Read a chapter of new ’90s ska & swing book ‘Hell of a Hat’ on Less Than Jake, Suicide Machines & more
Ska is in the air this year, with not one, not two, but three very notable (and very different) books on the genre being released in the span of just a few months. Aaron Carnes' In Defense of Ska and Marc Wasserman's Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History are out now, and on September 21, Kenneth Partridge will release Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing via Penn State University Press (pre-order), "an inside look at ’90s ska, swing, and the loud noises of an era when America was dreaming and didn’t even know it." Ahead of the release, we're debuting the chapter 'One Nation Under Ska-Punk,' which highlights the rises of Less Than Jake, The Suicide Machines, Blue Meanies, and Mustard Plug. Here it is:
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The term “ska revival” never really made sense in America. Outside of certain areas, the genre didn’t make much of a stateside impression during the original Jamaican or 2 Tone eras, so most teens who discovered ska in the ’90s came in fresh, with no preconceived notions about how the music should—and more importantly shouldn’t—sound. Fans riding the third wave were receptive to all manner of mutations and bastardizations, most of which fell under the umbrella of “ska-punk.”
Ska-punk is America’s contribution to the ska story. It often came from the suburbs, the land of baggy shorts and baseball caps. The guitars crunched and the grooves were seldom smooth, but this stuff spoke to ’90s kids in a way purist ska rarely could.
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It figures Less Than Jake wrote songs about losers, freaks, and suburban angst. The band’s two founding members hail from the cultural wastelands of New Jersey and Florida. Making fun of their swampy, mall-filled home states would’ve been a cinch, but Less Than Jake had the intelligence and empathy to look past stereotypes and chronicle what they actually saw happening around them. They also had the goofy sense of humor to cover the occasional TV theme song.
On their string of superb ’90s releases, which includes two albums on Capitol Records, Less Than Jake created frenetic ska-punk anthems about small-town kids screwing up and questioning their places in the universe. Drummer and primary lyricist Vinnie Fiorello based these characters on himself and people he knew growing up. The vocals of guitarist Chris DeMakes and bassist Roger Lima are raw and defiant, and the ska upstrokes come scuzzy and hyperactive, erasing nearly all traces of Jamaica.
Despite the often-depressing subject matter, Less Than Jake’s songs are energetic enough to have inspired wild live performances featuring costumed mascots, confetti cannons, and toilet-paper guns. Generally speaking, Less Than Jake in the ’90s were serious chroniclers of adolescent turmoil on record and clownish party dudes onstage. Reconciling these two contradictory sides was and is totally optional for the band’s legions of fans.
Less Than Jake’s roots trace back to Port Charlotte, South Florida, where DeMakes grew up and Jersey-born Fiorello moved with his family as a teenager. In high school in the early ’90s, the pair bonded over punk rock and started a band, Needless Guilt, followed by another one, Good Grief. Neither really made it beyond the garage. Because Good Grief’s bassist and second guitarist worked full-time and lived 30 minutes away, DeMakes and Fiorello would get together by themselves to work on songs. Fiorello was a rarity: a drummer who could stop hitting things with sticks long enough to write lyrics—and thoughtful ones at that. DeMakes had a knack for killer chord progressions and sticky melodies. “We would do these little jams, and I was like, ‘OK, there’s something here,’” DeMakes says.
After graduation, DeMakes moved north to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida. Fiorello followed a year later. By that time, the pair had recorded demos of four songs that would appear on early Less Than Jake releases: “Lucky Day,” “Good Time for a Change,” “Process,” and “Black Coffee on the Table,” later retitled “Black Coffee.” All four are speedy and sincere punk tunes concerned with growing up and feeling lost. They’re solid first stabs at songwriting from two guys who would soon have an original sound to match their point of view.
Less Than Jake played their first show in July 1992 and added bassist Roger Lima and saxophone player Jessica Mills not long after. “When [Jessica] got in the band, that was the start of messing around with ska,” DeMakes says. “She was way into ska, as was Vinnie. I was more into the punk stuff.” The idea to get a horn section actually didn’t come from ska. DeMakes and Fiorello were big fans of the trombone-packing U.K. punk band Snuff. But as Less Than Jake began playing more and more ska, the horns made even more sense. Other influences included Operation Ivy and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, two of the only bands on Less Than Jake’s pre-Internet radar mixing ska and punk with anything like the same energy.
Less Than Jake became a five-piece in July 1993 with the addition of trombonist Buddy Schuab. Now they were a punk band with two horns and ska tendencies in a town that hadn’t heard anything like this before. “There were people that got it immediately,” says DeMakes. “Then there were the punk purists, and then there were the people that didn’t get it at all. You’ve got to remember, we were in redneck Florida. If it wasn’t for the college, Gainesville would just be another country-bumpkin town in North Florida.”
With Fiorello handling the bulk of the lyrics, Less Than Jake began churning out songs that naturally tended toward serious topics. While they wrote a handful of joke songs, like “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts,” the vibe was closer to social commentary. “We always prided ourselves on that,” says DeMakes. “It’s like, ‘OK, we have this happy music, but there’s this serious tone to the lyrics.’ On paper, it shouldn’t work, but it does.” Once they got in front of an audience, Less Than Jake became a different band altogether. “We never talked about politics,” DeMakes says. “We were a party band. If you give us a half hour, we’re going to raise hell the whole time we’re onstage.”
In August 1994, Less Than Jake opened for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in Tampa. It was a pivotal moment for the ska-punk upstarts. By that point, Less Than Jake had been touring for a couple of years throughout Florida, playing to 200 or 300 people max. The Bosstones gig drew 1,000 kids eager to hear punk rock with saxophones and trombones. “That was the start of thinking, ‘Wow, maybe we could take this outside of the state of Florida and see what happens,’” says DeMakes.
