Friday, April 2, 2010

Duff Interview: Sean Flowerdew of Pama International

Editor's note: We could give you a bit of background on Sean Flowerdew (pictured at far right) of Pama International, but it might end up ruining the joy of reading his answers to our long list of questions. So, here's all you need to know going in: Sean is the keyboardist and songwriter for this hugely successful UK ska/reggae/soul band--and he's been a mover and shaker on the British scene since he was a teen (!) in the late '80s...

The Duff Guide to Ska: You’re actively promoting Pama International’s new record (its sixth) in the US with Musical Occupation and Lawless Street arranging listening parties and interviews—and the band recently supported The Specials on their sold-out 30th Anniversary tour of the UK. Would it be wrong to infer from all this that Pama International might be opening for The Specials on their April mini-tour of New York City, Los Angeles, the Coachella Festival, and Toronto? (If not, are there any plans to come over on your own at some point in the future?)

Sean Flowerdew: Yes, Gabe Pressure and Jason Lawless are doing a fantastic job spreading the word of our new album Pama Outernational, which will be available properly on 20 April '10 in North America. They're getting us to more people then we've ever reached in the US before, so I'm delighted with the way things are looking.

Sorry to say, we won't be supporting The Specials on their US dates. Not sure who they've got opening for them, but it won't be us. We had a fantastic time on their 30th Anniversary tour, though. We ended up doing over 20 shows with them. Plans are afoot for Pama Intl live in USA. We're looking at coming over and playing the West Coast in Spring 2011 in our own right. Early days on that, but it's looking more possible then ever. Especially with all the promotion building for Outernational.

DGTS: How was Pama International received by the die-hard Specials fans in the UK (who may not have been following the ska scene since the days of 2 Tone)?

SF: It was very cool to see how much The Specials reunion meant to people. To provoke that much feeling is pretty incredible. The diehard fans were there to see their idols. And rightly so, but people warmed to us nicely, and it certainly helped promote Outernational here. We're not a straight up ska or 2 Tone band, we mix styles up, so it's not necessarily what the diehard Specials fans want to hear, but the tour for us was a great success. We won over a lot of people and made a lot more friends.

You're right in saying some of The Specials crowd haven't been following ska since 2 Tone, other then maybe going to see Madness. The ska scene would be much healthier had they, but to be honest there's few ska-influenced bands around that are as good as The Specials. They set a very high standard over here and a lot of bands don't live up to that... some do, but maybe not enough to get all the old Specials and Madness fans along to shows. I don't hear songs being written today on the ska scene that are as good a songs as The Specials wrote. I include Pama Intl in that, but we try with each album to make better records and write better songs. We're getting there. I'm very inspired by the current line-up in the band. Live we're taking it into new areas and never sounded better.

DGTS: Since you know all everyone involved, do you think there is any possibility of reconciliation between Jerry Dammers and the rest of The Specials? Has it all been about a clash of personalities, a struggle over control/leadership of the band, or the nature of the reunion (playing the hits as they were versus writing new material and re-imagining the back catalogue)?

SF: It's not my place to comment on their internal personal business. From an outside point of view though, as a fan and someone who loved the band from childhood...watching their tour and live show Jerry Dammers wasn't missed. Playing the hits live was certainly loved by many many people. And got superb reviews. If they were to enter into the studio though, that might be a different matter...but whether or not Jerry Dammers would bring anything 'special' to any recording anymore I don't know. I haven't heard anything in 25+ years that I rated by him. The Sun Ra thing he's doing now is no more then a glorified covers band. I would love to think The Specials could make another classic album. Why 're-imagine' your classic songs when you could make new classics?

DGTS: You’ve been involved with ska since the 80s with your first (and hugely popular) band The Loafers. [It should be noted here that Pama Intl vocalist Finny was also in The Loafers!-ed.] What are some of the most striking changes (for better or worse) in the UK scene over the years? What do you miss the most?

SF: Even with The Specials and Madness gigging I'd say the ska scene in the UK was bigger back in the late 80s then it is now. The crowds that both bands pull doesn't really filter through to the hardcore ska scene. Ska shows here attract anything from no one to 500 people tops. Back in the late 80s there was a real scene, some great bands and new bands springing up all round the UK... The Forest Hillbillies, Potato 5, the original Hotknives, Maroon Town and Capone & The Bullets were pick of the bunch for me. It was a great time to be in a band. 1989 really was the last time the UK ska scene was a national force. All major press and a lot of TV were covering it. Also, there was a real originality to what the bands were doing. It wasn't all 2 Tone, or ska punk, or traditional ska. It was a real mix of styles, people writing great songs and putting on great live shows. There was a real movement. Bands were being inventive.

