Long Live Ska, the highly entertaining/influential/bastardized forefather to reggae music. Don’t dig Ska? Lemme guess… You were probably a fan back in high school, when you were trying to fit in by trying to not fit in, and lost your enthusiasm for the music as soon as you went to college, where you discovered Sub-Pop and flip night. It happens all the time, and that’s fine. But for the rest of us, those who haven’t lost a taste for upbeats anyways, we’re always excited when The Toasters come to town!
The longest running Third Wave Ska band ever, now enjoying their 30th year of activity, The Toasters pretty much created, fostered the rise of, and continues to flourish in Ska music scenes across the globe. Their friendly energy, tenacious touring, and wide influence on just about every Ska band out there (even the ones that haven’t even formed yet) are strong testaments to their staying power.
30 years, man… I was only 4 years old and MTV had just started.
Before they hit the stage at Syracuse’s Lost Horizon on August 31st, I sat down with guitar/vocalist Robert “Bucket” Hingley, now the sole remaining original member of the group, for a candid interview to discuss the band’s longevity, extensive touring schedule, his labels Megalith and Moon Ska Records, and the (hopefully) soon-to-be-pressed double vinyl version of one of their greatest albums, “Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down.”
G- Hi there and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five! The Toasters are back on the road once again… How has everything been going with the band?
B- Hey Greg and thanks for doing the interview. Everything’s been going good. We’re back in the saddle now. We’ve been off a little bit over the summer recharging the batteries and polishing up some mixes on a new 7” we’ve got coming out later this year. It’s funny to see that the music business has come back to 7” 45’s after 50 years, but that’s kinda how it is.
G- Yea I actually had a few questions about that later in the interview because my label, Instant Classic Records, along with Asbestos Records and Underground Communiqué, are very close to reaching full funding on Kickstarter to release “D.L.T.B.G.Y.D.” on vinyl for the first time. Why wasn’t the record pressed on wax earlier on?
B- It has been on vinyl, but not in the U.S.A.
B- There’ve been European pressings of that on V.O.R. Records in Germany, but never really in the states. I mean, I guess at that point in the late 90’s, vinyl was pretty much at a low ebb, and it’s only been since then, in the last 15 years, that it’s really made a comeback to the point now where it is kinda outselling cd’s. So really, we didn’t really press up a lot of vinyl in the states. It was just a small market for that.
G- See… You learn something new everyday!
B- You certainly do.
G- But the one thing the European pressings didn’t have that we’re going to have is a slew of bonus tracks and extras and stuff…
B- Yea. Jeremy at the label is pretty happy about that. He’s the archivist, so when he gets to be a ska-nerd, he really loves it! He was able to dig down in the files and get a bunch of extra artwork that wasn’t on the cd book because when the cd came out, we had an artist draw up a whole bunch of sketches, not all of which got used. So he was able to not only do you get some bonus tracks, he was able to get some bonus art and stuff, too. He was pretty happy to put that altogether from the archives and get nerdy for that release.
G- How far back are these archives going now?
B- Well, they go back pretty much all the way. Back when I started The Toasters and made records, I used to keep a file on everybody. So I have pictures of No Doubt before Gwen had her surgery, for example (laughs). But he’s got everything there in Oklahoma, so he loves to go rifle through that and dig stuff up. For a collectors item, that’s gonna be something!
G- Well, I’ve got 2k invested in it myself, and if I have to put in a little more I’m going to do it, because I want it out! So getting back to your history, it’s been 30 years and you’re still going at it. I want to say congratulations, and did you ever think it would’ve possible when you first get started in NYC?
B- No no. That’s a question people ask me a lot and I’d never have been able to say, back in 1981 when the band formed, that I’d still be doing it today… I’d have probably laughed and told you you were a nut, but you’d have been right and I would’ve been the nut. (A few other members come up at this point with drinks.) Look at that… Ice cold Yuengling lager!
G- Beer Interruption! It happens all the time. You said your first gig was in 1981, and that was opening up for Bad Brains, correct?
B- Yea at a place called the A7 Club on the Lower East Side. And I think H.R. was in jail, or one of the times he was in jail. (laughs)
G- Yea, that was a common occurrence.
B- I think he had his own cell there, you know?
G- Yea lol.
B- But at that point, it was just the band, and they were playing a reggae set, and they were killer! You know, they were a much better reggae band than they were a punk band. So we played with them at the A7, which then became King Tutt’s Waa Waa Hut, and now is probably an art gallery or…
G- A Starbucks?
B- Or a Starbucks or a Gap or something.
G- Yea. Well, that’s trippy. I’ve only been able to see the band, so as a first gig that’s pretty hot! Now, your tour schedule for 2012, just like previous years, is ridiculous! By the end of this year, you guys will have toured China, Europe, and the U.S. several times. Since you just spend a great deal of time on the road, how do you guys maintain such a schedule?
