Ska is thriving right now. Here’s a look at the DIY scene that’s keeping it alive
For September's Bandcamp Friday, Bad Time Records, Asian Man Records, and Ska Punk Daily released Ska Against Racism, a compilation benefitting The Movement for Black Lives, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Alpha Institute, The Conscious Kid, and Black Girls Code that features new, unreleased, or hard-to-get songs by 28 ska and ska-punk bands. It came out without any prior announcement or promotion, and before the day was over, they sold out of the 1,000 vinyl copies they had pressed. They decided to do 500 more and put them out the next morning, and within minutes those were gone too. By the end of the weekend, the compilation had raised over $55,000. They "could've probably sold 5,000 copies and raised $200,000" if they had the means to do so, said Asian Man founder Mike Park. His 1998 Ska Against Racism tour -- which this comp is named after -- had not even raised half the amount of this new compilation, and that was when ska was unavoidable in mainstream music. Ska has been making a comeback -- or arguably never left -- for a while, and the excitement surrounding this compilation from both in and outside of devoted ska scenes proves it. "I think interest is at an all-time high right now of the last 20 years," says Mike Park, and he would know. Having founded Asian Man and Dill Records as well as era-defining third wave ska bands Skankin' Pickle, The Bruce Lee Band, and The Chinkees, he's been involved with ska, punk, and DIY for over three decades.
The new Ska Against Racism compilation is home to music by some ever-popular lifers like Less Than Jake, Mustard Plug, Big D and the Kids Table, and Rancid's Tim Armstrong (who contributed a song featuring his former Operation Ivy bandmate Jesse Michaels), as well as recently reunited bands like The Suicide Machines and Mike Park's own The Chinkees, and the newly-popular Tim Armstrong affiliates The Interrupters, and presumably those bands helped draw widespread attention to it. But, crucially, it's also home to several bands from today's thriving DIY ska and ska-punk underground, many of which are signed to Bad Time Records, the dedicated ska and ska-punk label that formed in 2018 and quickly found itself at the center of this new movement.
"I felt like for DIY ska-punk bands there was nobody really creating a platform," said Bad Time founder Mike Sosinski, who also fronts Kill Lincoln, one of the most vital bands right now not just in ska-punk but in DIY music in general. "So that's what I wanted to do with Bad Time, just make a home for all these bands. We had been creating our own community for a long time, just through touring together and building our own little network, but I felt like I'd formalize it." A band like NJ's The Best of the Worst -- who have been putting out uniquely killer ska-core for 12 years -- would agree that Bad Time really is changing things. "It wasn’t really until Mike grabbed the reins and really pushed for a lot of us that we felt a big difference in everything," said drummer Joe Scala.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, if you're looking for a good place to start with current ska and ska-punk bands, you can basically just devour the entire Bad Time roster and you won't find a single dud. Before Ska Against Racism, the label put out 2019's Refused-referencing The Shape of Ska Punk to Come: Volume 1, a 13-track comp that documents today's ska-punk scene the way Asian Man's Misfits of Ska documented the '90s. "Compilations in general are super important to me because that's how I got into so many bands," Mike Sosinski says. "The early Asian Man comps -- the Plea For Peace comp, Misfits of Ska -- and a bunch of others introduced me to so many bands, so I felt like that was important right away to try to get a comp out of all the bands I really like."
Across Ska Against Racism and The Shape of Ska Punk to Come, there are urgent new songs by ska and ska-punk bands who have all been making a mark in recent years, including Kill Lincoln, We Are The Union, JER, Catbite, Omnigone, The Best of the Worst, Stuck Lucky, Still Alive, Joystick!, Bite Me Bambi, Matamoska, Half Past Two, No Such Noise, S.M.N, Free Kick, The Upfux, Hey-Smith, Buster Shuffle, and more. Also out this year on Bad Time: a split from Philly's Catbite and East Bay, CA's Omnigone, both of whom released excellent debut albums on Bad Time in 2019. Omnigone is ska-punk royalty, as leader Adam Davis and bassist Barry Krippene both cut their teeth in the classic '90s Asian Man-signed ska-punk band Link 80, but they feel like a fresh new band, and their horn section includes ska's brightest, youngest voice: Jeremy Hunter (JER, Skatune Network, We Are The Union), a fantastic musician who's single-handedly been doing a lot of the heavy lifting as far as introducing ska to new audiences goes (more on Jeremy in a minute). Catbite are more punk in spirit than in sound, mixing 2 tone and more traditional ska and rocksteady styles with surf music, soul, garage rock, and more, and even when they're pulling from decades-old sounds, they always make it feel new and fresh. Catbite and Omnigone sound drastically different, but they meet in the middle on their split by covering each other and reinventing the others' song entirely. (Catbite also contribute a cover of The Clash's "White Riot" and Omnigone offer a new version of Link 80's "Nothing New.")
