Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Birth of the NYC Ska Scene: Interview with Dave Barry of The Toasters

For all its amazing diversity of sound, the birth and success of the New York Ska scene was driven by a few key bands and talented musicians who through force of will and persistence, not to mention passion and energy helped to mold and launch a scene that took New York City and its surrounding environs by storm.  While The Toasters were the first ska band in New York City (following closely behind The Terrorists who played reggae in the late 1970's and early 1980's), other ska bands quickly followed in their path.  One of the unsung musicians who played a key role in almost all the important bands of the era was Dave Barry.

Barry, more than any other musician had the unique experience of playing with almost every notable band that came out of the NYC Ska scene of the mid 80's and early 90's. While Barry's main gig has been as the keyboardist for The Toasters for the last 20 years, by his own account he played with an early version of The Second Step (1986-89), Beat Brigade (1987-88 and 1989-91) as well as short stints with The NY Citizens, The Boilers and The A-Kings. This insider perspective makes him the perfect guide to provide a glimpse of the birth and maturation of one of the most important ska scenes in the U.S. 

Barry was kind enough to take time out to conduct an interview about being witness to the birth of the NYC Ska scene and his own memories of playing with many of the bands that went on to influence a generation of bands that came after them.

Did you grow up in New York City?
Sort of; Brooklyn born and bred. No better place to come from in my opinion. In Brooklyn, you had options.

When did you first get into music? When did you first start playing piano/organ?
I had no choice, really. My parents met as students at Manhattan School of Music. My mother a singer and my father a piano player. There was almost always a piano in my house. The few years that there wasn’t, my family was living in an apartment in 1970’s East Flatbush. During those years, the neighbor below us continuously blasted James Brown records for roughly 22 hours a day, so I was properly saturated with that stuff. It was also around that time that I was on Sesame Street and was lucky enough to be on with Stevie Wonder. I found some clips of that episode and realized that Ray Parker Jr. (Ghostbusters!) was playing guitar on that gig. So even when there was no piano around, I was still getting educated.

How did you get introduced to ska and reggae?
I guess my parents were fairly groovy. There was always music playing- I used to sleep with the radio on under my pillow. The Beatles, Ray Charles and The Band were in heavy rotation all my life, but when my mothers friend left that new Bob Marley record (Natty Dread, 1974) at my house, it was on.

How would you describe your approach to playing ska and reggae? The piano and organ can play such a key role in the sound of ska. Are you influenced by any particular pianists or organ players?
I want to say that I use the Bruce Lee “No Style” style, but I guess if I had to break it down, I have two opposing forces that I have to deal with; One- the keyboard is really just a big percussion instrument and there’s nothing better than locking it in with a great rhythm section, no matter what type of music you’re playing. Not being too obtrusive, but still adding to the bottom line in as cool a way as possible. Two- When I started playing with other people in high school- I figured I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let the guitar players of the world do all the grand-standing. A lot of them weren’t even that good...That philosophy led to an extremely busy style that has gotten me into quite a bit of trouble over the years. Once I learned to tame that urge to overplay, I was able to better hit my groove, both literally and figuratively.

As for influences- I don’t know if I can point out anybody in particular. I will say that in Junior high school, I would come home and put on The Stranger, by Billy Joel on the Turntable and just play along ‘till I got it right. I also liberated a Professor Longhair album from the music closet of my school that I learned a lot from. Before that, that movie The Sting was pretty big for a while, so I spent some time trying to learn Rag-Time stuff, which really helped to give me a fairly strong, independent Left hand, which also got me into trouble with Bass players at times.

All the other stuff just kind of seeps in, whether you're paying attention or not. I mentioned the Bob Marley album earlier- if memory serves, the keys on that album are not necessarily just playing the ska- there’s all sorts of wah pedaled clavinet going on, which can be traced back to Stevie Wonder and then back to Garth Hudson from the Band and then to 70’s TV themes and on to KC and The Sunshine Band.

How did Second Step get started? Where did you first meet your band mates?
There was zero ska scene in Brooklyn. My high school band mixed it up pretty well musically, but scene-wise? Nothing. A lot of rock bands for sure. We were sort of aware of the ska thing taking off in Manhattan because we picked up a flyer off the sidewalk with that famous ska image of Steve Hex standing with his back turned to the camera and we noticed a similarity in our styles of dress. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but Sammy and Constant, the two lead singers in The Second Step came looking for me at a clothing shop I was working at in Brooklyn. Maybe Victor Axelrod (who I used to babysit a few years previous) sent them my way. Me and Matt Malles went down and got offered the job and things kind of took off from there. We had just missed playing on the Hit and Run compilation, but we did do some recording initially. I’m not sure what happened to that stuff. For a while, the rhythm section consisted of me, Matt Malles and our best friend/ high school band mate, Jamal Evans. I don’t think he stuck around that long, but for my money, that’s when some powerful shit was blasting out of CBGB’s onto the Bowery. We definitely threw some Brooklyn into it. I’m not a Jazz player in the least, but we did have this old-school Jazz-Guy mentality of having to try to blow away any other bands that were playing on the bill. Not in an obnoxious way, we were just really competitive. It wasn’t easy either, with 24/7 Spyz- Living Colour, The Good Guys out of Virginia on the same bill. Nothing like the guys from another band standing on the side of the stage giving you the eyeball to get you to try stupid things like playing your organ with Timbale sticks or attempting to play a keyboard behind your head like Jimi Hendrix.

