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SKA SPECTACULAR

  • 1999 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
SKA SPECTACULAR
Ska has something intangible which makes it a lasting thing. Maybe it's the utter joy it imparts to an audience. Maybe it's the fact that just as horn sections made swing music swing back in the Forties, it continues to bring something to songs that your basic guitar, bass and drums just cannot do.


by Dan MacIntosh for Crosswalk Music

Everybody's gone ska-raving mad! Kids who never thought those trombone and saxophone lessons would ever bring rock & roll stardom, are now having second thoughts. This genre of days gone by is just exploding, and it's showing absolutely no signs of slowing down.

But if you still think that Christian ska is synonymous with the {{The Supertones}}, and little else, then think again. The Supertones are only a third of the Big Three Upper Echelon of Christian Ska. Denver's {{Five Iron Frenzy}} and {{The Insyderz}} (from Detroit) fill out the rest of that trio. But this trio merely represents the very peak of this growing mountain of ska.

This past summer, these three hugely popular bands trekked across the country, like three unstoppable monsters from some old Godzilla movie, on a tour called Skamania. This 16-city jaunt touched down in such major cities as Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles, and played to large halls filled with screaming fans.

All of the bands on that Skamania bill have just released new albums.

The Insyderz check in with ==Fight of my Life== on KMG Records, the OC Supertones present ==Chase the Sun==, and Five Iron Frenzy have just put out the EP ==Quantity is Job 1==.

"We recorded an EP because we wanted to record some new songs, but we did not have enough time to record a full length," explains Hoerig, the bassist of Five Iron Frenzy. There probably won't be a full length [project] for at least a year. Perhaps longer. Of course, you never know what kind of crazy stunt we might pull."

Five Iron Frenzy is known as being a band crazy enough to try anything, and this EP is notable for it's unlikely cover of an old ELO song, "Sweet Talkin' Woman."

"The ELO song was one of two possible songs we wanted to cover," recalls Hoerig. "We listened to them both, and then voted on which one to cover. ELO won." Everybody knows about ELO founder Jeff Lynne's devotion to the Beatles, but was he a ska fan too? Perhaps.

The Supertones are proud of their just finished third album, called "==Chase the Sun==."

"It's nothing real deep," says (trombonist) Dan Spencer of the album's title. "It just symbolizes a longing to come home, because whenever we're on the road and we're coming home, we're going west and we're chasing the sun."

The Supertones' fans will notice a lot of variety on this new recording.

"We have a traditional ska song on this record," notes Spencer. "We have a reggae song, a surf song. We have kind of a Jimmy Buffet folk-style song. It kind of makes you want to go down to the beach and steam some lobster. Then we have a hip-hop party song on there. It's got constant loops. We also have a lot of record-scratching on this CD."

Pop diva {{Crystal Lewis}} even makes a special appearance on this release, joining the 'tones on the song "Away From You."

A new producer to the band, Garth Richardson, has production credits including with The Catherine Wheel and Rage Against The Machine.

The Insyderz are pictured as six of the toughest gangsters only a gangster's mother could love on the cover of their latest album for KMG, ==Fight Of My Life==.

But they're only looking cruel to be kind.

Drummer Nate Sjogren has described this collection for music as "that which deals with a cruel world."
"We have a goal, and it's not to focus on monetary gains, or anything like that. Because who cares? We want to affect people eternally, and to live with an eternal perspective."

Like the The Supertones, The Insyderz also worked with producers who have good reputations in the secular world. Barrett Jones, who has also produced the Foo Fighters, and Paul Hampton, who has worked with the Skeletones, produced this third album.

If you're looking for the pulse of today's ska and for the direction it might be going, you'll probably get a slightly different answer from almost anybody you ask. But since this its sudden popularity happened so fast, it's almost impossible to predict just what will happen next.

"It seems that in the Christian scene, ska is still really popular," comments Keith Hoerig of {{Five Iron Frenzy}}. "But outside of the Christian scene, it seems to be losing some of its popularity."

Secular bands like No Doubt will probably continue to incorporate ska into their sound, but it's doubtful-no pun intended-that major labels are turning over every scooter in search of the next ska sensation.

"I think the big hype is over," notes Matt Malpass, guitarist and singer for up-and-coming Christian ska group, {{The Skadaddles}}. {{The Skadaddles}} have just released its full-length album ==Scoop it Up== on DST Records.

"People who like ska aren't going to suddenly stop liking it," he continues. "And the people who never did, aren't going to start now. I think it's not in the beginning or the end; the media has just moved on to other things now."

Before all of the media attention swooped down upon the ska scene, like a hungry vulture, there was a dedicated scene of ska lovers. And this group of diehards will still be there, long after the cameras stop rolling.

In fact, some believe that the diversification now taking place within the ska sound is what may ultimately keep it alive.

"I definitely think that ska isn't dying out," continues Malpass. "New styles are just being added to it, to add more flavor."

In fact, Hoerig sees the act of putting a band's unique fingerprints on its music as a necessity, and that the failure to do so may hinder its future popularity. "I think that one of the problems with a musical style becoming popular, is that people try to emulate the style, instead of trying to do their own thing with the music."

