Okay, jamband fans. You’re already familiar with the strains of reggae heard from Bob Marley, Toots Hibbert, The Wailers and the scores of cover bands across the land. Now, it’s time to expand your horizons with the Ska and Soul Party sounds produced by The Pietasters.
The horns, the effortlessly gliding rhythms, the added influences of soul, rock steady and rock shouldn’t frighten you away. But, to some it can be confusing. According to vocalist/founder/co-songwriter Stephen Jackson, the crowd at last summer’s All Good Festival had such an initial reaction before finally relenting and enjoying this master mix of styles.
]It’s not that hard to give in to the musical ways of The Pietasters. All you need to do is get a copy of the octet’s latest album, All Day, and you’ll find 14 numbers spread out like a sonic party platter. As for me, I lucked out and discovered the band through an assignment nearly 10 years ago when the group was supporting the album, Willis. I spoke with Jackson at that time, during was known as the Third Wave of Ska, shortly before the ultra-fast and flashy style of other acts drove the genre back to its original underground scene. This marks an opportunity to catch up with him, and, hopefully, influence a few of you to check them out.
JPG: The band has been together 17 years. Give some idea of the challenge to remain committed to doing this on a constant basis, because it must not be easy.
SJ: It’s always been about having a good time and entertaining people. We started off back in the days before Nirvana had their big hit, so there was no preconceived notion that we would get a record deal or that we would be a band 17 years later. I think every step of the way, we went on tour with the Bosstones because we loved their band and we signed to Epitaph because we liked Tim [Armstrong] of Rancid and Operation Ivy. It was more important for us to be involved with people that we respected and liked what they had done.
At the end of that fun run from ’95 to 2000 we were on the road nonstop. By that time Ska had been chewed up and spit out by the marketers and the public and the writing was on the wall. At that point we said, “We can either break up or fire guys and become a power pop band or we can just scale things back and play as much as we can without going crazy and enjoy ourselves.” We got to tour with Joe Strummer and we played with James Brown, and things like that were more important to us than the bottom line. It’s a bad business model but a good way to enjoy yourself and sleep at night without worrying about being a sellout or making concessions. And there’s no guarantee that that’s going to be a return in the bank. We’ve seen a lot of friends that have gone that route and they were told, “Sorry, we’re not even going to put your record out.” And they thought that was going to be their Big Time. They couldn’t even continue on as an existing band because they had changed so many things trying to please the powers that be.
JPG: You mention other bands, were you lucky enough that you didn’t owe Epitaph or any other label thousands and thousands of dollars in recording or tour advances?
SJ: You know all those horror stories about bands that have been held captiveEpitaph was cool. We had a two-record deal with them and at the end of the two records, it was almost 2000 and the writing was on the wall. Their accountants said, “This is a dumb move to keep putting records out.” And we said, “You know what, we don’t want to tour 11 months out of the year anymore. So let’s part as friends. We appreciate the experience.” We were always allowed to go on and put a record out with a different label. There was no kind of blackmail or slavery issues going on with us. Yeah, it’s an ugly business. All the clichare true.
JPG: So, how does it feel now that you’re on the other side, running your own label — Indication Records which released All Day?
SJ: We’re real excited about that. Back in the old days when we started, being the owner of your own label you put out a 7 inch or something like that. The deal we have now is a great relationship with Redeye Distribution. We, initially, wanted to get on YepRoc records out of Chapel Hill. It just wasn’t in the card for their schedule for the year. They had too many acts. So we did an imprint label and Redeye distributes it. It’s good for us because we can ala carte our promotion and publicity instead of the traditional way where you’re paying for 300 employees whether you’re on the road or not. This way we can target it and choose how much to spend. We don’t feel like we’re out on the road not making any money supporting a bunch of people back in L.A.
JPG: Are you the only original member left?
SJ: I am and Carlos [Linares, trumpet], if you go back to the original originals in 1990. The first record, we put that out and went on one cross country tour in a school bus, and when we got back half of the band said, “You guys are crazy. We’re not going to do this.” At that point we hired Jeremy [Roberts, trombone], Toby [Hansen, guitar], Alan [Makranczy, saxophone] and Rob [Steward, drums].
Even though Carlos and me are the only original originals from 1990, this band didn’t start touring heavily til ’93 or ’94. At that point the horn section that’s there is still there.
