Friday, June 10, 2011

Interview With Rob Gainfort Of The Steadys: The Lost Band Of The Late 80's NYC Ska Scene

In my continuing quest to document and chronicle the thriving ska bands and ska scenes that existed in the U.S. during the late 80's and early 90's, my journey has taken me someplace completely unexpected: back home to New York City!  Ever since I started this blog I've wanted to tell the story of New York City ska band The Steadys.  After burning brightly for 2 short years during 1989-91, they disappeared just as quickly as they appeared on the scene.  Very little about the band exists online and I've always wanted to remedy that somehow. Lucky for me the band's lead singer and guitarist Rob Gainfort stumbled upon my humble blog a few weeks ago.  I jumped at the chance to finally get his story.

The Steadys shone brightly for a short time on the burgeoning NYC Ska scene of the late 80's and early 90's bringing a great 2-Tone inspired ska sound, look and energy.  Starting out just a few months after my own band Bigger Thomas, I remember them fondly for their youthful enthusiasm, solid musicianship and friendly manner (which was a bit unusual as there was always a bit of rivalry between New York City ska bands).  We shared a few stages together (notably at the Cat Club during the recording of the long out-of-print NYC SKA Live compilation in 1990).  Like many of the first wave of ska bands that helped establish the New York scene in the early and mid 80's (A-Kings, The Boilers, Beat Brigade, Second Step), most of the members of The Steadys were still in their teens when they started playing out.

The band was founded by a 17-year old Gainfort in early 1989.  After being told by Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters that he was too young to audition as a lead singer to replace The Unity 2 (Sean Dinsmore and Lionel Bernard) who had signed their own record deal, Gainfort was inspired to start his own band.  In short order he pulled together a band of young ska enthusiasts including bassist Ani Schempf (who later as DJ Ani would join Dee-Lite), drummer Chris Woehrle and lead guitarist Arthur Peeples.  As part of the deal Schempf brought along his step-father Joe Ruddick, an accomplished sax player and keyboardist who would become the band's secret weapon.  Having caught the attention of Hingley, Gainfort and The Steadys scored some early big shows and that helped them build a following quickly.

Gainfort was kind enough to share some great stories about the band (including information confirming the reason why the NYC SKA Live show was not filmed by Dance Craze director Joe Massot) as well as some never before released music from the band for your listening pleasure.  Sit back and enjoy the story of The Steadys!


Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I was born and raised in Manhattan. My dad and brother are musicians, so they introduced me to many different styles of music. If I had to choose which bands/artists influenced me the most, they would have to be: KISS, The Specials and Stevie Wonder (I might have to throw Cheap Trick in there too). In some way, each one helped shape my song writing.

Do you remember the first record or single that you ever bought?
I was really lucky to have an older brother that was obsessed with music. He would buy and bring everything home for us to listen to, so I never had to buy records. The first single I remember buying with my own cash was Run DMC's "Sucker MCs" in 1983 at the Record Factory on 8th Street.

What inspired you to start singing and playing music?
Since I was a toddler, I loved performing. Music is in my family, so I grew up hanging around rehearsal studios and venues. I'd sit and watch my brother John and his band mates jam on songs in our apartment in Chelsea. In August of 1979, at the age of 7, I saw KISS at Madison Square Garden , that sealed the deal for me! I started writing music immediately. My first performance, playing my own music, was in 1982 with my brother band at St. Francis Xavier High School on 16th Street.

Do you remember how you were first introduced to ska?
In the 1979, my brother got the Specials' debut album on 8-track , so I guess that was my first real exposure to ska. I remember listening to the the Beat, Madness, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Squeeze during the early 80's and loving them all. I bounced around listening to and playing different genres during most of the 80's, but I rediscovered ska in 1988 when I pulled out the English Beat's 'Special Beat Service and The Specials' first album again. I got into NY ska through an old girlfriend. She gave me some tapes of The Boilers, Beat Brigade and the Toasters. Soon after, I bought the N.Y. Citizens' 'On the Move' LP.

What inspired you to start a ska band?
In 1988-89, the Toasters' front men (Sean Dinsmore and Lionel Bernard) left the band to perform as Unity 2. I saw an ad in the Village Voice for tryouts, so I called and they sent me a tape of some songs from the Thrill Me Up LP. I phoned Rob Hingley (as instructed in the audition letter) to have a conversation before scheduling an audition. Once he heard that I was only 17, he chuckled and told me I was a bit too young. His advice was to start a band of my own and then give him a call. So, I took his advice! (See a copy of the audition letter Gainfort received from Hingley below -- a real piece of ska history!)

