Eastern Standard Time: Ska has never died

Eastern Standard Time’s concert was from the start on my list of “gigs to see” at Freedom Sounds Festival 2019. In the first days of April the Americans released their sixth album, “Time For Change” and I was curious, how the new material will sound live. I took the opportunity to chat with the drummer and band founder, James McDonald and vocalist, I-Peace Unikue.

We talked about the new album and the reception of Jamaican music in different parts of the world. James surprised me with the knowledge of Polish alternative music from the 80s.

Magdalena Miszewska: It’s been three years since you’ve last visited Europe. How are you feeling on this tour?

James McDonald: We feel great. It’s a lot of fun. We went back to a club that we hadn’t played for many years, saw old friends and made some new ones. And we played a lot of new clubs that we hadn’t performed at before. So it’s a good start.

I-Peace Unikue: It’s always a pleasure to be on the road, no matter where we are.

MM: This time you came to Europe with your new album, first one since 15 years, “Time For Change”. And I guess some things changed also for Eastern Standard Time. What have you been doing for all those years, aside of touring?

JMD: I guess the best way to describe it is that we have been working on new songs for a long time and we did a recording project, but because of technical issues we couldn’t keep the recordings. And so we started again with another recording project and the result is the album “Time For Change”. In the time that we’ve been working on the record, there’ve been many new influences in the band and the band itself has changed in its core. When EST started we were a project, just simply a recipe. And we’ve had the same members now in the group for many years. This cohesion has crystallized into a much different group than we were many years ago. And I think you hear it in the songwriting, but Unikue can probably speak to the songwriting and the changes better than I can.

I-PU: When the band first started it was jazzy be bop over Caribbean rhythms. And with the personnel changes and the band also transformed. And as James said we’ve kind of solidified what feels really right for it. We’ve got a lot more influences as far as some Latin sound, doing more rocksteady, doing more reggae rather than uptempo be bop ska all the time. And I think we’ve found a perfect mixture now and I think it sounds really great and I know everyone will love it (laugh).

MM: It’s interesting what you say, because when I was listening to the new album the first thought that came to my mind was – it’s the good old Eastern Standard Time! (Unikue and James laugh). It’s still the same band, even after all those years. So I don’t know if it really changed that much.

I-PU: Well,that means that we’re doing it right when you still feel the old Eastern Standard Time but you get the new Eastern Standard Time.

JMD: And I think also part of the “Time For Change” is that in this record a lot of the songs are about transformation, about looking at your world in another. way. Many of our songs were simply songs that we liked and I don’t think that we ever really expressed to our listeners some of the thoughts that we had about the larger world. It was music that we liked that we wanted to share, it was good music. But I think in this new record we were inspired to speak to a lot of the changes that are happening in the world and share with the world our feelings that change will come. A change hopefully for the better.

MM: So you’re getting more serious and you’re are not only playing for dancing pleasures now?

JMD: I would say so, yeah. We’ve always had our opinions about the state of the world and I don’t think that this is necessarily a record that.. I don’t know, would you call it a protest record, Unikue?

I-PU: I don’t think I would call it a protest record. It’s like you said, we’ve always had the thoughts but we’ve never injected it into our music. We always came with a philosophy of if we’re having fun and we’re together then that’s the whole thing. But I think when you add the element of education, when you add the element of consciousness into an environment that is having fun and is enjoying each other, it resonates even more. And people leave the music hall or they take their records with them and they take that same feeling and that same energy with them. I think that is the ultimate goal for people, to spread that energy and to spread that train of thought that we can enjoy each other and we don’t have to be separatist, we don’t have to be against. We can always be pro, we can have some fun while we’re learning, while we’re integrating, while we’re being ourselves.

MM: That’s the thing that I like about a lot of bands. The thing that I think it’s underrated, that making people feel better is really doing something. That you make people forget about all those things they have in mind. They go to a show, they have fun, they come out with clear heads and they’re feeling better so they can appreciate life more. They can do some changes if they have some peace of mind.

JMD: I think really although some of the songs on the new record have some content that lyrically or even musically may sound a little somber, ultimately the record is about hope. And the message is trying to confront fear because so many people are afraid of things like change. They’re afraid of being changed. They’re afraid of things they don’t understand. And we are trying to say to the world or at least to our listeners that it’s OK. Change is gonna happen, it’s gonna be a good thing and you don’t need to be afraid. There are many things in the world that you can’t control but you have to be hopeful about these things. If you’re not hopeful, if you’re only cynical and saying that things are going to be bad, that allows people to come and separate them from each other. Working from a position of fear is not a good position to go from. If you work from a position of hope and positivity and togetherness, you then have community actions. You can work together in a way that is not possible if you feel you’re alone. Unikue is the one who has written almost every lyric on the record. He can speak to this better than I, but I think that the message ultimately, to me at least, is hopeful.

