Mixing ska and hardcore punk, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones emerged in the mid-Eighties and put out its first long player, Devil’s Night Out, in 1989. Four years later, the popularity of Third Wave ska was on the rise at Modern Rock radio and the Boston-area group landed a top 20 single (“Someday I Suppose”) and a gold record (Question the Answers).
The Bosstones really hit it big, though, in 1997, when Let’s Face It went platinum on the back of two top 10 alt-rock singles: the socially conscious “The Impression That I Get” and “The Rascal King” (plus “Royal Oil,” a minor success).
For the band’s excellent new album While We’re At It, the guys collaborated with producer Ted Hutt (Dropkick Murphys, Gaslight Anthem, Flogging Molly) for a third time.
Besides front man Dicky Barrett, the current lineup includes fellow founding members Joe Gittleman (bass), Tim “Johnny Vegas” Burton (tenor saxophone) and Ben Carr (dancer, backing vocals), as well as Joe Sirois (drums), Lawrence Katz (guitar), Chris Rhodes (trombone), John Goetchius (keyboards) and Leon Silva (saxophone).
We checked in with the sardonic singer from the Hollywood, Calif. office of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he serves as announcer between Bosstones gigs.
Rock Cellar: Congrats on the new album, which I think is one of The Bosstones’ strongest yet.
Dicky Barrett: I want to congratulate you on your excellent taste!
Rock Cellar: The way people consume music has changed since the band’s last studio effort in 2011. Was there any apprehension about putting out another full-length album?
Dicky Barrett: No. It’s our 10th one. We’re an old dog trying to learn new tricks. We also want to do things the way we’re comfortable doing them. To do anything different than what served us in the past wouldn’t feel genuine. If we spent nine albums saying, ‘We love making albums,’ then we decided to dismantle that whole thing, I don’t think I’d feel right about it.
If it’s old school or antiquated and we’re not keeping up with a lot of the world, who cares? I don’t give a fuck. That’s what we do, so that’s what we’re going to do.
Rock Cellar: You always envisioned While We’re At It as a continuation of the last two albums. Was that in the back of your mind while making it?
Dicky Barrett: I think I successfully kept that idea intact. It was an idea, a feeling, a vibe that these three albums, for many and various reasons, were going to be linked and attached. I’ve referred to them as a ‘trilogy’ and now that I’m on the other side of it looking back, I feel they definitely are. If you’ve heard Pin Points and Gin Joints, then The Magic of Youth, and now While We’re At It, I think it’s difficult to disagree. If you want to disagree, that’s fine with me too.
Rock Cellar: Did the last presidential primary, the election result and aftermath serve as a creative spark for your songwriting? Judging by a few of the new songs, it seems to have had an effect.
Dicky Barrett: [Sarcastically:] What happened in that election? You’re going to have to refresh my memory. I was asleep at the wheel and I’m very self-absorbed. [Getting serious:] I think what’s going on in the world, what’s going on politically, what’s going on in my country and what’s going on in my head – it’s difficult not to [absorb]. That’s my environment. It’s hard not to be influenced by it and have it affect what you’re doing creatively.
To ignore the world’s events and what’s going on is a horrible way to live. I don’t do that.
Rock Cellar: Was the songwriting process this time the same as you’ve done in the past, with you handling the lyrics and the other guys overseeing the music?
Dicky Barrett: Lyrically, historically, there’s very few words on any Mighty Mighty Bosstones albums that didn’t come out of my brain. Musically, I have to hand it to the other guys…we say, ‘Is this something we want to put on an album?’ or ‘Is it something we want people that love the band to hear?’ If the nine of us say, ‘yeah,’ then it’s done. Mission accomplished.
Rock Cellar: On “Green Bay, Wisconsin,” the upbeat opening track, you really paint a vivid picture with the words.
Dicky Barrett: I’m so glad you said that. Thank you.
Rock Cellar: Is it something you strive for as a songwriter – setting the scene?
Dicky Barrett: On that song, for sure. I had a handful of different goals. One, I wanted to write the uber-American ska song. I feel like we’ve kind of earned the right to do that or at least attempt to do that. I wanted it to feel as American ska as possible. Whatever that is to you. Whatever that is to me, being a little more important in that instant.
I wanted to tell the story of someone who has an enormous love for ska music and set that story in the Midwest. Then, I wanted to use a great big brush. [The subject] didn’t just put her headphones on. She put on her Beats by Dre in matte black. I wanted to be descriptive. She didn’t just draw on the back of her jacket. She drew a Jabsco on the back of an Army green Fred Perry parka with a Sharpie fine point marker. It felt sort of product placement-y, but nobody was paying me for it. I wanted to make no mistake about what she used to draw on that jacket.
At the same time, that’s a big fish to fry there, but it had to sound rhythmic, lyrical and musical. I didn’t want it to sound clunky. Different aspects of the story of her journey of what was taking place: going from Green Bay to Lake Geneva for a scooter rally – some things were thrown out that didn’t work. Part of the story that didn’t end. It had to flow and feel smooth like a scooter ride through the night. Maybe I’m over-explaining it, but your interest in the song excites me. I wanted to paint a specific picture.
On top of that, to make a long answer agonizingly longer: I wanted ska references that I would’ve avoided in the past – mentioning 2-Tone or Trojan Records or stealing a line from the Madness song “One Step Beyond.” I wanted to say, ‘Hey, this is my passion and always has been since I was her age. I love ska.’ Why not pay tribute to that in the process of writing the song? My short answer is, ‘Yes, thank you very much for noticing.’ My long answer, you just sat through.