More from Bad Time: the split LP from Chicago's Still Alive and Nashville's Stuck Lucky, two bands who make ska-core so ferocious even hardcore punk purists would have to admit it rips; Virtuous By Nature by Free Kick, a fast-paced ska punk band from Japan; Climbing Out by Grey Matter, a Michigan band who fuse ska with emo/post-hardcore and tackle socio-political issues in their extremely personable songs; Parched, the rippin' debut album by New Brunswick, NJ ska-punks Thirsty Guys (whose Jason Selvaggio is also in The Best of the Worst), and Frontline, a tough-as-nails EP from Pittsburgh's Dissidente, who pick up where the political ska-core of Leftover Crack left off.
One of the most key Bad Time releases though is Kill Lincoln's own new album, Can't Complain. It's the band's third album overall, first new music since 2015's Good Riddance to Good Advice EP, first full-length since 2013's That's Cool...in a totally negative and destructive way, and first album since Mike started Bad Time Records. You could almost call Kill Lincoln veterans at this point, but if Can't Complain is your introduction to them, you're probably not alone. It's a fast, thrilling, super catchy ska-punk album in the spirit of '90s bands like The Suicide Machines and Slapstick but it breathes totally new life into the genre. It's nostalgic yet fresh, and if you're looking for an entry point into the current ska scene that's approachable at first and rewarding over time, this is a perfect one.
"With Kill Lincoln I think, more than anything, they get it," says Mike Park. "They understand DIY, they understand the philosophy behind it. They understand the idea of community, and they're not like 'we wanna be better than this band' or 'we wanna be cooler than this band,' it's just like they wanna help other bands, they wanna be part of a community and help each other. They've never gone on a national tour with a bigger band bringing them, they've done everything themselves. It's very similar to what Skankin' Pickle went through." (Their contribution to Ska Against Racism was actually a cover of Skankin' Pickle's scarily relevant "David Duke Is Running For President," of which Mike Park said: "It's always flattering to hear someone cover your music, and hearing them just nail it, it sounded amazing.")
Similarly to Kill Lincoln -- and also now signed to Bad Time -- Detroit's We Are The Union were one of the key ska-punk bands of the late 2000s and early 2010s, and they went quiet for a few years, but they came back reinvigorated on 2018's Self Care, their first album with Jeremy Hunter in the band. Kill Lincoln and We Are The Union were both bands who reinvigorated Jeremy’s interest in ska, and the feelings have been mutual, as We Are The Union vocalist/guitarist Reed Wolcott credits Jeremy for revitalizing We Are The Union and writing most of the horn lines on Self Care. "We saw not only is Jeremy a sick trombone player, but they are also a great writer, and their melodies are great, and their sense of what a horn section should be doing is incredible," Reed told Florida publication Alligator in 2019. "There was a point where we all kind of realized that Jeremy might be better than all of us at our instruments in this band."
Jeremy caught We Are The Union's attention the same way they caught a lot of people's attention at first: through their Skatune Network project. It started as a YouTube channel of Jeremy recording ska covers of non-ska songs "with no intentions of it being anything," and all of a sudden those covers started to make waves and Jeremy "just rolled with it and it just popped off." They ended up teaming with DIY/emo label Counter Intuitive Records for a 2019 album where Jeremy covered bands on or adjacent to the label's roster like Oso Oso, Prince Daddy & the Hyena, Retirement Party, Kississippi, Nervous Dater, and more, and in 2020 Jeremy followed it with Ska Goes Emo, Vol. 1, where Jeremy offered up ska covers of American Football, My Chemical Romance, blink-182, Paramore, The Wonder Years, Joyce Manor, and more.
