This year, ska rose metaphorically from the modern jungle—in creative places, like web streams and quarantine videos on YouTube and Instagram. It started early in March, with John Feldman of Goldfinger dropping positive vibes and fun split-screen takes on two-and-a-half decades of classics. Goldfinger followed that up with a new record out now, called Never Look Back. Ska IS looking ahead and not showing any signs of slowing down.
Fellow veteran ska band Kill Lincoln started the pandemic in the studio and quickly turned their studio bubble into quarantine HQ. They released Can’t Complain in August on Bad Time Records and also dropped a lockdown dance party with their video for the track “Ignorance Is Bliss.”
Kill Lincoln guitarist and vocalist, Mike Sosinski—also the guy from Bad Time Records, followed this up in September with a compilation, Ska Against Racism, on his label, with Asian Man Records and Ska Punk Daily. The compilation aimed at promoting social justice and benefits the Movement for Black Lives, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Alpha Institute, The Conscious Kid, and Black Girls Code.
Bad Time Records is also putting out the band Bad Operation with Community Records featuring veteran musicians in a new project. After their first show was nixed due to COVID restrictions, and Brian Pretus’ tour with PEARS was cancelled, Daniel “D-Ray” Ray, Greg Rodrigue, Dominic Minix, Robert Landry, and Pretus retreated to their practice space to make a record that is more ska than ska punk. Bad Operation is something they call “new tone.”
Jeremy “Jer” Hunter runs Skatune Network, anchored by his YouTube page and website. The sometime-trombonist and vocalist for We Are The Union shines with ska covers, livestreams, and his “Superman” reverse cover. He sees quarantine as an opportunity for the scene to grow.
“The quarantine has been interesting, in general,” Hunter says. “I’ve found a lot of success on many platforms because it has forced people, especially the ska scene, to start to catch up. I’ve always focused on platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Twitch because they focus a lot on what’s currently hip. Because of the increased traffic on all these platforms, I’ve been able to see growth everywhere, except Facebook because they destroy reach for artists. It helps a lot that all my friends in music have built little home studios and have the means to record, which has made collaborating all the easier. Because of this, incredible projects and collabs have come forward via Skatune Network, which helps me expand to lots of people beyond the regular ska radar.”
If 2020 was the opening sequence of a BBC documentary like Planet Earth, it would be depicted as a quiet, peaceful year, without people and with a lot more nature. Maybe that’s boring or silencing. Maybe it builds angst, or the images provoke unease. Undoubtedly, this year has created feelings from anger to joy, and the whole spectrum in between. This year has been a struggle for people. Empty streets, closed restaurants and businesses, people at home, no scene, bare stages. Listening casually, there might not be a sound, until you listen closely. This year, ska filled the virtual rainforest full of noise.
John Feldman realized early into quarantine that he had to do something to keep his mind busy and positive.
“When this whole thing started back in March, I think we were all like scared and anxious and angry and sad and everything,” Feldman says. “Our friends were losing business, and we didn’t know what was going to happen, and how scary the virus was. I knew immediately that I had to stay busy because they say an idle mind is the devil’s playground. If I’m sitting around thinking about the repercussions of coronavirus, I’m not going to do very well emotionally. And it’s such a weird time, because you hear all about domestic violence and suicide going up, and all the crazy stuff that’s happened since lockdown. I just needed to stay busy, so I filmed all those quarantine videos. And then when we were done doing them, I’m like, ‘what’s next?’”
What’s next was a Goldfinger single, followed by a full-length record. This was easier as a thought in his mind than action in the world.
“I couldn’t get anyone to come over to do songwriting sessions,” Feldman says. “I tried a bunch of songwriting sessions on Zoom. I wrote a bunch of songs through the internet, which is not the same. When you come up with that amazing hook or those great lyrics that just tie everything together, and you get goosebumps when you’re in the room with someone; you share that moment of triumph. It’s just not the same. And I knew I had to do something other than just stay staring at a computer screen, so I decided to make a Goldfinger album.”
