interview by vinnie baggadonuts


Vinnie: I was wondering how you wound up in Texas having come from New York.

Jonny: You know, it was five or six years ago. I just got tired of Manhattan and the New York lifestyle, and I was looking for a reason to get out of there. I traveled the country a little bit, and came to Austin because thereíre musicians everywhere, and everything in Austin was based around this music scene. I figured if I came down here, itíd be pretty easy to find musicians to play with, and have a little bit more relaxed lifestyle.

V: See, Iíd wondered if maybe you and the band just crossed paths in traveling, and they recruited you.

J: Well, originally, we did one record with the original singer. He had started the band before I came to Texas, or at least before he knew me. But then we kinda hooked up and started writing songs together. Heís an Army guy, and one day he took off to fulfill his tenure with the Army. Actually, heís over in Iraq now.

V: Damn.

J: But he left Austin three years ago, before any of the stuff thatís happening to the band now actually happened. But this guy, Walter, he kinda started the whole thing.

V: So, he was the singer on the self-titled album?

J: Yeah.

V: You know, when I listen to the old Stingers stuff, I can hear the difference.

J: Yeah, thereís a pretty big difference. The record and songs are cool-- it was the beginning of the band, you know? But we donít really sell it anymore.

V: Really?

J: Yeah. We sold out of them, and we never pressed them again. (laughs) Not because itís bad, but selling it as The Stingers, itís not really the same thing anymore. Itís a few steps away from what weíve been doing.

V: But there are parts in some of those older songs that sound like where youíre at right now.

J: Right.

V: So, This Good Thing was first put out by Grover Records, then it was rereleased on Jump Up! Records?

J: Yeah. How did that happen?

V: (laughs) Yeah.

J: Well, our old buddy Walter, the original singer, he got stationed in Germany. And Grover is the German ska scene, pretty much. You go to shows there, and itís Grover bands, or Grover is putting on the tour. So, he was at a show, and he was either promoting himself or promoting us as a friend, and he passed that old CD to one of the guys working at Grover.

V: Cool.

J: They contacted me, and said, ďSend us some new stuff. We might be interested in signing you and putting out a record.Ē So we sent him our EP, and they decided, ďOkay, weíll make your record and put it out.Ē

V: Is that weird, being a band in the States, and having your record out on a label in another country?

J: At the time that it came out, it didnít matter. We were just happy to have a record.

Both: (laugh)

V: Yeah.

J: Somebody pushing our music, instead of just ourselves. You canít do as much as a label, you know? Someone whose day job it is to push records. So, we were happy. We were also able to use the Grover thing in Europe to get in touch with some other labels here.

V: Right on. Well, you guys do write songs well. I think thatís why a lot of bands suffer, because their songwriting isnít up to snuff.

J: You know what? I appreciate the compliment. The thing for me is, I was trying to write good songs for years before I started playing ska. I came from a different side. Instead of coming from punk rock, and when there was that big ska boom, I was listening to blues and soul and R&B. And then hit reggae and ska. I was trying to write songs in a soul and funk way. I had a band in New York, and we put out a record.

V: What band was that?

J: The band was called The Blue Bones. It was just a local New York band. But we played some shows at Wetlands, and we put out a record. I was writing back then, but I was struggling. Then, actually, when I met Walter, I started writing stuff with the ska beat, and realized that this was a rhythm that would help me write hooks. If youíre gonna write a good song in reggae or ska, you have to master the hook. And that was the kicker for me. When I started writing in the ska rhythm, I started feeling okay about the songs. And when people started really responding to the songs, I felt, ďOkay. Well, I can write.Ē

Both: (laugh)

J: But I think itís a matter of listening to different things.

V: Yeah.

J: Different genres. Even if you donít really like the song itself, you can see that the songwriting and arrangement is phenomenal. Itís just the style that you donít like.

V: Well, even listening to you guys, you start to forget that youíre supposed to be listening to a ska band.

J: Right.

V: No offense, but the soul element creeps over a little bit more.

J: Thatís great. (laughs) You know, the last tour we did, we backed up Laurel Aitken for a couple shows. And I took a long ride in the car with him, from one German town to another, and weíre talking, and he said, ďYou know, soul music is music. Above ska.Ē And he started naming some of his favorite soul singers, and said, ďIt (music) really comes out of that. Thatís the real thing.Ē I donít know if I would necessarily put one above the other, but itís interesting that he said that. So, what you said is a compliment.

