"Ska band outnumbers audience" was one of The Onion's more inspired fake headlines. But Josh Jerge, backup vocalist and trumpet player for Bay Area traditional-ska upstarts the Soul Captives, ain't laughin'.
"There's really no money in this scene, man," he admits. "Especially up here. We've done two shows in SF now and made a total of $100. Divided by six."
Don't spend that $16.66 all in one place, Josh. But if he does, rest assured he won't blow it on No Doubt's The Singles 1992-2003. The Soul Captives -- along with a small and insular, yet hyperenthusiastic cabal of bands and aficionados revolving around online rabbit hole BayAreaSka.com -- aim to carry on the genre's rich roots in 1960s Jamaica. But for fickle mainstream bandwagon-leapers, the Soul Captives represent the local remnants of perhaps the single most annoying musical fad of the '90s, which is saying one hell of a lot.
Join us now for a whirlwind joyride in our Media Hype Time Machine, back to those halcyon days of the mid-'90s, when drooling doofus journalist types insisted that "electronica" would blow our minds and destroy Rock as We Knew It, with the Chemical Brothers and that rabid rainbow-haired asshole guy from the Prodigy held up as our new saviors. Our great nation reacted by raising its collective hands to its collective mouth and issuing hilarious fake-flatulence sounds.
We embraced ska instead. Upbeat, laid-back, danceable, poppy, and easily fused to the already-burgeoning Warped Tour punk nation. Perfect for MTV. For Bay Area peeps, it pleasantly channeled Operation Ivy. Cue hysteria. Already-established workhorses the Mighty Mighty Bosstones got a few novelty radio hits. Another huge success story, Reel Big Fish, hit the MTV jackpot with undoubtedly the most self-loathing radio hit in rock history, "Sell Out," in which the line The record company's gonna give me lots of money/And everything's gonna be alright was somehow transformed into both a catchy hook and a public self-crucifixion.
Meanwhile, soon-to-be-cultural-phenomenon No Doubt initially rode the ska wave, before turning frontwoman Gwen Stefani into the least attractive sex symbol ever, falling in with the hip-hop producers du jour, and finally booting ska out of the equation entirely.
Good idea. The ska backlash hit the zeitgeist like a shock-and-awe aerial assault. Devoted disciples who'd spent Tuesday night skankin' away in a porkpie hat and two-tone shoes woke up Wednesday morning and denied all of it. Newly minted fans abandoned Ska Nation as if it was Three Mile Island. Even your humble author, who'd fallen in with a college freshman dorm ska act cleverly named Skantily Plaid, promptly saw his labor of love disbanded and abruptly reformed as ... an emo band, its hypothetically spectacular ska reimagination of Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" cruelly abandoned and unrealized.
Ska is dead, a fully despised fad never to return. Except not everyone believes this: A few established bands actually survived the '90s binge and purge, and several new Bay Area acts have sprung up since. They might not be trendy anymore, but they just gotta dance.
Rob "Bucket" Hingley remembers. Oh, yes. For 25 years now the affable Englishman has fronted the Toasters, hugely respected NYC ska pioneers credited with spearheading the genre's "third wave" -- the first wave took over Jamaica in the '50s and '60s via grandfather types like the Skatalites, while the second, British wave -- Madness, the Specials, et al. -- took the world by storm in the late '70s and early '80s.
Bucket caught the Americanized third wave and, perhaps unknowingly, helped usher in the '90s boom. In 1983 he started Moon Ska, a sensation-causing indie label that powered beloved bands such as the Scofflaws, Let's Go Bowling, and of course, the Toasters. When the Ska Big Bang hit, Moon fought on the front lines, dodging major label buyout offers and valiantly fighting for the genre's integrity amid a sea of poseurs and bandwagoneers.
By 1999 the party was over, leaving Bucket a bit grouchy. In interviews he declared the late '90s "the worst business climate for ska music I've seen in, like, fifteen years." More memorably, he railed against the "whiny little bitches" who turned ska into "this great big shit pie."
Thankfully, as that shit pie is now smaller, the whiny bitches are now fewer.
"I think a lot of those people have gone," says Bucket, who's on the road yet again with the Toasters. "What I meant by that was, a lot of people I felt -- and quite rightly -- hadn't really done anything for ska music, just basically showing up at the last minute with their hand out. People basically signing a record deal and expecting UPS to be delivering bags full of money the next day."
Still, he admits these people gave ska a brief moment in the mainstream sun that still resonates positively; plenty of honest-to-God fans birthed in that brief era still remain. Not enough to save Moon Ska, however: The label finally puttered out in 2000 amid a series of distributor capitulations and publicly rancorous royalty debates, leaving only a Moon Ska Europe imprint, which Bucket has little involvement with.
The Toasters, by joyous contrast, toast on. Bucket -- the band's sole original member -- hauled its latest incarnation into Blake's in early January for a Monday-night show that packed plenty of warm young bodies into the Berkeley joint's subterranean lair.
