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January 6, 2010

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American a cappella band of brothers

IMAGINE this: By day you're a typical businessman, working the nine to five. Your nights and weekends, however, are spent sharing a stage with nine other guys just like you - performing a cappella songs in small venues while recording an album under Atlantic Records.

That was the double life for the members of Straight No Chaser, an a cappella choir of 10 men who got together in 1996 during their college years at Indiana University.

They say their pursuit of music was experimental at first. Dan Ponce even jokes that they got together because they "wanted to sing to sorority girls."

"It was an interesting balance for that first year," says Ponce, who formed the group, which performs with eight of its original members.

Charlie Mechling, to laughs from the other group members, recalls how he earned a lot of frequent-flier miles jetting between his job and rehearsals.

"I was leaving Friday night from my life in Vegas, coming to New York, recording, rehearsing and then taking a red-eye back," he says. "I felt like a businessman who didn't have any benefits or paycheck."

In college, some of the guys studied music, but not all of them. Others focused on mathematics, journalism or biology, among other subjects.

"We were there connected because we all loved a cappella singing," Ponce says.

The group first attracted attention when the CEO of Atlantic Records saw on YouTube its rendition of "12 Days of Christmas," which has been viewed more than 10 million times.

Once signed, the group recorded a Christmas CD, "Holiday Spirits," released in September 2008. Then came another holiday album, "Christmas Cheers," which has a studio version of "12 Days" and was released last month.

"Our first album is your more traditional, gather-round-by-the-fire, relaxing, very soothing album," says member Seggie Isho. "'Christmas Cheers' is where you loosen up your tie, and it's the party album."

But more than just creating CDs good for stuffing Christmas stockings, the singers hope to be played on iPods offseason, too.

"Come January 1, I am done with Christmas music," Mechling jokes.

While on a North American tour, which wrapped up in December, the group performed holiday tunes as well as hit songs from the Billboard charts. In August it released "Six Pack," a six-song EP with covers from Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" to Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." The group says it's working on a pop album to showcase how it can be more than a "Christmas comedy act."

"Some of us have been concerned that people will only think of us as a Christmas group, and that's not the case at all," Ponce says.

Crossing over to Top 40 radio with an a cappella sound and style will be a challenge - but one the group says it's up for.

"A cappella music still has yet to really cross to the mainstream where we can be on a Top 40 radio station," Ponce says. "That's bold. I think we can do it, but we gotta go with baby steps."

The singers say they don't always agree with one another and a tour bus full of that many guys can be too much.

"A lot of sprays of Febreze (odor remover) going on," Isho says, laughing, while Ponce adds: "We're thinking Febreze should be our tour sponsor."

They say they are confident they won't end up disbanded like many musical groups. They say their musical brotherhood is too tight to break.

"We fight like brothers, we make up like brothers, but at the end of the day there really is a strong friendship and camaraderie that you don't see in a lot of modern pop groups," Ponce explains. "We weren't put together by Atlantic Records, we weren't put together by Simon Cowell ... we just did this ourselves."


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