Q&A w/ Bad Operation on their debut album and the joyous retaliation of New Tone ska
Bad Operation is the new New Orleans ska band of Greg Rodrigue (Fatter Than Albert, All People) on bass, Daniel "D-Ray" Ray (Fatter Than Albert, All People, The Flaming Tsunamis) on trombone/keys, Dominic Minix (Dominic Minix Quartet) on vocals, Brian Pretus (PEARS) on guitar, and Rob Landry (All People) on drums, and their self-titled debut album comes out December 18 as a co-release between Greg and D-Ray's own Community Records and Bad Time Records (pre-order). They already released two songs from the album (one of which we named one of the five best punk songs of October), and third single "Kinda Together" is coming out November 19 alongside a live chat at 9 PM ET on Community Records' YouTube Channel between the band and Bad Time Records founder/Kill Lincoln member Mike Sosinski. Update (11/19): The chat happened and you can watch the archive here. A fourth single is coming in early December, and the band will do another live chat when they premiere the full album on 12/17 on the Skatune Network YouTube Channel.
As you can hear on the two currently-released singles "Perilous" and "Bagel Rooks" -- which give you a good idea of what to expect from the album -- Bad Operation are punk in spirit but they made a conscious decision to keep the punk and third wave ska influences out of this band. "Greg specifically requested no distortion," D-Ray said. They call themselves New Tone -- a nod to the Two Tone ska movement in England in the late '70s and early '80s -- and they're obviously influenced by Two Tone ska bands like The Specials, but it wouldn't be fair to call them "Two Tone revival" or something like that. "New Tone" works because Bad Operation genuinely sound new. There are familiar elements from all three waves of ska in their songs, but they reshape those sounds into something that looks to the present and the future, rather than approaching ska as just something to be nostalgic about.
For Bad Operation, "New Tone" also goes deeper than just the sound of the music. "It’s about setting a new tone in the way we occupy public space with our music," D-Ray tells us. "Through our upbeat joyous music, we want to create real change within people’s consciousness and actions. For me, it means being outspoken about racial injustice. It means being an active part of your community and taking part in local politics. It means committing to a lifelong fight for unity and equality for all."
It's clear that Bad Operation approach both their music and their lyrics with a strong vision and intent, and their message is one that the world can really use in a year like 2020. Political music can come in all shapes and forms; it doesn't have to be aggressive, it can sound joyous, and that goes a long way in a time when it's hard to find joy in the world. As Dominic says, that's a big reason that there's so much excitement behind ska right now. "Our current administration has everything to do with the revitalization of ska," he says. "People are hurting and want change. Ska is a joyous retaliation."
As a unique new band with well-established musicians, Bad Operation clearly have a story to tell, and we caught up with Greg, D-Ray, and Dominic to discuss the band's origins and the concepts behind their upcoming debut album, as well as their plans for the future (they're already working on a second album). We also asked them about the specific musical influences that they brought to Bad Operation. Each of the five members picked a band, discussed how they specifically inspired Bad Operation, and provided a live video of the band that they recommend. Read on for our chat and the influences list...
UPDATE (11/19): Watch the "Kinda Together" video:
With 2/5 of the band having played in Fatter Than Albert and having founded Community Records, you obviously have a long history with ska, but you've all been playing other styles of music in recent years. What inspired you to start up a ska band?
D-Ray: It honestly just felt like the right time. We had, both consciously and unconsciously, denied the rhythm in our hearts for years after feeling exhausted with the genre from years of trying to get people to pay attention. The idea really started gaining momentum in the nostalgic season of my wedding (spring 2018). Specifically, I remember Greg, Rob and I revisiting all our favorite ska records at my joint bachelor/bachelorette party. Greg said we should start a ska cover band and just start throwing local show ska dance parties for the love of it. Well somehow in the next almost two years, it morphed into us writing original ska music with an emphasis of doing it for the fun of it. Seems like an obvious notion to have fun when you’re playing music, but it’s easy to lose sight of the joy of music and get caught up in seeking “success” in the “music industry.”
