Don’t look back in anger
The Pietasters reflect on a time that should have served them better
Published: October 21, 2010
with the Toasters, Royal
City Riot, Hub City Stompers
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23
The Social, 407-246-1419
Being in the center of a pop-culture phenomenon as it’s happening must be an extraordinary feeling, especially if you had little idea that said phenomenon would occur in the first place. Stephen Jackson, the Pietasters’ vocalist, encountered such a rarity once. The band developed its ska-fusion sound in 1990 in Washington, D.C., and by the decade’s midpoint, ska’s “third wave” became culturally ubiquitous and commercially successful. The profitable trend was rooted in the pop-palatable approach employed by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime and No Doubt, and for a period, the business was flooded with ska bands. The genre’s sudden ascent afforded the Pietasters opportunities that would have likely eluded them other- wise, like playing with Joe Strummer or serving as James Brown’s backing band.
Still, the interest in ska was an obvious fad, which the Pietasters figured out. Jackson remembers that his group was backstage preparing to face three to five thousand people at a Bosstones show when someone made a valid point: “This cannot last very long. Enjoy it, boys.” Still, the band’s ambitions were never lofty to begin with.
“When we formed, we didn’t have any preconceived notions that we were going to get a record deal or a career in music,” says Jackson. “It was truly just a bunch of friends making music.”
The Pietasters were part of a group of suburban kids that hung around the D.C. scene playing and attending punk, ska and hardcore shows. The group echoes that period with a pleasantly rich whirlpool of sounds that blend the aforementioned genres with reggae, calypso and soul. In a decade saturated with mainstream cash-ins, the Pietasters’ material was imbued with a sense of authenticity and an appreciation for their stylistic predecessors. The band ultimately aligned itself with ska for the sake of upbeat simplicity.
“The party sounds of ska fit our personalities better than trying to make a political statement or anything like that,” says Jackson. “I can’t stress too much that we just want people to have a good time. We’re bar music or party music or whatever you want to call it.”
By the dawn of the 2000s, ska’s party was over, just as Jackson and others had expected. After the collapse, several prominent bands abandoned or ignored their brassy aspects – among them, Less Than Jake, No Doubt, the Aquabats and Goldfinger – to re-attract a culture that moved on. (“A lot of bands got lucky,” he says.) But the Pietasters never ditched their original elements.
Now two decades old, the band is more of a hobby than a career for its current eight members, who use tours as an opportunity to visit Europe or play on a boat cruise.
“It’s fun when you’re 22 or 28 but when you’re getting to be 40, if you’re not in Bruce Springsteen’s band, you’ve got to reevaluate what you are spending your money and time doing,” says Jackson. Though the band’s importance in the ska canon is marginal, he remembers it fondly. “We were lucky to be where we were,” he says.
“We still have great experiences thanks to the band and [we] know that we didn’t whore ourselves out or do anything that would besmirch our legacy.”
> Email Reyan Ali