs from artists as diverse as Madonna (“Like A Prayer”) to Weezer (“Buddy Holly”); Mike & The Mechanics (“The Living Years”) to Marvin Gaye (“Let’s Get It On”); and Oasis (“Wonderwall”) to The Zombies (“Time of the Season”). Each interpretation is like a new work of art — familiar, yet very different from the original. Many of the group’s younger fans literally hear these songs for the first time done by Straight No Chaser and go on to seek out the originals to see just how much was changed.
For their latest release, Straight No Chaser reached out to some of their favorite recording artists to be featured soloists. The result is an amazing collection of re-imagined a cappella versions of classic songs performed by both Straight No Chaser and the icons who made them famous. Songs include Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up,” Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds,” Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas’ “This Is How A Heart Breaks,” and Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose.” In addition, Sara Bareilles delivers a soulful solo on the album’s first single, a cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”
“We wanted to take things up a notch from our previous album ‘With A Twist,’” said Mechling. “We tossed around some ideas, including putting feelers out to our favorite artists, not thinking it would actually happen. We thought if we got two or three guest artists, it’d make the album really special. Then every couple weeks we’d get an email saying, ‘Jason Mraz is in. Seal is in. Phil Collins is in. Sara Bareilles is in.’ It blew our minds. I think this is our most unique album to date, without losing the traditional a cappella feel.”
In addition to songs featuring special guests, the group puts their original spin on recent hits such as Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep,” Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Gavin DeGraw’s “Soldier,” Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House,” and a medley of fun.’s “Some Nights” and “We Are Young.” Straight No Chaser also offers up medleys of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and “Hit The Road Jack” (backed by Brazilian standard “Mas Que Nada”). The album also contains a moving version of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah,” which Mechling cites as one of his favorite tracks the group has ever recorded.
“We just always wanted to do music that we liked,” said Mechling. “We didn’t want to do the standards that eight other groups were doing with the same arrangement that was being passed around. We wanted to do stuff that we heard on the radio, our own way, and then throw in choreography to make it a really good show. We wanted to have broader appeal.”
The album is officially available today, May 7. While fans of the group love the group’s recordings, it’s on stage that Straight No Chaser really shines. They have built a reputation as an unforgettable live act, and even have a group of die-hard fans, who call themselves “Chasers,” that turn up at every show.
“I think we give people something they aren’t expecting,” said Stine. “Perhaps they had a preconceived notion, like, ‘I don’t want to see a glee club or a barbershop quartet.’ But the guys who come up to us after the shows and admit that their girlfriend dragged them there are the same guys who have a stack of CDs in their hands and are asking what city we’re going to be in next. That’s what’s most fulfilling — changing people’s minds. We really want people to see a cappella in a different way than what they might have had pre-programmed in their head.”
For Mechling, it’s rather simple. “It’s 10 guys, 10 voices up on stage. Part of the show is the singing and the music, and part of the show is us getting to share an evening and make people laugh, too. So, it’s the whole package. I think once people see us live, they truly get it.”
The State Theatre is located at 15 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ. For more information, visit http://www.statetheatrenj.org.