The following summer, Less Than Jake embarked on their first national tour. They did 48 days and dropped their debut album, Pezcore, along the way. Released on Dill Records, the label run by Mike Park of Skankin’ Pickle, Pezcore is among the most important ska-punk albums of the ’90s. Highlights include “My Very Own Flag” and “Growing Up on a Couch,” non-ska horn-core anthems about feeling alienated and realizing everything on TV is bullshit, respectively. “Shotgun” is so damn happy you barely realize it’s about suicide. Pezcore ends with “Short on Ideas / One Last Cigarette,” a fusion of two songs that sums up the album in four minutes. The first 1:47 is “Short on Ideas,” a wounded punk rumination on how there’s nothing new in the world, just different names for things we’ll never understand. That bleeds into the tattered ska of “One Last Cigarette,” the diary of a wound-up kid—maybe the same guy contemplating science and religion on “Short on Ideas”—walking the railroad tracks at 4:00 a.m., feeling like he’s “about to crack.”
On that first U.S. tour, Less Than Jake were thrilled to learn they weren’t the only ones who’d thought to cross Green Day with the Specials. They made friends with Slapstick in Chicago, the Impossibles in Austin, and Supermarket All-Stars in Houston, among others. “When we would run into them, it would be like we were finding long-lost brothers,” Fiorello said on the podcast Turned Out a Punk. “‘You get what we’re doing. You get it!’”
By March of 1995, Less Than Jake had roused the interest of Capitol Records A&R man Craig Aaronson, whose first signing at Capitol was Jimmy Eat World, the Arizona emo-rock outfit that would break through with Bleed American in 2001. After months of courtship, Less Than Jake signed in late 1995 for $100,000, a pittance by ’90s major-label standards. Although the band had always been staunchly DIY, DeMakes had no qualms about joining the big leagues.
“I wanted to sell as many records and get on as many magazine covers [as possible] and be that band,” DeMakes says. “I wanted to make as much money as I could. This is what I had set out to do. I have never been shy about saying that.” Besides, Less Than Jake had been screwed over by enough handshake deals with tiny punk labels to know that “indie” doesn’t necessarily mean “morally virtuous.” “At least with Capitol,” DeMakes says, “we knew how we were getting fucked.”
Less Than Jake were riding a mini-tide of ska-punk bands signing with majors. Around the same time, the Suicide Machines linked up with Hollywood Records, and Goldfinger jumped on Mojo, an indie with distribution through Universal. “Too many people had heard about [ska],” DeMakes says. “Too many 2,000-seat venues had sold out across the United States at that point for people not to notice. The A&R people and the people at the record labels were starting to pay attention to it. Ultimately it becomes a numbers game: ‘How many of these records can we sell?’”
Less Than Jake made their Capitol debut with Losing Streak, released in November 1996. Produced with little studio gloss by Michael Rosen, who’d helmed metal albums by Testament and Mordred and engineered Rancid’s ...And Out Come the Wolves, Losing Streak stands as the most ska-centric album in Less Than Jake’s catalog. On all but four of the 16 tracks, DeMakes’s antsy, rubber-wristed strumming drives the action.
The anxious pacing and no-frills production fit nicely with songs about disaffected everymen (“Happyman”), youth violence (“9th and Pine”), closed-mindedness (“Just Like Frank”), and the need to rise above where you’re from (“Shindo,” “Never Going Back to New Jersey”). Lead single and album opener “Automatic” is cold water in the face for anyone moving blindly through life. Alas, “Automatic” is a little too ragged and urgent to have done battle with Reel Big Fish’s glossier “Sell Out” on the radio, and it failed to make even Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. Losing Streak fared slightly better on the whole, reaching #18 on the Heatseekers Albums tally, reserved for emerging artists.
Less Than Jake’s best chance at a hit might’ve been “Dopeman,” a catchy little explanation of the societal conditions that lead people to become drug dealers. The band approved a now-dated ’90s remix, complete with regrettable turntable scratching, and filmed a silly music video set in a roller-skating rink. Rerun from the ’70s sitcom What’s Happening!! makes a cameo. It was such a stupid-funny concept that Sugar Ray ripped it off for their “Every Morning” clip in 1999. And yet MTV wouldn’t play “Dopeman.” Fiorello told the website Noisey in 2015 that MTV “had issues with the lyrical content,” but DeMakes says that’s not true. “MTV didn’t play it because it wasn’t a hit,” he says. “‘Dopeman’ is a terrible song. It was never one of my favorites. I wrote it, so I can say that. The version on Losing Streak is passable, but the remix we did, I was never into it.”
DeMakes says the high percentage of ska songs of Losing Streak had nothing to do with Capitol urging Less Than Jake to follow the ska trend. They’d written the bulk of the songs while touring behind Pezcore, and they were simply feeling the offbeat guitars. While crossing the country in support of Losing Streak, Less Than Jake began writing material for Hello Rockview. It would be their first album without Jessica Mills, who quit in 1997 to focus on teaching.
Hello Rockview would feature a drastic reduction in ska and an uptick in songwriting complexity, as the band experimented with intricate harmonies and tempo and key changes. It all came together in the studio under the watchful eye of producer Howard Benson, who’d worked with hard rock bands like Bang Tango and Motörhead. A keyboard player and composer, Benson put his head down and helped Less Than Jake perfect their arrangements. He also recorded with Pro Tools, a then-emerging technology that allowed him to use Auto-Tune on everything from the vocals to the horns. Pro Tools would become the industry standard, and according to Benson, Hello Rockview was one of the first albums made on the digital platform.
As the music bounded forward, Fiorello was feeling reflective. His lyrics trace his journey from Jersey to Florida to the endless highway he traveled with Less Than Jake. What emerged was a concept album about his youth. Its name comes from the Rockview State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, which Less Than Jake would drive past when playing State College. “It always struck me as a funny thing in that these suburbs, this is what locks us into who we are and who we’re going to be,” Fiorello told Noisey in June 2015. “So Hello Rockview is like a ‘hello’ to this prison of suburbia and my struggle to get out of that.” In the CD booklet, the lyrics are presented as a comic book illustrated by illustrator Steve Vance in the style of 1950s Dick Tracy strips. Vance’s cover artwork features an unhinged suit-clad suburban man leaping into his swimming pool while his wife looks on with a tray of martinis.
