by Patrick Williams
Jake Kouwe started playing the accordion when he was 14, and within a couple of months, he began performing at recitals. His teacher taught the other children piano. He admits that the other children were more talented than him, with their Disney musical songs. But he was always the star of those recitals.
“I would get there and manage to get a little way through ‘In Heaven There Is No Beer,’ and all the old people at the nursing home would wake up and start cheering,” he said.
Jake, 29, of Chardon, Ohio, describes himself as a better entertainer than musician. He said he came to that realization when he first started on the accordion, and the thought process has influenced his approach to show business ever since. If he’s improvising a song cover now, he says, it doesn’t matter if he misses a note or can’t sing like the original performer, as long as he’s able to make the audience sing. And he does.
As the The Chardon Polka Band’s accordionist and singer, and the only remaining member of since he started the group in 2003, Jake has found that his musicality, ambition and personable nature are useful tools for coming up a a performer. But those tools work best in collaboration with those of the band’s other current members. Tenor saxophonist and flautist Emily Kouwe, Jake’s wife; and banjoist, guitarist and harmonica player Mike Franklin bring technical finesse from their formal music backgrounds, while drummer Joey Dahlhausen creates energies that bleed in from his time spent in metal and punk bands. What’s more, all four members agree that their shared sense of humor and fondness for improvisation add to the likability of their singular style of polka and performance.
As they sit in the band’s practice space in Jake and Emily’s basement, the couple, who married in May 2015, speak excitedly with Dahlhausen of the signature medleys the four-piece plays at the end of shows. They say that after they run through their regular set, they perform an improvised 45-minute to an hour and a half set of cover songs and traditional polkas.
Jake provides an informative example of how the transitions go down: The band might be playing Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” and Jake will yell to Emily, “Liechtensteiner!”, cuing her to play the “Liechtensteiner Polka.” Jake will then turn to Mike and say, “We’re gonna play Garth Brooks!” Then the two wait for Emily to finish playing the “Liechtensteiner Polka,” and next they follow into another Brooks song.
The chemistry is there, Jake says. When he and Franklin, 27, played on the street, he says, Franklin would know when he was about to switch to another key based on the way he nodded his head.
Because Jake doesn’t usually write or perform songs that are completely structured, the band has figured out how to cue each other, consciously and subconsciously, Franklin says weeks later over the phone. “There’s something to the whole nonverbal, quasi-psychic thing that happens with musicians,” he says.
People who pay close attention at shows seem captivated by the nonverbal cues, says Emily, 28. They’re impressed, she says, although sometimes the musicians “mess up royally” and the audience thinks it’s funny.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Jake says, “because we may play 40 songs in the medley and butcher 10 of them, but it doesn’t matter because we got enough of that hook of that stupid Taylor Swift song that was on the radio, right, that they liked it and they thought it was funny.”
The band’s incorporation of popular music into their sets has increased since they performed at The Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland’s “Rock Week: Decade by Decade” in April 2015. For Tuesday of that week, ’90s night, they learned about 20 songs from that decade, including Hanson’s “MMMBop” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” Songs from that night’s setlist are now a fixture in the band’s shows, Emily says.
With other new songs, the band will usually just learn the hooks and jam on them for a period of time that ranges based on the audience’s response, Jake says.
“We’ll just improv, and sometimes it won’t go well and sometimes it will,” he says. Then he and his bandmates laugh.
The Chardon Polka Band released World War Polka, their fifth full-length album, March 28. It departs in style from the group’s earlier albums that were stricter interpretations of polka, Jake says. The band released Pirates, Women, And Beer in 2009, A Fistful of Polka in 2013, This is Oktoberfest: Live With The Chardon Polka Band in 2014 and Polka Round The Christmas Tree in 2015.
For World War Polka, the band recorded polka variations on popular songs, such as Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and The Who’s “Squeeze Box.” (“Squeeze box” is a nickname for an accordion.)
