JC Hopkins Makes Musical Theater His 'Biz'ness'

Former power-pop rocker resurfaces with a swing-jazz musical.

JC Hopkins is not the kind of guy who lingers too long at the fair.

Over the course of his eight-year recording career, focusing on his guitar

talents, Hopkins has switched styles more often than children's television-show

personality Mr. Rogers swapped sweaters.

This time, though, former Flophouse frontman Hopkins may have switched to

the right style at just the right time.

It so happens that vintage swing sounds are the current retro rage. It also

happens that Hopkins' latest endeavor is a musical titled "Show Biz'ness" -- a

musical steeped in the sound of swing jazz.

To hear Hopkins tell it, the move to musical theater was nothing more than a

logical next step.

"It's been in my brain for a while. I did a lot of touring last year, and while I was

on the road, the songs kinda put themselves in a certain order and started

telling a story," said Hopkins, 30. The songs he was referring to were a set of

tunes honed at his weekly gig playing piano in a San Francisco dive bar called

the Rite-Spot Cafe.

"I enjoy playing in the corner of a bar, while people are chattering away,"

Hopkins added.

"Show Biz'ness" was co-written with San Francisco-based writer Pete

Simonelli, who used the songs composed by Hopkins as an outline. Simonelli

said that penning the bulk of what Hopkins classified as "high drama, low

comedy" took a little bit of boozing, some fighting and a whole lot of writing as

the two hashed out their vision for the play.

"We butted heads quite a few times," said Simonelli, 28. "Ultimately, it was pretty

rewarding. Over two long nights, we really got to know each other a whole hell

of a lot better. The first night we went at it until about 4 a.m. That night, we had a

little whiskey, a little beer and we got through the first act."

Previously best known for his guitar work, Hopkins cited the versatility of the

piano as his reason for setting down the ax and settling in to tickle the ivories for

his latest venture.

"Piano serves as a percussion instrument as well," Hopkins said. "You can bang

out a meter while playing a bassline with another couple fingers, with one hand

playing chords and also a melody.

"You have all these different voicings going on," he added, "and the transition to

passing chords seemed a little freer. The whole thing together can create a real

atmosphere, and you get a song where the music fits the sentiment of the song."

Set in a beer-soaked roadhouse, "Show Biz'ness" revolves around Serge, a

classically frustrated musician stuck waiting tables (which he's not good at)

instead of singing (which he is good at), and the trouble that stems from his

perpetually stunted state.

Hopkins first appeared on the music scene in 1988 after sharing the stage with

former Plimsouls leader Peter Case at a songwriters' showcase. Case later

produced the eponymous debut of Flophouse, a San Francisco trio fronted by

Hopkins.

Over the course of five LPs, Flophouse displayed a variety of facets, including a

political bent and a critically heralded power-pop attack. Most recently, Hopkins

released his solo debut, the subdued Athens by Night, which included

collaborations with Barbara Manning, formerly of the SF Seals, and violinist

Carrie Bradley (the Breeders) on songs such as

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Hopkins,_J_C/Superglue.ram">"Superglue" (RealAudio excerpt).

Despite the popularity of the recent swing revival, Hopkins said the tunes

played by the JC Hopkins Heptet that accompany "Show Biz'ness" draw more

inspiration from the craftsmanship of legendary pianist and composer George

Gershwin and the innovative stylings of Thelonious Monk and Charlie "Bird"

Parker than from any modern-day swingers.

Initially slated for a three-night run in June at the intimate Cafe Du Nord in San

Francisco, "Show Biz'ness" will reappear there for several July dates. Simonelli,

in the meantime, is looking toward future productions of the play.

As for any new projects, Hopkins said he's open to whatever comes next. "I've

learned a lot about music. From folk, I learned how to tell a story in a song.

When I was in a rock band, I learned how to create some noise and how to

control that," Hopkins said. "It's exciting to me to keep learning new things.

Every time you do, it takes you to a new place you've never been before."