Passing the Buck

Craig Yarnold sounds thrashed. His voice is croaky, nose congested, and he's sending some gnarly, hacking cough concussions over international phone lines. Sick? Not really. More like a hefty hangover. And who can blame him? It's not often a band plays a gig like Yarnold's Buck-O-Nine did in Tokyo two nights earlier. The group's skacore grooves were reportedly so happening that they seduced a steady flow of Japanese youth into a stage-diving frenzy. "They just fucking jump off the stage," marvels Yarnold. "They don't even care where or how they land." Causing such mayhem is generally considered a job well done in rock music, so, yes, a little celebration was definitely in order.

These are glorious days for Buck-O-Nine, dream-come-true days even. After four-plus years of tireless gigging and near anonymity, the San Diego band has a hit single ("My Town"), a hot-selling album (Twenty-Eight Teeth), and gigs across the globe. "It's like, either sign up for the Army or join a band, and you get to see the world," Yarnold jokes. All this for a band that back in 1992 just wanted to hang out and make some noise.

"We didn't start the band thinking we wanted to be professional musicians -- we started it for fun, something that we did in our spare time," says Yarnold, the saxophonist in the seven-piece collective of twentysomethings that also includes Jon Pebsworth (vocals), Jonas Kleiner (guitar), Scott Kennerly (bass), Steve Bauer (drums), Dan Albert (trombone), and Anthony Currey (trumpet). "So every time something [big] happens, it takes a while to digest."

"Big" would include the new album recently topping 100,000 in sales. "We never thought we'd sell that many records," Yarnold admits. "Ever. When we sold a few thousand of our first album we were amazed at that."

What has happened, as any fan of modern-rock radio can likely attest, is that skacore has exploded into one of this year's biggest fads. A musical ghetto earlier in the decade, all of that changed after No Doubt broke huge last year. (You could even attribute skacore's current popularity to Nirvana, who single-handedly redefined rock radio in 1991, and, as a result, begat Green Day, who begat Rancid, who begat No Doubt.... You get the idea.) Now skacore bands are everywhere, with acts such as Sublime, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Gainesville's Less Than Jake flocking to radio like pigeons to a crusty loaf of bread. Reel Big Fish scored one of the summer's catchiest hits with "Sell Out," while Sublime has topped two million in sales with an album that, in light of the death of lead singer Brad Nowell, has had absolutely zero tour support. Even the Bosstones, who for years seemed little more than a hardcore-infused tribute act to the two-tone scene that spawned the Specials, Madness, and the English Beat in early-Eighties Britain, have watched their seventh release simmer over into platinum status this summer with the help of the brassy single "The Impression That I Get."

Buck-O-Nine caught the wave too, poking its way onto modern-rock radio late this summer with the anthemic "My Town," a feel-good ode to San Diego beach culture. A sprightly ska tune with a horn line that will stick in your brain for days, it's indicative of nearly half of Twenty-Eight Teeth, the band's third and most-accomplished record. Elsewhere, we're talking full-throttle skacore ("Nineteen," "What Happened to My Radio?," and the new single "Round Kid"), where hyperactive ska grooves set the pace only to lurch into supercharged punk status come chorus time.

Twenty-Eight Teeth also offers what seems requisite to the ska-minded these days, including: a reggae/dub instrumental; a riffy, Clash-like rocker; and a cover of a new wave staple, the latter being a straight-up version of Joe Jackson's "I'm the Man," an appropriate choice for vocalist Pebsworth, whose poppy, slightly Anglofied inflections recall Jackson's own.

Fun stuff, Twenty-Eight Teeth is perfectly suited for buzzing around town on a sunny day or for taking over the mosh pit later that evening. In fact the entire skacore scene seems content with the spreading of a feel-good vibe as its predominant aspiration. A direct reaction to the gloomy grunge years, the mindset is one of the major factors that separates skacore from its two-tone parents, themselves revivalists of the Jamaican ska sounds popularized in the early Sixties. Not that two-tone acts didn't have fun -- they did. To this day the English Beat's I Just Can't Stop It ranks among the most spirited, most exotic ska collections around. But the English Beat also made some big-time political stances, like calling for the removal of their nation's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in "Stand Down Margaret." And when they hit American shores, "Stand Down Margaret" morphed into "Stand Down Ronnie." Special AKA, meanwhile, sang "Free Nelson Mandela," a slice of political pop that not only felt good but also helped educate a generation of new wave kids in the state of affairs in apartheid South Africa.

