Scott Klopfenstein and Tahlena Chikami — Interview
What if we are more than dust in the wind? What if we are land masses surrounded by water and continuously moving in the direction of its flow? What if we are… islands in the stream?
Maybe I’m digging too deep here, but the surprise duet from Scott Klopfenstein and Tahlena Chikami has me contemplating some heavy subject matter. That tends to happen whenever green screens are involved, as is the case with the pair’s video for the cover of the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton classic “Islands in the Stream.” The twosome’s rendition is pretty faithful to the original, though the ska scene staples (Klopfenstein is a former member of Reel Big Fish and founder of The Littlest Man Band while Chikami fronts Bite Me Bambi) infused it with enough humor to put a smile on the face of even the most curly of curmudgeons.
I recently sat down with Klopfenstein and Chikami to discuss getting into character, a possible return to the green screen, and the key to long term sustainability in the music industry.
Americana Highways: You both write and perform in a genre sandbox that would generally keep us from chatting for Americana Highways, and yet here we are thanks to your fantastic rendition of “Islands in the Stream.” Before we get into the song itself, lets talk about the video because while the tune is a classic, the video was the hook, line, and sinker for me. It’s like a karaoke dream come true and as one person posted in the YouTube comments, “The video is half the experience.” What were you going for and how did you achieve it?
Scott Klopfenstein: I think one of the great things about coming up in the scene that I did, is the sense that you can take any idea and make it work if you are willing to go all the way with it. I never personally know if an idea is good or bad until it’s already been made and usually one way or another, I’m glad I did it. So when Tahlena said, “Let’s do this!” I of course said, “When do we start?”
And yes! I think this actually came out better than I know I thought it would.
Tahlena Chikami: I think we just wanted to do something fun and silly. Pretty sure director Chris Graue nailed that one right on the head.
AH: Tahlena, what was your first thought when you saw yourself in that wig, and Scott, is there such a thing as undoing too many buttons in channeling Kenny Rogers?
TC: I will take any excuse to wear my Dolly wig. Yes, I owned it prior to this video shoot. I love it! It makes me feel so glamourous.
SK: I have, for the most part, been kind of self-conscious of my chest hair. It’s not something I tend to flaunt. I’ve found myself strangely fortunate in finding romantic partners who find it at the very least endearing. So, in looking at clothing of the times I realized this was my shot to “Shake what my mother (more likely my father, but you get it) gave me.”
AH: All kidding aside, this song just has that vibe that makes you feel damned good. It always has for me. Is that the reason you chose to stay pretty faithful to the original material?
SK: I think that doing a cover is about trying to do it justice and this song is so expertly crafted that the only thing that could bring it any kind of variety and still not mess with the brilliance of the song was to speed it up just a tad.
Our producer, Ryland Steen, actually had to tell me many times during the tracking not to overthink it or play too much. Just to keep it simple and let the tune speak for itself.
TC: Honestly, I wasn’t overly familiar with the song when I made the joke originally. I really grew to love it while learning the song. The Bee Gees knew how to write a hooky tune! As far as the arrangement, that was all Scott.
AH: Twitch played a big part in this cover being brought to life as it made it’s first appearance on Scott’s stream. Is there a chance this could fuel an even bigger collaboration? A full album perhaps? (And if so, could we request “Close My Eyes Forever” by Lita Ford & Ozzy Osbourne!)
TC: I don’t know. You’ll have to wait and see…
SK: Actually, as soon as we saw how well the tune and video did within the first few hours of it’s release, Tahlena messaged me to say congrats, and I said “What’s next?”
And that is a great suggestion.
AH: No one knows what the future holds, but it seems like for musicians to survive (and thrive) they have to be willing to stay malleable and adjust to the changing times, especially technology. How have these Twitch streams brought that to light for you?
SK: Technology has always been a driving force in our industry. That is one of the wonderful and jarring things about art and entertainment. Going from mono to stereo, vinyl to 8-track tape, 2-inch tape to digital recording.
For me, Twitch has been integral in continuing to feel connected to a community. The ability to interact and perform for people all over the world at one time is so remarkable. While we have been restricted from going abroad and performing, it has been a great stand in. I have been able to stay in shape performance-wise and still get a relatively good night’s sleep.
My manager and I tried a few different platforms at first and Twitch just seemed to give us the freedom as well as tools we wanted to accomplish the kind of stream and reach people the way we wanted to.