Not only is it impressive how naturally Jeremy can simultaneously navigate the worlds of ska and emo, but bridging that gap is doing a lot for the increased interest in ska. Emo went through a very similar underground resurgence a decade ago; a few mainstream bands had given the genre a bad name, and labels and promoters and press initially weren't interested in a new crop of bands that sounded like Cap'n Jazz and The Promise Ring, so the "emo revival" community built their own DIY scene. After years of hard work and fighting uphill battles, the larger "indie rock" world latched on to a lot of those emo bands, and at this point, if you're an indie rock band, you probably tour with and are influenced by emo bands, and vice versa. The emo and indie-punk scenes know exactly what it's like to be creating something new and awesome and not getting the reach you deserve, and right now, this current ska and ska-punk scene is one of the most exciting things happening in DIY punk rock period. If you follow emo and indie-punk but aren't sure if ska is really for you, Jeremy's covers remind you how much these styles of music have in common.
"Counter Intuitive and Bad Time remind me a lot of each other," Jeremy says, "especially that vein of like Prince Daddy & the Hyena, Mom Jeans, Just Friends -- that whole vein of bands popped off mainly because Counter Intuitive was offering a platform for that when like the twinkly emo was oversaturated. Like everyone wanted to do that, and then you get a band like Prince Daddy which was like the rougher vocals and more riffy than it was twinkly. And people weren't really looking for that, but [Counter Intuitive founder] Jake [Sulzer] saw the potential in bands like that, and Jake invested in them, and that's kind of what Bad Time is doing."
Jeremy's increasingly growing platform is attracting a lot of people who don't otherwise pay much attention to ska, and Jeremy's role in the ska resurgence is so crucial because it doesn't start and end with those cover songs by any means. In addition to playing a big role in the latest We Are The Union and Omnigone albums, Jeremy recently debuted their new project of original music, JER, having released the fiery "Breaking News! Local Punk Denies Existence of Systematic Racism" on Ska Against Racism, followed by their first official single "R/Edgelord" two weeks later. (Their debut album is due in 2021 via Bad Time.) They've also dedicated themselves to tirelessly using their platform to hype new bands, with a frequently-updated Twitter thread plugging newer ska bands, a Spotify playlist, and a YouTube video hyping ten bands Jeremy recommends following in 2020: Kill Lincoln, Catbite, L@s Skagaler@s, Mike Park's new version of The Bruce Lee Band (Jeff Rosenstock included), Omnigone, The Best of the Worst, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Grey Matter, Oreskaband, and We Are The Union. If you still think ska is dead, or all sounds the same, or is just bad, that video basically debunks all of that.
"Jer from Skatune Network has built this platform and hypes up ska bands like nobody else, and is really using the platform to draw attention to all these bands, which I think is a huge reason that people are starting to pay attention again," said Mike Sosinski. "Jer is really bringing people around to say like, 'hey, go listen [to ska], it has a lot in common with the music that you like,' like a lot of this emo revival stuff -- there's a lot of similarities lyrically, and in the message."
"When Jeremy from Skatune Network started doing their thing, I was like 'oh this is cool!'" added Mike Park. "Especially a person of color. Ska had gotten so white-washed, and it's exciting just to see any kind of diversity in this music, which is not from the United States [laughs]."
The white-washing of ska is no small part of why the genre got an increasingly bad rap in the '90s, and it's one of the reasons Mike Park put on the 1998 Ska Against Racism tour in the first place. "I felt like [ska] was becoming so manufactured as this fun wacky circus music and the original politics were gone from the 2 tone movement. The whole 2 tone idea is black and white equality. Did kids even know that? Like kids were going to shows and having fun, and bless their hearts, but I wanted to bring this back."
"I don't really know what kind of impact we made [at the time]," he continued. "In retrospect, I have been getting tons of messages over this last year saying that it was special to people. [...] With the current climate of social injustice and chaos happening, I just kept getting more messages like everyday from people saying how much [Ska Against Racism] meant to them, asking if I could do something again -- this was before the pandemic, like people asked if I could put a tour together. And just the thought of it -- I was dealing with some mental health stuff, so any thought of added stress I just wasn't gonna put on myself. And this year I was just really encouraged by Bad Time Records and Phil from Ska Punk Daily saying 'let's do something, let's put out a comp, we'll help you,' and I was like, 'okay!' And we had no idea the kind of impact it would make in such a short period of time."
"Mike [Park] wanted to bring [the politics] back for his generation," Mike Sosinski from Bad Time Records concurred, "and I feel like now we need to make that statement again. It's almost like a waypoint that people can look to in time and be like, alright, ska in this generation, this is where we're at, and it's no longer just anti-racism, it's anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, anti-sexism, it's just acceptance of everything but hate."
