Film, Interview, Music

INTERVIEW: Director Taylor Morden on ‘Pick It Up! Ska in the ’90s’

'90s ska documentary screens at Somerville Theatre on 8/24 at 7:30 PM

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“It was for the weirdos and the outcasts and the band geeks and the punk rockers who weren’t quite punk enough to be at the “real” punk shows. It was for everybody.”

As a suburban middle and high school kid, I remember being tipped off to buy The Suicide Machines’ Destruction by Definition and Reel Big Fish’s Turn The Radio Off on the same trip to my local mall’s Sam Goody and falling deeply into the Thank You section of the liner notes to find more bands to listen to – ska of the ‘90s was my musical gateway. I inked checkerboards into the soles of my Chuck Taylors with a black ballpoint, named every fruit fly we bred in Junior Biology after Monique Powell (it was intended as tribute, but I recognize now how weird that is), and included an Aquabats lyric as the senior quote in my yearbook.

And I definitely knew how many ska kids it took to screw in a light bulb.

These old bones don’t skank as much as they used to, but with these bands still on rotation in my ears and my heart, I jumped at the chance to talk to Taylor Morden, a ska musician (trumpet!), movie maker, and director of the recently released independent documentary Pick It Up!: Ska in the ‘90s, screening at Somerville Theatre on August 24 and including a special Q and A hosted by David McWane from Big D and the Kids Table. Funded 100% through the kindness and $$ of Kickstarter backers, Morden talked to me more* about the film making process, Boston bands especially featured in Pick It Up!, and what the heck even is fourth wave, for real, is that even a thing.

(*Conversation lightly edited.)

 

BOSTON HASSLE: I first wanted to ask you about you – your background in music, how you’ve been a trumpet player in different ska bands, your background in movie making, and how these two worlds collide – music and movies – in making Pick It Up!.

Director Taylor Morden

TAYLOR MORDEN: I started playing trumpet in the third grade. To paint you a picture of me in 1997 in high school, I was a band geek, played trumpet in the school band, and I was not a very cool kid. At the same time, I was also the kid with a video recorder on his shoulder to tape things on VHS, running home to edit that with two VCRs, trying to make videos. If there was any excuse to not write a paper for school, I would make videos instead. And it all stems from there.

I discovered ska music and, as a trumpet player, it was mind-blowing and opened up my whole world. I started playing in ska bands and ended up touring up and down the West Coast, through Japan and China, doing all of these really fun ska shows, meeting all of these really great people. I was in a Eugene, Oregon-based ska band called 007 that had great local fans. We opened for a bunch of the big shows, like for Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris. Because horns sections are hard to come by for people into ska and punk music, me and the trombone player from 007 went on to play in a few other bands, one of which was signed to a major label in Japan. We toured over there every year, playing all the ska festivals. I’ve played in several other ska bands since then and kind of never stopped.

BH: In raising money for Pick It Up!, what was the Kickstarter experience like? I saw that you had over 1,900 backers and over $118,000 in support.

TM: That’s right! It was a lot more than we had anticipated and more than we could have hoped for. We were hoping to get $40,000, so we raised almost three times as much. We earmarked all the extra money for extra backer rewards. The budget of the movie didn’t go up by that much – we spent about $60,000 on the movie. But as we raised more, everyone else got more rewards, like free pairs of sunglasses and other stuff. We’ll be pressing a special vinyl soundtrack, too.

BH: When did you get this idea for this ‘90s ska documentary?

TM: I had finished a movie in 2017 about a one-hit wonder band from the ‘90s called The Refreshments. They had one song on the radio, did the theme song for the TV show King of the Hill, and went on to do some really cool stuff. That was my first feature documentary that I was testing the waters with.

I was thinking of what to do next and [Rei Mastrogiovanni], a friend of mine that I played in ska bands with, said, “Why don’t we do one on ‘90s ska? Because if you don’t make it, probably no one will.” It’s not as beloved as some other genres of music. I thought that sounded great, but I didn’t know where to start. There’s too many bands, there’s too much story.

I told [Mastrogiovanni] I would do it if he would help me and be the producer. He still plays in ska bands in Japan and knew some of the people we needed, like Save Ferris and Angelo [Moore] from Fishbone, which would be a good starting point.

Three months later, we were on our first filming trip down to California and started making a movie.

BH: How did the process evolve after that? Through word of mouth, did you start hearing, “Hey, you should talk to this guy?”

TM: We had our dream list when we first started, asking ourselves, Wouldn’t it be great if we could get somebody from No Doubt, or the Bosstones, or Reel Big Fish, or any of these bands that were the big staples of the genre. We figured that it would be great if we got in touch with some of them, and if not, it was fine because we could still tell the story about them without them being in it.

Aaron Barret from Reel Big Fish

BH: But you got all of those people! (Edit: Seriously, the list of folks included in this documentary is all-encompassing.)