Before releasing Hello Rockview, Less Than Jake headlined the Ska Against Racism Tour in the spring of 1998. The trek caught flak in some circles, as critics accused the bands of glossing over the politics supposedly fueling the whole thing. DeMakes admits that he didn’t do much preaching, but that’s because set times were tight and Blue Meanies drummer Bob Trondson took the stage right before Less Than Jake each night and gave a short, thoughtful speech about the corrosive effects of racism. “I thought we raised a lot of awareness,” says DeMakes, who voiced his commitment to the cause in the countless interviews he did surrounding the tour. “I thought as a united front, we all did say something.” If anything, DeMakes says, Ska Against Racism was preaching to the choir. “Most of the thousand people that were there every night weren’t racist,” he says. “They were ska kids.”
A lot of those ska kids bought Hello Rockview when it hit the streets in October 1998. The album finally vaulted Less Than Jake onto Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart with “History of a Boring Town,” a three-minute distillation of the LP’s main themes. It’s a major-key ska-punk tune about townies downing drinks and reminiscing about the past in hopes of forgetting how trapped they feel. Had Bruce Springsteen spent the early ’80s listening to the Specials and Descendents, this is how “Glory Days” would’ve sounded. The single reached #39 on Modern Rock Tracks, and Hello Rockview became the first of eight (as of 2020) Less Than Jake albums to make the Billboard 200, peaking at #80.
The fact that Less Than Jake never had a big radio single during ska’s golden year might’ve helped the band in the long run. Because they hadn’t attracted much of a crossover audience, they didn’t lose many fans when the trend died down in 1998 and ’99. “We just kept doing our thing,” says DeMakes. “We didn’t have that albatross over our head of ‘You sold 1.5 million albums the last time, and now you only sold 200,000.’ We kept selling 200,000 or 300,000 records every record. It wasn’t bigger; it wasn’t smaller.”
Less Than Jake parted company with Capitol while finishing their third album, Borders and Boundaries. In the three-plus years since the band signed with the label, nearly everyone they’d worked with—from A&R man Aaronson to the marketing team—had left. Capitol had a new president, the pop- and R&B-focused Roy Lott, and he gave Less Than Jake two choices: they could release their next album on Capitol and get little in the way of promotional support, or they could take the album and go elsewhere. Less Than Jake split and released Borders and Boundaries on the California punk indie Fat Wreck Chords, which had rejected the band’s demo years earlier.
More touring followed, and the band underwent some lineup changes. Baritone sax player Derron Nuhfer, who’d been on board since 1995, gave his notice in 2000. He was replaced by Pete “JR” Wasilewski, formerly of Connecticut ska kings Spring Heeled Jack. In 2001, trombonist Pete Anna quit, leaving the two-man horn section (Schuab and Wasilewski) that was still in place as of 2020. This five-man lineup made its debut on 2003’s Anthem, which marked the start of Less Than Jake’s second stint on a major. Craig Aaronson had taken a job at Warner Bros., and he signed the band for a second time.
Less Than Jake recorded Anthem with producer Rob Cavallo, best known for his work on Green Day’s 1994 opus Dookie, as well as their follow-up albums. Six years removed from the ska explosion of the ’90s, Less Than Jake enjoyed the biggest success of their career: Anthem reached #45 on the Billboard 200, and the single “The Science of Selling Yourself Short” made #36 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Anthem remains their best-selling album in America, and it was instrumental in breaking Less Than Jake in the United Kingdom.
As of 2020, Less Than Jake have released four more studio albums and various EPs. They still tour the world, albeit with a familiar face missing behind the drum kit. Fiorello announced in October 2018 that he was retiring from the road, though not from the band. In a tweet the following September, Lima clarified that Fiorello wouldn’t be involved with the writing or recording of new music. Fiorello’s departure couldn’t have been easy for anyone, but two decades into the twenty-first century, DeMakes is more than satisfied with Less Than Jake’s status as ska-punk elder statesmen. “I’m stoked that, 27 years in, our band is still able to do this for a living, still able to have fun doing it,” he says. “If anyone wants to call us a legacy act, bring it on! Those records from the past, they touched people in a way that they still want to come see the band. That’s pretty cool.”
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Being a ska-punk band on a major in the ’90s had its pros and cons. On the one hand, a label like Hollywood Records could get your album in stores and help out with radio and MTV airplay. Unfortunately, the suits might require you to make music videos and play lame radio gigs. That’s where things started to turn sour for the Suicide Machines.
In early 1997, the Detroit ska-punks found themselves in a demolition-derby arena somewhere near Utah shooting a video for “S.O.S.,” a standout track on their Hollywood debut, Destruction by Definition, released the previous November. The Suicide Machines were on tour at the time, and the plan was to film all night, then drive to L.A. to play a free outdoor show at Tower Records for KROQ. Even though the band didn’t hate the video concept—cars spray-painted with words like “fear” and “greed” smashing into each other, bringing to life the song’s theme of humanity on the brink—they didn’t exactly love it, either.
“To loosen ourselves up, we drank 40s all night,” says lead singer Jason Navarro. “There were 40s of Olde English everywhere, because we were getting hammered.”
Navarro was boozing in part to ease the pain of his shin splints, which must’ve been flaring like mad as he and the band (minus drummer Derek Grant, who bailed on the whole thing) jumped around all night miming “S.O.S.” They only slept a couple hours, then drove to the KROQ show. Less than enthused about playing a parking lot on a sweltering afternoon, Grant wrote “KCOCK” on his chest, and the band blazed through an abbreviated six-song set at grind-core speed. Then they told the crowd to go into Tower Records and steal whatever they wanted.
KROQ, the most powerful alternative station in the country, was not amused—and they didn’t forget. The following year, Navarro says, the station refused to play “Give,” the lead single off the Suicide Machines’ sophomore album, Battle Hymns. The incident poisoned the well with alternative radio and marked “the beginning of the end,” in Navarro’s estimation, of the band’s relationship with Hollywood. More than 20 years later, Navarro doesn’t regret that act of career suicide, though he admits there was no reason for the band to behave like it did. But that’s part of what distinguished the Suicide Machines in the world of ’90s ska-punk crossovers: they didn’t give a fuck.
