Ska music has gone through multiple phases of stardom; its first blast was in the 1960s, when the mento- and calypso-influenced music emerged from Jamaica and seeped into Great Britain. Then there was the 2 Tone revival of the ’70s, when bands like The Clash and The Slits merged ska with a sharper punk-rock edge. And then the third wave of the ’90s, when American acts like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, and Rancid found mainstream success.
All along, each of these new adopters updated ska for their own purposes. But New York City’s The Slackers, formed in 1991, always hewed much closer to the original template. For them, ska, along with reggae, rocksteady, and dub, represent the ultimate in roots music — and as such, they line up seamlessly with rock ’n’ roll, jazz, blues, soul, and country. The slick sextet celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and on Feb. 26, they released a self-titled album that pushes into new territory.
Folio Weekly Magazine chatted with bassist Marcus Geard about perseverance, psychedelic predilections, and how The Slackers are really just country-music-writing romantics at heart.
Folio Weekly Magazine: So, it’s been 25 years. How special does that feel for the members of the band?
Marcus Geard: Very special. It’s pretty much the same group of guys who’ve known each other for more than 20 years. We’re like a rolling family that gets to travel around and see our relatives all year long. In addition, when a band is together for 25 years, their music can get a little stale — you can spin your wheels. I’m sure there are critics who would say that about us, but this new album is definitely going in more psychedelic, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s-influenced directions.
This is the first album you’ve financed and released yourselves, too, right?
Right. And it worked out great. I’d be lying if I said it was easy — there’s a lot of work involved — but it’s a real blessing having legions of supportive fans. Without that, it can be a hard slog pulling off a career like this.
Before the band was formed, did you envision a long-term career playing what you call “Jamaican rock ’n’ roll”?
In the early ’90s, people in New York City were dedicated to finding really obscure Jamaican music and falling in love with it. There was the whole 2 Tone thing going on, and third wave ska was starting out. But for us, it was authentic Jamaican ska, rocksteady, blue beat, and early reggae. We were hardcore advocates focused on getting it right. And the same thing was happening out in California. We thought we were all cool, like, “We’re the only ones keeping this music alive!” And then Dave [Hillyard, The Slackers’ saxophonist] showed up from San Diego and was, like, “Guys, we’ve been doing this for years.”
Were The Slackers pressured to change during third wave ska’s peak in the mid-’90s?
We never got all that much love from the industry. We were lucky to sign on with Hellcat early on, and they were great to us. But we never did well for them. We actually wrote a song called “We’re Third From Last,” because we were the third-worst-selling band on the label. Pretty impressive, huh?
Yet here you are, celebrating your 25th anniversary, when so many other bands don’t exist anymore.
Unlike those other bands, we didn’t stop. We just kept going. When ska became unpopular in the late ’90s and people said, “Ska is dead?” That was the best time for us. There was no competition. If you were willing to go on the road, you might be the only ska band coming to town for a year. So everybody who was into ska would come out to see you, whether or not you were the kind of ska band they were expecting. Maybe they wanted a punk rock band with horns, but instead they got The Slackers playing these slow, mellow love songs.
Which are now popular in the roots music.
Very true. When Americana started coming into the mainstream, we were, like, “Fuck, we’ve been playing this shit for years!” Nobody noticed because we did it with a Jamaican vibe. We were making records with banjos and mandolins 20 years ago. I always tell people I write country music, and by the time I bring it to The Slackers, it sounds like reggae. “Wasted Days,” one of our biggest hits? That’s basically a country tune.
Which might explain why people actually dance at a Slackers show.
That’s something that we try to encourage. The Slackers are romantics at heart. We like to see everybody dancing — even better if they’re dancing together. We hear stories from couples all the time about how they met at our gig. That’s fucking awesome. The fact that we can create an environment that can lead to a love relationship? You can’t ask for much more than that.