TM: Yeah, that’s what happened! Each trip felt like we were in the right place at the right time. When we were meeting with, for example, Darrin [Pfeiffer] from Goldfinger, we wrapped up that interview and he said, “You know who you have to talk to…” And he’d start giving us people’s phone numbers, saying, “But you can’t tell them you got it from me.” (laughs) Well, then I can’t call them! “Hi, this is a stranger, would you like to be in a movie about you?” That doesn’t work. It took a long time and a lot of word of mouth. It slowly built up and was taken seriously once people heard that Angelo from Fishbone was a part of it. We talked to Mike Park from Skankin’ Pickle and Bucket [Robert Hingley] from The Toasters (Edit: who are also playing Ralph’s Rock Diner in Worcester on September 16!) and other people that are really respected in the ska scene. They would say to other people, “Hey, these guys are legit, they’re doing a real project,” and the word got out.

Mike Park of Skankin’ Pickle; Asian Man Records founder

It snowballed a lot once we got in touch with Christian [Jacobs] from The Aquabats (Edit: who are also playing the Paradise on September 18!). He knows everybody and everybody loves him. It felt like maybe a lot of people owed him favors (laughs). He put us in touch with folks like Tom [Dumont] from No Doubt and Tim Armstrong from Rancid (Edit: who are also playing The Palladium in Worcester on September 15!) and Operation Ivy, who narrated the movie.

BH: Is Tim Armstrong in the film as well or just narrating?

TM: He’s not in it because he had just been interviewed for some other documentaries and didn’t want to tell the same stories again. But! He actually called me out of the blue – it was an unknown number on my phone – and said, “Hey, this is Tim from Operation Ivy and Rancid,” and he has such a unique voice that I knew who it was when he said, “Hey.” I didn’t need all the other words (laughs).

He explained that he wanted to help out and asked if we’d hired a narrator yet. At the time, we were in negotiations with Hollywood actor types who might be a good fit for a ska movie. Tim Armstrong said he wanted to try out and I immediately just said you’re hired, you’re the guy. It’s such a great fit and you couldn’t ask for someone better. He has such a unique voice and is such a respected person in the ska community – he was always the ska guy in the punk rock band.

Bucket from The Toasters

BH: Is there one band or musician or interview that you’re especially proud to have been able to get?

TM: Man, it’s really fun that we were able to talk to all the ‘90s bands that I grew up playing with and listening to. That was really cool, for us to tell their story from all of their points of view and have them all involved.

What I thought was really cool and what meant more to me was when we talked to some of the older folks, like from The Specials and The Skatalites. It’s their point of view that I think rounds out the story in a unique way. It’s more impactful to me to talk to them about ska in the ‘90s because some of these people were around and playing ska in the ‘50s! When nobody knew what it was and it was brand new. Talking to them about bands like Reel Big Fish was just awesome. We tried to make sure we covered their points of view and get their voices in there, too.

We figured that, if this was the only ska documentary that someone were to ever see, we wanted them to get the whole picture, so we do spend some time in the beginning of the movie to explain what the first and second waves of ska were, why they’re important, and where [the third wave] came from.

Monique Powell from Save Ferris

BH: That’s great – it’s a big breadth and a lot to cover. I’m sure you’ve got a ton of footage that you wanted to include but had to get cut. Will that be included as extras that Kickstarter backers get to see, or will you put it online at some point?

TM: Yeah! We’re working on that now. Some will be just for Kickstarter backers and some will be extra footage on the DVD and Blu-ray. It’s interesting to have these hard drives filled with hundreds of hours of ska interviews. If we don’t do something with them, they might never see the light of day, so who knows what we’ll do? Maybe we’ll have a really dense YouTube channel one of these days.

BH: Is there a band or musician or interview that you wanted to include, but the interview just didn’t work out?

TM: There are a few bands that we reached out to that were excited and on board, but we couldn’t make the timing or geography work out. We could only afford a couple trips to the East Coast and some of these bands are in other countries.

We did have a lot of back and forth with Gwen Stefani’s people to try to get her in the movie, but that didn’t work out, which was a bummer for us. Bummer for anyone trying to get ahold of Gwen Stefani, I’d imagine (laughs).

For the most part, I look back at our original wish list of who we wanted to have in the movie and, as far as bands, we got everybody.

There were some bands that weren’t even on the list, but it just worked out. Oingo Boingo and Smash Mouth were these big names where, when we started, we didn’t think they’d really want to be part of this story, but they were connected to it and it’s their story, too.

BH: How about the Boston- and New England-based ska bands in the film? I know Dave McWane from Big D and the Kids Table (Edit: who are also playing Brighton Music Hall on October 26! Phew, it’s a good couple months for live ska!) is going to be at the screening here in Boston on August 24 at the Somerville Theatre and hosting a Q and A. Did you get to talk to Mighty Mighty Bosstones, too? Were there other Boston or New England folks involved?

TM: The Bosstones and Big D and the Kids Table are both big parts of the movie and great to work with. I really like Dave McWane’s parts of the movie a lot. He has a really genuine and earnest perspective that’s not as expected in the ska scene – very heartfelt in a unique way, which I think people will get a kick out of. [We included] some stories in the movie about The Might Mighty Bosstones and the Boston ska scene. As much as Orange County was the epicenter, I think the Bosstones were the anchor on the East Coast of that ‘90s ska movement. They really put that Boston skacore sound on the map in a really cool way – so much so, that we’re still talking about them 20 or 30 years later.

David McWane from Big D and The Kids Table

BH: Heck yeah, I’m still watching them 20 or 30 years later.

TM: Yeah, they’re still playing and still putting out great records, which is amazing. That’s something we couldn’t have predicted when we started this project in 2017. Ska was around and these bands were still playing shows here and there, but all of these festivals have come out. The Bosstones have their festival and all of these other bands have put out new albums since we started this project. It seems like ska is having this really cool resurgence. We’re just happy to be around to capture it this time.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

BH: You make a great point. The coming out of Pick It Up! is super timely – The Specials just came out with their new album, The Aggrolites just put something out, there’s so many.

TM: Yeah! Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, Buck-O-Nine. All of these bands that a lot of people thought were only touring on their greatest hits are putting out new music that’s relevant and timely, and that’s what ska is all about, too. There’s the political aspect and you need people like that to talk truth to power.

BH: Where do you see the landscape of ska moving from today – do you think we’re in a new fourth wave, or an extension of the third wave, or something else?

TM: People have been talking about the “fourth wave” for years, right.

BH: And if I’m being honest, I’m never really sure what that term “fourth wave” means. I’ve heard people kick it around for years, too, and I wondered if it was something you’re able to define. You’re the guy who did the documentary, so maybe you know? Is fourth wave actually a thing?

TM: When we started making the documentary, we asked everybody that. We wanted to know what they thought. Is there a fourth wave and what does that mean?

We kept getting the same response: it’s nice to be able to categorize ska music in waves as shorthand for talking about these bands, but it’s all an evolution of the same Jamaican music. It’s evolving, it’s never stopped, it’s always been there. And it’s always going to keep evolving. Generally, I think we’re past waves.

BH: And as far as the film itself, it premiered in late April in Newport Beach?

TM: Yeah, we had our world premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival at the end of April. We sold out the theater and won the audience award for music films, which felt really good. We timed it so that it was the night before the Back to the Beach music festival, so we knew a lot of these bands would be in town and they could all come.

It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life: to be at this movie theater that was sold out, watching it for the first time in a room full of ska fans and people from Reel Big Fish and Hepcat and Save Ferris and The Aquabats and Buck-O-Nine. Experiencing it together with everyone laughing and cheering – it was an amazing night.

Since then, we’ve had several smaller versions of that. In San Francisco, people from the local ska bands and the local fans came out. Then we did Denver and Chicago. The unexpected bonus that I didn’t realize – the screenings were these real-life events that brought these ska communities back together in this really cool way. I knew people would watch it on DVD or streaming in their living rooms. But to go to the theater and watch it with a crowd of people, some who haven’t thought about ska music in 20 years, some who have been playing it nonstop for the last 20 years, and to put them all together and see smiles on people’s faces, to see them having a great time, remembering this music…

A lot of the showings will also have a band play or will time it near a concert that everyone can go to. Last week, the screening was in Chicago and, right afterwards, there was a Hepcat show. Everybody just gets together and has fun! That is something we didn’t expect when we were making the movie. It’s a pretty cool thing, and the screenings I’ve been able to go to have just been really awesome experiences that definitely remind me of being at a ska show in 1998 with all my friends.

BH: Is the film streaming now? Is it something folks could watch if they can’t get to a screening?

TM: Not yet. We’re working on that and should have a distribution plan within the next few weeks. We’re hoping it’ll be on some streaming platforms, we know it’ll be up on DVD and Blu-ray, and then on iTunes and Amazon and places where you can pay for video on demand and rent movies.

BH: Well, I’m really looking forward to the Boston screening and seeing some of the folks I’ve been listening to for such a long time finally get their reflective moment.

TM: Yeah, the intent of the movie is to shine a light on these people, what we all enjoyed about the music, the shows, the experience, and the community. You see a lot of people making fun of ska music in TV shows or memes or whatever and, yeah, it’s funny! I laugh, too! But it’s not always a joke to us and the people who really loved it. We wanted to make a movie that you could have your mom or your uncle watch – anyone who doesn’t know anything about ska – and it would explain to them why we love it.

BH: I hear ya. That was always one of the reasons I liked ska so much, too – it’s one of the most inclusive genres to be a part of.

TM: Totally. It was for the weirdos and the outcasts and the band geeks and the punk rockers who weren’t quite punk enough to be at the “real” punk shows. It was for everybody.

Pick It Up! Ska in the ‘90s will be screened at the Somerville Theatre on August 24 at 7:30 p.m. and features a Q and A hosted by Big D and the Kids Table’s David McWane. You can follow Pick It Up! on Twitter @skamovie, on Instagram @skamovie, on Facebook /skamovie, and by visiting www.skamovie.com.

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