Sunday, October 18, 2015

Duff Interview: Checkerboard Phil and the 20th Anniversary of "Checkerboard Kids!"

We are the Checkerboard Kids (left to right): The Masked Mutant,
Checkerboard Phil, and the Lovely Cinnamon.
Editor's note: For those not in the know, the Manhattan public access television show "Checkerboard Kids"--which has faithfully supported and promoted the NYC ska scene for years--recently taped its 20th anniversary show. So, we thought this was a good time to check in with one of our favorite people in the NYC ska scene, Phil Dejean, who is better known to late-night TV viewers and ska fans alike as Checkerboard Phil. 

The Duff Guide to Ska: What prompted you to start Checkerboard Kids twenty years ago? (Were the Masked Mutant and the Lovely Cinnamon with you from the start?) Did you model your show on anything in particular?

Checkerboard Phil: I was into watching a lot of Manhattan public access TV, especially "Beyond Vaudeville." I worked for Sal Piro president of the "Rocky Horror" Fan Club and a group of us would answer sacks of fan mail from around the world and we'd watch all this stuff he'd tape on VHS like "All My Children," "Twin Peaks," "Beyond Vaudville," "Vole Show," and other call-in shows. Sal was a guest on "Beyond Vaudeville," so we got to meet them at these live events and thought, "Hey, I could do that." So, the seed was planted.

Sal would do these hysterical comedy rants and did a segment on "Checkerboard Kids" in a mask as "the Mad Viewer."

If anybody knows me, I can't do anything a little bit. I liked NYC "Rocky Horror," so I had to join the fan club, join the NYC floorshow, work my way up to cast director. A girl from "Rocky" I liked had given me this comic called "Pirate Corp$" by Evan Dorkin [he illustrated a slew of ska album covers in the late 80s and 90s]. And I love comics, so I read it and the characters were these futuristic guys that dug ska music. I liked ska from listening to it on WLIR, etc., but I started listening to it more and it was inevitable that I went over the top with it, going to shows, etc.

Evan was cool and I met him a bunch of times at ska shows and comic events, and I wrote him weird letters and he sent stickers, etc.--and this only put fuel on the fire. He even made me a character in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Comic" for Marvel. I got to be Phil, bass player for Wyld Stallyns.

DGTS: Can you give us a super-abridged history of Checkerboard Kids?

CP: I had friends that did their own shows, like "Olumides Contact High," "Roolz Like Ozzy," "Tweeter TV," "Mad Dog," "Doggies Off," "Old Dog and Zippy," Brane Kandi, and Mad Man Mike (another friend from the 8th Street Playhouse "Rocky Horror" cast). I was his co-host to a show called "Mad World."

I went to Music and Art High School with Mike Hyden, who created the Masked Mutant persona and we wrote this convoluted surrealist show called "Children of the Checkerboard" (way too complicated to actually film). There was also this fantastic episode that Mr. Cameraman from "Smashed Retina" wrote and directed completely on VHS-C, but we parted ways and with him went the footage. Man, I would love to see that episode...

The Lovely Cinnamon (another fellow 8th Street "Rocky Horror" alumni) was always letting us film in her apartment midtown, so it seemed only natural that she be a part of the show. Besides, she brought a woman's touch. Plus, she ended up being a talented writer and director. So, I had the camera, she had the apartment, and the Masked Mutant was well…a mutant.

Our first shows were clips and interviews from various venues around town with comedic commentary and wraparounds filmed in Cinnamon's living room. Record companies would send us videos that we would air [When I was at Moon Records, we sent Phil tons of videos that he showed on "Checkerboard Kids!"]. It was a good time for ska.

DGTS: What were some of your favorite episodes/band performances—and what were some of the funniest moments?

CP: King Chango, who performed at the my apartment after a performance at Desmond's Pub. I kept getting bands like that. The Insteps, Defactos, Metro Stylee, Brave New Girl. I met Coolie there--he was poised to do a new band with Vinny Nobile from Bim Skala Bim and he asked me to draw their cassette cover. That was the Pilfers.

Best ever, we used get mail--people would send mix tapes and letters and this then little girl Paz De La Huerta used to send us drawings of us that she and her friends did. She drew a picture of me shirtless and muscular with six-pack abs jumping over a building, wearing an 80s style name belt buckle and another drawing of Mutie. Once we filmed a small segment with her sister, Rafaela, who was really nice. Paz ended up becoming a really big star. I got a call from Cinnamon from a hair salon saying that she was reading W magazine, while her hair was drying, and there was an article about Paz--and there was a photo of her looking in a mirror and on the mirror was a flyer for our show! Mad props! I ran into her once on the train where she introduced herself and I saw her again in the Village. I wonder if she and Rafaela still remember our show?

