Zoot Suit Zoologist
Cherry Poppin' Daddies singer Steve Perry '04 on his rise to fame—and its downside—his biology degree from the UO, and his support of the cluster hire initiative
During swing music’s bold and brassy revival in the 1990s, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy sang about how you and me and a bottle makes three; the Brian Setzer Orchestra jumped, jived, an’ wailed; and Eugene’s own Cherry Poppin’ Daddies… sang about race riots in Los Angeles during World War II.
Definitely different, but different is to be expected when your singer and songwriter is a punk fan with a molecular biology degree.
Steve Perry, BS ’04 grew up in Apalachin, New York, and came to the University of Oregon in the early 1980s not with dreams of following in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra, but rather the rapid strides of Steve Prefontaine.
“I was on a run with my cross country coach and we were at the top of a mountain coming down, and talking about where I was going to go to school,” Perry said. “He said, ‘Have you considered the University of Oregon? There’s good running if you want to continue to run.’ I thought, ‘That’s something I could do,’ though I really had no idea what I wanted to do in life. I had lots of things I was interested in. I got the catalog, and in my mind it was the most exotic place; it held a mystique for me.”
Perry’s father encouraged him to head out of state to study, so Perry enrolled at the UO and took a train—yes, a train—3,000 miles to Eugene to become a Duck.
“The moment I got on the train, my life began,” he said. “Before that I was stuck in this grey world, and then all of a sudden everything was open.”
Perry studied chemistry at the UO, learning at the feet of some of the industry’s most prominent names.
“I took genetics, and Frank Stahl taught me,” he said. “They didn’t even have a book. I remember him saying, ‘We don’t have a book because things are happening so fast.’ I found out later that the people in the department were damn near Nobel Prize-winning people. They wrote the books. That’s George Streisinger; Aaron Novick—he worked on the Manhattan Project.”
(For our non-science oriented readers, Stahl proved that each strand of DNA is a template for the production of a new strand; Streisinger, namesake of the UO’s Streisinger Hall, was the first person to clone a vertebrate; and Novick, who worked on the Manhattan Project, was instrumental in building up the UO’s Institute of Molecular Biology and is considered one of the founders of the field of molecular biology.)
A talented runner, Perry was nevertheless not quite up to the UO’s standards and did not make the team; but, as the saying goes, when one door closes another opens, and when the gates to Hayward Field closed, the stage door blew wide open.
Perry met Dan Schmid on his first day on campus—“He had bleach blond punk rock hair, he looked like Billy Idol, and he had a skateboard, and I said, ‘I’ll get to know him’”—and the two began playing music together. Perry soon chose bands over chemical bonds, and dropped out of school. He and Schmid formed the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies (a term they got from an old race record), and the seven-piece band played its first show under the new moniker at the W.O.W. Hall on March 31, 1989.
“My idea was, what would have all of the elements of what I’m interested in?" Perry said. “Make people dance, reach people inside, and be musically sophisticated.
“My mom sent me this Smithsonian collection of jazz for my birthday one time, and I was not into jazz at all. One day I listened to the cassettes that she sent me, and it hit me like a ton of bricks: what if I do this and merge this with punk rock, what would that be? That would be like nothing I’d heard. What I wanted to do was take Black Flag and mix it with swing. Heavy, and with real energy. Dark subject matter, put that in there with the swing groove and see what happens.”
What happened was the band’s popularity quickly grew, and shows at Taylors and the W.O.W. Hall gave way to shows in Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco. They were in the Bay Area so often that in 1994 San Francisco Weekly named them the best unsigned local band, despite them actually being based 530 miles north in Eugene.
During that time, the Pacific Northwest was emerging as a major player on the music scene. Black Flag, Soundgarden, the Meat Puppets, and Everclear were some of the many bands to perform shows in basements across Eugene, and you never knew who you might run into at a gig. During a Soundgarden show, the opening band’s drummer was heading out to buy beer for everyone. “I gave him some money for beer,” Perry said, “and he said, ‘I’m going up to Seattle to be the new drummer for Nirvana.’”
Yes, the musician heading out on a late night beer run in Eugene was none other than soon-to-be Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl.
Due to the success of Swingers, starring Jon Favreau
and Vince Vaughn, fans demanded more and more swing music, so the
Daddies hastily put together a compilation album of their
previously-recorded swing songs, with a few new numbers thrown in for
“I remember being a Doubting Thomas about it,” Perry said. “I thought
it was silly to put out a swing record. It had been dead since the
forties. I chose it because I like it musically, but one of the things
that drew me to it was that it was a lunatic choice.”
