Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Exclusive: Interview with Josh Harris of The Untouchables

Wearing my shades at midnight

The Untouchables (The UT's) were the first U.S. ska band and Josh Harris, who joined the band after their founding in LA in the early 80's was an important creative force in the success the band enjoyed prior to and after their signing to Stiff Records. Harris who came to the band after stints in both The Fabulous Titans and The Shakers, who were both likely the first U.S. reggae bands, wrote one of The UT's most memorable songs "What's Gone Wrong". The band have always been an inspiration to many of us who came of age as fans of ska in the late 70's and early 80's. I was lucky enough to see the band open for UB40 in 1984 and they had a style and sound that influenced me to start my own band a few years later. After learning that many of the guys in The UT's started their band without knowing their instruments I was moved to pick up the bass and learn how to play it.

I asked Josh if he would answer a few questions about those heady days of playing in the band and he graciously agreed and provides an inside look into what it was like to be part of such a seminal U.S. ska band.

Can you tell me about your introduction to music and ska music in particular?
At the age of five, I began taking classical piano lessons. I continued to train for 10 years before deciding that pop music was my true love. In 1974, I joined what may have been America's First Reggae Band. We were called The Fabulous Titans and hailed out of Berkeley,Ca. The Harder They Come had recently been released and left a lasting impact. The Titans later transformed into Warner Bros recording artists, The Shakers. But in 1976, I decided to move to Southern California. Once there, I enrolled at Cal State-Los Angeles and began pursuing a career as a recording engineer. After completing studies, I accepted a position at a studio in North Hollywood, called Dreamship Studios. There I worked with artists like: Ray Mansarek (The Doors), Los Lobos and the punk band X... I planned on eventually becoming a record producer/session player.

You joined The UTs a few years after the band had started. How did you meet them and who invited you to join the band?
A friend named Roger Harris (no relation) was hired to produce a single for The Untouchables. After completing the "A" side "The General" , the band began preparing the "B" side, an instrumental called "Tropical Bird". Roger suggested to the band that they allow me to add a bubbling organ part. Since the band had no keyboard player, they accepted Roger's suggestion. They liked my contribution and later asked me to join the group. I then became a member of what may have been America's first Ska Band.

Here is video of the song "Tropical Bird" that Josh played organ on:

What was your first live show like and what was the California ska scene of the early and mid-80's like?
My first show with The Untouchables was on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, at a popular nightclub called The Roxy. I was totally honored to be asked to perform with The U.T.'s.. Although they hadn't been picked up by a major label, they were already quite well established in Los Angeles . The local mod scene was already happening when I met the U.T.'s. It was in pockets around the rest of California, but it's popularity was growing quickly.

Can you share any unusual stories about touring with the band
Well, without a doubt, the strangest gig we ever played was in Rancho Santa Fe, about two hours east of LA. We performed in a bullfight arena, which was legal (and fairly unusual) in California.The stage was erected in the center of the bullring and our dressing room was a mobile home that had been parked next to the bullpen. Needless to say, we worried about a stampede, but fortunately the giant steers liked our music. It was in that mobile dressing room, looking out at the herd of hoofs, that I came up with the idea for The U.T.'s to perform a ska version of the Herb Alpert 60's spaghetti western hit, "The Lonely Bull". Our exuberant version of the song became a mosh pit favorite.

Here is video of the song "Lonely Bull"

Tell me about recording "Live and Let Dance"
"Live & Let Dance" was an EP that the band recorded in 1983. El Dorado Studios in Hollywood had been built in the early '50's by the R&B great, Johnny Otis. All of the songs on Live and Let Dance were eventually re-recorded onto Wild Child, but this EP gave us our first major recognition. Live & Let Dance was released on our own Twist label and distributed through Enigma Records. After releasing the LP, we then shot video for Free Yourself.. This won the 1984 Billboard Magazine's Best Indy Video of the Year.

Here is the video for "Free Yourself" featuring Josh Harris on keys/organ

The U.T.'s were the first US band to sign to Stiff Records in the UK. How did the label treat you? Any interesting stories about having a hit song in the UK?Dave (Robo) Robinson was the President of Stiff Records (Madness, Desmond Dekker, Elvis Costello). He saw the "Free Yourself" video and flew from London to Los Angeles to sign us. We were all greatly surprised and honored at his arrival. Robo asked where we wanted to record our next album and we all wanted to go to the U.K. Robo agreed and flew the band (sans horns) to England. Back in LA, local radio station KROQ was very much behind the band's adventure. For our first UK tour, we broadcast regular live radio feeds from London to Los Angeles. Clyde would report the progress of the band over the air to fans back home.Our first UK show was at Dingwall's in North London..This nightclub was created out of an old barge located on Lock 17, Chelsea. It was very cool... There was a lot of media in attendance and we were very excited about performing for everyone. Things went very well. After receiving a ton of endorsing press, "Free Yourself" shot to number #17 in the U.K. charts.

