Caleb Goldenstein, "Bass and Drums and Horns Oh My!"
There is so much talk in today's world about how mainstream music is corrupt, and that the underground is the total solution to how pop and mainstream rap have bastardized the music scene. Regardless of how true or untrue this statement is, it is a fairly common thought in underground culture that complete deviation from not only production, but actual songwriting is necessary in order to promote a counter society, a counter music scene. In this process, though, many genres of underground culture are thrown out of the musical window. How many punk groups can claim they have a track on a CD without a chorus that has an extremely mainstream I-V-vi-IV or I-vi-IV-V chord progression? What two-man acoustic indie band can claim to be original with a tune in a minor key about feeling down and heartbroken? There are hundreds of lead lines that have the same harmonic progressions as any given pop tune. At this point, underground music becomes more about the way the sound is presented in a non-typical, four man band approach. This is where ska comes in. Ska has injected the underground music scene with an instrumental approach not often utilized by the mainstream, while still containing many aspects of song writing that is prevalent in that same culture. The variations in ska come from the wide ranging history of the genre over the past several decades and the various movements culturally associated with the musical trends. These cultural movements, coupled with the current scene's touring attitudes, integration of horn players, and other outside influences on the genre all contribute to how ska's influence in the underground music scene is helping to transform and make the scene relatable to new groups of hipsters and music lovers, especially across the current American landscape, with a bit of concentration in the Chicagoland area.
Ska is a ridiculously complex genre, and for an understanding of the scene, a basic knowledge of the history surrounding the music is an excellent place to begin. The genre is typically associated with three major waves, starting in Jamaica, and then subsequently moving from England to America.
Jamaica is almost always identified as the location where ska originated. In an article for Jazz Times, Christopher Porter identifies skanks, or "the offbeat accents of Jamaican boogie in that late 1950s morphed into afterbeat or upbeat accents in the 1960s with the creation of ska." Combined with horn lines emulating jazz, Latin, and R&B style licks, the two musical styles formed a new kind of musical landscape. When moving to England in the late 70s and early 80s, ska gained the other half of what has become a constant in the genre: the faster, punk feel, which originated as a sort of groovier dance beat. This is also where ska truly began "a revival of and an elaboration on ‘rude boy' ska, a craze centered in Jamaica in the first half of the 1960s," as told by Stephen Rodrick in "Ska Story: The sound of angry young England." The rude boy attitude is, on the surface, a simple "Fuck the man! I'll play what I want, and I'll sing about whatever goddamn thing I want to!" In England though, this was supplemented by a desire to overcome racial divisions and economic disparities of the time. Finally, ska comes to America, where it truly underwent a large dynamic change in musical influences and styles. America's ska scene ranges from punk-heavy (Less Than Jake, Mustard Plug ) to smooth reggae (The Supervillains) and to what some are even hesitating to define as third-wave, with the evolution of Streetlight Manifesto from Catch-22, and double-time skank beats with heavy, heavy horn work. This is as basic of a cultural background as can be quickly summarized. Hopefully it helps.
To elaborate on the musical construction of ska more also helps define the genre as an underground entity. A basic progression of ska's musical influences would probably look like this: jazz—Latin—early R&B/rock & roll—reggae —English punk—early alt. rock. Though simplified, this is typically a good representation of the evolution of ska's sound. As mentioned before, one of the defining characteristics of ska is the skank- developed first in piano and guitar, just quick hits on the offbeats, giving a bit of a lifted feeling to the music. This was then incorporated into horn sections, and in today's ska, skanks are almost always in the guitar parts. Early ska horn lines were influenced by jazz and Latin music, which is making a reappearance in what many consider to be a coming fourth-wave of ska today. This blended into the second-wave in England, where ska acquired the label "ska-punk," a feel involving a heavier drum beat, and more rhythmic guitar parts. American ska (third-wave) is a combination of all these feels.
