RIP Magazine, January 1997: Vol 11, No 1
"The Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Plaid to the Bone"
by James Sullivan
Ten years into playing a style of music that's almost unmatched for its energy, the third-wave ska-core avatars known as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones show no signs of letting up.
"I actually think our energy level might've increased," says Dicky Barrett, the Bosstones' devilish frontman, possessor of a distinctive guttural bellow which sounds as though it's him who's being possessed.
Not for nothing was the Bosstones' debut entitled Devil's Night Out. True, their music is by now inextricably linked with wholesome goodness like Chuck Taylors, keggers, and Clueless (more on all that later), but it still retains a hard, almost sinister edge that lurks beneath the band's punchy, party-time patina. Barrett likes to refer to a certain "It," a supernatural force that breathes fire into his group's music: "We've harnessed It," he says. "We're controlling It. It's still probably stronger than we are, but we're better at knowing what exactly It is we're trying to slay."
Ska music - the hopped-up, staccato-rhythm precursor to reggae - has enjoyed three separate waves of popularity since it first blared from the speakers of Jamaica's mobile sound systems in the late 1950s. Two decades after that introduction, a network of multi-racial British punks revived the music with the Two-Tone movement, spearheaded by classic groups like the Specials, Madness, and the Selector. Fast-forward another generation, when bands like Rancid, Goldfinger, and No Doubt are bringing the ska sound to the general public a third time.
Somewhere in between those second and third movements, Boston's Bosstones took up the quest for ska nirvana. Coming at such a down time, their arrival on the scene would've been a relatively quiet one - if only their riotous music had cooperated.
"In the beginning, we were just so amazed that people were interested," says Joe Gittleman, the band's bass player. "That got us excited, and there's been this snowball effect ever since. It's always going forward, which is the best part about it."
The Bosstones burst onto their hometown punk scene with irrepressible flair, dazzling their new audience with an inventive blend of Jamaican lilt and heavy metal thunder. Visually, too, they dazzled, establishing a long-standing tradition of wearing as much plaid as possible. In a odd way, it was as if the gaudy sartorial gimmick was an unspoken tribute to another of the band's rock and roll inspirations, if only for their name - the Clash.
"This was when no one was going to our shows," Barrett explains, "and we were just amusing ourselves. One day I threw on some plaid and said, 'This'll make the guys laugh.'" (His pronunciation of that last word - lauf - signifies Barrett's Boston Irish upbringing as much as a tartan snap-brim cap or a Celtics bomber jacket would.) "From there on, we tried to outdo each other, seeing who could wear the most plaid," Plaid, he says, "Is definitely out flag. I consider our music to be very 'plaid.' Always have."
Seldom has such a meaningless expression made as much sense in describing the sound of a style of music. The Bosstones' sound is the sound of the youngest tequila-drunkest guys on the golf course; it's the sound of the traditional kilt-clad bagpiper, gone electric and hyperglycemic; it's the sound of the natty, closely-tailored "rude boys" of squatter-squalid London, seeing spots in the brilliant sunshine of a summer festival. All at once.
The band isn't quite as fixated on its wardrobe as it was when it began. "How long did the Beatles wear the moptops?" Barrett asks. "We're a little less plaid now, but it's always in our hearts." The Bosstones were certainly wearing plaid when the vast majority of their fans first saw them, however. Shortly after they began to nail down steady work, they appeared in a by-now infamous, nationally televised ad campaign for Converse.
"We did the sneaker commercial a long time ago, when we didn't have a lot of ways to tour," Barrett says. "It helped us out. And they're cool sneakers." One of the reasons they agreed to the deal was that the commercial campaign - "It's what's inside that counts" - focused on the wearers' individuality. "We talked about ourselves. The whole campaign was, 'What kind of people would wear these shoes?'
"It was great for us, but it was terrible for the company," Barrett recalls with a chuckle. "No one really knew what we were selling. To this day, people ask me, 'Weren't you in a Levi's commercial? Didn't you sell beer at some point?'"
No, but they did sell their bodies to Hollywood, if only for a day: Another significant portion of the Bosstones' current following signed on only after seeing the band perform as themselves in Clueless, Alicia Silverstone's Valley Girl update.
