With the recent passing of Bob Marley’s birthday on February 6, it’s easy to be reminded how far reggae has spread from its birthplace on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Now, almost six decades later, this magical music has taken root in every corner of the world, from Japan to Sao Paulo, New Zealand to Vancouver.
Along the way, ska music, perhaps the most popular of all of reggae’s subgenres, has enjoyed several heydays. For many hardcore fans its popularity has never waned, and they can instantly recognize and define the different “waves.” While some rudeboys and gals prefer 2-Tone British bands of the late 70s and 80s and others favor artists from ska’s third resurgence during the 1990s, it’s hard to find a listener who does not adore, or at least appreciate, the original ska sounds of 1960s Jamaica.
It’s that glorious golden era of ska that The Prizefighters perform so adeptly. Founded in 2006, the band has honed their authentic vintage sound by backing legendary Jamaican artists such as the “King of Ska” Derrick Morgan, famous duets like Stranger & Patsy and Roy & Yvonne, as well as notable harmonica player and vocalist Charley Organaire, who’s playing can be heard on hundreds of early ska and rocksteady hits. The latter also joined The Prizefighters in the recording studio for a European promotional release, the EP Charley Organaire Meets The Prizefighters.
Tomorrow, the six-piece group from the frozen tundra of Minnesota will release their second full-length album of original ska and rocksteady music, entitled Firewalk. This collection of short but ever-so-sweet songs (most tracks are under 3 minutes; the longest is 3:19) will promptly time warp the listener to a dusty Kingston street amongst sharply-dressed men and women, dipping and twisting in the warm, humid tropical air.
In anticipation of the impending release, today Rootfire premieres “Along for the Ride.” While most of the songs on Firewalk are indubitably no-nonsense ska, this track about being cautious of the friends you keep is pure rocksteady gold. Jaunty guitar work amidst a punchy beat juxtaposes an ominous message as singer/guitarist Aaron Porter gravely warns: “Life’s too short to choose the wrong side.” Despite the song’s apparent jubilance, under the surface its delicate, somewhat dejected sax accents and subdued vocal harmonies more fittingly conjure a subtle wistfulness, as if the protagonist of the song laments the bad decisions that led down a dark path.
In addition to the aforementioned Aaron Porter, The Prizefighters include Porter’s brother Jordan on bass, Eric Whalen on the skins, Jorge Gil on the keys, Courtney Klos on sax and Tony Beaderstadt on trombone. Rootfire connected with the band to learn a bit more about their history, their reggae community in Minneapolis and their work on Firewalk.
Rootfire: Can you tell Rootfire readers a little bit about how the band came together ?
The Prizefighters: [Jordan] The Prizefighters started as a recording project by Aaron under the name Lord Grab-and-Flee sometime around 2005. The Prizefighters were then born as a live band and over the years became fleshed out to the lineup that recorded Follow My Sound.
[Eric] Brothers Aaron and Jordan are the only two founding members, each other instrument has had a replacement over the years.
RF: How were you first introduced to reggae music and what impact did it have on you? Did it immediately captivate you, or did it take a while to take root?
PF: [Courtney] In high school, I started getting into all different kinds of music, including third-wave ska and punk. I started enjoying bands like Sublime and Long Beach Dub All Stars, immediately captivated by the sunny vibe. As I grew older, my tastes started creeping further into the past to where the music originated. Once I met Aaron and The Prizefighters, they introduced me to 60’s Jamaican music and the motherload of buried treasure that exists there. Early reggae in the late 60s from Jamaica had so much soul and edge to them.
[Aaron] Although I had heard some reggae growing up, I’d say my biggest introduction to the music came from listening to a local college radio program called “Rude Radio” every Saturday morning. I’d first tune in for the contemporary ska, but then would hear more reggae played and would start to learn more about the connections between them. When General Moses took over hosting duties (in 1998, I think?), the show format starting focusing a lot more on the early Jamaican sounds while still leaving room for the modern ska stuff. That’s probably where most of my early Jamaican music education came from. The more I heard, the more I loved it. Learning about rocksteady and what made it so stylistically unique and distinct from either ska or reggae was a great lesson in appreciating all the various styles and eras of Jamaican music, and learning more about the artists and producers who created it just helped my appreciation grow deeper.
[Eric] I didn’t really get into reggae/ska until 8 years ago during college, when I became a fan of The Prizefighters, before joining the band. Aaron and the other Prizefighters turned me on to the Jamaican stuff and taught me the style on drums, having just played rock-based music up until then. I didn’t really have the punk-ska phase most people grew up with.
RF: Clearly The Prizefighters are huge fans of 60s era Jamaican music, but I’m curious if any of you were active in the ska revival of the 90s, either as performers or fans. If so, what were some of your accomplishments and/or favorite bands from that era, and did that experience ultimately play a role in the birth of The Prizefighters, or was it just 100% the vintage vinyl that you had come across?