Other great memories include an episode with The Slackers, interviews with Fishbone, The Specials, Desmond Dekker, The Skatalites. Almost getting shot by cops filming an episode on the street where Inspector Quimby thwarts a purse snatching. Suddenly, all these undercover cops run out with guns drawn out of nowhere and we got screamed at. Yeah, there's some footage I gotta transfer and upload.

DGTS: Which bands did you want to feature on the show, but--for whatever reason--a taping just wasn’t in the stars?

I wish I could have interviewed Terry Hall and Jerry Dammers. Separately, of course. If I could have anyone on the show it would be Morrissey, because he's Morrissey.

DGTS: Were you ever approached by a producer who wanted to try to air your show on broadcast TV?

Rude Tales #3, featuring Checkerboard Kids; note Phil's quiff!
CP: Yeah, it was a time when all the public access show were getting picked up. Jake went to MTV with "Squirt TV" (1996) and "Beyond Vaudeville" became "Oddville" (MTV, 1997), and I spoke to some producer types. But MTV ended up doing a pilot in 1997 called "Skaturdays" with Carson Daly in sunglasses and a pork pie hat filmed in a hotel room in California. Despite the scene in NYC, things were really totally popping in California--the whole Third Wave became very popular. So, I totally get it. Shortly after that--boom--public attention went from ska to swing music (1998-1999), so all the followers went to that. As for "Checkerboard Kids," we went back to business as usual.

I remember there was a TV producer woman who was into pitching it, but it was all like, "So, what do you do--it's been done before."

Sadly, venues started shutting down--fewer spots for bands to play and live music to be heard. And record. Sweatglands AKA Wetlands, Brownies, Coney Island High, CBGBs--what was that place down from Abracadabra's called?

DGTS: I seem to remember that there was a "Checkerboard Kids" zine/comic book at one point…

CP: Yes, another thing I have to upload. It boasted a cover by Emmy-award winner, Dean Haspiel who is really getting a lot of media attention with his reboot of Red Circle's "The Fox" (with Mark Waid) and currently has a new compilation of his autobiographical comic called "Beef With Tomato."

Yeah, I also did stuff for a cool ska comic book called "Rude Tales" by W. Ralph Walters ( sharing the bill with Ans Purins of Skavoovie and the Epitones, who is making some power moves in the world of cartooning and illustrations.

DGTS: What happened to your trademark quiff?

CP: It's a lot less fluffier than back in the days, but still there. Just more salt and pepper. That's okay--black and white suits me just fine.

DGTS: Which band, song, record initially turned you on to ska music?

CP: In high school, there were some cool kids--Mods and one straight-up rude girl named Christine. She had checkerboard hair and wore braces and boots. I was like, whoa! I was into new wave, but this was some other stuff.

I remember listening in The Bronx to a lot of ska on WLIR that had the "The One Step Beyond" show. I learned that, even though the station was based on Long Island, the antennae was based in The Bronx [Thank god--otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to listen to WLIR in Yonkers!].

I dug a lot of the 2 Tone stuff, especially The Selecter, Specials, and English Beat. I got This Are 2 Tone at Bleeker Bob's on cassette. I used to hand out flyers in front of Tower Records on East 4th Street and Broadway. I worked for a record store on Mercer Street, Infinity Records.

I loved a lot of The Toasters and Moon stuff; also, Skavoovie and the Epitones, Fabulosos Cadillacs, and Q from Slackers/Bandroidz introduced me to Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.

DGTS: What are your top five favorite ska records (singles or albums)?

CP: Here's my Top 10 of All Time:

1) The Selecter: "Time Hard." This totally pegged how I felt as a kid. Things were getting worse, times were so hard. I look back and it was all luxury problems!

2) Bigger Thomas: "Ska In My Pocket." This always makes me want to dance.

3) The Conquistadors AKA Skabba the Hutt: "Sword of Damocles." [Phil is playing The Criminologist on this track!] They had a cease-and-desist on the name. Jerica from The Scofflaws produced it in her apartment, plus added some awesome organ. It was done for a "Rocky Horror"-themed ska compilation. I once worked on a comic book version ska "Rocky Horror" crossover of it that I was working on for "Rude Tales" comics.

4) Stubborn All Stars: "Pick Yourself Up." Not because I'm in the video among many others, but it has East Coast and West Coast together--even Tim Armstrong, Dickie from MMB, everyones on it. It's like Django assembled the Super Friends of Ska!

5) The Valentines: "Blam Blam Fever." This song kicks major butt! I would listen to this over and over again. This still pertinent tune is applicable in Jamaica now and more so in the USA. We definitely have gun fever.

6) Derrick Harriott: "Monkey Ska." Another old school fave!

7) Pilfers: "Next Generation." This song sums up a lot of my feelings. Things are messed up, but I have hope for the future to make better choices and change things!

