Remember the first time you had a buttered popcorn flavored jelly bean? If your first experience was anything like mine, your mouth was probably all set for a sweet taste, thanks to your preconceived notions of what a jelly bean should taste like. Then you bit into the thing, and found out it tasted like real buttered popcorn. Disorienting at first, wasn’t it? It takes a while for your mind to disabuse itself of it’s preconceived notions and just enjoy the candy on it’s own merits.
For me, at least, Pilfers had the same effect on my brain as those popcorn jelly beans. I had a definite idea of what to expect from a band made up of ex-Toasters frontman Coolie Ranx, ex-Bim Skala Bim trombonist Vinny Nobile, and Skinnerbox vets Anna Milat-Meyer (bass) and James Blanck (drums). Sure, guitarist Nick Bacon was new to the mix, but I still expected to hear something akin to… well, to the Toasters and Bim. Pilfers blow that notion away right from the start of their self-titled debut album, fusing ska to metal, punk, Rage Against the Machine-styled alt-rap, hardcore, pop, and dancehall elements for a sound that’s unlike any ska band you’ve ever heard.
It’s rare that a band can turn my expectations completely on end and still blow me away with one of the most brilliant records of the year. Pilfers have done all that, and more, getting signed to a major label (Mojo) in the process. I recently sat down with the inimitable Coolie Ranx to discuss the band’s history, the genesis of their sound, and, of course, girls.
Most of the band were in well known ska bands before joining Pilfers. Why did you all leave your bands?
I can’t speak for everyone, I can only speak for myself at the moment. I left because I wanted to do something different, you know? I’d been doing the Toasters for quite a few years, and I actually wasn’t giving all of myself. I wasn’t challenging myself to do different things, because it was pretty much all formula-driven in the Toasters, it would just be the same all the time, you know? With the Pilfers, I actually got a chance to expand my musical talents and interests. I can do any and everything that I want, and I do it. It just gave me more freedom to be an artist. In the Toasters, you couldn’t go outside of ska, because that it was all [they’re] known for. I wouldn’t want to do that to the Toasters fanbase, you know? They’re used to one thing, if you [did] something else, it would probably freak them out. With the Pilfers, we came in freakin’ ’em out, so it was okay. (laughter). We had no reputation of anything else, so we could do what we want.
How did you guys end up getting together?
This came together after I left [the Toasters]. I spoke to Steve [Jackson] from the Pietasters, and I was actually crying on his shoulder [mimics sobbing] “What am I gonna do?,” and he said “Man, shut up. Start a band. It’s gonna be great.” I said, “you think so?” — like a little baby — “you really think so?” I put the word out that I wanted to start a band. I got a call from Vinny before that; he said, “I’ll help you with some demos and get you started.” There was an outpouring from a lot of musicians, who [were] willing to help me and try to get myself started doing something, so I wouldn’t just fall out of it. Vinny said he would do something, and he was actually the one that was more adamant about actually coming in and helping me out. So I put together a band in New York, [and] it was horrible, horrible, but we won’t talk about that. (laughter) Destined for failure before we even got out of the rehearsal studio. Actually, one good thing about that; I got James, the drummer. Before that, there was another drummer, too. He was horrible. He was playing disco ska, straight up disco. I gave him a couple of CDs to let him know what ska was. He said, “yeah man, easy, easy.” He comes in there playing this fucking disco shit, and it was like, “dude, what’cho doin’?” You could just see him just sweatin’ back there, behind the drum kit, having a real hard time with it. So I gave him his fifty dollars for his session, and I said “thank you very much.” (laughter). But then, the bass player that we had knew James, and he called James in. I scrapped that band, and I kept James. Vinny came up for that session, too. We went back to Boston, and we did some demos, and he liked what he heard. When he got serious, that’s when it actually came together, when he said, “okay, let’s start a band.” We had another bass player, he was okay, but wasn’t as good, [so] James got Anna, because she used to play in Skinnerbox, and we put an ad in the paper for [a] guitarist, and [Nick] answered the ad.
Is the “outpouring ” of musicians you mentioned the reason you’ve done so many guest appearances on other people’s records in the last few years?
