Thou, Joyce Manor & more talk ska on ‘In Defense of Ska’ podcast
Music journalist and ska/punk musician Aaron Carnes (who's been in Flat Planet and Gnarboots and contributed to Omnigone's debut album) is gearing up to release his new book In Defense of Ska, which features "interviews, essays, personal stories, historical snapshots, obscure anecdotes, and think pieces" about the rich history of ska. (We recently debuted the chapter about Jeff Rosenstock's former ska band Arrogant Sons of Bitches, featuring interviews with Jeff and other band members.)
To help hype up the book, Aaron and his longtime collaborator Adam Davis (Omnigone, Gnarboots, Link 80) have been hosting the In Defense of Ska podcast. They've interviewed a handful of notable ska musicians, including Steve Choi (RX Bandits, Chinkees), Brian Diaz (Edna's Goldfish), Brent Lawrence Friedman (We Are The Union), Slow Gherkin, and more, but they aren't only talking to people who are primarily known for ska. They recently interviewed Joyce Manor frontman Barry Johnson (who was also interviewed for the book), and they've just released a new episode with two members of Louisiana sludge metal band Thou: lead vocalist Bryan Funck and bassist Mitch Wells.
Joyce Manor have only shared bills with ska bands a couple times, but Barry talks on the podcast about how learning about the relationship between basslines and guitar parts in ska taught him to be a better songwriter. He also talks about formative experiences at ska shows earlier in his life (seeing bands like MU330, Big D and the Kids Table, Slow Gherkin), and how he currently has a creative relationship with Rory Phillips of defunct Austin ska-punks The Impossibles, who has contributed songwriting ideas to some of Joyce Manor's albums.
"I interviewed Barry Johnson for my book In Defense of Ska in the chapter, 'Checkered Past,'" Aaron said. "People make a big deal about any kind of celebrity that once played in a ska band or used to be a big fan of the music, so I thought I’d talk to a few musicians with ska roots, and see what this experience has been like for them."
"My book includes an interview with indie-electronic musician Dan Deacon, who was outted for his ska past via his old 15-piece Long Island ska band Channel 59 by Stereogum back in 2009. At the time, Deacon felt venom in the article. He told me it felt like a take-down piece. He was nervous that it would negatively impact his then rising career, as he was now being accepted by Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. But over time, he realized that no matter what anyone else thinks, playing in a ska band is cool. So he’s come to fully embrace his ska past. Barry Johnson who is famous for his indie-punk band Joyce Manner, was a hardcore ska fan in his younger years. His first band that played shows, Kid Gruesome, was an Op Ivy style ska-punk band. He has a deep love for obscure, eclectic ’90s ska bands. We discussed in detail how his life was impacted by growing up on ska. He says it was all for the better. We expanded on this conversation in an episode of the In Defense of Ska podcast."
"Talking to Aaron about my ska past didn’t feel much different than a lot of conversations I have," Barry said. "I find myself thinking about and talking about ska quite often."
Bryan Funck of Thou, who released their Inconsolable EP on Community Records (the label run by Greg Rodrigue and D-Ray of ska bands Bad Operation and Fatter Than Albert), says, "We try not to take ourselves too seriously, so I can see how there would be some overlap with the atmosphere I remember from ska shows. Third wave ska punk was a big part of what got me into DIY punk stuff, and I listen to all kinds of music, including shamelessly enjoying very modern country ‘rock.’"
Bryan also made a two-hour ska-punk mix with music by Less Than Jake, Slapstick, Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, Fishbone, Against All Authority, Voodoo Glow SKulls, The Hippos, MU330, Skankin' Pickle, The Slackers, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Suicide Machines, Operation Ivy, Rancid, Common Rider, Sublime, No Doubt, Mustard Plug, Choking Victim, and much more. He also wrote an extremely interesting track-by-track breakdown of the mix. Listen to the whole thing HERE and read the track-by-track HERE.
Thou bassist Mitch Wells, who directed the videos for Bad Operation's debut album last year, adds, "The scene is pretty small, as far as I know, and you get close with the people inside of it fast. And mostly I think that you just want to play with your buds, and sometimes your buds are in a ska band, and sometimes they're in a doom band. I think the impact it's had on Thou is giving us some relief from only playing with heavier bands. We're sick of heavy music!!"
