Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Duff Interview: Nick Welsh of King Hammond and Skaville UK

Editor's note: For a bit of a primer on Nick Welsh and King Hammond (where you can preview some tracks from the new King and I album), go here. Also, read Duff Guide to Ska reviews of Nick's recent albums here, here, and here.

The Duff Guide to Ska: You’re now releasing Skaville UK and King Hammond albums through your new N.1 Records. What led you to create the label, and do you intend to release records from other ska artists? In this day and age, can one even expect to make any money from recorded music?

Nick Welsh: I just wanted to start my own label in a recession! No, I just wanted to have a bit more say in my own destiny. It's small, small time--and you're right, impossible to make money. But I am one of those people who thinks you don't deserve a place in the marketplace unless you're making new music. Since leaving The Selecter, I have made three Skaville UK albums; two with Rhoda Dakar; a solo acoustic venture; and am now recording this new King Hammond one.

DGTS: In an interview last year, you put aside any suggestion of reviving King Hammond, yet here you are planning a new album to be released this May. What changed?

NW: At the start of the year, I went to a friend's 40th birthday. I could not think of what to get him for a present, so I knew he really liked my King Hammond records. So I recorded him a special track in the King Hammond style. I had so much fun doing it that I thought 'why not?'--as long as they are new tracks, it's cool and these songs are so much better than the ones I made in the 80s.

DGTS: King Hammond was created back in the late 80s, when the UK ska scene was comprised of bands like the Potato 5, Loafers, Deltones, Trojans, etc.—none of which (with the exception of Laurel Aitken) were playing skinhead reggae. What inspired you to take King Hammond in this musical direction?

NW: At that time, most bands were trying to play a 2 Tone kind of thing, or like the Potato 5, a Skatalites kind of thing. My love has always been the '69-'73 skinhead reggae thing, so I went in that direction--although when I listen to Revolution '70 now, it does not sound much like it at all, but the spirit is there.

DGTS: Growing up, one of your musical heroes was the great Marc Boland; you were in punk bands before joining Bad Manners in 1986 (I never knew until recently that you were schoolmates with Doug Trendle and the rest of the band back in the day…are you still in touch with Buster?). During your teen years, were you into Jamaican music, or did that come later? What record or experience converted you to ska?

NW: As a kid growing up I had two musical loves: T. Rex and skinhead reggae. I started playing gigs when I was 14. I was in a punk band called The Dead--we used to play clubs like The Roxy with bands like Eater and Cock Sparrer. The music that turned me on to skinhead reggae was "Double Barrel" by Dave & Ansell Collins. In fact, when I wrote the song "Skaville UK," I was trying to do a Dave Barker! I went to school with Buster, and no he has not spoken to me since 1991, when I joined The Selecter.

DGTS: I recently read Patti Smith’s autobiography “Just Kids” about being in NYC in the late 60s and early 70s and it blew my mind how many now famous people she ran into/became friends with/worked with—most of it due simply to having an incredible amount of luck (or it was destiny, if you believe in it), essentially being in the right place in the right time (and, of course, having an extraordinary amount of innate talent to run with it all!). Your life strikes me as being similar. Could you ever have imaging that when you were going to school with Buster and Louis et al would have led to you being in Bad Manners and Selecter and to work with people like Prince Buster, Rico Rodriquez, Dave Barker, Laurel Aitken, and Lee Perry?

NW: Good question. I can't believe how lucky I have been. These artists whose records I used to buy have become my friends--Prince Buster, Rico, Laurel. Getting woken up on a Sunday morning by Judge Dread with unprintable gossip. Sharing hotel rooms with Dave Barker, listening to him sing while he is in the shower with a voice so good it shames me! So it's been great.

DGTS: Speaking of “Scratch”, what was it like working with Lee Perry on his 'Jamaican ET' album? (How to put this…clearly he is a brilliant musician and producer, but is he really crazy or eccentric or is his public persona just for show?) What led to you becoming his producer? Did you ever imagine this album would win a Grammy?

NW: First of all, I was not the producer; that was Roger Lomas [sorry about the mistake!-ed.]. I just played bass on the Grammy album. I donated about 12 old King Hammond basslines to the cause! No, I don't think he is that strange at all. I like and got on well with him, and enjoyed playing live with him, too. Another person who I used to buy all his records and now I'm working with him. I got my Super Ape album signed, too!

DGTS: Is there any musician that you’re dying to work with that you haven’t already?

NW: Peter Frampton! To be honest, I have done enough of that. It's time for a bit of me time. But, of course, I'm always open to offers!

