Bothering the Band with Greg Narvas

As the drummer and percussionist for the iconic ska band Hepcat, Greg Narvas made his bones in the scene when it was still new to Southern California. Between the skinheads, the mods, the rudies, and all the mixed tribes, the son of Filipino immigrants who settled in Los Angeles, Narvas was drawn into the Los Angeles ska scene of the mid 8o’s, because he found a home within its diverse legions. Subsequently, he and his bandmates helped boom generations of ska musicians and fans to follow. Hepcat are the unsung heroes of ska; their soulful harmonies and mellow rhythms were unlike those of their contemporaries and more akin to musicians from the heyday of 1960s Jamaican ska with elements of soul, jazz and R&B. As someone who grew up listening to, and cherishing ska, not to mention finding a home within the scene of my hometown, it was an absolute honor to bother Greg Narvas (and he does not hold back).

1. In your opinion, what’s the biggest misconception about ska music?

To this day, I’ll still come across conversations where someone will ask what “ska” is, and the response will be like, “Oh, you know, like Reel Big Fish or Less Than Jake…or early No Doubt,” or something to that degree. Basically any of the “ska-core” bands from OC, or other bands that matched that frantic, uptempo sound that characterized most of the ‘90’s “3rd Wave” ska bands.

I think I’ve come across these convos about 3 times so far. Back in my skinhead days 32 years ago, I would’ve totally intervened with some kind of defiant outburst, but nowadays I just cringe inside, purse my lips and refrain from saying anything. It’s not like I disagree with them—heck, ska is in the skank of the beholder—but too often, there’s just so much history and backstory that’s left out. Yet, with the passage of time, what can one expect? Back in the ‘90s, most people would’ve been surprised that ska went further back than The Specials and Madness. So now that we’re in the 2020’s, someone would have to be really well-informed about ska’s roots to know how far back it goes.

So indeed, I believe that’s the biggest misconception about ska music—that it’s not as deep, and wide, as it really is. Yet, with information literally at one’s fingertips these days, there’s no excuse for one to not know the history of ska…but still, people just don’t dig deep enough anymore. We live in a totally different world now.

2. How do you feel about hairless cats?

I love cats. I was raised with them throughout my whole childhood, all the way until college. As much as I’d love to have cats these days, my family’s allergies simply won’t let that happen. But at one point, we actually considered having a hairless cat as a compromise. I’ve always been into the strange and unusual, so cat breeds like the Sphynx have always amazed me. I’ve seen them before, but never got to hold one myself. I wonder what it must feel like to pet them. I’m so accustomed to the feel of soft cat fur beneath my palm. It’s actually therapeutic and soothing to just sit there and pet them, watching them close their eyes in contentment and purr. I’d spend many idle afternoons doing that when I was a kid, just sitting on my porch or patio with my cat in my lap. It must be unusual with the hairless cats, ‘coz I’d be running my hands over slick folds of skin, able to feel their skeletal structure without that fluffy fur buffer. It’d be like playing with a sack of meat. I can hang with that though. Sign me up.

3. What was your last kind act of randomness?

Ah, I wish I could be so much more prolific these days. It’s been awhile. I think my last kind act of randomness was when I created a realistic payphone facade for an abandoned payphone booth in my neighborhood. It had been sitting there for years unattended and rotting away. So I took some measurements, built a facade for the phone and installed it. It actually lasted awhile, untouched, until a series of rainy days came along and ruined it.

The phone booth is still there, back to its dilapidated state. I’m thinking of bringing it back to life once more, yet this time using sturdier, weatherproof materials that will hold up to the elements. I’ve even thought of taking it a step further and installing some kind of solar-powered lighting element that would light up the marquee at night.

Aside from that, I’ve left some of my zines in random public areas, like at the pumps in gas stations or in abandoned newspaper vending stands. It’s always a good feeling to leave them and then come back later to find they’ve been taken. It’s nice to know that my stories are being read and my voice is being heard.

4. Do you subscribe to any magazines?

I had a few magazine subscriptions in the ‘90s while I was going through my Graphic Design major. I sought anything that would provide me with some kind of inspiration and/or knowledge on the processes. I subscribed to Macworld and MacAddict for years. They had a lot of cool tips and tricks for Mac users like myself, and they came bundled with CD-ROMs that would have some fun software and games sometimes.