Tell me about The Steadys? How did you originally connect with the other members?
I put a flyer up for a bassist in Bleecker Bob's Records in March of 1989. I got a call from a 15 year old guy from Hoboken, NJ named Ani Schempf who told me my search was over. He couldn't have been more right. That kid not only had chutzpah, but amazing chops too. We got together at my mom's apartment and hit it off immediately. Ani had a buddy named Chris Woehrle that played the drums and a step-dad named Joe Ruddick that was a good horn player and keyboardist (good was an understatement). We all got together in June of 1989 at Ani and Joe's place in Hoboken and started laying down tracks for a demo. Later that summer, we added Arthur Peeples (from the ska band the Exterminators) to the lead guitar slot and Laura (her last name is gone from my memory banks) on back up vocals and percussion.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the sound of the band? What were some of your influences?
I think the Specials were the biggest influence. We were definitely influenced by some NY ska, but most of my writing was linked to the Specials, the English Beat and maybe a little Elvis Costello. Joe Ruddick was also a major influence on the band. By the time he started playing with us, he already had 20+ years of experience in music. So, I would definitely say his knowledge and talent played a huge role in our sound. He produced every track we put on tape and was the band's acting manager and mentor.

The Steady's seemed to come out of nowhere in 1989! Tell me about the early days of the band.
Our first ska show was on November 18, 1989 at CBGB's. We were on the bill with Let's Go Bowling, Potato 5 and the Toasters (we went on last at around 1:30 AM). It was our debut and an awesome opportunity. We owed it all to the late Rich Morrisey and Rob Hingley, who had paid us a visit at our rehearsal space a couple of months before that show. Our next gig was about a week later opening for the N.Y. Citizens at the Anthrax in Norwalk, CT. When we did the NYC Ska Live LP in March of 1990, we had only played a handful of shows. So, we moved up pretty quickly.

The band started playing out during the height of ska mania in the U.S. What are your memories of the NYC and American ska scene of the late 80's and early 90's?
I remember having a lot of fun hanging on the scene, especially at Mona's and the Cherry Tavern. It was an awesome time for music. The Lower East Side hadn't been transformed yet, so it still had the old gritty energy and far fewer hipsters. Shows were fun to go to, especially after The Steadys formed. We always had a blast! I remember when the hardcore scene began to fade, some of that crowd started coming to ska shows. Most bands didn't want them, but we saw it as an opportunity to incorporate them into our scene. Naive, maybe, but a bunch of them would travel to our shows. They showed us some serious loyalty. On more than one occasion, they saved our asses from some pretty gnarly, wanna-be skinheads. Some of them would also roadie for us from time to time. Maybe all the lovely ladies at our shows were what really motivated them. Either way, we had more heads at our gigs and that was good for business!

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
We did a matinee show with the Toasters in Philadelphia at the Chestnut Cabaret. We rented a van and drove down there. While on stage, someone broke into the van and robbed us. After the gig, we went through it to see what they had stolen. The only thing they took was our collection of ska tapes. We had equipment, bags, etc. in there, but they only wanted the music. Another was during the NYC Ska Live days.

I remember that Joe Massot was filming each band separately at different venues to later incorporate that footage into the film. One night, we went to CBGB's to see The Citizens. Outside we were all gathered smoking and chatting and then all of a sudden, one of Joe's cameramen got hit by some random skinhead. During the altercation, his camera got damaged. I believe that was one of the incidents that caused the filming to be canceled, however, I am not sure if that was the final blow. I remember it only because we were supposed to be filmed a couple of nights later at the Wetlands and that didn't that really sucked! (Read an excellent review of the NYC SKA Live album posted by the Duff Guide To Ska).

The band seemed to have a tremendous amount of promise. The two songs on the NYC SKA Live comp may the best on the record. Did the band record any other songs? Were their plans for an album?
Thanks. I thought we had promise too. Rob Hingley expressed interest in an album for Moon Records, but he wasn't interested enough. We were, however, very grateful for the opportunities we did have. We did a lot of recording on our own (thanks to Joe Ruddick), but never got a chance to release anything. So, the 2 tracks on the NYC Ska Live LP are the only ones on vinyl.

