Interview with Stephen Jackson from The Pietasters
Washington D.C.’s The Pietasters are one of the longest running Ska bands on the market today. Formed in 1990, the soul slinging, hard partying band represents the finest of youthful energy combined with adult situations. Anyone who has seen the group can tell you that their performances are lighthearted, beer saturated dance-a-thons that feature bouncy grooves, catchy melodies, and a reason to leave the drama at home. The band’s rise to prominence was inevitable, and their impressive catalogue of releases, EP’s, and compilation appearances have made them a household name amongst Ska enthusiasts.
However, life does have a way of throwing touring musicians a mighty curveball at times. The band has endured several lineup changes during their tenure, most notably the tragic passing of longtime bassist Todd Eckhardt. But the band marches on, taking their soulful sound on the road to this very day. They’ve recently had their classic album, “Oolooloo,” released on vinyl for the first time, and you can buy it HERE (if it’s still available… RUN!)
Continuing to entertain audiences far and wide with their sincere delivery and D.C. charm, The Pietasters could open for virtually anyone and turn the crowd out. One of the headliners of this year’s Skalapalooza tour (also featuring The Pilfers, Spring Heeled Jack, and Edna’s Goldfish,) The Pietasters make every venue a party and always get the crowds on their feet. I got a chance to speak with one of the most soulful voices in Ska, Stephen Jackson, to discuss the group’s lengthy career, favorite memories, “Oolooloo” on vinyl and, of course, beer.
G- Hey man what’s up? It’s been a long time… How is everything going with you guys? Ready to hit the road again soon and crack a few drinks open?
S- Always! The ice chest is perpetually stocked and the van’s fuel tank is full. Let’s hit it.
G- Rage on! The Pietasters are going to be one of the co-headliners for this year’s Skalapalooza East Coast tour, featuring The Pilfers, Spring Heeled Jack, and more. How excited are you to be making it back out on the road with all these bands, and did you expect to see such a great lineup of talent on one tour all the way in 2012?
S- We’re really looking forward to playing these shows with our old friends. In fact, way back in 1999, we did a US/Canada tour with Spring Heeled Jack and The Pilfers. It’ll be fun to see the old crew and make some new memories.
G- (laughing) They let you guys across the border?! Well done, sirs! Anyways, your 1995 record, “Oolooloo,” was just released on vinyl for the first time, and many people were waiting to see it happen for quite a while. What took the record so long to see a vinyl release?
S- It was never released previously on vinyl because, again, I think, CDs were the way to go in 1995. Recently there has been resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. I don’t know if MOON ever released vinyl albums. They did press some 7” singles way back when.
Being an old guy who grew up listening to vinyl albums, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for wax. So, when Asbestos Records approached us about re-issuing this old album, we jumped at the chance. Finding the right label to work with was what took so long.
G- Nice… We may have to look into getting “Strapped Live” a proper vinyl release next! Speaking of records, your last full length, “All Day,” was released about 5 years ago. Are The Pietasters currently working on any new music or projects, and can your fans expect anything new to drop in the near future?
S- We are working on new songs and hope to have something ready for release soon. So much has changed in the music business that we’re not sure if we’ll do a traditional album release, or split the songs up into a singles club like The Bouncing Souls did a few years back. Maybe we’ll stream them on our website. It’s all still under discussion.
G- Well, we’re ready when you are and looking forward to hearing to new jams!
Now, I’ve had many experiences partying with The Pietasters, and many painful mornings trying to recover from those moments… Are you guys still the same fun loving, hard partying D.C. boys we all know and love? What kind of beers and booze do you want people bringing up to you onstage this time around?
S- The band has always been about entertaining people and having fun. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Since there are so many of us, our tastes for alcohol are diverse. From a strong Beefeater and Tonic to Aberlour (rocks or with ginger) to Guinness to Miller Lite or Budweiser, we’re fairly easy to please. And instead of bringing us drinks, spend it on yourself and your date… You’ll enjoy the show more and may get lucky.
G- You heard the man, folks. So, all touring musicians know that life on the road can be a difficult place, and The Pietasters have had their share of lineup changes, and overcome several tragedies, in their pursuit of continuing to entertain their audiences and fans… What do you have to tell yourself to keep going when you find yourself losing a band member, friend, or otherwise encounter a difficult situation as a group?
S- Well, again, it’s all about fun. If we need to take time to clear our heads, deal with a personal situation, etc., then so be it. We’ll be back, I promise. From 1993 – 2001 we toured full time. It’s a tough way to make a living and when the crew and band totals 10 people, you aren’t going to get rich quick (or ever). So, as we got older, and with the passing of Todd, we decided to play music on our own terms.
A lot of the guys now have musical side projects, full time jobs, and families (some have all three). We only release music when we’re happy with the songs. We don’t want to rush out a release that we wouldn’t want to listen to. We also wouldn’t want to put on a show if our hearts aren’t in it. That’s the way we have found it possible to keep playing for as long as we have.