B- Hey you forgot Australia!
G- And Australia. I apologize! (laugh)
B- Well, the way the music business is polarized right now, it’s polarized into bands that tour and bands that don’t tour, and in order to have any kind of financial reward, you’ve got to tour a lot because, obviously, sales of recorded music are in a slump, and it’s kind of… You know, sales of collector’s items like you’re doing have held up quite well, but things like traditional brick and mortar sales are all gone. Unfortunately, kids today kind of have it in their mind that music is free, so they don’t really want to go into shops and buy records. So as a musician, your livelihood has really gone back to being a good live band. Fortunately, that’s what The Toasters are.
G- Yes, you are.
B- We saw that ball coming pretty early, so we got a good swing on it. But we like to tour, we like to tour weird places, and this year, I think, is the most wide ranging tour we’ve ever done, but not some of the weirdest places. That’s back in the archive, too. But we like playing a lot of shows, and it’s fortunate that people want us to come play for them in their countries, so that is what we do and that is what we know.
G- Rad! And are there any countries you have not been to yet, and are you planning to perform there in the future?
B- Well, Australia is on that list, but come 10 days, I’ll be able to cross that off. China is on that list, but I’ll be able to cross that one off, too.
G- The “Bucket” List!
B- Yea! But, we never played a show in Africa, so that’s about the only continent we haven’t been to.
G- Is that something that you think could happen?
B- Well, I don’t know how many gigs there are for western music there. We’ll see. There’re gigs in South Africa, but I’m not really too happy with the political makeup of that country. Some countries I wouldn’t go to on political grounds… That’s one. I don’t really feel too happy about going to play a gig in Israel until they get their situation sorted out there. But having said that, music is music, and you shouldn’t let politics come into it too much, in terms of keeping people away from the music if they want to listen to it. I guess my major problems isn’t with people, but politicians.
G- And there are plenty of politicians causing plenty of problems, so let’s talk about something fun and interesting… Megalith Records has been active for 10 years, and you’ve managed to release 60 records thus far. Additionally, Moon Ska was THE label when the Third Wave Ska movement really caught the mainstream market. How are you currently finding acts for Megalith, given the expansive ways to get music now, and what can we expect by the end of 2012?
B- Yea. The thing with Megalith is that I am pretty selective about who I work with. There are lots of bands out there, but not that many I really want to work with. Moreso now than ever, people really have expectations that are out of whack with what a record company can do. To a large extent, bands are almost better putting out their own records, in a sense. We’ll basically put out records for friends, and put out records that I like. It’s going to grow much more organically than Moon (Ska) did. Moon was a snowball that ran down hill, burned very brightly, and crashed very hard. That was a fun rollercoaster, but with Megalith I’d like to be much more sedate than Moon was.
G- And do you have any plans to start producing vinyl for Megalith bands?
B- Possibly. Right now, the problem that labels have, as I’m sure you’re finding out, is funding.
G- Oh yea.
B- So, at the moment, everybody wants this, and everybody wants that, and what we’re trying to do more is get involved in touring. My whole mindset right now is getting involved with live shows and festivals and less in putting out recorded music, in that sense.
G- Right on. And since you have to remain active when looking for bands to sign to Megalith, do you listen to much of the new Ska coming out these days, and are there any modern Ska bands around that you enjoy.
B- Few, in a sense. I mean, there are a lot of good bands out there, but I’m not a huge fan of what could be called the new traditional bands. I think there are a lot of bands playing a lot of the same things and a lot of bands that really sound the same, and that is something that should be avoided. It is incumbent for bands to get their own sound and write their own music and not try to emulate a particular sound that one guy had on a record in the summer of 1968. That’s not ska music. Ska music is a continuum that runs from 1955, when the first ska record came out, til now.
Ska music is a transformational beast… it’s a mongrel, and it really has a way of defying the pedigree. Bands should really try to be a little bit more idiosyncratic and develop their own sound. Having said that, there are some great bands out there like The Dropsteppers, The Forthrights, and The Snails and bands like that. Those are kids that are really trying to do something for themselves. And some bands on the west coast like the Aggrolites, Westbound Train, and The Void Union.
So, I wish there would be more young ska bands, but at the moment it’s a little hard, and people should really rally around it and try to support projects like what you’re doing. You should try to support new bands after you’ve done the collectors issues (ska re-release projects.)
G- I fully intend on it! So 2 quick questions left… Out of 30 years worth of shows, can you recall what the craziest or most memorable show you’ve personally played to date is? Where was it and what was it like?
B- Well, I think one of the craziest shows we’ve played was in Kutsk, where the nearest town was in Mongolia. We were out there and people didn’t really have a clue what was going on. It was like going back in a time warp… All the women at the airport, the security guards, were dressed up like a Robert Palmer video… Really bizarre, so that’s a memorable one. A couple of shows we played back in Venezuala back in 1991 when they were having a coup down there… That was pretty crazy. Kids were going off.
