SKA IS DEAD. Long live ska.
Although, to be fair, the fabled and woefully misunderstood genre never quite flat-lined in the wake of its mid-'90s meteoric rise and resounding crash a few years later. Instead, while the masses joyfully danced upon its grave, the genre's vibrant subculture keeps plugging away, happily returning to the underground where it once thrived long before the Goldfingers, the Buck-O-Nines, and all the countless other generic SoCal frat-ska acts ruined it for everyone else. The biggest tragedy was the damage the word itself sustained; "ska" no longer personified the influence of mid-century Jamaican music, or the working-class UK second wavers. Instead it became a sad punchline far removed from its once respectful definition.
"We are so out in left field in terms of what most people think of as the ska scene," explains Dave Hillyard, saxophonist for the Slackers. With two decades of constant touring and recording in their wake, the New York band had established themselves long before the bloom and burst of ska's embarrassing third wave. If anything, the sextet was more content mining vintage recordings for influences that stretched far beyond the two tones of ska. The Slackers' latest, 2010's The Great Rocksteady Swindle (titled in homage to the Sex Pistols), is a crisp offering of upstroked guitars, restrained brass, and soulful vocals from frontman Vic Ruggiero. There is a timeless and natural comfort to the album, which might stem from its extended incubation period and precise recording regiment.
"We recorded in Berlin right at the end of doing a month-long tour. We had a theory that the band would be tighter if we had our road chops up, as opposed to going into the studio after a bunch of rehearsals at home," says Hillyard. Two days later, and with the exception of some unfinished overdubs, the band was finished. "The album has a very direct sound. We have had the same lineup for the last seven years now since Jay [Nugent] came on guitar, and we wanted to showcase the sound that we've developed with the six of us. It's powerful and stripped down, but still full at the same time."
The sense of ease that permeates The Great Rocksteady Swindle showcases the Slackers' longevity as lifers. Even a decade ago, at the tail end of the '90s when the genre skanked off this mortal coil, the Slackers were largely unaffected as they continued to do what they'd always done—tour and release a series of impressive recordings—which distanced themselves from the tourists whose commitment and interest was fleeting.
"We don't think of ourselves as having much in common musically with Reel Big Fish, or the Bosstones, or any of the bands that were successful in the '90s. Our style starts with Jamaican ska and reggae and then brings in influences from American garage rock, soul, R&B, blues, and what have you. We do an Americanized (and to a lesser extent, Anglicized) version of Jamaican music but you can still hear both influences coexisting in our music."
Yet despite it all, ska will always have a soft spot for Hillyard and company, “Personally, I always feel a little indebted to ska music because it got me out of a boring suburban existence into a much more interesting life.”