I guess that's what I miss the most from the late 80's. Bands don't seem to be as inventive...they just stick to one path, be it skinhead reggae, ska punk, trad ska. It'd be great to see bands mixing the styles up more over here, and working on better songs. There don't seem to be many great songwriters on the scene. I'm painting a bit of a bleak picture over here aren't I? There are some new, younger bands coming through that actually have something to King Blues and bands that have released on my brother's Do The Dog label...Jimmy The Squirrel, Dirty Revolution and Resolution 242. So that's great to hear that a younger generation are singing about things that matter and trying to make a difference. More power to them.

DGTS: How did the anti-gun/knife “Highrise Project” come about?

Michie One and I wrote a song called "Highrise" for the Pama Intl Love Filled Dub Band album, which tackled the issue of knife and gun crime in the UK. I think it's the best piece of work Pama Intl have released. It started getting quite a lot of attention and airplay, so I thought we could try and do some good with it. Using that song as a basis I got other people involved to do versions, like Billy Bragg and Dennis Alcapone. Pretty much everyone involved had been affected by knife and gun crime. Lynval was a victim of a well-documented knife attack. Between the time I asked Dennis Alcapone to get involved and the time of recording him (2 weeks) his stepson was shot dead in a club in London. It's horrific and out of control. I thought for ages about how I could do something. I figured the best thing I could do was to raise awareness for charities that are working with kids daily and doing a lot of good: Kids Company in London and Basement Studios in Bristol. Hopefully we've done that a bit and will continue to do so.

DGTS: Pama International has worked with a number of labels, including Trojan, Asian Man, and Do the Dog—what led you to establish Rockers Revolt?

SF: Pretty much from the start I've had my own labels. I set up Staccato Records to release The Loafers back when I was 17. Then Jamdown Records in the 90's, which released the first three Pama Intl albums and one EP. The Asian Man and Do The Dog deals were either licensing or joint release deals. The album we did for Trojan Records was again a license thing. I look forward to getting the rights back on that one, as they've never accounted to us.

I guess I've always been a bit impatient, and always believed in doing things for myself. Why wait around for someone to do a lesser job? No label is going to believe in my music as much as I do, so I just get on with it. Rockers Revolt is just the latest incarnation/vehicle for me to get my music into the shops and people's homes. A bonus is to release other bands I like. I love what Do The Dog and Asian Man do...same DIY spirit...just get on with business attitude. That's why they've lasted longer than most.

DGTS: What do you think of music file sharing? What do you think will be the new model for selling music might be?

SF: As a format, I don't like digital, but I'm from the days of vinyl and collecting. Today's generation never had that, and downloads/iPods are so much easier. To walk around with 1,000s of songs in your pocket is a great thing. To lose 1,000s of songs when your hard drive goes down is terrifying to me. I like something tangible...vinyl is that. It's far superior sound quality to MP3 and CD.

As for file sharing...I'm undecided. It does bug me that people just take the music for free, but if that leads them onto a gig, or to buy a shirt or album, then I'm not fussed. I view the internet as the biggest radio station ever.

I've a few ideas what the new model for selling music might involve, but until the major labels and manufacturers decide to issue a new form of player/format (like they did with CD and MP3s) we're stuck with MP3s and file sharing. I think in today's market, as a label you've just got to be versatile and give people what they want, be it vinyl, cd or MP3.

DGTS: You and your brother Kevin (The Bakesys and the Do the Dog zine/label) have both been vital players in the UK ska scene for decades—is there something in the Flowerdew genes? What’s the nature of your relationship? Are you guys competitive?

SF: Nothing in our genes I know of! And no, we're not competitive in the slightest. We've got different tastes in ska. Kev's built up a really good label in Do The Dog...and helped to launch a lot of bands. He's released a lot more than I have now. We try to help each other as much as possible, as you'd expect.

DGTS: You’ve been fortunate to work with an extraordinary array of ska stars, such as Laurel Aitken, Dennis Alcapone, Dave & Ansel Collins, Rico Rodriguez, Derrick Morgan, and Dawn Penn. Is there anyone you’d love to collaborate with, but haven’t had the chance to?