Greg Rodrigue: Echoing what D-Ray said: It sounds simple, but truly we just wanted to have fun playing music again. Our bands leading up to it were fun, but we had a LOT of work related ambition, those bands were trying to DO something and we were running our DIY label Community Records the whole time, plus trying to have day jobs / Hey! Cafe / Mid-City Pizza, and have personal lives etc. Between FTA and All People we can account for a total of over 550 shows on the road. We toured internationally twice (Brazil and UK). Our band All People toured non-stop for 7 years. Before that FTA (2003-2010) toured a ton and we burned the candle bright. The beginning of Bad Operation was like “let’s just play a show and write an album before Brian leaves for PEARS' tour in March," ska rules! That was our only goal, that was January 2020. It’s wild to see what this project has done so far, can’t wait to play a show.
Dominic Minix: What initially inspired me to join Bad Operation was the chance to grow as a vocalist. My primary craft is guitar playing and vocals are secondary so when Greg asked me to sing in the band I saw it as a challenge for myself. Then after a few rehearsals I could feel the joy that was at the center of the music and the trust that we had for each other. These are things that I loved about going to ska shows when I was a teenager and it was invigorating to be in touch with that again.
Compared to the more ska-punk-leaning Fatter Than Albert, Bad Operation is cleaner and a little more traditional, but still fresh -- I love the concept of calling it "new tone." Was that a conscious decision to tone down the punk side, or just the direction things naturally went in when the band started writing?
DR: Absolutely. Greg specifically requested no distortion and it was definitely the right call. Personally, I think I’ll always appreciate screamy, punk vocals like with FTA and The Flaming Tsunamis, but that’s not the vibe we’re going for or feeling at this time. You can still have high energy parts without making them crunchy and aggressive. New Tone seems to hit the nail on the head to describe the sound we’ve developed through our collective influences. It is a direct reference (and a rhyme) to the Two Tone movement in England with a little bit of New Orleans grit thrown in the mix. It’s got the upbeat tempo, it’s a product of the working class, and it’s politically outspoken DIY ska.
On a deeper level, my hope is that New Tone is more substantial and timeless than a fad or a wave or a bandwagon. It’s about setting a new tone in the way we occupy public space with our music. Through our upbeat joyous music, we want to create real change within people’s consciousness and actions. For me, it means being outspoken about racial injustice. It means being an active part of your community and taking part in local politics. It means committing to a lifelong fight for unity and equality for all. I’m not saying that that’s what New Tone has to be or is for anyone but me. The hope is that New Tone inspires others to explore what that looks and sounds like to them.
DM: I think Greg’s decision to stick to his guns on this record really paid off. In the process of working with Bad Operation I learned that Greg is a real student of ska music and that’s really inspiring to witness. Though it was a conscious decision to nix any punk or hardcore sections in the music, I think it was a natural inclination for the rhythm section players to just play ska because of how long they had studied and played the music. The magic of Bad Operation is equivalent to what would happen if an experienced chef opened a burger stand. All of their lived experience goes into a distilled and simple recipe. Collectively we have so many years of experience with many different genres of music and many lessons were gained through those experiences. Greg’s decision to limit the band’s sound to traditional ska gave us a clear framework to work within.
Can you talk a bit about how and when the band formed and started writing and recording this album? Was the album related to and/or affected by the pandemic at all?
GR: The band sort of developed out of a side project that Brian, Rob, and I have called The Rooks. The Rooks are a pop-punk band that we have had since 2008 but occasionally we play ska songs. GO ROOKS! Summer 2019 we had a practice for The Rooks (between Brian’s tours for PEARS) and riding the wave of the ambition to play some ska, we invited D-Ray to the practice to play keys and trombone (D-Ray played keys on Rooks songs for our 2011 album). In that first practice in one afternoon we wrote three songs. Two of those songs would become [Bad Operation songs] “Perilous” and “Bagel Rooks." We also wrote a straight up punk song that was an idea from Brian. That song was fast as fuck. Maybe Bad Operation will record that one day, who knows?
We had another practice December 2019, and I knew I didn’t want to sing (I’m the singer for The Rooks). Playing ska bass just makes me really happy, it feels like the truest form of my creative self expression. Dominic had moved back to New Orleans from Los Angeles around August 2019. His band played a show on September 28th, 2019 that ended up being the final show at our venue / coffee shop we run Hey! Cafe: Matt Embree (of Rx Bandits) All People, and Dominic Minix. I’ve known Dominic since the FTA days of like 2006 or 2007, he has played in bands since then, and we would see each other often at Hey! Cafe. I knew he at least liked ska in the past.