"It wasn't hard to do," Barrett laughs. "We just basically got on stage and pretended we were us, and some Hollywood extras jumped up and down in front of us. We spent the day doing that, and then we flew home." The singer says the band has a name for the boost they've enjoyed in the wake of the movie appearance: The Clueless effect. "We get little doe-eyed teenage girls standing up front, " Barrett says, "Our door policy is, 'Anyone's welcome to come in,' and it's kind of sweet when people yell, 'Play the Clueless song!'"
Not so long ago, the band members themselves were scarcely older than those doe-eyed teenagers, struggling to bring their collective musicianship up to speed with their frenetic, stop-on-a-dime song ideas. Gittleman remembers a particularly galling gig, opening for their heroes Fishbone at a now-defunct Boston nightclub. Originally formed around 1986, the on-again, off-again Bosstones were determined to make a go of it when they were invited to open for Fishbone,
"I remember it well," Gittleman says, his humiliation almost audible. "We had recently reconvened. In the meantime we all had learned how to play, so we had more confidence. We made the whole Devil's Night Out record (for the punk label Taang!) in two days, from beginning to end. It was a crazy experience, but it was definitely great.
"Maybe we didn't have enough experience at the time as a live band. Fishbone, being one of the greatest live bands of all time, especially at that time were putting on amazing shows. So we were just overshadowed, you know?" The disappointment of the poor showing led to one of the lowest points in the band's career. "We can do much better now," Gittleman assures, "And we've played with Fishbone many times since."
A handful of years after that embarrassing outing, the Bosstones' Barrett, Gittleman, guitarist Nate Albert, drummer Joe Sirois, saxophonists Kevin Lenear and Tim "Johnny Vegas" Burton, trombonist Dennis Brockenborough and the animated dancing "Bosstone" Ben Carr, are less and less surprised by the broadening extent of their own influence. "There are so any bands today that we've definitely influenced," Gittleman says, without a trace of arrogance. "People write to us, saying things like, 'Devil's Night Out meant so much to me.' 'That was the reason I started my band.' 'It's one of my favorite all-time records,' that kind of thing. We have a lot of contemporaries who are very respectful and flattering to us," bands like the Voodoo Glowskulls and the Pietasters, the trad-ska D.C. band that toured recently with the Bosstones.
"We were together before Operation Ivy [pre-Rancid]," Gittleman continues.
"I remember when Devil's came out, a lot of people were comparing us to OP. Ivy. But I didn't hear [their] record until two years later."
Diplomatically, he declines to say his band influenced the new-wave ska of No Doubt. "They've been around a long time now, and they have their own thing going."
Over the course of four albums - the debut and 1992's More Noise & Other Disturbances (both for Taang!) and Don't Know How to Party (1993) and Question the Answers ('94), both recorded for Mercury - the Bosstones have tempered their metal tendencies just a hair, without compromising the hard-charging ebullience of their overall sound. "Maybe there aren't so many twists and turns [anymore]," Gittleman says. "That trick - the ska-punk-slash-ska-metal contrast - that trick is used. It wore itself out after a while. On this record, you'll be surprised at how focused the songs are."
"This record" is the Bosstones' fifth, untitled at the time of this writing, scheduled for a February release. The songs are certainly focused, though tracks like "Nevermind Me" and "Another Drink" explore familiar territories of willful excess, both musically and thematically. On "At It Again," Albert's guitar playing is as concise and forceful as it's ever been; that song also features a Bosstones anomaly, a tastefully inserted synthesizer.
Another song, "Rascal King," delves into Barrett's heritage for a historical topic, the beloved and notorious Boston mayor James Michael Curley. "Any Irishman from Boston would know what that song's about," Barrett says. "You see pictures of the guy everywhere. I did a lot of reading about him. He could do no wrong - he was the mayor and he was in jail at the same time."Sounds pretty cool to me.
"I imagine when the song comes out I'll be a hit in every Irish pub in Boston: 'That's the kid who wrote about our beloved mayor. Free drinks!'"
High-demand producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (Hole, Radiohead) oversaw the recording process, which took place in part in Woodstock, New York, at the legendary Bearsville Studio.