As I progressed in my major and the classes got more intense, I had to find more sources to feed my creativity. Back in those days, the crème de la crème of art/design mags was Communication Arts, especially their annuals, in which they featured the best graphic design submissions in all the various categories, from product packaging to book cover design and everything in between. Early on in my courses, one of the small computer labs at Cerritos College had a whole shelf full of CA magazines just ripe for the picking, and nobody knew about them—or even cared. That’s how I discovered them to begin with. It wasn’t until later, when one of my design teachers at CSULB mentioned CA magazine, that suddenly everyone caught on. They were super expensive though, beyond the budget of your average starving design student, so whichever issues were floating around became highly desirable and picked through like crows in a cornfield for every morsel of design inspiration we could use for our assignments. The Graphic Design department was pretty small though, and eventually, we could all tell whom had copied their styles from CA specimens. In a matter of time, CA became known as a copout for students who couldn’t come out with their own material.

Despite the stigma, after college, I landed my first graphic design job, and, in my continuing quest for inspiration and ideas, decided to invest in a subscription to CA. It was over $300 a year! It was a decent investment for a year or two, but with the design world in constant flux, they didn’t age well. Eventually I just took the whole stack and donated them to a library.

Looking back on my childhood, I realize magazines really played a big part in my life. Although I might not have subscribed to any officially, the ones I read had a huge impact on me. Growing up in the ‘70s, I used to read my dad’s MAD Magazines, and that’s what nurtured my interest in drawing and illustration. Dave Berg, Don Martin, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragones… those were all my childhood superheroes.

In the early ‘80s, I got into BMX bikes, and BMX Action magazine (later BMX Plus!) was a religious read for me. I made sure to pick up as many issues as I could whenever I did grocery runs for my folks at the local Lucky’s supermarket, where they had a magazine section. They were also a source of rad pics and ads that I would cut out of the magazine with scissors and tape onto my bedroom walls, to serve as a constant fantasy that I would pine upon, hoping that one day I could afford that shiny chrome Redline with anodized alloy Sugino cranks, anodized alloy MKS pedals, fluted anodized alloy seat post, anodized alloy V-bars, Tuff Neck gooseneck, Skyway mags and Snake Belly tires…ah, the things we dream about…

In junior high (1983-’84) I got into computing, and my parents got me an Atari 800XL computer as an 8th Grade graduation gift. After learning BASIC in Computing class, I started dabbling in code and programming. Atari’s BASIC was a little different, so I had to adjust. The local library had Compute! Magazine, which featured Atari and Commodore 64 games that one could code in. It was exciting to know that I could program my own game by hand, but it was ridiculously tedious work. Aside from that, I barely knew BASIC aside from the basics (pun intended), so most of the code was way over my head. I had a good friend who also had an Atari 800XL, and we kept up with each other’s coding adventures. Then, there was one issue of Compute! which featured a special “lunar lander” type of game which was supposed to be super innovative and cool, so we both put our noses into the magazine and started copying the code line by line.

Oh. My. God. Try to imagine 20-30 pages (or maybe more?) filled with lines of code that you had to copy line by freaking line. It took forever! I remember being up in the middle of the night with my eyes completely burning like lava as I typed away. Finally, after what had to be over a week or so, I typed in the last line, breathed a sigh of relief, crossed my fingers, hit return and typed RUN.

Instead of the program working, it fed back all these “syntax error” messages and other bug alerts which I simply couldn’t comprehend. I had no idea how to debug the program because I didn’t even know half of what I was coding. So for me it was a complete disaster. My friend, on the other hand, got his to work, and we played that lunar lander game on his rig. It was actually pretty cool for its time. The physics, gravity and thrust were pretty articulate and realistic.

In 1985, at the height of my “Nu-Wave” career, I started seeing copies of Star Hits on the shelves at Lucky’s and checked it out. They featured articles and song lyrics from Top 10 bands of the time (Duran Duran, Wham! UK, Madonna, etc.)…song lyrics were a big plus because a lot of times, LP album sleeves didn’t have liner notes nor lyrics, so I was totally screwed if I really liked a song and wanted to sing it but couldn’t figure out a line or two. Talk about frustration, man…holding my ear up to the speakers and rewinding a song over and over again to try and figure it out…darn kids these days will never know the struggle. Get off my lawn!

Anyways. Star Hits had a penpal section. Once I joined LA’s mod/ska scene and became a mod, I wanted to hear from other mods and rudies from across the US, so I put up an ad in Star Hits. I think it went something like this:

“Calling all mods and rudies! 15-yr.-old mod in Los Angeles into The Who, The Jam, The Specials, Madness and Selecter seeks other mods and/or rudies to write to.”