Goldfinger’s pop sensibility combined with Feldman’s autobiographical, lyrical style is a potent recipe. Feldman can weave a memory into something most people remember, even if they’ve never experienced it firsthand. Sweet human moments, lost longings, or too much PDA, Feldman makes feelings into hits.
“This record was made out of necessity for me not to go crazy,” he continues. “I think there’s something to be said about that vibrant drive that I had, that passion to make music when I couldn’t do anything else. ‘Wallflower’ was the last song I wrote, which is the song that came out last month. A lot of marriages have broken up during quarantine. I feel like my marriage has been stronger throughout all this stuff. I kind of wrote it about my wife, who I met at The Stone Pony in New Jersey. I wanted to say how grateful I am to have this great solid woman in my life, and I wrote this song about her. And that song became the single, so you never know what song is going to come, unless you just keep writing.”
Feldman concludes with a reference to the track “Tijuana Sunrise” from their last record The Knife.
“A real-life story about getting arrested in Rosarito, down in Mexico,” he says. “Like, everything that I’ve written about is kind of firsthand experience. I feel like a lot of kids I work with now are inspired by other people’s music instead of living their life with their own experience.”
His advice, based on their “Wallflower” single, is simple.
“The thing about songwriting is, you think about memories that you have, and they become timeless songs, because you’re living your life. If there’s anyone reading this that’s an aspiring songwriter, go create memories because those are the things that I pull from to write some of the greatest songs I’ve ever written, is by living my life, and getting my heart broken, and having experiences that I can tap into. Just staying stuck in a room with a guitar isn’t the answer. Go out and live life, and then write songs about it.”
In the meantime, while stuck at home, why not plug the sounds of Mike Sosinski and Kill Lincoln into a 2020 playlist? It’s impossible to sit still with this banger on your turntable needle. Sosinski explains how ska is important, in terms of both having fun, and holding the world accountable.
“When I was a kid, the reason I got into ska music was because it was fun,” Sosinski says. “I’d go to the shows, and it was not just a fun atmosphere, but it was an atmosphere where you could kind of be a weirdo, and be yourself, and express ideas that were maybe not okay to express in other places. Then I’d put on a record like [The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’] Let’s Face It, and I’d hear them talking about racism. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that is something we should be talking about.’ So, it all goes hand in hand, I think. Music can be upbeat; it can be uplifting; it can give people something to look to for hope in this time, and some good vibes. But also, it should have a message. It needs to be uniting people, and needs to be accepting of people of all kinds, and that means races, genders, identities.”
Kill Lincoln’s Can’t Complain is a record to be enjoyed whole, end-to-end and in the middle. The line, “don’t lose your way, don’t lose your vision,” from “Ignorance Is Bliss,” is fully motivational, and the band’s quarantine video for the song is totally danceable.
“We all recorded ourselves singing along and dancing to the song, but we slowed the song down to half speed and tried to record ourselves playing through it, and then sped it up, just to do something a little weird with it,” Sosinski says. “It’s meant to make it seem a little more frantic. And we all made a video that way independently, in our own homes, and put that out, so that was pretty fun. We haven’t done a lot of quarantine session-type things. Not all of us have recording capability. But we’ve been doing as much as we can, doing some of these livestream parties.”
Nonetheless, Kill Lincoln were able to shelter in place in the studio, the perfect location for musicians to create. Can’t Complain is a quarantine album, so that’s winning the lockdown.
“We managed to get it done right before basically everything shut down,” Sosinski says. “It was a pretty crazy situation, but we were in the studio as they announced the first rounds of shelter in place and quarantine across the country. We decided to just keep going. Our engineer was like, ‘Well, we’re kind of already in a bubble, so let’s just keep going.’ We all felt the same about it, so we finished off the record, and I’m really thankful that we got it done. Frankly, it’s given us something to do this year. So many bands are just unable to do very much right now. I mean, I live in California, the rest of the band is in the D.C. area, and we’re obviously not able to get together a lot at all this year. It’s really given us something to work on and work towards, and the album has been fantastic, and it just makes us eager to get out on the road and start playing some shows, when it’s safe to do so.”
