Gary James' Interview With Steve Kareta Of
Changes In Latitudes

Steve Kareta is Jimmy Buffett in Changes In Latitudes. He's followed Jimmy Buffett from New England to Florida, from New York to Las Vegas. He loves Jimmy Buffett so much he decided to put his own band together in tribute to the music of Jimmy Buffett. A nine piece band, Changes In Latitudes tour the U.S. and beyond! Steve Kareta does the honors.

Q - Steve, your life almost mirrors Jimmy Buffett; the traveling, the flying, the boat, the book deal. Is that by design or just coincidence?

A - I have to say it's coincidence. A lot of my likes were formulated way before I became a Parrot Head. I've been a pilot for years. My father was very much into boating. So, I think it's in the blood there. I've been playing music forever. It just kind of came together in this happenstance. It was a total piece of luck that I started in the Buffett band and kind of fell into it.

Q - What were you doing before Changes In Latitudes?

A - Well, my main way of making a living for many years was doing sound. I was a sound engineer. I worked for a couple of large touring companies and did either front of house sound or system tech for Joe Cocker, 10,000 Maniacs, even like down to Paul Anka. So, I spent a lot of time on the other side of the mixing console.

Q - How did you get that job? Is that something you studied in college?

A - No, certainly not. I stumbled into it. The short story is, you kind of learn by experience. I was in other bands, just playing in clubs. Sometimes we'd have a band open for us. They'd need an engineer and just for the fun of it, I did it. I kind of built a little studio at home to start with, just to record my own material. So you learn by turning knobs. The only real way to learn it is actually by doing it. As you get going, you learn what you need to know. Little by little you start learning the tricks of the trade and the ways to get it to make it sound like the way you hear it in your head.

Q - The other part is getting through to the people who are in charge of hiring for these headlining acts.

A - Another fortunate thing is the sound company that I ended up working for, which was Sun Sound Audio at the time, was based out of Northhampton, Massachusetts, which was near my home. I was doing sound for another act, an opening act on one of the 10,000 Maniacs tours and the company that was providing sound for that tour happened to be based out of Northhampton, found out I was living close to where they were. They said "when you get off this little trip, come and see us. We can always use another pair of ears." And it was my job. Right place, right time I guess.

Q - You could still be doing sound for acts today, couldn't you?

A - Absolutely. I miss mixing terribly. I still have a lot of friends in the industry. If I wasn't playing, that's probably what I would be doing.

Q - So, what is there about Jimmy Buffett that you like so much?

A - A lack of pretense is the biggest part of it. I've always joked that the guys in Metallica, when they go on vacation, dress like me or Jimmy Buffett, but I don't think Jimmy Buffett ever had to dress like Metallica. (laughs) And nothing personal against Metallica 'cause I like Metallica. I like all kinds of music. I like old Black Sabbath, Yes, Genesis. But I can pretty much be me when I step out of the car, onto the stage or when I step out of the car into the mall. I don't really have to go that far to become the character. The Parrot Head thing is nice. I enjoy the music from a variety standpoint. Buffett's band, The Coral Reefer Band, are amazing musicians and good friends. They've played on some of our CDs. They're very talented people. A lot of people mis-characterize Buffett as "Margaritaville" and three chord material, but there's so much more material. The guy has so many CDs and albums out and there's such a depth of material that that's what kind of kept us sane over the ten years Changes Of Latitudes has been together, that we're not just playing "Margaritaville" over and over again.

Q - To the public who doesn't know all that much about Jimmy Buffett, Jimmy Buffett is "Margaritaville".

A - Absolutely. He's kind of a cult figure in what we call in the Parrot Head world "The Great Eight", the eight songs that fans who don't really know Buffett, know. He does "Brown Eyed Girl", "Come Monday", "Volcano" and "Cheeseburger". Those are the songs everybody knows. So, it's good because he is accessible to the general public. But there's also so many deep cuts that when we play exclusive Parrot Head events, we can play so much different material, so much other stuff that's it's really enjoyable as a musician to play this stuff.

Q - Have you met Jimmy Buffett?

A - I have not met Jimmy. I have met the entire band. So, I haven't had the opportunity. I was given a couple of opportunities to meet him and they were always inopportune times when I knew he would be busy. I just don't want to do the five minute handshake meet-and-greet. I'm not really star-struck having worked the circle for so long. I'll meet him in a bar or a studio sometime where we can actually talk about airplanes and boats rather than "Oh my God! I'm meeting Jimmy Buffett!" (laughs)

Q - When you first started this tribute band, what kind of reception did this band get?