G- Solid… I can dig it. Now, to reminisce a little bit, could you tell us a bit about your experiences backing up James Brown, and opening up for Joe Strummer? I mean, is that one of those ‘What the hell’ type of moments for the band, or what?! How did it all come about?
S- There have been so many “What the hell” type of moments for The Pietasters. It’s really amazing — the things we’ve seen and the people we’ve had the opportunity to play with. Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Strummer were amazing people who showed us more respect than we deserve.
While on Hellcat/Epitaph Records, we were offered the opening slot on Joe Strummer and the Mescalaros US/Canada tour in 1999. We were in awe of Mr. Strummer and the Mescalaros, yet were quickly welcomed into the fold. One of the most entertaining parts of that tour was seeing which VIPs would show up each night to pay their respects. One night, we were all sitting around shooting the shit and in walks Billie Joe from Green Day. It was like that at most shows and it was just amazing to be a part of it all. A year or so later, Todd and I walked in to the lobby of the 9:30 club (DC) to see Joe Strummer and the Mescalaros. Joe turns around and says, “Todd, Steve!” and gives us a big hug. It was amazing to us that this hero of ours would remember us and show the love. That was the last night I saw Todd or Joe alive. It was a very moving night for me, and one that I will remember forever.
In 2003, the local alt radio station WHFS was having their annual Holiday show. They wanted to bring in Mr. Brown, but he didn’t want to travel with a full band as he was only going to play three songs. We got a call from the station asking if we could pull it off. We had just returned from a six-week European tour, and every night after the show we’d return to the bus for a back lounge James Brown listening party. Our bassist Jorge would fire up the tunes and we’d all listen until we passed out, so the timing was perfect. The next day, we went to the little studio that we recorded in and did five karaoke style songs (sans vocals). We Fed Exed them to Mr. Brown’s manager and two days later we were rehearsing with Mr. Brown. The next night we’re onstage in front of 25,000 people playing “Sex Machine” with one of America’s most legendary performers. To say it was surreal is an understatement. After the show, we remained friends with Mr. Brown, and his band. Our tour manager, Todd Harris, went on to work with Mr. Brown as Front of House Sound Engineer and then as Tour Manager until Mr. Brown’s passing. I still have a hard time believing our good fortune!
G- Dude… Now that’s cool. I mean, I kinda feel like I just lost a dick measuring competition because I never got to back up James Brown or play shows with Joe Strummer, but still… Those are stories for the ages!
The Pietasters have been in the Ska game for almost a quarter of a century at this point, and you’ve undoubtedly seen the peaks and valleys of Ska’s popularity over the years. How do you feel about the current attitudes towards Ska, and are you expecting/hoping for a return wave?
S- It’s funny because back in 1999 you could almost feel the receding Third Wave. The marketers had moved on to garage and the fifteenth coming of punk.
The Ska scene we grew up in was small and earnest. By 2000, Ska music’s third wave had run its course and didn’t get much respect. There were a lot of bands that had jumped on the Ska bandwagon and were playing a less than genuine form of the music. Not that all Ska bands have to be traditional. There were just some horrible bands with horns that considered themselves Ska!
Thankfully, there are some great bands out there now who are playing a heartfelt, sincere version of Ska. We’ve been playing with some great bands of late, and it seems like the music has survived and will continue to evolve thanks to folks who play it and enjoy it for the sake of the music, and not because they think they’ll get rich off of it. A guy can hope, at least.
G- Yes there certainly are, and I’m hopeful that a new batch of solid bands and players will come about. Though there are probably several that come to mind for you (see above), can you describe for us what the craziest or most memorable show you’ve played to date is? Where was it and what was it like?
S- It’s almost impossible to pick out one show. We’ve played so many shows that were memorable for so many varied reasons: The audience, the location, the booze, the fights, the girls, the weather, the James Brown show and Joe Strummer tour for the reasons mentioned above… The first European tour we did was supporting Mighty Mighty Bosstones. We had just finished a US/Canada tour with them and they generously took us to Europe. Seeing the audience’s reaction to them and the quality of the shows they put on was a real inspiration to us. While we could never match their popularity, we try our hardest to put on as entertaining a show as they do.
G- Man, those all sound like they were a blast. I feel cool just being able to read about them!
Anyways, to finish up here, as a professional touring and recording musician, what advice can you give some of the young, up and coming bands everywhere who want to make it in music, on the road?
S- Keep at it. You’ve got to play as much as possible. If you want to be in a touring band, hit the road. No one is going to come to your basement/garage and ask you to tour or record. We drove around in circles for years before MOON offered to put out some records for us. After that we were lucky to have good opportunities and we worked our asses off. There’s an old cliché about making your own good luck. All of the bands that I know and respect that have found success have made their own good luck. Sure there are a lot of hungry nights, crappy breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, shady club owners and bad shows. But it beats a real job. At least while you’re young.