Kayla Renelle will always remember something her brother asked her about Voluntary Hazing, her 12-piece ska band.
“You have talented musicians,” he began. “Some are classically trained. So why are you playing ska?”
Of course, Renelle had to write about the experience. She also pieced together other odd comments people made about her band. One friend said the horn players were amazing, but they couldn’t dance to save their lives.
“I feel like every ska band has to do a song about ska,” Renelle says.
“Why (You in a Ska Band)” was the first original tune Voluntary Hazing wrote, back in May 2019, about a month after forming. The song is on the band’s debut EP, Crossroads, released in January 2020.
The band’s story began a few years earlier, when tenor sax player Thomas Narveson formed the SJSU Ska Ensemble alongside Alex Quick and Gabriel Perez. At its height, as many as 50 members were coming and going, most from SJSU’s music department and marching band.
“Everybody kind of knew each other,” says trombonist Ryan Heisinger. “It wasn’t completely random people, which made it fun.”
At the time, Narveson wanted to create a high school class or after-school program that would teach kids music through forming rock bands. The SJSU Ska Ensemble was his pilot program, and he’d bring in charts for songs. At every rehearsal, they played Reel Big Fish’s ’90s ska hit “Sell Out.”
The ensemble dissolved when Narveson moved to the Pacific Northwest. But in early 2019, when Heisinger needed a band for his recording class, he gathered up the members of the Ensemble that had consistently showed up to rehearsals. Together, they tracked a cover of Panic! At The Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”—always a crowd-pleaser at their regular “Ska Ensemble Listening Hours.”
The recording came out great. Soon, the band adopted the name “Voluntary Hazing,” began working on new material and started gigging off-campus. In “Why (You in a Ska Band),” Renelle sings she “wrote this song the other day / to finally give our Reel Big Fish covers a break.”
Even by ska band standards, Voluntary Hazing is a large group. They began with 11 members, then bumped up to a dozen after Narveson moved back to San Jose and joined. Filling out the group are its seven-piece horn section (two trumpets, two trombones, three saxes), which they use to their full advantage.
“It makes it a lot of fun when it comes to arranging,” Heisinger says. “We can do anywhere from three to seven individual parts, so it gives us a lot of flexibility.”
The group managed to play Art Boutiki on Jan. 31, 2020—the day Crossroads was released—and fit in a few more shows before COVID-19 shut everything down. Once socially distanced, they didn’t rehearse or record in person again until May 2021.
Instead, they got good at remote recording, releasing a handful of songs tracked piecemeal in 2021, like a cover of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” for Lonely Ghost Records compilation Wow! Now That’s What I Call the 90s: DIY Edition (a benefit for MusiCares COVID Relief Fund). In June came an original called “Skemsco,” about their melding of ska, emo and disco, and in September a cover of Pat The Bunny’s “I’m Not a Good Person” for the Keep On Loving, Keep On Fighting comp, a benefit for Trans Lifeline assembled by well-known ska-memer William Schuster (co-founder of The Bands I Like Only Charge $18).
Voluntary Hazing begin 2022 with two more releases, a cover of Blink 182’s “First Date” for the Prevent Cancer Foundation benefit Fate Fell Short: A Blink 182 Compilation (released last week), and the original “Reciprocate Some” (out next week).
As a 12-piece band, every member’s relationship to the genre they play is different. Some are hardcore fans, others are more casual. All of them, however, find that the scene that they are now a part of is large and growing.
“[When I was young], hearing ska, it had the same ideals of the hardcore punk scene, but they had horns in it, which is what I liked. It was like a guilty pleasure thing,” says alto sax/violinist David Sanchez. “This is re-sparking where I left off with my interest in ska. It’s awesome.”