Greg Rodrigue of Bad Operation/Fatter Than Albert/Community Records also weighed in about Thou:
Thou and Bryan have been a positive force in the DIY & all ages scene in New Orleans for a good while now, going on 15 to 20 years it seems. Some of my favorite shows have been seeing Thou play to packed rooms in the smallest of venues, including Hey! Cafe a venue co-run by Community Records. Thou's sound reminds me of a slow-moving dark melody steam roller that could crush the crowd in any size room. Songs that feel circular and angular at the same time.
Thou has, on occasion, played a show with our former ska band Fatter Than Albert circa 2006 / 2008 or so. They played our first Block Party in 2008 at The Big Top, which was pretty much an all ska-punk bill. While we have existed in the same city but parallel sonic universes, we have enjoyed stages together and shared responsibilities with booking and promoting all ages shows for DIY touring bands. The work that Bryan does with the record store ‘Sisters In Christ’ also keeps us inspired. Getting to release Inconsolable for Thou via Community Records, and have one of their albums be part of our catalog has been a bright spot on our label's 13 year history.
We also spoke to Aaron Carnes and Adam Davis about how and why they started the podcast. Aaron says:
Earlier this year, I was trying to think of creative and engaging ways to promote my book, In Defense of Ska, which releases on May 4, 2021. A podcast seemed like a good place to start. I asked Adam Davis, one of my oldest friends, to join me. He played in my 90s ska band Flat Planet briefly, and then went on to play much bigger show than I ever did after he joined Link 80 in 1998. We’ve stayed close over the years. Since 2009, we’ve been playing in an electronic group called Gnarboots. And when he started his recent ska-punk project, Omnigone, I, of course, played drums on a few tracks. So him and I are very familiar with each other. Within a few episodes, it was clear that the In Defense of Ska podcast was something cool, even beyond promotion for my book. Adam and I have good chemistry, so we are able to create a relaxing atmosphere for our guests. It has a nice end of the day, chill out with your friends vibe. We’ve had on people in the ska scene, and people outside of the ska scene that have some connection to ska. One of the reason we’ve been bringing on people outside of the ska scene, is to show that ska isn’t confined to a niche scene. A lot more people than you realize are into ska or were into ska at some point. It’s a real, legit genre, and it’s time it’s treated as such. We’re attempting the impossible: Trying to get a wider music audience to listen to a ska podcast. So far, it’s working out pretty well.
I’ve known Aaron since high school. As a teenager I was heavily into industrial, punk & metal, so I have Aaron to thank for getting me into ska. His band Flat Planet was the first band I knew who toured, they were the first band I ever drew a shirt design for, & the first band I went to a real recording studio with. If it wasn’t for Flat Planet, I never would have joined Link 80.
‘In Defense of Ska’ has allowed us to draw the through line from ska into the broader world of music. It’s exciting hearing about musicians from across different genres initially getting into playing music through bands like Operation Ivy, Skankin’ Pickle & Mustard Plug. Ska is much more than its 3rd wave ’90s boom incarnation & we hope we can help take those blinders off our listeners. It’s been very fulfilling personally to have these conversations. Getting to speak at length with the original Link 80 guitarist Matt Bettinelli-Olpin about the years I was not a part of the band answered so many questions I had as a nineteen-year-old. Learning from Brian Diaz that Patrick Stump loves songs by Animal Chin so much, that he sings them during soundcheck, feels like a piece of a puzzle sliding into place. Knowing that the members of a grim, heavy band like Thou have the same stupid jokes that my own band would enjoy makes me feel like we are all connected.