V: So, what are you doing up in New York right now?

J: Oh-- actually, Iím back in Texas. I was in New York over Christmas, and stayed for New Yearís-- visiting people. And then I did some work with Vic Rice. They opened up Jammyland Studios. Have you been to Jammyland before?

V: No. But Vic told me about it.

J: Yeah. Itís the reggae record store in New York. They have a little room in the basement. The guy who owns the store had some equipment, and Victor had some equipment, so they made a little studio down there. Itís real small-- just one room-- but itís nice.

Both: (laugh)

V: Were you recording new stuff?

J: Yeah! The way Victor works is, if heís around, or if heís in New York, or when I was with him in Argentina, you just get in the studio and you bring songs with you. He tells me, ďBring some songs.Ē So, he had people coming in and out of the studio. I showed up one night and Eddie Ocampo and Agent Jay were there, and they were playing some rhythms for Vic. Then Vic turns to me, like, ďOkay. What song do you want to do? Give me a song.Ē

Both: (laugh)

J: So, I just hollered out the chords, gave the feel, he fucked with the key a little bit, and we recorded two tunes that night. I think he had some people come in and do horns. I havenít heard them since, though. Iím sure he had some people come in and do some solos. I guess Iíll hear it when he comes here.

V: How did you end up down in Argentina with him? I knew you went down there, but no one mentioned how it all came to be.

J: Oh, man, that was cool. My girlfriend is from Mar Del Plata, so we went down there. It was the second time I had been down there. I knew Victor was in Brazil, so I just called him, and I told him, ďHey, weíre going down there. Maybe you want to meet us there or something? Maybe we should come out to you if we can.Ē He had just got back from doing a couple of gigs with a band out there, the Satellite Kingston. They had a great time, but he had to leave the country and work somewhere, as part of his Visa thing in Brazil. So, he did that, and he says to me, ďWell, instead of me coming to meet you, letís get some gigs.Ē

Both: (laugh)

J: He says, ďI got a full eight-piece band. You send Ďem your disc, and theyíll learn a couple Stingers songs.Ē So, I sent them the CD. They were ecstatic. I did two shows with them, and the second show, there were like 600 or 700 people there. It was in Buenos Aires.

V: Whoa!

J: Yeah. It was incredible. We did a set of their music, then I popped in and did two of my tunes with their backing, and the next set was all Vicís music, and I was playing guitar. It was really cool. We did a radio show. They did a big interview with us. My face was in La Nacion, which is the New York Times of Buenos Aires. (laughs)

V: No way!

J: My girlfriend was like, ďI lived there 25 fucking years of my life and never got in the paper. Youíre there for three days, and youíre in it.Ē

Both: (laugh)

V: Man, youíve played in a lot of different countries. Where is the reception for The Stingers best?

J: Um,.. we do really well in Germany because of Grover Records. Weíve done really well at any gigs we played in France. Switzerland also has a really young scene going on. We played a show there on our last tour, and there were all these young kids there. And from the first sound to the last sound, they were dancing for every band.

V: Thatís awesome.

J: Germany, Switzerland, and France are the best to us. We play in Holland, but only at Ernestoís. Ernestoís is incredible.

V: Really?

J: Oh, itís insane. We came there on the heels of The Slackers doing that live record. When we got there, we didnít know what to expect them to do to us. And this place is tiny, keep in mind. It can only fit about 150 people. But we come back there from the hotel, and the stage is right by the door, and it was so packed, we couldnít even go to the bar to put our jackets down or get a drink. We had to walk in and go right on stage. It was totally insane! They carried Wayne (trombone) on their shoulder as he was playing some solos--

Both: (laugh)

J: --which was hilarious, because Wayne is not the kind of guy who would run up to you and give you a hug. And when they grabbed him and picked him up, it was hilarious to the rest of us.

V: So, I ask this of a lot of ska musicians that I talk to-- playing out and about in the rest of the world compared to the States, whatís the comparison?

