The Prizefighters: We're like an informal conservatory of ska
"I did the two things that you're not supposed to do if you're white when you go to Jamaica," he says with a rueful grin, "You're not supposed to go to Orange Street, and you're not supposed to be on Orange Street after dark." He broke both rules during his first day there, but the experience was something like a trip to Mecca for the Robbinsdale native. He finally had a chance to witness the historical landmarks and remaining communities of a Jamaican pop sound from a bygone era, and even jam with a few musical legends on that very street that the hotel told him he ought to probably avoid.
Ahead of Friday's release show at Triple Rock, Porter and his bandmates spoke to Gimme Noise about the self-imposed challenges that came with their newest album, A Musical Knockout in 3 Rounds.
Several thousand miles north, Porter and the Prizefighters have begun to receive some well-earned acclaim for that same sort of sincere devotion to the musical stylings of 1960s Jamaica. Borne from fuzzy radio transmissions of early R&B from the mainland and a particularly Jamaican style of cultural innovation, ska was the explosive sound of the island's independence movement. Experiencing derivative resurgences in 1970s England and 1990s America, ska's brand has been inexorably damaged by watered-down, thoroughly unfunky imitators upon import. Groups like the Prizefighters are working on changing that, combating their genre's goofy reputation by approaching the music with the kind of reverence that jazz groups normally reserve for names like John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
Starting back in 2006 as the brainchild of Aaron Porter and his brother, bassist Jordan Porter, who were previously active in ska-punk group GYLBOTS, the new project grew out of a mutual desire to more closely emulate the dusty sounds the two had fallen in love with on old rocksteady 45's.
"It wasn't 'Let's be a retro, traditional ska band'"says saxophonist Courtney Klos of the band's intentions, " but, 'let's be students of the music and really study and pay tribute to it'." Shuffling through a variety of players until they settled on a lineup for 2010's Follow My Sound, the Prizefighters enlisted the help of east coast ska-revival icon and producer King Django, aka Jeff Baker for mastering to help realize their goal of making a record with the same warm, analog vibes as those from the 1960s.
Follow My Sound's scratchy charm won them some national attention and distribution via ska indie-label Jump Up Records, as well as a coveted pressing onto vinyl. Within the scene's niche, the Prizefighters carved out a following with their infectious live shows and staunch commitment to the historical accuracy of their music.
"I don't have any pretense of being original," says Aaron, on the humility his band exhibits "I'd like to sound just like the old recordings that I listen to." The frontman and main songwriter regularly sends his bandmates home with "homework" assignments of tunes to study up on, and that collegiate approach has paid dividends. "I feel, for me at least, playing in the band is almost like a study, it's like an informal conservatory of making music," he elaborates.
The band's partnership with Jump Up also landed them the once-in-a-lifetime experience of backing a Jamaican musical legend, early-reggae superstar Stranger Cole. Set up by Chuck Wren at Mayne Stage in Chicago, "Jamaican Oldies Weekend" became a series of shows featuring young, revivalist groups playing behind their heroes from the 1960s.
After months of rehearsal back in Minnesota, the band got all of one practice with Stranger before the show that night, but the experience was still a revelation for them. Keyboardist Whitney Olson had the opportunity to duet with the legend: "I was terrified, but we sang one song at rehersal and he said 'She sound like Patsy Todd!'" Todd was Cole's old singing partner and an important figure in her own right. The Prizefighters were so well-recieved that they were invited back to play with ska innovators Roy & Yvonne and Derrick Morgan, the godfather of reggae.
Meeting and performing with some of their musical idols seems to have informed the Prizefighters' newest release, a series of three 45's entitled A Musical Knockout in 3 Rounds. Once again, Porter and company have put their own well-being at risk for the sake of authenticity and recorded all six songs live to tape during a sweltering July day with the air conditioning turned completely off.
"We bought into the idea that if we recorded in this warm, thick, humid air, it would be like method acting," says Klos of their studio experience. "We were all gonna be in the same conditions that they were back then in Jamaica." Jordan and Drummer Eric nearly passed out from heat exhaustion "We'd been playing constantly throughout six or seven hours at that point," he says. "Aaron's in the control room making sure we're dialing in the right tones, and I'm just hallucinating."
Luckily for him, the 45s are definitely worth the effort, showcasing the band's rapidly maturing musical chops and songwriting influenced by their several recent brushes with the genuine article. Sequenced to showcase the band's deep knowledge of the three main Jamaican genres, each single highlights the sounds of either ska, rocksteady or reggae, and is matched perfectly with period-correct labeling designed to mimic the quick and dirty pressings of the 1960s.
While some groups would scoff at this sort of painstaking commitment to history, Porter and his bandmates celebrate it. "Thanks to these shows we're really starting to understand Jamaican music," he says, "We play authentic music from '60s Jamaica, just like Malamanya plays traditional Cuban music, but what's incredible is we have a fanbase here." To his brother, the appeal isn't all that surprising. "It's pop," Jordan says "what it comes down to is that this music is a lot of fun to dance to."
The Prizefighters will release A Musical Knockout in 3 Rounds in Minneapolis on Friday, June 14, at The Triple Rock Social Club with Rocksteady Breakfast and Panther Ray. 18+, $7, 9pm