Saturday, December 1, 2007

Interview with Bigger Thomas

I recently had the honor of interviewing Marc Wasserman and Roger Apollon of Bigger Thomas, one of the longest running bands in American ska. They were the first ska band to come out of New Jersey, and part of the founding American ska scene made famous by The Toasters, NY Citizens, etc. Their history is something to be valued and admired, and we're proud to bring you a better glimpse of this amazing band...

Can you give us a small introduction to Bigger Thomas?
Roger: We’ve been around since 1988. Marc (Wasserman) and our original guitarist Steve Parker wrote a bunch of tunes and decided to start a ska band in New Brunswick, NJ. At that time, there weren’t any ska bands around in NJ (that we knew of). They posted signs around Rutgers University looking for musicians (a copy of the flyer is on the back of our “Red Album” CD/DVD with the heading ‘Calling All Rude Boys/Girls’). I answered along with our original trumpet player Kevin Shields. Our original drummer and current percussionist Jim Cooper was Marc’s roommate. We met our original (and sometimes current) sax player Steve Meicke at a Ranking Roger show at City Gardens later on that summer. Our original toaster Ken “Miggy” Gayle was a good friend of mine at Rutgers. And there it was. Our first show was a benefit show on campus that attracted 400 people. We were opening up for the NY Citizens and we were all star struck! Soon after, our original trumpet player Sean Moore joined up. The rest, as they say, is history…

How does the current lineup differ from the original incarnation of the band?
Marc: Roger, Jim and I are the only original members of the band since 1988, although our “new” members have been with us from anywhere between 2 – 16 years. John DiBianco is the oldest of the “new guys” as he has been with us for 16 years. Rob George, our saxophonist, has been with us for about 10 years as well. Spencer Katzman (guitar), Chris Malone (trombone), David Aaron (sax) and Roy Radics (toaster/chats) have been with us for 2-4 years each. We believe we now have the best version of the band we’ve ever had! There’s a great chemistry and we really enjoy it more than ever! I think that comes with maturity and recognizing we love playing music together as a team and that we are friends on and off stage.

Bigger Thomas originated in New Brunswick, NJ - in fact, I believe you were New Jersey's first ska band. But your myspace page gives your location as New York City. What's up with that?? No more love for NJ??
Roger: Easy, selecter! Rewind! There’s PLENTY of love for NJ! It’s just that now half of our band lives in New York City and the other half live in various areas of NJ so it wouldn't be fair to say we’re currently from New Brunswick. We still play the Court Tavern in New Brunswick every year for our anniversary show to recognize our hometown.

In the ever-blossoming NJ/NY ska scene, how does it feel to be one of the originators still going strong today? How do things compare now to the early 90's? What was the scene like back in those days? Any memorable shows or anecdotes?
Roger: I love being the “old men” of the scene! It is like we are reborn since most of the fans we play for now were just infants when we started! The scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s was different since most every club we played was 21+. It was more adult driven so the crowds were older and a bit rowdier. Now, the ska scene in NY/NJ has shifted to the “all ages” format with much younger crowds and younger promoters. The energy is different. I find that the younger crowds are very enthusiastic but also tend to conform a bit more. For example, the skanking circle. It seems that someone decided that in order to dance to ska music, you must skank in a circle going counter-clockwise. Back in the day, you just skanked, no matter where you were. Also, there was a lot more diversity back in the day at shows. When we played the Court Tavern in the late 80’s, there would be skinheads of all colors, rastas, rude boys, punk rockers and new wave kids all at the same show.

Marc: One of our most memorable shows was winning a battle of the bands competition at the old Green Parrrot in Neptune, NJ which won us studio time that we used to record our “Red Album”. 300 people packed into a modest sized club and we played the set of our young lives! After each song, the crowd literally “roared”. I remember feeling a blast of heat each time this happened and being utterly amazed! I was so overwhelmed that I had to close my eyes during the last song because I couldn't handle the emotions of seeing a crowd going COMPLETELY bananas for music that we wrote.

