"I'm challenging Har Mar Superstar to a sex-down," Captain Octagon exclaims. Dance Band's bearded, bespectacled frontman is wedged snugly, thanks to a layer of persistent baby fat, into his seat at Bev's Wine Bar. Not that anyone's looking at his tummy when he takes his clothes off, which is pretty much every time the Minneapolis-based quintet plays. It's the singer's generous endowment that gets most of the attention. Hell, it even gets press—at least, a mention in a recent Pioneer Press podcast. And the Pi Press hardly ever discusses dick.
"It's widely known in our crowd that the Captain is well-endowed," says Perfect Beat, "and throughout the Pioneer Press reading and listening community."
"And in western Wisconsin," adds the Philanderer. "Everyone in western Wisconsin knows about your schvanson."
Still, there's more to Dance Band than Octagon. There's mastermind, founder, and bassist the Philanderer; guitarist the Chop; keyboardist Spacebar; and drummer the Perfect Beat. Together, they've created an irresistible marriage of funk, soul, hip hop, disco, Afrobeat, Latin, and other apparently disparate musical traditions that's catching on faster than iPhones. There's also more to Captain Octagon than his pound-and-a-half of flesh. In less than two years of performing, he's become a master at driving audiences into a frenzy—just as his old friend Philanderer envisioned back before the band even started rehearsing.
"For a long time, I was the white guy with a guitar, writing political music," recalls the Philanderer, an articulate libertarian who looks like a rebel, even in a short-sleeved dress shirt and striped tie. "I listened to a lot of punk rock, stuff like Fugazi, and as I progressed, I got more interested in soul music."
"I had no idea that the band would become this successful when I first started programming for it," he says. "Basically, it was my own little venture, to learn how to sketch out songs. A band was just something I mused over. I saw Captain Octagon as the greatest performer in my immediate sphere, but he wasn't a musician. I just knew that he had the talent."
While he lacked professional experience, Octagon had some amateur success at entertaining audiences prior to joining Dance Band. "Karaoke has the power to unlock the hidden ability in a lot of people," says Octagon. "Many of those people don't pursue it. They just say: 'Oh, no; it was alcohol.' Dance Band was about doing what everybody thinks about doing, but nobody does, because they have too much pride and too much to lose: wearing boxer shorts on your head, putting your beard in your mouth, growing a beard long enough to put in your mouth. I am the Temerity Tomato: red, round, rotund, and...rawsome."
While he's the band's only relative neophyte, Octagon isn't the only member Philanderer drafted primarily out of friendship. Nobody involved had much experience making dance-floor fodder early on; although playing was another matter. Ex-Duluthian Perfect Beat took up drums at age seven. "Before this, my only direct funk experience was a band with Alan Sparhawk called the Housing Project," he says. But as a wide-ranging listener, field recordist, and aid worker (dude has his own nonprofit, dedicated to helping Kenya's Masai people), Perfect Beat has quickly absorbed a wealth of rhythmic wisdom.
"I'm always reading the people in the first few rows," the mercurial, brown-haired percussionist says, "gauging their responses. If they suddenly look like they don't know what to do, I take corrective action immediately."
"We don't have a pedigree when it comes to making dance music," says axman the Chop. "We're just kind of searching in the dark. It guides us more than if we had some rigid notion of what we wanted to accomplish."
Philanderer lured the tall, blond, jazz-trained guitarist and Hamline alum the Chop back from China, where he'd completed his undergraduate studies in sociology. "I was living in a small city," he says, "just a little over four million people, where most of the few Americans had a pretty firm command of the language. My Chinese wasn't all that great. I got depressed and lonely and came back."
Their keyboardist was the last to join. Spacebar actually checked out a Dance Band practice and declined to sign on. "I have to admit, I did not get it at first," the lanky computer whiz says. The problem might have been his solitary ways at the time; he was used to building sample-based, laptop dub in his bedroom. Soon after, he recognized his civic duty to help motivate other people's booties, apologized, and was welcomed into the fold.
"One thing that makes us such happy collaborators," says Philanderer, "is that we're able to respond to people without all the usual tests: recording an album, marketing it, getting really far down the road before you ever see how people come back at you with it. We see how our music works in real life. It's a live show. You want what people want because you want that energy to go back and forth. Because it's dance music, people are participating. You don't have people walking away with heady questions about what happened. They're like, 'That was fun! I'm gonna bring my friends next time.' There's a real purity to what happens because we get to see people smiling. We get to do something we like to do together as friends."
Best of all, they often get to do it sans pants. Not just onstage, either.
"One thing we've discovered in the studio is that sometimes the takes are better when the pants come off," says Spacebar.
"That's actually true," says Perfect. "The key to the good takes is: Get out of the pants."
"Even most of our CD singles were recorded primarily pantsless," adds Chop.
Typically, Octagon pares the band's m.o. to the bone: "Drop the pants. Bring the dance."