The Hoovers were led by two Brits, Paul Whiting on keyboards and William Sell on guitar who relocated to San Francisco from London and carried their accents with them, making them the only California ska band that sounded legitimately like the British 2-Tone bands of the early 80's. Though the 4-piece had no horn section, they sounded very much like a Yank version of Madness. They recorded an LP in 1980 titled "Skin and Blisters" which includes a frantic ska version of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" long before UB40 decided to a pop-reggae version with Chrissy Hynde. They followed their first LP with an E.P. titled "Smut & Class" which unfortunately was their final recording. Until now.
I recently caught up with lead singer Paul Whiting who took time to conduct an interview with me and provide his insight and experiences of what it was like as an Englishman to be playing ska to crowds on the West Coast during the height of 2-Tone in the early 1980's.
Can you tell me about your introduction to music and ska music in particular?
Well early days it was all Beatles and The Dave Clark Five, Kinks too. As for ska it was mainly that which had a pop bent to it. Desmond Decker I loved, because of the pop music influence. Dave and Ansell Collins were another favourite, also Pluto Shervington of ‘Dat’ fame. Anything from Trojan I usually had time for. Of course Madness and The Specials were favourites, but we were sort of doing stuff at the same time, so perhaps not so influential.
How did The Hoovers get started? Did you know the other members of the band before you started the band?
Well it started in 1980, Bill Sell the guitar player and I both moved from England to the States. We played in England together for about five years before the move. He went to LA and I came to SF. But we got together in The Bay Area after about six months of arrival. We then advertised for a drummer and bass player who were sympathetic to what we were trying to do.
Was there a ska scene in San Francisco when the band started? Who did you play shows with? Where did you play shows?
No not really a ska scene here, but we seemed to fit on bills that were punky or new waveish. We played shows with ‘The Offs’ Romeo Void’, Eye Protection, Chris Isaak, Madness and a lot of other people but all a long time ago. A lot in San Francisco, but we traveled up to Oregon, Washington and Canada and of course many times to L.A.
Who was the main songwriter for the band and tell me how you approached the song writing process?
I was the main songwriter I would say though Bill Sell wrote a number of songs as well. I think my early stuff and well even now is certainly intensely personal, but I always seemed to manage to inject some humour and sarcasm a long the way. The songs written together were much more silly and sometimes complete nonsense, I mean listen to ‘Jimmy Jones’ a song about a man having sex with fish (say no more).
What were your first live shows like and what was the West Coast ska scene of the late 70's and early 80's like? Did you play any shows with The Untouchables or any of the 2-Tone bands when they toured?
As mentioned before we played with Madness. We did not play with The Untouchables as I think they were around a little later, though I met some of those guys at ‘The On Club’ in L.A. Most of the shows were really good, although some people did not have a clue what we were doing. But overall people were at the least polite and most times very enthusiastic.
Is it true that Jerry Dammers considered signing The Hoovers to 2-Tone? If so, can you tell me a bit about how that initially developed?
Well to be honest I first heard about this about a year ago while surfing the Internet. It is possible that he approached our record company, but we ended up in various law suits and not speaking with them for the last six months we were together, so we never heard about any Dammers offer, if in fact there was one.
Can you share any unusual stories about touring with the band or any shows that are particularly memorable?
Well the whole road experience is unusual all the time, for some reason the drummer got all the girls, (well he was gorgeous) so not much to report there. Mainly there is a lot of meals at Denny's, a lot of driving and then the shows. But it is probably the most fun you could have. Memorable shows Eagles Hall in Olympia with Romeo Void, armed guards at the door for some reason I don’t know what they were expecting, Deborah (Iyall) and I had a good laugh at this place. I mean it was the scouts hall in the middle of a field. California hall with Madness was great, as they were the nicest people you could want to meet. Memorable in a different way was The Commadore Ballroom in Vancouver Canada. A place that held 1200 people and we sold 100 tickets. I guess we just weren’t that popular up there.
Tell me about recording the "Skin and Blisters" album and the "Smut and Class" EP. Are there any plans to re-issue them?
No plans for re issue. “Skin And Blisters” was recorded in San Jose for 300 dollars, the bass player sold his old station wagon to pay for it, it was re mixed by the record company, but it was very raw still. “Smut And Class” cost considerably more but I don’t know that it was as good as the first album. Some songs bug me to this day on that EP.
How and why did the band come to an end?
Well we sank beneath the waves in 1981 our last show was at San Jose State. The record company had dumped us and us them and we just didn’t have money enough to do it full time.
What prompted you to reform earlier this year? Tell me about your new album "Toy"?
Well we just couldn’t help ourselves, I know another middle-aged band who think they still have something, but really I think we do and we love doing it. “Toy” we are all proud of, as I think it is a good mix of different styles of music. Obviously there is a strong SKA influence, but there are some other influences in there too. I think it is just good songs, that mean something to us, (cliché). But it can’t be helped.
Tell me a bit about your other musical projects outside of The Hoovers?
Well I have never stopped playing. Got a lot into Americana stuff but I’m not much good at it. Did a couple of CD’s all acoustic, but what does a cockney know about Americana. Well it has the story telling aspect I guess. Got to meet the great “Tom Russell” along the way, who just might be the best folk/Americana artist of all time. That’s a plug Tom. But I digress.
Finally, what is your take on the current state of ska in the UK/US?
Well everyone tells me ska is really big right now back home, but they say that here and I don’t see much evidence. I mean I’m not seeing many pork pie hats, short pants e.t.c. as I did when I lived in Brixton in 1978. People don’t tend to live the music anymore. Where I live the same people go to a “ John Mayer” show as go to watch “The English Beat”. And that’s good but there is no ska movement. Well least not here in sunny, spoiled Marin county…….lol.
The band have reunited and played a show earlier this year. They will be performing again on November 15th at Sweetwater Station which is in Larkspur, CA, If you live in or near the Bay Area you should check this show out. The band has also recorded a new album titled "Toy" that you can sample at their MySpace site or purchase on their web site.
Below are videos of their first reunion show in February of this year performing "World Gone Mad" and "Up The Rhythm".
Here is the tracklist and download to their long out-of-print 1980 LP "Skin and Blisters" and the 1981 EP "Smut And Class":
Skin & Blisters
1 The Good Life
2 Jimmy Jones
3 I Got You Babe
4 The Brighton Run
5 To Your Mother
6 The World Gone Mad
7 The Day They Made Him King
8 Roly Poly
9 She Want It
10 Pretty Little Blossom Song
11 Captain Scarlet
Smut And Class
1 Sofa Girl
2 Backroom Boys
3 O Deedus Nobalis
4 The Red and the Blue
Here is the download for both LPs:
UPDATE November 30, 2008: The links are fixed! Many thanks to Tone And Wave for sharing a new link to both out-of-print records by The Hoovers.