This clash of fierce DIY ethics and equally fierce politics, combined with so much of the new music being so genuinely good, is why this moment for ska is not just a resurgence or a comeback but arguably an even more exciting moment for the genre than when it dominated the mainstream in the late '90s. "It's going back to what it was before the third wave," Mike Park said.
When you look at this current scene, the idea that ska is just about goofy Hawaiian shirts, fedoras, and songs about beer isn't just an unfair stereotype, it's an entirely outdated one. Most of these musicians acknowledge that those stereotypes hurt the genre in the '90s and 2000s and they tend to have a sense of humor about it now, but at this point, that's not even something you see when you look at the current ska scene. What you do see is bands that know the unabashed, unselfconscious fun parts of ska can't be separated from the politics.
"Ska Against Racism is an obligation," said Cheech from The Best of the Worst. "It’s a commitment that on stage or in our personal lives, we're asking questions and making decisions that confront and undermine oppression, regardless of the social or professional currency lost. We need to utilize our privilege, whatever that privilege that may be - to call in and challenge those who do not agree with us or else we stand to lose not just our nightlife, but our communities as well." Their contribution to the comp, the politically fired-up ska-core rager "Illusion of Choice," is an incisive takedown of the country's flawed, outdated voting system, but it's also a song with a sense of hope. "I guess the take away is: Keep moving the goal post towards real progress, and do whatever you can to actualize it," adds Joe. "Don’t let the bastards grind you down."
"I was drawn to ska because it was fun to play [but] I was also proud to be a part of genre that’s roots were entrenched in social justice causes," said Tahlena Chikami, who fronts the very fun, power pop-tinged ska band Bite Me Bambi (and who's also been in some cool TV shows as an actress). "You will find the most open and accepting people at a ska show," she continued. "Every race, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability is accepted. [...] That’s the power of ska music. The people who are so willing to be accepting and giving. It’s truly one of the reasons I can’t ever see myself playing any other style of music." Half Past Two's Tara Hahn, who praised Ska Against Racism not just for taking an anti-racist stand but also for the gender diversity of the bands involved, agreed that the ska scene is a place of acceptance "[As a kid, the ska scene was] a place I could kind of figure out stuff about myself without people questioning it."
It's inspiring to see the ska community come together against injustice, but there's still unfortunately work to be done within the ska scene when it comes to these issues. "You'd be surprised that there's pushback for something like 'ska against racism' but there's a lot of people who are pushing back, saying things like, 'why are you bringing politics into the genre?" or saying things like "the real racists are the Black Lives Matter," said Jeremy Hunter. "And it's kind of unnerving how ignorant a lot of people can be, not necessarily ignorant because they're saying ignorant things, but ignorant as in they're listening to a genre of music that's like rooted in anti-racism. And even though [anti-racism was in the forefront] of 2 tone, there were still a lot of bands in the third wave that were making -- and still are making -- anti-racist music, and it's surprising to me that people don't realize it. Like The Suicide Machines have a song off their last record called 'Bully In Blue,' and it's about cops and police brutality. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' hit record Let's Face It has a line that says basically like if you're a bigot, if you're racist, if you're sexist, we're not gonna stand for your shit. So it's like, even the ska-punk they love is saying 'hey if you're racist we're not gonna stand for it.' That message has always been embedded in ska."
"So to see the ska scene come together and not care about all those people in ska and just say like, 'hey, we're not standing for this,' and kind of putting that message back in the forefront, it's kind of taking ska out of what people think of it, and it shows that these bands aren't ignorant to what's going on, and that they're going to take a stance and say 'this is a thing that we need to agree on, that racism sucks, that we shouldn't stand for being bigots,'" Jeremy continued. "So it felt dope that so many bands were able to come together and contribute to such great causes."
Mike Park adds, "There's no shame in the bands that aren't political too, there are no rules. But just remember the history, where it came from."
Between the Bad Time roster, the bands on Ska Against Racism, and The Shape of Ska-Punk to Come, you can really start to see how vast the current ska and ska-punk community is and how many good bands there are. And if you ask the musicians in this scene who their favorite bands are, you see a similar sense of community and support. When asked who outside of the Bad Time roster he digs, Mike Sosinski replied with New Orleans' Joystick!, Vegas' Be Like Max, and Denton, Texas' The Holophonics, all fast-paced ska-punk bands that scratch a similar itch to Kill Lincoln. As for Mike Park? "Catbite is the one. That's my favorite new band."