The Suicide Machines always considered themselves a punk band first. They were born in the green-and-orange glow of a 7-Eleven in Livonia, Michigan, a largely white suburb 15 miles from Detroit. The 7-Eleven was the social hub for local teen punks in the late ’80s, and Navarro was among the young loiterers. One day in 1989 or ’90, he met a new store employee named Dan Lukacinsky, a slightly older punker who’d attended shows at Graystone Hall, a notorious all-ages hardcore venue. Navarro had chickened out of going to see Agnostic Front at Graystone right before it closed, so he knew Lukacinsky was legit.
Navarro and Lukacinsky were fans of Dead Kennedys and the Detroit hardcore band Negative Approach. At the same time, Navarro was discovering Fishbone, the Specials, and Operation Ivy. He made a tape for Lukacinsky, who figured out how to play ska chords on his guitar. Lukacinsky promptly asked Navarro, who’d played bass in local hardcore outfits, if he wanted to start a band. Navarro accepted but found it difficult to sing and play walking bass lines at the same time. So he handed off his instrument to skating buddy Jay Brake, who along with drummer Stefan Rairigh completed the original lineup.
It was 1991, and the band called itself Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines, a reference to the controversial Detroit pathologist whose “suicide machines” helped more than 130 patients die painlessly through injections of carbon monoxide. (They dropped the Kevorkian bit a few years later, when people started turning up to their shows expecting to see “Dr. Death” himself.) Navarro and Lukacinsky honed their ska chops by watching local bands like the Exceptions and Gangster Fun, and in 1993, with Grant now behind the drums, the group made its debut with The Essential Kevorkian! The cruddy-sounding six-song cassette reveals a love of Operation Ivy and a distaste for white-bread suburban living. “Society is smothering me,” Navarro declares on the mangy skanker “Bonkers.”
Navarro had reason to be mistrustful of suburbia. He bounced around as a kid and lived for a time in Detroit, where his mother met a Mexican man who became his adoptive stepfather (hence the last name Navarro). By the time the family settled in Livonia, Navarro had two younger half sisters whose Mexican appearance made them targets of hatred. “We got ‘Spics Spread AIDS’ stickers stuck on our mailbox and white-power literature stuck on our door all the time,” says Navarro. “I just thought, ‘How could anyone do this to us?’ Who would hate a little kid?”
With their agitated ska-punk songs, the Suicide Machines slotted neatly into a progressive Detroit scene that didn’t discriminate on the basis of genre. There weren’t all that many ska bands in town, so the Suicide Machines played with hardcore, hip-hop, and even funk acts. “If you had some sort of DIY ethic, or some sort of social ideas or political ideas, you were playing together,” says Navarro.
That policy held when the Suicide Machines began touring nationally around the time of their second cassette, 1994’s Green World. However, they occasionally met fellow ska-punk bands along the way, like the Rudiments from California’s East Bay. The Suicide Machines (now with bassist Royce Nunley) and the Rudiments teamed up for 1995’s Skank for Brains, a split CD featuring 10 songs by each band. The CD made its way to the offices of Hollywood Records, where A&R man and producer Julian Raymond overheard it playing in a colleague’s cubicle. Raymond sensed something special about the Detroit crew and phoned up Lukacinsky’s house. Raymond asked to come see a show, but since there were none on the docket, he flew to Detroit to watch the band practice in Lukacinsky’s parents’ basement. “I remember almost hiding behind this pole by our PA, because I didn’t even want to look at him,” says Navarro. “It just felt so weird. He was like, ‘You know what? There’s a bunch of songs I really like by you guys.’”
If there were any doubts about Raymond’s character, they disappeared after he met up with the band on their joint 1995 tour with Buck-O-Nine. In Atlanta, thieves broke into the Suicide Machines’ van and made off with nearly $2,700 in cash, plus all of Grant’s clothes. The band drove to their next gig in Baltimore with their window missing, only to find that the promoter hadn’t actually promoted the show. “There were like seven people,” Navarro says. “Two of those people were Julian and his wife. And the promoter’s being a jerk, and the bar owners are being jerks. So we start hiding our shit everywhere. We’d take shits, and we were smashing it in the ashtrays. We played like lunatics that night anyways, because that’s how we always played, crowd or not. Julian was just like, ‘You guys are fucking crazy.’”
Raymond took the band food shopping and bought Grant a new wardrobe. Then he offered to fly the group to L.A. to record four songs he would present to the label. If Hollywood didn’t sign the Suicide Machines, Raymond would secretly pass them the tapes, so they’d have four professionally recorded songs for their next 7-inch. The band accepted and soon found themselves with a record contract. They hired a manager and lawyers and still signed what Navarro calls “the worst seven-record deal.”
“We were just drunk and doing drugs and like, ‘Fuck yeah, whatever,’” Navarro says. “We didn’t really understand the scope of it. Because we were so stuck in the DIY punk world, none of it made any sense to us.” Navarro doesn’t remember feeling any punk-rock guilt about signing with a major. The worries began after the ink had dried and people started calling them sellouts, even in Detroit. This despite the fact that the Suicide Machines were harder and more political than all the other ska bands going mainstream. “We didn’t expect a backlash,” Navarro says. “And we totally got one.”
Whatever people may have thought, Hollywood had zero influence on Destruction by Definition, recorded with Raymond as producer. Seven of the tracks were rerecordings of Skank for Brains songs, including the standout “New Girl,” written by Lukacinsky. Navarro credits the guitarist with penning the three best songs on the album: “New Girl,” “Break the Glass,” and “No Face,” which reached #31 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart and garnered MTV airplay. The latter two are spastic ska-punk tunes with fidgety cross-stick and hi-hat work from Grant and lyrics that look inward to speak about larger problems facing alienated young people. That same songwriting approach drives deep cuts like “Too Much,” “Islands,” and “Insecurities,” creating a politically charged album that doesn’t actually say much about politics.
