In the ska community, few artists have the reputation that Jeff Baker does; yet most ska fans might not even know that name. Baker is far better known as King Django, the frontman and trombonist for two of New York’s most acclaimed bands, Skinnerbox and the Stubborn All-Stars. In addition, Baker also runs Stubborn Records, which has released a string of high-quality compilations including the phenomenal Roots, Branch, and Stem. He’s also known as one of the foremost scholars of ska and other Jamaican music. He’s been involved with the music since the beginning of the so-called “third wave,” and took the time to talk about it all when we sat down for a while before the New York Ska Mob Tour stop in Tampa.
You started out in the very early days of the New York ska scene, with the Boilers. What was it like back in those days?
It was pretty cool, but there was a lot of violence back then, that ultimately killed that scene. There’s still a lot of remnants of that scene kicking around (the current) scene. The main thing at that time that was nicer is that the reggae and the ska were still tightly linked. There was still a lot of Jamaican influence in the ska, and the scenes had a huge overlap. You could go to reggae shows and see the same people you’d hang out with at CBGB’s ska shows. I think it was also at lot more insular then, though. I think that the people that were into ska were… there was a smaller amount of people but they were all just totally into it. Now, there’s more people that are into it, but it’s not like their “scene.” I know a lot of kids have problems with that, now, that there’s a lot of people that aren’t a part if the so-called “ska scene” that are into ska, but I think that’s cool.
Speaking of not being totally a part of the ska scene, you also did some time in Murphy’s Law…
Yeah, two and a half years in Murphy’s Law. I learned a lot, as far as just being on the road, how to deal with being on the road all the time, how to tour on a small budget. In a lot of ways it was a really cool experience, but musically it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. I made some really good friends in the band, Mike McDermont, (Skinnerbox’s) drummer; I got him from our time together in Murphy’s Law. So overall, it was definitely a positive thing for me; it was a big learning experience. I learned a lot from the road manager, Jack Flannagan; he was very educational to watch.
So, after you left Murphy’s Law you started Skinnerbox?
Skinnerbox actually started before I was in Murphy’s Law. Skinnerbox got together in 1989, Christmas of 1988, really, but we never went on tour until January of ’95. I don’t know why. Skinnerbox has been my main thrust, although Stubborn All-Stars has been picked up on more.
With Skinnerbox you have a really different kind of ska band, where there are a lot of diverse influences outside of just traditional ska and reggae. What caused you to bring all of that together?
When I first started Skinnerbox, I wanted probably something that sounded along the lines of Stubborn All-Stars. Through the people that I met and worked with in the early days of Skinnerbox, I got turned on to a lot of different music, and then being in Murphy’s Law and touring with Rancid, I got turned on to a lot of different stuff. Everything that you encounter, along the way, influences you in some way or another. Really, the impetus behind starting Stubborn All-Stars was that Skinnerbox wasn’t sounding like what I’d originally envisioned, and while I was enjoying it, I still wanted to do some stuff in a really traditional Jamaican vein.
Why was the new Skinnerbox album, What You Can Do, What You Can’t, on Moon Ska Records rather than your own Stubborn Records?
I had some legal complications with Stubborn Records last year, but that’s all settled now. I couldn’t release any records for about fifteen months. Also, even if I had been able to, I might have done the same thing, because I really needed to get that record out fast, and I thought Moon could do a better job for me than I could do for myself at that time.
Have you heard any flack over the cover of that album [which features a woman apparently having sex with a poodle]?
Not really. Some people have made comments over it. Everyone goes “who’s the dog?” (Laughs) Everyone wants to know who the dog is.
Recently, you picked up former Pietasters keyboard player Paul Ackerman as your bass player for Skinnerbox. How did that come about?
We played a gig with the Pietasters in February. It was a two-day ska fest in Pennsylvania. The Pietasters were on the second day, with the Stubborn All-Stars. At the end of the night, Paul was walking around, and he goes “hey, you guys got room in your van?” I said, “why, you goin’ to New York?” He said “uhhhh… yeah!” Since then, he hasn’t left my side. As soon as he got in the van we started driving, and I noticed a pentagram, drawn in the dust on the windshield. The Stubborn All-Stars freaked out. We all said, “hey, who the fuck drew the fucking pentagram on our Goddamn van? What the hell is that shit?” Pauly fessed up, and then for the next three hours we lectured him on Jah love, and he never left us.
A little over a year ago, Skinnerbox did a tour with the Specials. Do you have any stories from that tour?
Probably none that I should tell [laughs]. It was really cool. When we first had it booked, I was like “ahh whatever, big deal, who cares,” but as soon as we got there I was totally amazed to actually be there with the Specials. They were all really, really nice to us, it was a good tour. We had a lot of fun. The Specials are definitely very professional performers. After the show, it’s all rock & roll! [Laughs] Nobody that was in the band then is still in the band except for me and [guitarist] Dave Hahn.
