Thursday, December 30, 2010

Interview With Joyce Rooks of Trowsers - Early 80's San Diego-based Band Perform Eclectic Take On Ska & Reggae

As part of my ongoing quest to document the origins of the American ska scene of the early and mid-80's, I am profiling key bands and musicians who served as trailblazers in giving birth to ska scenes all over the U.S. These early local scenes would later knit together an American ska scene that would nurture and support early touring bands like The Toasters, Bim Skala Bim, The Untouchables and Fishbone. While Los Angeles was certainly a key ska capital of the U.S.. its neighbors to the north in San Francisco (home to The Hoovers) and to the south in San Diego deserve honorable mention in the development of ska music in the U.S.

San Diego in particular has always supported a diverse music scene including rock, punk, ska and reggae bands. One band in particular was Trowsers who featured San Diego music mainstay Joyce Rooks. With Rooks on the guitar and vocals and her co-vocalist Y-Lee, Trowsers created an upbeat, unique and lively sound fusing reggae, ska, elements of dub, afro-pop and a unique sense of humor and anti-establishment politics that endeared them to audiences across Southern California. The band was most notable for the contrast between Rooks soulful vocals and the almost indescribable and unmistakable vocals of Y-Lee (who sounds like a cross between Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys and Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) on a variety of short and longer songs that in some cases are like nothing you've ever heard before. The band were so hot at one point that they drew the attention of both Los Angeles music impresario Kim Fowley (who discovered The Runaways) and Stiff Records honcho Jake Riviera.

Trowsers began life in 1979 as The Ballistics, when Lee took a trip to Kingston, Jamaica to record a few early songs with local Jamaican musicians including 'Rolling With A Feeling' (making it a true American reggae musical artifact) and where he soaked up the sound of reggae which is clearly evident on the band's later recordings. The band recorded 2 albums worth of songs including 'Drop 'Em' which features Rooks contributions on guitar and vocals that was released in 1983 and 'Solitary Confinement' released in 1984 which was collection of unreleased songs including several 8-track recordings from 1982 and 1983. Despite their decidedly punk rock look (check out the art work for their albums below!) take a listen to 'Rolling With A Feeling' below which ranks with any of the best reggae I have heard.  The song 'Kraken Up' captures the band's ska and reggae sound and sense of humor and also highlights the fantastic interplay and the contrast between between Rooks and Y-Lee's vocals and personalities.

I was very lucky to be able to connect with Trowsers singer/guitarist Joyce Rooks who shared her musical memories of growing up in San Diego and her experiences performing with the band.  Below is an interview with Rooks who is a San Diego music icon.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most? What was the first record or single that you ever bought?
I was born in Baltimore and my parents moved to California when I was 2. We lived in San Diego and Long Beach because my dad was in the Navy. We moved to L.A.when I was seven so I pretty much grew up there with the influence of nearby Hollywood. My earliest memories of music were Top 40 radio played by my dad and jazz from my mom. Neither one of them was a musician but we always had music at home of all genres. My mother bought me Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Tchiakovsky's Sleeping Beauty. The first record I bought with my own money was "Don't Mess With Bill" by the Marvelettes. It was a competition between me and a friend who could get the record first. L.A. had great radio stations in the 60's so we heard everything. My mom played the jazz station but my dad would play Top 40 which was nothing like today. We heard the Supremes, Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, James Brown and even Johnny Cash.

You played the cello starting at age 12 right?
I began playing in junior high school orchestra. I wanted to play violin but they ran out of instruments so the teacher handed me a cello. Once I held it I wasn't disappointed long I just wanted to play an instrument of any kind.

When did you decide you wanted to be a singer and guitar player?
I always sang at home to records and the radio but never considered myself a great singer. My mother would play records of all kinds of singers, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Billy Ekstein and so many more. We weren't church people so that wasn't so much influence but when we would visit my grandmother in Baltimore she would play gospel radio in Sunday mornings, never going to church. I started playing guitar in high school because everybody played guitar and it was easier to carry around than my cello and I wanted to learn rock and roll riffs.

What happened at age 18 that made you decide to explore the world of punk?
Actually, punk rock came a few years later for me, I was 23 when I joined The Cockpits (see picture above). I loved the DIY ethic of punk and that you didn't have to be Jimmy Page on guitar, not that there is anything wrong with that, and that it was open to girls and guys. So much of rock and roll was macho posturing (which I loved but could not participate in). Up until that time there were not many women in rock music. Janis Joplin, Grace Slick. Joni Mitchell played guitar with guys. Punk at the time wasn't limited to one sound. There were all kinds of punk.

