Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Birth Of The NYC Ska Scene: Interview with Paul Gil of The New York Citizens

As part of my ongoing quest to document the origins of the NYC ska scene of the early and mid-80's, I am profiling key musicians and bands who played an important part in giving birth to one of the most vibrant ska scenes in the U.S. One of those musicians was Paul Gil, who was an original member of seminal mid 80's NYC Ska band The New York Citizens (NYC's). By late 1986 and 1987 what is now considered the core of the old school New York ska scene had quickly coalesced: Second Step, Urban Blight, The Boilers, The Toasters, A-Kings and NYC's all helped to create one of the most vibrant, creative and important ska scenes in the U.S. which in turn helped to galvanize ska scenes across the U.S..

Much in the way that 2-Tone Records was really the label for The Specials and The Selecter, in its early days, Moon Records was the label for The Toasters and The NYC's. While The Toasters hewed to a 2-Tone inspired sound, The NYC's created a compelling musical stew with ska as its base, but that also drew inspiration from '60s Stax, British punk, new wave and 2-Tone, as well as funk and hard rock. In fact, you could make a case that along with Fishbone, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. Though The NYC's were contemporaries of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who took the ska-core sound and ran with it in the 90's), it was The NYC's who were among the very first American ska bands to try the kitchen sink musical approach.

My first encounter with The NYC's came when my band (then known as Panic!) opened a show for them at Rutgers University in September of 1988. My first impression of them was that they seemed like a musical gang who had an intimidating swagger, both on and off the stage. Though it was our very first show (we had been together about a month), we must have made an impression, because The NYC's were initially responsible for passing word about us on to others around the New York ska scene including Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters.

Over the early months of 1989, The NYC's invited us to play other shows with them in New York and New Jersey. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with the band and they tended to treat us as outsiders because we weren't part of the New York City ska scene, they were also responsible for giving us a lot of early breaks.

The NYC's had their origins is a band called Legal Gender which included singer Robert Tierney, Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Gill on the bass. While attending Manhattan College, Marotta met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, Legal Gender had a new wave/punk sound with some ska influences, but it was the addition of Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta (the Chas Smash of the band) and the recording of the song 'Overcast' (as a split 7" for Moon Records) which set them on the way to a new sound and a new name.

I recently connected with Paul. Below is the interview he did with me where he shared memories of his days as the bass player for The NYC's.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I grew up in Staten Island New York. My first musical influences came from my older brothers. Mostly Beatles, classic rock and motown until one of my brothers moved back in with us after living in an apartment around the corner from CBGB’s around 1979/80 and brought Clash, Police, The Jam and Sex Pistols records with him. He hated them…..I loved them.

When did you make the conscious decision to be a musician? What made you decide to pick up the bass?
The same older brother was a guitarist/bassist and I used to mess around with his gear when he wasn’t home. He eventually gave me a SEARS brand electric bass he had lying around and I started figuring it out. Up until then I’d spend hours sitting in front of an old stereo listening to Sgt. Pepper and Wings at the speed of sound trying to sing McCartney’s parts. I credit McCartney for teaching how to play bass. I started around 1981. My favorite bassist/influences are McCartney, Bruce Foxton and Karl Alvarez.

You were an original member of Legal Gender right? How did you meet the other members of the band? How did you come up with that name? Legal Gender recorded a single for Moon Records. What was that experience like?
Legal Gender formed when Rob Tierney and I met on the Staten Island ferry on the way to Manhattan one day in the fall of 1985. Rob’s good friend Dan Marotta was playing guitar in band that Rob was playing bass and singing in. He wanted to be a singer and give up bass. I had a drummer that I was playing with named Mike Hicks so the four of us got together to form Legal Gender. Rob had the name and nobody argued so that was it. The 'Overcast' single was a split single with a NY Mod band called the Press. Bucket, from Moon was awesome and always very good to us. Getting 'Overcast' released definitely made the band seem viable and potentially successful. It was essentially our blast off. (See pictures above of Legal Gender)