Which leads directly into my next question. Skinnerbox is basically an all-new band. What happened?
Essentially, it had come time for me to just crack down and take it real serious, and whoever couldn’t keep up had to go. I don’t have a day job, and I refuse to get one. I want to do this, so I need to be on the road. Those guys were too worried about their day jobs. It would be like “okay, I can tour for ten days, and then I have to stay home for three and a half months to get my vacation days back, and then I can go out for like another week.” No. I can’t be waiting around like that. So, I got my friends together, whoever could go on the road, and whoever wanted to really do it. So we’ve basically been on the road since March.
You also recently mixed the Usuals’ new album. How did that happen?
That was really fun. It was really like a whirlwind session. We met them on tour. Actually, we met them in Connecticut the first time, and it was really weird, because this little kid band played that booked the show, and basically all their friends from school came, and that was the whole crowd. As soon as they were done, everybody left, and it was us and the Usuals hanging out. They came up on stage and danced with us while we played to basically nobody. Ever since then, we’ve been tight with them. They just asked me to come down and mix the record for them, and it was a great experience. Actually, I haven’t heard the mixes since the day that we did them. We spent two days mixing it. They said they’ve been selling a lot of them at their shows. They say they’re happy with it, so I’m anxious to hear it. They’re just really good guys and girls. Good guys and dolls.
With both Skinnerbox and the Stubborn All-Stars, there have been a lot of songs that you’ve recorded and then have gone back and re-recorded. What’s the reason you keep going back to the well?
Well, with [Skinnerbox’s] “Baby,” the original version was recorded in a home studio on an eight-track cassette, and the sound quality wasn’t similar to the rest of what was on the record. We really liked that song and we wanted it to be on the album, so we re-recorded it. “Addiction,” I just didn’t hear it that way, the way it came out wasn’t what I wanted. “I Can’t Touch You” was written for the Stubborn All-Stars album, but Matt Griffin from Simmerdown Productions asked me to give him a Dunia & the Stableboys track (for the Girls Go Ska compilation). I went through the songs I had, and “I Can’t Touch You” hadn’t been recorded by Stubborn All-Stars yet. I just really liked that song, and I thought it would be a cool version to have a girl singing it in that style. It’s kind of an old-school thing. Like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, who are two of my heroes, there’s many, many recorded versions of all of their songs, and they’re all different. It’s just fun to take a song and redo it, change it, see what different colors you can bring out of it, what different aspects you can emphasize, to get two such different tracks as the Stableboys’ and the Stubborn All-Stars’ versions of “I Can’t Touch You.”
The title track of the first Stubborn All-Stars album, Open Season, was kind of a call-out, challenging other ska personalities to prove themselves. Now, I understand on the new Hepcat album there’s a song called “Open Season is Closed.” Are you glad that someone has taken up the challenge?
The reason I wrote the song was to try to haul the DJ aspect back into the ska. Anytime that we can do something that brings some part of the roots of the music back into it, especially at this stage in the game, it’s our duty. I felt there wasn’t enough DJ style in the music, and that was really the intent of that track, to try and stir something up. Yeah, it makes me happy that someone I actually admire and respect musically is the one to actually respond first. It’s more meaningful that way.
Have you heard anything about anyone else picking up the challenge?
Not yet. I heard that DJ Mush-1 (Slackers trumpet player Jeremy Mushlin) might jump into the fray, as it were.
I heard there’s a track on the upcoming Dr. Ring-Ding album that could be seen as an answer, too.
Oh, well, I don’t listen to that German shit, anyway. [Laughs] Naw, I’m just kidding, me and Richie (Senior, a.k.a. Dr. Ring-Ding) are pals. We met in Europe and hung out. I like Richie, he’s really cool, I respect him. It’s all good. It should all be in good-natured fun; it shouldn’t get to a point where it’s actually antagonistic, on a personal level. Like one time, I got a phone call from (ex-Toasters/current-Pilfers frontman) Coolie Ranx at like 9:30, 10:00 in the morning, threatening to fight me because he’d heard that I was calling his name on the microphone. It shouldn’t be about that, if he heard me calling his name he should jump on stage next time and throw down with me. That’s what it’s really about, it’s just good fun. It’s a game. It’s not personal, it’s fun.
It seemed like there were a lot of delays in getting the new Stubborn All-Stars album, Back With a New Batch, out…
Yeah, that was all really the record label. The record was just sitting in their office for a couple of months before they got it out. They had some difficulties internally, business stuff going on there. It came out on a different label than it was recorded for, because Another Planet basically has folded; not folded but has stopped putting out new records. So there were a lot of delays in there, but we had the record done in one week. We spent seven days on it, and it was finished and turned in.
Among the many guest-stars on Back With a New Batch are Tim Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, and Matt Freeman from Rancid. You went out on Lollapalooza with them, any stories to tell?
