After nearly three decades of leading Slapbak through lineup changes, opening for artists from Snoop Dog to Bootsy Collins, and standing strong in one of Orange County’s few funk bands, founder Jara Harris was ready to lay his passion project to rest. On December 6, 2017, a structure fire consumed Harris’ home and studio, taking with it nearly all his life’s work. While his wife and keyboardist—who at the time was eight months pregnant—made it out safely, Harris’ instruments, gear, and personal belongings perished. Ironically, it was the loss of his home and studio that sparked a future for Slapbak.
Harris booked a string of dates for Slapbak in January including a gig at Stillwater in Dana Point on Saturday, January 20, and Mozambique in Laguna Beach on Saturday, January 27 that were originally billed as farewell shows. However, the bassist and frontman is rethinking the purpose of the upcoming performances and reassessing the future of his band.
“It’s interesting that we had to lose everything for me to have this reborn passion for Slapbak. Even with everything that was going on, I had this calm feeling before the fire was all the way out. We were safe. And I just kept replaying everything that happened.” Firefighters arrived at Harris’ building in the 1500 block of East Edinger in Santa Ana around 9 p.m. to a business complex engulfed in flames. Prior to their arrival and before the fire had spread, Harris had been across the street for dinner. He walked home to see smoke in the air, and as he approached the building his wife and mother-in-law were on the balcony. Once the source of the smoke became obvious, Harris urged them to run downstairs – as he ran upstairs in an attempt to save their belongings.
“Once we figured out what was happening, I ran back around the building like a madman telling everyone to get away, including my wife and her mom. As everyone was running downstairs, I couldn’t help myself, I started running upstairs,” Harris said.
Harris had a lifetime of music and mementoes in his loft. One of five siblings, his parents had relocated from Compton to Mission Viejo in 1969 when Harris was just six months old. Raised in a musical family, he was playing drums in the family band by age four and has spent the rest of his life performing. When he saw his current home and life’s work in jeopardy, his instinct overcame his common sense.
Harris entered the smoking studio to grab his laptop and external hard drive, where some of his film and various other recent projects were stored. In that moment he realized the severity of the situation, with the windows making noises reminiscent of thunder and the sounds of shattering glass resonating from nearby units. Harris gathered what he could and ran back downstairs.
“I have so much respect for firefighters. The heat coming off that building, the whole top floor was on fire,” Harris said. “The Element [car] was parked right underneath the building.” Harris said. “I just ran, I think I’ve watched too many movies, I jumped in the passenger seat and slid over and drove. I got it out and I’m driving it now.”
In the days after the fire Harris and his wife, Alyse, began processing what happened, and learned that a GoFundMe had been enabled to support their family and help restore his studio. Funds were being raised to aid with replacing items ranging from baby bottles to bass guitars, and to help them relocate to a new home where they can begin raising their child, Jack, who was born on December 23. The outpouring of support was monumental for the Harris family – and a major factor in rethinking Slapbak’s future.
“I didn’t even consider the thought of people helping,” Harris said. “It blew me away. Friends, family, people we’ve played with over the years and the local people that reached out – they were saying they were happy to help because Slapbak had given them some kind of happiness. To have the good you try to put out come back to you, it’s really overwhelming.”
The irony of Harris’ experience was furthered by the fact that just days before the fire, he was on tour with folk singer/songwriter Donovan Frankenreiter playing drums for benefit shows in Sonoma to support those affected by the Nuns Fire. During the benefit shows Harris had spoken with people who had lost everything, never for a moment anticipating he’d be returning to Orange County to greet a similar experience. “I was talking to people in Sonoma thinking, man, that’s so heavy,” Harris said.
“I was so thankful we were far away and nowhere near the wildfires. In my head, I was thinking, this is so sad. Never could I imagine that two days later I’d be standing in front of my home watching thirty years of my life and music go up in flames.”
Since Slapbak’s inception in 1990, Harris fought to have their funk edge remain sharp and prevalent in their sound, and signed his group with Warner Brothers in 1992. During an era when OC bands including No Doubt and Sugar Ray were making their way from local to national stages, Harris struggled to convince labels that funk was viable. And while his peers were groomed to offer a more commercial sound that would grow them into household names, Harris felt Slapbak’s sound was unabashedly rooted in funk, which arguably led to their eventual departure from Warner Brothers.
However, Harris’s love for Slapbak persevered as he continued to evolve his lineup, book shows, and eventually form his current band, a rocking group of funkateers comprised of longtime rapper/vocalist, T.J. Quake, vocalist, Alicia Contreras, guitarist, Adam Smith, and drummer Jesse Conlee. With the Harris husband and wife duo rounding out the lineup, and their upcoming shows looking more like the spark of a new era versus a farewell mini-tour, Slapback could be set for a revival.
The group’s soul scorching blend of original material is met with dirty funk mashups that blend The Commodore’s “Brick House” with Led Zeplin’s “Heartbreaker” and James Brown’s “Sex Machine” with Rage Against the Machine’s “Testify” – the former lovingly titled by the band as “Rage Against The Sex Machine.”
Building on his renewed momentum, Harris is also in the process of launching StruggleNation.com, with the Facebook page live since 2015 and the new website set to go live in late January. The site will be a forum for musicians to communicate when they’re in need of items after a tragedy, and a place for those who can lend a helping hand do so. Whether or not Slapbak will rise from the figurative and literal ashes remains to be seen, but if Harris’ newfound enthusiasm is any indicator the he’s refusing to give up and positioning Slapbak for even more funk.
“We lost everything but people lifted us so high that we could barely see the things we lost,” Harris said. “It’s been a month and I’m still trying to catch up on thanking everyone for their love and concern. We see so much negativity on social media, but we got a reminder that people are still full of goodness and love. We’re so appreciative to everybody… I kind of feel reborn with music, and everything.”
Slapbak performs at Stillwater in Dana Point on Saturday, January 20, and Mozambique in Laguna Beach on Saturday, January 27.
If there’s music or art involved, she’ll take a chance on it.