Mike Park also praised Buffalo's The Abruptors, whose 2019 album Love & Other Disasters was the first Asian Man-released album by a new ska band in a while. "The reason I worked with The Abruptors is because the singer, the main guy [Mike Geraci], he just gets it, he's been doing it for so long, like believing the idea of community over individual success. Like 'oh yeah, you need a show in Buffalo? I'll hook something up.' And that's what I like. I like bands who are like 'how can we help other bands?'"
Half Past Two singer Tara Hahn shouted out every band on Ska Against Racism and added Hooray for Our Side, The Re-Adjusters, Millington, The Meddlers, Gabriela Penka, South Central Skankers, Holophonics, and The Anchorage as other favorites. Bite Me Bambi singer Tahlena Chikami echoed Jeremy's praise of Tokyo's Oreskeband and also shouted out The Upstarters from DC and Panteon Rococo from Mexico. The Best of the Worst's Joe Scala (who's also in math rock band Invalids) shouted out Stuck Lucky ("one of our favorite bands and criminally underrated"), Hub City Stompers ("OGs of the NJ scene who consistently crush it"), PWRUP, and added, "Besides that, everything on the Bad Time Records roster is fair game for new and exciting stuff."
Catbite's members agree. Guitarist Tim Hildebrand shouted out Kill Lincoln, We Are The Union, JER, Grey Matter, Thirsty Guys, The Pomps, Bite Me Bambi, Matamoska, Half Past Two, Los Skagaleros, Omnigone, Hey Smith, SMN. Drummer Chris Pires added, "All of the above mentioned for sure. Mike 'Ska-Dad' Sosinski and all of our Bad Time Records family are the goddam bee’s knees. In addition to Tim’s list: The Loving Paupers out of DC, The Bandulus from Portland, and the one and only Skatune Network who is here, there, and everywhere… and also all over the internet." Singer Brit Luna put it a little more simply: "LITERALLY ANYONE ON BAD TIME RECORDS !!!!"
Ska and ska-punk is also not only thriving in the US, but internationally. There's a great UK scene, as Lucias from Kent, UK band Call Me Malcolm -- who released the very good Me, Myself and Something Else this year -- spoke to us about. "What [ska's lull in the early 2010s] did was create a real sense of community. We know that if one of us were to fall, there would be 10 bands around to pick us back up. And that’s only gotten stronger over the years, as more bands have been welcomed to the scene," he says. "The UK ska scene is a family."
Lucias also shouts out fellow UK bands Random Hand ("raw, honest and aggressive"), Popes of Chillitown ("a mind bending genre blend of ska, punk and dub"), Just Say Nay ("Balkan infused prog ska, the closest we have to Streetlight Manifesto"), and Millie Manders & The Shut Up ("the best vocals on the scene"). For even more UK, there's The Bar Stool Preachers, Buster Shuffle (who are on Ska Against Racism), Faintest Idea, Jake and the Jellyfish, Bolshy, Codename Colin, Last Edition, plus The Hostiles from Scotland and of course many others.
In Japan, there's gnarly ska-punk bands like Free Kick, S.M.N., and Hey-Smith (whose Asian Man-released Life In The Sun is one of 2020's most whiplash-inducing ska records), and the irresistibly fun J-Pop tinged Oreskaband. From Brazil, Abraskadabra and Dope Times. From Australia, Alla Spina. And technically from Texas but right on the border of Mexico is L@s Skagaler@s, leaders of a scene that has no choice but to be political with a xenophobe like Trump in office. Their five-song self-titled EP, which is so far their only release, gives a middle finger to all types of injustice and it finds the band successfully navigating between dark, heavy, Voodoo Glow Skulls-esque ska-core and more laid back traditional styles. L@s Skagaler@s also founded Skank For Choice, an annual benefit concert for reproductive rights in the McAllen, Texas region, which this year was replaced by a quarantine compilation that JER, The Best of the Worst, Omnigone, and others contributed to.
If it seems unusual that a genre built on community, safer spaces, and super fun live shows would only continue making a comeback during a pandemic, well, it is unusual, but the ska community really seems to be taking it in stride, and in some cases, making the best of it. L@s Skagaler@s' quarantine compilation is one of many releases that came as a result of lockdown, along with The Best of the Worst's Quarantine Life Crisis, We Are The Union's "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad" cover, The Bar Stool Preachers' Soundtrack To Your Apocalypse, and more. Plenty of cool livestreams have gone down within the virtual ska community, Skatune Network was a YouTube channel in the first place, and if you like Skatune Network's ska cover videos, the ones Bite Me Bambi and Half Past Two have been doing will be right up your alley too. (And actually, members of Skatune Network, Bite Me Bambi, Half Past Two, Catbite, and Mustard Plug all did one covering Dance Hall Crashers together.)
"Bite Me Bambi keeps joking that we’re not a band anymore, we’re a Youtube channel," Tahlena said. "I can’t sit around being sad about something I can’t control. So instead we’ve decided to try to find more ways to connect with our fans. Right now, in the ska community, there have been so many awesome collaborations of ska musicians all over the world. People have been recording videos, covers, new music. It’s really exciting to see. One of the benefits of being a subculture, is we’re used to doing our own thing and paving new paths forward. We’re just finding out how to connect in this new world."
As with Skatune Network, it just might be Bite Me Bambi's covers that are introducing this band to the world. Their original singles (like this year's "Hot Lava") are very fun power pop/ska songs and you should not miss out on those (and stay tuned for their debut EP), but if you're only ska-curious, this extremely fun cover of Blur's "Song 2" should rope you right in:
Tim from Catbite echoed Tahlena's sentiment: "In the past few months of COVID quarantine I’ve seen this amazing community of ska musicians networking and collabing like never before. It seems like every day I see these amazing videos of cross country collabs popping up, and even though no one knows what’s going to happen to the live music scene, these bands and musicians continue to write and produce amazing content on the regular. I think this is when this new generation of ska artists are really going to shine." Tara from Half Past Two said something similar: "No one is playing for crowds or traveling around, but a lot of us are still doing what we can, like writing and recording, putting together sets for live streamed shows, collaborating with one another, championing causes, putting out insane compilations, haha. Look, everything stopped and some of us have not rested, we reassessed and kept going! There’s momentum and a lot of purpose right now, that’s going to become something really transformative and beautiful."
"I've never been more excited about ska and our scene," added Mike from Bad Time/Kill Lincoln. "I feel like we're finally coming together and supporting each other in a really unified way. I feel like when shows do return, there's gonna be this renewed energy behind ska. A lot of people are gonna experience a ska show for the first time, and they'll have their mind blown. A good ska show is unlike any show you can go to. The crowd involvement, the energy, the positivity."
Mike Park agrees. When we asked him what he'd say to new ska fans: "I would tell them: get ready for fun! When I was in high school, going to ska shows in the '80s, there was no feeling like it, it was euphoric. It was just so much fun, dancing all night, and having a good time."
This energy doesn't seem like it's gonna stop anytime soon. JER's debut album and The Best of the Worst's second ever full-length (their last was in 2013) are both due in 2021, and Mike Sosinski says he already has his hands full with Bad Time for that whole year. "I never thought I'd have this much good, exciting, progressive music coming at me at once."
"As for the younger bands, they're definitely [invigorated]," Mike Sosinski says, but he says he sees some of the older bands getting reinvigorated too. And if the early 2010s emo revival is anything to go by, the reunions and comebacks of older bands can be just as important as the great newer bands. Not only did The Suicide Machines and The Chinkees make long-awaited, genuinely good reunion albums this year before both appearing on Ska Against Racism, but that compilation was also home to music by Mustard Plug (with guest vocals by Tonia Broucek of newer, Red Scare-signed feminist pop punk band The Lippies), Big D and the Kids Table, MU330, Hepcat, Left Alone and Five Iron Frenzy (who just successfully funded their first album since 2013 on Kickstarter), all of whom either hadn't released music in a while or recently started to re-activate. "I think they're excited again to be making new music too," Mike says. "I think now that everyone is seeing what [the DIY ska community] can do, [the older generation and the newer generation] are more inclined to work together, and we can sort of bridge that generation gap."
The excitement for the older bands making comebacks is palpable too. The Chinkees' reunion album "sold out quite fast," Mike Park said. "I still don't know why, because it sold faster than The Bruce Lee Band and I think The Bruce Lee Band was a way better record! [laughs]"
Jeremy from Skatune Network would not only agree that the new version of The Bruce Lee Band is an essential part of this moment in ska, but that Mike's current lineup -- with Jeff Rosenstock, Jeff bandmates John DeDomenici & Kevin Higuchi, Dan Potthast (MU330), and Gerry Lundquist (Skankin' Pickle, MU330) -- is The Bruce Lee Band's best lineup yet. (In the '90s and early 2000s, it included members of Less Than Jake and RX Bandits.) And even Mike Park himself sounds reinvigorated. "I think Jeff Rosenstock and I were just listening to like Operation Ivy and Suicide Machines and we were just like, 'oh man, let's put out a ska-punk record.' That's when we did The Bruce Lee Band's Everything Will Be Alright, My Friend [in 2014], and then I was back in it."
"I was gonna do a [Bruce Lee Band] tour a few years back with session players [because Jeff was on tour]," Mike continued, "and Jeff said, 'No, no, let's keep it as a real band.' So I said 'okay!' But yeah, so I think he views The Bruce Lee Band as his outlet to do ska now."
Because Jeff’s indie-punk solo career continues to take off and he has a bigger platform than ever, it’s important that he not only has a ska past (with Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!), but that he also has an outlet to stay currently involved with the genre. "If there's anyone right now who's doing the most for ska, it's Jeff Rosenstock," said Jeremy, who contributed horns to a couple ska-leaning songs on Jeff's home-recorded quarantine project. "He works on a Cartoon Network show making ska music exclusively for that show, and a lot of people did get into ska music through TV shows -- myself included -- and Jeff's also someone who's reaching people outside of ska who doesn't talk badly about ska. And he's probably the only person that actually will say how much he loves ska, and will still make ska music -- like he doesn't make every song a ska song -- but he's not embarrassed of his ska past. Like Code Orange would never admit that they used to be a ska band, but Jeff Rosenstock would. Most people don't know Code Orange was a ska band because they're in that group of people who think that they're too cool to admit that they used to play in a ska band, because coolness matters I guess. But Jeff's one of those people who's not afraid to admit that, and he has such clout over people and I think it's because Jeff's music always comes from a really honest place. And when you come from an honest place with your music, you resonate the most with people."
"If you want ska to be relevant again," Jeremy continues, "[bands can't] try to knock off the kind of corny bro humor of '90s ska. When you have an artist like Jeff Rosenstock, Jeff's making music about like depression, about questioning your life, like real issues that millennials and Gen Z feel. So Jeff's music is resonating with the youth, and the youth in my opinion always dictate what music is popular or not."
"I feel like I have a good radar for bullshit," said Mike Park, "and Jeff Rosenstock, he's just the real deal. My god, the dude does so much, he's so compassionate towards progressive ideas and politics. When he saw the Ska Against Racism comp, he texted me, like, 'Why didn't you ask me to be on this comp?!' I'm like 'I didn't even think about it' [laughs]. I didn't wanna bother him."
Ska and ska-punk in 2020 really seem like they've got it all: great reunions, a great new DIY scene, unflinching politics, Jeff Rosenstock. According to Mike Park, it's only really missing one thing to get a new generation involved. "It's just gonna take a new band -- a younger new band, like let's say late teens or early 20s -- to really influence young kids [to get into ska]. It's hard for teenagers to go to a Slackers show -- they might have fun, it might be awesome, 'cause they're a great band -- but how do you relate to a bunch of old guys on stage vs if you're a kid and you see a ska-punk band and they're the same age as you. It'll happen, there's gonna be a young band who will come up that's playing ska or ska-punk and they're just gonna be amazing and influence the next generation of kids. I think that's the only thing missing: a great band that's young."
Jeremy said something similar. "So many newer ska bands have made the mistake of trying to appeal to these 30 or 40 year old fans when they should've been appealing to the upcoming generations. And I think the lack of attention to the upcoming generations is why you saw this 5-10 year gap in the late 2000s and early 2010s when not many new bands had formed. Even now, like I'm 25 and I'm the youngest person in ska. The next band I can think about that has kind of reached beyond the local point that's young is Catbite, and they're all like 29. DIY bands are all like 12, you know?"
So what exactly do you call all of this? A fourth wave? A continuation of the third wave? None of the above? "I'm definitely an advocate for none of the above," said Jeremy. "What's the point of focusing on a title like a wave when you can just support bands to support bands if you like them? I think the wave explanation is kind of the thing that has been hurting ska the most, because there's so many people out there -- I see Twitter posts everyday where people are like 'I'm just waiting for the fourth wave of ska,' and it's like, why are you waiting?"
"For every person that tweets 'I want more ska back' - if they just all listened to it, we'd be golden."