“I don’t know any other way to write, and neither did Dan,” Navarro says. “We’re not trying to tell stories like Johnny Cash. We’re looking in at ourselves and how we approach the world . . . and maybe if I write the way I feel about things, other people are going to attach themselves and understand, because they’re thinking the same things.”
Navarro and Grant wrote the album highlight “S.O.S.,” a more outward-looking song about ignorance and intolerance building up and reaching a boiling point. There’s distortion on the slashing ska guitars and an urgent organ solo prefacing the final chorus—one last “call to action” before humankind blows itself up. Destruction by Definition features some comic relief in the form of “Vans Song,” which dates back to 1994’s Green World. It’s a punky reggae trifle about how Vans are cheap and comfortable and therefore superior to all other footwear. Vinny Nobile of Bim Skala Bim and later Pilfers underscores the message with his signature elephantine trombone.
Destruction by Definition sold well and became one of the era’s defining ska-punk albums. Navarro estimates it moved more than 500,000 units, though he doubts the label even knows for sure. (Nielsen Music has the sales at 263,000.) “Hollywood Records is such a mess,” he says. “They don’t even have any clue of what they do. And they’ve changed people so many times.” After the debacle with the “S.O.S.” video and KROQ event, the Suicide Machines purposely began burning bridges with Hollywood. It began with 1998’s Battle Hymns, which they wrote in two weeks and recorded in just a few days. According to Navarro they hadn’t seen any of the $280,000 they were given to record Destruction by Definition, and since the budget was going to be the same for the follow-up they decided to record as quickly as possible and pocket all the leftover money. They also wrote the “fastest, craziest punk songs in the world,” giving Hollywood few options for singles.
There are only two songs with anything close to a hook. One is the opening track, “Someone,” an anxious tangle of ska and punk about feeling alone in a hateful world. “Give,” the single KROQ wouldn’t play, is a poppy ska reminder to properly vet your friends. All told, there are skanking guitars on about half of the album’s 20 proper tracks. The other half is brutal hardcore that required Navarro to scream his guts out in the studio. After the rest of the band laid down the backing tracks in two days, Navarro sang half of the album in one day, blowing out his voice in the process. He went back to Raymond’s house and recuperated by downing rum and watching conspiracy videos. Then he went back and finished the remaining vocals in another daylong session.
Battle Hymns sold roughly 32,000 copies its first month, according to Nielsen Music—a flop by Hollywood standards. Navarro admits that half the album simply isn’t very good. And yet the prevalence of ska songs kept the Suicide Machines popular among the checkerboard set. Navarro may identify more with the punk scene, but the fact remains that his band released two ska-heavy major-label albums in the ’90s. They’ll forever be associated with bands like Reel Big Fish, even though they came to ska from a vastly different place.
“Detroit was still completely fucked in 1995,” says Navarro, thinking back on abandoned buildings and pervasive unemployment. “We grew up around the crack and heroin epidemic, which ran so rampant in Detroit, it destroyed it. We weren’t living in a tropical paradise with fucking palm trees, and life’s not so bad, you know what I mean? Whereas bands like—I’m only assuming, which might be completely wrong—Reel Big Fish were living in that kind of world. We were the exact opposite of that. That’s why our music was the way it was—just because of our surroundings.”
Grant left the band after Battle Hymns, and new drummer Ryan Vandeberghe walked into what Navarro calls a “stormy situation.” Lukacinsky and Nunley were at each other’s throats, and Navarro was too busy dealing with the loss of his first son to make an attempt at fixing things. He backed off and left the bulk of the songwriting to Lukacinsky and Nunley, who took the group in the unexpected Beatles-gone-punk direction heard on 2000’s widely derided The Suicide Machines.
The infighting got worse during sessions for 2001’s Steal This Record, a return to punk the band recorded piecemeal, since nobody could stand being in the studio with each other. Nunley jumped ship after that album, and having fulfilled their Hollywood contract, the band signed with the L.A. indie SideOneDummy. Invigorated by the change of label and opposition to the Bush administration, the Suicide Machines ended their initial run with A Match and Some Gasoline (2003) and War Profiteering Is Killing Us All (2005), foamy-mouthed punk assaults with flashes of ska.
The group split up in 2006, then reformed sans Lukacinsky in 2009. The guitarist issued a statement blasting the so-called reunion and claiming he was never asked to participate. Amid other musical projects, Navarro carried on playing live with the Suicide Machines throughout the ’10s and released a new album, Revolution Spring, in 2020. For the comeback LP, Navarro avoided writing the kinds of political diatribes fans might’ve expected in the age of Trump. Navarro says it’s more an album about values that ought to be “common sense” to people but somehow aren’t.
“I’ve flipped in my old age, because I’m a bit of an activist these days and actually doing shit instead of just pointing fingers and bitching about it,” Navarro says. “That speaks to my lyrics on this record. It’s just like, ‘Hey, man, use your fucking brain and your heart.’”
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One night in 1992, three ska bands met in a cornfield in Lawrence, Kansas. This was the unlikely location of the Outhouse, an infamous punk club in the middle of nowhere that hosted groups like Nirvana, Fugazi, Fishbone, and Ice T’s Body Count from 1985 to 1997. Billy Spunke was lead singer of Blue Meanies, one of the ska outfits booked to play there on the evening in question. Driving to the club through miles and miles of corn, the Chicago native thought maybe his band had been duped.
Not only was it a legit gig, but in Spunke’s estimation, it was a historic show in the history of third-wave ska. With their spicy puree of punk, funk, jazz, klezmer, polka, metal, and more, Blue Meanies existed on the outer fringes of ska. That made them natural allies of fellow misfits MU330 and Skankin’ Pickle, the other two acts on the Outhouse bill. “We met them and loved them as people,” Spunke says. “It would drag us into the community of ska. Probably because we liked them so much, we were like, ‘All right well we should always throw a little ska into most of our songs.’”