8) Dubistry/ Brave New Girl: "Eighth Street." My teen years were spent on 8th Street and Dunia and Aram, who also spent time there, know what's up!

9) Fishbone: "Ugly." Love this song! The whole self-titled EP is such a fantastic artistic work. They should really be in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, not in court over stagediving lawsuits. They influenced so many.

10) The Toasters: "Thrill Me Up." Such a romantic, fun positive vibe comes to mind when I hear this. I used to put this song on all my cassette mix tapes!

Even with that, I've still got more faves in the chamber:

My Top 5 Ska Albums:

  • The NY Citizens: The Truth About the NY CitizensI saw one of their final concerts in the late 80s at Cafe Iguana, when it was across from my college, Parsons/New School.
  • Hub City Stompers: Blood, Sweat, and Beers. (The wittiest song writer of all of ska.) Funny, smart, with a knowledge of other musical styles.
  • King Chango: King Chango. They had just got signed to David Byrne's Lukabop label--it was a wild time!
  • The O.C. Supertones: The Supertones Strike BackI love this album! Say what you will about Christian ska, but this ROCKS!
  • Bad Manners: Heavy Petting - every tune on here is a classic!

DGTS: The teaser for the "Checkerboard Kids" 20th Anniversary Show is phenomenal! On Facebook, someone commented that the supergroup singing “A Message to You, Rudy” was like a “We Are the World” of NYC ska bands/musicians. Did you expect such an incredible response from the scene when you started approaching bands to appear on this anniversary show?

A shot from the "Checkerboard Kids" 20th anniversary show taping.

CP: It was great to see everyone chilling and talking. Coolie Ranx had never met Dunia from Agent 99, though they had rolled in similar circles for years, and for them to meet right there! Newer bands like Across the Aisle and Pandemics interacting with members from Metro Stylee, Scofflaws, Beat Brigade, Mephiskapheles, Bluebeats, and Vinny from Bim/Pilfers, Buford O' Sullivan, Radics from Rudie Crew, and even Adam from "Rudies 4 Rush" was there in the mix!

There were also a lot of New York-based ska folk that couldn't make it. Roger and Mark from Bigger Thomas, Django and Scott Klopenstein sent me well wishes. Tazy from Ska Parade was kind enough to Skype with me and we did a nice sit down interview the day before--and I even got to meet his ska kitty! #milothekittycat!

DGTS: And it was great to see you reunited with the Masked Mutant and the Lovely Cinnamon!

CP: That was a lot of fun. On the show, eventually Cinnamon and I got married on the season finale of MTV "Oddville." After 6 or 7 years, we divorced and she left the show. Eventually, after years and a lot of therapy on my part, we were able to become friends again and it was cool to ask her to come onto the show again. As for Mutie, he and I were long-time pals. So, I said, "We're getting the crew back together for one last job." Same for Vince Lombard from Rolling Rhino, my long-time director. He was all "when and where?"

DGTS: When will the show be broadcast on MNN and will people outside of the NYC be able to watch it by some other means?

CP: The 20th anniversary reunion show will air hopefully late October/early November and I should post the full episode on YouTube, on my Checkerphil Channel. Feel free to like and subscribe to that and out Checkerboard Kids Facebook page. Plug-plug!

DGTS: Will you still be taping "Checkerboard Kids" five, ten years from now?

CP: It's not even tape now. I film on XDCam at the studio, transfer it digitally, edit it on my computer with Premiere and upload it directly to the TV station via cyberduck. That is a long way away from when I started filming it on VHS-C tapes and SVHS, and going from VHS to VHS with a special flying erase head, so I wouldn't get rainbow lines when I paused or edited.

DGTS: Will the name of your show have to change to "Checkerboard Middle-Aged People" at some point?

CP: You--me--we are all Checkerboard Kids. It reflects a state of mind, not a physical age.

In the Studio with Checkerboard Phil!
I hope to live to be that older, graying gent skanking it up at a concert like Ska Mom or Skankin' Rich! I wanna be that old codger still dancing with the young ladies at the clubs. The girls find it cute, while I have this Benny Hill smirk. If I should pass away before that, I hope there's a big concert and lots of friends show up. Have fun and share good vibes, like the Ari Up memorial. She always wanted to know where's the party--where's the bashment? And there it was. She had become the impetus of the bashment. That was a beautiful spiritual experience. It's all about that sense of community.

Whether old school, new school--first, second, or third wave (or whatever's next). It matters not from whence we came. It's us all teaming up, being friends, and forming a community--and enjoying and spreading the music we love.

Every year, I'm all, "This is the last year for the show!" But every year, I keep on doing it!

+ + + +

Massive thanks to Phil for doing this interview--and for his support of the ska scene over the past 20 years!

+ + + +

No comments: