Most acts that are part of the so-called third wave of ska promote themselves using a simple formula for success: touring, touring, touring. But Isaac Green and the Skalars, among the best of this new generation, recently discovered that the road can sometimes be rough.
"We've only been on tour for two weeks, and I've already totaled the van," Green confesses. "We were driving all night from Boise to Seattle, and about four in the morning, I hit an ice patch and the van flipped over."
Fortunately, neither Green nor the Skalars--trombonist Evan Shaw, saxophonist/vocalist Jessica Butler, guitarist Ethan D'Ercole, drummer Dave Sharma, organist Jason Brody, DJ Wade and bassist Willie Horton (no relation to the convicted felon used in ads for President George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign)--were seriously injured in the accident, and the band's equipment survived largely intact. But in order to continue publicizing Skoolin' With the Skalars, their auspicious debut CD, the musicians needed to find a new set of wheels. And that was easier said than done. "We couldn't get a rental van because none of us are 25," Green explains. "So right now we're all riding in the back of a Penske moving truck. We've got couches and rugs--it's a pretty nice setup. We've even decorated the walls nicely by drawing pictures of what it might look like in the outside world."
Despite these improvements, being boxed up in a windowless space for hour after hour has not been much fun: Green notes that a bout of carsickness struck him while rolling along a winding California highway. But such unpleasantness has not diverted the players from their chosen course. The Skalars remain committed to bringing their intriguing blend of traditional two-tone and Jamaican club-style ska to the masses, wherever they may be.
Green co-founded the Skalars when he was a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, a few years after being introduced to ska. "When I was fifteen, I took all these art classes with a really weird girl with dyed black hair," he recalls. "I found out that she was a skinhead, and I told her, 'I don't know if I can associate with Nazis.' And she said, 'I'm not a Nazi' and went off on me." The pair agreed to disagree about politics, but they found common ground when the young woman started talking about her favorite musical style. "I was like, 'Ska? What are you talking about?'" Green continues. "Then she gave me a tape by the Specials, and I knew I'd found the answer to all my problems with popular music at the time."
The Skalars were the natural offshoot of Green's new discovery, but the band took a while to get moving; it "floundered around" for a few years, Green admits. The release of a Skalars seven-inch single changed that and led to a brief Midwestern tour with another neo-ska combo, the Pietasters. The jaunt was just as rocky as the Skalars' latest excursion--"The Pietasters even had a gun pulled on them by a promoter," Green reveals--and after getting back home, the group nearly split up. Green credits Butler, an original Skalar who returned to the fold after a lengthy hiatus, with preventing a divorce. "She went to France for a year while we were still terrible," he explains. "By the time she came back, someone else was singing, but Jessica was really a better singer."
Butler's addition helped solidify the Skalars' female-fronted sound--an approach that helps set the band apart from most Midwestern ska practitioners. "When we started the band, we wanted a girl singer partly because we didn't want that testosterone style of music," Green remarks. Of course, No Doubt, headed up by Gwen Stefani, dabbles in ska, too, but its pop/new wave approach is much less genuine than the one taken by Green and company. Likewise, their reliance on Jamaican ska and rock-steady influences helps differentiate them from skacore, a subgenre that is grounded in hardcore and punk. One of the reasons for the Skalars' authenticity, Green says, is the fact that "six out of seven members of the band were college-radio DJs" who were able to explore original Jamaican masters on the job.
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Thus far, the high caliber of Skoolin', issued last year by Moon Ska Records, has not translated into massive record sales. Still, Green believes that the music's future is bright. "I think it's much more satisfying to see a ska band," he says. "It works on a lot of levels. The music's melodic, it's danceable and catchy, and it's rather upbeat, so you don't have to go there and get all depressed. It's something you can look forward to going out to see." In his view, the Skalars' interest in the roots of ska only adds to their appeal.
"There's a whole new crop of young bands that are eager to play ska for a living," Green adds--and while the Skalars are obviously part of this movement, they're keeping their fingers crossed that they won't be traveling around the country like so many pieces of used furniture for much longer. "I'm hoping this moving-truck thing is a one-shot deal," he admits. "I mean, all that can stop us now is if we get pulled over, since I'm pretty sure what we're doing is illegal. If a cop does pull us over, we're going to pull the door shut real quick and just hope he doesn't check in."
Skarnival '97, with Isaac Green and the Skalars, 3Ball Combo, the Redemptions, Five Iron Frenzy and Model Citizen. 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $7-$8, 830-