by Alan di Perna
They came out of Boston, eight men in plaid, playing a style of music the world had never heard before: Skacore is what they call it. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones is what they call themselves-with all due modesty. These days, everybody's hip to Skacore and the Bosstones, thanks, in part, to the band's monster hit "The Impression that I Get." Back in the mid Eighties, when the Bosstones first started, the idea of combining the upbeat, Caribbean rhythms of ska with the heavy guitar chunk of post-punk hardcore seemed about as natural as crossbreeding a pit bull with a Pomeranian. But the Bosstones persevered, and eventually the world came around to their point of view. Today, they're widely respected as elder statesmen in the current "third wave of ska" craze. Their latest album, Let's Face It (Mercury, 1997), shipped Platinum. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' moment has arrived.
The fact that it all took more than a decade doesn't seem to bother lead singer Dicky Barrett one bit.
"I never wanted any kind of rush to success," he rasps in the same scrapyard growl that characterizes his singing style. "A lot of bands are in and out in a year. Our growth has been steady and nice. We've enjoyed every minute of it. If it had taken even longer, that would have been fine with me."
A working class guy with a level head on his shoulders, Barrett seems unfazed by his band's success. Before Bosstones' shows, you can still find him out front, mingling with the crowd: "I can't bear being trapped in a dressing room, knowing that within a hundred-yard radius there are people excited to see something that we created for them. I go out there, sign a few tickets, say hello to people. Maybe I'm an idiot, but that's my idea of fun."
The Bosstones got started in 1983 when Barrett joined forces with guitarist Nate Albert and bassist Joe Gittleman, both of whom had barely begun shaving at the time. An old vet by comparison, Barrett had already been in two Boston-area hardcore bands. Albert and Gittleman had been influenced by the hardcore scene, as well. But way back in grade school, a hipster teacher had introduced Albert to the original ska music, the early-Sixties sounds from Jamaica that were adopted by the first London mods.
All of these influences got mixed into the Bosstones sound, which they're fond of describing as a stew. And just as they put their own unique spin on ska music, the 'Tones also brought a warped sensibility to mod fashion, melding it with a demented Fifties frat boy look that was just as loud as their music and more plaid than a bagpipers convention. Thus accoutered, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones startled local Boston audiences from 1983 through '86. Then they took a hiatus while Albert finished high school and Gittleman played with Boston hardcore legends Gang Green. Luckily for everyone involved, the Bosstones came together again in 1989 and recorded their debut album for Taang! records, Devil's Night Out.
From that point onward, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones have soldiered their way to stardom at a strong, steady pace. Signing with Mercury in '92, they made their major label album debut with Don't Know How to Party. More widespread exposure came in '95, when the Bosstones played Lollapalooza and appeared in the hit film Clueless. And 1997 brought their first Platinum record-their fifth album to date-Face the Music.
GUITAR WORLD: It was a bit of a shock at first, hearing all that heavy hardcore guitar stuff alongside ska.
DICKEY BARRETT: That was the idea. When we first started writing songs the analogy we had was that we wanted to give people a backrub and then, once they felt safe, turn around and kick them in the balls real hard.
NATE ALBERT: For us, that was just our natural musical vocabulary, those two styles. We were also trying to emulate bands like the Bad Brains and the Clash-the way they mixed in punk, hardcore, reggae and ska. But we put it all together in one song, fragmented, as opposed to doing a full-on reggae song and then a full-on hardcore song. When you're that young, you don't really have the foresight to make something that contrived.
GW: How did audiences respond to you early on?
BARRETT: They stood in stock horror. The first shows, I can remember people were like, "What the hell is this?" It was fun. That was exactly what we wanted to do: rub people the wrong way. And we did in so many ways. It was very successful. We're talking about a time when Whitesnake and Warrant were on the radio. So we were rebelling against shit like that. Our hair was so short and the clothes we wore were so anti all of that hair or glam stuff going on at the time. We actually played gigs with bands like that.
I remember we did one in L.A. on our very first tour. We played with this band called Britannia, from Sunset Strip. It was one of our favorite gigs. 'Cause there were all like those guys' girlfriends there. Sunset Strip people. They looked horrified. We came out on stage, and they'd just never seen anything like it. We outrocked every band on the bill. There were three other bands just like Britannia on the bill. They were just in awe.
GW: Were the other bands hostile to you?
BARRETT: No! They were like [low-I.Q. "dude" voice] "Yeah man, that was all right." The Martians had landed, and they wanted to meet 'em.
GW: What was with the plaid early on? Was it some bizarre variation on mod fashion?
BARRETT: It was. I think it was a bizarre variation on the checkerboards of Two Tone. Which was a black-and-white thing. [The checkerboard logo of the late Seventies English ska label Two Tone Records symbolized black and white racial unity-GW Ed.] We kind of thought the world was a little more colorful than that. It means everyone's included.
ALBERT: As much as the Specials and the Clash influenced us musically, so did their politics. So we always try and bring that into what we do. It may have been a little more subtle early on, but it's come out a lot more lately. And when we go on tour we bring the Anti Racist Action group with us. They give out literature on what Nazi kids are wearing for symbols and who to look out for and what politicians are leaning in that direction. I'm a strong believer in the idea that you can't not be a political band. John Coltrane, without lyrics, was extremely political when he played. Even those glam rock metal bands, who thought they weren't being political, were very political. If you have girls in little bikinis in your video, you're making a pretty serious statement. Or if you don't, you're also making a serious statement.
GW: Nate, you were just 13 when you joined the band?
ALBERT: Yeah. Joe and I went to school together. I used to play bass, and he used to play guitar. We switched over when I was 12 or so, 'cause Joe bought a bass that was nicer than his guitar, so he wanted to play bass. And then we got Dicky when I was 13, and that was the inception of the Bosstones.