Nonetheless, there's nothing like pleasing a dedicated ska fan with some authentic music.

"Sometimes," says Malpass of {{The Skadaddles}} "the real ska fanatics have really high standards, and I feel like we have to win their approval onstage. It's a good feeling to look into the crowd and see the guy with the porkpie hat and pin covered jacket finally beginning to dance to your music, when he just stood in the corner with his arms crossed during the previous band."

Michael Hope, the drummer for {{Freeto Boat}}, takes even a darker view of the current Christian ska scene. He's afraid that all of its bandwagon jumpers are taking the form's popularity for a ride, but at the same time, they're watering down its musical integrity.

"I do know that it seems that the standard of musicianship has gone way down since many Christian ska bans have emerged," says Hope, whose band has just released =="Hindsight 20/20==" on BettieRocket Records. "Personally, if this trend continues, I hope it is the beginning of the end."

Let's remember, that unlike such musical staples as hard rock and blues, ska is a tad on the trendy side.
"It's hard for me to say that it's the end of it [ska]," says Dan Spencer. "But at the same time, it is a really trendy style of music. But I don't think it's quite as disposable as some would like to think."

Loyalty may be the key factor to why the Christian ska variety has remained so popular, whereas its secular counterpart has shown a noticeable decline. "The Christian fan base," notes Spencer "seems to be a lot more loyal than a mainstream ska audience would be."

The happy, happy sounds of ska appeals to the youngest demographic of music fans. It's no surprise to find this hyperactive style appealing to an age group already overcome by natural adrenaline. These fans are young probably too young to even know or care about the history of this music. Although there might be modern teenagers who believe the The Supertones invented ska, they'd be dead wrong. The Supertones, and bands like them, are a part of what some are calling the Third Wave of Ska.

Ska began in Jamaica, back in the '60s. It was revived in the '80s with groups like The Specials, English Beat and Madness, and was revived once again in the '90s because of groups like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

The Supertones' popularity clearly brought ska to the attention of many whom may have never heard it before. But although they were the first to ride the ska-mobile to mass success, they certainly weren't the first ones on the bus.

Many will tell you that the Southern California band, {{The Israelites}}, were the first ever Christian ska band. The Israelites officially started on Halloween Night, 1989. Unfortunately, not al the members of that first edition of the band were not Christians. Because of this, the band did not play many churches during its early years, and instead, concentrated upon the LA club scene.

"Around '95 or '96, God really started speaking to me, because I received a call from somebody who wanted us to play a church," says guitarist Richard Carlstedt. "After we played that show, I realized that we needed to have all Christians in the band."

"Within about a month or two, I either kicked out-or they quit-all the non-Christians in the band," continues Carlstedt, whose band has just released ==Montego Bay==: The Jamaican Persuasion. "And within two months, I had all Christians in the band."

As the still relatively underground success of a band like The Israelites indicates, Christian ska is not merely (The Big) three deep. Every major and independent label, it seems, has signed its own ska success hopeful. Don't be surprised to hear names like {{Big Dog Small Fence}}, {{Buck}} and {{Freeto Boat}} right along side the Big Three one day soon.

Buck, for example, is a geographic neighbor of The Insyderz, and they're completely unashamed to be associated with the cause of Christ. In fact, Buck stands for Building Up Christ's Kingdom.

{{The Skadaddles}} are from Georgia, Freeto Boat is from the Northwestern United States, Big Dog Small Fence is from Southern California, and there's probably a few ska bands in your neighborhood hoping to breakout.

People can argue until they're blue in the face about where ska music is at, and where it's going. Everybody has a slightly different take, and everybody is probably right-at least to some degree. Some might bemoan the decreasing purity of the form. They may hold up today's ska purveyors, and say these newer groups are nothing like stuff that originally from Jamaica--and they would probably be right on the money.

Others might take comparison with those same examples, and proudly point to how elements like punk rock guitar riffs have spruced up the old warhorse of ska, contributing to its evolution, and they'd probably be somewhat right also. Either way, musical purity of any kind is kind of a misnomer. Every musician hears the endless variety of music being made, and these exposures can't help but influence what he or she does--whether that musician wants to admit this or not.

Ska has something intangible which makes it a lasting thing. Maybe it's the utter joy it imparts to an audience. Maybe it's the fact that just as horn sections made swing music swing back in the Forties (and is now having yet another revival today), it continues to bring something to songs that your basic guitar, bass and drums just cannot do.

As terms like Third Wave imply, ska has had--and will continue to have--peaks and valleys. But its newfound popularity shows that it is a stylistic survivor.

"Ska has survived for almost 40 years-primarily underground," says Hoerig. "I'm sure it will still continue to thrive, even though it isn't the current 'coolest' thing to listen to."

It may have been jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong who said there are only two kinds of music: Good music, and bad music. Good music, one hopes, will always find its audience.

"The people who care about good music will continue to listen to good music--regardless of the musical genre it fits under," summarizes Hoerig. "Good ska bands will hopefully always have an audience of people who like good music."