Listen to all of the IDOS episodes at Aaron's Substack or wherever you stream podcasts. Here are some excerpts of the Joyce Manor episode:
About how ska made him a better songwriter:
“It was this cool dynamics that I learned. When you write a punk chorus, and then bring it down for the verse and you do this kind of thing where the bassline moves, and it's more static for the chorus, it’s more impactful. I feel like a lot of people just never really learned that when they played in a regular rock band or a metal band. The bass is just kind of following the guitar. It puts some more low end in there, but it doesn't really contribute anything, melodically, like a counter rhythm or counter melody underpinning it. [In ska] you kind of learn how to weave around a vocal melody. You learn when you’re stepping on a vocal melody. It's super crucial. I think they should teach it at schools.” -Barry
His first ska show he attended was in 1999 with Big D and the Kids Table, MU330, Slow Gherkin and Lawrence Arms:
“Those bands were always great, but I feel like those bands were in their prime. That show was so fun. I skanked the whole time. I discovered that I should buy Chuck Taylors because everyone there was wearing Chuck Taylors. I was like, ok, I got to get some of these shoes. I started wearing those, and I started feeling like I was in this group now. I started going to all these ska shows. It was an awesome part of my life. From 14 to 16, I went to a ton of shows.” -Barry
In Joyce Manor’s early career, John Feldmann of Goldfinger wanted to work with them, as part of Red Bull Records:
“If we would have went with John Feldmann, we could have had our second album come out on Red Bull Records, which I think would have been career suicide. But part of me was morbidly curious. No one would have seen that coming if we would have gone from that first record, to the most slick [album]. I’ve always been curious what our fucking songs would sound like. We have a couple pretty catchy parts. But what if you really just wrung them out. But I hate how all that shit sounds, so I would never actually do it. I would love to do it and then not put it out. To have it to pull out at parties. Do you guys want to hear some fucking weird shit? Check this out.” -Barry
A mysterious kid in the eight-grade showed Barry the world of ska beyond what was on the radio:
“He was walking around in the eighth grade, wearing all black. And I was like, this dude’s into Sisters of Mercy or some shit. He’s going to let me know about some real shit. Because I was into the Misfits and AFI. But I knew there was some like real shit, you know? You see older kids at the mall, and you can tell that they’re into some real shit. You don’t know what it is, but you’re really curious. And you don’t know how you’re going to find out. But here’s a kid. He’s my age. He seems to know about real shit. Because he seemed like a weirdo, and he was a fucking weirdo. But I love him. [It turned out] he was dressed in all black because of Star Wars. He’s like, ‘I’m not into goth. I dress like Luke Skywalker.’ He’s like, ‘I like ska.’ I’m like, ‘ska? Do you mean like Goldfinger and shit?’ He’s like, ‘no bro. Let’s Go Bowling.’ He’s into Skavoovie and the Epitones. And I was like, ‘Damn, ok.’ I remember walking home with him, and he started singing ‘The Cat with 2 Heads.’ And I was like, ‘This is the best song ever. I love this Cat With 2 Heads and he’s just crushing it.’ I get home and download ‘Cat With 2 Heads’ right away, and it’s just like identical. He did it such justice. Unbelievable. So that’s when I went all in on ska.” -Barry
What was his ska outfit at this time?:
“Black Dickey shorts, Chuck Taylors with checkers on the side. I had some metal spikes I put between the laces and the rubber toe, and some black socks pulled up. And I had a white button up shirt with a tie. Sometimes I’d wear a plaid tie or just a black tie. I had pins on the tie. And pretty brutal acne below my mouth. And like gel in my hair. Not really spiked hair, but forward and flipped up in the front, kind of a Malcom in the Middle ass haircut. That was the look. I looked insane, but it was fun.” -Barry
He loves The Impossibles, and has collaborated with Rory Phillips on some Joyce Manor music:
“When I found The Impossibles, I was like, ‘This is like if I could custom design a band, a band I dreamed of. It’s like ska, but then it’s like Weezer.’ I love The Impossibles still. I think Rory is a really really talented songwriter.” -Barry
Some excerpts from the Thou episode:
Aaron: After watching one of the Bad Operation videos, I noticed that Thou bassist Mitch Wells was listed as the director, which piqued my curiosity. I later learned that he directed two of them, and edited all four. The idea of Thou, a group on the opposite end of the musical spectrum as ska, somehow involved with a ska band, seemed strange to me. I reached out to Bad Operation bassist Greg Rodrigue to see if Mitch might be interested in chatting about what it was like to shoot the music videos on the “In Defense of Ska” podcast. Greg then informed me that Thou’s singer Bryan Funck was really into ska-punk in the ’90s, but then soured on it later. I asked if both wanted to interview with us. It turned out, they were really interested. Then to our surprise, before the interview, Bryan emailed us a two hour ska-punk mixtape that included linear notes! We were blown away at how obscure some of the ska-punk bands were that he was into during the ’90s. He wasn’t just into bands on the radio; he was deep in the ska scene for a while.
