I was able to chat briefly with a few of the guys on the booze cruise a few weeks back (I wrote about it here) but boats and booze and music with one of my favorite bands don't make me the most charismatic music journalist. They make me a dancing giddy girl.
Last Sunday evening, I was lucky enough to catch the legendary Skatalites at a little blues club near my home called the Stanhope House. Playing with them were the always a good time Hub City Stompers, the Ducky Boys from Boston, and Void Union...a band I had heard of but had not been able to catch live. On stage with them was saxophonist David Hillyard from The Slackers. Amazing band, amazing music. I was an instant fan. It was a busy day and while I passed Mr. Hillyard at the club several times, I was unable to introduce myself as properly as I would have liked. I was disappointed, but you never want to be that annoying, aggressive fan/journalist either. I would rather admire my favorites from afar than ever come off as an irritation in what they do.
But, it is also why I was delighted this evening to find out that he was kind enough to take me up on an interview request despite all my missed connections. An amazing live performer and gifted musician with the Slackers, David Hillyard's resume also includes his work with The Rocksteady Seven and The Stubborn All-Stars. He has been credited for his work on over thirty albums, and continues to add to that list. His style is very much his own, and every time I see him perform I become more and more in awe of his talents. He is also a heck of a nice guy.
As I usually do in these instances, I sent a list of questions. Very general questions so as to leave much to the subject to do with them what they feel based on their experiences. I never want to come off like I know more than they do about the subject matter. Aside from the fact that it would be painfully obvious that I don't, it makes me feel arrogant. I would rather inquire very generally and give them the freedom to go as lightly or as deeply into the subject matter as they are comfortable. It has given me a variety of material to work with when it comes time to sit and write these pieces, and has kept them as individual as the artists themselves. In addition, it has been a substantial and incredibly enlightening education for me. I am a fan, and as such my experiences with music remain mostly encased in my heart and my mind. My understanding will never be that of the artist who creates these wonderful sounds that become this intertwined soundtrack to my life. But my love for the music led me to want to know more. It led me to write about it, which led me to seek out those who create it. It's been the best class I ever had, and my favorite artists have become my professors.
Mr. Hillyard went above and beyond the call of duty in this capacity.
First off, I'm not sure what to make of these questions. I guess my main problem is that there isn't just one definition of 'ska.' There also isn't just one 'ska' scene.
If we go by the original definition of 'ska' as a musical style that came out of a Jamaican fusion of Jump Blues, Latin, Mento, and other stuff, it only existed between 1959 and 1967 as a popular form of music with the occasional tribute since.
The 2-Tone era revived the Ska name but the bands were playing a mix of punk, pub Rock (ala. Ian Dury), and other rock styles of the time mixed with all the Jamaican styles that had existed from 1959 up until 1979. So 20 years of Jamaican music right there gets condensed. 2 Tone lasted from 1979 to 1982 in its classic form and then drifted into obscurity by the mid 1980s.
The American bands sprung up because of the slowly growing popularity of 2 Tone in the states (years after it peaked in the UK) between 1982-1985 and then slowly started up mostly on the east and west coasts but eventually all over the country. The American bands are known for playing almost any style and still connecting it to ska. There are two basic groupings.
The dominant style is the '3rd Wave movement' which starts with Fishbone and goes from there into the Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, Mustard Plug, and literally 1,000s of other bands. They start with British Two Tone and bring in Red Hot Chili Peppers style funk, Metallica style metal, 70's Led Zeppelin style Arena Rock, Beastie Boys 80s style hip hop....literally throwing the kitchen sink in for good measure. These are the guys with the checkerboards and the shorts. The spastically fast style that is what most Americans recognize as being ska.
There is also the 'roots' or 'traditonal' bands that go back to Jamaican music and then start adding different American influences like Jazz, RnB, Latin, 60s Rock etc etc. Bands from this style are Hepcat, Slackers, Aggrolites, Green Room Rockers, Deals Gone Bad, Bandulus, and Stubborn All-Stars. These bands are just as eclectic in their own way as the '3rd wave' bands but they tend to avoid the funk, metal, and hard core influences.
The 'roots' bands tend to sound like they have at least heard a couple of Jamaican records somewhere whereas a lot of '3rd wave' bands are much more influenced by Mettallica than the Skatalites.
Some bands like the Pietasters do both of the above styles. So with any definition there is a counter example.
There is also a parallel reggae-rock-dub movement coming out of Sublime that can get lumped in with Ska bands. Bands like Long Beach Dub All-Stars, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, and Slightly Stoopid play very rocked out versions of reggae.