J: We havenít really done an extensive tour of the States. The reason is, we didnít have a label that was setting us up like we did in Europe. Itís difficult to travel in the States because of distance-- because itís going to cost a lot more-- so we havenít done as much as we wanted to in the States. Our only real comparison is half of the country, from Texas, east. Our experience in Europe compared to our experience in the States is definitely different. Maybe itís because we had a label over there, pushing it and promoting it, or maybe itís because the scene in the States is a lot smaller. Here, you know, itís harder to get people to come see you, saying, you know, youíre a rocksteady band on such and such label. Whereas, in Europe, when we went there our first time, people were like, "Youíre on Grover, so weíll come see you. We donít know you. We havenít heard the record yet. But weíre coming to see you because of the Skanking Around the Christmas Tree Tour, or because Groverís coming with you with all their records."

Both: (laugh)

J: So, our experiences overseas are far better than our experiences here in the States, though we have had some really great gigs here.

V: Do you think itís just hard because people here arenít familiar with rocksteady music? I mean, it hasnít really been given much attention or exposure here in the States.

J: You wonder why, too? Rocksteady music, you can find everything you want in London, because they have a huge Jamaican community. So why shouldnít it be the same in the States when thereís just as big a Jamaican community here, too? I mean, if youíre in the cities where Jamaicans have migrated to, you can find what you want to find in small shops. But I donít really know why it hasnít gotten much attention here. In Europe, you know, people are really active about getting it. The Jamaican music industry is as fucked up as any music industry, but itís also localized there. They cut the record, and they get it out quick-- they have to get it out to the sound system. There arenít as many people seeking this stuff out here.

V: Yeah.

J: Down here in Texas, itís a lot harder to find music like that than it is up North. Itís not so bad here in Austin, because Austin is a music town. You have enough people interested in a lot of different kinds of music here, so I can find most of what Iím trying to find here.

V: Well, since a lot of people here really arenít aware of what rocksteady is, how do you guys bill yourselves for shows?

J: Itís difficult when people donít know who you are, and you bill yourself as a "ska" band. You get lumped into a category that you may not necessarily want people to think of you as. Ska music is good music, but most people will associate it with the only ska they know-- the 3rd wave stuff. During that 3rd Wave boom, we would so often get billed as a ska band, and the guy at the door would have to tell people, ďOh, these guys sound kinda like the Bosstones,Ē or ďThese guys kinda sound like No Doubt,Ē (laughs) because people going to the clubs wanted to know what they were going to see. Every CD review would start off, ďAlthough ska is considered Bosstones and Goldfinger, these guys donít sound like that.Ē

Both: (laugh)

J: So, we went ahead and billed ourselves as a rocksteady band, and people would come up to us like, ďUh,.. what is that?Ē (laughs) So, itís hard without being known to figure out how to bill ourselves. Now we just bill ourselves as the best thing we could think of, which is Jamaican-influenced music. Because we arenít Jamaican; weíre a bunch of American guys who grew up listening to a lot of things before we discovered Jamaican music, but now weíre totally into Jamaican music.

V: Yeah.

J: And itís true, because in the songwriting, yes, I tend to use the Jamaican rhythms. But the songwriting sensibilities, the pop sensibilities, are coming out of American rock or doo-wop or Dylanís writing.

V: You guys also have a lot of storytelling in your music, too, which is one of the coolest things about your songs.

J: Aw, thatís cool, man.

V: When you sit down to write, are you looking to tell a story, or does it just happen that way?

J: Sometimes thereís a method to the creation, and sometimes there isnít. Take two different tunes off of the record (This Good Thing)-- take ďArtificial TearsĒ and ďIn the EndĒ. ďIn the EndĒ is inspired by a real thing that happened to me, in my life. And ďArtificial TearsĒ, well, I have a lot of Artificial Tears sitting in my living room. I went to the optometrist, and he gave me a bunch of bottles of Artificial Tears because my eyes were dry. (laughs) Weíre getting ready to go out on the road, standing in my living room, and someone picks up a bottle and says, ďWhatís this?Ē I said, ďOh, those are Artificial Tears.Ē All of a sudden, I had the chorus in my head. Weíre in the van five minutes later, and I finish the song.

Both: (laugh)

J: So, sometimes, Iíll try and sit down and put my mind together to write, which I should be doing every night-- writing. And sometimes, stuff like that happens, and the song is done in three minutes.

V: Yeah.

J: I think that some of the new stuff that comes out of bands playing the music we play, and the music that comes out of bands who have been doing it for a while, like The Slackers, Hepcat, The Pietasters, I think the music is rooted the same, but thereís something different about it, and itís the writing.

V: Yeah. And I read that you guys get compared to The Slackers a lot. Any idea why? Because I donít really hear that.

J: Oh, wow! You gotta print that. Thatís a first!

Both: (laugh)

V: I read that, and I kept listening to the record, and I really couldnít hear The Slackers thing.

J: Thatís great! I mean, I donít mind being compared to them. At first, I might have because of an ego thing. But now, being compared to them is great, because I like The Slackers. Theyíre a great band. I listen to them, and love their writing, and everything they do is absolutely great. You know? Being compared to them is okay. (laughs) But I do agree with you; I donít think you can make a direct correlation between bands. We have different sound, a different horn section-- we have NO horn SECTION. Just one guy-- a trombone player, you know?

V: I think thatís awesome, by the way. Itís just one man, and heís the entire might of your horn SECTION.

J: Great, man. Iíll have to pass that along. I think the comparison may come from when I sing on a song. Iím from New York, so both Vic and I have a similar accent. Or maybe itís just because there arenít so many bands out there doing what we do, so comparison is inevitable. But there is a definite difference in sound on the new record.

V: When is the new record coming out?

J: Weíre recording in February. Victor Rice is coming here, and weíre doing ten days in the studio. Itís supposed to come out before we get to Europe, which is April. Itíll come out over there on Grover in March, and Chuck at Jump Up! already said heís interested in doing the same thing with the new record as he did with This Good Thing.

V: Yeah.

J: I hope he doesnít want to wait too long, because he just put out this one. (laughs) Weíll have them, and weíll put them up online until he decides.

V: Do you feel like there are more opportunities for bands like yours? There was that whole boom a few years ago, where everybody and their mother was putting a record out. The good thing about it was, really good bands were finally getting the opportunities they deserved. But when it died down, those really good bands wound up suffering.

J: Yeah. They had to go back to that real, hardcore do-it-yourself thing when the boom died. At least from our perspective, our increasing opportunities in the last year have gone away from us being compared to those acts from the ska boom, to more of us being known as a band that plays good music. Itís ska music, but itís music. I donít know what could directly be the cause of people listening to more Jamaican music. Dancehall has certainly gotten more and more popular.

V: With the new record coming out on Grover, and possibly on Jump Up!, do you think youíll do an extensive tour of the States?

J: We definitely want to hit the West Coast. Weíre thinking about, near the end of the summer, going from here to the West Coast. After that, we want to go up to Chicago, where Jump Up! is. Either weíre gonna put that together as a big tour, or weíre going to do a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there.

V: Yeah.

J: Unfortunately, we all gotta try and make a living, and itís not through music, so we all have work down here. Thatís the biggest thing holding us back from going out on the road.

V: Yeah.

J: And thatís an odd dilemma for a musician. I figure that, even if itís this dilemma for the rest of my life, between working and music, Iíll always be playing. Always. Iíll always be writing. Iím thankful for these two labels to be putting out our records. Iím thankful that we have records that can put us out on tour. Iím thankful that the music Iím writing, and the music weíre working on, is out there for people to hear.

V: Man, Iím glad that things are working out for you guys, too.

J: Thank you.

V: Now, before I go, whatís this ďacoustic rocksteadyĒ thing I saw on your tour dates listing?

J: Yeah! Thatís a side project Iím involved with, and Wayne, the trombone player, is, too. Itís an acoustic group: upright bass, acoustic guitar, Wayneís playing melodica, I got a steel drum player, and a percussionist. We play rocksteady, mixed in with some ragtime-ish Americana music.

V: Oh, man!

J: Weíre a local thing, mostly. Weíre gonna put a record out once the new Stingers record and tour slows down a bit. Itís a really cool group; a bunch of really cool musicians from here in Austin.

V: Definitely keep me informed about it. Iíll buy a copy of that, too.

J: Oh, Iíll be pushing that on Grover, for sure. We have a great recording of The Stingers combined with that band. We did a radio thing. It was really nice.