Throughout the ’90s, Blue Meanies played just enough ska to warrant the tag. They even took part in 1998’s Ska Against Racism Tour. But they pushed the music as far as it could go and still be vaguely recognizable as ska. Other bands like Voodoo Glow Skulls played fast and hard. Blue Meanies played fast and hard and weird, switching between several incongruent styles in the span of single songs. This earned them a national following and, at the very end of the ’90s, a short-lived deal with MCA Records. They used the opportunity to release 2000’s The Post-Wave, an album that’s more palatable (and less ska) than their previous two LPs but uncompromising in the political subject matter that also set Blue Meanies apart from most third-wave groups. A year later, this strange and wondrous chimera of the third wave was gone.
Named for the music-hating baddies in the 1968 Beatles cartoon film Yellow Submarine, Blue Meanies formed at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1991. They were all fans of Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, plus hardcore punk and the 2 Tone ska of the Specials and the Selecter. Bass player Jay Vance became the main songwriter, though the nascent Meanies established a rule that would last throughout their 10-year run: everyone could contribute. “That’s what led to songs never staying cohesive as far as one genre,” says Spunke. “You’d throw everything in there, and then it got so chaotic. But everyone was equal.”
While at Carbondale, Blue Meanies recorded their debut, Peace Love Groove, a live album showcasing the band’s funk leanings. It was released on No Record Co., a fictitious label the Meanies invented so clubs would take them seriously. Amid all the bass slapping, the Meanies make time for one ska tune, the Eastern European–sounding “Grandma Shampoo,” about washing your hair with your grandparents’ ashes. Throughout the performance, Spunke works the mic like a campus revolutionary well-schooled in the ways of Jello Biafra. The anti-racist funk workout “Brother Free” offers an early glimpse at where Spunke was coming from politically.
Spunke’s left-wing politics weren’t informed by punk and hardcore. He was reared on classic rock before discovering Dead Kennedys. Spunke attributes his worldview to growing up the son of a blue-collar gas-company worker in inner-city Chicago. The neighborhood taught him about the value of hard work but also the prevalence of racism in American society. That would become a major theme in his writing.
After graduation, Blue Meanies got serious, moved to Chicago, and took on some new members, including keyboardist and songwriter Chaz Linde. They became more cohesive, and the funk elements mercifully melted away. By their next album, 1995’s Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, Blue Meanies had evolved into a pulverizing seven-headed, two-horned (trumpet and sax) monster with boundless energy. Vance, still the primary songwriter, was sacked before the sessions but flew to St. Louis to record his parts. The prevailing sound is wild-eyed ska, with frantic guitar upstrokes slicing through standouts like “It Doesn’t Matter”—all about the pointlessness of subcultures and religion and most everything else in life—and “Johnny Mortgage,” a grim picture of middle-class struggles. On the gnashing punk track “Average American Superhero,” Spunke describes the kind of beer-swilling workaday racists he saw in his neighborhood growing up.
Before Kiss Your Ass Goodbye came out in early 1995, Blue Meanies broke up for a few months. Spunke moved to New Orleans but returned to Chicago as the band again took on new personnel, including drummer Bob Trondson and bassist Dave Lund, both of the Wisconsin ska band Weaker Youth Ensemble. The Meanies were back and better than ever.
With ska beginning to generate mainstream buzz, Blue Meanies nearly got called up to the majors. Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis Records and the man who launched Billy Idol’s solo career, was interested in signing the Meanies to his Imago label. For one reason or another, it didn’t work out. There were also conversations with Hollywood Records, home of the Suicide Machines. The Meanies were all set to fly out to L.A. for a meeting when the deal fell through. MCA also had the Meanies record some demos that didn’t lead anywhere.
Although the Meanies didn’t land a major label deal during ska’s breakout year of 1997, they toured with many third-wave heavyweights, including Reel Big Fish. “What [kids] would see when they saw us was just terrifying,” Spunke says. “We were loud, extremely fast, and we probably weren’t smiling. But there was a small section of each one of those audiences that was drawn to that. They were like, ‘Wow I guess there’s more to the ska movement than just this happy-go-lucky thing.’”
Only the most adventurous ska fans would’ve been ready for the band’s next album, Full Throttle, released in 1997 on the indie label Thick Records. “Full Throttle is a very angry record,” says Spunke. “It was about what was happening not only politically or socially around the world, but within that scene. We were like, ‘OK, we could write an easy ska song, or we could just go full tilt and go faster and harder and more angry.’”
If a lot of ’90s ska was a reflection of groovy times in America, Full Throttle was a reminder of all the rotten stuff going on below the surface. Nearly every track goes like hell and changes direction multiple times. The album opens with “The 4th of July,” an incendiary thrasher about the erosion of American ideals. “Send Help,” the closest thing to a pure ska track, is a tirade aimed at those who sit back and talk while the nation’s problems get worse. “Smash the Magnavox” blames TV for destroying American families. “The Great Peacemaker” is a commentary on youth gun violence set to demonic circus music.
The relentless attack of Full Throttle doesn’t leave much room for ska. But Blue Meanies never said they were a ska band. They didn’t let that stop them from joining 1998’s Ska Against Racism Tour with their buddies Mike Park and MU330. Blue Meanies were one of the bands that made a point of saying something about racism every night. Bob Trondson would take the stage right before Less Than Jake’s headlining set and extend a spoonful of medicine in between buckets of sugar. A couple months after the tour, Spunke was quoted in the Chicago Reader story that criticized the tour for not putting enough emphasis on the message. “God, I hate to say this,” Spunke told the paper, “but it was almost like the racism part of this tour was just a marketing tool.”
Spunke says he never meant to diss Park, a true believer in equality whose heart was unquestionably in the right place. “However, when you do Ska Against Racism at that time... you’re bringing out people who were part of the ska third wave, and this whole phenomena of ska,” Spunke says. “They were really just coming out to have fun. A lot of times, I think the message was forgotten about.” Which isn’t to say it was a total loss. “It was good for us to try to deliver that message every night, even if people didn’t want to hear it all the time,” Spunke says.
