Interview with Ronnie Ragona from SPRING HEELED JACK; Playing SKALAPALOOZA in select cities!
New Haven, Connecticut’s Spring Heeled Jack USA was a frontrunner of the East Coast Ska Scene during their tenure as a group. Existing from 1991-2001, the septet helped and encouraged the burgeoning Third Wave Ska movement, and made Connecticut’s scene one of the most active and vibrant in the nation. Several members of the third wave group went on to perform with other high profile acts including The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, and Reel Big Fish among others, true to their Ska roots to this very day. The untimely passing of original drummer Dave Karcich, as well as the difficult and tumultuous world of music business, ultimately led to the group disbanding as of 2002, but the group’s legacy lives on.
2010 Asbestos Records re-released SHJ’s seminal albums, “Static World View” and “Songs From Suburbia,” on vinyl, and saw the group reunite for two sold out performances at Toad’s Place in New Haven to celebrate their musical offerings. It was clear that their presence has been missed, and 2012 will give a new batch of fans one more chance to see the band tear up the dance floor, in a slightly different form.
A featured highlight of this year’s Skalapalooza tour, Spring Heeled Jack USA will be traveling across the East Coast with fellow pioneers The Pietasters, The Pilfers, and several special guests, performing as an “acoustic” 4-piece. A must-see event for anyone who digs the peppy, boisterous sound, Spring Heeled Jack will certainly be received with a loud welcome when they come to your city, so get off your butts and go have some fun! I spoke with Ronnie Ragona prior to the tour kick off to talk about the group’s legacy, where and what everyone is doing these days, and a bit of reminiscing about the good old days when Ska was all the rage.
G- Hey man and thank you very much for speaking with Live High Five today! How has everything been going with you guys, and what have you been up to as of late?
R- Miserable Man, Just Miserable… I keeeed I keeeed… Doin’ well and living life… High fives all round.
G- Spring Heeled Jack played some amazing shows back in the day, especially in your hometown of New Haven, Ct., and you’re going to get at it one more time in just a few short months. How excited are you guys and who will be performing in the group for the upcoming Skalapalooza tour?
R-We are totally excited and ready. Playing these songs to the people who care is the best feeling in the world and to be able to do it with two of our “brother” bands and great friends? Well, C’MON… It’s truly amazing! The line up for this traveling party is myself and Mike on the electric/ acoustic guitars and vocals, Corky (SHJ’s new drummer from the reunion shows) on the skins, our Buddy Seager Tennis (from Mellow Bravo/Toxic Narcotic) slappin’ da bass, and Nick Bacon (Pilfers/LCA) stroking the Hammond organ (pun intended)
G- I have heard about the band performing acoustically in and around the East Coast, but haven’t seen the show at this point. Why did you guys start playing stripped down, and is this something you plan to continue after Skalapalooza?
R- Well the one thing about SHJ these days is that we are like Clark Kent and Superman… You never quite see us all in the same room at the same time. Trust me, we tried to do it many times, but its really hard with everybody’s schedules. This band is a huge emotional investment on all our parts. We really care about it and we always want to make it a great time for us, and the fans, and keep our brotherhood/family/legacy intact. So for all of us to agree on all the factors and commitments it takes to play takes a lot of time and a lot of planning. You ever have 7 adult boy/men trying to come up with a plan? It exhausting, but always worth it.
Short story long…2 years after the reunion and of nothing happening, Matt Flood, who was a huge pusher for the SHJ reunion and released our two albums on vinyl, asked Mike and Myself to play SHJ songs for his label’s Christmas party last December. So, as in if you say no to Flood he will hound you and hound you till you give in so we just said “sure, why not,” it turned out to be a really cool experience. Everybody was singing along, dancing and sending out the love. It felt like home.
Cut to a year later, Flood informs us he’s re-releasing The Pietasters Oolooloo and The Pilfers first record on vinyl, and enquires if we would possibly do the acoustic thing again to open for those guys and help support there album releases. Once again, I knew if we said no, we would be bombarded with emails, texts, Facebook posts, airplane writing, ravens etc. etc., plus these bands are our very dear friends, so we agreed.
THEN! It turns out the thing is growing… More bands, bigger rooms, more dates, cats and dogs living together, MASS HYSTERIA! So I checked in with the fellas to see if we could possibly get a full on thing going, but once again the scheduling and prior obligations nixed it. So, in lieu of that, Mike and I decided to drop the acoustics, plug in, amp it up and put together something special.
The plan, as always, is too hopefully do full lineup shows in the future. We are a family first and foremost, but if there is a gospel of SHJ to be spread, we shall do it until we can form Voltron!
G- Well activate interlock, connect dynotherms, up those infracells, and get those mega-thrusters going! I’d like to talk about your influences as a band for a moment. When you were first getting started, who were you guys listening to that made you want to start a Ska band? Are there any artists or groups that you can recommend to us now?
R- Listening wise at the very beginning was very much the 2tone bands such as Madness, The Specials, and The English Beat. And from there, there was the roots discovery with the likes of the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Justin Hinds, etc. etc. But those bands didn’t really play to often (or not at all) where we lived, so we became fans of the bands that played amazing shows at Connecticut clubs like The Anthrax, The Moon, and Nightbreed such as The New York Citizens, The Bosstones, Fishbone and The Toasters. That really was the catalyst of forming the band, and I suppose to some extent we wanted to dance, party, drink, get rowdy, and hang out with girls… What can I say? We were kids!