I called up Dominic and asked if he would want to sing for our new ska band, and to my surprise he said yes, he’d give it a try. Dominic has more important things to do in my opinion (writing his own material, touring with Solange, and Christian Scott). He came to a “Rooks” practice in either late December 2019 or early January 2020, and right off the bat he was hitting the ball outta the park. 110%, everything just felt right, still feels right. Our only goal at that time was to play a show which we had booked for March 12th, and to track the songs before Brian left for PEARS' tour in late March. The pandemic certainly changed things. That show never happened, but our album did.
DM: The unambitious goal of playing a show was helpful too. I find that when my expectations of a project are too high then I’m setting myself up for disappointment. So for me this has been a process of focusing just on what’s in front of me and keeping it simple. To prepare for rehearsals I would spend 20 minutes to an hour writing songs and I would bring the first draft into rehearsal. The environment of trust and joy in the band made it possible for me to share this candid writing with the band without fear of judgement or criticism. Making this record was a lesson in learning to trust my own work.
DR: Yeah it’s kind of wild to think our entire projection as a band changed around the pandemic. Our plan went from writing music for one show before Brian went on a long tour with PEARS to canceling said show and pivoting to recording the album.
It's been an especially chaotic year for a lot of reasons. What do you hope listeners take away or gain from Bad Operation in a time like this?
DR: I hope that it brings others as much joy and hope as it brings us. That with our voices uplifted, it gives others the strength in their convictions to also raise their voices.
GR: I echo what D-Ray said. I hope people will DANCE. This band is about reclaiming joy. If the record also inspires anyone to disengage from and challenge capitalism more, that would also make me stoked. The title track "Bad Operation" is about that exactly.
DM: I asked Greg what he hoped to give people in this music and he said he wanted to make people dance. I shared “Perilous” with one of my friends (s/o Anya) and she said she just had to get up and dance. Again, the idea of unambitious goals. My goal is that our music will give people a vehicle to process the change they’re experiencing through this time and I believe that we can process our feelings through dance.
Ska obviously never fully went away, but people seem to agree there's more widespread excitement right now for the genre than there has been in a while. As musicians who have been involved with ska for so long, in what ways have you seen or felt this excitement growing in recent years?
DM: A few years ago I had a distinct feeling that the world needed ska and today that’s become very evident. It’s light music, it’s fun music. There’s a low barrier to entry. But someone told me that one wave of ska originated during a workers' uprising in the UK and there’s a workers' movement in New Orleans. Our current administration has everything to do with the revitalization of ska. Its origins are political and subversive. People are hurting and want change. Ska is a joyous retaliation.
GR: Ska rules! Always has, always will. I think Jeremy of Skatune Network / JER is damn near the number one reason why ska is on people’s radar right now. The talent, work ethic, political awareness, and overall enthusiasm that they convey is infectious. It’s a breath of fresh air. The work that Mike of Bad Time Records and Kill Lincoln has also been essential to the recent spark that’s turning into a fire. Go listen to all of those BTR bands (shout out: Stuck Lucky, The Far East, The Skints, We Are The Union, Kill Lincoln, Catbite, Eichlers, Omnigone, Thirsty Guys, Grey Matter, The Best of The Worst, Free Kick, Still Alive, Poindexter... I’m sorry I know I’m leaving some out) and the bands that surround the BTR bands, we are honored to work with Mike, and be a part of that family.
AND, holy shit, the Ska Against Racism (shout out Asian Man Records & Ska Punk Daily) compilation album (in my opinion) is one of, if not the most important thing to happen in the ska scene in 20 years, or really any DIY music scene for that matter. Also Jeff Rosenstock and his band don’t exclusively play ska music, but they do a TON for the ska scene and have been active in it for years. Another shout out to Dan Potthast who has inspired me for years, and it’s rad to be friends with Dan. Everything is cyclical, and the timing just feels right, right now. Community Records was pushing ska as best we could from the years of 2004 to 2013 or so, I think 2020 and beyond has given the space that was maybe needed to realize how sick ska is, and get back to the political foundations of this vibrant style of music.
As record label owners yourselves, what made you decide to co-release this album with another label and how'd you link up with Bad Time?