“I’ve been playing ska music for over 20 years,” Sosinski continues. “And I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about the state of ska. Anybody who was playing ska, or ska punk especially, in the mid to late 2000s and early 2010s would tell you that it was kind of a tough time to be playing music in the genre. Just coming out of that third wave, I think ska had kind of a bad rap after booming in popularity and everybody trying to do it. It was just tough for a lot of the DIY ska bands for a while. But now we’ve sort of built up a community, we’re all working together a little bit better, and there’s just great creative output coming right now from so many bands. There’s just so much good stuff happening, between our label, Bad Time Records, and a lot of our friends across the country and the world making so much cool music right now. So, it’s exciting, I think it’s a great time for ska music, and much needed.”
There’s also new sounds from veteran dudes Bad Operation, as well as some fun footie from Skatune Network and Jeremy “Jer” Hunter. Sosinski is an admirer and a supporter.
“Someone I haven’t mentioned that needs to be mentioned is Jer, and Skatune Network,” Sosinski says. “Jer does a lot for the scene and is very vocal on social media platforms. Not just about their support for ska, but their support for social and racial justice. Jer has a solo project that we’ve released a couple singles for, but next year there’s going to be a full-length album. So, I’m really excited about that.”
Hunter is honored to be working with bands that inspired him early, and support ska.
“It’s really incredible because 10 years ago, when I was first getting into shows and music, it was bands like Kill Lincoln, We Are the Union, and the Flaming Tsunamis who truly turned me onto ska,” Hunter says. “To be playing in bands, sharing labels with, and having support by these same people years later is incredible! I have a platform now, and I watched the ska scene sleep on the entire millennial generation of ska bands. I watched none of the bigger bands or labels really care to acknowledge them, so I knew that I didn’t wanna be the thousandth influencer to hype the same ’90s bands. That’s really it. I’m not doing anything special, but I’m glad people listen, and my peers feel the love from the Skatune fans!”
Sosinski is also lifting up and giving voice to many artists via Bad Time Records. One of those bands is Bad Operation. He’s releasing a variant of their record on vinyl, in collaboration with Community Records.
“The guys at Bad Operation are fantastic,” he says. “Greg [Rodrigue] and D-Ray [Daniel Ray] who run Community Records. They’ve just been awesome, and they’re so talented, and they’re constantly coming up with new creative ideas for how to talk about the Bad Operation record, and then how to put themselves out there, always have ideas for videos. Yeah, they’re just really inspiring to work with, and I love that Bad Operation record that’s coming out. They sort of embody, I think, what this next generation of ska and ska punk can be. They’re politically minded, the music has something familiar to it, but also something entirely new. It’s a new take on a classic sound, the ‘new tone’ idea. I think they’re a great band and a great way to usher in this sort of new generation.”
“There’s just a bunch of quality ska bands that are active in the scene right now,” Sosinski says. “And it’s been really rad to be involved or even a part of that circle. And yeah, I think that, to us, one of the biggest things that’s happened this year is the Ska Against Racism compilation, which was organized and released a little bit before we announced our projects. But I think that album project, and the idea, and the statement, or statements, and everything behind it is one of the things that’s at the forefront of the ska resurgence right now.”
Bad Operation’s Ray and Rodrigue, who also run the collective Community Records, started 2020 by trying to cram a Bad Operation record into the tight space before a PEARS tour.
“When we first decided we wanted to do the project, we were basically just like, ‘let’s make a ska band to play one show before Brian goes on tour with PEARS, and that’ll be it. Maybe that’s all we’ll ever do.’”
When their schedules cleared, they pivoted. They went from playing their first show before Brian Pretus went on tour with PEARS to recording in the practice space with him.
“I just feel, at least from the perspective of Bad Operation, it feels really great to be releasing this music now, and then having people respond to it, and it’s been really fun for us,” Ray says. “Everybody in the band, we’ve been involved in ska music, and other genres and things, for so long. And it’s been 12-plus years in this. Even though this is a brand-new project, it’s been this kind of incredible mix of things happening just this year, specifically within the context of releasing this record.”