Something like that. Either way, I sent it off with my address, and after a couple of weeks, I started getting a ton of mail. All these letters started pouring in, at one point almost like a dozen a day. Even my mom at one point asked me what the hell was going on, when she came into my room with a whole wad of letters rubber-banded together, like it was about to burst. It was such a big stack that it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox, and the mailman had to hand it to her personally. Only thing was, hardly any of them were mods or rudies, or even knew (or cared) what mods or rudies were. What happened was, people must’ve seen Los Angeles in my post and wanted to connect with someone from LA, period. I swear, so many letters started with:

“So you’re from LA? That’s so rad! I come from such a boring town. Everyone here sucks. I want to come to LA so badly…”

I did end up connecting with a handful of modettes and/or rude girls… literally like 4-5 tops, and they were all from SoCal. A couple of girls lived deep in Orange County or the Inland Empire, which was easily at least an hour away from me, but back then you may as well have said they lived across the galaxy, and we never met. I remember tracing the route on my dad’s Thomas Guide and flipping the pages going “Dang man, they’re way out there!” I reconnected with one of the girls on Facebook a couple of years ago, and she’d kept all the drawings I’d sent her. Scenes of mods on vespas, etc. It was crazy. Oh yeah, there was another modette from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada, whom I wrote to for quite awhile too. I wonder what happened to her. Oh yeah, wait. I actually did meet one girl in person, in Downey. A modette. We met up at the old McDonald’s on Lakewood and Florence. She was really nice. It was funny ‘coz her mom was really tripping out on how we were into ‘60s fashion and music…like stuff that she liked when she was a kid. I remember her being relieved that we weren’t into punk and “had mohawks or something weird like that.”

The most bizarre penpal was one girl who’d been a rude girl when we first wrote to each other. Then, out of nowhere, she kinda stopped writing for a couple of months. When she finally got back in touch, she explained that she’d been in a horrible car accident and nearly died. She’d been in a coma the whole time and recovered, and found one of my letters with my phone number on it, so she called me up and asked whom I was. It was weird because she’d lost a big chunk of her memory, including her being into ska and being a rude girl…and being my penpal. So I had to reintroduce myself to her and explain how we met and everything. She laughed at everything I said, and grimaced when I described her as wearing 2-Tone Creepers, mini-skirts and checkered clothes—she couldn’t even believe that she was into that scene at all. It was weird because she had absolutely zero recall, like I was describing a complete stranger. It’s crazy how our brains work…and pretty scary, too. She ended up being into total goth bands after she’d recovered and totally abandoned all that ska stuff. We still ended up keeping in touch though for a while.

In the early ‘90s as I hit college and started clubbing, I was a huge URB magazine fan. Their mags were oversized and chock full of great photography and articles on LA’s urban hip-hop and rave scene. Best of all, it was free. All I had to do was be early enough to pick one up at Tower Records when they delivered them, otherwise they’d be gone by the end of the day. This also got me into other urban fashion and culture mags like i-D, Vice and SPIN.

These days, I guess since I’m drifting over the hill, I’ve started wanting to recollect all my favorite old mags from my childhood. I’ve picked up a few MAD mags and collections on Ebay and Etsy, and am always looking for other issues I remember. Luckily they’re not in super high demand, so they’re fetching reasonable prices most of the time. I still like to write a lot (can you tell?), so I’ve thought about starting up a penpal club or something, too.

5. How exactly does one do the lefty limbo?

(Laughs) It’s funny, ‘coz Lefty Limbo started out as a blog. I started blogging back in 2001, and over the years had all these random blog names on Blogger.com, since they were a free service. I started out with Paramecium Parachute and then later did Tra-La-La: True Tales of the Tragically Nostalgic. Being true to form, they were mostly a collection of random rants and raves, and a lot of ‘80s flashbacks (believe me, if you get me started, I can talk for hours about the ‘80s and how great a decade it was). I got stagnant after a couple years, and then it wasn’t until much later that I decided to start up again, except this time make an “official” blog with my own domain on WordPress. I couldn’t come up with any names, so I just went with my gut and chose something I felt was most reflective of myself: Lefty Limbo. It’s basically a state of being. 1) I’m left-handed, and 2) the gears in my head are constantly churning, coming up with random, artsy ideas every other minute. But do I ever have the time (or money) to do all of them? No. So I’m always in a constant state of limbo. There you have it. I had leftylimbo.com for awhile, but I was never as prolific as I was during my earlier blogging days. Then disaster struck when Bluehost, my domain host, lost all my data and wiped it clean by accident when I was about to renew my site. I was crushed, and never got into blogging again…instead, I got into making zines. If you go to http://leftylimbo.bigcartel.com you’ll see what I got.

