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Working Musicians: The Chop Tops Open Tour At The Blank Club, Speed Toward 20th Anniversary

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Rockabilly Road Warriors: The secret to The Chop Tops’ success is a good, old-fashioned American work ethic.

Rockabilly Road Warriors: The secret to The Chop Tops’ success is a good, old-fashioned American work ethic.

No one in The Chop Tops has a day job. It’s been that way for the Santa Cruz-based “revved-up rockabilly” outfit since sometime in 2007. But even though they’ve been doing little else besides playing and writing music for the better half of a decade, you’ll never hear Gary “Sinner” Marsh, the band’s sole founding member, describe himself—or anyone else in The Chop Tops—as “rock stars.”

Rock stars, Sinner explains, are flown around the country, or else driven in cushy charter buses, and are otherwise “pampered out of the gate.”

“‘Working musician’ is how I like to say it,” Sinner continues. “It’s a serious living. It’s not for the squeamish.”

Ever since the singer and drummer took his group pro, they haven’t let up—even as they’ve lost members and taken on new ones. The Chop Tops’ upcoming tour, which kicks off this Friday at The Blank Club, will hit 25 states in around 40 days. Sinner estimates the band will play just shy of 40 gigs when all is said and done.

That’s roughly a third of the number of shows they play on a light year, Sinner says, explaining that The Chop Tops keep up a rigorous schedule of between 150 and 200 shows a year. “If you’ve built up the momentum, why throw it away?”

Sinner’s work ethic certainly jibes well with the aesthetic he has worked to curate as the de-facto leader of the band he started 20 years ago. With their well-groomed pompadours, cuffed jeans and boots, and affinity for hot rods, The Chop Tops radiate a tough, individualist, working-class American vibe.

Which may explain why The Chop Tops and other rockabilly and psychobilly acts have consistently done well in San Jose.

The band’s guitarist, Shelby Legnon, says he isn’t sure exactly what has kept the rockabilly scene so strong in San Jose, even as other Bay Area scenes have gravitated toward other sounds.

“Growing up in San Jose, I would have never guessed there would have been a big rockabilly scene there,” Legnon says. However, he is convinced one exists. Rockabilly and psychobilly have always drawn sizeable crowds, he notes. “And it still carries over to this day.”

The newest addition to The Chop Tops, upright bassist Josh Liem, has a theory. “Maybe because San Jose has always been pretty deep rooted in the car club and car show scene,” he says, recalling stories his dad and his dad’s friends used to tell about cruising the streets of San Jose in their hot rods.

He speculates that even as the vibe in San Jose has shifted from The Valley of the Heart’s Delight to Silicon Valley, much of that Americana pastoralism and car culture—and by extension, rockabilly—has remained dear to many in the area.

Of course, it may not be so complex as all of that. After all, The Chop Tops have been playing San Jose for two decades and have built a well-deserved following.

“We’ve played The Blank Club since it was a club called Fuel 44 in the mid-’90s,” Sinner says. And considering he’s modeled his routines on rockabilly and early country giants like Hank Williams and Elvis, it’s little wonder The Chop Tops have picked up a few fans along the way.

“Their craft had to be really good,” Sinner says of his idols. “It wasn’t a huge pyro and tech show to distract you. It was all about the music.”

And, at the end of the day, it’s the music that keeps The Chop Tops grinding away at their grueling touring schedule and writing new music.

“Music has always been with me,” Sinner says. “I love it. I love playing it. We’ve been really blessed and really fortunate that our weirdo take on this roots-based music has stuck.”

 The Chop Tops play The Blank Club in San Jose on Sept. 5. More info.

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