Interview: Dicky Barrett says we’re living in the ‘Summer of Ska’

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones 2018. Photograph by Lisa Johnson.


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Dicky Barrett has declared summer 2018 the “summer of ska.” And if you disagree, he has a special message for ya: “Fuck you.”

After 20 years and counting of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Hometown Throwdown, the Boston ska-core heroes are testing the waters in Worcester for their next potential tradition with the inaugural Cranking & Skanking Fest at The Palladium on August 25.

The one-day jam piles on ska, reggae, and punk music from the Bosstones, Toots & The Maytals, The Bouncing Souls, Fishbone, Big D And The Kids Table, The Planet Smashers, and The Pietasters, with support from The Doped Up Dollies, Michael Kane & The Morning Afters, The Hempsteadys, Sweet Babylon, and Color Killer. And after Barrett let the idea marinate in his checkered noggin for literally 23 years, the fest has finally come to fruition.

“It could become one of two things: A tradition, an annual thing, or, it could be a huge mistake where I embarrass myself in the city of Worcester in front of my friends like The Bouncing Souls and The Pietasters, Fishbone,” Barrett says. “I’m so hoping it’s a) and not b).”

Vanyaland chatted with Barrett about the fest, as well as the singer’s thoughts on the current ska boom, kicking it in Wormtown, and the impassioned heat of the band’s new record While We’re At It.

Victoria Wasylak: You said that you’ve had the idea for Cranking & Skanking festival since 1995 at Lollapalooza. Can you elaborate on that epiphany?

Dicky Barrett: [I thought] a ska-themed or ska-strong festival would be a good idea and an easy excuse to return to New England in the summertime. The Hometown Throwdown is working out so well, so maybe a festival in one of the other working-class New England cities [would work too]. Worcester came correct and said “hey, we’d love to have it here,” and so we said “sure.”

I was almost surprised to see that it was in Worcester and not Boston.

Worcester does have a strong music scene, and we’ve had a love and a very close relationship with Worcester — we’ve had a lot of great Bosstones shows in Worcester. We’ve never had a bad time there, and it seems like it’s not too close and not too far from Boston. Worcester seemed right, and I’m glad. We’ll see. I hope we don’t piss Worcester off, I hope we made the right choice. We’ll find out.

What made 2018 the right year to start this festival?

It feels like a pretty good year for ska. Every year, for me and in my heart, is a good year for ska music — I’ve never considered it a trend or [felt] “oh, it’s very popular right now,” I haven’t paid attention to the “waves” at all since I fell in love with it when I first heard The English Beat when they played The Orpheum Theatre so many years ago. I never looked back. It’s always been good, it’s always had something to say, and I’ve always loved it, so it’s a huge passion of mine and the very center of my whole existence, my life, and my universe.

But, having said all of that, it feels like there’s some type of resurgence or some type of renaissance. There’s a lot of young great ska bands like The Interrupters, The Skints, Buster Shuffle. Some of the classic ska bands like The English Beat and ourselves — and Madness put out a tremendous record last year — have released some great records [recently].

So I’ve been going around calling summer 2018 the “summer of ska.” We’ve been out there on the road, and we released a new album, along with other bands and friends of ours, [who] all put out ska records this year. Other people have been saying “not it’s not [the summer of ska]” and then I’ve been following that up with “fuck you.”

The true Boston response to someone’s incorrect opinion.

If I say it’s true, it’s true. And other people can say “why is this the summer of ska?” and they can feel free to say “because Dicky said so.”

What do you think caused this boom in ska?

If we want to get heavy and we want to get political, it seems like it shows up like some sort of a superhero, right when we need it the most, right when we couldn’t feel any worse. Socially and politically — wow. Things are pretty messed up right now, and whether it was Jamaican kids in Jamaica in the late-’60s, or Margaret Thatcher’s England in the late-’70s, it seems like whenever that happens, the best ska music comes out of nowhere. So maybe it’s that, maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s “when we’re feeling down, it’s time to feel good.” And I’ve said this about ska all along — it does what I love most: It sounds good and it says something. Those two things are important to me, and that’s the type of music I like to listen to. I think sounding good and saying something is very necessary. It seems to be something we could use right now, and here it is.

When you were working on the new album, you had said that it came out angrier than expected.

People have argued with me and said “we’ve heard you angrier,” and “it’s not all that angry,” but it’s certainly pissed. It has point of view, it has something to say, it takes a stance, it’s not afraid, but it also has an enormous, healthy dose of hope in it. I’ll tell you one thing — the nine of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are extremely proud of it. When we finished it — angry or not angry — there were high fives all around, and hugs and kudos; all of those things. We made a dang good Mighty Mighty Bosstones record.

If there’s a lot of anger and commentary on an album, how does that fit into a festival setting for you, where people want to go to relax and unwind?

I think that when you show up, it’s time to feel good. We do that at the Hometown Throwdown. I think this has been a long time coming. You get in there, you look around, and you say “hey, people are only here for one reason, and that’s to feel good,” and I think that’s what happens at Mighty Mighty Bosstones shows. That’s what happens at the Hometown Throwdown, that’s what’s been happening on the tour we’ve been on, and that’s what’s gonna happen in Worcester August 25.

Do you see this becoming another tradition for you folks like the Hometown Throwdown?

It could become one of two things: A tradition, an annual thing, or, it could be a huge mistake where I embarrass myself in the city of Worcester in front of my friends like The Bouncing Souls and The Pietasters, Fishbone. I’m so hoping it’s a) and not b).

Usually, whenever we do something like this, afterwards people will say “see? I told you. Why were you worrying?” but beforehand I am constantly a nervous wreck. There’s always a part of me going “this may not work.” As things currently stand, I think everybody’s gonna show up, the bands will be tremendous, people are going to be thoroughly entertained, the craft beer people are going to be very, very pleased and say “oh gosh I can’t wait until next year,” and then I’m going to rest easy and comfortably once again.

Would you ever consider making more of these festivals across the country, like a Warped Tour kind of thing?

Oh, let’s not get too far in front of ourselves! I don’t know, if it’s good I certainly would, but it has to be good, I wouldn’t just want to cookie cutter something that’s half-assed or not good. But — sure? The short answer is yes, the long answer is it would require a lot of thought and a lot of planning.

A lot of your pals are also on the lineup. How many bands did you actually get to select?

The lion’s share. We wanted there to be local, smaller bands from the Worcester area, and that was handled by other people, but we also knew that we wanted Big D and the Kids Table to be there, Fishbone was a no-brainer. Toots and the Maytals was some sort of a godsend — I don’t know how that happened, but I’m so happy it happened. I hope they leave going “we’re good friends with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones” and not high-tailing it back to Jamaica, going “fuck those guys.” They’re on the bill and that’s a thrill. Like the Hometown Throwdown, most of the credit for the bands we have on the road with us or that play with us goes to Joe Gittleman. He spends a lot of time putting bills together, figuring out who could be there, so that’s to his credit.

It’s great that you have three or four local bands on the bill — that’s a pretty good amount for only a one-day festival.

That was important. You don’t really want to storm into Worcester and ignore that they have healthy, strong, and really great musicians in that town and ignore that.

That would piss people off.

I wouldn’t want to piss people off, plus, having friends and family in that town, I know that those bands exist. It was just a matter of saying “okay, who wants to play?”

THE CRANKING & SKANKING FESTIVAL :: Saturday, August 25 at The Palladium Outdoors, 261 Main St. in Worcester, MA :: Doors at 2 p.m., all-ages, $38.20 to $55 :: Advance tickets :: Palladium event page :: Facebook event page :: Featured photo by Lisa Johnson.