What was the San Diego music scene of the late 70's and early 80's like?
It was fun and somewhat dangerous at the beginning. San Diego is a lovely but very conformist kind of city. It is home to the Navy and Marines and the military industrial complex. This makes for a politically conservative town. When the police would get word of young people in leather and strange clothes playing loud music or just hanging out, these gatherings must be crushed and many times they were. Shows would be held where ever space could be rented this included the North Park Lion's club. Through it all I saw some amazing shows with bands at the very beginnings of their careers.

Tell me about your experiences in San Diego punk band's The Cockpits and The Dinettes?
I answered an ad in the San Diego Reader, guitarist wanted for all girl punk band the Cockpits. It was a dream come true because I had an electric guitar and an amp. I was ready to play. Our first gig was at Porter's Pub on the University of California San Diego campus. We opened for L.A. punk band The Alleycats. The Dinettes came later after some personnel changes. The Dinettes had a lot of potential but succumbed to all the classic rock and roll cliches.

Were you a fan of ska an reggae before you joined Trowsers?
The first reggae record I heard was the soundtrack to 'The Harder They Come'. It was very different music to me. I knew Millie Small because 'My Boy Lollipop' was a hit when I was a kid. I didn't know that it was called ska.

How did you end up joining Trowsers?
I was heart broken to have to leave The Dinettes but I couldn't deal with the manager we had any longer. John Hildebrand, who owned Accusound Studio in San Diego recommended me for backing vocals on a recording Y-Lee made in Jamaica.

For those who may not be familiar with the band can you tell us a bit about how the band was formed and who some of the members were?
The band was already formed when I joined them. There was always a problem of finding a guitarist that could play the reggae groove. When I joined the band there was Bo on sax, Stynk on drums, and Y-lee on bass. Y-Lee showed me how to play skanking rhythm guitar and I sang. Eventually we got Jody on lead guitar. He was really good and had played with Captain Beefheart. He had a crazy kind of country jazz blues style.

How would you describe the sound of the band?
Funky and loose, a party band with social consciousness.

How did you and the band's other singer Y-Lee work together?
I did not have a brother but if I did it would probably be like that. The kind of brother that picks on you and teaches you things at the same time. You want to punch him but have respect at the same time. I would say that it toughened me up. The music business is a man's world but I got to hang out with the guys.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
We had a regular gig at the Zebra Club in downtown San Diego, this was in the years before downtown became the gentrified thing it is today. Denny Bruce (future Beat Farmers manager) and Kim Fowley showed up in the backstage area during our break. They came to see us several times even bringing Jake Riviera of Stiff Records. This was at the height of 2-Tone. They all liked the band, but Y-lee was ever the contrarian (for good reason) when it came to dealing with industry people. Things never quite panned out with record labels.

Tell me about recording the rare 45-rpm single, 'Color TV Reality' and two albums'Solitary Confinement' and 'Drop 'Em'?
'Color TV Reality' backed with 'You' was the first single that I recorded with Trowsers. It was the first time that I'd ever met Y-Lee. He recorded the songs in Jamaica and brought the tracks back to the States to add vocals and for mastering. Both songs have a rootsy feel since he used Jamaican musicians. I played and sang on "Drop Em" but I was out of the band when "Solitary Confinement" was made but ended up on a couple of tracks, one of them which I wrote.

Why did you leave the band?
The first time I got fed up with Y-Lee's antics and we had an argument over a gig payment. The second time, life was changing. I was working at Tower Records and would eventually move to L.A. to work for Capitol/EMI. Y-Lee moved to Hawaii and later to Thailand where he's been for many years. We are in contact.

What are your lasting memories of performing with Trowsers?
We had a lot of dangerous fun and I won't elaborate on that. I learned not only about reggae but African music too. Y-Lee introduced me to Fela Kuti.

What are you up to musically these days?
I've mostly been playing cello for the last twenty years but recently have been dabbling with my guitar again for song writing and recording. I recorded a one-side red vinyl 7" single in 1983 on Blues Economique. 'Top Secrets' is the only piece of music of mine that was ever released. I've mostly played cello or sang on many different albums by a lot of artists. More recently I had been playing cello with David J (Bauhaus, Love & Rockets) recording and touring. I am currently playing in a more experimental project called Nicey Nice World. I'm playing cello with electronics and singing. I am joined by Marcelo Radulovich (The Playground Slap, Me Me the Moth) and James Call ( The Penetrators). We are having a good time and will release some things but I want to start releasing my own music and perform to support it.

Visit Rooks web site for more information about her and her current musical projects. Below are download links for both albums by Trowsers which are long out-of-print and a great missing link to the sound of American ska that was bubbling up all over the U.S. in the late 70's and early 80's.  Thanks to Tone & Wave blog for the links and the initial tip about Trowsers.

The Trowsers - Drop Em'

The Trowsers - Solitary Confinement

No comments: