The intense, almost aggressive power of their groove stands a good chance of capturing almost any ear -- especially live. But the Toasters bring an emotional dimension not often associated with ska. Their pressured, edgy subject matter and gruff delivery works perfectly in counterpoint to the good-time bounce for which the music is most widely recognized. If poppy repetition is all you hear, you might mistakenly say, "It all sounds the same."
Toasters founder Rob "Bucket" Hingley has a suggestion for people who feel that way.
"They should go and listen to something else, then," he snorts with the same gruff demeanor he possesses on stage. It's tough but likable.
"Like rock 'n' roll is not formulaic?" he demands. "Like techno is not formulaic? There's only eight notes in music, so everything at some point is going to be formulaic. What they're really saying is they don't like the music, which is fine, but if you don't like it, don't listen to it. Any musical form that sits astride a nexus of jazz, reggae, pop, punk, and swing -- I mean, that's got something going for it."
Hingley might be sick of justifying the music, but if he feels like he's beating a dead horse, it's only because he's spent his entire career championing ska via self-sustaining independent means, first with Moon Ska Records, which he founded in 1983 and folded in the U.S. in 2003, and now with his new label Megalith Records. When he planted the seeds for what would eventually become the Toasters in 1980, ska was relegated to underground status. And despite some surges in popularity, that's where it's largely remained.
Hingley got hooked in 1964, at the age of 9, with his first ska purchase, the "My Boy Lollipop" single by the Jamaican singer Millie Small. (Esteemed producer, reggae proponent, and Island records founder Chris Blackwell produced the song, and Rod Stewart is rumored to have played the harmonica part. To this day, it remains one of the biggest ska hits of all time.)
"I've been listening ever since," Hingley says.
Originally from Devonshire, England -- "I came from the same town as this guy named Sir Francis Drake, who you guys might have heard a little bit about," he quips sarcastically -- Hingley says the urge to explore the world grew naturally from his surroundings. "Pretty much all the people down there are seafaring adventurers," he muses, "so I guess I got bitten by that bug pretty early. I enjoy what that entails -- running around the planet with the Toasters. It's quite a lot of fun, actually."
In January of 1980, he was sent to New York City to manage the Manhattan location of British comics/gaming/sci-fi chain Forbidden Planet. He'd intended to stay in town for only six months. He left Forbidden Planet completely by 1987 but remained in New York until last May, when he moved to Valencia, Spain. Because of the "global village" character of Internet commerce and the slow, steady growth of his European fanbase, Hingley's new location "works out fine for the independent musician like me." These days, the Toasters tour twice annually in Europe and North America with "equal importance."
Over the years, Hingley has weathered the adversity of ska's tumultuous commercial showing. Putting out records by bands has at times been a personal strain. Hingley says he's experienced finger-pointing and cash-grabbing but hardly seems daunted. He says his faith in people hasn't really suffered.
"A lot of people get into the music business with a false set of expectations. And when they get disappointed that they don't become overnight rock stars or don't immediately get what they want, then it has to be somebody else's fault and not their own."
Though the Toasters are, much to Hingley's surprise, still afloat, he says that "for anybody coming into it as a new musician right now, this is probably the worst climate I've ever seen for bands wanting to start out." Keep in mind he was saying the same thing five years ago.
"It's much worse" now, he insists. "It's brutal for the independents. Between the retraction in the market and file sharing, it's made it really hard for record companies to sell recorded music, and it's impacted the indies far more than the majors, I think."
That sounds rather grim, but a determined tone in Hingley's voice betrays something more optimistic. He insists that the large-scale success of certain bands has, at the end of the day, been good for the music. He's seen ska's mass exposure come and go. He won't fight it if it comes back, but he's also not waiting for any miracles. He believes the music will survive, just as it always has. He points to Texas' Los Skarnales and Oregon's Uprite Dub Orchestra as acts to watch out for.
Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the heat a band brings to the stage.
"The best way to judge ska music is to come to a live show," he says, "because it's really impossible to record all that energy."
Every band would love to claim that about themselves, but Hingley means it about ska music in general, not just his own group. Fortunately, in the Toasters' case, it also happens to be true.