DGTS: How did you become involved in writing music for television shows (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Ugly Betty,” “Pimp My Ride,” etc.) and video games (“Smackdown versus Raw 2006,” “Day of Reckoning 2”)? Has being a musical gun for hire been a good way to pay the bills (and is it creatively satisfying)?

NW: It's the only way to pay the bills! I got the offer of doing stuff like that because, to cut a boring story short, I was recomended as the man who can write good melodies and knew his ska. My fave of that stuff is a track called "Hey You," which was used as WWE Brian Kendricks entrance music.

DGTS: You’ve spent a lot of your career as the songwriting powerhouse behind the “reboots” of Bad Manners in the late 80s and The Selecter in the 90s—with other larger-than-life singers in the spotlight, like Buster and Pauline Black. Now with Skaville UK, you’re front and center—which do you prefer?

NW: I like having my own band, writing on my own. Although, I really enjoyed writing with Pauline Black because I felt we got better at it all the time. But now I think I am writing the best songs I have ever done--though I still like it when people call out for "Skaville UK" and "Skinhead Love Affair."

DGTS: You’re a prolific songwriter with a considerable number of ska hits to your name—where does it all come from? Do you wake up in the morning with a new tune in your head? What was the first song that you wrote and when was it? Do you set out to write a ska song or simply a good melody?

NW: I'm a song and dance man: I wake up in the morning with a melody! I get titles first normally, melody next, and lyrics just before I sing them! The first song I ever wrote was in 1974 with a friend of mine; it was called "Tea Party."

DGTS: Your father was music producer in the 60s and 70s—did he ever take you to work with him? Did he pass along any music business advice that you found particularly useful? Did you have a particular moment that changed your life, when you knew that you were going to be a musician come hell or high water?

NW: See, I feel I was lucky there--my dad used to take me to studios, like Abbey Road and Pye in the 60s, where I used to sit and watch the most amazing sessions, and watch him in concert at places like the Palladium in London. That's enough to make a young boy think, "Wow, I want to do that." For the record, my favorite track my dad did was Don Fardon's "I'm Alive." Check it out on YouTube!

DGTS: You’ve been collaborating frequently with the incredible Rhoda Dakar with Skaville UK, your acoustic work, her solo album, and on the “Back to the Garage” album. What draws you to working with her—and what projects do you have lined up with her next?

NW: We just had a shared background--same gigs, records, etc. and I really enjoyed working with her. But like I said before, it's time for me to record and perform alone.

DGTS: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had on the road, the studio, or in dealing with a record label?

NW: Playing a gig with The Selecter in San Diego with The Monkees and The Village People!

DGTS: What are your plans for the next six months for King Hammond and/or Skaville UK (plug away…)?

NW: The next year is totally dedicated to the King Hammond project. He has been away for 20-odd years, so he deserves a bit of attention.

Thanks to Nick for taking the time to answer our questions!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Two Free NYC Ska Shows This Weekend: The Bluebeats and Dub is A Weapon!

Every once in a while the gods smile down upon us New Yorkers. Despite how hard and mean and expensive this city can be, there are two free ska shows (well, rocksteady and dub, but both bands are very much part of the NYC ska scene) this Saturday night (3/27/10) in Brooklyn:

The Bluebeats
Two Boots Brooklyn
514 2nd Street
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 499-3253
10:00 pm showtime/Free!

Dub is A Weapon
Zebulon Cafe Concert
258 Wythe Avenue (Metropolitan + N. 3rd)
Brooklyn, NY
10:30 pm showtime/Free!

Both gigs are guaranteed to be great...so the pressing question is: which one to go to?

+ + + +

Here are two more NYC ska gigs on the horizon:

April 3, 7:30 pm @ The Knitting Factory Brooklyn: Skinnerbox (21st Anniversary show/first gig since '98), The Scofflaws, Eastern Standard Time, The Forthrights, and The Hard Times! (Tix are $10 in advance/$12 at the door.)

April 23, 8:00 pm @ B.B. Kings: NYC Ska Festival w/King Chango, Bigger Thomas, Hub City Stompers, Kofre, Beat Brigade, Skarioca, Floor Kiss, and Skarroneros. (Tix are $15 in advance/$20 day of the show; all ages.) Note: this is also the same night as the Ska Benefit for Haiti with The Pilfers, Across the Aisle, Tsunami Rising, Karen Gibson Roc at The Knitting Factory Brooklyn...

