Monday, April 7, 2008

Ska History Month: Interview with Dave Hillyard

Welcome to Ska History Month 2008!

Ska History Month was started by myself in 2003 to roughly coincide with the Ska Summit concert in Las Vegas the same year.

When it comes to the history of the US ska scene, few people know it better than Dave Hillyard. For over 20 years, Dave has been active in the US ska community in one form or the other. Dave was kind enough to take time from touring with The Slackers to shed some insights.

And so here he is, the always interesting, the unapologetically opinionated, Dave Hillyard.

1) At a time when most Americans teenagers were listening to Duran Duran or Motley Crue, you were discovering ska music. How did this come about?

Well, ska was one of the music's that had some had 15 minutes of attention in the early 80s. Madness had "our house." The beat had "save it for later." So I caught the end of 2-tone when it was really indistinguishable from 80s pop. So it was around. I had friends listening to it. The main difference between me and them is that they moved on while I became more obsessed with it. And I began getting deeper into the roots. I was listening to the skatalites and desmond dekker while they were listening to U2.

2) Most people know you from The Slackers. Enthusiasts over the age of 30 would know that you were in Hepcat. But before all of that, you were in a band called Donkey Show. What were those early days like?

They were fun. I spent a bunch of time trying to find people in San Diego who were interested in playing "ska." Finally, when I got a band together it was Donkey Show. It was fun. We were all young and tempremental. We would fight then party together. We were just trying to get the basics of being a band together but all of sudden we had some success. We started having big shows in LA. In some ways we had too much success too fast and it went to our heads and we didn't know what to do with it. We were naive. We thought we could get a big record deal and be famous. I guess we didn't know our name wasn't No Doubt! hehe.

3) I have often referred to the time period from 1983 to 1989 as "The Lost Years", mostly because there is so little information about ska's history at this time. And yet, this time period saw incredible growth in California. What was this period like for you? What bands did you go see?

Well, if you want the long answer go to the history of american ska stuff I've been writing on my site.

There was a big scene at times in the 80s in Southern California. It was very underground. People would dress up more when they went to shows. Lots of suits and porkpies. Scooters. Nowadays, you can't really tell the difference between a ska audience nowadays and any generic alt rock audience in terms of dress. I guess LA has always been more about dressing up, but that's an exception. But back in the 80s, everyone dressed up. It had a real cult flavor.

In terms of popularity there was a surge from 1982-83. Then it went down and picked up between 1988-1990. So the mid-80s were dead besides the odd Fishbone and Untouchables concert. The bands I saw play besides them were the Skeletones, No Doubt, Citizen X, Multiple Choice, Uptones, the Liquidators, Lets Go Bowling, and probably a bunch more. Those are the ones that stick in my mind right now. I also saw the Beat (original lineup) in 1983, Madness, and Bad Manners when they toured the states.

4) You have remarked that 2 Tone "ska" was more a hybrid than Jamaican ska from the 60's. In the 1990's, ska became even punkier. And yet, Hepcat strived faithfully to harken back to ska's roots. How did that come about?

The guys from Hepcat were listening to the old ska they were spinning between bands at shows and liking it more than the music the bands were playing. So they were enthusiasts and they wanted to play this music they loved. Ska had gotten so far away from the roots, the music being played by most bands had only a tangential relationship to the music we loved. So we got into playing music that had a more obvious roots influence.

5) For the uninitiated, how did The Slackers come about? Was it hard to transition from the West Coast to the East Coast?

Well, people tell me Im a bitter sarcastic person, so I fit into the east coast fine. Hehe. The slackers were already together for 1-2 years before I joined them. The Slackers grew like a weed. Coming up from in between the sidewalk cracks.

6) Performing in any ska band takes immense knowledge and dedication, yet many public schools are cutting back their music programs or eliminating them altogether. That would seem to negatively impact ska's ability to thrive, no?

My high school music program was cut when I was 16. I only took classes for a year. Im self taught really. For better or worse. I would seek out older musicians and they would teach me shit personally. I listened to a lot of records. Lots of records. And I tried to play along with them to the best of my ability. I had the hunger. The obsession.

Im ambivalent on whether American music education has helped ska horns. Too many damn ska bands sound like high school pep band rejects. So maybe we need less education right? hehe. Just joking. Or am I?

I guess Ska is really an outside the mainstream music. So Im not sure what musical education's effect is on it. My musical education has come from records, the people I've played with, a lot of live shows, and a handful of teachers/mentors who took the time to show me stuff.

7) At the ISC in 2007, Vic commented that he felt that American ska bands were soft on political issues. Ska music certainly has a track record of commenting on social and political issues. ("Stand Down, Margaret" springs to mind...)Should American bands sing about more substantial issues? In your opinion, how does a band touch on important issues without coming across as "preachy"?

Most american bands are escapist. They dont have a lot of substance about them. They are singing fantasy songs about jamaica, songs about secret agents, songs about rude boys, whiny nasal "we really suck but we're on stage anyways" songs.

Yes. American bands should deal with substantive issues. People should write about the world around them. They dont have to be serious all the time. About 1/2 of slackers songs are straight up love songs. Some are just goofy like "el gato." But just because you're in a ska band it shouldn't only be about the beat.

8) It's been almost 10 years since Americans collectively ditched ska music in favor of Brittany Spears and The Backstreet Boys. How did The Slackers manage to weather this collapse in the American "Third Wave"?

Ok. There is so much wrong with that question. Did you stop listening to ska and start listening to boy bands? 1st of all. What changed was the bands that the major labels were promoting. In order in the 90s it went something like this - Grunge, Pop Punk (Rancid, Green Day, Offspring), Ska, Swing, "Latin" (la vida loca), and then Boy bands. But that's a promotion thing. The average music fan didn't start with Nirvana and end up with the Backstreet Boys.
There's always been corny ass bands like boy bands. Remember New Kids on the Block? They just didn't dominate the interests of the major labels until the mid-late 90s.

A lot fans ditched 3rd wave ska because it was shallow music. It sounds interesting for about 6months - 1 year and then most people lose interest.

Number 2. We weathered it because we were misfits of the 3rd wave. We were playing roots ska/reggae/rnb. We werent' popular. Our headlining shows in NYC in the mid-90s when ska was peaking were in the 150-200 paid range. We took the long road up. Doing lots of touring on our own. Getting our own fans and avoiding being part of every "skalapalooza", "skavoovie", or my least favorite, "ska is dead" package tour.

9) Bands like The Slackers, The Toasters, and The Pietasters have successfully garnered a new legion of young fans. With little or no ska music available on FM radio, how does one go about attracting new fans?

Tour. Myspace. Tour. Myspace. That's pretty much it right now.

10) There have been some great ska bands to spring up in the past 5 years. What bands have caught your attention?

Aggrolites, Westbound Train, Green Room Rockers, Deals Gone Bad, Expanders, Los Hot Boxers, Moon Invaders, Proyecto Secreto.

Dave Hillyard is currently touring with The Slackers in support of their latest album, "Self Medication" on Indication Records. His latest solo album, "Hit The Jackpot" will be out this summer.

Many thanks to Dave Hillyard for taking time out to talk to us at Music Is Our Occupation!


  1. Thanks again to Dave Hillyard!

    If you live in California, The Slackers will be appearing at selct cities in May!

    Also, check out my podcast all April for special mini-podcasts all about Ska's History.


  2. Sweet interview. A rare read I must say.

  3. Ska is similarly dead in the mainstream in the UK, but reggae and ska are often in the background in tv commercials for major brands. There is still hope though. For example, I didn't know No Doubt started off as a ska covers band until I got their singles album in 2004 and read the sleeve notes. Then I got a mega-cheap 4CD box set of classic 2-Tone in my local supermarket of all places, then I found Dao, Gabe, Bobby and Andrew's podcasts.

    Regarding the shallowness of the music, there needs to be a balance. Root the lyrics too much to a situation and its just a protest song no-one will listen to 6 months later, generalise it and no-one will understand the message. Personally I'm actually a fan of Margaret Thatcher and I believe it was Callaghan, Wilson and Heath who caused all the problems for Britain's economy. No matter what you believe about that, the thing is, music mostly thrives on anger and/or joy. It can be easy to be angry with the government of the day and it can be very hard to be joyous about any politician. Then again I do have a mental block when it comes to writing lyrics. Prose I can pass myself at, but lyrics, not so much.


What do you think?