Turning 40 to the Ska Revival

Turning 40 to the Ska Revival

I started playing trombone in 7th grade. The band instructor said it would be easier on my brace face, plus my uncle played trombone in high school so we had a free hand-me-down instrument.

It definitely was not a cool instrument to play. That was until No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom. Suddenly there was my instrument, on MTV! I joined a No Doubt fan IRC chat, and that's where I learned that what they were playing was part of a whole musical genre I didn't even know existed - ska.

I spent hours on the family computer hogging the dial up connection chatting with people across the world about No Doubt and other ska bands.

Annotated picture of me as a teenage punk sporting a mowhawk my mom made me shave off after a week, wearing a black hoodie with sewn on patches including a hand drawn one of Mr. Review because they're so obscure you couldn't find their merch anywhere. I'm wearing black Chuck Taylors with checkered shoelaces.

I soon changed my IRC nick to skabone2001 and dove deep into the genre. I joined a ska listserv where I learned all the esoteric history and little known bands. One of the list members was a UC Berkeley student who had his own college radio show.

One day he emailed the list saying, "I have some server space thanks to my student account. If anyone wants to set up a website on it, let me know. All I ask is that it be original. It can't just be another fan page."

I was already frustrated with the lack of horn tabs for trombone on the still young World Wide Web and had been transcribing things on my own. I emailed him and got myself a little corner of internet where I posted my trombone tabs to songs by Kemuri, Slapstick, Mustard Plug, the Specials, the Pilfers, the Slackers and other trombone-backed bands.

Sadly I cannot find that original website of mine in the archives of the internet, but it definitely featured this rudeboy animated gif.

This was the beginning of two nerdy passions of mine - websites and ska.

First Show - The Skatalites

Music Is My Occupation was one of the many hits written by trombonist Don Drummond.

The first show I ever went to was on March 21, 1998 to see the original ska band, The Skatalites, perform at the Bluebird Theater.

The band has a tragic, macabre history with its original trombone player and composer of many of their first songs, Don Drummond. Don was a musical genius, penning over 200 songs he intended to play with the band. However, he struggled with mental illness throughout his life. Just a year after the Skatalites formed, Don killed his girlfriend, the famed dancer, actress and singer Margarita Mahfood on New Year's Day. A jury found him guilty and insane. He was committed to an asylum where he died four years later.

The band, shook by the tragedy, broke up soon after. It took them 10 years to come back together.

By 1998, the band still featured several of the original members, then in their 60s and 70s.

Seeing those elders wailing on stage was pure joy. I danced my ass off, all dressed up in my two piece suit and the new pork pie hat I bought just for the occasion.

A couple months later saxophonist Roland Alphonso collapsed on stage while playing in Hollywood. He slipped into a coma and never recovered. I was fortunate to see Roland in his element before he passed away.

Getting to see those ska legends was a real honor. Knowing and witnessing the rich roots of the genre was a gift because on the surface it can be written off as just "punk with horns", a goofy genre better suited for a Chuck E. Cheese commercial, not music to be listened to seriously.

Photo of Reel Big Fish being Reel Big Goofballs, with text above reading "I once heard ska described as "what plays in a 13-year-old kid's head when he gets extra mozzarella sticks" and nothing in this world is more accurate.
The third wave of ska was largely known for wacky ska-punk outfits like Reel Big Fish, despite the scene being a lot deeper and diverse than that.

Ska Goes Dormant

In college I became a DJ myself (known as Johnny Applecore), starting with a late night punk show called Nothing New for Trash Like You, then working my way up to a prime spot right after Democracy Now! called Liberation Frequency.

I helped form a student club called FLC Punx that siphoned Fort Lewis College money into shows. By this time the ska scene had really dried up. Despite living in Durango, where Ska Brewing hails from, the closest thing to ska that ever came through were reggae bands. My friend Matt and I formed Crash Position, but even in our band only the two of us really liked ska. We had one true ska song, called Toast. Otherwise, we were a punk band with a trombone player. The band lasted long enough for us to put out some poorly self-recorded demo tracks (that I am trying to track down!) and open for a few shows.

Me holding my trombone, dancing with our guitarist while Matt sings in the background.
Rare photo of Crash Position.

