Uncle Joel’s Comb isn’t like most typical college bands.
For one thing, the punk/ska band’s five members all met as students at Niskayuna High School in 2009. Now they’re all sophomores in college, which means that for six months of the year, they’re scattered throughout northern New York.
Going from practices every day after school when the band first started to long stretches now when the band’s members don’t even see each other has proved challenging. Shows are now mostly confined to winter and summer breaks, save for the occasional big gig when school is in session, and songwriting can be tricky as well.
“I even took a plane to a gig once,” trombonist Jonathan Bintz said recently, sitting with two of his bandmates at a coffee shop in Niskayuna. “[From] SUNY Potsdam, the Massena Airport. The only reason that airport exists is for a plane that goes from there to Albany and then back again. It’s funny.”
First Night Saratoga
Where: Various venues in downtown Saratoga Springs
When: From 5:30 p.m. to midnight Monday
How Much: $15 for First Night Button, free for children ages 5 and under
More Info: 584-4132, www.saratoga-arts.org/firstnight for full schedule of events
But the logistical issues are worth the hassle for the band, which released its second official studio recording, the six-song EP “Tubular,” in November. For vocalist Alex Koste, the band’s members seem to be fated to play together.
“We were really, really close friends in high school — we’re still like best friends, so that obviously has helped,” he said. “When we come back [home], we want to hang out with each other, because that’s what we’re doing.”
The band is now looking to expand its base in the Northeast. They’ve already played as far out as Pennsylvania and Cape Cod, Mass., and opened for Third Eye Blind, J. Cole and Big K.R.I.T. at a show in Amherst, Mass.
With all five members — Koste, Bintz, guitarist Cody Okonski, bassist Luke Olson and drummer Clay Kaledin — back for winter break, the band is gearing up for its first show in Saratoga Springs, as part of the 17th annual First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve.
As usual, the event will feature local music of all genres spread out at nearly 40 different locations throughout downtown Saratoga Springs.
Uncle Joel’s Comb will perform in Meeting Room 1 in the Saratoga Springs City Center, as part of a lineup curated by Exit 97.7, WEXT-FM dubbed “First Fest” and also featuring local acts Holly & Evan, MaryLeigh Roohan, Benjamin Franklin, Headband Jack, Vontus and Crush. It will be the first time the radio station, known for its local music airplay, will be involved in First Night.
“They [Saratoga Arts, First Night organizers] actually hit us up and said, do we want to come up and hang out with them?” Chris Wienk, WEXT’s vice president of radio and afternoon DJ. “We said yeah, we’d love to, because it’s a lot of fun on New Year’s Eve — I’ve been there personally before, and there’s a lot of people, but it’s not like chaos; it’s actually pretty controlled. I found it to be really warm and inviting.”
Initially, Wienk had expected the station to only bring a couple of local bands to one of the set locations already hosting music at First Night. However, Saratoga Arts had other ideas, namely curating a stage for the entire evening, from 6 p.m. until midnight.
“I won’t get to see the rest of First Night,” Wienk said. “That kind of was not what we were expecting, but we get to do a whole stage, a whole room and all.”
Headband Jack, Roohan and Holly & Evan are all familiar groups in WEXT’s regular rotation, while Vontus, Crush, Franklin and Uncle Joel’s Comb have only just come to the station’s attention.
“It’s pretty cool — we get to present some bands we know or artists we know, some we kind of know and some we don’t know at all,” Wienk said. “So people are getting to discover something cool, even us here.”
On the urging of Bintz’s mother, especially, Uncle Joel’s Comb submitted to be on the bill earlier in the fall, and were accepted.
“My mom was obsessive about it, like, ‘You guys need to play First Night, it’s so wonderful,’ ” Bintz said. “[We thought], it’s in the neighborhood, and it would be great.”
Changes on display
The show will highlight some major changes in the band, some only within the last few months. The group’s founding trumpeter recently left the lineup, and for this show the band is enlisting fill-in saxophone player Dan Denette.
In the year and a half the band’s members have been attending college, the group has expanded musically, as well. Most of the members are now studying music and the six songs on “Tubular” attest to this, incorporating reggae and even classical influences into the band’s energetic ska sound.
“It’s definitely been like a ride,” Koste said. “You move from drawing a lot — like copyright infringement of Reel Big Fish, Blink-182 — to getting more influences, trying to incoporate them all, learning more about music.”
“And also, in high school we all just came over after school and wrote in the same room,” Okonski added. “And now, we have six months apart, and we all come back with almost finished songs that need the finishing touches.”
The group initially formed around Koste, Okonski, Olson and Kaledin, with various horn players coming and going in the early years — at least 17, by Koste’s count. Usually, the horn players were seniors in high school, which explains the high turnover. “Because those were the only people who could play the music, and have the musical skills to pick it up so quick, and they would just go out the door,” Bintz said.
The band’s third show, the battle of the bands at the annual Nervocity AIDS fundraiser in Guilderland in 2009, ended up being fateful, as the group won the battle. First prize was recording time at the Creek Studio in Saratoga Springs, which led to the band’s first EP, which eventually was expanded into the debut full-length “That Creepy Uncle.”
More recently, the band recorded “Tubular” at the Recording Company, with Tim Lynch producing. Whereas much of the first album had a party atmosphere, the new songs tend to focus on more serious matters.
“If you listen to ‘That Creepy Uncle,’ the six earlier songs, you can clearly hear the difference, because they’re just like, fun party songs,” Bintz said.
“We vowed not to write about girls,” Okonski added. “Our latest album is, being away from home, not being able to sleep, not receiving the love of a woman, receiving the love of a woman. . . . It really covers all the bases.”