JPG: What I’m getting at is keeping a band together is always difficult, but with eight people, how do you keep them inspired and committed and all on the same page?
SJ: I think we’re lucky. We got most of the guys when they were young and we kind of indoctrinated them into our way of thinking. At some point, it’s like you’re in the military and you’ve only experienced this with these eight guys and it’s tough, some nights you get a hotel and some nights you’re sharing a bed with somebody andIt’s rough being in a large band on the one hand and you’re doing things that are impacted on that but we wouldn’t tolerate somebody who was a prima donna in our band. We never had an open audition. All of the people that we had in the band had been friends or when Jorge Pezzimenti switched from guitar to bass and Toby Hansen went from touring trumpet to guitar and Carlo moved back in the area and he started playing regularly. Again, it goes back to you gotta be friends, you gotta have fun and if we’re fighting with each other or not enjoying it, it’s just not worth it. And I think that’s another reason why people enjoy our shows because they can tell we’re having a good time.
JPG: When describing you, it usually seems easiest to say you’re a mix of ska meets 60s party soul…
SJ: It depends on who you’re describing it to. People who aren’t into music that much, I always go, “Sublime and the Bosstones meets an Otis Redding cover band.” We’ve always been a party band. That’s how we started. Then when we started playing clubs it translated, and our shows are known for being big drunken good times. (laughs)
JPG: But the original members were hanging around the Washington D.C. punk scene
SJ: Minor Threat, Government IssueThere’s so many good bands in D.C. The thing is, too, with D.C. is it’s a pretty small town when you get into the music scene. The clubs at that time, the 9:30 Club which is a real small joint, the 15 Minute Club and D.C. Space. We were in high school or just out of high school and you’re trying to drink beer with your friends and goof off, so whether or not it was a punk show or The Toasters or New York Citizens, it was always the same kind of mix of knuckleheads hanging around one guy had a mohawk, one guy had a shaved head, the other guy wore a suit. To me it was the natural way that people hung out, and you learned about scenes and sub-cultures and the Rockers and the Mods hated each other in the 60s. But, really D.C. was a cool scene in the late 80s/early 90s when we were hanging out.
And it hadn’t been co-opted by the marketers. If you were a punk rock person, you were in a small minority. There was one guy who was into punk rock in our high school. We would listen to his records. I was, by no means, a punk rocker because it wasn’t like it is now. There wasn’t a Hot Topic. There wasn’t 3,000 people at the Electric Factory to see whatever the punk rock band of the day is. What’s called punk rock now is popular music pretty much.
JPG: How did you go from seeing those bands and then starting The Pietasters and becoming influenced by the Bosstones and doing something similar to that?
SJ: Back to your ignorant high school days. A Black Flag record, a Specials record held the same weight. I wasn’t dyed in the wool punk rock guy but just appreciated this music and to me it always seemed to go together The Sex Pistols, The Specials, The Clash just kind of bleeds together.
So, we started playing punk rock, thinking it was easy and we didn’t have theI guess we were just a terrible punk band (laughs). And one of our friends said, You like the Specials, I like the Specials. Why don’t we play “Little Bitch?” And we played that, and for some reason it came more naturally. We had a friend who played trombone. My wife played keyboards. It just was a fun thing to do. At the time we weren’t looking for a record deal. So, it didn’t matter that there were 12 people onstage. That didn’t matter til later on when you had to get hotel rooms and per dieum.
JPG: Listening to the 1992-1996 (3 CD of early releases), on the first track you can hear the influence of youthful energy but several tracks later you can sense the influence of classic Jamaican Ska from the 60s. How quickly did you learn one style from the next?
SJ: That goes back to the friends we were hanging out with. We had two good friends, Scott and Keith , who were DJs in the D.C. area, and they would send us mix tapes; back in the days of cassette tapes and fanzines that you sent through the mail. We’d listen to these songs or hear em in a club when they DJed. You’d be like, “You can sing Night Owl’ That’s an easy song.” We’d throw it in the set. People seemed to like it, and it just became the standard of what we did. Those covers were there early on because we weren’t talented enough to write our own songs, (laughs) so you gotta start with something.
