Alex Karalekas’ keys sit between us on a table at the Black Dog Tavern on a gray day in April, the day before he is set to leave for California to do a two-week shingling job and catch a little late-season powder on his snowboard. Of the seven keys, one catches my eye: plastic top, with an inch-long piece of squared metal instead of the typical “teeth.” I recognize it instantly as a surfboard key, used to remove fins from a board — and my hunch proves correct. This key has been around the world, from British Columbia to Nicaragua, Samoa, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, and more.
A West Tisbury native, Karalekas claims he has never lived anywhere other than Martha’s Vineyard, although he has spent winters in Vermont, Utah, Southern California, Indonesia, Barbados, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico, often in pursuit of surf or snow.
Karalekas, a shingler by trade, is probably best known as the founder and organizer of the popular off-season Chilmark Potluck Jam at the Chilmark Community Center. He is also a singer-songwriter, with about 20 years and multiple U.K. tours under his belt.
Karalekas’ rebellious nature may be expressed more quietly now than it was in his punk days in high school, but it is an integral part of his personality, and something he partially credits his father, Teddy “Kap” Karalekas with. “My dad’s a f______ rebel, man,” he says of the perennial shucking contest winner and Jack Nicholson lookalike. “He’s a certifiable mothershucker, for sure. I got big shoes to fill.”
“He always had good values,” Karalekas says of his father, for whom he wrote the acoustic tune, “Kaptain’s Tune,” several years back. Although the lyrics are slightly embellished, the song pays tribute to the gifts passed from father to son, including fishing, simple Island values, and appreciation of nature.
As a single parent, Teddy didn’t have time to be with him all the time. Though he hired babysitters, Karalekas remembers having a lot of time on his own, in the woods and fishing. “I kind of raised myself to be the best parts of him,” he says. “I’m only half-Kap, you know? But I’m really happy to have that half that I took, ’cause I do my own thing.”
Although his roots run deep on the Vineyard, Karalekas says he sees himself spending less time on the Island in the future, without breaking the tie completely. “If I could live the ultimate life, my dream,” he says, “I would tour and come home to host potlucks. That would pretty much be perfect. I want to tour and maintain contact with what I’ve built here with that event.”
The Potluck Jam, approaching its 10th anniversary, was created by Karalekas, along with Willy Mason and Brad Tucker, with significant help from Chilmark selectman Warren Doty, who helped with the necessary permitting. The potluck is an off-season open-mic style showcase at the Chilmark Community Center, providing a much-needed venue for Island musicians and performers, and equally necessary entertainment for an all-ages audience in the cold and often boring winter months.
Although the event started as a platform for Karalekas himself and friends to showcase their original music, “it turned into something way greater, for me,” he says, “which was to provide a place for others to perform original music and be heard, and it really became that … The reward in seeing some of the younger performers try out performing at the potluck, going on to become budding little songwriters, is worth everything to me as far as why I continue to do it.”
“Alex is one of those people [who] at his core, is … a heart and soul, bleeding musician-type person,” says Jess Phaneuf, who hosted Singer Songwriter nights with Karalekas at the Pit Stop in 2012. “But what’s great about him is that he has that … doer in him, too. And that’s why it was great to have him think to start the Potluck Jams, because he’s capable of handling it every time.”
The next potluck, the last for the season, is scheduled for May 12. Karalekas hopes to liven it up a bit by getting “a bunch of bands and group stuff going on” for that event.
As the potluck winds down and before the Dock Dances get started, Karalekas is focusing on his own music.
He has a new song, “Wake Up,” mastered by Phil DaRosa and released on YouTube on April 15. The beat-heavy electronic sound is a significant change from his previous acoustic material, although “Everywhere,” released about a year ago, indicates the direction Karalekas has been going with his sound for the past few years.
Karalekas first started writing music for America’s Choice, a punk band he started with friends in freshman year of high school. He later evolved to a folk music style partially inspired by a Grateful Dead concert he saw shortly before Jerry Garcia died. From that point, he says, he went further back in time to find the music he liked to listen to. Most recently, Karalekas’ style has significantly morphed again, into an electronic style he describes as “lyric-based synth-wave.”
This latest shift was cemented by a performance he saw by the group Washed Out at the San Miguel Sound festival in Mexico, in 2014. Organized by Islanders Sam Decker and Katie Plass, the festival featured Lorde and islander Willy Mason, among others. That Washed Out show “changed my DNA,” says Karalekas.
The change is easily recognizable in “Wake Up,” which features heavy synthesizers, dreamy, danceable beats, simple lyrics, and a positive message:
Wake up and look out into the world and all the beauty surrounding you
Just take a second to let it in, life is a miracle me and you
All the hate they try to put on us can never take our love
We are sisters and brothers and all we need is each other
Although the lyrics are gentle, the song itself is one you could imagine trail running or bombing down a mountain to — upbeat, intense, and impossible to sit still to.
This philosophy of positivity, appreciation for the natural world, rejection of technology’s takeover, and community and cooperation, can be seen not only in Karalekas’ other music, but in his community involvement and the joy that being a part of something bigger brings him.
“Freedom is gratitude,” he says. “If there’s one thing I’ve found and believe in most, it’s that giving is the most rewarding way to exist.”