Bryan’s interest in ska in the 90s:
“I was into ska when I was 15 or 16, so it would have been 95 or 96. I lost interest in 1999 or 2000. Somewhere around there. I started to get into punk in general. I asked a couple friends to make me mixtapes. So these guys ended up putting stuff on tapes for me at different times that sort of led me into it. And the friend group I had just before I started to hang out with those guys, they went to see Rancid play, and Suicide Machines opened up for Rancid. So my buddy got that Skank For Brains CD at that show. A bunch of those songs made it on the mixtape I had, and an MU330 song that he recorded off of a college radio show. That was on the tape. Probably some NOFX. For me, in the 90s, when you were getting into those bands, any kind of punk bands like that, it was a mix between heavily investigating the “Thanks” list, and trying to track down every band they thanked, and then going through mail order catalogs, and basically looking at all the descriptions of bands, and just ordering things on a whim. I used to get a lot of compilations back in the day to find bands. Compilations were such a big deal.” -Bryan
Local New Orleans ska band The Supaflies made a huge impact on Bryan, especially in how you act as a guy in a band:
“They were such nice, cool, down to earth guys. I was around and going to their shows in their heyday. They seemed like such a real band. And then you just sort of talk to them, and they’re super nice, and willing to talk to you and do whatever. It was one of those eye-opening experiences where it’s like, oh, you could just ask these guys to play this rinky dink punk show, and they’ll do it and be cool with it. And they don’t care about getting money. They want all the money to go to the touring band. They’re hanging out, having a good time, and just being super cool with everybody. I just thought that was awesome. It sort of set the tone in a lot of ways for how I wanted to be in bands, as a promoter, or in general as a dude hanging around the punk scene.” -Bryan
Mitch discusses shooting the Bagel Rooks video for Bad Operation:
“I pitched that one shot thing, but only after we got to that location. They have like a huge space, rooms and rooms of warehouses behind this record press place. And D-Ray was like, we can shoot a couple shots here, and there, and we spent a couple hours doing that. I was like, ‘Why don’t we try this? There’s all these rooms, and if you spread out, we can try to do this one shot thing.’ And D-Ray was into it. He’s like, ‘Cool. One shot music video, that’s like a big deal. That’s a cool thing, if you can pull it off. Directors, it’s always an accomplishment if you can do the one shot thing and make it look good.’” -Mitch
Mitch talks about the scene where D-Ray walks past the camera playing his trombone, after having just been in a diff room, playing the keyboards, and the overall complexity of shooting the video.
“He had to run his keyboard to where they all end up and then run back in time and not be on camera. Because there was nobody there helping. There was one person there who held the speaker for Dominic to sing along to, and they walked behind me as we were shooting. And so each member just moved all their own shit and then ran back as fast as they could, well D-Ray ran back as fast as he could to make it. And we did a couple test runs. Just barely made it each time. I think we rehearsed it like three times and then shot it four times. Looking back, I'm kind of bummed about the end. I think we use the third take. And the fourth one, something went wrong in the middle. But the ending was really good. But I couldn't pull it because it's one take so I couldn't edit it together. But I'm just like kicking myself that it didn't work out. The one that we used, I think the camera just quickly pans up to get out of the shot. And the last one that we didn't use, the camera is like watching them play. And then I back up through the doorway the same way that Dominic enters, so it's sort of like a loop, like starting over again or something.” -Mitch
There are still more In Defense of Ska episodes to come, including ones with Duck (Joystick!), Jeremy Hunter (Skatune Network, JER, We Are The Union), Slapstick's Brendan Kelly (also Lawrence Arms) & Rob Kellenberger, and more, and there's one with Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump. According to Aaron, Patrick "describes his first ska show (Reel Big Fish), details his favorite tracks off the Misfits of Ska II comp, and talks about the huge influence Minneapolis ska band Animal Chin had on him as a songwriter and a singer." Stay tuned to Aaron's Substack for updates.
Pre-order the In Defense of Ska book from Amazon.
Listen to Bryan Funck's 2-hour ska-punk mix and read his track-by-track breakdown here.