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Todd Hembrook: Hometown Boy Makes Good With Deals Gone Bad
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
On August 11, 1996 a band by the name of Skavossas played their very first show. The ska band's line-up consisted of Justin Maloney (guitar), Travis Roth (tenor sax), Jay Freimuth (trumpet), Ben Meyer (drums) and Richie Kunz (bass). Oh, and there was a singer, too. His name is Todd Hembrook. The band's line-up, the style of music they played and even the name of the band would change before they disbanded in the earlier part of this decade. Musicians such as Eric Rutkowski (Graves of the Endless Fall, Resonance Quartet), Todd Roth (Unlikely Alibi, The Bee's Knees) and Kevin Hockaday (The Orange Opera) played in Skavossas and remained when the band morphed into Heavy Step, which combined the ska sound with rocksteady and reggae. The one constant, along with Maloney's skillful playing, was Hembrook's ever soulful vocals. Maloney is now a stay at home father living in Florida and Hembrook is living in Chicago as a working musician with Deals Gone Bad, who will be playing at the Brass Rail on December 30 th.
There are plenty of good things happening for Hembrook these days, but to appreciate where he is now, it's important to understand how he got there. So, first things first, why did Heavy Step call it a day? "I guess it just kind of ran its course. We weren't doing anything and I don't know if we just broke up or we were just thinking, 'Let's take a break and see what happens.'"
Hembrook says that the band toured to promote their first and only album, The Longshot, and recorded a few songs along the way. "Some of them might be on the Heavy Step MySpace site. Which I think is funny. It's weird that there are MySpace sites for bands that are 5 years gone. I think it's great, but it's funny."
Considering there were new songs and a possibility of continuing the band, there must have come a time when Hembrook expected the phone to ring and things to get back underway. But, that phone call never came. "Lifestyle changes may have been something that kind of helped that along. My divorce, Eric left the band for a little bit and Maloney was expecting a child. It's so weird that I've been living in Chicago for half a decade. I moved here on September 8, 2002. Why not? I had an opportunity. Someone I knew had a room for rent."
The decision was not made lightly, however. "I was leaving my home base. I was leaving Corey Rader and John Commorato. I was leaving where I could lick my wounds and Corey and John were less than a block away."
When Hembrook arrived he didn't have much to his name and had to find a job straightaway, which he did. A nightmare job. "It was one of the worst jobs in my whole life. Telemarketing. Selling magazines. It sucked and not in a good way. I did that for maybe a month. Then I got the Virgin (record store) gig around November. Then, right around the middle of December I got the gig at Inner Town Pub. I quit Virgin after 3 years. I've been working at the bar, as my only job, for 2 years this spring. I work, probably, 3 days a week. I'm still broke as a joke and I should get a second job, but it's a hell of a lot easier to get off or have someone cover my shift for one job than it is for
Taking a break from work has become a pretty regular thing for Hembrook since he became the singer for Deals Gone Bad, which came about after a chance meeting at a local bar. Hembrook had made contact with Chuck Wren of Jump Up! Records, one of the labels that released the band's latest album, but more on that later. Wren was going to be DJing at Delilah's and when Hembrook showed up to listen he ran into some of the guys from Deals Gone Bad. Having played shows together while in Heavy Step, Hembrook quickly caught up with them and soon was checking out their live show again. One night the band asked if he would consider subbing for their lead singer, who was busy with family commitments. Eventually they asked Hembrook to join fulltime. "It totally changed my whole life. I wasn't really doing much musically here because it's a hard city to tap into. Deals Gone Bad were already established and had been around for 8 or 9 years at that point. It was lucky for me."
Luck might have played a part, but talent and a plan to get the band touring more regularly kept him in the gig. "They were known for their live shows, how drunk they got and how out of control it was sometimes. They were well known in Chicago and to ska fans around the country, but not as well known as we are now. We're supporting a record. If you want to push your record, you have to tour. We bought a bus and a trailer and now were doing 3 weeks at a time."
The record they are pushing is The Ramblers, which was released, on Jump Up! Records and Megalith Records, in March of this year. It is the first to feature vocals from Hembrook, which begs the question, why did it take so long to get something on wax with his voice? "I think it took so long because we were playing shows and working as a band. As soon as I joined the band we were playing shows and trying to get me up to speed with the old stuff. We started as a band that had no songs in the chamber. We were starting from scratch and feeling each other out. You can't hurry songwriting."
Hembrook describes the band's sound as a 60s Jamaican soul or dance band. "We encompass ska, rocksteady, reggae and we do a soul thing, too. But, I'd say we're a rocksteady band."
The band is currently working on two albums. One is a batch of all new material and the other is a remix/dub record. "In June we're going to have that out. Our friend Anthony, of the Drastics, has his own studio and he's dubbed out and remixed some of the songs."
But for now, the band is set on touring for the next few months and Hembrook couldn't be happier that one of the stops will be right here in Fort Wayne. "When I heard who bought the Rail, I thought, 'Holy Shit!' I was almost glad I don't live there anymore. I'd be drunk all the time. There would be no question where to hang out at night. I'm really excited because I haven't been back since John and Corey took over."
The feeling is mutual. "We're really excited," says Corey Rader, co-owner of the Brass Rail, "One of my favorite albums of the year is The Ramblers. We're excited to see a good friend and a good band all in one."
It seems like things are going well for Hembrook these days. He's got a good job, a metropolitan city that he now calls home and a great band he travels with. Could things get any better? "I think that I'm in a really good place. For the first 4 years that I was here I had a really tough time and now I feel like I'm in a really, really good place. I'm seeing someone really amazing and we're totally madly and completely in love with each other. I'm nothing but hopeful for everything right now."
Deals Gone Bad play at the Brass Rail (1121 Broadway) on Sunday, December 30