It hasn’t all been joyful. Being part of the fabric of ska, singer Dominic Minix has referred to Bad Operation as “joyous retaliation.”
“I think that the sound of ska, especially the ska that’s willing to and wanting to address the systemic problems, oppression, art, society as a whole, many issues, you can have elements of addressing that stuff to a dance soundtrack,” Rodrigue says. “I think a lot of the best ska music has talked about these things and had that be a central part of their music and of their message. And sure, I mean, on one hand it could be like, ‘oh, this is dance party music.’ But on the other hand, it’s an opportunity to connect with and unite with people who are akin to you. I think, considering the pandemic and considering our lack of ability to connect with one another, it actually makes ska ever more powerful as a sound, and a genre, and an idea.”
Feldman has also noticed the strength of the new generation.
“All of a sudden, there’s just these kids that grew up on this kind of music that are making YouTube videos,” he says.
He recounts seeing Hunter’s “Superman” reverse ska cover.
“I want to say there were 500 different horn players that played for this crazy version of “Superman,” with all these people submitting videos to him, and he just put a compilation,” he says. “It’s amazing.”
For Hunter, his Skatune Network videos come naturally. His method is complex, but he makes it sound easy.
“I get the idea in my head, and I play along to the original song a few times on guitar to get the chords,” he says. “Then I play it in a ska version, and then I start writing the drums out. Once that’s done, it’s pretty simple to just record rhythm, and then vocals and horns. Then I record the video and edit it together! It’s not much of a process, but I do twitch stream me recording the guitar and bass as part of my process.”
When he’s not on the internet, he’s busy being creative in a far less virtual way.
“I’m always doing some other music related stuff, almost always,” he says. “I teach, and still try to practice and grow my classical and jazz chops. When I’m not doing that, I’m either playing Nintendo – most likely Animal Crossing – or working out, cooking, exploring nature, and trying to soak in as much sun and fresh air as possible! I believe taking care of the body in those ways is very important.”
“It’s dope to see ska get out of the stagnation it’s been in for so long,” Hunter concludes, with a feeling and a sentiment that says it all about ska in 2020. “To see new bands come up with fresh new spins on classic sounds, and to see a big connection back to the roots of the genre. To see this new generation of bands take a stance against racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and whatever else excludes marginalized groups. To many, ska is a joke and a fad from the ’90s. What we are doing is not a nostalgia-driven gimmick. We’re not trying to cause a nostalgia train that’ll burn out faster than the third wave. We are creating a message and a space where everyone can feel safe and welcome, because we couldn’t find one for ourselves.”
This year, if a tree fell in the forest, it would have made a sound, even if a film crew wasn’t there to hear it. Joyful music came back on a tidal wave, with an undercurrent of social justice. The pictures are held in the mind and projected on the web. From Goldfinger and Kill Lincoln, to newcomers Bad Operation’s new tone. Jeremy “Jer” Hunter taking his bedroom backdrop and covers to the world. It’s all new tone, wires and ethernet cables connecting fresh eyes to solid, beautiful content. A tone captured in music, in video, played live on streams, recorded and broadcast in new, creative split-screen ways. When the club opens and the scene regenerates, there’ll be a lot to talk about when thinking of 2020, because artists and believers never failed to continue to draw on and paint new sonic visions.
Twenty-twenty is a year of ska. All kinds of ska. Pick it all up.
The next wave, new tone, are bands that stayed true. It’s continuing important work with vibes from 20, 30, 40 years ago and beyond. Ska, at its core, tackles racism thoughtfully. Ska also carries its message joyfully through air. The dichotomy of these things makes 2020 the perfect year for this rebirth. A musical reflection of the world, trying to remain positive while absorbing important and necessary information.
“I think part of the genre that was promoted was the goofy, party atmosphere, right?” Sosinski says. “And that was pervasive, you would see that at the shows. That’s fine, it’s fun to have a party, it’s fine to have fun. That’s all good. But the message needs to be there too, and I think especially now, with everything that’s been going on in our country and the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, and just our current administration, we really need that voice of reason. And if ska can be that voice of reason, I think it’s a good time for it.”