PF: [Jordan] The 90s Ska Boom was essential for all of us in the band. None of us are quite old enough where we were playing in bands during that period, but we definitely woke up to the genre. There was a very active Minneapolis scene in the mid 90s that featured bands like The Siren Six!, Animal Chin, The Jinkies, The Contenders…the other nice thing is that all-ages shows were happening so much more back then, so it was really easy to access. All of us in the Prizefighters played in ska-punk bands in the early 2000s.
[Courtney] I have been playing in ska bands since 1999. I was in an experimental ska-punk band called Sunshine Policy and also played in the Minneapolis ska-punk band Sajak. I was given the opportunity to join the band shortly after the release of their debut album Follow My Sound. I’ve been enjoying the ride ever since.
[Aaron] I started going to ska shows in Minneapolis in 1997 when local ska was still enjoying its peak popularity. The cornerstone of the Minnesota ska scene at the time was Kingpin Records and the bands they released music from. My favorites to see and listen to were The Siren Six!, Animal Chin and The Jinkies. Being able to go to those shows and experience this music subculture for the first time at such an impressionable age was extremely formative and influential. Unfortunately one of the ways it influenced me personally was the void left after the ska scene appeared to implode, so eventually forming a band and contributing to a thriving ska scene became a goal of mine. As my love for the music grew, I got more into the older Jamaican stuff and just kept digging deeper. I saw Hepcat and The Slackers when I was 13 and looking back I knew they were thinking about music on that same level, but there were never really any bands like that in Minnesota.
In my experience, forming a band that plays authentic Jamaican ska is a lot harder than a more generic ska or reggae band. Finding a drummer for a band is hard enough, but finding a drummer who knows and understands Lloyd Knibb’s style (or is willing/able to study and learn it) is harder still. Some musicians may find traditional ska boring (compared to playing in a ska/punk band, for instance), but there are others who have felt the raw energy of The Skatalites and possess a desire to play music with that same energy. So, you do whatever you can to expose more people to 60s Jamaican music. My greatest hope for The Prizefighters is that the music we play will give people great joy and even inspire some of them to form their own bands and keep both the scene and the music vibrant and relevant. Full circle!
RF: Could you describe the reggae scene in the Twin Cities? If someone just moved to town, what venues or establishments would you direct them to in order to find live Jamaican music, deejays or soundsystems spinning reggae? Who are some of the other artists or notable people (selectors, radio deejays, promoters, etc.) that comprise the scene?
PF: [Jordan] Unfortunately there’s not a ton to look at these days. The main venue hub for our scene, The Triple Rock Social Club, closed down in 2017 and there hasn’t been a spot that has taken its place yet. Most of the deejays in town spin soul or funk. What we do have going for us is MNSka Dot Com.
[Courtney] Venues have come and gone in the Twin Cities that were friendly to ska and reggae. RIP Triple Rock Social Club, the home of many MNSka shows over the years. Nowadays, reggae music can be found at Bunker’s, The Red Sea, and the newly opened Pimento Rum Bar, a Jamaican owned/operated restaurant and bar. I’m not too familiar with the reggae bands/DJs, but DJ I Roach still does a bi-weekly reggae night. We mostly play with ska bands, like Umbrella Bed (been around since the early 90s) and Rocksteady Breakfast (top notch two-tone ska and punk).
RF: Does the band play out regularly, or semi-regularly? Have you ever toured regionally or beyond? Do you aspire to, or are you content making great studio music and playing in the Minneapolis area?
PF: [Jordan] We have done some smaller touring in the past and are looking at seeing more of the country in the coming year. Our biggest tour was a three-week stint in central Europe, touring on our Musical Knockout in 3 Rounds releases as well as playing as Charley Organaire’s band. We’ve also co-headlined the Montreal Ska Fest with our own set as well as serving as Roy Panton & Yvonne Harrison’s band. The upper midwest has gotten pretty familiar with us over the years, and we hope to spread out a little bit more this year.
[Courtney] We try to play in town once or twice a month, while also playing in the tri-state area. Our band members are also in other bands, some of us are married, I have a daughter who is turning 3 this month. So we definitely have lots of other LIFE going on, but I think the band is open to playing more and touring more often.
RF: What are some of your most memorable experiences as a band?
PF: [Jordan] Getting to meet and converse with artists like Charley, Roy & Yvonne, Derrick Morgan, Stranger Cole and Patsy Todd (to not even mention getting the honor to be their bands!) has been such an amazing and eye opening experience for us. And the appreciation they have for what some kids from Minnesota are doing to help give life to their voices is the definition of humbling. Sometimes you do want to meet your idols.
[Courtney] In no particular order:
European Tour with Charley Organaire (2014-2015?)
