The Red Sea Pedestrians is an unusual name for a band, but then the band itself, composed of five gifted musician/singer/songwriters, is also unusual.
They started as sort of a klezmer band, playing Jewish folk music, but they like to defy definition — not only in genre but in artistic endeavors. One gig might find the group playing alongside a concert band; in another, the band may undertake a “geekish collaboration” of Beatles music with a fellow local band.
According to string player and singer Ian Gorman, the band’s name relates to its klezmer roots and came from the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which the lead character proclaims, “I’m a Red Sea pedestrian and proud of it.”
No one can really peg the band’s sound. “It’s difficult to plug us into one category because we try to combine different sounds — klezmer, Eastern European, gypsy, jazz, American roots and rock,” Gorman says.
Gorman’s wife, Rachel, the group’s clarinetist and a vocalist, agrees. “We don’t confine ourselves to a single type of music, so we’re open to exploring different styles that give space and respect to our creativity,” she says.
That openness to exploration may come from the varying influences and experiences of the band members. Rachel played in a marching band and was a fan of Benny Goodman and other jazz masters. Violinist and vocalist Cori Somers grew up listening to Itzhak Perlman, Midori Got¯o and Motown, jazz and rock. Bill Caskey, singer and double bass and guitar player, was raised in a houseful of instruments with musician parents who came out of the Old Town School of Folk Music tradition in Chicago. Ben Lau, the group’s drummer since 2012, also has concert and marching bands in his past, but cites classical music, Scott Joplin and ragtime piano and the soundtrack of ’80s 8bit Nintendo video games as his musical influences.
“So we have the diverse ability to read music like orchestral musicians, yet we can funk out and improv like rock stars,” Somers says. “This makes us more than just a band.”
This high level of diversity enables The Red Sea Pedestrians to stage performances with large ensembles such as the Kalamazoo Concert Band, the Kalamazoo Male Chorus and Wellspring/Cori Terry & Dancers as well as solo gigs.
The group has a “tendency to attract audiences who have an appreciation for less-mainstream musicians,” Ian Gorman says. “The most common compliment we get is that we simply don’t sound like anybody else.”
“Our fans range in age from the single digits to people in their 80s,” Rachel Gorman adds. “It’s neat to see people from all walks of life enjoying what we do.”
The Red Sea Pedestrians began performing in 2005 in a collaboration at Kraftbrau Brewery (now Old Dog Tavern) with popular local band The Corn Fed Girls. “The original members of The Red Sea Pedestrians had an ongoing joke that we should form a klezmer band,” Ian says. “So when The Corn Fed Girls asked us to be the opening act for their annual Christmas show, we said, ‘Why not?’”
The band’s current five members include two married couples: the Gormans as well as Somers and Caskey. Rachel and Ian became friends in the late 1990s and grew closer by performing together. They finally started dating in 2008. “She hypnotized me with her golden voice, and I wore her down with my horrible jokes,” Ian says.
Caskey and Somers met in 2000 while playing in separate bands and married in 2003. She joined The Red Sea Pedestrians in 2010; he in 2013. Ian Gorman jokingly claims that Somers “stalked us” about getting into the band, and she agrees. “I had known Rachel and Ian before Bill and I moved to Canada for a few years,” Somers says. “When we came back, they were playing in a klezmer band, so I contacted Ian and said, ‘Sooooo, if you ever need a violinist who’s actually Jewish, I would love to play with you guys.’”
Each band member is a songwriter, allowing The Red Sea Pedestrians to perform many original tunes. Most of the songs start with one person’s idea and incorporate strengths of each musician.
In their first decade, The Red Sea Pedestrians have performed in living rooms, rock clubs and concert halls and at Art Hop. They’ve been on stage with The Corn Fed Girls numerous times, including for those “geekish collaborations” on late Beatles music. They’ve written approximately 50 original tunes (25 by current members) and recorded three full-length CDs, two extended-play CDs, and a “warm, smooth” 45-RPM, 7-inch vinyl disc. Two of their albums, The Electromagnetic Escape and Adrift, have been honored as “Roots Album of the Year” at the Jammie Awards, presented by WYCE-FM in Grand Rapids. But what really energizes the band are its performances, which are as different as the feelings they evoke in their audiences.
The group’s annual Halloween Masquerade Ball at Bell’s Brewery “started in 2008 as a lark,” Ian says, but, with crowds of 250 to 400 people wearing ever more elaborate masks, the party has become a much-anticipated community event.
The band performed with the Kalamazoo Concert Band at Chenery Auditorium in February. “What a show,” Somers says, “to share the stage with 80 musicians. And the audience was so receptive. I’ve never had so many enthusiastic comments after a show.”
On a more solemn note, Rachel recalls being approached by a woman at the Wheatland Music Festival a few years ago. “She shared that she had recently lost her mother and that her family played our CDs for her while she was in hospice. I was so amazed that our music, something we love to create, could bring that kind of joy and solace to others. I was very humbled and grateful.”
At the same time, this decade of experience stimulates The Red Sea Pedestrians to cast their dreams into the future. Here, the group’s visions are both pragmatic and wistful.
“I love bringing our music to new crowds,” Ian says, “and that creates opportunities for travel. But we’re all busy people with lots of plates spinning in the air, and the band needs to fit in with the rest of our lives.”
The rest of their lives includes families and day jobs.
Caskey is a youth services librarian for the Kalamazoo Public Library, having worked there since 2008 after earlier stints with libraries elsewhere in Michigan and in Canada.
Rachel is a radiology nurse at Borgess Medical Center, where she’s been employed since 2008.
Somers is a tenured core musician with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and the KSO’s director of educational partnerships, administering outreach programs that annually provide more than 15,000 area students with access to musical artists. She also teaches private lessons at Crescendo Academy of Music.
Both Lau and Ian work in the music industry. Lau is co-owner of Sage on Sage studio and describes his clientele as “varied, with much rock and psychedelic, electronic and hip-hop, psychedelic funk, country funk, amalgamations.” Ian says Lau is many-dimensional. “In addition to being a drummer, he plays country pedal steel guitar and programs beats for the hip-hop group Maraj and has a history as both a punk/ska musician and as a band nerd.”
Ian, like Lau, is a recording engineer. He owns La Luna Recording & Sound. His customers are local bands as well as groups he has never met. “It’s wild these days,” he says. “People send files from all over through the Internet or on a CD or hard drive. I work on it and send it back.”
Somers says, “We all have so many other jobs and interests. Bill and I have two kids to raise, piano and dance recitals to attend, making sure our kids grow up loving the performing arts and going to festivals with us.
“But if I could answer dreamily,” she says of the group’s future, “I’d like to have a great experience recording our fourth album, perform three awesome shows a month and tour Europe for two weeks by 2017.”
Whether their dreams materialize locally or internationally, The Red Sea Pedestrians are, above all, committed to having fun. Fun with large performance ensembles. Fun with The Corn Fed Girls. Fun at festivals and outdoor concerts this summer. Fun at the annual Masquerade Ball at Bell’s. Fun composing songs for their next album. Fun within the group itself.
Ian sums it up: “The most important thing is to make sure that The Red Sea Pedestrians remains fun.”