Savvy Ska Vets

Most American ska bands got their start in the early ’90s, when the music enjoyed a surging third-wave revival — but not The Toasters. Founded in 1981 by Englishman Robert “Bucket” Hingley, before ska gained mainstream popularity in the United States, label reps and critics alike laughed at the band’s so-called “circus music.” That convinced Hingley to found his own outlet, Moon Ska Records, which, by the 1990s, had become the most well-respected commercial outlet in the world. The label eventually sold 1.5 million records before folding in 2000. Thirty years after their formation, The Toasters still soldier on, touring internationally with the energy of bands half their age, serving as ska’s seminal elder statesmen.

Folio Weekly: The Toasters recently toured Australia, Indonesia and China. First time traveling to these areas? What was the reception like?

Robert “Bucket” Hingley: Yes, first time in here in all those territories. Just about completes the jigsaw puzzle. Now we just need a gig in Antarctica! It’s surprising just how much support there is in these uncharted areas. In Indonesia, they’re very tuned in to 2 Tone ska and British punk, so the portals and influences are markedly different from what kids are exposed to in the USA.

F.W.: What was your first exposure to ska music?

R.H.: I bought my first ska record in 1964, “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small. My biggest influence was always 2 Tone, too, since it incorporated a sociopolitical context that’s been lost in the more party-oriented American version of ska.

F.W.: You moved to New York in 1980 to manage the Forbidden Planet comic book shop. Was there a like-minded ska scene here in those early days?

R.H.: Nobody knew what ska was, so when we decided that’s what we’d play, it was difficult to find players with the right chops. And commercial attention? Nothing. I was told by one exec that ska was “circus music”; the music critic of the Village Voice told me that he’d never review a Toasters record. But eventually it panned out, and the rest is, by now, history.

F.W.: Part of that history is your founding of Moon Ska Records in 1983. What was the motivation at the beginning, and why did the label fold in 2000?

R.H.: Originally, it was just to put out Toasters releases that the music biz was not interested in. After that, it exploded, so the decision to close was painful. But we were faced with a perfect storm of distributor failure, loss of income and a massive return of product that made it financially impossible to continue. Moon was the little engine that could, but eventually the label was too successful for its own good. Other labels poached top bands with promises of greener grass that quickly turned to a dustbowl.

F.W.: Which sounds like a pretty fair assessment of ska’s 1990s boom and bust. In your eyes, what were the pros and cons of such fleeting mainstream popularity?

R.H.: The biggest negative was that it misrepresented the style. Bands who’re light years away from being ska — Smash Mouth, Goldfinger, Save Ferris — were misnomenclatured as such, whilst legit bands like The Skatalites and Laurel Aitken hardly benefitted at all. The positive side is that many of the “pre-boom” bands are still around; most of the bandwagon-jumpers have moved on in search of the next big thing, so us ska janitors can now get the house cleaned up nice and tidy again.

F.W.: The Toasters have released only nine albums in 30 years, but toured like maniacs in that time. Do you prefer playing live to recording?

R.H.: The value of recorded music has fallen away exponentially in the last 15 years, so it’s made more sense for me to tilt the budgets toward international touring, which has been a major success story.

F.W.: Yet few bands have succeeded with as many lineup changes as The Toasters have undergone.

R.H.: That’s made it much easier to tour and made the band much less reliant on individuals. The hardest thing to organize in this business is people, so having a big international roster of players has not only allowed us to play far more gigs, but also infused a greater amount of creativity into the interpretation and performance of the tunes.

F.W.: Florida has a fairly solid ska scene. Has our state always been a good destination for The Toasters?

R.H.: We’ve been playing Florida for many years; in fact, our first gig in the state was in Jacksonville in the early ’90s with my good buddy Ed Wilson at Milk Bar. Since then, the scene has been up and down, but Florida remains one of our key areas of support in the USA.

Nick McG