"We went to Woodstock for the first Mercury record we did, too," Barrett says, "to a studio called Dreamland. It was a winter, a blizzard. It's beautiful there. It's not somewhere you would write a Bosstones record -the stuff would come out too soft - but it's definitely a great place to put the ideas down. It's relaxing."
Levels of comfort being a touchy subject with some punks. Barrett is quick to point out that his band hasn't become "frivolous." "We're not outfitting mansions with equipment, laying around and letting things happen. We have a plan of attack. We thought about this record, more so than the other ones. I think we bought ourselves that extra time [in the studio - six weeks in total], with four full-length albums in five years, plus two EPs."
In addition to the new record, the Bosstones have just completed work on Safe and Sound, a compilation of Boston bands that joined together to raise awareness about reproductive health care. Subheaded "A Benefit in Response to the Brookline Clinic Violence," the project came about as a public condemnation of the shootings that occurred two years ago at two Massachusetts women's clinics. The record, released on the Bosstones' own Mercury subsidiary, Big Rig, features the cream of the recent Boston crop, including Morphine, Scarce, Tracy Bonham, Belly and many others; proceeds will benefit the National Clinic Access Project and several area battered women's shelters.
Last spring, Letters to Cleo's Kay Hanely was instrumental in organizing a highly successful week of local shows demonstration clinic-access solidarity among Boston's musicians. "We played a show, and then a couple months later we were asked if we were interested in putting out the record," says Gittleman. "There was nothing we were more interested in doing. It sounded like the greatest idea."
One of the reasons the project has seen such universal support is the inspiring diversity of the Boston scene. "You can usually associate a certain sound with a scene, like Seattle," Gittleman says. "With Boston, it's always been across the board. But when it comes down to it, it's not like there are all these separate cliques, where the ska bands are living in a bubble apart from the punk bands and the metal bands, or bands like Morphine, or whatever. I've got great friends in all different kinds of bands."
For the Bosstones, Safe and Sound was a logical extension of the proactive and anti-racism stance they've taken for years. Based in Columbus, Ohio, the Anti-Racist Action Group (ARA) has regularly joined the group on tour, offering information of discrimination and bigotry. "We invited them to come down to our shows and hand out some literature," Gittleman explains. "We've never been shy about expressive how we feel about that kind of thing."
"It's so sad to say, but I feel it is necessary to make people deal with that kind of stuffÉA lot of people live sheltered lives. They don't even realize they're racist. Growing up listening to the Specials and that stuff, the message of unity was unbelievable. That's what I think really drew me to it."
The Bosstones, Gittleman likes to point out, are made up of true ethnic diversity: "Kevin and Dennis are black, I'm Jewish, Dicky's Irish," When I mix up a few band members' names and backgrounds, Gittleman corrects me with a laugh: "Ben's white," he says. "In fact Ben's bordering on pasty white. In some light, he looks kinda blue!"
The band says they get involved in things like Safe and Sound for the simple reason that they feel privileged to be leading the lives they do. "I find it really difficult to complain about anything," Gittleman says matter-of-factly. "I think there are a lot of people working a lot harder for a lot less gratification in the world. There have been generations before us who have gone to war or had to really struggle to survive, and I don't think any of us have really had that." Playing in the band, he says, "has been a great time spent with the best friends I'll probably ever have in my life. It's fantastic."
For such a big (and hard-partying) band, the Bosstones have had a remarkable track record. "We replaced a drummer an added two horn players," Gittleman says, "Other than that, it's been the same people since '89ÉI think one of our greatest accomplishments is that we've managed to stay together the way we have, when you see so many bands going through lineup changes, I'm really happy about that."
The Bosstones' arrangement with Mercury, which releases the band's full-length albums while supporting the smaller Big Rig on vinyl and collectors' releases, has been mutually agreeable. "Why not?" Gittleman asks. "We make the music and they put it out there. Seems pretty good to me. Every time they say, 'Will you make us another one?' I'm happy.
As is Barrett, who wrote the prophetic lyrics to the longtime band staple that prays he'll "never lose my youth." Performing with the Bosstones, he says, is a great way to do just that. "I gotta be reminded all the time that I'm not 17," he beams.