GR: It was seeing the most recent Kill Lincoln release. BTR was certainly on our radar before that, but seeing the roll out, the response to that album -- PLUS that the album is fuckin' sick -- made me want to reach out and see if Mike would be down. I knew Mike was a fan of Murphy’s Kids, Stuck Lucky, The Best of The Worst and some other friends we have worked with, so I thought we would at least ask and see about working together. Around the time that Can’t Complain was being announced we were already most of the way through tracking our album for Bad Operation - that was like April or May 2020 I think.
You're releasing your album at the tail-end of 2020. What are Bad Operation's plans for 2021 looking like?
DR: Hopefully, we’ll be recording and releasing our next record. We’ve already got more than an album’s worth of material ready to work out! We’re hoping to start chipping away at them in the next couple weeks. Crazy to think that we’ll be working on another record before the first record is out and before we ever play a show. Also, maybe playing shows if it’s safe? I know we’re all really itching to have that moment together and share it with people, but not until everyone feels safe having a giant dance party.
GR: I think we will also finish up some more music videos. Music videos have been a great outlet considering we can’t play shows.
Anything else you'd like to let people know about the band or album or anything else that I haven't asked about?
GR: We are absolutely floored as to the response to this project so far. It’s had us beside ourselves in positivity. Also, thank YOU for wanting to interview us and talk to us. All of our years of working on music, this has just been a ton of fun to experience the good energy around BAD OPERATION. We are just thankful. Thank YOU to anyone who is reading this, and to everyone who has ordered a record, streamed or shared a video or song. We love you.
FIVE BANDS THAT INFLUENCED BAD OPERATION
The Skatalites (D-Ray)
I didn’t find The Skatalites until I was in college. However, after I randomly pulled that jewel case out the stacks at The Mushroom in New Orleans (probably solely based on "ska" being in the name), Return of the Big Guns hardly left my CD player. Like a lot of middle class white kids in the suburbs, I started my ska journey riding the third wave (mainly Less Than Jake), unbelievably stoked that there was hope for punk rock trombone. From there, I retraced ska’s historical footsteps to the political movement of Two Tone bands like The Specials, of course dove into the radio-popular Sublime and No Doubt and eventually stumbled, wide-eyed and bloodshot, into the dub worship of Lee “Scratch” Perry.
The Skatalites are where it all began. Without Jamaican ska, there would arguably be no rocksteady, reggae, dub, Two Tone, third wave or New Tone. They emulated the rock n' roll rhythms of Black artists from America they heard over transistor radios, eventually mixing it with Rastafarian drumming from the Wareika Hills, and turned it into something of their own. I think the aspect of The Skatalites music that really speaks to me is its complicated, often haunting, simplicity. It’s got the upbeat energy that first hooked me on third wave and the improvisational aspects I appreciate about jazz, but the meditative chord progressions of dub and reggae. It’s amazing what they can do with just two chords. The melodies are as simple and memorable as nursery rhymes: easy enough for anyone with a voice to sing. There is something almost maternal about the rhythmic heartbeat of the upstrokes and the comforting sing-a-longs. Anytime I find myself tirelessly trying to construct a difficult hornline or organ accompaniment, I try to remind myself to just do what feels natural. Never have I ever more held myself to that mindset than I have with Bad Operation.
Watch: The Skatalites live in Costa Rica (in 2002?):
The Flaming Tsunamis (Brian)
The Flaming Tsunamis are more of a hardcore band than a ska band, but they came into my life at a point where I was literally going to any ska show that happened in New Orleans. I went to their show and was immediately blown away by their sound. It was brutal metal / hardcore but with dancy ska sprinkled in from time to time. At the time I was just soaking it all in but their strange writing style would over time become a huge influence on the way I write music as far as making things that people would never expect. Every time they played New Orleans I would see them and it was more insane and mind blowing every time.
D-Ray from Bad Op eventually joined the band for their final (and best, in my opinion) album, Externalities , which is one of my favorite albums of all time. Just listen to it and you’ll understand why.
Watch: "Opus," live on 4/4/11:
HR of Bad Brains (Dominic)
I love the band Bad Brains. They started as a jazz band and morphed into a hardcore punk band with a spiritual side. They were forefathers of the genre of hardcore punk and they were the most prodigious of their class. In my opinion they were the best to ever do it and true innovators of the genre. They were Black and that was important for me because in punk I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me, but knowing that the baddest band to ever do it was Black was a point of pride for me. Rock is Black American Music (#BAM: a reclamation of the work of Black artists penned by Nicholas Payton) and Bad Brains was a band that reclaimed their rightful place as innovators in the genre of rock. Bad Brains showed me not only do I have a place in punk but I also could push the music forward.
