Returning from the summer break without their founder for the first time, the VoCals decided Brock’s shoes were too big to fill. His position would be filled by two separate people: a president and a musical director. Officers for 1997-1998 were Jamie Fougerousse (president), Ann Lyles (musical director), Geoff Leung (business manager), and David Higgins (treasurer). Matt MacPhail continued his still unnamed job of maintaining the group’s brand identity, keeping the website and history up to date, ordering logo items (including jerseys for new members, sweatshirts, tour jackets, t-shirts, etc.), assisting with tour planning, doing arrangements, buying Mentos, paying royalties for album sales, and anything else that needed to be done.
The VoCals began the 1997-1998 year with auditions in VKC 108 over the weekend of Sept. 6 and 7. Having lost only five members from the previous year’s ensemble, the group returned ready to rock with a strong “core” from the previous year still intact. The decision about whom to invite into the group wasn’t easy: the VoCals auditioned over 70 people in the course of two days, with the caliber of singers even higher than the year before. After rehearsal on Sunday, deliberations began. It was a late night! The group took on five new members–2 women, 3 men–to bring its number back to nineteen. In order of audition, the new members included: Mike Landau, Jonathan Redford, Breanne Martin, Ryan Bolger and Sophia Harang.
Again, it seemed like a shame to turn away so many talented, enthusiastic people who had the potential to be great a cappella singers. Since the idea had been floating around for nearly a year, the VoCals sent Brock Harris the names and phone numbers of about 20 women who auditioned strongly, but didn’t find places in the VoCals. Brock helped them to start a women’s a cappella group, which became known as The USC Sirens.
While the idea of a retreat was proposed to welcome and bond with new members, prior commitments prevented most of the group from finding a free weekend. New VoCals had to prepare quickly to entertain at The Weekender rally less than 3 weeks later on Sept. 27. After the rally, the VoCals headed to Pier 39 where they ate at the new Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. The next afternoon, USC beat Cal, but the traffic and awkward parking situation made the VoCals less enthusiastic about attending the Weekender game in the future. After all, singing at the rally was the fun part. Zachary’s Pizza made the trip to Berkeley worthwhile, and a few VoCals discovered that they could pull off “Ironic” with only 5 people…as long as Michael Villegas sang the solo.
By this time, the SoCal VoCals had obtained their own domain and the website had been switched from a student organization page to www.scvocals.com. This gave the group complete control over content and free of the limitations on university pages. A password protected “Backstage Area” was developed for members only. John Heaton and Ryan Bolger built a server for the VoCals and painted it with a festive red to black gradient.
On November 14, 1997, almost a full year’s worth of preparation and work culminated in the release of the SoCal VoCals’ first album, This Ain’t No Choir Babe. The album was premiered at John Heaton’s private VoCals party, known affectionately as “Sinfest.” Mixing, mastering and duplication of the album had been funded by a group member, and expenses totaled less than $5,000. The VoCals broke even on the album in March, 1998, so the VoCals’ began to discuss plans for a second album.
In December, the VoCals hosted the first of what was intended to become an annual tradition: a large-scale a cappella concert held on the USC campus. President Jamie Fougerousse figured out how to obtain Program Board funding, rent Bovard Auditorium (for the first time) and stage a show comparable to SCAMfest. Dubbed “TroJAM ’97,” the show featured the SoCal VoCals as well as USC’s newest a cappella group, the all-female Sirens, the Claremont Styledogs (a.k.a. “The Claremont Shades”, who briefly changed their name to “The Styledogs”), and the USC Men’s Chorus Hangovers. The turnout was impressive and the audience made it clear that big a cappella concerts were welcome at USC.
No Spring auditions were held in 1998.
Again, the VoCals provided a full day of Valentine-grams to raise money for copying sheet music and other expenses. But, they questioned the cost-effectiveness of the tradition since they were now earning over $300 per gig and a full day of singing to a phone brought in the same amount. Still, it provided a great way to get comfortable with arrangements and forced members to learn other voice parts as they covered for people who couldn’t stay all day.
On February 6th, 1998, college a cappella took a big step forward in Southern California when a National Championship of College A Cappella quarterfinal was held in the region for the first time. The VoCals took the lead and provided an opportunity for groups from the Southwest to compete in their own quarterfinal. The VoCals hosted and won the regional, and advanced along with Stanford’s Everyday People to the Western Semi-Finals held at Stanford on March 8th.
On Saturday, March 7, the SoCal VoCals were asked to sing for Audra’s dad’s 50th birthday party on the set of Friends. Having a gig in Los Angeles the day before NCCA’s at Stanford meant they’d have a very long day of driving on Sunday. But would you pass up a chance to sing for a group of Hollywood and record industry executives while standing in Monica and Rachel’s living room? Didn’t think so.
At NCCA’s the next day, the tired VoCals did not advance to the final round, alas, but winning the regional represented the culmination of a year-long goal on the part of the group to advance past the VoCals’ “rookie” first round performance at the NCCAs in January 1997.
Following the NCCA’s, the VoCals might have enjoyed a party at Stanford, but they had something more important on their minds: the next morning, they had a 7am flight from LAX to Chicago for the very first SoCal VoCals Spring Break tour. They drove through the night to make it back to Los Angeles in time.
Over Spring Break 1998, the SoCal VoCals took their show on the road with HIT THE ROAD ’98. The tour began somewhat unceremoniously, with the VoCals snowbound in a hotel in Kansas City, unable to fly to Chicago in time to make it to Urbana-Champaign, IL to sing with the University of Illinois X-Chords. The group found ways to amuse themselves for the night, though, and the rest of the tour went more smoothly. Over the next five days the VoCals sang with Indiana University’s Straight, No Chaser and the Boston University Dear Abbeys at Bloomington, Indiana; Loyolacappella at Loyola University Chicago; and 58 Greene at the University of Michigan. Fond memories of the trip include great hospitality provided by parents of Mike Laundau and Matt MacPhail, a trip to Hell (a town in Michigan), re-enacting a scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the top of the Sears Tower, doing a kick line and singing “Come On Eileen” while sitting on a long bench at Union Station, and staging a fake mugging downtown to tease anyone who thought Chicago was more dangerous than Los Angeles.
The first SoCal VoCals tour served as an important bonding experience for a group in its terrible two’s — still determining who should be doing what, establishing an identity, and figuring out how much work the talented but overextended members could possibly handle. Members agreed, in hindsight, that a retreat should be a priority at the beginning of every year.
May 1998 graduates included Matt MacPhail (still without a real title), Ann Lyles (Musical Director), Jamie Fougerousse (President), Geoff Leung (Business Manager), Michael Villegas and founding member Kelda Nelson. This meant the VoCals lost every officer except Treasurer (David Higgins) all at once.
Geoff Leung had been such an enthusiastic business manager that the VoCals had requests for appearances over the summer of 1998. So, the members and alumni who were still in town gathered to rehearse and perform at a few gigs. They enjoyed seeing each other over the summer, and decided that maybe in the future, there would be enough alumni around to form a “Summer VoCals” group. After all, the fun didn’t have to stop at the end of the school year, and neither did the income.