I-PU: If you look at the theme of all the records we have, they all have something about time in the titles. And time is something that never stops. It’s always dynamic. It’s always new. It’s never still and if we come complacent and if we stay still, then we’re not enjoying what life and time have to offer. With the constant movement there’s always a constant possibility of more hope, more joy. I think time inadvertently describes what we’re trying to convey to our audiences, that: “Hey, time is never gonna stop, change can happen and that change can be positive as long as we’re together”.

MM: And time has also it’s reflection on how the music is perceived. Jamaican music always came in waves and we’ve had the first wave, the second, the third.. I read this article on Billboard about the Jamaican scene, mostly in the United States. It also changed, and I was wondering, if your new album, which is out now, after 15 years, is the part of the new wave of Jamaican music in the United States? Is it the good time now in the States for this kind of music? How is it in Washington? Do you feel that the change came and that ska or early reggae or rocksteady are getting more popular?

JMD: I think that you’re right. Things do come in waves but there’s always a core that has sustained the music style throughout the decades. And there are more people who are becoming interested in ska, reggae and rocksteady. At the same time I think ska has become much more diverse than it once was. It is kind of interesting that now you have people who used to only listen to ska music and are now discovering reggae for the first time and seeing how these things are related and going to reggae concerts. There’s a lot more crossover between reggae and ska than there was 15-20 years ago. The D.C. ska scene has always had a very strong foundation since the 1980s. And what I’m seeing a lot is that interest in ska and reggae is starting to cross over into other genres. And so you’re seeing people who might not be necessarily “ska people” or rude boys, rude girls showing up at ska shows. For us it’s a little bit strange because we are a hyphenated band. We are a ska-jazz band. So we will perform sometimes as a Caribbean jazz act, sometimes we perform as a ska act that’s got jazz. And so we are in many different worlds at the same time. But one of the things that I’ve seen a lot of is interest in ska music among people who were not previously interested in it. Has it meant that the old people from 20 years ago are starting to come back out to the shows? Not so much. It’s a new generation discovering ska and I think that’s wonderful. Most of the people now at the shows, I didn’t know them 10 years ago. Some of them yes of course, they keep coming to all the shows. But most of these people are people that are new. Maybe not new to the scene, but it’s in the last few years that they’re starting to grow. And D.C. is also a very strange place musically. I don’t want to go too far into that detail with you, because you wouldn’t have interest or time for all of it <laugh>. But I do think that for ska music in the D.C. area it’s getting bigger and it will continue to get big. When we come home we’ll be having a ska festival in Washington D.C., on the 24th of May, with all bands based in the Washington D.C. region, which is going to be fantastic I think. And I see it in other scenes too. But I think there’s a myth that I’d like to perhaps dispel and the myth is that ska music is dead. And ska has never died. It always has been held as a treasure by its fans. Even if they don’t always make it to shows anymore, it’s still there in the best part of their lives. The waves of interest are often what the music industry thinks is interesting but not necessarily what the fans think is interesting. When the music industry starts to take notice of a scene such as ska, I always find it a little bit funny because I’m like “God, we’ve been doing this all this time and we’re still gonna be doing it when you’ve stopped paying attention”. And that’s OK (laugh).

MM: Things you’re talking about, they really depend on where do you live. Because I think in the States it’s always been different then in Europe and even in Europe it’s been different in particular countries. In Germany, for example, the ska scene was always present. But I’m from Poland. And when I am reading about this American ska scene or what’s going on in South America, in Mexico, the craze about Jamaican music, we never had it in Poland. We had our reggae scene in the 80s but it was more about conscious reggae.

JMD: You’re talking about Izrael.

MM: Oh yeah, you know the bands. And people in Poland don’t necessarily know what was before Bob Marley. They don’t find it a part of a skinhead culture. Skinhead culture is something completely different in Poland. The word ska means nothing to most of people.

JMD: Right, it’s just en ending of someone’s name.

MM: Yeah, mine for example (laugh). And I’m really waiting for a wave to hit Poland, fourth, fifth, sixth or tenth maybe. We’ve got some bands but it’s always less than 10 active bands. Now I think that three or four are the ones that matter. And then you have next three or four who are starting to develop. So it’s not a really big scene and this wave never came to Poland. And I’m just wondering why, because Germany is not that far. You’ve played in Poland in 2013, in Warsaw. Do you remember that gig? I remember it was a pretty crazy one.

JMD: Yes I remember it. The Warsaw gig was funny because it was in a club that was located in the same building as the police station. And we pulled into the parking lot and we saw the police station. We didn’t realize the club was around the corner and we’re like – do we go into the police station and ask them where the club is? But we found it and it was a really funny show. We had a good time. For us it was also an interesting cultural event too because it’s hard for many people to understand how much the people in that room loved ska. Everybody in there was so excited about it and that is actually rare.. It’s very precious to have that love of the music. Because you have many people who sometimes just show up because something is happening, not because they love it. And the serious love of the people in Warsaw for Jamaican music was really impressive. I mean, made us play better simply because we wanted not to disappoint these people who love ska so much and the energy was really great. It didn’t matter that we didn’t necessarily speak the same language or we didn’t come from the same place. And I think I’ve been reflecting on this at every concert we’ve done on this trip. How one island in the Caribbean came up with music that has been uniting people from around the world that may or may not really have a connection to Jamaica. Some of us do some of us don’t but it still brings us together and I think that’s really amazing and a testament to the music of Jamaica that it can unite people from all cultures in a shared love of music.