I'll have more to write about these two gigs in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Duff Review: The Simmertones - Presenting The Simmertones, Vol. 1

Self-released EP
2009

Based in Devon, England, The Simmertones are an ace trad ska act that has been playing out in that part of the world for around two years now. Their style of Skatalites-inspired vintage ska, as captured on the seven-track EP "Presenting The Simmertones, Volume 1" (recorded and co-produced by Richard Digby Smith, who as an Island Records engineer worked with the likes of Bob Marley, Led Zep, and Sparks), reminds one of NYC's Scofflaws in their fantastic prime (when Mike Drance and Victor Rice were in the band) or Germany's unstoppable ska powerhouse Dr. Ring Ding and the Senior All Stars. Like both of those bands, The Simmertones' performances are full of verve and creativity that underscore a keen understanding of and deep respect for the musical genre they are operating within.

The Simmertones completely nail several covers of 60s ska classics here: Justin Hines' "Over the River," The Skatalites' "Ball of Fire," and the traditional "Sammy Dead"; and--as The Scofflaws did on their debut album--they throw in an incredibly inspired choice of non-ska cover: the "Dr. Who" theme song. Every time I hear it, I have flashbacks of watching the show in the early 80s with Tom Baker dashing around in his super long scarf--I had no idea what was going on half the time, but it was compelling and freaky and I couldn't look away! (While I'm on the subject of British TV theme songs, somebody out there has to do a ska cover of Laurie Johnson's kick-ass theme for "The Avengers"--Diana Rigg in leather catsuits, yo!)

More significantly, The Simmertones' original cuts measure up in quality to the classics: the proudly strutting love song "One Time Soon" (which they note borrows a Skatalites horn riff from "African Beat"); the longing, reggae-ish "Warm My Bones" (one's lover as the metaphorical shelter from the storm of life); and an encouraging ode to self-reliance "Do What You Got To Do" ("Don't live your life in another man's shoes/Do what you got to do/and it will see you through"). All very good stuff.

Be sure to keep The Simmertones on your radar--this is a terrific debut and we can only hope that there's much more to come.

The Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A-

(Update: Thanks to John at Hoi Polloi Skazine for getting in touch and pointing out that The Avengers theme has received at least one ska treatment: The Butlers covered it on their "Time Tunnel" album in 1994. Any others?)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reggae Hits NYC This Thursday w/The Forthrights, The Hard Times, and Predator Dub Assassins

Apologies to Bob Timm and The Hard Times--I meant to post this gig info from him much earlier this week...

REGGAE HIT THE TOWN!
Classic early reggae and soul are set to collide with Rasta roots and dub this Thursday in the East Village.

When: Thursday, March 25th @ 9:00 pm
Where: Ella Lounge, 9 Avenue A (between Houston and 1st)
What: $6.00 cover, 21+

Featuring:
The Forthrights
The Hard Times
Predator Dub Assassins
What's All This About Dirty Reggae?
2009 and 2010 have seen a worldwide resurgence in the love for early reggae and ska, as made popular during numerous revival scenes over the years, from the 70s skinheads to the 90s ska explosion. More recently bands like The Slackers and The Aggrolites have spearheaded a new love for what's collectively known as "dirty reggae" - classic skinhead skank reggae mixing an equal love for Jamaican rhythms and American roots and rock sounds from 60s surf and soul to 70s funk and grit. There are bands popping up all over the U.S. and Europe grinding out this style and New York is well-represented in this scene by bands like The Forthrights and The Hard Times.

The Forthrights are a young crew of punkish reggae lovers who crank out gem after gem of pop-friendly tunes like their Stubborn Records single "Other People." Listen to The Forthrights, though, and they will equally point to The Hard Times as New York's powerhouse early reggae band. The Hard Times are a 5-piece instrumental reggae tsunami, delivering blistering renditions of Upsetters classics and their own surf-garage-samba twist on all-killer original rhythms.

Righteous Dub
The Hard Times and The Forthrights take major influences from early reggae from the 60s to 70s, with a good dose of dub and roots. They are proud to be uniting the worlds of reggae at Ella Lounge, and performing with Predator Dub Assassins. PDA have been assaulting the east coast dub syndicate, touring and appearing regularly in their NJ base, developing a formidable Dub Army of fans.

Whatever your taste in reggae, you are sure to be energized and enlightened by the mix of soul and rhythms being served up this Thursday at Ella Lounge.

More info: hardtimesreggae@gmail.com

Sunday, March 21, 2010

NYC Specials Gigs After-Parties featuring This ART 2 Tone, Pama International Playing Parties, and more!