A - It was actually amazing, which is kind of why we're still doing it. The short history of the band is, a friend of mine got married and asked me to bring my acoustic guitar over to his backyard party after his wedding and just play some music and entertain people. I had a pretty small repetoire at that time. Some of the stuff I felt I could sing and pull off was Rolling Stones and Jimmy Buffett. So I just started playing it. In their kind of drunk frenzy, they came to me and said "Well, you kind of look like him and kind of sound like him." I thought, well, maybe there's a gig here. I called some friends of mine who were in the tribute circle because it was a circle I was completely unfamiliar with. I had a friend who was actually in the Elton John tibute band at the time. He was going through some personal stuff where he needed some time off and his band pretty much became my band for the first year. They just learned the Jimmy Buffett stuff and we took it out. I figured it was just gonna be fun for a little while and see what happens, but it took off. It was very well received. I thought, OK, maybe we've got something here and so I put together my own band at that point. It's just been ten years. I keep waiting for the shoe to fall. I keep waiting for the bookings to fall off and it gets bigger and better every year. It's gone from being a little, local Western Massachusetts band to playing from Maine to Barbados. We play for Disney. It's kind of taken on a life of its own and I'm lovin'it.

Q - Was it expensive to put Changes In Latitudes together?

A - (laughs) It's stupidly expensive. It's kinf of two-fold. One is the fact that coming from the background I did, which is all the big theatres and shed shows, the big mainstream talent shows I was doing sound for and working on, you see the value of a production dollar. People don't want to come and see a four or five piece band playing Jimmy Buffett. I should re-phrase that, if I'm gonna do it the way I want to do it, I want to give them a lot more for their dollar. There are a lot of good bands out there playing Buffett material. A lot of four or five piece bands. Many of 'em are good friends of ours. There's a bunch of bands from all over the country that do it really well, and that are fun, fun bands. But when I started the band I saw how many bands there were and I was like, "I don't want to do the same thing. I don't want to compete. I don't want to be another one of the bunch." And so I looked around and there are very few that are doing the full-blown giant tribute show. And so I said here's a market that appears to be relatively un-tapped. So, rather than competing with the fray; I don't want to play clubs until two o'clock in the morning most of the time. I really don't. I want to be doing the seven to ten shows in a theatre somewhere. And so that's what we did. We designed the whole thing before our very first show. We had a backdrop and a lighthouse and surfboards, as much as we could on a limited budget. We could work to make it as big of a production as possible. Every year we try to add some new stuff and make the production bigger and bigger, to make it more worthy of an international tribute show like you see 1964 The Beatles and there are a couple of really good Eagles tribute bands; Hotel California and Tequila Sunrise. So I want to be on that level. I want to be a Vegas show. I want to bring it to your town. Give people a reason to spend the extra money to come to the theatre as opposed to spending a $5 cover charge at the local bar.

Q - Does that mean when Jimmy Buffett makes a change in his show, you follow?

A - To some degree.

Q - If he wears a different hat or sunglasses, you have to go out and get that hat and sunglasses.

A - Yeah. There is some of that. I'm probably not as maniacal as some tribute bands are. The guy that does the Elton John tribute band is phenomenal. Greg Ranson from Bennie And The Jets is really good at it. He's got the exact costumes. Fortunately because Buffett is who he is, he doesn't put on much pretense either. His costume onstage for lack of a better term is a t-shirt, a pair of shorts, a pair of flip-flops and a couple of sweat pants. It's not really that difficult to re-produce in terms of that. He changes backdrops every year. We have a couple of different backdrops that we use for our staging. But I can't keep up with him financially if he's got a different one every tour. It's difficult to keep up with. This year he's using all LEDs and back light screens, so I can't even go there just yet, although we are working on getting a video guy in for this next coming season or two to start doing Margarita vision screens like he did last year.

Q - How many Jimmy Buffett tribute groups are there?

A - I would say between fifty and a hundred. In the range of Buffett tributes, but Buffettesque bands, there's easily a hundred. There are four or five piece bands, six piece bands all over. In the range of actually trying to do the full-blown tribute theatrical show, I would say probably less than five or ten. So, in the country that's a pretty small number.

Q - Your bio says "Changes In Latitudes is to Buffett what Beatlemania is to The Beatles." That's a lot to live up to, isn't it?

A - I try. (laughs) It's more an analogy. Again, there are a lot of bands out there that do Buffett music. There's not so many that try to do the full production. That's really kind of where we are. Beatlemania, 1964 and all those kinds of bands, those guys have been around twenty-five years. They know their stuff. They've got the route down. We're kind of new to the zone here, but I see the production. I see this is what you have to give people for the money they're paying to come and see your show. And that's what I try to offer. We're not just a band that gets up and plays Buffett songs. That's the difference.

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