Monday, October 10, 2011

Duff Interview: Valerie Desnoyers (Montreal Ska Festival) and Lorraine Muller (The Fabulous Lolo)

Editor's note: With the third annual Montreal Ska Festival coming up this weekend (October 14-16, 2011), we thought it was a good time to catch up with one of the festival's co-founders, Valerie Desnoyers (the other co-founder is Catherine Marchand), as well as festival volunteer/performer/booster, Lorraine Muller (of The Fabulous Lolo, Lo and the Magnetics, and The Kingpins)...

The Duff Guide to Ska: How did the Montreal Ska Festival first come into existence--and why was it established as a non-profit, all-volunteer organization? (I know the Canadian government is very good about supporting the arts; does the festival receive any government grants?) Have you been involved with it from the beginning, and what's your current role in the organization?

Valerie Desnoyers: The Montreal Ska Festival started from a few fans who wanted to bring back the excitement and popularity that ska music once knew in Montreal. In the late 90s, Montreal was known as the ska capital of at least Canada, if not North America, and thanks to The Kingpins' and Planet Smashers' creation Stomp Records, we were world-reknown in terms of ska. That reputation and popularity soon waned, but the the talent remained. We thought it was a shame that Victoria, BC was able to have its own ska festival while Montreal did nothing. The Victoria Ska Festival is a well-known event that has now been running for 12 years! We were inspired by what they were doing and decided to stop waiting for it to happen and just make it happen ourselves.

We sat down with Lorraine to run the idea by her and ask her for her input, and to learn from her experience and she pushed us into making it happen. She believed in us and supported us every step of the way, being our spokesperson, media coordinator, advisor--AND generously offering her musical support on every edition by playing with her fabulous band of all-stars ska musicians, The Fabulous Lolo. Therefore the project started in August 2008 and it was really important to us to make it non-profit so we could use all the money directly towards the festival and bands, without having everyone taking a cut before the artists get theirs. We feel the musicians are undervalued and that they deserve way more recognition (and money) for their hard work.

People don't realize how hard it is to write, rehearse, book yourself, promote yourself, and deal with the paperwork on top of focusing on your music. We wanted to be a means of support and a offer a platform for the local bands so they could concentrate more on making music and developing contacts by playing with international acts.

We are not receiving any grants, it is really hard for us because we insist on keeping the ticket prices as low as possible (less than $20 with taxes and service charges) to democratize the music and have people come and check it out even if they don't know the bands playing, but just because it's affordable. We have tried to apply for a bunch of grants, it's quite complicated and very time-consuming since you also need to produce a pile of paperwork for every application. We are DIY and have tried to get help with this but it continues to be a huge challenge. I was part of the originators of the Montreal Ska Society, I'm president and my role includes a broad variety of tasks, from artistic director to ordering the merch, dealing with the taxes and driving the backline.

I have great volunteers helping me out, I could certainly not do it by myself. This year, more musicians have become volunteers and it's nice to see the scene being supported and taken over by the actual people that are on stage. Having them help out behind the scenes is refreshing and motivating for me.

DGTS: For this year's festival, how were the bands selected?

VD: We almost made it happen with The Skatalites for the 2010 edition, but they extended their stay in a South American festival, so the dates didn't coincide. Since they were interested and they are really a jewel for our crowd, we treated ourselves by making it happen this year!

Lorraine Muller: I am not at all involved in programming, but what I'd like to add is that the true goal of the festival is to support and maintain a healthy ska scene in the city, so we/they really emphasize the local talent by selecting the cream of the crop for the festival. We avoid repeats from one year to the next, so this keeps the door open for new artists and provides them a concrete goal towards which they can work. After that, the headlining acts are picked based on Val and Cath's desire to share their discoveries with the city, as well as give people access to legendary bands that don't get to perform here very often.

DGTS: Based your experience with previous Montreal Ska Festivals, how many fans are you expecting in total this year?

VD: We are expecting about 2,000 guests altogether spread over all our events in the 2011 edition. We think The Skatalites are truly something special for the Montreal fans and we expect a lot of people to come this year that might not have been to the previous years.

DGTS: As ska fans, which bands are you looking forward to seeing the most at the fest? (And what are some of your favorite memories from the previous two festivals?)