JPG: When you mentioned the idea of having a record collection with different styles that carried equal weight you weren’t separating one genre from another. Obviously, I’m doing this for Jambands, and I how those type of jamband artists are viewed unfairly by others. You play Ska music and there’s a certain stigma attached where it seems that it only plays to more of a punk crowd.
SJ: It’s weird. We played the All Good Festival this year, and we had a great time. To me and the guys in the band why wouldn’t these people enjoy us playing some reggae songs and some soul numbers, which is kind of a version of roots music, just playing bluegrass and you got jambands and all this other stuff going on. We got up onstage and you would have thought that frikkin’ martians had landed. And I think we won em over by the end but it’s just so weird to see the brass up there. And we’re thinking back to Sly and the Family Stone at the jazz festivals they would play in and blow the frikkin’ roof off the place or Otis [Redding] in the day.
Personally, I don’t see thewhen I was younger I’m sure I was more of a dick but we’ll play fraternity parties and all of our punk rock people get pissed at us for doing that. Then, there’ll be one punk rock guy at a show with a bunch of fraternity guys. And they’ll be all pissed off about that guy. And neither of em understands that our music appeals to that hippie over there or that guy over thereIt just boggles my mind the little sub-genres and sub-cultures and how you have to behave in a certain way.
JPG: Could it be that when someone says, Ska,’ there’s the image of someone with a shaved head wearing Doc Martens skanking away?
SJ: I think nowadays it’s more because of the carnival aspect of the late 90s, real fast tempo. That was never Ska. Even the Bosstones they’re harder and they’re more rock n’ roll but they had songs that had a nice tempo that you could sing along with. Granted, they’re fast but it wasn’t this turn the metronome up as fast as you can and play your horn as loud as you can. Again, it goes back to the songs.
I hate to target Reel Big Fish because they’re actually nice guys. But, at the time, it was getting so saturated. The marketers had gotten hold of this music and the [Mighty Mighty] Bosstones, Sublime, Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger were the only bands getting radio airplay. But the next thing you know, every town had seven ska bands with 15 horns in it. And it watered down the music. Now, it’s 10 years later and it’s a whole different landscape out there. Lots of good bands playing.
JPG: Of course, you, Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger are still around.
SJ: I think The Slackers are still carrying the traditional flag. Good East Coast bands, West Bound Train and a band from New Jersey called Steadfast United…PUMP City Stompers. Real quality acts. The last two are bands that started after the late 90s thing was going on. I think they got into it for the right reasons, playing music close to their heart, which is always the best recipe for good songs.
JPG: Do you think based on your “schooling” over the years, to what extent do you consider yourself an authority on Ska?
SJ: The musical authority in our band is our bass player Jorge. He’s just an encyclopedia of music. He’s the one that has really taken over the influence on the band. He wrote 70 to 80 per cent of the new record. Back in the old days, the DJ friends were there but they all have families, wives and kids, so they don’t DJ anymore, but Jorge still has this awesome collection and brings out new stuff for us to listen to every weekend when we’re driving around in the van. That’s when he has the most influence right now. Also, that chemistry and friendship amongst the guys, everybody appreciates the same styles of music and can effectively take a song influence and turn into our own song without ripping it off.
JPG: Jorge described the new album, “All Day,” as what it sounds like riding with the band in the van. So, you travel from D.C. to Philadelphia later this month, which is around a two-hour drive. Give me an idea of what would be on the playlist.
SJ: Very varied. Not so much listening to whole albums now, a good iPod playlist. Anything from James Brown to dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry, a lot of old Studio One Ska and rocksteady stuff. The Clash is one of those bands we turn to a lot. Throw some Johnny Cash in. We listen a lot Johnny Cash when we’re in Europe and we’re homesick for America. A lot of it lately is re-issues of great 60s compilations from these British labels putting them out.
JPG: Speaking of Studio One, All Day sounds like a long lost Studio One recording, like it’s tinny but in a good way in order to evoke an era. Was that the intent and how did you come up with that?
SJ: Definitely. Jorge, again, this was kind of his baby. He just wanted the production quality to match the character to match the song. Again, All Day, the songs we listened to all day, they're old songs and they all have that quality to 'em. So, we tried a little bit as far as mike techniques and not tons of overdubs. Then, just the mix to try to overdrive stuff and the pre-amps and all that engineering magic that they can do there.