The current ska scene in the United States is one of vast diversity in quite a few areas, but namely musical influences, touring, revolving band members, and attitudes towards drug and alcohol use and reference throughout the genre. As mentioned before, there is a great difference in the different types of ska in the American music scene as of now, and these scenes have fairly identifiable traits that show how the scene is progressing through a musical and cultural revolution. It is easiest to touch upon musical influences first, as this helps to relate all of the rest of the differences back to a singular point. Third-wave ska contains elements of both earlier waves, and uses them in different ways. There are groups that devote much of their music towards the more punky edges of ska, and many others that contrast that demographic, choosing to hit on a reggae-influenced, laid back feel. These musical influences lead to the way that bands are put together, and what kind of outside influences contribute to their styles.
Touring is one of the main challenges of any band in today's scene, but is an especially nasty subject for many ska groups, as they typically carry more members than groups with a traditional singer-guitarist-bassist-drummer setup. Many ska bands feature at least two horns players, with some variation in up to four horns. Just to clarify, typical horn player selection includes a trumpet; trombone; and either alto, tenor, or bari saxes. Streetlight Manifesto, for example, carries four horns, and this puts a strain on their touring budgets. In an interview with Tomas Kalnoky, the frontman and guitarist for Streetlight, he told me that one of the biggest problems they faced when booking a tour was simply finding food for the entire group. This is starkly contrasted, if just simply in the way a budget is put together, by the Supervillains, a group that only tours in recent years with one horn player. Scott Suldo the guitarist and a frontman of the Supervillains (known by Skart to fans and friends), said that if the Villains wanted to play in a town, they pretty much said something to a booking agent, and bam- they played there.
Both guitarists said that the way they come about horn players is a difficult process, and though they are not typically seen as true band members in other genres, they are some of the most influential and important members of a ska band. With Kalnoky, it was all about finding "guys that fit our mold as a band". Streetlight Manifesto went through several different horn players before settling on their current line-up in late 2009. Nearly the opposite goes for the Villains, as Skart described his horn players coming in and out of the group by saying "if people wanna play in the band, and we like ‘em, play". The method of involving horn players differs widely from group to group, and overall is just based on what will benefit the band in the best ways that they see possible.
The emergence of ska in America is interesting because it hit the country in various places in different ways. There was a large impact in the East coast, especially in the New York and Jersey area, and also in the South, mainly congregated in Florida. The other areas of the country have had a trickling in of ska over the past decade or so, especially as the genre has become more tour-friendly and engaged a wider audience in the underground scene. Chicago has seen much of this kind of trickle affect recently, and this is most evident through an increase in ska shows drawing sold out crowds to venues like the Metro, or the House of Blues, but also through the emergence of local bands in the underground scene. Both of these qualities point to a continuance of ska throughout the U.S. as a strong musical force. With ska shows selling out venues, there is obviously a large influx of new listeners, and a strong population of older hipsters and ska-ites pushing the scene along. However, much of the local ska scene is experienced through local bands. These bands range from the poppy-ska groups emulating Reel Big Fish to ska-punk bands who feel a more general notion of ska, an overall encompassing perspective that combines a multitude of areas into one group. This kind of broad definition of ska that is developing into single bands is one key aspect of Chicago's scene that differs from others. Instead of sticking to a typical genre, reggae ska, punk ska, pop ska, there is more of an evolution of sound, or a combination of sound that helps form what could quite possibly be a new wave of ska a few years in the future.
Ska is one of the most interesting scenes in the underground, in one way simply because of the variety of musical structure, but also because of the welcoming stance it provides for anyone wanting to get into the scene. With the vast differences in sound, band members, and other aspects of ska groups, there is quite a bit of room for the scene to expand, and this is easily seen across the country as ska bands form, tour, and influence new and upcoming groups. With a long history in evolving music and cultural attitudes, ska's background is the perfect scene for today's underground scene- a strong attitude of togetherness and a constantly growing musical landscape that attracts and inspires not only musicians, but the average listener as well.