Fortunately, there's a lot of great stuff to listen to. We put together a playlist of 60 bands (and counting!) that are all relatively new and all doing great stuff within ska and ska-punk right now. We tried to pick songs from the past year or so when we could, but in a few cases it stretches back to 2016 or 2017 or so. Subscribe at Spotify or listen here:
If you want to dive deeper into specific bands beyond this playlist, and/or if you want a recap of some of the recommendations from within the article, here's a quick list of 15 recently released albums worth checking out:
Kill Lincoln - Can't Complain (2020, Bad Time Records)
Absurdly catchy ska-punk that nails the perfect balance between good hooks, bright horns, and punk fury. Recommended if you like The Suicide Machines, Slapstick, and Less Than Jake and sounds as fresh today as those bands did two and a half decades ago.
We Are The Union - Self Care (2018, WATU Records)
In a similar ballpark to Kill Lincoln but with a punk/pop punk side that has more in common with modern-day, emo-tinged stuff like The Wonder Years or Jeff Rosenstock's solo career. The long-running Detroit band's first album with Jeremy Hunter's rich horn arrangements. Stacey Dee from Bad Cop/Bad Cop guests on "The Long Way."
Catbite - Catbite (2019, Bad Time Records)
More punk in spirit than in sound, Philly's Catbite blend 2 tone and more traditional ska and rocksteady styles with garage rock, soul, surf music, and more. So much attitude and style, so many great melodies.
Omnigone - No Faith (2019, Bad Time Records)
Omnigone is ska-punk royalty, as leader Adam Davis and bassist Barry Krippene both cut their teeth in the classic '90s Asian Man-signed ska-punk band Link 80, but Omnigone feels like a fresh new band and the involvement of Jeremy Hunter and other members of We Are The Union, Obikubo Station, RX Bandits and more makes for a multi-generational cast who seriously gel together.
Stuck Lucky / Still Alive - Facing Reality (2020, Bad Time Records)
Nashville's Stuck Lucky and Chicago's Still Alive are two of the gnarliest ska-core bands around, and this split proves it. Some of this stuff is as heavy as anything happening in metalcore right now.
The Best of the Worst - Painted Fools (2017, self-released)
NJ's The Best of the Worst blend ska and post-hardcore/metalcore in a way that reminds you Catch 22 and Snapcase were once labelmates.
Thirsty Guys - Parched (2019, Bad Time Records)
A newer band with Jason Selvaggio of The Best of the Worst. More "punk" and less "core" than TBOTW but just as flat-out fun.
Joystick! - Sinceriously (2017, Stomp Records)
Fast, catchy, and badass ska-punk from New Orleans with the intensity of East Coast melodic hardcore.
L@s Skagaler@s - L@s Skagaler@s (2016, self-released)
L@s Skagaler@s are leaders of the McAllen, Texas scene (right on the Mexico border) and this fiercely political EP navigates between dark, heavy, Voodoo Glow Skulls-esque ska-core and more laid back traditional styles without ever losing steam. We seriously need more songs from this band.
Dissidente - Frontline EP (2017, self-released, later re-released on Bad Time)
Political ska-core that picks up where Leftover Crack left off.
Be Like Max - Save Us All (2019, self-released)
Fast, urgent ska-punk for these chaotic times. As fun as it is purposeful, as tuneful as it is technical. Plus, I'll take any album that blurts out "Fuck Donald Trump" in the first 60 seconds.
The Holophonics / Younger Than Neil - Sunk Cost (2020, self-released)
Quick and dirty split from Denton, TX's Holophonics and Denver's Younger Than Neil. Fans of fast, catchy ska-punk, don't sleep.
Hey-Smith - Life In The Sun (2020, Asian Man Records)
Whiplash-inducing ska-punk from Japan and one of Asian Man Records' best current bands.
Half Past Two - Camp Slushtone (2017, Slushtone Records)
If indie-pop-punk bands like Swearin' and Joyce Manor made ska-punk, it might sound something like this.
Faintest Idea - Increasing The Minimum Rage (2016, self-released)
Ska with a heavy dose of political UK street punk, as tough and purposeful as you'd hope. Also check out their ass-kicking new single "Stomp Them Down" and stay tuned for more new Faintest Idea.
And though vinyl copies are sold out, you can still purchase Ska Against Racism digitally for $1 or more at Bandcamp, with all proceeds going to anti-racist charities.