And we played a show in Greece, and around the corner, they’re setting fire to everything and stuff. That was last year. 2 years ago, we were driving a German van, and there was a lot of anti-German sentiment there, so I got some duct tape and taped over the licnese plates and drove around Greece with no license plates, and nobody said shit. Try doing that here!
G- Yea I’m Greek myself and I’m sure they were probably smoking cigarettes and drinking frappes, so they were all set. Lastly, and you touched on some stuff earlier, for all the kids out there that are trying to make it in this difficult and tumultuous business, what advice can you give to those who want to make it in music, on the road, and as a professional musician?
B- That’s the million dollar question. I mean, I think now, more than any other time I’ve been involved in music, now is probably the worst time to try to start a band up. The traditional ways bands have had of funding themselves have really dried up. It’s easy for bands to publicize themselves these days using social media, but, in a sense, it’s a double edged sword because there’s so much of that, people don’t really pay attention to it anymore. I must get 300 event invites a day on Facebook, but who looks at those anymore? You’re just bombarded with stuff, so it’s really hard for bands to make themselves stand out. So really, bands have to have a really clear idea of what they have to do and where they want to go. They have to have a clear idea of how they’re going to get there and what it takes. You’ve got to work really hard for a long time and make no money, you know?
Rock and Roll is a bitch. We all know that, but the most important thing is bands have to write good songs, and that is something we need to see more of. Bands these days seem to spend more time on photo shoots and publicity than they do writing a good tune. So, rather than put out an album’s worth of mediocre tunes, write one good song, make a video of it, stick it on Youtube, and go from there. The emphasis is writing good tunes.
Show Review 8/31/12 Lost Horizon – Syracuse, NY
I made my way to the Lost Horizon on a warm summer Friday evening to witness first hand one of the most famous names in ska- The Toasters. Incredibly stoked for the show, I expected to be packed in like a sardine beside a bunch of the other freaks and geeks. Sadly, this was not the case for the August 31st show.
I found myself standing awkwardly among the fifteen or so other audience members, waiting for the (incredibly tardy) opening band to get everything rolling. Introducing themselves as some completely unintelligible band name I’m sure they found trashily ironic, I wanted to run for the nearest exit as soon as they started. The lead singer started by calling everyone in the audience “lazy shits.” Now, I don’t care how “punk” you are, but until you replace the cocky attitude with some actual talent, shut up.
The band seemed young, still in their teens besides the lead singer/guitarist, who was probably one of the band members’ “cool” older brothers, and he stood directly behind a pole during the whole performance. But, aside from the cacophonous, blood curdling sounds that blasted from their amps, they were incredibly energetic for such a tiny crowd.
Local boys 4 Point 0 proved to be much better. Despite the fact that they were missing their lead singer for the day, they performed very well. The group has a sound that, if pointed in the right direction (away from Central New York) and placed into the right hands, could be highly marketable to ska fans. They’re young enough to know what’s “cool,” and old enough to have developed a solid sound and musical talent.
Everyone in the crowd was skanking and bobbing their heads along to 4 Point 0’s great stage energy. Their interactions between the band and audience, and a definable presence from each individual member, enabled you to pick out each member’s personality. The group mostly played original tunes, and my personal favorite was ‘2012’, a cynical, tongue-and-cheek tune with some great brass about the looming apocalypse. They even squeezed in a cover of Taylor Swift’s hit “You Belong With Me,” always an audience favorite.
4 Point 0 serves as a great example of the beast that Third Wave ska has morphed into- a group of punks with a knack for horns. Finding a niche between the marketability of bands like Reel Big Fish and the crassness of punk, 4 Point 0 proves to be a great local favorite with quite a bit of potential.
After what seemed like forever, the moment I had been waiting for finally arrived and The Toasters took the stage. It was my first time seeing them live, and if I could see them again tonight, I would in a heartbeat! You often hear about how awesome and influential the group is in the ska world, but it is not until you actually see The Toasters live that you realize why. Very few bands translate this well from album to stage, and The Toasters are an awesome live group! Famous for living on the road and playing gigs all over the world, I imagined that most people in the biz get burned out, but, aside from Bucket’s mentioning of his voice going, that aspect was completely absent from their performance.
The Toasters electrified the stage with great ska classics like ‘Two Tone Army’ and ‘House of Soul’, causing the crowd to become an actual living entity. There was a fantastic, recognizable connection between the band and audience, with the give-and-take you really seek out at shows… They really know how to bring it. Every song was packed full of not only energy and great songwriting, but just plain ol’ devotion and passion for music. You could clearly tell that every band member enjoyed what they were doing, which raises the quality of any show exponentially. Despite the low numbers of those in attendance, The Toasters rocked the intimate venue.