“My mama always said that I was a little bit cheeky,” explains British vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mark Casson. Mama said it, so the admonishment became the tongue-in-cheek name of the band Casson fronts with his wife, Shannon Hines Casson.
The Cassons, who met on a train in the U.K. nearly two decades ago, realized a common interest in music from the 1960s and ‘70s, and within a year they’d formed the Cheeksters. Mark says they have a love/hate relationship with the band name, though with the recent release of their fifth album, the humorous and energetic Movers and Shakers (Caterina Sounds, 2007), they feel like the name fits.
Movers is Britpop inspired by the rock and soul groups that the Cassons loved while growing up on separate sides of the Atlantic (Shannon is from Memphis). With sleek production, jangly guitars and plenty of hooks, it’s hardly a reach to peg the Cheeksters as a throwback group—but heirloom rock is not what they’re about.
“It’s dangerous to try and pigeonhole oneself,” Mark notes. “I’m from Britain, so it’s easy to say ‘retro British.’ But we didn’t set out to make a retro album.”
In fact, Movers quickly reveals its modern sensibilities, with jazz-tinged flugelhorn, atmospheric cello and funky Wurlitzer. Mark’s vocals are often sized up as Bowie-reminiscent, but his range allows for soaring falsetto and almost menacing tenor (both within a few measures on the track, “One Time”).
And just because the Cheeksters make a definite departure from the self-obsessed shoegazing that fills listening-room calendars doesn’t mean they lack crucial musicianship.
“We wanted to make a record that’s fun,” Mark says. “I think to be able to sing and dance along to it is a big part of it.”
He adds, “There’s something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously.”
Where the Cheeksters don’t joke is around is in the recording studio. Having completed three albums with producer, engineer and jack-of-all-trades musician Brent Little, the group is committed to Little’s all-analog Cream Puff Recorders studio.
“Nothing’s digital,” Mark says. “We’ve always done analog. It’s a bigger, warmer sound. A lot of the records I loved in the ‘60s and ‘70s used that sound.”
Unlike today’s easily accessible digital programs (e.g. Garageband), analog machines require years of skill and experience to operate, and then there’s the painstaking process of mixing down tracks on reel-to-reel tapes. Forget plugging in loops or tweaking sour notes: The musicians have to know their parts and nail the song or else it’s take two.
But even throwback recording techniques don’t spell a “retro act” designation for the Cheeksters. Very much of the moment, the Cassons have pulled together a band to perform their newest songs and are planning a regional tour to promote Movers. Having lived in Asheville for the past seven years (they moved here from Nashville), they’ve been watching the local-music arena grow and are excited to be part of what they suspect is a scene about to take off.
When the Cheeksters first arrived in Asheville, they opened for British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson at The Grey Eagle—a fortuitous slot. Now they’re headlining their own dates with their sights set on bigger venues in the near future, thanks to early praise for Movers.
As Mark puts it, “I feel it’s our best album to date.”
who: The Cheeksters
what: Soul-inspired Britpop
where: Jack of the Wood
when: Friday, Dec. 28. 9 p.m. ($6. 252-5445)