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Summer 2002

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Mouth music

by Kathryn Gallien

     Back in the days when he was president of the Bandersnatchers, Skidmore’s all-male a cappella singing group, Jon Ryan ’92 enjoyed stepping out on the Filene stage and performing to wildly enthusiastic, hanging-from-the-rafters crowds. A decade later he is still in the limelight, now performing with the hot Boston “mouth band” Ball in the House, which he started in 1995.
Ball in the House (with Jon Ryan ’92, second from right) puts a clever twist on a cappella.
     “I knew I loved music, but didn’t think I could make a living at it,” he recalls. Then he started to make money accompanying and writing arrangements, and singing with the Vineyard Sound a cappella group. Soon enough, Ryan realized that he wanted his own steady gig. “I needed to start something myself, from the ground up.”
     While teaching elementary-school music part-time, he began recruiting band buddies. Ryan’s original collaborator was fellow Bandersnatcher Jeff Manzolli ’91, who has since moved on to theatrical ventures. Ball in the House (a.k.a. BiTH)—named after a Brady Bunch sitcom episode in which mom’s vase gets broken—began taking shape some six years ago. “We’ve had the same members for more than three years now,” says Ryan, adding that “the band has been good for four years.”
     Six guys. Six voices. Period. As BostonBands.com writes, “You will look for the drum machine or the bass player, but make no mistake—it is all voices. With a mouth on drums, a mouth on bass, a mouth on guitars, a mouth on keyboards, a mouth on horns, and, well, a mouth on vocals. You get the point?” As percussionist, Ryan is essentially the rhythm section—with “a ‘thup’-like sound from the lips,” a “tss,” a few “grunts and distorted words,” and perhaps “some scratching and other sounds,” he says, he provides “a full drum kit done vocally.”
     Band members write their own songs and create lively stage presentations. “It’s pop music,” says Ryan, “and it’s a full band sound as opposed to a cappella.” Of course, you’ve got to hear it to fully appreciate it—and plenty of people have.
     Two years ago, BiTH was already being hailed by the Boston Globe as “one of the more accomplished all-voice pop bands in town.” These days the band is heavily booked in the greater Boston area, from clubs like the House of Blues to elementary schools and colleges. The school shows—equal parts education and entertainment—are the band’s bread and butter. “The kids love it,” says Ryan. “We try to inspire them to work hard to achieve something. We talk about how three of us sang together in grammar school, and we also talk about technical aspects like the sound system, about writing songs, and about life on the road.”
     There have been plenty of high-profile venues as well, from Faneuil Hall to Fenway Park and beyond. BiTH has performed before Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox games—including a truly plum gig: singing the national anthem before Cal Ripken’s last game at Fenway Park—and they sang a few of their own songs before this year’s Major League All-Stars game. The only pay for such performances is in ballpark tickets—no small thing for six guys who all love baseball.
     A series of CDs has helped spread the band’s reputation. After their first two—Ball in the House and Tales from the Bin—Ryan says they wanted something truly different. “We spent a lot of time figuring out how to be better.” They set out to cover new ground sonically, with some special technical after-effects. Still, says Ryan, “Everything is 100 percent vocal.” And creating a CD that would compete with major labels required much more time, money, passion, and hard work. They had to hire the right producers and write the kind of songs that would be “radio friendly.” Finally a publicist and radio promoter were brought on board, and everyone geared up for the big release.
     Nearly two years of preparation culminated in The Way It Has to Be, set for release on … September 11. “The tragedy affected us immensely,” says Ryan. “We had just left New York City the day before.” After much deliberation, they decided to go ahead with their release party the following night. “It was odd, but we had a good show,” Ryan says. “After twenty-four hours of nothing but news, maybe the band members needed to vent a little and maybe the audience needed a release.”
     By now, Jon Ryan and his band have moved beyond the immediate shock of 9/11, and so have fans, who used their BiTH Appreciation Day in October to raise funds for disaster relief. Radio time was hard to come by in the ensuing weeks, but The Way It Has to Be did make it into the big national retailers. One of the CD’s original songs, “Never a Second Embrace,” even won an award from the Contemporary A Cappella Society, which called BiTH “front-runners in the progressive band sound.” Legions of devotees continue to pack BiTH concerts, hawk its merchandise, request radio plays, and post messages on www.ballinthehouse.com and numerous fan sites. The band’s performance schedule is as busy as ever, often keeping them on the road for days at a time.
     “It’s tough to be away from home,” says Ryan, “and the band is a lot of work.” But when Ball in the House steps onstage in front of a sea of smiling faces, Ryan admits,
“It is pretty fun.”

Music lover Kathryn Gallien is a part-time Scope writer.

 


© 2002 Skidmore College