Legal Gender had a more punk/new wave sound. What made you decide to move more towards ska and why did you change the name of the band to The New York Citizens?
Sometime during our first year as Legal Gender, Rob made friends with Chris “Kid Coconut” Acosta at school. Chris became interested in being a part of the band and introduced us to Ska. We had of course already heard Madness and the Specials and some of the old 60’s ska but we didn’t realize there was scene in it. We all took to Ska instantly, developing our own favorites and such. Chris, although not a musician, had great instinct for style and really felt that it was important to be part of the scene and not just another band on it. We used to hang out together as a band at the local hotspots that catered to the ska scene where we made friends and built our fan base. We decided that Legal Gender wasn’t right for the band anymore so we all wrote down 5 or 10 prospective names and then compared lists. I know I had the word “Citizens” in a few of my ideas and several of us had “New York” or “NYC” on our lists so we put them together. We were all such huge New York City fans and all possessed that obnoxious “NYC is the center of the universe” attitude so the name fit us perfectly.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? When and how did you hit on the original NYC's sound combining ska, funk, rock, old school rap and hints of punk and metal? I always thought The NYC's were more ska-influenced than a ska band. Do you agree?
Wow….that’s a mystery. Since we all came from different musical backgrounds, it just seem to blend and happen that way for us. So many bands would have broken up over contrasting styles but, the true secret to the NYC’s sound, is that we were all individually so headstrong and arrogant that we basically jammed all our influences together and created something truly unique. Yeah, I agree we more ska influenced than straight Ska. We’d occasionally have conflicts within the music that couldn’t be resolved (That basically meant that none of us would give in!!) and we’d end up scrapping the song. There are probably 3 records worth of unreleased NYC’s material that never made it past rehearsal.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in New York City that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
That has to begin with CBGB’s. Our first few shows there were Sunday, Monday nights at like 1:30 am as Legal Gender. We had a completely different version of “Pounding the Pavement” in the set but all the other material was basically Punk and Hardcore. One of those nights, the light guy made a comment after our set…..I think he said “Oh, another Hardcore band”. C-nut flipped out and was itching for a brawl. We calmed him down, told him it was no big deal and moved on but that’s where the NYC’s were really born.

Another show that I can’t forget was City Gardens in Trenton. We were asked to open for The Ramones there on a Saturday night. We were City Gardens regulars so we were really comfortable there. The Ramones tour manager insisted on that annoying, “You guys have to set up in front of the Ramones gear and don’t touch anything” speech. We obliged and set up our 7 man band in front of their gear. The joint was packed by showtime……including a dozen gabba gabba hey signs and such. When we first went on it was rough going. Lotsa Gabba chants and we want the Ramones chants and a few “You Suck” thrown in as well. If you ever saw us live you’d note that we were all over the fuckin place. Skankin’, moshing, jumping on each others backs, Chris on Danny’s shoulders during songs………It was a fuckin’ circus on stage. Part of the charm I thought…..but the Ramones didn’t. Half way through the set, our fans started getting more vocal and The Ramones faithful started to turn as well. It ended up being one our best feeling shows. The Ramones manager was incensed by this and ordered us off stage immediately. They even shut down the vocals for a minute but we kept on playing (I think we did an Impromptu Ska version of the Booker T. & the MGs song “Green Onions” while the mics were out) and eventually finished the set. We left the stage a mess (as usual) and found that The Ramones crew were pulling our cases and stuff out the side door saying that we’d been thrown out and that the Ramones wanted us out of the building before they left the dressing room. There was nothing funnier that seeing “5ft 5in” C-nut yelling at Joey “6ft 6in” Ramone in the parking lot. A classic. By the way….we played City Gardens again 3 weeks later and the club staff said The Ramones were a bunch of dicks. Funny note…..The photo of us live that’s on the “Stranger things have happened” cassette was taking at a gig at Mary Washington College a few months later…….when we opened for The Ramones again. I guess they forgot.

We had so many awesome shows in NYC. So many shared bills with The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim from Boston. Each band on the scene had a different twist that always made things interesting. Bim had that reggae feel, The Toasters (with the Unity Two in the band) had a great Rap/Toasting element and super hooks in the tunes, The Skaflaws kept the traditional sound alive, The Second Step had a great soul base, Bop Harvey had a weird jam band feel and played great Reggae grooves and Skadank was cool dancehall.

We got to play with some cool West Coast bands on the tours as well. Operation Ivy had just broken up but several members had formed another band which eventually turned into Rancid, No Doubt was so young and awesome on stage. Gwen was such a little hottie. After our show we invited everyone over to our hotel room to hang out. I was sitting on a bed talking to Aidrian, Eric and Tony from No Doubt about swapping T shirts and I said to Aidrian, “Dude, your singer is fuckin smokin man, hook me up with that”, to which he just bust out laughing. I was like, what….what’s up. He then told me that Eric, sitting 6 inches from me, was her big brother and Tony, sitting 6 inches on the other side, was her boyfriend. An awkward moment for sure but the guys were real cool.