On April 20 and 21, to celebrate and serve as an after-party for The Specials' two NYC shows at Terminal 5, 2 Tone Posters, Marco on the Bass, and Dusk Lounge are presenting This ART 2 Tone at Dusk Lounge in Chelsea, showcasing posters that were designed by John "Teflon" Sims for 2 Tone Records. Full-size prints of several of his more popular posters (see some of them below) will be displayed and postcard-size versions of the posters will be offered for sale--with the proceeds going to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

Since Lynval Golding and Sir Horace Panter are involved with the new Pama International album, this event will also serve as a playing party for Pama Outernational (arranged through Jason Lawless of the Lawless Street blog and Gabe Pressure of Dancing Mood and Musical Occupation) and there will be lots of CDs and swag given away, too. Pama Outernational is being released on Lawless Street Records in the US this April. (The Duff Guide to Ska hopes to post an interview with Sean Flowerdew soon!)

While we're plugging new records, Bigger Thomas' new album Steal My Sound is also coming in April--and from what I've heard promises to be one of the best ska releases in 2010.

You can bet that there will be loads of ska scenesters, musicians, and even an unexpected VIP or two at the This ART 2 Tone after-parties, so make sure to be there!






Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Resurrection of King Hammond!

The incredibly prolific Nick Welsh (ex-member of and songwriter for Bad Manners, Selecter, and Big 5; mastermind behind Skaville UK; and Grammy-winning musician working with ska stars like Lee Scratch Perry, Dave Barker, Prince Buster, and Laurel Aitken) has revived his brilliant late-80s/early 90s skinhead reggae alter-ego King Hammond (if you can find the Revolution 70 LP on Buster Bloodvessel's version of Blue Beat Records and and the Blow Your Mind CD on Trojan subsidiary Receiver Records, grab them, as are really, really good). In a surprising cool development, a new King Hammond album, The King and I, is due out this May on Nick's own label N.1 Records.

Below are some videos previewing several of the new tracks off of The King and I--including the groove-heavy "Mr. Easy Talk," which provides some relevant background on King Hammond and Nick, and check out the amazing 1970s footage of UK skinheads and mods in "Cool Down Your Temper!" Based on these cuts, I expect to find The King and I on heavy rotation in The Duff Guide to Ska's HQ this summer...








Monday, March 15, 2010

News from Across the Aisle

NYC's Across the Aisle, which can count The Duff Guide to Ska among its biggest fans, recently checked in with us with some news about the band and alerted us to several upcoming New York gigs of note:
ATA's original drummer left the band the first week of February, but in less than three weeks, we were back on track and moving forward! We are proud to announce our new drummer, Jay Reid (formerly of Excuse Me, the No Doubt tribute band). We only had one drummer come in to audition! After posting an ad on Craigslist and getting many responses, we knew we only wanted to see one guy! We are truly amazed at how(e) fast we found him! He really did his homework--he came in prepared and ready to rock. He hits the drums hard, with great passion and he truly has the love for ska in his heart. We're extremely excited to debut him at our next show at The Knitting Factory--April 23rd--for a benefit for Haiti with The Pilfers, Tsunami Rising, and Karen Gibson Roc (doors at 7:00 pm; show at 8:00 pm; tix are $15.00).

We are also playing an earlier gig at the Highline Ballroom on March 20th with Westbound Train and Big D and the Kids Table (doors at 6:00 pm; show at 6:30 pm; tix are $12 in advance, $15 day of the show).

Lastly, we've tweaked our latest EP, so we've re-released the new and improved tracks, which can be heard on our MySpace and purchased at the next show!

Madd Love, Megg & ATA

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Madness' The Liberty of Norton Folgate in Trouser Press

Trouser Press has a new stellar review of Madness' The Liberty of Norton Folgate, which they deem "a mature, remarkably complex, brilliantly realized album, in which Madness explores London's history and culture, the band’s place in it and its sound in greater depth than ever before."

The band's entire TP entry is worth a read, too (as are those for The English Beat, The Selecter, The Specials , Bad Manners, The Untouchables, Fishbone, and The Toasters).

The Specials in Entertainment Weekly

In anticipation of their US tour, The Specials make Entertainment Weekly's Music Mix blog.