Tell us about the infamous City Gardens (Trenton, NJ) and your memories of it

Roger: What can I say, City Gardens was our home! No band played there more in one year (we broke the Ramones' record with 7 shows in 1990) than we did. We played shows with most of our musical heroes at that time! We opened for and met: The Toasters, Bim Skala Bim, Bad Manners, Yellowman, HR of Bad Brains, Burning Spear, De La Soul, The Special Beat, Boogie Down Productions and The Skatalites. I really learned my craft from playing those shows. After opening for those national acts, we got very confident in our stage presence and performances. We learned to play a lot of songs in 30 minutes and make an impact. It gave us discipline because if we went beyond 30 minutes, they would just turn the sound off no matter where we were in the set. I also learned that I can’t eat a big meal before a show. We were opening up for the NY Citizens one night and I was running late. I had a big meal earlier and I got lost getting to the show. When I arrived, our horn player Sean Moore, was waiting in the parking lot and screamed at me that the band was onstage waiting for me. I ran into the club, right onto the stage and did the set. As soon as the last note was played, I ran off of the stage and lost my dinner. It was an inside joke in the band for a number of years…

I was too young to be a part of that early scene. My first introduction to NJ ska was in 1997 with Inspecter 7, the Royalties, One Cool Guy, Catch 22, Foil, etc. I have to be honest and admit I hadn't heard of Bigger Thomas until you re-remerged on the New Brunswick scene around 2003, playing with Hub City Stompers, Bomb Town, Rudie Crew, King Django, etc. Your early history seems to end around 1993 - what happened all those years in between? What finally prompted the comeback?
Roger: Contrary to popular belief, we never disappeared! During those years, we became the typical NJ bar band. We played a lot of 21+ clubs down the Jersey Shore, in South Jersey and Pennsylvania. A lot of these clubs required that we play at least 3 one hour sets (3 hours of music!) so we had to learn a whole bunch of cover tunes. It was actually a pretty good time for a while since we were paid very well and performed to generally packed houses. After a few years, it started to get a bit depressing as most of those packed houses had audiences who were not there for the music but more for the pick-up scene. Also, we really started to miss writing and performing new music in front of crowds that were into ska music.

Marc: Our “comeback” happened almost by accident. We decided we wanted to reissue our first record (The Red Album) on CD, so we remastered it and put it out with a DVD of 2 of our early shows (the first show we ever played at Scott Hall at Rutgers in 1988 and a show at City Gardens in 1990). At the same time we finally finished recording “Resisting Success” (the black album) and put that out. Then Travis from Hub City Stompers invited us to play a show opening for an Inspecter 7 reunion at the Knitting Factory in November 2004. That perfect storm of new CD’s and a huge show put us back on the map. What followed was an offer to play an all ages show at a church group in Westfield, NJ. It was our first experience with the new “all ages” scene in NJ and we were impressed with the crowd and the response. I also think we were a bit of welcome fresh air as most of the bands in that scene tend to sound a bit alike. After that show, the message boards started to buzz about this “old band that I’ve never heard of before” who played good ska music and that’s what really kicked things off for us again.

Speaking of history, about a year ago I came across your "One Step Behind" retrospective CD in a used record store in Chicago. The first 11 tracks are one-take, live studio recordings, and do a great job of capturing the live energy of the band. I haven't seen or heard much mention of this album... do I hold a collector's item in my hands??
Roger: Yes, you do hold a collector’s item in your hands! We made about 500 or so copies. This was done with our interim singer, Jimmy Allington in a local NJ studio in 1993 or so. That CD epitomizes the “bar band” era that we went through.

Your last album We Wear the Mask is by far my favorite. Tight songwriting, musicianship, and tons of guests all making for a very well-rounded album. I enjoyed the throwbacks to your roots, especially versioning the classic "More and More" tune, slowing it down and transforming it into "Less and Less". Even better is the song Panic!, which is a reference to an early band name before taking the Bigger Thomas moniker, correct?
Roger: Someone has done their homework! “Less and Less” was an idea I had driving down to Version City the day we laid down the rhythm tracks. After we recorded about 5 or so songs, I told the band the idea and we did it in one take. We kept all of the ad-libs I did on the scratch vocals and Spencer did some guitar overdubs. Panic! was the original band name and our theme song until another band with the same name threatened to sue due to copyright infringement.

Marc: Working with King Django at Version City made all the difference for that album. He knew us, knew the kind of sound we were looking for and we trusted him to produce the songs. We loved what he did with all of the songs. The vibe was relaxed and laid-back, yet Django keeps things moving and he’s great about sharing his opinion in a very chill way. We can’t wait to get back in there to record our next batch of songs.

