by Mike Conroy
You may have heard of the East Coast’s original 80s tribute band, The Reagan Years, but did you know that founding member Sy Seyler lived in Montgomery Village for almost a decade? Before putting together the original lineup of band members and playing shows all year long, Sy enjoyed life as a Village resident, choosing the area for many of the same reasons residents have been here for better part of 50 years.
Seyler says that moving here from Pennsylvania seemed like the right fit. He enjoyed the quiet family setting and feeling he got from Montgomery Village. His home was very convenient to work (the short commute sure beats long hours on the road for some of the band’s current gigs), and it was convenient to everything that was “city-like”—food, shopping and attractions.
Although Seyler is a music enthusiast, he never made it to any of the Sunday concerts in South Valley Park. Among his favorite parts of the Village, though, he recalls the green, grassy fields that made for a “comfortable living area.” He was especially fond of Lake Whetstone, noting the natural setting and wildlife. “I really liked the late spring, when you saw the geese with their goslings and the baby ducks swimming in the lake. That brings up good feelings, good memories for me.”
Seyler added that as the years went on, he saw the addition of soccer fields near his Village home. He was impressed with the Village’s dedication to recreation and open space, noting that having areas for sports and outdoor activities is important, and not something that every neighborhood had at the time. As his family grew and needs changed, Seyler moved out of the Village, but stayed in the local area, slowly focusing more on music, until recently turning The Reagan Years into a full time job.
In the beginning, though, it was much different. Reagan Years co-founder Karen Ellison and Seyler were playing original music in a band together in the mid 1990s. After a music business seminar in New Orleans, where the band was hopeful for a record deal that didn’t pan out, the two knew it was time for a change. Seyler recalls, “If there was ever a chance for a record deal, that was it. But it didn’t come through, so we changed modes and starting playing covers.” Seyler, a drummer, and Ellison, an accomplished keyboardist, knew they needed to capture a unique sound in order to showcase Ellison’s talent.
“90s music, the popular music at the time, was just too dark, and nothing had a keyboard in it. It was a lot of low bass and dropped ‘D’ tuned guitar driven music. So the keyboard was essential to us choosing to play 80s music. Plus, I really liked the music,” says Seyler. “Karen is a really talented player, so this definitely gave her a chance to shine.” With that in mind, they set out to find some other band members and make a name for themselves. Speaking of a name, Seyler says that in an early brainstorming session of iconic 80s moments and ideals, Ronald Reagan’s infamous words “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” kept echoing in his head. Many things in the 1980s could be summed up by Reagan’s era in office. “The Reagan Years just kind of rolled off my tongue. I introduced the name, and with little discussion, we knew we found our band.”
The Reagan Years found a local following, and eventually a national following, as word through corporate events helped spread their name. The band recently celebrated its 20th Anniversary, combining all the past members and the current lineup to play a special concert. Over the years, the singer and bass player roles have changed a few times, but Ellison and Seyler have been the foundation the whole time. “Life gets in the way of a cover band, but we keep rolling,” Seyler says.
After 20 years of entertaining crowds across the country, the original dream for the band has expanded enough to be a full time proposition. “In my dream…we started not thinking it would be like this. I would never have thought that I could leave my day job and become a professional musician in a cover band. I would never have thought I’d be playing to thousands of people. Now companies pay for us to travel and play for them—to recreate this era of music. I never thought I would be playing for our Armed Forces overseas as part of a military welfare tour. What the band has become has far exceeded my dreams,” says Seyler. In a roundabout way, though, the original dream of having fun, playing music and having it be appreciated still holds true.
A large part of The Reagan Years’ success falls to word of mouth advertising and social media. As part of some dot.com and telecommunications companies in his “other jobs,” Seyler understood the importance of connecting digitally and using technology. As a band, though, The Reagan Years has always been about connecting with the audience, seeing new places, meeting new people and being approachable. “I like to look into the audience and make eye contact with folks. I like seeing how that makes them light up, how they’re enjoying what we’re doing. When they’re dancing and singing along, they look at the band, and when you make eye contact, they put on more of a smile. That interaction is a real cool chemistry, and we like that. We engage and interact with the crowd, not run and hide during breaks. We love to share the music with folks.” Playing over 100 shows each year certainly helps share the music.
And Seyler says band members like to share the music offstage as well. Seyler has a line of signature drumsticks with Vic Firth, and Ellison has been featured in Keyboard Magazine. Guitarist Glenn Riley has authored several guitar instruction books, as well as teaches guitar at Music and Arts in Montgomery County. Bassist Jody Lewis has been on stage sharing the music with bands and fans since the late 80s, and singer Stephan Scott Lay is an accomplished dancer and theatrical performer. The combination of these talents make The Reagan Years a connected, diverse band committed to showing fans of all ages what it means to rock.
Seyler notes about current music that “a lot of it seems ‘typed-in’ where it highlights just a singer, and not the band, instrumentation or production of music. You see the end product, but not the how and why it gets there. With us, you see the whole band performing—there’s an art to it. We want to be inspiring to people, make them want to get up and play. The Reagan Years is glad to be a part of that aspect of music.”
“The Reagan Years is excited to play in Montgomery Village this year. We have a rotating schedule at Union Jack’s in the Rio Plaza, but we hear from local folks all the time they wish they could share the experience with their families. This ‘all ages’ show provides an opportunity to do that—for families to share the music with each other.”
Check out The Reagan Years during a special MV 50th Anniversary Concert scheduled from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 23 at the Apple Ridge Recreation Area, 10101 Apple Ridge Road. This free family show is appropriate for all ages. Bring a blanket or chairs and get ready to rock! Food vendors will be on site; watch the next issue of the Village News for a discount coupon.