SF: Yes, I consider myself very fortunate. Not necessarily ska stars, but the list of people I'd like to collaborate with is endless...Marcia Griffiths, Burning Spear, Toots Hibbert, Millie Small, King Jammy (in his Prince Jammy dub days), Mavis Staples, Tina Turner (l'm listening to a lot of Ike & Tina Turner at the moment...I love their versions of "Honky Tonk Woman" and "Proud Mary"), Papa San (my favourite dancehall artist), Steve Cropper, Donald Duck Dunn, Booker T, Pee Wee Ellis, Keith Hudson, Cedric IM Brooks, Ken Boothe, Huey from Fun Lovin Criminals, some 'new' singers here... Anna Stott (from East Park Reggae Collective) and Jewels, both great female singers that I hope to be working with.

DGTS: Do you follow the US ska scene closely? Apart from the American bands you work with through Rockers Revolt (Pietasters, etc.), are you a fan of any other US ska bands?

SF: I loved Bim Skala Bim, especially their debut album. The Untouchables were the first US ska band I heard. Loved their Wild Child album. The Toasters' Pool Shark album that came out in the UK (I think it was their debut and called something different in the US?), although the production sounds really dated now, it had some great songs on it. That's all 80s stuff though, which is the last time I 'followed' what was going on in America. The Aggrolites live are awesome. I like the little I've heard of what J Bonner is doing with his Jani Disc imprint and just heard some good music on Ryhgin Records. I liked the Hors G'lore album Warsaw did. That must of been done sometime in the 90s? Very inventive. Unless something lands on my door mat or a friend recommends it, I don't really get the time to check bands out. I have a huge pile of albums I've bought and not listened to. It's hard to find the time, what with trying to create new music and raising a family.

DGTS: Which UK bands should American ska fans be aware of?

SF: Rebelation have some nice vibes going on. Their recent Berlin Sessions EP on Do The Dog had they're best song to date 'You Will Know'. Also on Do The Dog (this is turning into an ad for my bro's label!), Jimmy The Squirrel...loving their song "How I Go" that's included on their forthcoming album. Not sure when that one's out. I'm going to release a band called Babyhead, who are a hip hop/ska/rock kind of thing. Well worth checking out. Pama Intl's guitarist Lenny Bignell has a great rocksteady project going called The Sidewalk Doctors. He also plays for Acid Jazz soul band Lord Large who are great. The album I put out by Ed Rome is fantastic...King Tubby meets Ian Dury. Very unique and should be a lot bigger then it is.

DGTS: What’s on tap for both Pama International and Rockers Revolt in the coming months (plug away!)?

SF: The next single we're releasing on Rockers Revolt is a version affair...Pama Intl's "I Still Love You More (Bongolian mix)" b/w "Equality & Dub For All (Wrongtom mix)." That's out any day now.

We've got a bunch of albums we're releasing on Rockers Revolt this year: Pama Intl vs. Mad Professor's Outernational in Dub (due October time); Babyhead's Heavy Weather (due out in September '10); Pama Intl vs Wrongtom's Love Filled Dub Band in Dub; and we're going to start a series of cover albums that I'm very excited about. We've also got a series of 7"s planned. Nice collectors edition/hand numbered/heavyweight vinyl. I'd like to make two new albums this year, one with Anna Stott and the other with Jewels. Oh and I've just reissued the first two Pama Intl albums in the UK, with a bunch of bonus tracks on each. People can check the label site out at

Hopefully this will all filter through to USA soon enough. We've now got a website dedicated to all our happenings in North America: Outernational (CD and vinyl) is available there, and there's news of all the listening parties happening through April for the album in San Francisco, San Diego, Washington DC, Austin, LA, Philly, NYC, Chicago and New Orleans. Lots on the go!

On the Pama Intl live front, we're gigging all year in the UK, continuing to promote Outernational. We've got our debut show in Paris on 18 June and our first show in Belgium in May, so we're starting to look abroad a bit.

Outside of all that, I'm doing some keyboards for some new tracks by Sir Horace. Dub instrumentals written by Horace and also some keyboards on The Sidewalk Doctors.

The Duff Guide to Ska is most grateful to Sean for taking the time to answer our questions!


ReadJunk said...

Great interview!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Flowerdew is a true legend; all power to his keyboard...

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, guys! Sean is pretty awesome...