So you can see why for me at least, 'ska' has become a label that can mean almost anything and nothing at the same time.
Labels can just hang you up sometimes, even though its a convenient shorthand when describing things. In addition to Jamaican Ska and Reggae, I listen to all kinds of things from Blues like Howling Wolf, RnB like Roscoe Gordon, Honkin Sax guys like Big Jay McNeely, New Orleans stuff like Professor Longhair, Jazz from Sidney bechet to Lester Young to John Coltrane, Afro-Beat like Fela Kuti, Afro-Cuban stuff like Chano Pozo....I'm always listening to music...usually obsessively so.
1) Where do you think ska music is now as compared to 10, 15 or 20 years ago?
Well 20 years ago would make it 1992. So at that time Ska was out of fashion musically and an underground scene in US, UK, Canda, Europe, and a few other scattered places around the globe. The main difference between now and then was that the Ska scene in the United States was optimistic and felt that there was a chance to 'break big' and for a few bands around 15 years ago, the dream came true.
But really, its not that different. The Ska scene has always been centered around live shows. That's the meat of the scene. The connection between the bands and the audience. Its an underground scene in the states.
With the Slackers, we are just lucky that we have been plugging away at it for long enough to build our own crowd. We draw people who are into all kinds of music. I always get told, "I'm not really into ska...but I love you guys."
That makes me happy cause we are beating the odds...but....
Its also sad, cause there is a lot of really good ska out there, unfortunately, there is also a lot of crap and that tends to drive people away from the genre as a whole.
2.) What are the biggest changes you have seen since you started?
I started playing in Ska bands in 1985. Well, the biggest changes among American bands is that nowadays most American ska bands are influenced by other American bands and not so much by anything that happens overseas. The bands of my generation (mid80s-mid 90s) were listening to English bands of the 2 Tone Era and the Jamaican bands of original ska era in varying proportions depending on the band. We didn't have a huge amount of American role models back then.
The bands that are coming up now have American bands that are more rootsy like Hepcat, Slackers, Stubborn All-Stars, or Aggrolites as role models.... Or.... they have the '3rd wave' bands like Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and Bosstones as their models. You rarely hear any American band playing a purely Jamaican influenced or English influenced style. Most new American bands are now filtered by the styles of other American bands that came before them.
A lot of what is called 'ska' now in the States is really reworkings of different eras of Reggae. The Aggrolites pioneered this style. They get lumped in with Ska bands but they really don't play any ska at all, most of their music is inspired by the soul and reggae of the late 1960s - early 1970s. That is, from a musical historian's point of view.
This same thing happened with 2 Tone. They took Jamaican music from 1960 to mid70s and reworked into their own bands styles and this was called 'ska' although originally the rhythms were called a lot of different things.
3.) What really kickstarted your love of this music and your involvement in the scene?
The thing that turned my life around was hearing the saxophone of 'Saxa' from the Beat. I heard his sound. That gauzy ethereal thing he did and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to play a saxophone and sound like that. Well, 29 years later, I'm still trying. Then I discovered Roland and Tommy of the Skatalites and then those guys introduced me to a world of music...jazz, blues, latin..its all connected.
4.) Where do you think ska music is headed now?
I don't know. I know with the Slackers we keep trying to improve. We are still trying to make our 'classic' album. Our statement. That collection of songs that you just want to listen to over and over again.
Ska is going to always be misunderstood and mislabeled. There will be people who get it and people who don't. Its a real deep beautiful music when you get into it. It has this depth. Like the blues, it can be happy and sad and really feed you when you are hungry.
5.) What do The Slackers have going on for the rest of the summer?
We just played our NYC boat gigs. (I wrote my experience on one here) We take it easy for most of July. We are playing a boat gig in Boston and in DC. Then we go to Europe to play festivals. Mostly in the UK this time.
6.) What have been some of the highlights of your time in this scene?
Well, my general highlight has been the last 15 years of my life. I get to play around 100 shows a year with the Slackers. Maybe 20-30 with other bands. This means I can do music full time. I love performing. It can be great playing for a big or small crowd. After doing in the music thing for a while, I ten to see it as a marathon. You're gonna have your good days and your bad days, so don't get too wrapped up in the perils of the moment, just get your eyes on target. Focus on the music and play it to the best of your ability. Try to give something of yourself as honestly as possible and hopefully someone else can relate to that.
...I think that is advice everyone can live by. Most certainly, me.