Tell me about recording the "Wild Child" LP
We began touring the UK and eventually landed in Holland. Soundpush Studios was located near Blaricum, about an hour east of Amsterdam. The studio was state of the art, I had never seen a better equipted facilty. Producer Stewart Levine (Hugh Masakela, Simply Red) was chosen to handle the production. The album was recorded in about 4 weeks. After finishing the LP, Robo presented the band with a song that he liked for us. It was "I Spy for the FBI". He obtained the services of Jerry Dammers (The Specials) to produce this song. I was fortunate enough to work closely with Jerry in the post production at Air Studio in Old London. I provided harmonies, musical arrangements and keyboard overdubs.

Here is the video for "I Spy For The FBI" featuring Josh on organ

Tell me what it was like to be in the movie "Repo Man"
Charley Sheen and Emilio Estevez were friends of The Untouchables. Emilio's first feature film was Repo Man. He asked the band to appear in the film. In our first scene, the UT's are riding our scooters in formation. We are returning from rehearsal to Chuckie's mom's house. We almost got sideswiped by the Chevy Malibu at the beginning of the shot. I'm riding my barely operational Lambretta LI150. In our next scene, we return to the house to find Emilio there with Chuckie's Mom. Jerry sits down next to Emilio on the couch. He starts smiling at him, in a very tense moment in the film. Our last scene has us laying the boot to poor old Emilio next to the car that he's come to take. The film initially premiered at the Director's Guild, in Hollywood. The film was so weird, that I was convinced it was going to be a turkey. After it's theatrical release, it kind of went nowhere. The movie began receiving acclaim when the NY Times critic Vincent Canby wrote this review . The movie then became incredibly popular and finally became a classic.

You wrote and sang "What's Gone Wrong" which was one of the band's most popular songs. Tell me about the process of writing and recording the song.
I created the melody during a soundcheck, before a U.T gig at the famed Cookoo's Nest, in Santa Ana. I was just doodling around and came up with the groove. The next day, I went over to Dreamship Studios and started laying the basic tracks. Soon, Clyde came by to add guitar and we were performing it within a week.. Stiff Records shot a video for the song, but I've only seen it once. One of my fondest memory of alltime, is waking one morning to the radio/alarm playing What's Gone Wrong.

Here is a video for "What's Gone Wrong" without Josh

Why did you leave the band?
There were a lot of issues that went into my decision to leave the band. Getting signed to a foreign label meant a major departure from my then-current life.Though the band was becoming famous, it wasn't really what I wanted. I hated to tour & travel and that's all that we were doing. I was 5 years older than the other guys. I'd met my future wife Carol in 1984. I was getting ready to settle down.

Are you still in touch with any of your band mates?
The Untouchables performed in San Francisco last year and asked me to join them onstage at The Great American Music Hall. A 10 piece dance troupe, "The Devilettes" joined us on stage in silver and gold go-go shimy-shimy outfits for "Free Yourself". That was really fun.

What are you doing these days?
Carol has been my wife now for 22 years. .I have a small recording studio at our home in Marin County. I continue to write and post my songs on my page at myspace. com. Carol and I are part-owners of an organic cafe and bakery in nearby Larkspur called "The Rustic Bakery". I also love to swim, hike, walk and ride my mountain bike. Thank you Marco for spending your time with me. I hope that you and your readers enjoy whatever insight I could provide.


Steve from Moon said...


Thanks for doing this interview with Josh Harris. The UTs were one of my favorite US ska bands. I was lucky enough to see them while they were on tour for their "Agent Double 0 Soul" album--the record was uneven, but the band's performance was incredible! I caught them at Joey Ramone's short-lived Downtown Club, which I think was on Bond Street, just off of Broadway, under a jeans store. Must of been about 1989/1990. Wish I had a chance to see them again...

Also, your postings as of late have been terrific. I'm in awe of your knowledge of 1980s era ska and reggae bands. When do you find the time to do all this?

Keep up the great work. We're not worthy...


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