It was kind of weird. There weren’t any crazy rock & roll stories, but we did meet a lot of strange people, it was definitely cool. We met the Ramones and DEVO. Me and Dave (Hillyard, Stubborn All-Stars saxophonist) sat in with the Violent Femmes, that was really kind of exciting. It was weird though, because nobody really noticed us. We were hanging around with Metallica, and the Ramones, and Soundgarden, and it was like “oh, those guys are the horn players for the second or third band.” We were treated really nicely, and we made a lot of good friends on the tour, but as far as crazy debauchery, no, none of that. Most of the people on the tour don’t drink or take drugs, so it was pretty mellow.
I understand Stubborn All-Stars are going to do an EP for Hellcat…
I don’t know what’s up with that. They printed that on the inside of the Give ‘Em the Boot record. We had discussed it during Lollapalooza ’96, which was over a year ago, and nothing’s come of it. I had the whole concept about a year and a half ago, I sent them an e-mail laying out the concept of the record, the song titles, and the artwork concept and everything, and they said “yeah, let’s do it.” Brett Gurewitz (Hellcat and Epitaph label chief) said something I found to be an incredible compliment, he said it would probably be “the most punk rock thing I ever put out.” I was really flattered by that, but so far, nothing’s come of it.
Can you talk a little about the concept?
I’d rather keep it under wraps, for now. The record will come out one day, whether it’s on Hellcat or not, I don’t know.
Now you’re out on the New York Ska Mob Tour, with your two bands and the Slackers. Obviously, a lot of members of the Slackers are in Stubborn All-Stars, as are members of Skinnerbox, but how did this all come together?
The tour happened because all three bands need to be on the road right now to support their new albums. Last summer, when we left town, me, Vic (Ruggiero, Slackers/Stubborn All-Stars keyboardist), and Dave (Hillyard), it kind of caused a lot of resentment in Skinnerbox and the Slackers, ’cause they were just left hanging for months. I think, ultimately, that had a lot to do with the disbanding of that lineup of Skinnerbox. I just figured that the solution would be, for us all to get done what we had to do, and not leave anybody waiting in the wings, we’ll just all go together. So far it’s been really cool. We’ve been getting treated better than we would on our own, we’ve been getting paid better than we would have, and we’re probably playing to bigger crowds. We’ve all been friends for a long time; obviously, the Slackers and Skinnerbox have been tight for five years, and half the Stubborn All-Stars are in the Slackers. We’re all friends from New York. We’re all getting along well on the road. There’s been a couple of little spats, but usually they end up in handshakes and smiles. It’s the best thing for all of us.
Finally, is it frustrating for you, personally, that Stubborn All-Stars seems to get more attention than Skinnerbox?
That’s a very insightful question. Yeah, somewhat. Stubborn All-Stars sort of took on a life of it’s own, very quickly. It wasn’t really intended to be anything beyond the Old’s Cool seven-inch. People like it, and we like doing it, so it’s kind of a happy accident, in a way, kind of a happy Frankenstein’s monster. I don’t feel like I can really count on Stubborn All-Stars being there for me, because people are involved in other projects. Also, the style of Stubborn All-Stars, while I suppose I could make it whatever I want to, I don’t feel that would be right to the people who dig it. I want to keep it a certain way, musically, because there’s a reason that people like it, and I don’t want to take that away from them. Those people have given me a lot, personally, by supporting me and the Stubborn All-Stars. People in the industry say “why don’t you just use the name Stubborn All-Stars and just play the music you do in Skinnerbox, or do whatever you want,” but that would kind of go against the concept of Stubborn All-Stars. Skinnerbox is artistically more fulfilling, for me, because I don’t have any limitations on what I can do in that band, albeit the limitations in Stubborn All-Stars are self-imposed. It’s just more interesting; it’s a freer arena for me, in Skinnerbox. That’s why I’ve been really focusing on Skinnerbox.
The new All-Stars album is out, and obviously, we’re gonna tour and support it, and whatever happens, happens. I’m gonna do whatever I have to do, but Skinnerbox is really more along the lines of my ultimate musical vision. Stubborn All-Stars is not as challenging for me. The challenge of Stubborn All-Stars is to be able to work within a certain framework, and still come up with stuff that’s interesting to me, and that’s going to be interesting to listeners as well. With Skinnerbox, the challenge is, “are you gonna be good enough to perform the material that you’re writing?” Skinnerbox’s material is definitely tougher to pull off, it’s a lot more experimental, and I think it’s a lot more technically demanding in a way. For me, and I suppose for everyone (in Skinnerbox), (we) go through so many influences and styles in a night that you have to really be on your toes to go through that set. With Stubborn All-Stars we strike a groove and we pretty much stay in it. It’s an easy skankin’ kind of thing, and it’s not a lot of pressure. Skinnerbox is more challenging, and more demanding.