NY/NJ’s Bigger Thomas is one of many, many acts that will be taking the stage at Irving Plaza from May 31st through June 1st for the first installment of The Apple Stomp (that I personally hope becomes an annual event.) Representing my first interview with a 9-piece band (Slipknot wasn’t available,) Bigger Thomas are celebrating an incredible 25 years as a working Ska and Reggae act. A huge round of applause to these guys for keeping the scene going for so long!!!
Having shared stages with many of the elite in the Ska and Reggae genres, Bigger Thomas’ will be letting a whole lot of Ska out of their pocket (see what I did there) when they perform. Let’s just hope the stage doesn’t collapse when everyone gets up there!
I got in touch with bassist Marc Wasserman, who also writes the popular Ska blog Marco On The Bass (http://marcoonthebass.blogspot.com) and Electric Avenue hosts, which are monthly ska shows in New York City, prior to the epicness that will be Apple Stomp to talk about the group’s lengthy history as a band, what we can hope to expect from their performance, and their take on the current resurgence of Ska.
G- Hi there and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five! Introduce the members in the group… Who is everyone, what do they play, and where does everyone come from?
M- My pleasure! The band members include: Roger Apollon on vocals, Marc Wasserman on bass, Spencer Katzman on guitar, John DiBianco on drums, Jim Cooper on percussion, Rob George (who is also a member of Inspector 7) on saxophone and Chris Malone (who is also a member of The Pandemics) on trombone. We often have guest musicians like Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew and Dave Barry of The Toasters join us up on stage. A few of the band members reside in New York City, and the rest live in New Jersey.
G- Bigger Thomas has been a band for an amazing 25 years, so you basically began when I was in the 2nd grade. To get into your history a bit, can you tell us how you all met and when you first got started? Do you remember the moment that you really felt the group “click?”
M- The original core members of the band (Roger, Marc and Jim) met at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ in 1988. During the mid to late 1980’s, the only place to go and see Ska shows was to New York City. Back then, the scene was focused on The Toasters, NY Citizens, The Boilers, Beat Brigade and Urban Blight. We decided we would start a band and a scene in New Jersey.
After I put up a flyer around the Rutgers University campus I was contacted by six other very unique and diverse musicians. This core group would become the original incarnation of the band (then known as Panic!). We played our first show during a benefit show at Rutgers and opened up for the NY Citizens in September 1988. That first show in front of 400 people was amazing and introduced us to the New Brunswick scene. The NY Citizens liked what they heard and invited us to start playing shows with them. In the matter of just 3 months or so, we were playing around New York and New Jersey and soon booking shows from Boston to Washington, DC.
G- What led you to the Ska genre way back in the 80’s, and how were the shows and crowds back then?
M- I heard Ska and Reggae music for the first time when I was 14 when I borrowed a friend’s copy of The Specials first album. I loved their sound, their look and the band’s energy. It changed my life.
From there, I discovered original 60’s Ska, Reggae, and then Punk and New Wave. Though a love for Ska and Reggae music originally brought the band together back in 1988, each member brought a diverse set of musical interests that we developed into our own sound with 2-Tone Ska (The Specials, The Beat, The Selecter), UK Reggae (Steel Pulse, UB40) and Punk (The Clash, The Jam, The Police) as the foundation. Like our cherished musical influences, our goal has always been to write and perform music that gets people dancing and thinking too.
Shows were pretty amazing back then. We were lucky to play iconic venues like the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ and City Gardens in Trenton, NJ, CBGB’s and The Wetlands in New York, and the 9:30 Club in Washington DC. The crowds at those clubs in the late 80’s and early 90’s really understood and responded to Ska and our concept of building on the ideals of 2-Tone — mixing and combining the best of black and white music to create something new.
G- So tell me a bit about your feelings on the current state of Ska. How is the scene in NYC/NJ right now and are you noticing an upswing of bands and shows in your area?
M- After playing in a Ska band for 25 years, I can say that I’ve seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I think the current state of Ska is in a much better place than it has been for a while. There are now multiple generations of fans from teens to their 50’s who will come out to see a live show if they like the bands.
While I grew up in the NYC Ska scene and helped to give birth to the New Jersey Ska scene, I think California is the epicenter of American Ska. There are so many great Ska and Reggae bands out there. That said, the New York scene is still cooking. The Slackers remain one of the premiere American Ska bands and there are so many great established and up and coming bands from New York and New Jersey like King Django, Inspector 7, The Rudie Crew, The Frightnrs, Beat Brigade, Across The Aisle and The Pandemics, as well as a growing Spanish Ska scene with Los Skarroneros and Escarioka.