Tell me about recording 'On The Move' in 1988 which is the quintessential NYC's record.
We recorded it at a Studio in Dobbs Ferry called Sleepy Hollow. That was a tough time actually. We had spent so much time together that we were starting to hate each other. We’d been playing dozens of shows up and down the east coast and getting on each others nerves. The song structures were all set long before recording but we all had different ideas on sounds. We’d stand in the booth for hours yelling at each other about bass sound, guitar sound, vocal volume….everything. I think that’s why the record, although full of great stuff, wasn’t recorded very well. I remember half of us stopped going to the mixes after a while because it was taking too long. We were definitely a “LIVE” band.

Both our bands were part of the 'NYC Ska Live' album recorded at the Cat Club in 1990. Do you have any memories of that show and what are your thoughts about the album?
That was one of the truly memorable show I was a part of. EVERYONE was there. The mood in the room was awesome and we all had great feelings about capturing the NYC sound and spirit live. I thought the record was cool but it could never capture the true “NYC SKA LIVE” feeling.

Our bands shared the stage at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ quite a few times. What are your memories of that iconic club? You recorded a fantastic live version of 'Lemon Jelly' there that appeared on 'The Truth About The New York Citizens'. You can actually hear Randy Now come on as soon as the song ends which is great.
I loved City Gardens. It was like a small club in a big space and we had so many great shows and made so many awesome friends there. It was a good spot to play with Ska and Mod bands from Baltimore and DC. Lemon Jelly is actually the only NYC’s song that Rob and I wrote exclusively together so I have a soft spot for it. We died laughing when we heard Randy at the end and decided that we had to keep it. We had some really fun shows with Panic/Bigger Thomas over the years. I always thought you guys sounded a lot like The English Beat. My favorite was “Ska in my Pocket”.

The band also recorded 'Stranger Things Have Happened' in 1990 which had some classic songs including 'Shut Up And Listen" and 'Boxer Shorts'. What are your memories of that recording session?
We went back to Sleepy Hollow studio for that one and we worked together a lot better…….mostly because we left the majority of the mixing work to Rob, Chris and Dan. I love that tape, I wish we had pressed it into vinyl too. We may have rushed to produce that one because we were doing so many shows and selling so much product that we needed a new product to sell. If we had more time I think we would have made another great full length with songs like “Ransom”, Rude Girls” and “17th Floor”. These were really the heydays. The band was working business so well that we started even making money.

The band did a few national tours and opened for a number of national acts right?
We did two official national tours, I think in 1988 and 1989. People all over the country welcomed us and made us feel like the effort was worth it. We played everywhere from The Whiskey in LA to a Elks Club Lodge in Las Vegas. We did open for a ton of acts over the years. Some I’d mention are the Ramones, B.A.D., Sister Carol, They Might be giants, Fishbone. We did a Halloween show at U Amhearst one year that had an opening band that was an early incarnation of Nirvana.

Why did the band break up?
I basically left the band in 1991 due to creative/personal differences. I used to almost regret it but in retrospect, it was the right time. Some of the guys in the band wanted to jump on another west coast tour. The problem was that we only had 4 shows booked over a 4 week period, “Stranger things have happened” was already a year old and we had no new recordings to sell and the promoters were not willing to foot the plane and rental bills. I had spent almost 6 years in the band and hadn’t had a real job the whole time. I had just moved into Manhattan with my girlfriend and gotten a decent job. I thought we needed to concentrate on recording another record and then touring it. The last phone call with Dan ended with a “do the tour or you’re out” ultimatum to which I hung up. They went and did the dates (I think they borrowed Matt Malles from The Toasters to play bass) and it was a financial disaster with weak shows and bad promotion. Mike filled me on the details when they got back and left the band shortly after that……..a few thousand dollars poorer. The band continued on for a while and recorded more material (which is on cd on “The truth about The New York Citizens”) but I think that the newer stuff, while good, didn’t do justice the heart of the band.
Side note: They were so pissed that I ditched the tour that sold my Mesa Boogie 215 bass cabinet before I could pick it up……Fuckheads!!

