Music: Born into Bands

Surf's down, but The Maladroits' familial musical legacy continues

Jared M. Holder

It's not the Partridge Family, but Ron White (center) has lovingly guided his sons (Sky, left, and Eli) towards a life in music.

What do MOTH and Foxy Shazam! have in common aside from exclamatory band names, busy tour schedules, impressive recordings, CEA wins and generally being two of the most talented and successful Cincinnati-based bands today?

DNA. And like the bands, brothers Eli (MOTH bassist) and Sky (Foxy keyboardist) White are very different individuals, but they have many shared characteristics. Both are accomplished scholar-athletes, extremely genteel characters, and each was launched into a music career as a teen via their dad's Surf Rock band, The Maladroits. Having pressed both brothers for sordid details about growing up in a "musical family," I found the truth is more Ozzie and Harriet than The Osbournes.

"My dad taught us the things he was good at when he was younger, sports and music," explains Eli. "Sky and I were both all-American Track and Field athletes for many years growing up, traveling across the USA going to meets. It kept us out of trouble."

Sky agrees, adding, "I think that where most families picked up talents in fishing or something, we just all happened to love playing music so that was just a natural bonding ground."

Thus the boys were playing gigs at the age most kids are tossing ball with dad, or more likely, trying to avoid him. But there's no avoiding Ron White. A straight shooter with a relaxed demeanor who speaks in such a way that everything he says makes perfect sense (no doubt owing to his 18 years as a philosophy professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph), he is one of those guys that all parents aspire to be, setting his kids' moral compasses while at the same time passing down his passions.

"I did spend a lot of time with them, and I'm proud of that," he says. "In my generation, fathers worked all the time; I was lucky to get a job where I didn't have to. So I coached them in their sports and played music with them, whereas my dad worked three jobs."

The Syracuse native started playing guitar after hearing the Surf stylings of The Ventures, but his focus shifted to Bluegrass after attending EKU on a track scholarship, and later grad school at UK. It was also there met his wife, Tamina, an upright bass player.

"Tam and I played a show the day before Sky was born," Ron laughs. "We've had some famous Bluegrass and Swing players in our basement, some of them so good, I just laid my guitar down."

When Eli and neighbor Brett Davis expressed an interest in learning instruments around age 12, Ron turned them on to the Surf Rock that inspired him as a kid, teaching them "Wild Weekend" and "Pipeline." This was about the time Pulp Fiction came out, so Surf music was hot. Not quite ready to be the next Surfaris, the teens absorbed enough to start a Punk band, and suddenly the "basement jam" torch was passed, with Eli establishing something of a "West Side Warner House" in the lower level of the White residence.

"We would have around 150 to 200 people all moshing in my basement," Eli recalls. "West Side Punk Rock was pretty kick-ass with the kids back around 1997."

But like kudzu, the Surf influence kept creeping. Ron, Eli and Brett formed The Maladroits in 1998, adding an extra guitar and sax to fill out the sound. The band developed a repertoire quickly, and a reputation even quicker, playing shows ranging from parties to bar gigs and festivals. Even Brett and Eli's other high school band, The Buckaroo Bandits, played "Western-themed Surf Punk."

Meanwhile, Sky was quickly becoming the family's premier virtuoso on the piano, or as he says, "the only instrument I've ever felt is me."

"After a few years, his first teacher said there was nothing else she could do with him," Ron recalls. "He was 8. So we took him to a Jazz teacher. He's kept studying all the way up to college."

Of course, when he was ready, his spot in The Maladroits was waiting. So at 13, he began learning the ins and outs of playing in a band, and also developing his combination of theory and spectacle that he's drawn on to develop his outlandish Art-Metal style with The Labjackets, Death Jazz All-Stars and now Foxy Shazam!

"Sky is gifted, things come easily to him," says Ron. "But you're not going to out-work Eli. He learned all of MOTH's songs before showing up at that audition."

Now that the boys are busy with their own musical pursuits, the 'Droits have stood down, but the White house is still rockin.' Ron and Tamina have started The Blarnacles, a Celtgrass project fulfilling their desire to play the bouzouki and hammer dulcimer. And touring bands that play shows with MOTH or Foxy are welcome to crash in that storied basement.

"There is a certain humor in playing bookstores and nursing homes that I'm always going to miss," laments Sky. But bigger things await the brothers, no doubt owing greatly to their well-balanced upbringing.

"As a father, what else can you do but try to leave a couple of good human beings behind on Earth?" the philosopher poses.

MOTH and FOXY SHAZAM!, along with Langus, play the 20th Century Theater Saturday.

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