Soon after graduation I became a father and being busy raising a family, drifted from the music scene. The Aquabats were in heavy rotation though. Obsidian even joined the Aquabats fan club, which won him a personalized club card and t-shirt. I took him to see them when he was eight, by far the youngest kid there, and he ended up crowd surfing!

Still, like the scene in general, ska went dormant in my life.

Finding Hope During Lockdown

Winter of 2020 were dark times. Like others, depression set in. To cope with the failing systems, the widespread injustice, and the isolation I drank more. The diet of vodka and doom scrolling wasn't working out real well.

To get unstuck I returned to music. I dusted off the old Jazz for Trombone books I still had laying around and started playing along. I wish I still had my old trombone tabs website around because there wasn't much online. Back I was to just figuring out horn lines by ear. My favorites were from Ball of Fire, the album the Skatalites released that year I saw them on tour.

Winter passed, then spring, and by summer I was still playing. Lockdown was (mostly) over, but it felt good to immerse myself in music again.

In September I was at Charlie's second birthday party. I struck up a conversation with his uncle Brian.

We got to talking about the brutal winter we'd made it through.

"Yeah, I got back into playing my trombone. It definitely helped me cope with all of it."

"No way, you play trombone?!"

"Yeah, why?"

"I'm in a band that's looking for a trombone!"

"Woah, wait really? I've been thinking it would be cool to join a band. Playing on my own in my basement is fun and all, but I'd rather be playing with other people."

"Well yeah you should come by and audition."

"Ok, umm yeah yeah I'll think about it, but yeah that sounds rad. What do y'all sound like?"

"Have you ever heard The World/Inferno Friendship Society?"

"Ummm no, I don't think so..."

"Oh you have to check them out. Our singer, Sandra, was in the band. So we sound a bit like them, but definitely our own thing. But World/Inferno is so good. They recorded a lot, but you should start with The Anarchy and the Ecstasy."

I went home and put on the first track.

Ohhhhh whaaaaat. That horn line is SO GOOD. And the lyrics,

We might die of starvation
But i will always have a drink
Please buy me a drink-
'cause sound wants to be free
It wants to sing over everything
I know you've tried so hard to package joy
You try so hard to sell us things that are already ours
Like the bones in my ears
Like the air in my lungs
That delivers songs whistled carefree

Love it. And is that Sandra singing? Damn, what a voice! How did I never hear this band before?!?

So, I auditioned, got the part and am living the dream playing with Elegant Everyone.

This Is "New Tone" - Skankin' Into my 40s

I had been a bit stymied when it came to how I enter my fourth decade on this planet.

That was until I saw that the Bad Time Records Tour is coming through Denver on my birthday weekend!

Bad Time Records Tour poster.

Here's a sampling of the bands playing that night.

This banger is about the singer's journey in realizing she's a woman and giving the boot to transphobia.
This is Jer, the trombonist in We Are the Union. They run the YouTube Channel Skatune Network, putting out ska covers. It's so fun. They're my favorite contemporary ska trombone player.
This music video of a dad admitting to his daughter that he loves ska is adorable and very fitting for this post.

Bad Time Records has been a huge contributor to the latest resurgence of ska, helping a new generation of bands record and tour. You can read a great rundown of this latest wave in my friend Jess's article, Ska Lives: How the Genre’s Fourth Wave Has Managed to Pick It Up Where the ’90s Left Off.

Some folks are recording a documentary on this resurgence called "This Is New Tone", riding along on the Bad Times Record Tour.

Coined by the New Orleans based BAD OPERATION, "New Tone" loosely refers to the current generation of modern ska and ska-punk bands that focus on community, progressive activism, and evolving the sound, look, and diversity of the genre.  Instead of leaning into the idea of a '4th Wave of ska' that would reference the "3rd wave" of bands that reached mainstream success in the 90s, the term purposefully references the Two-Tone ska movement that shared similar ideals.  The term is not exclusive to Bad Time Records bands. It also definitely makes some people on the internet mad, which is fun.



Plus the concert is at the Bluebird Theater, the same venue I saw the Skatalites at, back as a baby rudeboy. Because time is a flat circle.

I invited a bunch of friends so we can all dance away our middle-aged worries together.

It's fitting that the music I fell in love with at fourteen will be what carries me into forty.