What are your lasting memories of performing with The NYC's?
I don’t think I’ll ever forget playing 'DANCE' or 'The National Front' or 'Helltown' and watching a couple hundred people jump in unison. That was what was special about the scene and what the moron major label execs could never see. We were a true DIY band and we did it very well. I’ll also miss the passion that we had on stage. As time wears on I think most fondly of those days and the people who made them great. I already mentioned Rob, Danny, Mike, and C-nut but would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to John Pavlik (A true Jazz cat who brought in the one influence we weren’t already tapping) Jerry O’Sullivan (Who had never been in a band when we met him and ended up writing a bunch of our best known tunes) and Darrell Foster. Most importantly, the man, the myth, the legend….Tom Perna. Our manager, friend and merchandiser. He booked us, sold the merch to finance our shenanigans and had our back… matter what stupid shit we’d get caught up in. Without Tom, you would have never heard of the NYC’s.

What are you up to these days? Do you still play the bass?
I’m still playing bass with several different projects. My two main bands are Bunnie England and the New Originals which is a Live Band Karaoke band. We do about 180 tunes that consist of classic rock, punk, new wave, hard rock etc…. It’s a lot of fun. You can find us by searching Myspace or Facebook. I’m also in pre-production on a musical called “Without You” starring Anthony Rapp of RENT, A Beautiful Mind, Dazed and Confused fame. It’s projected to open in Boston in the fall 2010.

Any chances for a reuion?
I recently stumbled onto a facebook fan site for The New York Citizens and got to reconnect with a few old friends. I still speak to Mike, Danny and Tom and I can get a hold of Chris too. I’d love to find Rob but have not had much luck as of yet. If I could…..I’d love a reunion!


Kames Jelly said...

id love a reunion too!

The NYC's are one of my favorite bands to come out of that scene. I actually just picked up the Legal Gender 7" and i love it.

Jon said...

Thanks for the interview. One thing stuck out to me though, regarding "Strangers Things Have Happened":

"I love that tape, I wish we had pressed it into vinyl too."

I have it on vinyl, I guess he forgot, or worse never knew, that Moon pressed it up (it's possible that was during the period Moon only pressed vinyl for Moon Europe).

Anonymous said...

Hey Jon,

You're right. I never knew "Stranger Things Have Happened" was pressed onto vinyl. Then again, me and the guys didn't speak for over 10 years after it was over so they probably were not compelled to let me know.


Jon said...

I just checked my copy, MRE-020 1990. There were a couple albums around that time where Moon pressed up vinyl in England and then they were imported back to the US (hence the 'E' after MR). One thing I've wondered about since I got it (which must have been around the time it came out) is whether the back cover was intentionally printed upside down. Anyone else have a copy?

Steve from Moon said...


Excellent interview! There's not too much about the Citizens on the web (they had broken up way before the rise of the internet and the 3rd wave ska-boom in the mid 90s), so this really helps fill in some of the blanks.

Back in the very late 80s/early 90s, quite of few Moon releases were pressed on vinyl by Revolver in the UK (including Dance Hall Crasher's debut album; NYC's "Stranger Things Have Happened"; and The Toasters' "Thrill Me Up") for distribution over there and importing back here to the US. Moon had suffered several distributor failures around this time (losing both product and money in the process), so this was a way to keep the releases flowing without putting up much cash.

A NY Citizens' reunion would be incredible!

- Steve from Moon

Marco On The Bass said...

Thanks for all the comments on this interview, Its generated a lot of traffic. There must be a lot of NYC fans out there.

JON- I also have the MRE release of that album and the back cover art is also upside down on mine.

STEVE-Thanks for sharing the link on your blog. If you are in touch with Robert Tierney or have his contact info let me know. He seems to be the missing piece. Perhaps we can orchestrate an NYC's reunion on the heels of The Beat Brigade.

Anonymous said...

Reunion please! I want to D.A.N.C.E!

Eric said...

I second that! I'll drive all the way down from VT to check that show out if it happens!

Anonymous said...

Its been over 20 yrs. Funny, have not seen that shot of Paul since I printed/shot it. Excellent coverage. Hats off to you. Personally, I think it was the best select shot of Paul which represented the whole attitude at the time. Some of the best f****** shows ever.

Bruce (The Photographer)

Marco On The Bass said...

Thanks Bruce. It was a great shot of Paul and definitely captured the band's attitude spot on.

Anonymous said...

N.Y. CITIZENS "Stranger Things Have Happened" 12" 5 tracks TEST PRESSING