I-PU: I think if you speak about any kind of art in general it always comes out of frustration or a need of the people in that time. But into address what you are saying about Poland specifically, think about America. You’ve got rock and roll that came out in the 50s and that came out of a frustrated group of people. You got hip hop that came out of the 70s and 80s that came out of a specific group of frustrated people.

MM: Yes, American hardcore.

I-PU: Yes exactly. They all came out of specific groups of frustrated people or people that had a certain need for a certain thing. And I think that the music that came out of Jamaica addresses of course their specific need and their specific want but it also addresses a lot of the frustrations that are in all of these little different areas all over the globe. I wouldn’t say that we’re part of the fourth wave it’s just that we’re part of what’s happening right now in this time and what the people need. And we won’t be able to say if it’s part of a “fourth wave” until later when we look back at it and say: “Oh yeah. During the 2020 blah blah blah”. But I think, like I was saying, art in general reverberates the attitudes of the people and the culture at that time in specific areas and generally all over the world. And I think that people enjoy ska, Caribbean music, Jamaican music, Latin music all over the world because of the specific feeling that it expresses, because of the specific grievance that it yells. And until Poland specifically has that grievance then it won’t reverberate with them. And as soon as it does like it has in the past then they’ll love it just as much as everyone else that loves it. And they’ll come up with new stuff and they’ll even add more ingredients to the pot as we did in America and as they did in the British Isles and as they did in Germany here. And it’s not necessarily an entire new wave. It can be a new flavor in this recipe and it comes out of the same longing for whatever it is that that group of culture needs at that time.

JMD: And I also have to say that I find it interesting that you say that the resonance for ska  in Poland is perhaps less than maybe in Germany because it was in Poland that the first ska music in Europe was played.

MM: Yes, Alibabki in the 60s.

JMD: To me it’s very ironic that there’s not a very strong Polish tradition for ska because it started there before it was in any other place. But I also think that, like Unikue says, enough people have to focus on it. I think that it was focused on in a different way. You have bands like Armia which were playing basically punk rock music but then in the same set that they’re playing punk rock –  playing reggae songs. You don’t find that outside of Poland, other than Bad Brains. That was it. Listening to bands like Armia I was like: “Wow, you can put these two things together and they both sound amazing”. Music fits into peoples lives, like Unikue said, music fits in into a certain experience and when they align properly, if the people have access to the music, which is important, you have to have access to the music before you can attach to it. But if you have access to it and the moment is right then everything takes off.

MM: But in Poland it was always a matter of individuals. You were talking about reggae inspirations in Armia or Izrael – it was Robert Brylewski.

JMD: It was totally Robert who was taking care of everything. But it wasn’t just him. You had other people who were promoting these things. In Szczecin there was a man named Maciej [Kępiński, co-owner of an alternative music label Rock’N’Roller, active in the 90s] who would just gather all these bands together. You’re right, there are individuals who really, as we say, beat the drum so that everyone can hear this stuff and share it and get it out into the populace. Maybe some of the people reading this can consider themselves those who will spread the word. I don’t want to use the word evangelist because that’s not really what it is but it’s similar kind of. You have to share it. Share it with a friend, give them a tape. A lot of bands get really kind of uptight “oh, don’t steal my music” kind of thing”. If somebody puts my song on a mixtape and that makes somebody love ska music, I’m alright with that (laugh).

MM: OK so I’m hoping that all this things you say will come true and we will have more ska lovers in Poland.

JMD: I’m waiting for the time when we can come and do three weeks of touring just in Poland (laugh).

MM: This year you are doing two gigs in Poland. The last time I saw you live it was a few years ago at Mighty Sounds in Czech Republic, so I don’t really know how do your concerts look like now. Maybe you could tell me what should people from Krakow or Zduńska Wola expect from those shows.

I-PU: It hasn’t changed much since then, other than the fact that we have a new record. You will definitely find the old school EST, the be-bop, the fast moving ska. You’ll find the slower rocksteady, reggae tunes with a whole heaping of soul flipped on top of it and you’ll also find a whole lot of Latin influence in it. And I think that’s pretty much become my recipe now. As James was saying before, our audience is so wide and so varied that people that love R&B, people that love hip hop, people that love ska, people that love reggae, people that wouldn’t have normally been in the ska scene see our band and really love our stuff and it’s been a blessing that our audience has expanded because of the fact that we’ve come up with a perfect formula with all of these different influences.

MM: So we will need comfortable shoes?

JMD: Yes, I hope so (laugh). Good dancing shoes.

I-PU: Or the ones you know you’re going to break and you just don’t want to take them home. Yes, bring those (laugh).

MM: Thank you for the interview.

JMD: You’re very welcome.

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