By Mike Sembos
3:20 PM EDT, September 24, 2013
When the Pietasters emerged from the D.C. ska scene in the early '90s, they already had a nice little niche carved out for themselves. They played some traditional ska and rocksteady, and they had your typical love songs and whatnot, but they also had lots of songs about... drinking hard. Their shows were high-energy, sloppy, bacchanalian, let's-drink-the-bar-dry fests, and college students loved them, though the band would occasionally reel it in with a laid-back traditional groove that also made them hip with the ska nerds. It's a tricky balance to appeal to both the underground punk/ska kids and frat boys simultaneously, but they walked that line expertly. Listen to the album The Pietasters are Strapped Live! to hear them at their peak of energy and vitality during this period.
The band has since undergone many transitions over the years, swapping out some members and adopting more of a hard-edged, Motown-influenced sound in addition to the traditional stuff, and pushing ahead through countless trends and pop culture taste mutations. They're currently working on a new album — their first since 2007's All Day — but at a more relaxed, mature, manageable pace than in the old days.
"It's just tough, the older you get the more responsibilities you get, and the less time it seems that you have," says singer Stephen Jackson. "We've got a ton of songs, we just kind of need to edit and record. Getting nine guys together in one place is difficult. If I had a time machine I would've been in a power pop band."
When the third wave of ska crested and broke into the mainstream in the late '90s, it got kind of weird in the clubs for the genuine ska aficionados. The high point for the genre was immediately followed by a deep low since the entire scene had been overrun by kids that crowd-surfed to the slow songs and radio-listeners who didn't quite understand what the scene was all about or how to behave at a ska show.
"In the early 2000s things kind of slacked off and it was actually kind of nice because it had gotten sort of watered down," Jackson says. "The guys that were really into it for the music all along were still playing good music. And now with the resurgence of it, we've got young kids that appreciate the music and a lot of old friends that we've met along the way that come out and get a drink and then they have to go home before the show starts because they don't have a babysitter or whatever. It's a funny mix of people, but it's definitely cool to see a younger generation interested in that kind of music."
Whenever the new album does come out, it's not going to be a huge departure from what we've come to expect from the Pietasters.
"The tough thing at this point is I feel so protective of some of the stuff we put out and I want to make sure that whatever we do record and release is as good as everything else we've done," says Jackson. "That's another reason it's taken a while."
To help fill the void between releases, Connecticut label Asbestos Records re-released the band's classic 1995 record Oolooloo on vinyl last year, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The label also organized a two-day festival at Irving Plaza called Apple Stomp featuring the Pietasters and old friends from the same era like the Suicide Machines, the Pilfers, the Slackers, MU330, the Scofflaws, Inspector 7 and Mephiskapheles.
"They did a great job with the Apple Stomp, that was a really good time and a great lineup," says Jackson. "A historical event."
And while at various points in the past decade, it seemed a fourth wave of ska might arise from the ashes of the third, the changing of the music industry and the way people listen to music in general will most likely make for a less polarized reception. Which is probably a good thing.
"Maybe now there'll just always be a nice interest in this kind of music and instead of waxing and waning it'll be more of a constant thing," says Jackson. "The Northeast is always strong. They like their ska. Boston and New York. We're lucky in D.C. We have a band the Shifters and [Keith] Duncan is the leader of that band, and they put on a monthly ska night kind of like the BlueBeat Lounge that Chris Murray was doing out West." [Murray, a.k.a. Venice Shoreline Chris, was well-known for his home-recorded four-track albums released on Moon Records and Asian Man Records. In the 2000s, he hosted a monthly ska night at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood.]
Jackson is pleased at the resurrection of Connecticut's own Spring Heeled Jack, and their upcoming plans to record (albeit with just four members from the "classic lineup").
"We love those guys," he says. "We go way back with them, from even before the third wave really took off. I'm happy that they're out playing again. We toured with them extensively and love those guys and love their songs."
w/ Big D and the Kids Table, Hardcore Karaoke Pile-On Extravaganza! and Steady Habits. Fri., Sept. 27, 7 p.m. The Space, 295 Treadwell St., Bldg. H, Hamden, (203) 288-6400. manicproductions.org. $18-20.
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