Blue Meanies toured for 250 days to support Full Throttle. By 1999, they’d reached a crossroads. It was getting too expensive for seven musicians, plus a merch guy and soundman, to survive on the road. That’s when MCA stepped up and provided a lifeline. For years, the Meanies had been friends with Rick Bonde, founder of the Tahoe Agency, an influential talent booker whose ’90s clients included Sublime, blink-182, and Skankin’ Pickle. MCA had hired Bonde as a talent scout, and he suggested signing Blue Meanies.
“It was a last-ditch effort: ‘This has to happen now, or we just can’t do it,’” Spunke says of the deal. The Meanies had already resolved to start writing more cohesive songs, and to achieve this goal, they invited Mark Goldenberg—a producer and session guitarist who’d played with everyone from Linda Ronstadt and Peter Frampton to Eels—to visit their basement practice space and help with the writing process. The first thing Goldenberg did was make them turn down the volume, so everyone could hear what everyone else was doing. “We then began to think about space in songs,” Spunke says. “Like, ‘Oh we don’t necessarily need to be so dense all the time. We can serve the song better if we listen to each other.’ It was a huge moment for us.”
All the hard work and song-doctoring yielded The Post-Wave, a terrific album of catchy organ-driven, horn-flecked punk tunes about environmental degradation (“Chemicals”), white flight and opposition to forced school bussing (“We’re All the Same”), and the vapidity of television (“TV Girl”). The slurping hi-hats on “Mama Getting High on Chardonnay,” the Meanies’ update of the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper,” almost evoke ska, but the album is utterly devoid of offbeat guitars. That was kind of the point.
“We were stepping out of that genre again,” Spunke says. “But at the same time, I thought we were leading the genre, too. We were saying, ‘OK, let’s all move forward. All of us, all the bands, let’s develop our sounds and not be afraid to grow and try new things.’” The Post-Wave was produced by Phil Nicolo, one half of the Butcher Brothers, the Philly duo that oversaw three tracks on the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ 1994 album Question the Answers.
Shortly before The Post-Wave hit shelves, Bonde had a falling-out with MCA. Blue Meanies were suddenly left without a champion at the label, and midway through a national tour MCA pulled all support. Blue Meanies finished the trek knowing full well that when it was over, they’d have to go back to booking tiny shows and struggling to make a living. In other words, they knew it was the end.
Before officially calling it quits, Blue Meanies issued a statement facetiously thanking MCA for spending $500,000 on The Post-Wave. The money went to new musical gear and a sweet RV the band still owned. The Meanies even got back their master tapes and reissued The Post-Wave on Thick. “It’s as if we walked into the jaws of the dragon’s lair, extracted its golden tooth, and walked away unscathed,” the letter reads. Only that was the end of the quest.
Since splitting up, Blue Meanies have re-formed several times, including two appearances at Riot Fest in Chicago. Spunke says future reunions remain on the table, even though the Meanies are spread out across the country. “The less we play,” Spunke says, “the bigger the crowds are.”
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In 1998, the alternative rock station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, would play the hell out of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, but it wouldn’t touch Mustard Plug, hometown heroes who’d been squeezing out tangy ska-punk jams since 1991. Nevertheless, the station invited Mustard Plug to contribute a song to a compilation CD they were putting together. Rather than waste a new original tune on a cheesy radio comp, Mustard Plug offered a cover of “The Freshman,” the stone-faced and serious alt-rock crossover smash (#5 on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 on Modern Rock Tracks) by fellow West Michigan natives the Verve Pipe.
Lyrically, “The Freshman” is a double whammy of abortion and suicide, and The Verve Pipe original rocks with the post-grunge somberness those topics require. Mustard Plug’s version isn’t exactly cheery, but it’s done in a ska-punk style that can’t help but lighten the mood. “We weren’t sure if the radio station would just be totally offended or not, but we also didn’t really care that much,” says Mustard Plug lead singer Dave Kirchgessner.
As it turns out, everyone loved it, including the Verve Pipe. Mustard Plug could’ve easily reissued their then-most-recent album Evildoers Beware! with “The Freshman” included to drum up sales. Instead, they opted to press up 1,000 copies of a CD single with “The Freshman” and their own song “You,” hoping radio stations would spin the latter. The plan didn’t work, and more alternative stations, some as far away as Phoenix, began playing “The Freshman.”
“Coming from a punk-rock background and having this sense of integrity, for lack of a better word, we didn’t want to be known as this gimmick band that played someone else’s song,” says Kirchgessner. So Mustard Plug never made a music video or approved a wider release of “The Freshman.” The song faded away in a matter of months, and Mustard Plug missed their chance to pull a Save Ferris and see how far a ska cover of a popular song might take them. “It’s one of those things you look back on like, ‘Wow, did we make the wrong decision?’” Kirchgessner says. “I don’t know.”
In the late ’90s, Mustard Plug were about as popular as a Midwestern ska-punk band with a ridiculous name and zero radio or MTV presence could be. Evildoers Beware! sold something like 100,000 copies in its first year, Kirchgessner says, and Mustard Plug headlined shows across the country. They’d won fans the old-fashioned way, beginning with their very first shows in 1991. Kirchgessner formed the group with guitarist Colin Clive, whom he met going to punk shows in the late ’80s. When they both discovered ska—2 Tone, Skankin’ Pickle, Michigan’s own Gangster Fun—they resolved to start a band after college.
There was no ska scene to speak of in Grand Rapids, so Mustard Plug scammed shows however they could. Kirchgessner was dabbling in concert promotion, and he’d bring bands like Skankin’ Pickle and Canada’s King Apparatus to town, then stick Mustard Plug on the bottom of the bill. Mustard Plug soon built up a following, thanks in part to a high-energy live show that made ample use of props. “It was a huge change compared to the other bands that were around at the time, which were really depressing grunge and industrial stuff like Nine Inch Nails,” says Kirchgessner. “We rebelled against that and were goofy and lighthearted and fun.”