So wait. How does someone do the lefty limbo? Piece of cake. First, pour yourself a neat bourbon or two (I suggest Four Roses Small Batch) to fuel up. Wait for the DJ to put on a solid rocksteady or reggae tune, like The Wailers’ Hypocrites. Then, tilt your cap and bring your glass with you to the dance floor. As the bourbon takes effect, let the rhythm take control. Sway to the syncopation of the bass yet punctuate the downbeat. Your steps will be slurry, but that’s the best part. Remember, it’s all in the hips. You gotta get that from listening to a shit ton of Pérez Prado, Tito Puente and other ‘50s mambo giants, plus a heaping portion of rumba videos from Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. But then at the same time, throw in some steazy vibes from the old breakdancing days and rasta watching. When you get it right, you’ll lose yourself in the song, and the room will spin, but hold that glass steady and don’t spill a single drop. If the song’s a heavy hitter, big it up bad bwoy style and make the motion of pulling out your gun, popping some rounds into the air. You must make sure to mimic that recoil or it just doesn’t work.

6. Manny Pacquaio or Narwhals?

As much as I love such odd creations as narwhals and other species this rock has to offer, I’ve gotta give full credit to Manny Pacquiao for putting the Philippines on the map in the modern boxing world. You gotta understand—growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the only asian role model that I—and every other asian kid growing up in the US—was Bruce Lee. And sure, he was a heck of a role model, but he wasn’t Filipino. Fast forward to the 2000s, and here you have a contender that came from one of the poorest slums in the Philippines, and he’s kicking major ass—in the ring, and not in the movies! Holy shit. I’d never really been into boxing growing up, but as soon as Pacquiao came up, I followed all his matches and forked out for the Pay-per-views on fight nights. At his prime, he was incredible. I even made some Pacquiao tribute t-shirts that played upon the filipino accent: “Pacquiao will PAC YOU UP!” I thought they’d be an instant hit with the filipino crowd, but I was only able to sell a handful. I still have a bunch if anyone’s interested.

7. What is the thing/drawing you doodle the most?

There’s a few things I like to draw:

  1. Tubes; long, intricate and intertwining mazes of them, either as structured/mechanical piping or conduits, or as bulbous blood vessels and/or intestinal-tract-like structures with veins and bodily fluids dripping out of them.
  2. Blobby, asymmetrical biomorphic creatures that I like to call “krud.” I always draw them with pustules and various other lesions and/or tumor-like growths and/or mole-like protrusions with little curly pube hairs poking out of them. I like to finish them off with smiley or smug faces. I believe this stems from my fascination with paramecia, amoebas and other single-celled microorganisms.
  3. I’ve always reveled in the raw nature of things; natural imperfections and flaws; the unrefined. I like to take stock photos of fashion models and “pretty people” and reimagine them as characters with pock-marked skin flecked with lesions, moles, scars and wrinkles, often turning their teeth into rotting fangs or the like. The result begs to question—what constitutes beauty and ugliness? Is it reflective of societal norms, or is it truly in the eye of the beholder?
  4. For some reason, I have this recurring habit of drawing a 3-eyed cat. I dunno why. It’s always a fat tabby, even. It’s not like I draw it all the time, but it’s a constant vision of mine that manifests itself every now and then on paper. I’m not sure I know what it even means, but it’s one of my “comfort doodles.”

8. Have you ever eaten Balut?

I have not. I see it as some kind of rite of passage; I believe I can never truly claim myself to be Filipino until I’ve had one. Some day soon, I hope. Practically everyone else in my family has. My dad and uncles are especially fond of them. My dad would wax nostalgic about how great they were to have as a snack at the movie theaters when he was a kid in the Philippines. I can just see it now, hearing an old style projector chattering away some time in the ‘40s and my dad in a crew cut, snacking on a duck fetus while his eyes are lit up by the silver screen. I hear they’re great with San Miguel beer.

9. Which is worse, rollerblading in really short shorts while holding a bag of hammers or LA traffic?

Oh man. I’d never be caught dead rollerblading in really short shorts to begin with, so I’ll take LA traffic over that any day.

10. What kind of shoes are you wearing right now?

Adidas Seeleys. The black and white ones with the canvas upper. These are my second pair; my first pair lasted me like almost 2 years or something and I still wear them, but they’re all beat up and almost have a hole in the sole. They’re the best shoes ever. Adidas is my favorite brand for sneakers.

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