Brian Gomez, Apollo Bebop’s bespectacled bard, fondly recalls his band’s last live show almost a year ago as if it were yesterday.
The hip-hop quintet from Santa Ana known for infusing elements of jazz into its electric performances headlined the Friday “Fight Club” promotional night at Que Sera in Long Beach. A lively crowd turned out; the band left everything they had on stage not knowing it’d be their last show for a long while.
By the following weekend, the coronavirus pandemic scattered crowds and shuttered music venues. Live music, as we knew it, sounded only a deafening silence in its wake.
“It was bittersweet,” says Gomez, reflecting back. “We left on a high, for sure.”
But the beat goes on. And if jazzy musicians know anything, it’s how to improvise.
Apollo Bebop had an all but finished album in tow. They readied to take it on the road last summer, only to have the slew of shows already lined up be cancelled. Still, the band never thought twice about holding back the release of Wanted!, their sophomore effort.
“Why wait?” says Gomez, better known by his stage name Brian to Earth. “People want music. Even though there’s a lot of things going on politically and socially, people need light at the end of the tunnel.”
Work on the self-recorded, self-produced album started in October 2019, back when the band just wanted to craft a handful of new singles to bolster their live sets. Gomez, guitarist Dominick Cruz, drummer Donovan Cruz, bassist Christopher Trimmer and saxophonist DeAndre Grover headed into the studio when the creative process began to outgrow its original intentions.
“We’re still experimenting with how we capture the sound that we’re known for at our live performances,” says Gomez. “How can we translate that into our production?”
The finished product provided an answer with the polished arrangements and deft rhymes audiences have come to expect from Apollo Bebop’s signature sound, a throwback to hip-hop’s golden era but with a greater indulgence in jazz instrumentation than those sample-heavy times.
Slinky bass lines, shuffling drum beats and a breezy but frantic saxophone sets the tone on “Dangerous (Watch Out!),” the album’s kick-starting track. Arriving at a moment gripped by sickness and suffering, the song slaps like a cautionary tale it was never really meant to be when Gomez first penned it two years ago.
“Be on your toes, you know?” he says, now. “The world is a dangerous place and it can swallow you whole if you don’t watch your step!”
Apollo Bebop took its own advice after too much idle time. By summer, Gomez devised a socially distant tour up the Pacific states, so as to showcase the band’s skills against iconic backdrops like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. He pitched the idea to fans on social media who warmed to it and pledged support in the form of money that might’ve otherwise been spent on cover charges in better times.
The rapper sardonically dubbed the tour, “The Only Thing We Could Really Do at the Moment.”
All the musicians took Covid tests that came out negative prior to piling into two cars for the experiment. The conviviality of traveling together felt familiar enough. When arriving to the Golden Gate Bridge, Portland’s Cathedral Park, Seattle’s Gas Works Park and other stops along the way, the band set up their equipment, which included a camera. In Seattle, the spectacle attracted a curious crowd of onlookers—far from the improvised stage and physically distant from each other, of course.
“When I was performing again, it was like ‘whoa, this is kind of weird,” says Gomez of the tour. “I haven’t done this in a while.”
“It’s important, in life in general, to move with the tide. If you fight the current, you’re going to break some bones.”
The added logistics of pulling everything off translated into a more stressful, but still fun experience. Apollo Bebop uploaded videos of their performances in October, including a cover of “The Light” by Common.
Heading into a new year, the band is looking forward to reuniting with crowds in person, especially since they performed live at least once a week around Southern California before the pandemic. Until then, Apollo Bebop stays busy. They just released a music visual for “Better Recognize” and are scheduled to appear online at LibroMobile’s 3rd Annual Literary Arts Festival later this month.
“It seems like things aren’t going to be the same when we come back so we might as well adjust,” says Gomez. “It’s important, in life in general, to move with the tide. If you fight the current, you’re going to break some bones.”
In other words: ride the beat and stay in the pocket.
For Apollo Bebop that may look like prioritizing recording new music in the months to come until live shows return. And for any online gigs in between, all it takes is a little bit of improvisation to find a way to leave everything they’ve got on the stage, just like in Long Beach a year ago.
“We’re like a run and gun crew,” says Gomez. “We’ve done this so much, it’s pretty much second nature.”
Apollo Bebop performs at LibroMobile’s 3rd Annual Literary Arts Festival, Jan. 23, 6:30 p.m.
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.