Boston-based ska icons the Mighty Mighty Bosstones played Montebello Rockfest this past weekend. WTBU DJ Danya Trommer, who hosts ska-centric show Dat Brass, chatted with Joe Gittleman about the band’s career, inspirations, and their own curated festival.
Danya Trommer: So you guys have been around since 1983 but you’ve been in the band since–
Joe Gittleman: I’ve been in the whole time; I started the band.
DT: Oh, you started the band!
JG: Well me and Dicky [Barrett].
DT: Gotcha, so can you tell me a little bit about the starting of the band?
JG: I was just a high school kid. I was a fan of Dicky’s band the Cheapskates. Now you’d have to dig really deep to find any music of the Cheapskates, but they were also ska, kind of fun–they were drunks is what they were. They were heavy drinkers, hard partying band, and Dicky was in that band, and I loved going to see them–me and our guitar player at the time, Nate. We just wanted to kind of figure out a way to start a band like that. And for some reason, Dicky was kind enough to humor our request, and we started writing songs together soon after.
DT: I noticed that you guys opened with a song by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. I was wondering if you take a lot of inspiration from those ‘60s and ‘70s brass heavy bands like Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Chicago, bands like that, because I know you take a lot of inspiration from punk bands like Social Distortion.
JG: I think the Temptations too is another big one for us. And certainly, [Sax Player Leon Silva walks by] Leon, what do you think about the Temptations and soul and all that kind of stuff?
Leon Silva: I love that old, kind of organic sound that they always had, because they would just be huddled around one or two mics back in the day in the studio, just super live and super soulful.
JG: And really great songwriting. So, our little intro music is really intended to be something that gets us in the mood, and those songs kind of do that.
DT: Would you guys say you use a lot of older songs for that?
JG: “Ball of Confusion” is one we’ve used for years, “War,” you know things like that. “Backstabbers” is another one.
DT: Now I know that you take some inspiration from soul, but I know that you guys also take a lot of inspiration from the UK second wave ska scene, and I was wondering what your bigger inspirations out of that scene are.
JG: Definitely the Specials. Me and Dicky both shared an experience of seeing the English Beat really young. I saw the English Beat in, I want to say, ‘80 or ‘81 or ‘82; REM was opening up for them. I was actually at Walter Brown arena, isn’t that part of Boston University?
DT: Now it’s Agganis. [Correction: Walter Brown Arena still exists and hosts the women’s ice hockey games.]
JG: I saw the English Beat there when I was pre-high school. It was hugely influential for me, and Dicky had a similar experience seeing the Beat. He saw the Beat playing with the Pretenders, so that was probably even before then. It was an amazing experience, definitely an inspiration. The Specials would definitely be right up there [as an influence], Bad Manners would be another one that we’ve always loved; those would probably be the big three for me.
DT: What about bands like Operation Ivy?
JG: I remember on our first tour we met Tim Armstrong in Berkeley, California–this would’ve been after Operation Ivy was done, because they started in 87 and ended in 89–and I remember meeting Lars [Frederikson of Rancid, Tim Armstrong’s current band] pretty early on too. I actually became an Operation Ivy fan long after the fact. I wasn’t plugged in at the time.
DT: So not exactly an inspiration?
JG: Well, no, but I love that music now, and I think retroactively you could say it’s an inspiration. And moving ahead a little bit, Out Come The Wolves [Rancid’s album] was a big inspiration for me, because I was so incredibly impressed with the songwriting on the record, and it really kind of inspired me and challenged me to dig and write our next record which was Let’s Face It.
DT: Are you the main songwriter?
JG: Yeah, me and Dicky been writing a lot of the songs together for a long time, so you can say I’m the main songwriter, but everyone contributes.
DT: So you’ve been playing bass the entire time?
JG: I have, yeah.
DT: Gotcha. What would you say is the biggest difference in the creative process between Devil’s Night Out [debut album] and While We’re At It [newest album]?
JG: We have more time to work on songs. I would say the writing process itself is extended over a period of time. Dicky lives in LA, I live on the East coast, we correspond, we send files and lyrics back and forth, and it’s sort of like a lot of virtual collaboration. I think Devil’s Night Out was recorded in 24 hours.
DT: I know you guys host Hometown Throwdown; what would you say is the biggest difference between hosting and playing a festival?
JG: Anxiety [laughs]. When you’re hosting the festival, you’re worried about are the support bands being taken care of, are the tickets selling, how is the stage gonna look. And we put a lot of effort into the throwdown; it’s really like a year-long planning process. Shortly after the throwdown is over, we start thinking about what we’re going to do next year. Sometimes there’s a theme; we’ve had international bands, we’ve had local bands highlighting the old school Boston music scene, and the stage is always something. I would say hosting that comes with added responsibility, which is fun–I really like imagining that kind of stuff, whether it be the wall of Santa’s or stuff like that, all the bells and whistles and nonsense that we throw together. That’s the difference: you’re thinking about the entire event. Like today, we didn’t even walk to the event until like ten minutes before we went on and we’re leaving now, so it’s a much different experience. Somewhere someone is on this festival grounds worrying the way we worry, but about this festival.
DT: I know that your last three albums, all the stuff after the hiatus, is considered kind of part of a trio. What do you think is the uniting factor between those albums?
JG: The primary uniting factor is that Dicky always thought of them together in his own head–I think a lot of the storytelling and characters. Certainly there are some themes in there that I’m still picking up on myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone back and listened to those other records, but I remember when we started working on Pin Points and Gin Joints, that Dicky was talking about the next few albums sort of living together. It pushed his songwriting, and to some extent, the things that he wanted to talk about from one album to the next to the next–that kind of thing.
DT: So would you consider them concept albums?
JG: I really would not, personally. I just think Dicky is very thoughtful; he pays a lot of attention to detail. If you look at the artwork on those three records, he himself has spent hundreds hundreds of hours on each one working with both illustrators and the person that does the layout and that kind of stuff. Like those were all his specific vision, not just the cover, but every little piece of it that you see he imagined, he considered, and came up with himself. How it relates to the music on those records is a little bit of a mystery to me; I kind of just stand back and watch him do that, and I’m impressed with that. Again, I think the biggest uniting factor is that he imagined it that way, and that it informed the creative process and what he wanted to talk about from record to record.
DT: Did you guys do anything special for the album release?
JG: We’re here. It came out yesterday [June 15]. We didn’t do much to be honest with you. We’re starting a two week tour in Portland, Oregon in about a week. We’re going down the West Coast, then we’re doing a tour starting in Buffalo or Toronto that’ll end up in Worcester, where we’re doing our own festival–Cranking and Skanking Fest we’re calling it–at the Palladium. You guys have to be there. Big D and the Kids Table, Fishbone, the Pietasters–
DT: This is a great lineup.
JG: Planet Smashers, from Canada. The Bouncing Souls, Toots and the Maytals. You guys have to come.
DT: I’m pretty sure I responded “Going” to this on Facebook.
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