Buck-O-Nine’s Jon Pebsworth on how Buddhism and music helped him recover from a heart attack
There's been a fast-growing amount of excitement around ska these past few years, thanks in part to so many great new bands but also to a lot of classic bands making comebacks, like San Diego ska-punks Buck-O-Nine, who returned with their first album in 12 years, Fundaymental, in the spring of 2020. Less than a year later, the world went into COVID lockdown, and on New Year's Eve going into 2021, vocalist Jon Pebsworth suffered a heart attack and had to spend the first week of the new year in the ICU. It's been a long recovery process, but fortunately, Pebs is feeling back to normal and Buck-O-Nine are set to return to the road this week for the In Defense of Ska tour alongside Mustard Plug, Omnigone (ex-Link 80), and In Defense of Ska author Aaron Carnes reading from his book.
Ahead of the tour, I caught up with Pebs over Zoom from his home in San Diego to talk about his recovery process, which has been aided by a new interest in Buddhism, as well as his excitement to get back on the road. He says the part of tour he's most excited about is to see all the great new ska bands, some of whom are providing additional support on the IDOS tour, and he shouts out some of his favorite bands, as well as fast-rising ska-punk label Bad Time Records ("they're really the driving force of this whole wave"). He also discusses the new Buck-O-Nine album that they plan to start recording this fall, and a new solo album. He compares the current moment that ska is having to the explosion of ska-punk in the '90s, and he also reflects on how he came to form one of the first prominent ska-punk bands, and how he became part of a ska-punk community that grew organically before spilling over into mainstream music.
You've had a rough year, but I hear things are looking up. How are you feeling right now?
I'm feeling good! Like you said, it's been a rough year in a lot of weird ways, totally unexpected with the heart attack on New Year's Eve, and going into the new year just sitting in the ICU for six days [laughs]. So yeah, that was a trip. And it was just a mind-blast of emotions that come along with it. Once my body felt like I was gonna, live, I kind of got a little bit of security of being alive, but then it started in with depression and anxieties. I just remember being really super confused too, just about everything, like "What am I doing? Where am I going? What's gonna happen to me?" So it really -- the first few months were really, really hard.
So what exactly happened?
Well, I had what they call a massive heart attack, and, you know, it's funny looking back now, but I felt kind of silly when I asked this question to my doctor about four or five months later, and I said, "What do you think happened? Like why did I have a heart attack?" And he kinda laughed at me and looked and me and was like, "Are you seriously asking me that, man?" He's like, "You smoke cigarettes all day long, drink coffee, you drink alcohol every day, you're overweight, you don't exercise, and you eat shitty food. So, I don't know, you have diabetes, high cholesterol, all this stuff, and you really need to ask that?" [laughs]
So have you been adjusting your diet and daily routine since then?
I have been. At first, pretty militantly, I stopped drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and then yeah I just tried to improve my diet. And now I'm kinda plateauing -- it's been nine months -- so I'm drinking beers, I don't really drink a lot of whiskey anymore, I haven't started smoking but I do have my little vape thing. It's silly but it really does help because once I got to the point where my body felt better, and my doctor gave me stamps of approval and said I'm doing really good, the cravings for smoking and drinking and stuff came back. So luckily I haven't smoked cigarettes -- 'cause I was pretty bad with cigarettes, I'd smoke a pack-and-a-half, two packs a day -- but now I just have this little thing, and every time I get a craving I just give it a little puff and it seems to help.
I also -- I have to say it may sound weird or silly to some people -- but the main thing that has saved my life and helped me is: my wife bought me a book -- like probably a couple of years ago, and it's just been sitting on my bookshelf -- called The Buddha Walks Into a Bar. And I was starting this new job, and at the job I was basically just there answering phones and just kind of watching the office and making sure nothing bad happens, so like seven hours a day I'm just literally sitting there on my ass doing nothing. So I asked my boss if I could grab a book or something at least, so I decided to grab that one, and I just started reading about Buddhism, and a lot of it just started clicking with me. There's a lot of stuff in there where I'm like, "Hey, I've always thought that, I just never had a way to articulate it properly," and then I read another book and then another book, and with seven hours a day of reading, I managed to get through seven or eight different books. And I started reading about Daoism, and all that kind of stuff, so that I would attribute to my mental health being saved, and with my mental health in a good place, my physical health is starting to follow that.
That's awesome. Are we gonna get a Buddhism-inspired Buck-O-Nine album?
[Laughs] Well it's funny because I've been going back -- we're going on the road and so I've had to dust off some of the old songs and put a little Spotify playlist together so I can refresh my memory on the lyrics -- and some of them are coming across like "Man, that's pretty Buddhist right there!" We have this one song from the '90s called "Nineteen," we're gonna be playing it on the tour, and I was focusing on the lyrics and I was like, "Man, this is total Buddhism right here." And I wrote that when I was like 26.