JPG: Was it recorded on tape or were you able to do that digitally?
SJ: We went to hard drive on this and then at the very end we went to two-inch tape and then back to when it was mastered, kind of a cheap man's way of doing it.
JPG: You mentioned The Clash and you toured with Joe Strummer in 1999, can you give me sense of what that experience was like?
SJ: To sum up the whole thing, it was just an amazing experience. He really was one of the most gracious, diplomatic nice guys. He would hang out with us every night. Give compliments to different members of the band. You could tell that he was watching the band and knew what was going on. It wasn't just, Good show, good show…’ We were on the road for five or six weeks in the U.S. with him. The funniest part was watching other people react to him because after the third or fourth show we came to terms with the fact that we're touring with this icon. And then every night, there's just a line of people to meet him and celebrities there and everything, it was funny to be hanging out backstage with him and he'd be like, 'Hey c'mon Steve, let's get a drink and get out of here.'
A year later we saw him at the 9:30 Club in D.C. Todd was there. We said, “There's no way that Joe's going to remember us.” He saw us from across the room and he was like, “Steve! Todd!” and came running over.
JPG: Now, what about being James Brown’s backing band. I thought he worked with the same band all the time and they were like tight as tight could be.
SJ: That's what we thought, too.
JPG: I didn’t think he was like Chuck Berry who would come into town and play with whatever local musicians the promoter sets up.
SJ: Apparently, he didn't do that very regularly, but for this one holiday season he was going to do these shows. He did New York and Philly and D.C. He didn't want to bring his band in or maybe it was an opportunity for him to play with different people. I don't know what was behind it all. I know I got a phone call and it said, Do you think you guys can handle this?’ That night we went to a studio and recorded a bunch of karaoke versions of his songs. Sent 'em off to his management. Two days later this giant white limousine shows up with James Brown and Keith, the guitar player. They came into this little place we worked at and proceeded to show us, “When Mr. Brown jumps like this you play like this, when he moves his arm like this you play this, when he does this you do this” and then Mr. Brown left and Keith stuck around and went over the stuff with the guys. So the next day we're onstage in front of 25,000 people playing as James Brown's backing band. It was just amazing. It’s stuff like that that makes us reluctant to break the band up.
After the fact Mr. Brown would put us on the guest list whenever he came to D.C. and dedicate songs to us. This guy didn't need to do anything like that. In a room packed full of well to do African-American people and James Brown's sending songs out to this frikkin’ Ska band.
JPG: With The Pietasters, you’re the vocalist/songwriter, what did you do that night?
SJ: I got to sing some backing vocals on “Sex Machine.” Whatever songs he did. He was real cool and his wife, Tomi Rae, was there. She kept coming and trying to tell me what to sing and she would put her arm around my shoulder and I'd be like, Don't touch me. I don't want him to get pissed at me.’
JPG: Did you have to go out and buy suits or did they have suits for you?
SJ: No, we just wore the suits that we had. It was funny. He called out our guitar player in the middle for a solo and he pulled it off and didn't get docked his pay or anything. (laughs)
JPG: Since this is Thanksgiving season, with a new album Pietasters album five years after your last studio effort, do you feel in a good place? Are you ready to give thanks?
SJ: Definitely. I mean, I couldn't be happier. It's funny, our drummer and his wife just had a baby. I got kids. And so it's nice to be still friends with these guys and playing with 'em and I love the new record. We're already working on the next one. It won't be five years between… We've got this new set up with Indication records. It'll be putting out some of our friends’ bands. I can't mention, but it’ll be some good stuff. We're looking forward to 2008. Keeping on.
JPG: So, you’re really going to become a full-fledge label, releasing more than your own work.
SJ: If anything, we're going to be able to pass along this good opportunity to our friends who've been working hard, too. Instead of having to give away a percent to the label, they can take the lion's share and we'll help 'em out. We've got good distribution. We know how to work the publicity thing and who needs a bunch of A&R reps.
JPG: Well, maybe you’ll appear at another jamband festival next year.
SJ: There were so many people at All Good, I was blown away.
JPG: Maybe you can get hooked up on Bonnaroo. That’s more like 80,000 people.
SJ: We were supposed to do it the first year, and we couldn't do it. We've tried every year since. We had a legitimate conflict. It wasn't like we were turning it down for any other reason.