TC: Twitch is such an amazing platform for artists. You have a direct link to the people who appreciate your art. It allows you to say things like, “Hey, what if Scott K. and I sang ‘Islands in the Stream’.” It allows you to take chances and to do things that your fans will be excited about. You don’t have to appeal to the masses. You just have to find the people who are stoked on what you do.
AH: What would the younger Scott and Tahlena who first dreamed of a career in music think if you jumped back in time and just showed them the video for “Islands In The Stream” with no context whatsoever? Would it blow their minds?
TC: (Laughter) I love this! Mine definitely would be. I don’t think young Tahlena sees a future where she gets to sing with Scott from Reel Big Fish. Her mind would explode.
SK: When I was a kid I did a green screen video lip-sync thing at the mall. I took it so seriously. I was so excited about it. I don’t remember the song I did but it was fun and most likely, in all reality, a lot cringe worthy.
I think the younger me would be filled with child like hubris saying, “And it all pays off like I knew it would.”
AH: This cover is a great example of how today’s artists can control their own destiny and deliver music to the masses in way that those pre-internet never could. With that said, there’s also a lot more competition for attention spans. What is the key to cutting through all that noise and reaching people in 2021?
SK: Oh wow. I think you can only do what you feel in your bones is the thing to do. Again, you kind of have to throw things at the wall and see what sticks.
Also, this was a talented creative team. Tahlena is a great singer and performer. Chris Graue, our director, makes some of my favorite music videos of late. Ryland Steen did a great job getting the performances on the track that would serve the tune best. The other musicians we had play on the track were excellent at their craft. Teamwork makes the dream work, as my kid’s first grade teacher said.
TC: It’s all content, content, content. It can be stressful, especially if you try to follow trends. Bite Me Bambi sort of decided early on just to do what we do and what we like to do. If other people want to be a part of it, that’s awesome. We’ve built quite the little community. We love our Bambinos!
AH: I spent most of the late 90s entrenched in the ska scene, though admittedly, I have lost touch with much of the music being released today. Is the scene thriving and are those Gen X’ers – like me – finding their way back to the shows?
TC: I always say ska is not dead, it’s only underground. The beautiful thing about the internet is that subcultures can thrive there. You can find other people who like the same thing you do and build a community. I think fans from all generations are finding their way back to (and discovering) ska thanks to the internet.
SK: I think the scene is absolutely thriving. There are so many great bands all over the world still keeping the spirit alive. They are making it their own and bringing it into the world that exists today. Speaking their truths and their points of view. It’s really beautiful.
But a few of us older guard are still kicking around and those who were moved by what we were doing back in the day still come around or rediscover that they can enjoy the shows or bring their kids to the shows and share something special (pun not intended) with them.
We (myself and Bite Me Bambi) did a show together in August and there was a great blend of age ranges. I don’t know if there were people in their 30s and 40s at the shows that I went to as a kid, but I’m glad to see that is the mix that is taking shape nowadays.
AH: A lot of bands come and go, regardless of the genre or scene. What is the key to sustaining yourselves in an industry with so much uncertainty? How do you find your internal balance to maintain an external output?
SK: Yikes, I have no idea. Just keep swimming, I think. As long as I am willing to grow and change, I hope to always find a group of people who will connect with what I am singing about – that the music or video or whatever invokes a feeling and brings them something they were looking for.
TC: I often try to remind myself to stay true to what I do. It’s really easy in today’s music world to try and chase what’s new or trending. For me, that’s not sustainable. For my own mental health, I have to just do what I love to do. Tbone (trombone for BMB) always reminds us all that today could be the last show we ever play as Bite Me Bambi, we have to make the most of it and stay present in the moment.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
TC: I always say that I would be here playing ska no matter what. I would assume in 10 years, if I’m lucky, I’m still doing that. What is life if not to enjoy the ride? So, sure, I’ll take that journey. Hopefully it has more of Scott and I in front of a green screen.
SK: Most likely not. I’m of the mind, “It’s the journey, not the destination…” I would never value the things I learn or changes I make if I know they will absolutely result in something.
If I know where I’m headed, I’ve removed my need to live in the here and now. If I know that my actions lead me somewhere, then I lose my need for faith. So much of what I do, I do on faith. But faith isn’t forged in certainty.
Meh, I would probably look now that I think about it. I’m not that strong and far too curious. But I know I would regret it the rest of my life.
And to view the awesome video for “Islands In The Stream,” see below!