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Aaron Carnes on Defending Ska

Aaron Carnes is the music editor at Santa Cruz alt-weekly Good Times and the author of upcoming book In Defense of Ska.
Aaron Carnes is the music editor at Santa Cruz alt-weekly Good Times and the author of upcoming book In Defense of Ska.
Amy Bee

Aaron Carnes fell in love with ska music in the early ’90s. Skankin' Pickle was his favorite, but the list of bands he listened to in the genre was extensive: MU330, Blue Meanies, Suicide Machines, Stinkfish, Hepcat, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Mephiskapheles, the Pietasters, Fishbone, Op Ivy, the Specials, the Selecter, and at least a hundred others.

Carnes says the bands were all wildly different from one another, stylistically and in their approach to lyrics. Some wrote songs that were political, others personal, silly or emotional. He was frustrated when the genre found attention on MTV and many outside of the scene wrote the genre off as music for and by dorky white boys singing zany songs. He found that mainstream view both slanted and uneducated.

Carnes is the music editor for Santa Cruz-based alt-weekly Good Times. He's been a music journalist for a decade and loves writing about all kinds of genres and styles. It bums him out that so many people have no idea what ska music is aside from its short life on MTV and the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater soundtrack album. He also cringes at the plot line he's seen put forth on more than one TV show where a character is embarrassed by his or her ska past. He maintains that the ska scene was awesome and that no one need be embarrassed by their participation in it, past, present or future. Ska is still happening, and new bands are doing amazing things with the genre.

It's with this in mind that Carnes penned his upcoming book, In Defense of Ska. It's currently available for pre-order on Clash Books and ships in April. We spoke with Carnes about the book and his feelings about the musical style.

Westword: Is the book for hardcore ska fans only, or will people generally interested in music history be entertained, and why?

Aaron Carnes: Hardcore ska fans will love this book, but I wrote it with non-ska fans in mind. I read about bands and music scenes all the time, whether I’m a fan or not. If it’s compelling and well written, it doesn’t matter. With ska, since there are so many negative stereotypes associated with the music, I wrote the book as a defense, to puncture through some of the well-trodden narratives in non-ska fans’ minds. I also took the approach of making it be a collection of stand-alone essays, because ska has such a vast, rich history, it would be impossible to tell the complete story in one book. Some chapters are snapshots of ska history. Some take a theme, like the evolution of ska fashion, and go deep. There are opinion pieces and personal stories about my time playing in a ska band in the ’90s and becoming friends with — and eventually touring with — Skankin’ Pickle. There’s a lot in there that I think will be interesting to non-ska fans.

Who did you talk to for this book, and what insights did you gain?

I interviewed 117 people for the book. I talked with musicians from the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and present-day scenes. I spoke with some two-tone musicians, Third Wave bands that were on the radio, people in Mexico’s vibrant ska scene, and some well-known non-ska musicians who revealed their secret ska past to me. After all these conversations, it was pretty clear that ska is much more political, socially aware and interesting than a lot of other genres. The other insight I’ve gained is that all ska scenes have dealt with some version of not being taken seriously, even in Mexico, where the bands are highly political and speak on issues meaningful to the country’s poor, underprivileged class. The fact that the music is upbeat, happy-sounding, sincere and usually has horns is too much for some people to get past. It’s too bad, because they’re missing out on a lot of great music.

The cover of In Defense of Ska.EXPAND
The cover of In Defense of Ska.
Cam Evans

What did you learn from your research that you found the most enlightening personally?

One thing that came up over and over again was that people who love ska really love ska. It’s part of their identity. This is true for a lot of styles of music, but it’s especially true for ska. I interviewed The Hard Times editor Eric Navarro, who told me that their ska articles get high shares and clicks. He said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that metal fans might like certain subgenres or bands, but ska fans love everything to do with ska and are always hungry for ska content. I think that speaks to how important this music is to a lot of people, no matter how much popular culture depicts it as a ridiculous trend.

What era of ska are you covering? Does this go back to Jamaican ska in the ’50s and ’60s, or does it include the two-tone ska of the ’70s and the Third Wave ska revival in the ’80s and ’90s?

My book jumps around randomly, mostly covering the ’80s through the 2000s. Two-tone is mentioned a few times. There’s one chapter about the failed push in 1964 to get ska into mainstream U.S. radio, and there are a few chapters about what’s happening in the present-day ska scene. I purposely chose to not focus on a specific era because ska has had many healthy scenes all over the world for a long time. I wanted to cherry-pick moments that felt interesting to me.

What moves you about ska?