VD: Of course, The Skatalites are something really special and rare, but personally I'm really looking forward to see Mr. T-Bone (Italy) and Eastern Standard Time (Washington, DC). Mr. T-Bone will be playing on Canadian soil for the first time ever and EST, who haven't played here in over a decade, will not only be performing a set of their own but also serve as Mr. T-Bone's backing band. Void Union are a collective from Boston that we went to see last January to decide if they were MSF material and we were blown away! They are definitely a must-see in the 2011 edition. They are a 'coup-de-coeur' for me because a few members from Westbound Train are part of the project. WBT were one of the highlights of the 2009 edition of the MSF.

Of course we are also psyched to see our local bands make their way in the line-up and play the big stage that is Club Soda.

LM: The thing that excites me most about the festival is less the individual bands, and more the community that gravitates towards it. While I enjoy the performance of most of the bands, I really get my kicks out of seeing others enjoy the bands and discover something new! I've always said that to ME, and this is a very personal feeling, ska can be like a big hug. It reminds me of how I felt when i first discovered it, like someone was giving me a big hug and saying "welcome!"

I'm very excited about The Skatalites coming to the festival, it makes me realize how far it has come in such a short time! And the fact that The Toasters routed their tour around our festival goes to show that it is truly becoming a world-class international event! My favourite memories almost always involve me performing, or talking to people after they've seen me perform. Each year, the festival continues to provide more memorable moments for each of us who attend. It's always fun to catch up with bands I haven't seen for a long time (like Mustard Plug, who I hadn't seen in several years), to discover new bands I'd never seen nor heard (Westbound Train comes to mind), or to watch our local bands thrive (in the way I've enjoyed watching Danny Rebel & the KGB grow since the first edition). This year, I will be catching up with The Skatalites, with whom I've played several times in Europe, and EST who I was very close with back in the day.

DGTS: What is the Montreal ska scene like? Ska is pretty much relegated to the underground in the US--is it fairly popular in Canada right now and does it tend to attract people from other music scenes?

LM: Ska as a genre does not have a very "popular" standing at the moment. We've also slipped back into the underground, but that's a great occasion to refresh and regroup and continue to inspire each other. I don't know if ska will ever really explode into popularity and become its own entity the way hip-hop has, or metal. I think people don't really know what it is, and that it has SUCH a varied offering that it doesn't actually fit into one category anyway. Ska-punk fits into the category of punk, ska-pop fits into pop, and so on. There are a few bands that can play major festivals and make a living at the music, but to say "few" is even being generous. We're lucky enough to have a healthy underground, and a steady stream of newcomers to the music, and to have a good pool of talent and fans that can allow this music to thrive in our community.

DGTS: Which ska bands in Montreal should we make sure to check out?

VD: Definitely Danny Rebel & the KGB who were part of the MSF in 2009 and are playing again this year. They are just about to record their second album and this time, they are working with the legendary producer Victor Rice! They are unbelievable performers and write the catchiest songs ever. Make sure you check them out, they will be coming to the US soon! The Fundamentals, The Hangers, The Beatdown, and R.D.C. are all great talented bands from Montreal.

LM: I agree that DRKGB are a must-see and the ones to watch. The Fundamentals have also raised the bar on every level, whether it's songwriting or performing. We're very fortunate to have a good variety of ska in the city--something for everyone!

DGTS: Can you share with us the origins of your own band, The Fabulous Lolo? Its traditional ska/rocksteady sound is a big shift in direction from the post-2 Tone ska of The Kingpins and Lo and the Magnetics--why did you want to explore this aspect of the genre?

LM: If you listen to the evolution of The Kingpins, you will see that what we did was explore a different facet of ska on each album. Each project was approached in a completely different way. We started off very 2 Tone like, then took a step back in time to explore our love of the 60s garage-twist-movie soundtrack sound, and followed that up with a wonderful testament to our take on traditional "old-school" Jamaican ska and rocksteady. The last Kingpins album, and the Magnetics album were both a study of more modern sounds, incorporating a lot more technology, so these were not influential in the birth of The Fabulous LoLo.

This exploration of different eras of ska (starting in 1996-1997) was spearheaded by our then keyboard player Ian "Hot Tub" Hodkinson, and when he left the band, Jesse Radz (trumpet) kept us on the path towards traditional sounds. We willingly and eagerly discovered so many wonderful songs and artists from that time and this gave rise to the Stomp All-Stars in 1997 or 1998 when, over a few beers, Bobby Beaton (Kingpins, guitar) proposed to Matt Collyer (Planet Smashers, guitar) that it would be a great idea to do some sort of all-star band and play some of those great old tunes together instead of always performing our own tunes as separate bands.