Here's the money quote:
The Specials will also hit Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on April 13, almost exactly thirty years to the day since their last American TV appearance, which found them gracing the stage of Saturday Night Live. “My memory was meeting Keith Richards,” says Golding. “Our sound engineer knew him. I was too shocked to talk.” Specials frontman Hall says he too was shocked by his audience with Richards—if for different reasons: “I remember meeting him in the dressing room and thinking, ‘This man can’t possibly get any older than he is at this moment.’ And 30 years on, he has!”
Hope I die before I get old, indeed.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bucket on the (N.Y.) Beat

Marco on the Bass has posted an excellent interview with Bucket of The Toasters. In anticipation of the N.Y. Beat 25th Anniversary Reunion party (coming up on April 10th at Dusk in Manhattan--Buck won't be there, he'll be on tour in France), Marco poses all sorts of questions about the origins of The Toasters; the mid-80s NYC ska scene; putting together the N.Y. Beat comp; and the record release party at the sorely-missed Danceteria. Good stuff!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Spatial AKA Orchestra Live

There is a great write-up of a recent Spatial AKA Orchestra show in Brighton in the Guardian by Alexis Petridis. It's a joy to read.

Here are the money quotes:
As his former bandmates reap the benefits of their national-treasure status, Dammers seems to be deliberately aligning himself with musicians denied mainstream acceptance because of mental illness, poverty or sheer bloody-mindedness. Their company suits him.
And...
Dammers's arrangements brilliantly join the dots between [Sun] Ra's work and funk, making the inaccessible accessible. At one jaw-dropping juncture, they play, in quick succession, not just Tubular Bells, but Joe Meek's I Hear a New World, a ska take on Erik Satie's 1893 solo piano piece Gnossienne No 1, the Specials' International Jet Set and the theme from Batman. It is a long way indeed from knocking out Too Much Too Young while wearing the limited-edition £99 Tonic Suit that Burton produced to commemorate the Specials' reunion.
Sounds like if Jerry & Co. ever make their way over here, they are going to be a must see!

+ + + +

They got Burton suits, ha you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money


-- The Clash, "White Man in Hammersmith Palais"

Jimmy Cliff Joins the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame

On Monday, March 15, ska and reggae great Jimmy Cliff will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. He is only the second reggae artist ever to be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after (not surprisingly) Bob Marley.

I'm sure the irony of this is not lost on Jimmy, as in the early 70s under the careful guidance of Leslie Kong, he was poised to become a huge cross-over superstar, had his then-label Island Records not ignored his career in favor of Bob Marley's (did Chris Blackwell think that rock fans could only handle one reggae-rocker at a time?). For the voting members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the choice of Jimmy Cliff for induction does make perfect sense--back during my college days in the mid-to-late 80s, no matter what your musical scene--whether it was rock, metal, the Dead, or new wave--everyone had two reggae records in their collection: Bob Marley's Legend and the brilliant soundtrack to The Harder They Come. It was as if they were issued to every teenager in my generation when they turned sixteen--you can almost imagine some deadpan Leslie Nielsen-type narrating a cheesy "hygiene" film to prepare us for adulthood and intoning, this is reggae, kids...and it's damn good!

+ + + +

Read about Jimmy's fascinating rise to the top (I didn't know that he was discovered at 14 by Derrick Morgan, who introduced him to Leslie Kong, who in turn produced all of Jimmy's ska hits like "Miss Jamaica," "King of Kings," "One Eyed Jacks," and "Pride and Passion," which were released in the UK on Island Records--a label that Kong then co-owned with Chris Blackwell and Graeme Goodall) and his razor- close brush with mega-Bob Marley-like fame in this great bio from All Music Guide.

Trojan Records also has a nice overview of his career on their site.

Gibson has unearthed a never before published interview with Jimmy Cliff from 2004.

Lastly, here's a current interview with Jimmy Cliff in Spinner, where he talks about his new record, tour of the US, and reaction to his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Duff Gig Review: NY Ska Jazz Ensemble, The Bluebeats, Hey Stranger, Freddy Loco and the Gordo's Ska Band, and Silver Dollar

Being the old family man that I am, I only had a limited window in which to go out last Saturday night to the Version City party featuring NY Ska Jazz Ensemble, The Bluebeats, Hey Stranger, Freddy Loco and The Gordo's Ska Band, and Silver Dollar at The Knitting Factory, Brooklyn. My friend Joe and I arrived a bit late and missed Silver Dollar (I had family stuff just beforehand) and both of us had early Sunday morning things to do with our kids, so it couldn't be a late night (sadly, at our age, you just don't bounce back quickly from a late night of bending elbows and ears).

We did catch Freddy Loco and The Gordo's Ska Band's set, which was rich with mellow, vintage instrumental ska--punctuated by Freddy Loco's heavily-accented exclamations (the gist of it was that he was psyched to be playing in New York City and he wanted us to dance to the ska). Rocksteady Freddie Reiter of NYSJE sat in our their set, which was way too short--and not loud enough (note to sound person: turn it up for Freddie Loco next time!).