When Greg asked me to sing I was terrified because I had never sung for a band without hiding behind my guitar. I wasn’t writing the harmony or the rhythm or producing the album, I was only asked to sing. The limitation was a challenge because I didn’t know how I would engage a listener on the strength of my voice alone. Which brings me to HR. When 17 year old me first heard HR on “How Low Can a Punk Get?”, I remember thinking that he sounded like a cartoon character and that this was a style of singing that I had never thought existed. Melody didn’t matter because the character of his voice was so expressive that it demanded my attention. It was prodigy in a way that I had never imagined. Prodigy that didn’t ask for approval. HR would violently bend his voice, scream, make guttural noises but would also oscillate to lower tones so that listening to the record would be a visceral experience. Even today it’s hard to find as dynamic a punk singer as HR. So when approaching the Bad Operation record I thought about HR. Not to try to reproduce what he would do, but to create a character for the songs and expand my vocal palette. Bad Brains made a path for me to follow that broke the constraints of skill, rhythm, melody, and even genre.
Watch: Bad Brains live at CBGB's, 1982:
Slapstick, Suicide Machines, The Chinkees (Rob)
(Suicide Machines if I have to pick one)
Drummers like Derek Grant of The Suicide Machines and Rob Kellenberger of Slapstick do a good job keeping ska in the pocket and keep contents of punk-ska separate, unlike a lot of third wave ska bands who travel between punk and ska without really keeping the ska parts ska. Most bands just put punk beats with a walking bassline and an up-stroking guitar. It got very played-out in the 2000s. Richard Morin and Kevin Higuchi, both of The Chinkees, are other drummers that honored ska without trying to make it punk. Ska is punk but punk is not ska. It was easy to tell what bands actually gave a shit about true ska like Don Drummond (The Skatalites), Desmond Dekker, and 2 Tone bands like The Specials and The English Beat. Those three third wave bands honored the genre as a political movement without tainting it, but they did so with super loud, present drumming.
What really turned me on to ska at first was the drumming. It had the complexity and nuance of jazz but ultimately it was less intuitive, always relying on the downbeat. However, my introduction to ska was mostly third wave bands like Reel Big Fish, Streetlight Manifesto, and Goldfinger who all had great drummers, but as I continued to find out about ska, I realized they didn’t honor the genre and in my opinion became too wrapped up in making ska beats super flashy and convoluted. It took away from the song for sure. For Bad Op I wanted to honor the genre without trying to showcase significant over-the-top drumming and instead create a healthy canvas for a good song.
Watch: The Chinkees live on 6/15/11 (Greg, Rob and D-Ray were front row for this!):
The Specials (Greg)
As far as Bad Operation goes, no other band has had more of an influence on the elements that I have tried to express with sound and style. Their sound is timeless, and it’s in part because I believe they knew that it wasn’t just about the band or the songs. It was about the style, the vibe, and the politics. Along with so many rad artists that surrounded them, they were on a mission to do something that could light the world on fire, address injustice, and in my opinion they did. New Tone is certainly riffing on 2 Tone. Jerry Dammers was a visionary, and the players that made up / make up The Specials were / are an incredible recipe for something that was lovable but at the same time dangerous.
I fucking love gritty ska. It has to have that dirt on it. New Orleans is a dirty place and I love it, I think The Specials would be at home here. The sound and raw energy of a drummer and a bassist that really lock in, layered with rhythmic guitar and keys/horns, create the perfect foundation for anthemic vocals that can be enjoyed and sung along to by a crowd. Ska music gives me hope! The Specials did that better than most. I’ve only gotten to see them play once so far, (shout out The Far East NYC who they were on tour with) and that show was incredible. I hope Bad Op can bring some of that energy to the table. Also… I have to shout out Mike Park and Asian Man Records, because without AMR and those bands… Community Records probably wouldn’t even exist, and I might not even be playing ska music, and AMR has all the BEST ska bands. This video of The Specials on Saturday Night Live in 1980 is the energy I wanna bring to the world:
2. Bagel Rooks
4. Little Man
5. BAD OPERATION
6. Kinda Together
8. Siren's Call
9. Baby in Arms
10. Fish Out of Water