World War Polka contains seven covers and five originals. Out of the originals, Jake has songwriting credits on four of them. He says he wrote the songs with his father, Phil Kouwe, who acts as an additional member in the band. Jake then took the songs to Emily, Franklin and Dahlhausen to ask for their input, and together they made further decisions, perhaps adding an introduction here or dropping a bridge there.
These collaborations resulted in the lighthearted songs “Punks At The Bar” and “You Can’t Drink Beer In Outer Space,” and the comparatively serious “Death By Polka” and “You Can’t Take My Polka From Me.” On the latter two songs, Jake addresses his love for playing in the traditional genre.
Some of World War Polka traditional polka covers include “Julida Polka,” “Friendly Tavern Polka” and “Tic Toc Polka.” Frank Yankovic, “America’s Polka King,” performed all of them. Yankovic lived and performed in Cleveland and developed a signature “Cleveland Sound,” which Dahlhausen says largely influenced that of The Chardon Polka Band.
“Frank Yankovic kind of blended all the communities that came into Cleveland, and then he came up with a new style, the Cleveland style, and we’ve kind of branched off from there,” he says.
Jake says he can tell apart different polka styles, such as German versus Polish, while Emily says she can only tell a couple apart by the way they dance and Franklin says he doesn’t listen to much polka at all.
Jake’s interest in polka dated back to when he first began playing accordion. He started The Chardon High School Polka Band with his friends when he was a junior at Chardon High School. At the time, he says, it was a little more than a project, and then evolved into a hobby.
Upon graduating high school, Jake says, he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He took some classes at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, and worked a series of jobs, such as in the pizza and auto restoration businesses.
Over the last 13 years, The Chardon Polka Band has welcomed in about 25 actual members, not including guest musicians who would join in when the mood struck, Jake says.
Emily and Franklin joined the band in the summer of 2009, which was the same time Jake and Emily began dating.
“The band wasn’t my main focus in life,” Jake says, of the six years prior to that summer. “I mean, I always took it seriously and we had our reoccurring gigs every year and we played out a few times a month, but then a switch went off the summer we started dating.”
Emily, whose maiden name is Burke, graduated with a degree in music education in 2009 from Westminster College, a liberal arts school in New Wilmington, Pa. She then worked for four years as a music teacher in the Greenville Area School District in Greenville, Pa., commuting about an hour every day from Chardon.
Compared to the other members, Emily says she brings more of an analytical approach to the band. When she wrote her World War Polka track “Polka Round Your Sweetheart,” she came to the other members with musical notations. “That’s how I function, is all my tunes are written out,” she says. “Nobody else’s are.”
Franklin also comes from a formal music background, having studied operatic vocal performance at Columbia College Chicago for a year. He says he dropped out because he realized the difficulties college graduates, especially those with art degrees, face when searching for jobs. He’s always paid attention to the particulars of music, but his thoughts on performing it have changed since he joined The Chardon Polka Band.
“I’m enjoying making people happy rather than operatic—you make them feel something—it’s kind of different, whereas I can just give people joy,” he says. “It took me awhile to adjust and switch gears to that.”
Although Franklin actually doesn’t sit and listen to polka music, he says he enjoys playing it. He’s loosened up to the genre over the years, and it puts smiles on people’s faces.
Similar to how Franklin calls his banjo-playing style a product of ignorance to how polka banjo is usually played, Emily says he writes instinctively. “He just wakes up with the song,” she says.
Franklin says he uses various methods to write music, but the only times he’s written polkas, he woke up with the tune. Those songs, “Bring Me More Beer” and “I Want to Polka You,” ended up on A Fistful of Polka.
“You can find these moments of just pure creative mojo, and you apply everything that you learn and you study about music, to that,” he says. “Those are my favorite moments musically.”
Dahlhausen substituted three years on bass and drums, but officially joined the band in 2014 as drummer, taking over the spot formerly held by Paul “Pops” MaGooch. Dahlhausen played bass and drums in punk and metal bands, including Crucible Steele, Fighting with Anakin, Scrying Rapture and Sichorde.