One of the new songs recorded was a four-minute-long number called
“Zoot Suit Riot,” inspired by the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s where
sailors attacked zoot suit-wearing Mexican immigrants, considering them
unpatriotic for wearing flashy clothing while the country was at war.
Perry called the song a clarion call for being the new kind of person
that he envisioned in his head—someone who aligned oneself with
To say the album, Zoot Suit Riot: The Swingin’ Hits of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, was recorded on a shoestring budget would be putting it kindly.
“At the end [of “Zoot Suit Riot”] I say, ‘I think I’m about ready to sing it,’”
said Perry. “That's from the first take. I said to the recording
engineer, ‘I think I’m about ready to sing it.’ He said, ‘It sounded
pretty good, come in here and listen to it.’ I did and I agreed with him, so we moved on to the next thing because we didn’t have much
Captured on tape, the line 'I think I'm about ready to sing it' was left in the recording as a shared joke between the band and the engineer.
Even with a compilation swing album in their catalog the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies refused to stick to any one genre, and continued playing punk, swing, and ska. Due to their horn section they frequently toured with ska bands, and it was on one such tour that they were discovered and signed by Mojo Records.
Almost as an afterthought Mojo decided to license and release Zoot Suit Riot: The Swingin’ Hits of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, despite the fact that the band had already been selling it for a year at that point. At a meeting with the head of the label, “Zoot Suit Riot” was chosen to be the lead single simply because the album was named after it, and because it was the first song on the track list. Thinking their next album would be ‘the big one,” the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies put the swing compilation out of their minds and returned to the studio.
“I was making the record that was going to be the one people cared about, and started getting calls in the studio,” Perry said. “I thought, ‘I can’t get anything done if you don’t stop calling me,’ and they said, ‘You have to listen to me. Your record is being played on K-Rock in Los Angeles in heavy rotation. You need to put down whatever you’re doing and get on a bus and start touring.’”
After a show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, the head of Universal Records, partner company to Mojo, met the band backstage and told them he thought he could sell a million copies of the album.
“I remember feeling, ‘Oh my god he’s thinking crazy thoughts, we’re going to disappoint him,’” Perry said. “Millions of people are not going to buy a swing record in 1998.”
They were both wrong.
The album went double platinum, selling more than two million copies; the single went to No. 15 on Billboard’s Modern Rock charts and was parodied by “Weird Al” Yankovic (in a nod to the band's own inside joke at the end of the song, "Grapefruit Diet" ends with the line, "I think I'm about ready for a Quarter Pounder with extra cheese"); and the video—one of the most-requested on MTV that year—was nominated for a Video Music Award.
Gigs in Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco gave way to concerts in Europe and Asia, as the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies became the biggest band in the worldwide swing revival. Beloved across the globe, in a cruel twist of fate the one place Perry struggled to receive adulation was back in Eugene.
“I did not enjoy fame,” he said. “It was alienating. I’d come back home and walk down the street and people would yell at me and tell me I sucked; they’d write on the walls ‘Steve Perry’s an asshole.’ It was lonely.”
Fortunately for Perry then, the music industry is fickle and constantly changing. By the time their next album, Soul Caddy, was released, the mainstream swing revival was in its last days. Compounding the problem was the fact that Soul Caddy was more of a “traditional” Daddies album, with multiple musical styles alongside each other; one reviewer wrote “Covering five or six genres on one album is just insane,” seemingly unaware that that’s exactly how the band built its fan base in the first place. The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were released by their label soon after, and exhausted from a decade of constant touring, went on hiatus.
That left Perry with free time he hadn’t had when playing 300 shows a year—free time he dedicated to pursuing his other passion: science.
“I thought, my degree is something I’ve left undone,” he said. “One day I woke up and walked down to Oregon Hall, and said, ‘This is stupid, but is it possible for me to reenroll and get a biology degree?’”
Reenroll he did, and after a 20-year hiatus from the University of Oregon he went from being Steve Perry, world famous crooner, to Steve Perry, molecular biologist.
“I went to each of my professors and said, ‘I’ve been out of academia for a long time, and I’m pretty sure my brain looks like a lacrosse ball with no crevasses in it,” said Perry. “I’m older and dumb, I’m going to ask dumb questions and I don’t know if I can hang with this, but it’s an idea I have and if I can't hang I swear I’ll drop out and you’ll never have to see me again.”