Gainfort was kind enough to share the results of some of those never released recordings. Have a listen to three of the songs below which are testament to the band's talent. Its hard to believe that most of the band were still in their teens when these songs were recorded. Gainfort has a great clear and soulful voice and the the band incorporates their 2-Tone influences (particularly The dueling guitars of bands like The Selecter) in a unique style. The lead guitar and sax playing are particularly memorable. These are album worthy.  I've also included one of the band's excellent tracks from the NYC SKA Live compilation album 'Just Reflections' which may be the best song on the entire recording.  Have a listen below:

On Any Other Saturday (Unreleased)

Hopeless Case (Unreleased)

Sans Amour (Unreleased)

Just Reflections (NYC SKA Live compilation)

Why did the band stop playing after only 2 years together?
The band's line-up changed. Chris, Arthur and Laura exited the band in 1990. We had a few different drummers sit in, but Andy (I forgot his last name too) ended up on drums and back-up vocals. He was a great, hard hitting drummer and definitely a good addition. Musically we got really tight, but we began to move away from our original sound. Ani and I started working on other projects and found ourselves slowly pulling away from the ska scene. Moon Records had expressed interest in doing an album, but we were one of many. By that point we had the following, but putting a record out on Moon was definitely a pipe dream. In early 1991, we started getting less and less billings with other ska bands. Our last show was at the Wetlands in April 1991 with Mephiskapheles and the Scofflaws. Mephiskapheles was slated to start the show (I think it was one of their first gigs). However, they thought we should open up for them. So, we did, but we took the incident as sort of an insult. As a result, most of our fans came after we played, so they missed our set. I never really understood why that happened. So, between not getting to put an album out and getting the cold shoulder from some of the other ska bands, after that show, we called it quits.

What are you up to musically these days?
I've been mostly writing these days. The sound is more eclectic, but there is a heavy ska influence. Old habits, die hard! I had a great time, musically and professionally, playing with the Steadys. Ska is fun music to perform and I always had a blast doing those shows. I played in several bands after the Steadys, but nothing ever came of those groups. Being a part of a scene really makes the difference.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The Steadys and of the New York ska scene?
The camaraderie has to be the one thing I remember. We lived the ska scene. We followed everything that happened... from Big Steve and the Checkered Demons to the fanzines to all the cute ska girls.....we were in it and loving it! Looking back, I would have to say the NYC Ska Live show was a big highlight for the band. In February of 1991, we played a solo show at the Limelight. We packed the place and played a super tight set. I think it was the best show we ever did. Oddly enough, very few people from the ska scene showed up that night. We were very fortunate to play with bands like the Toasters, Urban Blight and especially the Skatalites. We opened for them at Barnard College. It was a personal highlight for me. Those guys were awesome to hang with. It was an absolute honor!


Steve from Moon said...

Great interview! Never knew much about the band, so this definitely filled in a lot of gaps. I found out about the LGB, Potato 5, Toasters, Steadys show a few days after it happened...definitely one that got away.

The unreleased Steadys tracks sound great!

Anonymous said...

As an unofficial "roadie" for the band I can still remember all of this, and appreciated the opportunity to be there every step of the way. Even though we fell out in the end I really enjoyed reading this history and, more importantly, getting to hear these songs again.


Anonymous said...

As an unofficial "roadie" for the band I can still remember all of this, and appreciated the opportunity to be there every step of the way. Even though we fell out in the end I really enjoyed reading this history and, more importantly, getting to hear these songs again.


Arty said...

The Steadys were professionally tight on stage. Despite only being together for such a short period their live performance got the crowd dancing; the show at Wetlands in 1989 really put them on the scene. The early 90's was a recession in the NYC Ska scene; some people moved on or just didn't want to be a part of the scene (for personal reason). However, there was a small following of die-hard group sporting on the Fred Perries, Doc Martens, Sta-Prest jeans, and shark skin suits/pork pie hat who made the effort to see their favorite ska bands play at any club show. Coming towards the later period of 1999, the scene started to pick up with some familiar faces and new ones. Had the Steadys remained with their line up they would have really made the headlines of the NYC Ska Scene - pure talent and passion!
I know Rob Gainfort not just as a gifted artist but also as a down to earth person who I still consider as a friend after twenty years that we have not been in contact.


Anonymous said...

re: the line up - good point; It's like an unwritten rule of bands - when the drummer leaves/gets fired/dies, things tend to fall apart. I still remember the day they sent Chris Worley packing right after he bought a new drum set.

I remember meeting you Arty and hanging out at shows. Great to hear you and Rob stayed connected after all this time. He and his family show me much love I never repaid properly.


Arty said...

Word' em up, O!
It was 85% business and 15% entertainment. When you have love for the music, the 15% made the intangible become tangible.
The Steadys were experiencing some 'growing pains' just like any other bands in the musical industry. It resembled a family, but sadly there were issues that inhibited the band from truly progressing (to remain as a family).
On the topic of family, there's always time to make up for what is missing. I hope you're feeling what I've just written here for you, O.