Steady on, John!
An interview with Unsteady's lead vocalist and sax player
By Abram Jones - RudeRoots.com
I caught up with John Roy, vocalist and saxophonist for one of my favorite bands, Unsteady, while he was driving around San Diego. When he's not recording or playing with Unsteady he is a professional saxophonist and vocalist with many other bands, including Dave Wakeling of The (English) Beat and Paul Humphreys of O.M.D. Unsteady has released two studio albums thus far and is gearing up to release their third, entitled "Live In The Studio" this year.
Abram: There seem to be a lot more songs with a "you suck" theme on Double Or Nothing than on Tightrope.
John Roy: Yeah, "those are my you suck songs" (laughs). There are a lot of leftovers from bad relationships and stories about girls on the second album. Plus there are a few more that were a little bit happier about the situation being screwed up. A lot of songs coming up on the next one are going to be happy sappy baby baby songs cause I'm a little happier now than I used to be.
AJ: One of Unsteady's strengths is their ability to mix it up, to mix and match styles and genres. JR: I'm glad you feel that way, you're one of 20 people in the world who do.) There were fewer scratchy, punky tracks on Double or Nothing. I thought "Race and Reason" from Tightrope was one of your best, if most atypical, tracks.
JR: Yeah, we go from kind of progressive rock to reggae on that one. We've had reviews from punk zines (about Tightrope and Double or Nothing) that said stuff like, Unsteady"They had two good songs but the rest are like a lounge act". Then there was a mod magazine who also liked two of our songs and thought the rest were crap. Then a trad ska zine liked our most trad sounding songs and hated the rest. I like to do the style to the song instead of the song to the style. I also can't help that I sound like Tom Jones, but hey, Tom Jones is sexy, right?
AJ: There were no women fronting on Double or Nothing. Is it the same female vocalist on the first and second albums?
JR: The first album is Kym Clift from Donkey Show. She had a baby and was really busy and couldn't come in for the second recording session. So, I got Audrey who was my previous vocalist from the Gangbusters. I couldn't get studio time enough to record all the songs I wanted and have a girl sing leads on the recording. I've got the numbers for a couple of gospel singers for the album I'm currently recording. Maybe you'll be hearing lots of female vocals!? (John begins to play an album for me he cut the night before with himself singing entirely falsetto. Sounds like a female soul singer. now he's covering Dennis Brown in falsetto).
AJ:This brings me to another question. on "California Ska-Quake" there's a version of the song Bad Attitude by Gangbusters. Are they covering you or vice versa?
JR: It's actually a Gangbusters song. I wrote it in '88 and recorded it with them.
AJ: Did you sing in Gangbusters?
JR: I sang backups but it was all Audrey fronting.
AJ: What's up with the label changes? Tightrope was put out on Immune, then Double or Nothing on Asian Man, now the web site says your next one will come out on Immune?
JR: No, we're not back on Immune. The new album was supposed to be released on Immune about two years ago. The third album has been recorded and it's in the can. Now that my five year contract is up with Immune I need to get my masters back. On the other hand, Mike Park at asian man records is super cool. His whole deal is 50/50, which is totally how it should be done. I'd love to put out more stuff with him.Who knows who'll put out the 4th album?
AJ: Tell me about your history. There have been a lot of lineup changes, which you cite on the site as mostly being the result of people realizing they're not going to get rich and famous playing the Ska.
JR: Right now any drummers that we had are gone and I have two other guys playing drums who are both phenomenal. I have spinal tap drummer situation, so I hope they don't spontaneaously combust or get abducted by aliens. Kevin's playing organ and keys, Paul's playing bass, Creedy on guitar, me on sax, and Jon Fisher on trumpet. Clay (alto sax player) was pretty regular for a while, but he's got his own band right now.
We've got a lot more fun stuff going on in this next one we just recorded. I got the trombone player from the Untouchables and a bunch of guest musicians. I'm looking for a vibraphone/marimba player right now. I think I want to do a dixieland song too, I've been listening to a lot of dixieland lately. I love having fun in the studio. The studio experience is totally different from the live experience, where you want to have as few people as possible doing as much as possible with as much versatility as possible and making as little money as possible. You can either have an album that's completely representational of a live band, or you can have an ALBUM. I think we sound better live actually than on the previously recorded albums. Some of our stuff was half baked on the albums and when we were playing out live we realized it had been tightened up some.
AJ: What will your upcoming studio album be like?
JR: Lots more reggae. Although you never know, if we recorded another five songs they might end up all being punk. Someone suggested that we record 36 songs and release three albums; one all punk, one all reggae, one all ska, under different band names. Then see if we'd do better with the close-minded folks who only like one style! (Laughs)
AJ: Do you think we're headed for a 'fourth wave' of ska any time soon? Not in terms of commerciality but stylistically. The Beatville folks kind of feel that the resurgence of a lot of trad ska constitutes a fourth wave.
JR: I can't say whether I agree or disagree. Is there a 5th wave yet? Touring with Dave Wakeling, I'm playing stuff that's current but I'm also playing the two tone stuff from the second wave and honestly, the reaction...the places are still sold out. First, second, third, fourth wave, whatever...I never caught the wave. We never really bought in to any wave with Unsteady so we never really got to surf on that wave of popularity or financial success. Maybe we just sucked! (Laughs heartily)
I have always listened to the old stuff, traditional, rocksteady, reggae, jazz. we actually didn't listen to the new "SKA" when we were out on tour. UnsteadyWith Unsteady we got to where we couldn't listen to our own music on the road, and we couldn't listen to the stuff at the shows.It got to where we could only listen to dub and new electronica, stuff like Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor or Kruder and Dorfmeister, Drum'n'bass stuff. Really progressive and inventive, with the same roots as what we play.
I know that the bands that were popular about three and a half years ago for four or five months, they might consider themsleves in a fourth wave. The bands my band played with in the late eighties (the 3rd wave?) LGB, No Doubt (before they stopped playing ska), Untouchables, Toasters, Donkey Show, DHC, and Hepcat were all in that wave. Some of these bands didn't make it through. Others did. I guess we'd be on a fifth wave then if we're going back to traditionalism...bands like Hepcat were coexisting with bands like Reel Big Fish in the 90's. You might call that a fourth wave.
Perhaps there is a reversion to traditional ska, but ska itself is a hybrid, a bastardization (I mean that respectfully). it's a living thing like all music. it grows and changes and takes on different attributes. I don't think it should ever be put on a museum shelf. That's how Ska lives so many decades after it's inception. I sound like an evangelist don't I?
AJ:I recently talked to John again while he was on the road touring with The (English) Beat. Any more info on the release of "Live in the Studio"?
JR: I'm not sure if I want to put it out now, we've been recording new stuff and I kind of like the new stuff better. We're going to save about four tracks from what we've already done, but there's a lot more reggae, jazz, lounge, and latin influence. The sound is moving more in that direction. Whatever sounds good at the time, it always branches out that way. I think live, you do what you can do, then when you go into the studio you come up with something completely different.
For more info on Unsteady visit: myspace.com/unsteadymusic
Photos from the bands's myspace page.