Perry’s self-description as “dumb” was quickly undone at the UO. He graduated in 2004 with a molecular biology degree, and soon followed classmate Mark Currey BS ’04, MS ’14—whom he met in a graduate-level course on evolutionary developmental biology—to work in the Cresko Lab in Pacific Hall.
Launched in 2005 by Associate Vice President for Research William Cresko, the Cresko Lab aims to understand how evolutionary form and function evolve at the molecular, cellular, developmental, and genetic level. “The basic thing we’d like to understand is, ‘How does evolution occur?’” Cresko says.
Perry spent the better part of a year in the Cresko Lab, analyzing slides beneath a microscope and entering information into a database. He, Cresko, and Currey analyzed embryo development in Stickleback, a fish known for undergoing rapid evolutionary changes whenever populations become isolated from each other in different types of water.
“Mark showed me the ropes,” Perry said. “I’d go through slide after slide getting the data and marking it down. This one has this growth, this one has that growth. I’d go through the slides, thousands and thousands of them.”
The particular cells they studied are the ones responsible for making cartilage and bone, and the work taking place in the Cresko Lab could, one day, have tremendous implications for humankind.
“The work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, with the understanding that the basic biological knowledge is going to be useful,” said Cresko. “It allows us to take genetic information to better understand a system, and once we better understand that system, other folks including ourselves can take that information to address issues in human health, for example osteoporosis, arthritis, and a number of other degenerative bone diseases.”
The results of the research conducted in 2005 are set to be published in 2016, making Perry one of an extremely small number of people in history to write a multi-platinum album and co-author a scientific paper.
“Every once in a while I jokingly mention a graduate degree to him, but he’s got other things going on in the world,” said Cresko, who described his former researcher as a good student and a good, conscientious worker in the lab.
Those other things are, once again, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. Last year the band released Please Return the Evening—the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Salute the Music of the Rat Pack, their fourth album to be released since Perry’s year in the Cresko Lab. Well received by critics and fans alike, Please Return the Evening is the first album in a trilogy the Daddies are releasing to pay homage to the music that inspired them. Following their tribute to the Rat Pack, they are gearing up to release The Boop-A-Doo, an album of songs from the Cotton Club era of the 1920s and 30s; after that will come another album of original material and then the final act in the trilogy.
“I feel like I haven’t quite written what I want to write yet,” said Perry. “I haven’t hit it out of the park yet. I’m getting better and better, so I’d like to follow those ideas through. Get some good songs before I’m done, play music with my daughter, and be there for her.”
Perry also very much intends to be there for the biology department too, and is trying to use the connections he has made to help Cresko and the department fill their cluster hire. The Integrated Analysis of Biological Networks cluster initiative will position the university to answer fundamental questions about the nature of living systems, which could lead to novel solutions for medical problems.
“There’s a growing appreciation that the next phase in the life sciences is moving from taking apart the biological systems and understanding the component parts, and moving to understanding how these component parts are moving together,” Cresko said.
The cluster is focused on the intersection of biology and mathematics, applying cutting edge mathematical processes to understand how and why biological interactions occur and how they function in networks. Think of the human genome as a car: we know what the parts are; now we want to know how they work together and how to repair them when the car breaks down.
“The stuff they’re doing is right on the forefront of what needs to get done,” said Perry, who uses Twitter to keep up-to-date on the latest developments and periodically e-mails Cresko to discuss biology trends. “I just hope I live long enough to see this data get crunched together. We have more data than we know what to do with right now.
“I came to them saying whatever I could do to get the cluster hire to happen, I would do. Everybody has a cause, and science is my interest outside of music. That’s what I bang the drum for. I would like to see the UO remain at the forefront. If they could get a supercomputer and a few professorships along the math/biology boundary, more guys like Bill, they could go through these massive amounts of data.
“I didn’t stay with biology, so I’m not a biologist, I’m just a fan. But whatever they need me to do, I’ll do it. If they need me to stack boxes or run some gels, I’m there. What I really want is them to get this cluster hire through. When that happens I’ll pop some champagne, because what they’re doing is great and they’re great guys.”
For more information about the UO’s cluster hiring initiatives, click here.
Click here for more information about the Cherry Poppin' Daddies.