Backing Derrick Morgan at Reggae Fest Chicago (2016)
Montreal Ska Festival backing Roy Panton & Yvonne Harrison
Backing Stranger Cole & Patsy Todd for a Minneapolis festival
RF: Rootfire are big fans of Jr. Thomas, another rocksteady artist hailing from Minnesota. Is there any connection there?
PF: [Jordan] Tom (Jr Thomas) used to front The Dropsteppers, who were a terrific reggae band in Minneapolis. Aaron produced their LP which was released on Megalith. We were a terrible twosome together, playing a ton of shows together while they were around. Tom went out to California to work on the Jr Thomas records, and since then he hasn’t really been active at all in the Minneapolis community. He might even live out in California these days?
[Aaron] Tom still lives in Minneapolis.
RF: How would you say your sound and/or production has evolved, if at all, from your first release in 2010, Follow My Sound, to now your third release with Firewalk?
PF: [Aaron] Since we recorded the first full-length album in early 2010, we’ve focused a lot of our time working as a live backing band for vintage Jamaican artists, as mentioned earlier. While these opportunities were great honors themselves, I also saw them as an exciting challenge to learn and master a bunch of classic songs, trying our best to play them as accurate as the original recordings. Getting the chance to perform with someone like Stranger Cole is both thrilling and scary; you’ve got the gig but now you need to prove you’re worth your salt as a backing band. This means the music you play must now meet the highest standards – those of the original artist! And even then you might find out at the pre-show rehearsal that you still need to step it up a notch!
It’s not just about playing the songs well; it’s about playing them correctly and authentically. For example, when we play ska, we tend to play Skatalites-style ska with that signature Lloyd Knibb drum beat. That works great for playing tunes like “Artibella” (Stranger & Ken), but in order to play “Run Joe” (Stranger Cole) authentically you need to have the drums playing in that Arkland “Drumbago” Parks style with open snare and hi-hats (side note: a lot of modern traditional ska drummers seem to play this Drumbago drum style on ride cymbal, but it sounds much better playing with a fully open hi-hat. I asked Roy & Yvonne about whether Drumbago would play ride or hi-hat and they confirmed he played the open hats). So not only do we learn a bunch of songs we might not normally choose for our own repertoire, we get to explore a wide range of 60s Jamaican musical styles. The subtle variations between these styles might seem trivial to some listeners or players, but to us it makes all the difference in the world. The best part is when you can really tell the artists you are backing appreciate it also.
Rounding back to your question, we’ve essentially had several years worth of authentic 60s Jamaican music conservatory experience between the first record and Firewalk, and I think it really shows. Years of working hard on tunes with a mantra of “will this be good enough for Derrick Morgan? Or for Stranger & Patsy?” has conditioned us as a band to push ourselves to ever higher standards. It may seem artistically limiting to restrict yourselves to existing musical styles, but after diving deep into so many subtle stylistic variations, it just means we have such a larger pool of inspiration to draw from.
One more thing to note about the new album is that it’s just ska and rocksteady; technically there’s no reggae on the album. No organ, just piano.
RF: Could you tell us about the challenges the band faced in recording this album fully in analog to really recreate that vintage rocksteady sound?
PF: [Jordan] It was like 0 degrees in the live room. (recorded in Minneapolis in January/February in unheated studio)
[Eric] While last time recording analog (for the 7-inch series), it was like 100 degrees in the recording studio the whole time! Really recreated the Jamaican feel.
[Tony] I remember having to budget space on the tapes. Since tape is much harder to find and more expensive, it made the constraint even more looming. Digital recording is spoiling by giving bands unlimited good takes.
[Aaron] Mixing was probably the biggest challenge, in that it just takes so much patience (and a top-rate engineer!) to really get a good mix straight from tape. We tracked as much of the session live as we could, only overdubbing lead guitar, percussion, vocals and one or two additional horn tracks. This gave the session a nice “live” feel and we were all able to play off each other naturally. When tracking, the raw unmixed recording always seems to sound good, but once you start mixing and bringing out certain sounds it really starts to sound good.
The challenge with mixing analog is there is no save button. All the processing gear is manually patched, and if you have to go back to edit a mix you’ll have to re-patch everything the same way, or just start from scratch. The great thing about those Kingston recording studios in the 1960s is they recorded mostly the same musical styles with mostly the same players and studio engineers every day, so they had pretty much all of the board settings already dialed in; they weren’t attempting to reverse engineer any vintage sounds. Quite the opposite; those engineers were working some serious magic to make incredible recordings on somewhat dated and limited gear. When going after a certain sounding aesthetic, there usually comes a time in mixing when you have to stop focusing on getting an “authentic” sound and start focusing more on getting a good sound.
RF: What’s next on the horizon and what are your ultimate goals for the band?
PF: [Jordan] Tour more, play more festivals, and get people to celebrate Jamaican music.
Check out The Prizefighters second full length album Firewalk, out Friday, February 15, 2019.