If you were walking past Tower Records last Friday you would’ve seen a bigger obstruction on the path than the Luas works, as dozens of people crowded outside the storefront to see Interskalactic launch their debut EP.
The Dublin-based ska collective certainly don’t blend into the background with the city’s buskers – playing classic first wave Jamaican-style ska, all dressed in matching white and red customised 80s tracksuits.
Interskalactic have been a skanking feature at festivals over the last few years, and they’ve had some high-profile support slots, notably on Madness’s last Dublin show.
They’ve been earning their stripes reworking old ska standards by Prince Buster and The Skatalites, and doing ska versions of pop, hip-hop and soul hits, but their self-titled EP is their first release of originals, which bottles the magic of their heroes and will easily slot beside the classics in their live shows.
I caught up with trombone player Chris before their EP launch tour to talk ska revivalism, improvisation and ripping up the ska rudeboy look.
Quite a few brass and horn bands have been gigging around Ireland in the last few years, and reggae and dub has been fairly constant in Dublin. What made you go right to the beginning of ska and explore the big band sound?
It’s the old-school sound we all really love. Lots of the recordings from back in the 60s were done live and you can hear the energy they got.
Sometimes nowadays you hear tunes which have been meticulously produced and lose their vibe and so we wanted to avoid that. As a brass player there’s great riffs in ska music which are so enjoyable to play as well as loads of opportunity to improvise.
The response from audiences is great too. I think a lot of people don’t realise they like ska until they hear it. It’s dance music at the end of it all so as long as people are dancing and having a good time, that’s all we care about.
How did you all meet and what were your different backgrounds? Are you a closed unit now or open to new recruits?
We all met through several different musical experiences. The band originally started after two bands finished up around the same time. Ray (guitar), Al (bass) and Ronan (percussion) used to play in a ska band called Cops and Robbers. Tim (drums), Ruth (keyboard), Alison (saxophone) and Kev (trumpet) played in a soul/funk band called The Candidates.
Both bands used to rehearse in the same place off Parnell Square and coincidentally finished up around the same time. They got chatting on a night out and said they’d love to form an old-school 60s Jamaican ska band and from there Interskalactic started.
That was back in 2013 and since then myself, Alex (both trombone), Mason (saxophone) and Shane (trumpet) all joined.
At our full line-up, we have 11 which includes six brass. At the moment, it feels like the right amount so, yes, I’d say we are a closed unit but who knows how it might change in the future.
You first got noticed playing classic covers like Simmer Down. Had you always planned to write your own tunes? How long had you been playing before you started composing your own tracks?
We supported Madness in the 3Arena in 2015 and thought it might be a good idea to get an original tune in the set since we’d been playing ska covers for the two years before that. Ruth came up with an idea for a tune and we worked on it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t ready for the Madness gig but I think it gave us the impetus to push on and get more written.
So, while it was always part of our planning that was a good catalyst for us to start thinking about it more.
Since then a few of us have written songs for the band and everyone is very open to new ideas and contributing to the process.
Did you get into ska through the original artists or revival bands in the late 70s and early 80s? Who are your favourite ska artists?
For me, I know it was the ska in the 70s and 80s that I got in to first when I was a teenager. A lot of the other guys in the band would probably say they would have listened to the 60s Jamaican music more growing up.
The artists we’d be in to would be the likes of Prince Buster, Don Drummond, The Skatalites and Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires. We’ve got a few songs from each of those bands in our set and so they have all definitely been influential in what the band sounds like today.
I read in an interview with the Last Mixed Tape that you were digging the Prince Fatty & Mutant Hi-Fi record Return of Gringo. It follows that rich tradition of spaghetti western/dub/reggae crossovers. Do you have any other favourite albums or mixes?
Yes, the Prince Fatty and Mutant Hi-Fi album is a peach. I saw Toots and the Maytals at Electric Picnic last year and they were great! Their album Sweet and Dandy is my favourite. I’ve also been listening a lot to Fat Freddy’s most recent album Bays – very tasty brass lines in it.
Even in the 70s ska was going through a ‘revival’. Is it hard to overcome the assumption that ska is rooted in nostalgia?
I don’t think it’s hard to overcome. People will naturally think about the 60s artists and songs when they think of ska. But I don’t think it means they aren’t open to hearing new tunes or styles. As an example, we do a cover version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on, where we take what is a soul song and put it to a ska style which works well.
I like to think with this new EP we’ve got a nice mix of songs which stay true to the old-school groove yet still have riffs, chords and structures that are more unique to us.
The Soviet cosmonaut/football team image is a big leap from the ska rudeboy look – what’s the idea behind that?
Yes, it’s a big departure from the old ska look! We just tried to do something different. Lots of bands get sultry images of them looking mad artsy and staring into the middle distance. We just wanted ones of us as a big fun loving football team… who also stare into the middle distance!
After this latest round of gigs and festival season, what can we expect after the summer?
The tour and promoting the EP is our big focus for the moment. We’ve got our first gig outside of Ireland this year and so we’d like to try push our music more internationally and see where it takes us. Beyond that we’re planning to write more originals and keep people skanking!
- Interskalactic EP is out now on LP, CD and streaming services