To me, Ska reminded me of Motown and soul, mixed in with Swing and 50’s Rock and Roll, all of which I grew up on and loved and in turn what all of the guys in the band knew and loved, so it just worked.
Ska will always have a new wave… What are we at the 5th now? But as far as the current stuff, some of them doing cool things here in Boston would be bands like Ska-prest, The Have Nots , Obi Fernandez (Westbound Train), The Pomps, and Nick and the Adversaries (not really Ska, more Mod garage.)
G- Though slightly obscure, Spring Heeled Jack had a small legal issue with their name back in the day. Can you tell us a bit about that nonsense and confusion?
R- Spring HEEL Jack from England… F’ those guys. We had the name probably a good 3 years before them, but since we where both where signed to majors at the time, and U.S. copyrights and English copyrights are different, we struck up a deal to avoid confusion. We would put USA after our name, and they would put UK after there’s.
They never did it. We did, because we we’re trying to work with the situation and be cool. They, on the other hand, were not. Booooooo to them, so it was back to good ol’ Spring Heeled Jack proper.
Our offer to wrestle them still stands BTW. I know Rhodes could pull off a mean suplex!!!
G- Hahaha that’s awesome! Count me in as the guy who blindsides the referee and tosses you a chair! So tell me a bit about where you are from. Are SHJ members still in and around New Haven, and are you still involved in the New Haven Ska Scene? How is it going and how are the responses at the shows?
R- I’m originally from Shelton/New Haven Ct, and currently live in Boston. I moved up here to play in my second band, Lost City Angels, back in 2000 and have been here on and off ever since. Our new drummer Corky lives in Ma. as well.
Mike, Pete, Chris, Tyler, Rick all still live in the New Haven Area. I haven’t had much time to pop in on the scene down in Ct. these days, so that would be a question better answered by one of the fellas, which they will gladly answer if you happen to see them in downtown New Haven and buy them a beer or a shot, or a shot and a beer. Your choice.
G- In 2010, your 2 full-length releases were committed to vinyl via Asbestos Records, another staple of the Connecticut scene. How do you guys feel knowing your music has made such an impact on the lives of kids just getting into Ska now? Are their any plans to release you earlier recordings on vinyl as well?
R- The only “early recording” we did was a demo tape. People who had it at the time still have a fondness for it, but personally, I cant even listen to it. It’s like seeing a picture of yourself in that awkward phase… I only see the mistakes and how green we were, sooooooo nope! Haha
The fact that we have had any impact on anybody always blows my mind. It is seriously the hugest compliment and I hope its true!
G- Now, many Spring Heeled Jack members went on to join and form other bands and projects and are staying busy with Ska music… What are you and everyone else doing these days musically?
R- I’m currently working on a solo record that blends all the music I love. Chris is currently in The Bosstones, Pete is in Less than Jake, Rick is in The Mountain Movers from New Haven, Mike is In Lord Fowl/Bonafide, Corky has a new solo record out called “Man of the Sea,” and Tyler is Tyler he doesn’t even need a band… He’s a force all himself (but post SHJ, he was in Reel Big Fish.)
G- So yea… I guess we could consider you guys all still active musically. RBJ, LTJ, Bosstones, MM, and Bonafide? They’re all reasonable known, I guess. Cripes…
Anywho, what should your fans, both old and new, expect of the performances when you guys hit the road in October? I’m not trying to spoil any surprises, but can we expect any new material or special appearances?
R- We are out there playing these songs for the love and for the people who dig our music. We’ve put together a great set list with some variation and a few different feels and some sick covers, but no new material. That is a question for another day.
However, there will be some surprises, probably even to us! Even though this run is sans horns (or is it???), we’ve really put together a killer show. It WILL be a party, I can promise you that, and we shall give it our all.
G- So rad! I can’t wait to see what you guys do with this… I have a feeling there may be a long recovery period from Skalapalooza, but it’ll be worth it… no doubt!
So, one of my most memorable shows was performing at Toad’s Place with SJH with an old band of mine from Syracuse… It must’ve been 140 degrees on stage that day! Can you tell us about the craziest or most memorable show you’ve played to date? Where was it and what was it like?
R- At the thick of it, we were playing 200 to 300 shows a year and many times we would be on stage thinking “This is the best show ever,” but then you would do the next one and think “This is the best show ever!” There have been a million special moments and every part of the experience has been a blessing. There are definitely highlights, but I might have had too much of the sauce at the time to remember it all. People remind me sometimes of certain shows and then it pops in there and I go “Ooooooooh yeeeeah! Damn. I totally forgot about that… That was a GREAT time!”
So, I’m going with the show with your band when it was 140 degrees at Toads 😉 Did we survive? Is this Heaven? Who Am I?)
G- Haha awesome! I’m kind of surprised I didn’t melt that day, or maybe I did and this is really just some warped, heat induced false reality. That towel didn’t make it passed the first song. Poor lil fella.
Lastly, a lot of kids out here still love Ska music, and have the dream of making it in the music world. What advice can you give some of the young, up and coming bands and artists out here who love Spring Heeled Jack and want to make it in music, on the road, and as a professional musician?
R- The one thing I’ve learned about playing any type of music is if you care and have heart, then you can never be wrong. Success is in your mind and is different for everybody. Believe in yourself, and in your band. Work hard, make the sacrifices, and at the end of the day, feel good about what you do.
Oh, and as Huey Lewis once told me… “Save your money!”
Check out Skalapalooza October 19-21 and 26-28 on the East Coast!!!