Words are never so bold on Twenty-Eight Teeth. Instead, we get plenty of slackerish scenarios and characters: an affable, overweight skate rat and a whiny girl who makes the world suffer for her own common cold, to cite just two. Even when the ante seems greater, it turns out not to be. With the soaring chorus line "what keeps me hangin' on," the album's title track rings of soul-searching desperation. Closer inspection, though, reveals a song about the boredom of being on tour. Ditto for the album-closing "Little Pain Inside." Starving children might initially seem the theme to this warm, acoustic-guitar-driven tune with its campfire-like sing-along vocals. Then the second verse kicks in, and it's clear that we're privy to the inner workings of a beach bum contemplating his next fast-food meal.

"When we started, a lot of the music was really depressing and negative," explains Yarnold. "Our goal was to present the flip side of that with more of a positive, upbeat vibe. When we see people smiling out in the audience, that's the best thing in the world for us. It's hard to live in the world as it is, so if you can make it better for someone, make them happy for an hour or so, I think that's a pretty good thing."

Fun is fun and all, but dark clouds might be looming on the horizon, as some industry pundits consider the skacore trend to be the next potential victim of this chew-'em-up/spit-'em-out era of hyperspeed media saturation. Note a recent article in the Los Angeles Times that reports that Southern California radio station KROQ, arguably the trendsetter among the modern-rock airwaves, is pining for more traditional guitar rock again.

"What they don't want is the next No Doubt or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones," the article argues. "The current rush of ska- and pop-oriented acts provides programmers with a lot of catchy, fun songs that get instant reaction. But to the radio folks these groups lack the depth that builds a solid audience the way the rockers did during alternative rock's early-Nineties eruption." Funny thing is, Buck-O-Nine recognizes radio's knack for cramming tunes down a listener's throat to the point of exhaustion.

"Oh no not again/Please tell me I'm wrong," Pebsworth sings in "What Happened to My Radio?" "It's been ten minutes since they played this song/Or is it the band with the one word name/I get so confused it all sounds the same." Of course he's talking about the onslaught of Nirvana clones a couple years back. Silly him.

It's a peculiar position for Buck-O-Nine. On one hand they are finally experiencing the exhilaration of heightened popularity and the rewards that might accompany it -- like the cultural phenomenon of reckless, stage-diving Asian youth. On the other hand, they must ponder the threat of their own obsolescence. Yarnold, who readily admits that there is little difference in the sound of Buck-O-Nine and compatriots such as the Bosstones and Reel Big Fish (Sublime, in fact, with their ska/punk/hip-hop/dub/folk amalgam, are maybe the most original and potentially transcendent of the lot, and they're no longer in existence), recognizes the challenge before them. "We really don't know what the future holds," he confesses. "Commercially we're really not sure if anyone's gonna be buying Buck-O-Nine records when the next one comes out."

But, he adds, the band simply aims to concentrate on writing better, more far-reaching tunes, drawing inspiration from one-time top acts such as the Clash, the Police, the English Beat, Oingo Boingo, and Fishbone, all of whom initially flirted with ska and/or reggae and ultimately expanded beyond. "Right now we're in the middle of this whole resurgence, so it's really hard to say if it's just a passing thing," Yarnold notes. But ska, he continues, "will always be there. It's been around for 30 years. There's always gonna be people that are interested in it, and they're always going to be bands. But I think you can run into dead ends if you don't develop more than just the same old songs over and over."

Buck-O-Nine performs an all-ages show at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 15, at the Chili Pepper, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5996. Tickets cost $10.

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