Hey Stranger delivered a great set of their tight, high-energy ska-punk-pop tunes. Clearly, they were having a blast on stage and so was the audience, which seemed to be heavily stacked in their favor. Trombonist Ginger Hale ("heartthrob" according to their MySpace page), the most uninhibited and irrepressible member of the band, may have had the most fun of all (and his performance was strangely riveting--notice how in the videos I shot that I usually placed him in the center of the frame...).

The Bluebeats had expanded their numbers since I saw them last in September--at the beginning of the set, Mike Drance announced that "the girls are back" (including Lizanne Lachat on vocals), which only enhanced the band's already incredible rocksteady-soul sound. During a quick dash to the head and the Kontrol Room for some more cervezas, I ran into Freddie Reiter and we talked about how things were going for NYSJE (pretty good--they had just toured Greece, playing a couple of gigs before several thousand fans, and had been to Japan on bills with Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra). While it was really great to catch up with Freddie, I ended up missing a chunk of The Bluebeats' set (which I could see slipping away through the giant windows behind the bar), but what I did experience was nothing short of brilliant.

After The Bluebeats, we had to split, so I offer my apologies to NYSJE for missing their performance (and does anyone know how the Version City All Star Jam Tribute to Jackie Mittoo turned out?).

Boldface names that were in the crowd that night (it was like a freakin' Scofflaws reunion) included Buford O'Sullivan, who when not roaming the world as trombonist for the Easy Stars All Stars, is getting set to release a new vinyl and digital single on Megalith Records (he said that one of the songs is the "darkest" thing he's ever recorded) and might be getting his own band together for some gigs (hey, Jeremy or Django--put Buford on one of your next Knitting Factory showcases soon!). Victor Rice was in the house, but I never made it past the permanent mob around him, and, of course, King Django was selling Stubborn Records merch and occasionally toasting as the deejay spun some wax.

Much thanks and respect to Jake Stranger for getting Joe and myself into the show!

Enjoy the videos that I shot that night...









Monday, March 8, 2010

Duff Interview: Mike Mowry of The Stress

The Stress are an extraordinary rocksteady crew out of Providence, RI that now counts The Duff Guide to Ska among their biggest fans. The band is comprised of Mike Mowry on vocals and organ; Dave Deprest on guitar and vocals; Johnny McMahon on bass; and a round robin of drummers: Ian McMillan, Jesse Hayes (of Void Union and The Toasters), and Brenden Deprest. The Stress' first EP, "Muk! Muk!" (read The Duff Guide to Ska review here) is available as a free download--details are listed below--and all of the EP tracks, plus a new tune, can be streamed on The Stress' MySpace page.

We really appreciate that Mike Mowry took the time to put his fingers to the (QWERTY) keyboard and provide us with some thoughtful and provocative answers to our questions. Like we wrote in our review of "Muk! Muk!," The Stress are rocksteady with an edge. And we love it like that!


The Duff Guide to Ska: Apart from the band's name, what is "the stress" and how can we relieve it?

Mike Mowry: It's the struggle: the existence and support of systems that disadvantage one to the benefit of another; for instance, trade disparities between the world's most wealthy nations and the world's developing countries; government-backed wars and military incursions about which citizens are voiceless; the death of American manufacturing and the rise of outsourcing and "free" trade; the shit-end of the stick for American labor; the harsh realities for small farmers (worldwide) competing against agribusiness; the consolidation of our food systems; the death of regionalism and the rise of corporate feeding troughs and outlet malls. It's vast and daunting...the relief is somewhere close to where awareness and outrage meet action and change.

That being said, we also have a few love songs.

DGTS: "1994" is about NAFTA's devastating impact on farmers in Central America; the singer/narrator in "What Cheer?" is homeless and struggling not to freeze to death around Christmas; and your MySpace page assures fans that your shirts are union made and alerts people to the fact that most chocolate products sold in the US involved child slave labor at some point in the harvesting of the cocao beans. Where does the band's focus on social/economic justice come from and what inspires you to fight the power(ful corporations, etc.)?

MM: Our focus comes from many different places, and I think each of us would give you a slightly different answer on that. I would say that we, The Stress, try our best in terms of being conscious of the things we do and who we are supporting by our actions, especially in terms of consumption. In any transaction, there's power in knowing where the money is being exchanged along the supply chain, and--as consumers--we are the end of the line; our power lies in the ability to refuse products which have gotten to us through unjust means. For me, this means that knowledge is the inspiration, and music is the means of channeling that inspiration.