How are you feeling about getting back on the road?
I'm excited, I'm really excited because that's what I love to do, and I love to do it with those guys specifically, so that part of it I'm really looking forward to. I'm a little nervous, because of any kind of health potential things, you know like I don't wanna be driving around in the middle of nowhere and have a problem, you know? Which I don't anticipate, and my doctor has given me all of the clearances I need to go out and not have to worry too much, so yeah, I'm excited. It's gonna be a good journey back.
Yeah, and it sounds like it's gonna be a cool tour, with Mustard Plug, Omnigone, and obviously Aaron Carnes reading from his book In Defense of Ska. What are you most of excited about in particular, given the whole premise of the tour?
I think it's really cool that there are new ska bands out there, and they're like super motivated and into it, so we're gonna see a couple of those bands along the way that are gonna be on the bill. So I'm really excited -- some of them I've already seen and some of them I've never even heard of before and now I'll get to see them too so that's really cool. I'm really digging all the new bands, some of them are really really good, like Catbite and some of those bands, like wow, really good. Obviously The Interrupters, I love them; they're not new new, but they're newer than we are [laughs]. So I think that's the part that I'm looking forward to, because I remember that feeling in the '90s when it was exciting and new and people were popping up, taking their different versions of ska music and applying their own style to it, and I just remember how exciting that was to me 'cause I'd been a fan of ska music since I was in like sixth grade in the '80s. It was a really really great time, and I just kind of feel that sense in the air with these bands and how excited they are. It's inspiring.
Yeah, the current ska scene is super inspiring and exciting. When did you start to notice that it was happening again?
I think the first band that I really was like "whoa!" -- this has been now a minute -- but it was The Aggrolites. When The Aggrolites really started pumping out really really good records, and I saw them play and they were so good live, I thought, "Man this is like, these guys have a new thing, it's kinda old but it has their own flavor, great singing, great songs, sick fucking band members." So that was the first time and then The Interrupters popped up and it was like, "Whoa! Now there's like, two of 'em, that are really really good." And then I heard The Skints, and that for me was the moment that I was like, "Dude, there are like, young kids [forming ska bands] -- not kids, but you know they're younger than us, I think some of them are the age we were in the '90s when we were starting out." There's a string of them now, like Half Past Two, they're playing the Orange County show, I'm really excited -- I've seen them before, but I'm looking forward to seeing them again.
Had you become friendly with Mustard Plug and [Omnigone vocalist Adam Davis' former band] Link 80 back in the day?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah I mean, for the most part, with the exception of a couple bands that I can think of right away, we had really good friendships that we developed over the years with pretty much every band that we toured with. The majority of them became good friends and good touring buddies, you know, cracking jokes, and all that stuff that makes what we call "the other 23 hours of the day" fun. You know, 'cause you got your hour on stage every day, and that's the most fun, and that's why you do it, but what do you do in those other 23 hours to keep yourself sane and keep yourself motivated and going? It's all the inside jokes and messing around, drinking, all that stuff.
How did you end up meeting Aaron?
Just through the book. I've never actually met him in person, I've only spoken to him on the phone, and the first time that I spoke to him on the phone he was interviewing us for the In Defense of Ska podcast, which was a blast, we had a lot of fun doing that.
You mentioned earlier you got into the ska in the '80s, which I imagine you mean like 2 Tone and stuff...
So I'm curious -- I feel like some of the bands that maybe came a bit later in the '90s were pulling from Operation Ivy and the Bosstones and stuff, but since you were already into 2 Tone before ska-punk happened, what was your approach to melding ska and punk?
So my history was, before the whole ska-punk / third wave / whatever you wanna call it thing happened, I was playing in punk rock bands. I grew up in LA, and in LA I was in a band all through high school, and we were basically a hardcore band, like New York Hardcore style stuff with some Slayer sprinkled in, and some Southern California style punk rock. But that was like my main thing. And I listened to ska music, like I listened to all the old 2 Tone records and then got into all the traditional stuff -- the Desmond Dekkers and Jimmy Cliffs and all that stuff -- so that was a huge archive of music that I had that would constantly be in rotation in my life along with punk rock music. And I like all kinds of different music. But the thought of like, "Oh, let's make a band that has ska and punk in it" never crossed my mind, not even once. Until the day I opened up the newspaper here in -- I'd moved to San Diego to go to college at that point, and I was looking for a band, I wanted to be in another punk band, and I found this ad in the newspaper -- it's called The Reader here in San Diego, they still put it out believe it or not, it's just a lot smaller -- but they would have want ads in there for musicians, and there was one that just said, "Ska band looking for punk singer." And I was like, "You gotta be kidding be right now, what is that?!" So I called the member, and it was Craig [Yarnold] our sax player to this day, and it kinda went from there. I went down and tried out for them, and I had these lyrics that I had already written for no music, and they already had all these songs that they had kind of put together -- some of those songs made it onto the first record -- and I was like, "Let me just try to see if I can sing some of these lyrics that I wrote back in high school that never made it to any song and see if it fits," and it did. So it was a really cool thing.