Rock Cellar: Songs like “Wonderful Day for the Race,” “Unified” and others have a very positive message, which has always been an integral part of the Bosstones’ catalog. Is that sense of musical affirmation needed more than ever these days?
Dicky Barrett: Knowing the Bosstones and me and what I do, yeah. Ska music is not stupid. It’s not, ‘We need a clown right now; we need a buffoon.’ It’s always historically been very smart and has the ability to recognize what’s going on socially and politically at the time, whether it was Jamaica at its conception or England in the late ‘70s. It also provides some relief, hope and good feelings. We can scream at a wall or we can dance or do both.
Ska music does both very well when it’s done right. Those two songs are good examples of that. They don’t ignore problems or the fact there is hope. It may be meaningless to say, but without hope, we have to hope.
Rock Cellar: After hearing “The West Ends,” I looked up the history of Scollay Square. Had you talked to people about what that area of Boston was like before it was redeveloped in the 1960s and then channeled what you learned into that song?
Dicky Barrett: Sort of. It was where my uncle had some restaurants. It was where he and my father would go. It was fun and exciting if you were a young man at that time. It’s where you hung out. Around that area was a neighborhood that was very working class…[Later], people were relocated and moved out. The area was changed and in a lot of ways destroyed.
Rock Cellar: The final song on the album, the epic “After the Music is Over,” is kind of a departure for the Bosstones, with those Dixieland-type horns at the beginning and then how it flows, almost stops at one point before building back up into a tribute for the departed. Can you tell me a little about making that one?
Dicky Barrett: It was basically hammered together – completely blacksmithed. There were three ideas and Joe was anxious to help me see it through to fruition. I wanted it to get real big and epic where we’re all singing that little part. I wanted it to start out as swing, then go into a traditional sounding ska song that goes back to who we are and what we love. It was created that way. Those three parts sat around for the longest time. I kept asking Ted, ‘When are you going to sew these together?’ He back-burnered that more and longer than I was comfortable with. Then he finally said, ‘Today’s the day.’ It seemed like work he was avoiding, but when he did it, he did it so perfectly. I felt bad I ever even questioning him.
Rock Cellar: What was it like working with Ted this time in the studio?
Dicky Barrett: He’s so great and such a gentle soul; a creative guy. He’s one of us. Part of the family. If you get a chance to work with him or be in the same room, do it. Super talented.
Rock Cellar: Do you find Ted can coax things out of the band that other producers can’t?
Dicky Barrett: I don’t know. All producers work differently. I wasn’t dissatisfied with any other producers we’ve ever worked with. Ted does what he does and the proof is in the pudding. Listen to While We’re At It and tell me he’s not a good producer. I’ll tell you you’re wrong.
Rock Cellar: Who designed the densely-illustrated album cover for While We’re at It?
Dicky Barrett: Yo-Yo Yosef, an artist I worked closely with to create that. He is amazing. It came from my head and he made it happen.
Rock Cellar: What was the inspiration?
Dicky Barrett: It’s based on our entire lives. There are things on there that took place during a period of time and what it took to shape the world as it currently is [for the Bosstones]. Those images exist within it. We wanted an album cover that was old school – you sit down, listen to the music and stare at the album for hours. I spent a lot of time on it and I’m very proud of it.
[The band has made some limited edition colored vinyl editions available.]
Rock Cellar: At recent shows, the Bosstones have covered Johnny Nash’s 1972 pop chart topper “I Can See Clearly Now.” The message song fits nicely with your 2016 recording of Burt Bacharach & Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” from 1965.
Dicky Barrett: [“I Can See Clearly Now”] is a very ska-sounding song.
Rock Cellar: Last year, The Bosstones marked the 20th Anniversary of your best-selling album Let’s Face It with a tour featuring all the songs and just reprised the setlist in L.A. Did you rediscover anything about those old songs in the process?
Dicky Barrett: I think the biggest thing we noticed, and the saddest thing about it, was so many of those songs had messages that, at the time, we couldn’t imagine 20 years later the problems would still exist. As you’re standing there belting out a song like Let’s Face It, you’re going, ‘Not much has changed, you know?’ At the time I wrote it, never in a million years did I think, ’Twenty years from now, I hope things change.’ We were hoping for immediate change.
Rock Cellar: What do you think made that album connect with so many music fans? Was it just a matter of perfect timing?
Dicky Barrett: I think the planets lined up and it was the album we were supposed to make at that time. Who knows why things connect or they don’t connect? We were happy things did. We wouldn’t have loved the album any more or any less if it was a tree that fell in the forest.
Rock Cellar: Around that same period, The Bosstones joined The Warped Tour and would go onto do it a few more times, including the L.A. Coliseum, where I saw you play in 2002. Since this summer is Warped’s finale, what do you think is the tour’s legacy?
Dicky Barrett: It paved the way [for others]. It was really great, well done and probably the best travelling festival tour. All the accolades go to [organizer] Kevin Lyman, who is a real visionary when it comes to live music. And a really good guy.
Rock Cellar: The band has been around for 30+ years now. Looking back, did you think you’d still be together this long?
Dicky Barrett: No. At the time we started the band, I thought it would last a couple months. I’m so happy it was longer. I’ve had a great time and a great life, and I couldn’t have done it with better guys. I’ve enjoyed every single second of it.
North American Tour Dates:
Aug. 17 Canalside, Buffalo, NY
Aug. 18 Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, CAN
Aug. 19 St. Andrews Hall, Detroit, MI
Aug. 21 Vogue Theatre, Indianapolis, IN
Aug. 22 House of Blues, Chicago, IL
Aug. 23 House of Blues, Cleveland, OH
Aug. 25 Cranking & Skanking Festival, Worcester Palladium, Worcester, MA