BARRETT: Joe worked as a roadie for my brother's band, Chain Link Fence. I took an instant liking to him. We hung out and he told me that he had a little band he was putting together with some of the guys from his school. At the time, I wasn't in a band. The Cheap Skates had just broken up. I went by and listened to them play and wrote some lyrics for them. I said, "Let's try and make it something where we can get into the clubs." So we did.
ALBERT: Basically, once Devil's Night Out came out, we just hit the road and toured as much as we could. Everyone kind of jumped ship on their personal lives and jumped into the land of touring. We just stayed on the road. We wanted it to be grassroots, and be much more about a live show and our interconnection with the audience than about some press machine coming from a record label.
GW: Was touring difficult, logistically? Typically, on the indie rock circuit, you've got your grunge power trios, your four- or five-piece pop bands. But there were eight of you going around the country!
ALBERT: Yup, eight of us plus a soundman, a tour manager and two roadies. So it was 12 of us at times, in a van. Yeah, it was gnarly. People were sleeping under the seats-wherever you could find a little spot to pass out. We'd do these long U.S. tours, sleeping in hotel rooms once a week. It was pretty grueling.
GW: Did you ever feel like packing it in?
BARRETT: No way! What, exactly, were our options? No one was coming down to the van saying, "If you idiots get out of there, I'll give you all good jobs." So we just kinda stayed in the van.
GW: Do you have any favorite road stories?
ALBERT: My favorite involves Metallica. When we did our first full U.S. tour, we had put out an EP where we covered "Enter Sandman" by Metallica. We were in Denver when Metallica were playing there. We were outside a hotel and James Hetfield walked out. And the guys were like, "Oh, my God. Dude, we just covered your song." And he'd actually heard it-this promoter in Chicago had played it for him. He put us on the list for his show. So we went to see Metallica that night before we played. Then we went to play our gig. We got off stage between encores, and this big limo rolled up and James Hetfield got out. We went back into the club and did "Enter Sandman" as a duet with him and Dicky, which was so rad. It was like in '91 when the "Black Album" [Metallica] was at its peak. That was just totally mind-blowing. There've been a lot of little incidents like that on the road. When these worlds connect it's kind of bizarre.
GW: I've heard it said that ska is the new grunge.
ALBERT: I really don't think so. Ska is a roots music. It's been around forever. Grunge was something very new. People who don't know the history of ska might think that. But for us, it's always existed. It's not like grunge was always there.
GW: Let's Face It seems to place less emphasis on the heavy guitar element than some of your past records. Was that by design?
ALBERT: Yeah. This is the first record that we demoed the songs on. We wrote and 24-tracked 30 songs before we went in to do the record. Some of those songs were really hard sounding. But we decided we wanted it to be more of a ska record. I think I was rebelling against the big guitar sound that was all over the radio at the time. When we were writing these songs, No Doubt hadn't fully broken yet. They were just starting to. So it was still the punk rock thing. And bands like Soundgarden-who we all love-were still going strong. But we wanted to do something new and fresh. I guess there were a lot of people out there thinking the same thing.
GW: I really like the sustained tone you get on the single-note lines in the chorus to "A Sad Silence."
ALBERT: Cool. Thanks. That's my old Big Muff.
GW: How did you originally handle the whole business of switching between that beefy, distorted hardcore guitar sound and a bright, thin ska sound on guitar? And how has your approach to that changed over the years?
ALBERT: Originally, I had a Telecaster that I got reworked. I threw a humbucker in the treble position. And I had a little Marshall combo amp with a clean channel and a distorted channel, and I just switched between them. Basically, I moved on to a more advanced version of that. Now I've got a Mesa C D10 for the clean stuff and I A/B between that and a Marshall which I use for the distorted, punk rock stuff. And I've moved on to Les Pauls to get a thicker, richer sound-a more heavy, beefy sustain.
GW: Do you use other effects besides that Big Muff?
ALBERT: In the studio, on this album and other albums, I've used an Echoplex, basically for delays and reverb. I try to keep it as organic as possible. It has a nicer decay than a digital delay-much more round. I like the Big Muff tone for leads. And there's a [Heil] Talk Box on some of Question the Answers. And a flanger sometimes. Like a Mick Jones, Clash-style flanger on some choruses. But live, I don't use anything. I do delays by putting the toggle switch on the treble position and bringing down the volume on the rhythm pickup, giving it a nice false delay.
GW: There's this kind of jazzy octave and chordal work that you do on "Hell of a Hat" and "A Dollar and a Dream." [both from Question the Answers] Almost like Wes Montgomery.
ALBERT: Oh yeah. I love Wes Montgomery. During the mid Eighties, I was taking jazz lessons from this guy Yusef Lateef. I got really into the little bebop vampy things. And I try to throw that in where it's appropriate. Playing with the Bosstones, I like to bring in bits and pieces of everything. It's like that for all of us, although we try not to bring in the kitchen sink. For a while, I got into Jeff Beck and fusion; I don't think that would have been appropriate, although I've probably even snuck that in, somewhere along the line.
GW: There's even a real metal influence, especially in the early work. The pick harmonics and all.
ALBERT: Yeah. I was really into Metallica. I got into Slayer for a while, and AC/DC, obviously. And Motörhead. We were bringing in a lot of that stuff. And I was listening to tons of Soundgarden back then.
GW: Do you still see some of the same fans from the early days turning up at gigs?
ALBERT: Yeah, it's amazing. Really nice. Some of them have moved on, gone to school, become professionals, had kids. So our backstage is starting to look like a Sunday picnic. Sometimes, anyway.
GW: But you haven't turned into the Grateful Dead yet.
ALBERT: No, but we're heading there. We're the Grateful Dead of punk rock.