After a somewhat schizophrenic opening set from Arizona's Warsaw Poland Bros. that featured everything from Irish jigs to Hendrixian guitar solos to weird instrumentation (washboards, seashells) to a punk cover of "Please Please Me" -- the Toasters arrived to bring tha proverbial noize, delivering hard-charging dance music that avoided ska's negative stereotypes (ultrafast guitar wankery, cloying horns, dopey melodies) in favor of good-time, gently hip-hop-laced frat party fare, like SF's own Harold Ray Live in Concert with less hipster sheen and more adrenaline.
Weirdest of all was all the kids dancing, in defiance of the indie rocker "Do the Standing Still" status quo. Go ahead and laugh at that doofy-ass kid in the nerdy striped shirt and old-guy hat who's dancin' like your grandpa would if you shot him full of speed and told him he just won the shuffleboard tournament. He's certainly having more fun than you are, and he's taking that blonde on his arm home besides, if only to deposit her on her front porch.
"The whole thing about ska music is it kind of defies the stereotype of 'alienation music,'" Bucket says. "If you're gonna go to a live music concert, I think the whole idea there is to basically interact with the crowd and for the crowd to interact with the band. And that's what makes a great show. I think the stereotype of just goin' and sinkin' down in a seat and watching people onstage like a bunch of zombies, what's the point? You might as well watch TV."
Thus, the Toasters hauled all the ladies onstage for a group dance-off and blasted through the Lynyrd Skynyrd rewrite "Sweet Home Jamaica," before ending the affair with a triumphant "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down." The whole shebang fell short of total euphoria -- settling instead for simply a splendid weekday night out, which is plenty.
Jimmy Boom, a former ska hound and current drummer for Oakland space rockabilly freaks the Phenomenauts, bounced sedatedly along with it all. "This is the very bottom of the wave, but it's really cool," he exclaimed as the Toasters rang in our ears. "It's underground. Only the people who are really into it would come out on, what is this, a Monday? We are literally underground."
So the Toasters survived, but when they finally succumb to old age, will newly minted ska bands rise to replace them? Cash-strapped Josh Jerge and his Soul Captives hope they'll be there. The sextet just emerged in August, but has quickly risen to the top of the BayAreaSka.com hit list, and is starting to venture outward. Josh's dad recently drove the band to Hollywood in his seven-passenger van so the Captives could open for Vic Ruggiero, frontman for the Slackers, another '90s-boom-surviving NYC ska band that played a quasi-legendary two-huge-set show at Ashkenaz in October.
In December, the Soul Captives played BayAreaSka's official holiday party at Berkeley's Starry Plough, opening for amped-up "dirty reggae" pranksters the Aggrolites and the disquietingly aging Let's Go Bowling. Write this down: Band frontmen should not wear golf shorts. Ever. We don't care what your handicap is.
Josh and his buddies stole the show.
The Captives don't go near the sound that made Op. Ivy underground legends. Theirs is a more reggae- and jazz-inflected sound, anchored by keyboardist Ray Jacildo, who flashed seamlessly from bouncy ska rhythms to funk basslines to spaceship sound effects, basically serving as a one-man link between vintage 924 Gilman ska-punk and straitlaced Yoshi's jazz; the young Captives pack enough weaponry to eventually blow the doors off either venue.
"It's just a lot of fun to play, honestly," Josh says of the Captives' sound, which his snappy little business card describes as "Rocksteady, Reggae, and Traditional Ska." "I have an awful lot of fun performing ska. It's really energetic music, really good dancing music. You go to a punk show, there's people jumping around and stuff like that. But you go to a ska show, and it's almost like people are out there swing dancing. It's more like a classical style of dancing."
Josh isn't worried that his band may have hitched its hopes to the wrong musical horse. "Let's Go Bowling sells these T-shirts that say 'Ska isn't dead -- it just sucks now,'" he says, giggling over the sarcasm. "This style of music's been around since the early '60s in Jamaica. It had a little wave there in the '90s and then it kinda died down, but as far as I'm concerned, it's never gonna die. It's never gonna grow old. It can really mix into a lot of other styles and demographics. We've played at Rotary Club functions, with fifty-year-old people there, and they're dancing to it. Sounds like jazz to them, or big band or something."
Current BayAreaSka mastermind Tom Eppenberger is also high on the Soul Captives, who appear prominently on F%#@ing Free, the site's annual downloadable compilation of mostly demo tracks from local bands such as Shitouttaluck and Native Elements.
Tom is no self-promoting musician himself, just a fan who caught the ska bug in the late '90s while working as a buyer for Rasputin Music in San Lorenzo. He's happy with the small but devoted scene his little Internet haven helps document -- for him, the shows he promotes function as intermittent family reunions: "You kinda see the same faces over and over again, which is kinda nice. There's something comforting in that."
Gwen Stefani abandoned it; the whiny bitches shit-pied it. But the rude boys keep dancing. "It needs to go back to the people who care about it," Bucket explains. "The analogy I use is, basically, there was a pretty wild party in the House of Ska, and there's only a few people left to clear up the mess. One of those is us, in a sense -- we refer to the Toasters as the Ska Janitors, cleaning up everybody's mess. You have to see which bands were in it because they love the music, and which bands were in it simply because it was a trend and they felt they could make some money out of it. I think it's fairly self-explanatory -- the bands who are playing ska music now really love it, and that's gonna be a good thing."