The musicians in The Chardon Polka Band took note of the difference in how Dahlhausen approached the genre. “They said I was bringing a much heavier sound to it, or technical sound,” he says. To exemplify this, Emily refers to his double bass drum pedal, something that is popular for its use in metal.
Jake says “Drummer Joey,” as he is known in some circles, is many people’s favorite part of the show. Time and time again, he impresses an elderly man by fulfilling the man’s requests to play The Surfaris’ “Wipeout.” And his drum solos have become a staple in shows.
Dahlhausen writes songs, too. He wrote what became “The Krampus Song,” the only Chardon Polka Band original on Polka Round The Christmas Tree, after Jake and Franklin, Jake says, “scribbled” in new lyrics. The song evolved from an improvisation with the Krampus of Cleveland, and pays homage to the Christmas devil of German folklore.
“We just kept layering these tracks over it, of us smacking metal and drums and stuff and pulling chains around,” Dahlhausen says.
The Chardon Polka Band performs multiple nights a week and has traveled across the United States, as far west as New Mexico and as far east as Connecticut. Jake, Emily and Dahlhausen work solely as members of the band, rather than at other jobs. Franklin, who works at a local pizza shop, makes his own hours to adhere to the schedule of the band.
Although Jake began taking the band seriously in the summer of 2009, he says he started booking and prioritizing more shows in the fall of 2011, after he was severely injured in an automobile accident.
When a truck T-boned Jake in October 2011, he tore his aorta; both of his lungs collapsed; he cracked his pelvis in three places, and he cracked his skull, hip and shoulder. For about two and a half months, he was bound to a wheelchair and, because of his cracked shoulder, he couldn’t play the accordion for most of that time. He wasn’t allowed to sing or even talk for awhile. He moved in temporarily with his parents in North Carolina, and texted and emailed Emily, who was still working in Pennsylvania at the time and would be until she left her job in 2013.
“When I spent two months in a wheelchair, all of a sudden that next year, we had shows all the time,” Jake said. “And it was because I didn’t have anything to do, so I sat in front of a computer and emailed people about work.”
Since then, The Chardon Polka Band have built up their fan base to the point where they’re giving offers to have fans join their “POLKA ARMY” to build up correspondence, and they tell inside jokes with fans at a growing number of their shows.
Now, in the basement, Jake has moved closer to Emily, and together they tell the story of telling a story.
“We have this song where we tell pirate jokes in the song,” Jake says.
“They’re always the same jokes,” Emily says. “There’s like ten of them.”
“And they’re always, always the same jokes,” he says.
“The people love it,” she says.
“So instead of saying, ‘Hey, why did the pirate make a great vocalist? Because he liked to hit the high C’s,’ everybody knows I’m going to say that, so I just go, ‘Hey, why’d the pirate like to hit the high C’s?,’ and then I’ll go, ‘Oh, dang it,’ ” he says.
“He’ll mess up on purpose and then they’ll think that’s funny, because you’ve told this 700 times,” she says. “Why can’t you just get the joke right?”
Depending on who you ask, The Chardon Polka Band is already famous. The Reelz Channel aired a show about them called Polka Kings. It was supposed to highlight the goings-on of the band, but all of the band’s current members say the show was forced and not an accurate representation of who they actually are.
For the “reality TV” show, its producers gave the band scripts about fake shows and activities, and ordered Pops stick around for filming after he had already left the band.
“It’s this weird spot in our lives, and we don’t do anything with it anymore because it got cancelled,” Jake says.
While they may not be on television anymore, The Chardon Polka Band is made up of entertainers, through and through, which is why they ardently respond to song requests and alter set lists to match venues and audiences.
“We can do anything if it means that we’re making money and getting a job,” Jake says. “(We say,) ‘Yeah, we can do that,’ and then we just figure it out.”