You played in multiple bands in the late 80's right (Second Step, Beat Brigade and The Toasters). How were you able to swing all those shows and rehearsals?
HA! Yeah man- I recently found a little appointment book that I used back then. I was literally playing almost every night. That was the life for a twenty something though. No family, kids or crazy responsibilities. Pay your rent so you have somewhere to go after the show. That was pretty much it unless you also had a day job. I was a department manager at Urban Outfitters on Broadway and Houston for a while and I think a lot of the Beat Brigade managed to secure positions there as well. Anyone from around that time will remember Giant Studios on 14th street. I know for sure that Second Step and The Boilers had monthly rooms there, so that really simplified things logistically.

What was the New York ska scene of the mid-80's like? I always got the impression that it was very tight knit scene.
I would definitely say it was tight-knit, meaning that it never got taken over or got too mainstream. It was also very incestuous (in a good way) everybody knew everybody else. As far as I knew, there wasn’t any kind of ugliness. Everybody was included. That’s why I was lucky enough to have played with all of these awesome folks. For instance, I remember being severely impressed when Second Step needed a drummer for a show at the Lizmar Lounge (?) and for some reason Keene, the singer from Urban Blight ended up playing drums that night.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable?
Just as I had mentioned previously- the timbale stick incident really happened. Without really thinking it through, I decided it would look really cool to follow the upcoming drum-roll on my organ with drum sticks. Dennis, the lighting guy at CBGB’s was this far-out Viet Nam vet who saw the keys flying in the air with each hit of the sticks, ran to my aid and I think we stopped the show for a moment or two while he tried to weld the broken keys together with his BIC lighter.

As someone who played in all of the key NYC ska bands you were afforded a unique opportunity to experience the scene from different perspectives. How would you describe the role and impact of each band on the scene?
Yeah, there was a very flat hierarchy in the beginning. The Toasters on top of course, but then everyone else below pretty much on the same level musically. The real difference was in style, and what influences you brought with you. From my point of view: The Boilers were the most Reggae- staying true to that style. The Beat Brigade brought a lot of The Clash/ Elvis Costello/ English Beat. The NY Citizens were kind of balls out Ramonesy/ Party on the Seventeenth Floor in your face. Second Step had, as I said before, a lot of Brooklyn in it and, without sounding too corny, a good helping of America in general (the country, not the band) to go with it. As we added horns, they brought their particular influences so all of a sudden there would be a Sonny Rollins quote or we would jump into a Second-Line/New Orleans thing for a bit or end a song with a big Gospel breakdown. To me- that was the beauty of the whole scene; An overall, distinct lack of fear. We did whatever we wanted, if you liked it, great- come to the next show and let’s see what happens.

This year marks your 20th year in The Toasters. How much has the US ska scene changed during that time? Was there a highpoint? A low point?
I don’t think I can say if it’s changed or not. I’m fairly removed from it, as my playing out has diminished from nightly to semi-monthly. I keep my toes in it by playing with the Toasters when they’re around here or if I’m able to go to visit Buck in Spain and do a record and some shows over there. One big difference is both cool and scary: While standing outside a venue with Buck, we noticed that we both had, by now, more in common with the parents who were dutifully dropping their kids off for the show. To me, even though we keep referring to it as a scene, it always seemed that the people at the ska shows had open minds and a desire, whether conscious or not, to not settle for whatever is current, or a style or sound that is forced upon them. In ska- you have options. The high points and low points are just personal moments really. I will say that the highs definitely outnumber the lows, though.

What do you do when your not playing ska?
I was lucky enough to fall into a career where I still get to make cool stuff. I’ve had a really amazing 14 years as a Designer/ Art Director. I’ve worked at World Wrestling Federation (Entertainment) and Marvel Comics designing ads, covers, logos and all sorts of other things.

What are your lasting memories of the NYC ska scene of the 80's?
Besides the fact that we all had cooler haircuts back then? I don’t know if this is a memory exactly, but I know that I’m damn lucky to have been part of it; I’m proud of what we did and all we accomplished. Even if for some reason it ends up being just a footnote in the grand scheme of musical history, I know that we certainly earned our spot .


Stratos ish said...

Great Interview , Dave Barry is was and will always be a talent. I was there and can attest that dave is has ben and will be righteous, gracious and the reason I know what gravitas means cause Mr Barry defines it. I had a very unique perspective on the "scene" as I quess it can be refrenced as always feel that the bands that Dave was part of could have broke nationally at any moment. The sound that The Second Step and the Beat Brigade had trancended Ska in such a way that there was a struggle to find a label for it. Inner city world beat was tossed around for a while by some while Hilly the former owner said about the Beat Brigade "those guys are just fuckin cool" Hilly loved Daves playing as much as I Marco just a suggestion I have always found it interesting how many members of the "scene" went on with their musical careers and what they have accomplished. I believe quite a few have had long careers and big accomplishments i would love to know . Thanks for thegreat interview

peeb said...

Awesome article. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Dave Goes Crazy! the only time I ever saw the Toasters with keys, I believe it was him 6/16/99. Pretty timely to read this now. I also didn't know the NYC SKA logo was the late steve hex. I always assumed it was a younger Buck...

great work as always Marco

Anonymous said...

Dave Barry is my cousin(1st cousin) he is a couple of years older and as a tiny kid..he intro'd me to great stuff like Clash, Stray Cats, Squeeze, etc. I became a recording artist too...2 cds and my own record label since 1994-RedjMusic(BMI). yep...a talented cousin indeed.