DGTS: How did the band come to the decision to offer your "Muk! Muk!" EP for free downloading through Community Records and Witty Banter? (And what does "Muk! Muk!" mean, anyway?!?) Do you ever intend to release music in more tangible formats?

MM: We had finished recording Muk! Muk! and were planning on releasing it ourselves as a CD, when our friends Stuck Lucky (a well-travelled Nashville punk band who works with Community Records) came through Providence on tour. They had good things to say about Community. We were new at the time (unknown), and weren't really looking to make loads of cash from the CD, plus we had recorded it ourselves at Dave's studio (Sea Level Sounds), which saved us from paying for studio time. So in hearing that people could go to the Community Records website to download free albums, we decided to talk with them. Instead of scrounging around for money to press the album, we figured we might as well give it away and get our music to as many people as possible, and we are thankful to Community Records for putting the album up on their site. Shortly after that, Shaun from SBT (an RI punk band) started Witty Banter Records, which also has free downloads; for the same reasons, we jumped at that opportunity. We have been working a lot recently on writing and recording a full-length, and will be putting it out in CD and vinyl formats when the time comes.

As far as I know, "muk muk" means something like "short" in Tzotzil, which is one of several Mayan language spoken by many indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico. I visited Chiapas a few years ago to learn about coffee farming and producer cooperatives. When there, the people in the village we were visiting, called Once de Febrero, kept calling my friend "muk muk". Every time we'd say it, everyone would start laughing, it was great. For us, and the families in Once de Febrero, Spanish is a second language, so sometimes the translations would get murky. We liked the way it sounds, and figured it ties back into "1994", so it seemed fitting to use for the EP name.

DGTS: What are your thoughts on music file sharing?

MM: I might not have a definitive answer on this. On the one hand blah, blah, blah... On the other hand musicians work very hard to write, record, release, and market their music, and that should be respected. For Muk! Muk!, we figured we were new, no one knew us, and so we might as well just give the thing away and get the word out. Which means please burn it for your friends.

DGTS: What is the Rhode Island ska scene like? Any bands that should be on our radar? Which is better to play, NYC or Boston?

MM: The RI ska scene is a little worse for wear. There are some good, long-running bands here that have been doing there thing for quite a while, and we respect that. Shows, however, have been hit or miss. As for Boston or NYC, that seems like the perfect question for someone in Rhode Island to avoid.

DGTS: How did you "discover" ska and rocksteady music--and what inspired you to form a band? Do any of you have formal music training?

MM: My first ska album was Hepcat's Scientific. Which led me to find out where ska came from, which led me to The Skatalites' Hog in a Cocoa. That sealed my passion for Jamaican music. Of course, as a musician, I just had to learn how to play and write within Jamaican rhythms. I had piano lessons for around 13 years as a kid, and Dave and Johnny also had formal lessons as well. On a sort of side note, writing is a real passion for us, and for the next album we are going to be looking in some new directions. We have various musical interests; a lot of old country music, garage rock from the 60's, old R&B, on and on. We intend on releasing more things in that vein alongside the reggae and ska songs on the next album.

DGTS: What bit of band trivia should every fan know about The Stress?

MM: We once rowed a 6-foot dingy, aptly named the Dude Cruiser, to an island bird sanctuary in the bay in front of Dave's house. The seas were high. Dave was rowing, Johnny was manning the bow, and I was bailing water from the bottom of the boat with my shoe. We had no idea that the winds were going to pick up; the waves too. It was all very dramatic, like George Washington crossing the Potomac.

DGTS: What plans do you have for The Stress in 2010 (tours, new releases, etc.)?

MM: 2010 is the year for a new Stress release. Writing and recording are the main focus right now, but we will be gigging as well. Right now we don't have any plans for touring, but they may very well change.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ska in 365 Degrees

Sorry that we missed the February ska almanac (a particularly significant month--more on that later), but March is new and good, too--so make sure to check out the next 20 or so odd days in ska history at the always compelling and interesting Hoi Polloi Skazine.

If any date marks Day One of the 90s ska boom, it was February 23, 1993: the night of the sold-out Skalapalooza show at The (new) Ritz (aka the old Studio 54; the old Ritz is what is currently known as Webster Hall) with Bad Manners, The Skatalites, The Toasters, The Scofflaws, Ruder Than You, and The Skunks on the bill! When Bucket and the promoters involved in mounting this concert were putting it all together (I was along for the ride to talk about what Moon would be doing to help get the word out about the show), they had no real idea how it would go over--the odds were probably in favor of it being a complete bust. Sure, there had been minor victories here and there--yet nothing that clearly indicated that ska might break out of its deep underground scene. But it turned out the timing was right (that the promoters were willing to pony up the cash for a radio ad on WLIR advertising the show in the pre-internet era throughout the metro area was nothing short of a minor miracle--and I'm sure it played a large part in the success of that night) and we gave the kids--loads of 'em--exactly what they wanted.