At first, when I first started to do it, when I was in the Toasters, it was strictly business. It wasn’t my friends, it wasn’t something that I put together, it was just business, and I wanted to conduct myself that way. So, when I did a guest appearance with Magadog back then, I was straight up on some dollars, I was not trying to just do a nice record — it was fun, I had fun, but I was strictly business. But then I got home, I got out of this thing for a while, and I was like, “this sucks,” you know? I don’t like that. I would like to do it now just to do it. So, that’s actually how those things happen. When I did that thing with Pietasters, I had went to Steve’s wedding. I was out of the ska scene, I thought, and I got a call from him, and they let me hear some of the new stuff. My girlfriend from New York lived in DC, so I was in DC a lot, so one time I just went to the studio and just did something with them. With Eastern Standard Time, some of those guys were in the Pietasters, some of those guys were in [the] Checkered Cabs, so there was a long history. They called me up, and I was like, “sure, why not?” Metro Stylee, I’m in love with their lead singer [Trish Verdolino]. You can tell her that [laughter], but she won’t believe me.
I’m gonna see them in a few weeks…
Tell her. She doesn’t know, but I’m totally in love with her. On the record [laughter]. So when they asked me, I was like “sure!” She’s a brilliant woman, going on to talk about Trish from Metro Stylee, she’s a brilliant woman, she’s very smart, and she has foresight, and she’s gorgeous, and she’s intelligent, and she’s spiritual, and she’s just a good person. She’s really cool, she’s cool people. [grabs tape recorder and stage whispers] Trish, I love you!
How’d you come up with come up with the name “Pilfers”?
I was a little thief, you know. I associated with hoodlums, thieves, and I don’t forget where I’m coming from. It was a tag that my teacher used to scream at us. “Who’s pilferin’ this?” and I would just sit there [gives his best innocent look] “I don’t know…”
In a lot of the buzz about you guys, a lot of people call you “the first band of the fourth wave of ska .” What do you think of that?
That’s very cool, I’d never heard that before. I think that’s flattering. I’m glad they think so highly of us, I hope that means everyone’s gonna come here tonight, and it’s gonna be massive people coming to witness the fourth wave [laughter]. We definitely have a direction [to] what we want to do, and we have a message. I think it’s mostly we’re doing what we love to do, I really don’t get caught up in what people are saying about me. Today they’ll say something great about us, and tomorrow they’ll say “oh, Pilfers sold out,” so I can’t really gauge what we’re doing based upon what people are saying. It’s nice to get compliments, but I don’t want to get caught up in all of that stuff with labeling me and who we are.
You definitely have a different sound than pretty much any other ska band. Where is this all coming from?
We know what we like, and it’s gotta be heavy — whatever we do, it’s gotta be heavy, ’cause the music sends us crazy when it’s heavy. So it’s basically coming from all our likes, all our interests. You know, there’s so much music in the world, you can’t just put your finger on it, and say “yeah that’s that.” To try and be one band that plays everything, I guess maybe that’s what we’re trying to do. I wouldn’t say it was just fourth wave ska, and I’m not saying we’re not a ska band, because we are a ska band, and we’re proud of saying that. We’re just playing the music that we like, you know? Only music [that] comes from how we feel.
One thing that you guys have that sets you apart from a lot of other bands is that there’s a lot of political content to the songs. For example, “Dr. Kevorkian”…
Yeah, because he was in the news, and I kept seeing [that the] dude wasn’t going to jail, you know? I was like “shit, I didn’t kill somebody, and they’d lock me up! Damn, how can he do this? He’s getting away with murder!” [Ed. note – this interview took place before Kevorkian’s recent murder conviction]. I wanted to know what was the verdict, if he is a murderer, or is he a hero or… I didn’t put an opinion on the song, I don’t want to force that down on anybody, I just wanted to see what people’s thoughts were. I think politics are good to talk about, as well as, you know, girls. It’s all part of life, depending on what you’re focusing on that day, so you know, you hear a lot of songs about girls, ’cause I think about girls all the time, and I think about what’s going on in the world all the time, too, so I just kinda write songs about what I’m thinking and feeling. I wouldn’t say that we’re political, though, I just think that we have some intelligence of what’s going on in the world, and I think that we just express what’s going on.
What made you decide to do a DEVO cover?