That's very cool. When did you start to notice a lot of other bands were doing it too?
Probably like a couple years later. Because there were no bands in San Diego that were doing that at the time that we started it, so we would play shows where there would be like a funk band, and a punk band, and a metal band -- in San Diego, the scene here in the early '90s was trippy, it was cool because everybody would just play with each other, it didn't really matter. So there wasn't really a lot of divide between this style and that style. So it was probably a couple years into that when we started going up to Orange County, that was when I first noticed other bands doing it. That's when I first heard of like, Reel Big Fish and The Aquabats and stuff. And then of course we did a tour with The Suicide Machines -- I think that was our second or third tour we ever did -- and they were doing it. They hadn't even put out their first record yet, but I remember seeing them play -- we got to Detroit, and it was like, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. To this day, this guys are one of my favorite bands, and also some of my favorite people. And then we started noticing bands like MU330 in St. Louis and the Blue Meanies in Chicago, and then there was Less Than Jake down in Florida, and the Mephiskapheles in New York, so we realized there was a whole bunch of us, and we could just kind of work together. That's probably like '93 or '94, around when we were putting out our first record.
[...] You mentioned earlier how bands later in the '90s were looking to bands like Operation Ivy and the Bosstones; to me influences were like Fishbone, Bad Brains, that kind of stuff, mixed with The Specials, Madness, and The Selecter.
So we were talking about ska kind of having a moment right now, and even Buck-O-Nine recently put out its first record in a while, 2019's Fundaymental. With everything happening around the genre right now, have you noticed renewed interest in Buck-O-Nine?
Yeah a little bit. It's hard to gauge those things when you're at home, it'll be easier to gauge that when we go out on this trip, because we haven't played more than a couple of shows in the past few years. So that'll be a better way to gauge it, 'cause when I'm sitting here in San Diego, I'm kind of like, "I don't know what's going on." But, you know, we get those little notes from Spotify that are like, "Your monthly plays from this month were this much," and you look at that and it's kind of like, "Wow! That seems like a lot! That's pretty cool," So yeah I guess in that way, we've seen some. That's really the only way to monitor anything these days I think? I don't really know. But I'll tell you, putting out that Fundaymental record a few years ago, that was just like, man what a great experience for me and the guys always say for them too. Because at this point in life, we all live in separate cities, so we can't have band practice; our drummer lives in Colorado, our bass player's in Yosemite, our trumpet player lives in Las Vegas. So, we don't have the ability to do that, so we created a formula that worked for us that we're still using to this day, where we're just doing everything over the internet and recording all our parts at home and then swapping them back and forth, and as we go, the songs develop, and that's how we did that whole record.
Do you have more new music in the works?
Yeah, during the pandemic -- after that record was done -- we wrote 22 songs in that same style. And all 22 of those songs are now completed with horn lines, lyrics, basslines, guitars, everything. They're all demos, and they're all -- some of them I think are really really good, some of them still need a little work, but we got 22 to pick from and we'll probably put out a record with 12 or 14 songs. We have the studio booked for, our drummer's gonna fly in in October, so we'll start recording in October for this.
Anything else you'd like to add about your recovery process that we haven't talked about?
Reading the Buddhism books has really just been the most important thing for me, and music. That was the other thing I did the whole time: I do some solo stuff [under the name Pebs], and I put out a record actually [2012's Sweet Surrender], and I have now material for another one, which I'm gonna try to focus on getting done maybe even before the Buck-O-Nine record starts to record. That's been really healing too. I kind of decided, I wanna do ska, like a more light ska, I call it Buck-O-Nine Lite. It's kinda reggae-ish, but it's more like you know how The Clash would play reggae? Kinda dirty and gritty, I kinda see it like that. So I have 14 songs for that written and ready to go, I just need to find them and some extra funds to get into the studio. One of the drummers from Buck-O-Nine from years ago is gonna play drums, so I know how to work with him really well, and then from there we'll just be able to fill in the rest. We're just gonna have keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums, no horns. So: music and Buddha, that's how you survive a heart attack.