I was stunned as I watched the show from the side of the stage and looked out at more ska fans (2,500) than I'd ever seen in one place in my life. It was obvious that it was a watershed moment in the NYC--if not American--ska scene. Everything had changed: the years of The Scofflaws playing TGIF on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, and The Toasters dodging batteries thrown at them on stage, and Moon struggling to stay one step ahead of failing distributors were going to begin to pay off. More importantly, it revealed the potential of ska music to be a money-maker for promoters and booking agents (if you wanna see your favorite bands play live, these people need to make some real cash in the process).

One portent for the success of Skalapalooza took place during last few hours of 1992, with the broadcast of the "New Year's Eve Ska Party" on the "USA Up All Night" cable show. It featured The Toasters and The Scofflaws (taped at The Palladium that November) performing minute-long versions of their tunes with various NYC scenesters in their ska finery dancing on stage in front of the bands. (These segments served as the bumpers that aired before and after the ads during all three glorious "Porky's" movies.) It was a bizarro-world "American Bandstand," with ska blaring out of the amps; rudies, skinheads, and mods replacing the generic, whitebread teens--and Gilbert Gottfried and Rhoda Scheer hosting the mayhem instead of Dick Clark (not sure if that is actually an improvement). And that year would culminate with the first and wildly popular national ska package tour known as Skavoovee--which was a direct result of the success of the Skalapalooza show, since the same promoter was involved--with The Skatalites, Selecter, Special Beat, and The Toasters, plus a slew of local ska talent that opened the show at each stop along the way.

I managed to shoot some black and white Super-8 footage at Skalapalooza (film, but with no sound; sue me, I did some arty filmmaking in college) before my camera was confiscated by some Ritz security goons. Didn't matter that I was from the label that helped organize the night, it was their house and I had to play by their rules (no unauthorized filming, no exceptions). At the end of the night, I had to go with one of the promoters to beg the club's manager for the return of my gear. After much groveling on my part, I got it back--with the film cartridge still in it! (Suckers!) These reels of film are waiting for me to dig them out of one of the boxes of ska memorabilia in my apartment. At some point, I'll have them digitized and put them up on the net for y'all to see...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jerry Dammers: The Reasons Why The Specials Kicked Me Out

In a candid interview with the BBC, Jerry Dammers talks about taking his Spatial AKA Orchestra (which includes Terry Edwards on saxes--he just wrote the Madness "One Step Beyond" book and was a member of The Higsons) on tour in the UK this March and finally gets to the heart of the split between him and The Specials--their refusal to write and perform new music (something The Duff Guide to Ska had long suspected was the source of all the dischord), and the snub of their hometown of Coventry on the 30th Anniversary Tour:
"It [the band] was supposed to be progressive musically. It was supposed to move forward. I grew up with the Beatles so my idea was that if you're lucky enough to reach a certain successful point, you should use that to try and be creative like The Beatles did, rather than just trying to repeat it over and over again and cash in on it."
The Spatial AKA Orchestra tour happens to start in Coventry on March 4 (with guest musician Rico Rodriguez!):
"...it's nice for me because I was actually kicked out of the reunion finally because I wanted to play in Coventry."
Dammers' anger at his former bandmates is almost palpable throughout the article. At one point, he walks out on the BBC reporter, since any discussion of The Specials was supposed to be off-limits during the interview, but he can't refrain from commenting/ranting about them...

Monday, March 1, 2010

NYC Gig Alert: NY Ska Jazz Ensemble, The Bluebeats, Hey Stranger, Freddy Loco, and Silver Dollar This Saturday at The Knit

This coming Saturday night at The Knitting Factory, you can party like it's 1997 with headliners of a bill that reminds me of the heyday of the 90s ska boom: NY Ska Jazz Ensemble and The Bluebeats!

Also featured at this Version City party are Hey Stranger, Freddy Loco, and Silver Dollar--plus a Version City All-Star Jam tribute to the superb ska/reggae keyboardist/composer Jackie Mittoo (his birthday was March 3, 1948).

Here are the things you need to know:

Doors: 7:00 pm/Show: 8:00 pm
$10.00/in advance; $12.00/at the door