The pinnacle of that band came in 2000 when we played at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on one of the outdoor stages. We had programmed the entire ska series (led by John Jordan as our link between the festival organizers and our band suggestions, which were all selected). In late 2005, the Magnetics were not very busy (and in fact, were about to go on hiatus in May 2006). I had no other regular band to speak of and I really wanted to do something. I decided to contact the Jazz Festival organizers myself after having performed several times with The Kingpins and propose the idea of getting an all-star band together but concentrating on rocksteady music. They loved the idea and in Spring 2006 they confirmed they would love to invite us to participate at that summer's festival! (The name came from my long-time collaborator Mitch Gírio who said that would be a great stage name.) I was thrilled and immediately sought out the best musicians I could think of for this music! I really approached that first gig as a "meeting of worlds." The idea was to get people from different (in some cases allegedly "opposing") universes together, united in one common goal--black/white, younger/older, old-school/new-school.

I got a friend who had played at Studio One in the 60s (Errol Walters) and I got Lynn Taitt who was "the man" at Duke Reid's Treasure Isle, the other prominent studio in Jamaica at the time. I got a Planet Smasher alongside a Kingpin, and I used my very own wonderful musicians from The Kingpins/Magnetics as the core. The full name we gave that first concert was "The Fabulous LoLo sings Rocksteady".

DGTS: Before he passed, the band collaborated with the great rocksteady guitarist Lynn Taitt--what transpired and what was it like to work with him?

LM: When The Kingpins were recording Let's Go To Work in 1997, we thought it would be wonderful to have one of the "old-timers" on the album to really bring home the trad flavour we were going for. We knew that many Jamaicans from that era had moved up to Canada, mostly Toronto. Our bassist Jordan Swift learned that guitarist Lynn Taitt was actually living not too far from Montreal and we called upon him. I knew nothing of him at the time. I'd never heard his name and didn't know who he was. I was just excited we were having someone who was "there" joining us on the album.

He showed up at the studio with his wife and listened to the tunes we wanted to do with him. He was shy and didn't say too much, but once he started opening up, he told us that in fact, he had produced and played on the very first recorded version of the song "Last Train to Expo '67" (which we were asking him to play on!!) Well, that blew our minds. He also played on our original tune "Johnny Rocksteady" by adding some of his signature bubbling guitar.

We kept in touch, as he seemed to genuinely get a kick out of playing with us, and it was like watching him rediscover an old love. He'd been doing arranging of different music until then and hadn't been playing much rocksteady, to be sure! He came out and played with the Stomp All Stars in early 1998, and he called me into his studio to do some back vocals and horn section parts on his projects. He had a clear picture of what he wanted and though communication was sometimes hard (expressions and terminologies not always the same), I really enjoyed my moments with him. It was such an honour to have him play with us in 2006. This was his last live performance before he passed away last year. I got to see him a few times in the last year and was very proud for him when he was honoured at the "Legends of Rocksteady" concert at the Jazz Festival in 2009.

DGTS: Do you have any plans to bring The Fabulous Lolo down to the US (NYC perhaps?) this year to promote your new album?

LM: I would absolutely LOVE to get the band on the road, but you must be painfully aware of how difficult it is to break even with such an expensive undertaking (getting a 10-piece band into a large enough vehicle, feeding them and compensating them). If anyone has any ideas of a mini-tour that is feasible, I am more than open to the idea.

DGTS: If you could only save five of your ska/reggae records or CDs from a fire in your home, which ones would they be?

LM: I'm glad I live in the age of portable music and this isn't really a question I need worry about! But if it were a consideration, for NOSTALGIC reasons (not because I listen to them regularly), I would save my vinyl editions of This Are 2 Tone and Dance Craze. These albums were the first ska albums I bought! I would then make sure I had my Fabulous LoLo CD because it was a very proud moment to finally get this 10-piece band down on a proper recording! And I would be crazy to leave behind an absolute collector's item, The Kingpins' On the Run EP from 1995. That is irreplaceable. Last but not least, an album I actually do listen to on occasion Danny Rebel & the KGB's Soul Shaker. I wouldn't feel bad about the rest of my collection, but these ones I would miss! Actually, now you have me thinking about other items that are precious and irreplaceable!

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