Well, everyone kept telling me “you need a cover,” and I was like “what the fuck?” For the life of me, I never wanted to sing a cover. I went searching at a friend’s house — he has a big record collection, and I heard “Jerkin’ Back ‘N’ Forth” for the first time. I was like “oh shit, that sounds like us! That’s our sound!” So I took that song, and I brought it to the band. I was like, “let’s learn this one, here’s your fucking cover.” They made me do it! (laughter)
Why did you end up deciding to release the first album yourselves, and why do you only sell it through your Web site (http://www.pilfers.com/)and through mail order, instead of making it available in stores?
I would like to tell you that it was an ingenious plan of mine, but something in my head just told me to tell everyone to fuck off. [laughter] I think I was a little bit bitter, and I didn’t want to associate myself with anyone that had to do with my past. Everyone in the band thought I was crazy. I mean, everyone asked me to put it out — everyone and their mother! They were going crazy, calling me up, and I was like “who the fuck are these people? Tell them to fuck off! [grumbling] Calling me for shit….. Where was you?” We did it ourselves, we recorded the record ourselves. It was just the natural thing to do. I really didn’t want to depend on anyone, I just wanted to do it. Then everyone kept saying “put it in the stores, I can get it with this…” Vinny was adamant that he wanted to do it with BIB (run by his former band, Bim Skala Bim), Moon wanted to put it out, Radical wanted to put it out, all these other labels wanted to put it out, and I was like “fuck these people, man, who the fuck are they?” I said “no, we’ll make it ourselves, we’ll sell it ourselves, we’ll make back the money.” It was a strange concept to everyone in the band. Everyone in the band was against what I was saying, but it just seemed to be the right thing, and I just stuck with my guns, and it turned out to be the right thing. Now, what I tell people is that [adopts self-righteous tone] “we don’t put it in the stores, we’re keeping it for the fans. [laughter] We want the fans to have it for themselves; it’s their record.” In another sense, that’s true, ’cause I’m still not putting in the stores, and I could. Now [that] we’re signed to Mojo, Mojo wanted it, and I told them to fuck off, too. So, you know, it will be remain for the fans, whoever supports the band can get the record, but initially, it was just an inner feeling.
Do you think you had an easier time getting gigs when Pilfers started because of your past involvement with other bands?
[I’ll] tell you the benefit of being in the Toasters. It allowed me to meet all these opening bands that turned out to be headliners. All these bands that are number one bands [now] were actually opening bands for us. By the grace of God, I was not a snob when I met these people. I actually met these guys on their way up, and we were just friends. I guess it that way, it was easier. In New York, we had a hard time just being a band, because [New York] Ska-Jazz [Ensemble, which includes several Toasters] came out, and they started headlining right away. We didn’t take that route, we took the route of “let’s open up for you guys.” It just seemed to be the right way to do it, to build people. We took a lot of gigs for less than any money, you know what I mean? I think we just did like everyone else did, as far as starting out, but the only thing is we met some people that were cool, and they helped us out. Like Reel Big Fish, I didn’t know them at all, and they helped us out tremendously. Pietasters helped us out a lot, Mustard Plug, Metro Stylee, Checkered Cabs, Mephiskapheles — these were people that shared their audience with us, and gave us shows, ’cause we were like a renegade band — no record label, no distribution, no nothing, no money! We’re not from rich families, everything that you see is through the grace of the fans, everything we have is because the fans bought our stuff. It’s all about the fans.
When should the new record be coming out?
I assume in July. We’re almost finished. We’ve almost finished all the tracks, we just have to put the “oohs and ahhs” on the back of it now. After this tour, which finishes on [February] 12th, Vinny leaves on the 14th, and I leave on the 15th for California to finish mixing it down and everything.
Any parting comments?
Yeah, I want you to tell Trish that I’m thinking of her constantly. And when she decides… Are you going to play that for her? [grabs tape recorder] I love you! I hope you’re having a good time out there. Hope everything’s okay… I wanted to do that tour with you, I really want to get you on tour with me. [quickly] I mean your band. See you soon, Trish! Bye!
As promised, I did see Metro Stylee at SXSW in Austin (check the review in next month’s Ink Nineteen ), and did talk to Trish, though I unfortunately forgot to take the tape to play for her. I did, however, pass on Coolie’s message of love, which seemed to embarrass her more than anything. I tried, Coolie, I really did!