With no ambitions beyond playing around town, Mustard Plug’s next step was to document their first batch of songs, lest they be lost to the sands of time. The seven members jammed themselves into the basement studio of a local producer who usually made metal records and emerged with 1992’s Skapocalypse Now! The self-released 10-song cassette comes out skanking with “Brain on Ska,” Mustard Plug’s love letter to a scene that’s all about “simply havin’ fun and unity.” The track is bright and elastic, powered by a sense of joyful irreverence that carries through to highlights like “We Want the Mustard” and “Summertime,” a song the group promoted with a cheapo music video that somehow went into rotation at local teen hangouts.
Skapocalypse Now! was a test run for Mustard Plug’s CD debut, 1993’s Big Daddy Multitude, released via a licensing deal with Moon Ska Records. Kirchgessner knew Moon boss Rob “Bucket” Hingley from back in his days working for the campus radio station at Michigan State. He once visited New York City for the CMJ Music Marathon and made a trip to Moon headquarters, a place he imagined would be a giant warehouse but was actually Bucket’s tiny apartment.
The type of deal Moon offered bands was perfect for Mustard Plug. They’d get the benefit of Moon’s national distribution, and if they wanted to take the record elsewhere later on, they’d be free to do so. Plus, there was also the legitimacy that came with being on Moon, which was to ska in 1994 what Sup Pop was to indie. “At that point, if you were a ska fan, you pretty much picked up anything Moon would put out,” Kirchgessner says.
You could tell Big Daddy Multitude was going to be worth your $10 just by looking at the cover, a close-up photo of a dude’s face completely covered in mustard. Because nearly every track is a novelty song, nearly every one stands out. Opener “Skank by Numbers” is a handy four-step guide to enjoying yourself at a ska show. “Ball Park Skank” is “Casey at the Bat” told in ska form, with a happier ending. “I Made Love to a Martian” is about making love to a Martian. Best of all is “Mr. Smiley,” the chilling tale of a seemingly normal dude who snaps and murders his family. Clive made the story up, basing the homicidal character on the creepy old man in Home Alone.
Big Daddy Multitude arrived before Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, or Slapstick released debut albums. Mustard Plug were innovators, though fans who got into ska later might not have recognized them as such. “If you listen to us in the context of what was going on in ’97, we didn’t sound that pioneering,” says Kirchgessner. “But if you listened to us in the context of like ’92, it was kind of out there.”
With ska gaining traction across the country, Mustard Plug toured nationally behind Big Daddy Multitude and banked some money to fund their next album. They recorded at the Blasting Room, the Colorado studio founded in 1994 by Bill Stevenson and Stephen Egerton of the enduring L.A. pop-punk band Descendents. During their 10 days in Colorado, Mustard Plug learned of an imminent Descendents reunion, and in October 1996, when Descendents headlined a week of shows at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, Mustard Plug were tapped to open one of the nights. Several label scouts turned up, and the group signed with the SoCal punk label Hopeless Records for their just-finished album.
That album, Evildoers Beware!, is Mustard Plug’s high-water mark, a far more focused and mature album than the previous two. “Some of it’s growing up, and some of it’s taking yourself a little bit more seriously, whether that’s good or bad,” Kirchgessner says. Opener “Box” looks at the ways people wall themselves off from the world. “Suburban Homesick Blues” veers again toward social commentary, as Kirchgessner pities an old friend who’s settled down and chosen a life of conformity. The album closes with perhaps Mustard Plug’s greatest and best-known tune, “Beer (Song),” a scream-along anthem whose “Don’t let ’em take it away!” chorus lets you insert your own “it” every time. “It’s not so much about beer,” Kirchgessner admits. “The theme is more staying up through adversity, that sort of thing.”
Evildoers racked up six-figure sales and became Hopeless’s biggest record to date. Mustard Plug hit the road hard, playing 161 shows in 1997 and 121 in 1998, the year of “The Freshman.” Some of those ’98 gigs were part of the Ska Against Racism Tour, which Kirchgessner considers a massive success, despite criticism it was mostly white kids turning up. “That’s one of the disappointing things about the way the ska scene evolved in the late ’90s: It became primarily white bands playing to white audiences, which is really different than the ska that I grew up on and loved, the 2 Tone stuff,” he says. “I don’t think the ska scene has ever been less than open to other people of different sexes and genders and races. I think it’s more a reflection on American society in general.” As for charges the tour was “preaching to the choir,” Kirchgessner argues that sending an anti-racist message to white dudes in their early 20s was extremely worthwhile. “I wish it was more diverse, but I guess that’s the whole point of it,” he says. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Mustard Plug managed one more album before the close of the decade, 1999’s Pray for Mojo. It was another exercise in Evildoers-style semi-seriousness, and this time there was even a political song, “Throw a Bomb,” about how misguided losers become weapons of mass destruction. The message is pretty obvious—violence is bad—but the band purposely omitted the song when performing in Oklahoma and Hiroshima, places still traumatized by bombings. Japan was one of 12 countries Mustard Plug visited in 1999, even as ska’s popularity took a nosedive and Mojo sold only half of what Evildoers had.
“During the ’90s, the media was trained to go from one fad to the next,” Kirchgessner says. “It started with grunge. Then punk, and Green Day is the next big thing. Then, all of a sudden, ska is the next big thing. Then it was, ‘Well, we decided it’s going to be swing revival.’”
As ska bands nationwide fired their horn sections, got funny haircuts, and transitioned to emo, Mustard Plug stayed the course. Maybe they were saved by their modest Midwestern values. They never wanted to be superstars, so when that option was off the table for ska bands, they never thought of chucking their trombone. “I would question, a lot of the bands that moved from ska to emo, how much they really liked ska in the first place,” Kirchgessner says.
Mustard Plug have released three twenty-first-century albums that range in spiciness from honey (2002’s Yellow #5) to yellow (2007’s In Black and White) to Dijon (2014’s Can’t Contain It). They gradually decreased their touring but played no fewer than 33 shows in any year from 2000 to 2019. The band members have families and full-time jobs but also enough fans in America and in places like Australia and Japan to warrant booking short tours when everyone’s schedule allows. “People have accepted that they’re not going to make money off the band—that helps a lot,” says Kirchgessner. “If you’re not in the band for the money, you’re in it for fun. So, as long as it’s fun, you keep going.”
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