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Skanic sinks roots in ska tradition

Stewart Oksenhorn

A rising tide, it is said, raises all boats. For Jody Sillstrop, however, the rising tide that has elevated ska music for the last few years can’t recede quickly enough.”It’s only my opinion, but I think this ska revival has been horrible for the music,” said Sillstrop. “A lot of bands tried to play the music and jump on the wagon, but they haven’t been true to ska. They’ve just passed themselves off as ska bands.”As the bassist and bandleader for the nine-piece Southern California-based ska band Skanic, Sillstrop is no disinterested observer in the ups and downs of ska’s current so-called third wave. Sillstrop is waiting for the downturn to separate the true-minded ska bands from the pretenders who have jumped on board the third wave to reap the benefits of ska’s recent popularity. When ska moves off the national radar – a process Sillstrop says is well under way – it will be the better bands, and the ones with the deepest roots in the tradition, still skanking. Skanic, which makes its Aspen debut tomorrow, Saturday, Jan. 23, at the Howling Wolf, will be among those to survive the revival, said Sillstrop.”Definitely Skanic came first, before the wave of popularity,” said the 29-year-old Sillstrop, a longtime ska fan who founded Skanic out of the remnants of Blisterchicken in 1995. “We’re not like the ska bands who come out and play a few ska chords and that makes them a ska band. There’s a lot more to a ska band than that. A lot of the so-called ska bands, I think, misrepresent what ska really has been.”One consequence that Sillstrop is already seeing from the plethora of ska bands, especially playing around ska-heavy Southern California, is the presence of a lot of bad ska bands. That hurts the reputation of ska generally, and what Sillstrop sees as the quality ska bands out there – Santa Barbara’s the Upbeat, a band that has been a major influence on Sillstrop; New York’s the Toasters, who Skanic recently toured with in the Northwest; Hepcat; and longtime purveyors of ska such as the Specials and the Skatalites.”There have been so many ska bands, that they’re playing for nothing,” said Sillstrop. “There are so many $100 ska bands, and the clubs are getting that $100 ska band and not liking it.”It’s good that some attention was brought to ska. But a lot of the people exposed to it weren’t really exposed to ska, but what these bands thought ska was. Now ska has a real big identity crisis. People don’t know what ska is or is not.”There’s little dispute about where ska started. The roots of the music are traced to Jamaica in the early ’60s, when Jamaican musicians took the American r & b they heard on the radio and blended it with Jamaican forms like mento, adding a distinctive, upbeat Caribbean twist to the music. The first well-known ska band was the Skatalites, a band that survives today and has toured through Aspen in recent years.”I doubt there’s a successful ska band today that wouldn’t say they were heavily influenced by the Skatalites,” said Sillstrop. “So much of what makes ska comes directly from what the Skatalites did.”Ska went through its first revival in late ’70s England, where bands such as the Specials, Madness and the English Beat mixed ska beats with a punk attitude and energy. The revival was labeled “2-tone,” in large part because the bands were of mixed races, and espoused an anti-racist philosophy.Ska’s third-wave, which began with the rise of Fishbone and crested with the immense popularity two years ago of No Doubt and Goldfinger, has its center in Southern California, from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Such bands as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Spring Heeled Jack, Dance Hall Crashers, Skanking Pickle and Let’s Go Bowling drove the revival, and hundreds of bands jumped on for the ride.One element that has marked the third wave is the bumping, bashing and bruising that goes on in the front-of-stage pits at many ska shows. But Sillstrop and his mates in Skanic are adamant that physical pain play no part in their music experience. The whole slamming aspect, borrowed from the punk scene, is a distortion of ska’s traditions.”The second wave was about primarily peace and unity and friendship and love,” said Sillstrop. “So many of the recent bands have been about bashing and slamming and hurting each other.”We’re against that. We don’t tolerate the moshing and body-slamming and people getting hurt. We’ll stop the show. We want girls to want to come to the front. Who wants to go to a show and get beat up from behind? I’d rather see kids get a positive reaction by holding hands and high-fiving.”Though Skanic places itself firmly in the ska tradition – including using the word “ska” in its name, a gimmick that dates back to the Skatalites – Sillstrop said some of the power of Skanic’s sound comes from the band members’ diverse musical backgrounds. On the band’s second and latest CD, “Last Call,” the band cops the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” melody and turns it into a ska horn line on “Fine Mess,” and does an excellent take on Nirvana’s “Breed.””I think what makes our band so good and unique is that we’re not all mostly ska fanatics,” said Sillstrop, who is surrounded by a three-part horn section in Skanic. “There’s guys who were into jazz and reggae. I was the big ska fan, and came up with the idea for the whole thing and found players I thought could fit in with the ska thing.”Sillstrop is confident that Skanic will be among the survivors when ska’s third wave crashes. And though he won’t name names, he’s just as sure the ranks are about to be pared down considerably.”I think you’ll see a lot of bands jumping off,” said Sillstrop. “We’ve never had a problem getting gigs, but I keep hearing that clubs are stopping booking ska bands. It’s taken a big hit. But it’s never gone away and it’s not going away.”


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