There’s nothing better than the bouncy, infectious ska beat. To really understand that, you have to see it live. It’ll inspire anybody, regardless of age, culture or economic status, to dance with carefree abandon. I’ve taken a few ska-hating friends to ska shows, and they’ve had a blast. The essence of the beat, which started in Jamaica, has traveled all over the world and continues to inspire happiness wherever it goes. Even angsty punk-rock teens suddenly turn into goofy kids when a ska band takes the stage. Another beautiful thing is ska’s flexibility. It’s strange to me that people make fun of ska by saying that every song sounds the same. You can mix ska with hardcore, soul, metal, jazz, alt-rock, hip-hop, garage rock, or whatever. 100 gecs have a song called “Stupid Horse” that mixes ska with weirdo electronic music and overly AutoTuned vocals, and it rips.

I remember being a jerky punk fan when I was a teenager in the 1990s. I regret it now, but I hated on ska bands, mostly because of songs like “Ska Sucks,” by Propaghandi, and being jealous that I wasn’t in a band. I recall that Fat Mike from NOFX also lambasted the genre on stage at a show. I was surprised in the NOFX autobiography to find out what a huge Operation Ivy fan he cops to being and how it influenced him. Did ska not get a fair shake from punk and hardcore fans, at least not publicly?

“Ska Sucks” has a funny backstory. Chris Hannah wrote the song in the late ’80s to annoy the Nazi skinheads that were infiltrating the punk scene in Winnipeg. Why did Nazi skinheads like music rooted in Jamaica that was later adopted by British punks to have a strong anti-racist message? It’s because Nazis are dumbasses. “Ska Sucks” was never meant to be the anthem of ska hatred in the mid-’90s, but it turned into one anyway because so many of the punks were already making fun of ska. It was always an easy target because the music is so earnest. That said, I think there are a lot of punks like Fat Mike that made fun of ska but they actually liked it. They were just too scared to admit it publicly.

Overall, does ska get the critical recognition it deserves? It’s certainly not a type of music that can be faked, because it’s often eight or nine people playing pretty technically complex tunes. Does it get relegated to a novelty?

I’ve yet to see ska music taken seriously in a critical way. It’s seen as juvenile and simple, which is insulting if you’ve ever tried to write a ska song. Plenty of critics would probably concede that there are ska bands that have good players, but they rarely see its value as art. I love Sufjan Stevens, Vampire Weekend, Kanye West and Galaxy 500, and I understand why music bloggers fawn over their albums. I think there’s room to also see the artistic value of ska. Fishbone’s Truth and Soul is one of the greatest albums of the ’80s. The Selecter’s Celebrate the Bullet should be on every critic’s top-ten album list. Hepcat’s Right on Time should be talked about in the same breath as other slept-on ’90s soul and jazz records.

Why does ska garner the level of animus it does? Any time I’ve talked to a ska musician, they tend to be the nicest people — a lot of kids who were in marching band.

There’s so much pain and misery in the world, it’s easy for people to understand and appreciate art that bleeds with pain. Does anyone make fun of Nick Drake or Songs: Ohia? Are there any jokes on TV about Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me? It’s vulnerable and commendable to share such personal, emotional details about your life, but it’s also vulnerable to express joy. People don’t seem to understand that. The assumption is that anyone playing happy music isn’t very smart or deep. To many people, ska is the ultimate symbol of this. The irony is, many ska bands have super-depressing lyrics hidden in those upbeat tunes. That’s pretty much every Reel Big Fish song.

What is the state of ska music right now? Has it waned in popularity, or are people still making and buying it?

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When I started this book in 2013, there wasn’t a lot of interest in ska, aside from the hardcore fans, which is a significant group. By now, that’s changed. A few years back, there was a big wave of ska nostalgia that grew in the ska groups on Facebook and other social media platforms. Taylor Morden released the excellent documentary Pick It Up! Ska in the ’90s, which only further cemented that. Simultaneously, a ton of new, young bands have emerged in the past decade. Kids are reclaiming and redefining ska music in exciting ways. Bands like Kill Lincoln, Catebite, We Are the Union, Delirians, Los Skagaleros, The Talks and a bunch of other groups are currently creating a lot of energy in ska. One of the biggest voices right now is Jeremy Hunter [they/them]. They started the Skatune Network YouTube channel to transform non-ska songs into ska gold. They also have the original project JER. They kill it on every instrument and are a force to be reckoned with.

I've heard the ska scene is very inclusive and welcoming. Has this been your experience? Is it diverse?

The ska scene has always been a diverse and inclusive place. Since the days of two-tone ska, the culture of the music has been firmly planted in anti-racism and multiculturalism. That’s a legacy that’s carried on. It’s also one of the most global styles of music. Every country has a ska scene, and regardless of the language they speak, they share a commonality in the language of ska. But I think another factor is that there’s something about the ska scene that is very accepting of people. Maybe it’s because so many people make fun of ska or think it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. The people in the ska scene are very open-minded and welcoming. The ska scene I was part of in the early to mid-’90s drew every kind of person: metalheads, goths, hippies, rude boys, weirdos. Everyone was there to have fun. And because the music and the bands were the furthest thing from pretentious, everyone felt comfortable that they could be their true selves. I see that spirit of inclusion in the scene today.

Follow Aaron Carnes @aaron_carnes at Instagram.

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