And the name Bigger Thomas is taken after the main character of the book Native Son, right? How did the name come about, and what's the significance to the band?
Roger: We changed to Bigger Thomas because Marc was reading “Native Son” at the time and we thought it would be a good temporary name until we came up with a better one. Once we started telling people about the new name, the response was very positive. The more we thought about it, the new name made sense as we’ve always viewed ourselves a bit outside of the mainstream ska audience. If you remember in the book, nobody thought Bigger Thomas could craft such an elaborate deception to cover the murder he committed because he was black and seemingly unintelligent. I think I lot of people underestimate us musically in the same way…

Marc: I agree. The name Bigger Thomas has served us well. It stands out in the pack of Johnny Ska and The Ska-Ska names that so many younger bands have taken. It also makes a political statement on its own and hopefully gets people to dig a little deeper into where the name comes from, what it means with regard to US history and pays respect to a great author (Richard Wright) we all feel is underappreciated and overlooked.

"Panic" is a great opener to We Wear the Mask, and in my opinion represents everything that's good about Bigger Thomas and all of NJ ska. An upbeat BT number produced by King Django, with Roger, Roy Radics (Rudie Crew), Travis (Hub City Stompers), and Tommi Infamous (Bomb Town) all trading vocals over it. That particular recording session must have been a blast!Any good stories around it?
Roger: I wish I had better stories! I just bought a case of Guinness cans, brought it to the studio and we just had a blast. Everyone was surprisingly professional and we got the track done in a matter of hours. Travis hadn’t written anything when he got to the studio. Everybody finished their bit and told us to step outside for a break while he wrote his part. We came back and he did it in one take! It’s one of the best bits of the song!

I actually only had the chance to see BT once before I moved... it's tough to remember details (probably one too many drinks), but I do remember a very energetic set and lots of dancing! How would you describe your live shows? What could we expect to see and hear? Do you stick to all originals, or do you have any good covers up your sleeves? What are the crowd favorites?
Marc: Controlled chaos! Lately we have been mixing the set lists up more and working in newer songs as well as some oldies. Wherever we go people still know us best for ‘”Ska In My Pocket” and we get requests for it from Wilkes-Barre, PA to Syracuse to Los Angeles. Lately one of our newest songs “Crown Victoria” has gotten a great response. Adding Roy Radics into the mix has taken our live show to new heights. Roy and Roger have such great on-stage chemistry and Roy brings us back to the original line-up vision we had when the band started which is 2 front-men: a singer and a toaster/DJ. That also sets us apart from most of our contemporaries. We like to throw a cover song or two into our sets. My favorites are “Jungle Music” by Rico and “Monkey Man” by Toots/The Specials. They both usually get a great crowd response and we like that we are paying respect to the reggae and ska artists we are most influenced by. All-ages crowds also seem to like to hear songs they never got to see the original bands play.

What's next on the horizon? Any plans for another album? Touring?
Marc: We are scheduled to go into Version City in early January 2008 to start laying down tracks for a new album. We can’t wait to get started. This will be the best one by far given the line-up and songs we have. We have been playing more shows outside of NY/NJ and we will be visiting Boston, Syracuse, Albany, Poughkeepsie and Wilkes-Barre in early 2008. We are also talking to the Megalith Records booking agent about a trip down to Florida.

Do the band members have any other projects, bands, etc?
Yes. Our guitarist Spencer Katzman is an amazing jazz player and his band The Spencer Katzman Threeo just released a fantastic new CD called “5 Is The New 3”. Roy Radics is the lead singer for The Rudie Crew and our trombone player Chris Malone also plays in The Rudie Crew and 500 other ska bands. We have sometime sax players (Steve Meicke and David Aaron) who play in various jazz bands and David also plays in a great Afrobeat band called ZoZo Afrobeat.

What are you currently listening to, ska or otherwise?
Marc: I never get tired of listening to ska and reggae. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of old Bim Skala Bim. For my money they were the best ska band to come out of the US. I’m into an old school reggae DJ phase now listening to Yellowman, Ranking Toyan, Lone Ranger. I also re-discovered The Equators who are an unappreciated ska band that was signed to Stiff Records in the UK in the 70’s. Great stuff.

Roger: I’m in love with the Radiodread CD. I never really listened to Radiohead before I got the CD but now I have a whole new respect for the band and want to check out more of their music.

Anything else you want to talk about?
Marc: Vote wisely and intelligently during the 2008 election year. Remember that your vote does count and has a huge impact on the rest of the world and the way we conduct ourselves and are viewed. Its not too late for the U.S. to see the error of its ways and make amends.

Thanks to Marc and Roger for answering our questions, and to all of Bigger Thomas!
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