There are also so many places to see Ska in New York and New Jersey. Agent Jay from The Slackers regularly books shows out in Brooklyn and Steve Shafer (ex-Moon Records and Duff Guide To Ska blogger) and I book the Electric Avenue (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Electric-Avenue-SkaReggae/349374201794890) monthly showcases in Manhattan.
G- Do you currently have, or are you working on, any releases right now? When will you be heading back to the studio or on the road? Anything currently in the works?
M- We just released “Ska In My Pocket: The Biggest & Bestest of Bigger Thomas” as a digital only release that is available on Bandcamp (http://biggerthomas1.bandcamp.com/album/ska-in-my-pocket-the-biggest-bestest-of-bigger-thomas). It features 21 of our favorite songs taken from the four albums, and two demo tapes we have recorded since forming. We feel it is a fitting way to honor our musical legacy and use it as a springboard for an EP of new music we plan to release later this year. In honor of the Apple Stomp, we will be releasing a digital EP with two new songs we have just recorded.
Separately, a few members of the band (myself, Roger, Spencer and Jim) along with Megg Howe of Across The Aisle, Dave Barry of The Toasters and Steve Shafer have formed Rude Boy George, which is a band that plays Ska and Reggae versions of 80’s new wave songs. We were just in the studio with Wayne Lothian, bassist for The English Beat/General Public, who is producing an EP we plan to release later this summer. You can get more info about the band here: https://www.facebook.com/RudeBoyGeorgeBand
G- So, let’s talk about Apple Stomp! Asbestos Records and several sponsors have been working very hard to make this THE premier Ska event of the year… How do you feel about the lineups and your inclusion on the show?
M- We are very excited to be a part of such an amazing festival of Ska music. We are also very happy that a Ska festival based in New York includes so many great New York City-based Ska bands like The Slackers, The Pilfers, Mephiskapheles, Inspector 7, The Scofflaws, Metro Stylee, and us. The festival really does showcase the incredibly diverse sound of New York Ska from the 80’s, 90’s and beyond.
G- What should your fans, both old and new, expect of the performances when you guys hit the road? What should some of the first time listeners expect to see when you take the stage?
M- Pure energy! Our lead singer Roger is one of the best front men ever, and it’s his goal at every show to get the crowd — no matter how small or how big — up on their feet dancing. We really try to play a set that includes songs our hardcore fans like and songs that will also appeal to an audience that has never seen us. We stay true to the 2-Tone meets NYC Ska sound we created 25 years ago, but we always try to keep it unique and diverse with a defining sound that people always recognize as Bigger Thomas.
G- You’ve shared stages with so many legendary performers during your musical tenure, including Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and many more, but are there any bands or artists that you hope to share a bill with in the future? If you could be on a feasible 3-band dream lineup for Bigger Thomas, who would you want to tour with?
M- Great question! My 3-band dream line-up to tour with would include The Specials, Fishbone and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra!
G- What is the craziest or most memorable show that you have played to date? Where was it and what was it like?
M- There has been a few. One of the most memorable was opening up a show for Special Beat and The Toasters at The Ritz in 1990. The show was sold out, the crowd was ready to dance and stage dive and we were also interviewed by the BBC, who were following Special Beat (which included members of The Specials and The English Beat) around the U.S. You can see video of the show and our interview here — http://youtu.be/ABGOC3d5Y_4
We also played a show opening for Dave Wakeling of The English Beat a few years ago at the Sellersville Theatre in Pennsylvania. It was our first time there and the crowd had never seen us before. They gave us such a warm reception that we were stunned! It was the kind of show where everything goes right. The band was tight, the songs sounded great and the crowd was with us from the start. Those kinds of shows can keep you going when you get down and discouraged.
G- Lastly, what advice can you give some of the young, up and coming bands everywhere who want to make it in music, on the road, and as a professional musician?
M- Focus on writing good songs that mean something to you and then play them with passion and conviction. It also helps if you are friends with your band mates. At the end of day you are all in it together. It makes those long van rides and endless rehearsals fun and they are the one’s who will help finish the lyrics to that song you wrote or come up with melody for the horn line you can’t finish.