The Mighty Mighty Bosstones singer Dicky Barrett says there’s a reason why so many American bands gravitated to ska music.
“Whatever was going on in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1960s has a similarity with what was going on in major cities like Boston,” he says in a recent phone interview. The band performs with Mustard Plug and Buster Shuffle at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23, at House of Blues
. “I fell in love with it when I heard the English bands like the Specials, Madness and Bad Manners. I also liked the English Beat when they started making ska records in the late ’70s. It had the message of punk rock but was sophisticated and was more musical than punk rock, which I loved just as much.”
At the time, he was only 17. Tracking down records back in those pre-Internet days wasn’t easy. But he managed to find albums by Jamaican acts like Desmond Dekker and the Skatalites. He also got a gig working for Taang!, a Boston-based punk rock label run by friend Curtis Casella.
“[Casella] asked me what [bands to sign],” says Barrett. I told him to put out records by bands like Gang Green and Stranglehold and those early Boston bands. I drew the album cover for Brotherhood
, an album by the [the hardcore band] DYS. I did artwork and backing vocals and things like that.”
Barrett also had his own band. He put the Mighty Mighty Bosstones together in 1983, but the group had yet to put out an album.
“I also told Curtis [Casella] that he should put out the Bosstones,” says Barrett. “He refused for the longest period of time. I grabbed him by his throat and said, ‘What are you talking about? We’re friends.’”
The Bosstones made their debut in 1989 with Devil’s Night Out
. It quickly established the group as significant players in the ska revival that was happening at the time. Through constant touring, the band caught the attention of a major record label which gave its 1997 album Let’s Face It
a significant push. The album’s catchy single, “The Impression That I Get,” became a massive hit.
“It was double-edged really,” says Barrett when asked about the success. “It was great, but at the time, I didn’t properly enjoy it the way I should have. I thought the sky was falling in, and it was the end. I thought, ‘Oh my god, everyone knows who we are.’ We were rude boys from Boston, and we weren’t supposed to be popular. All of a sudden, we were. I didn’t want us to be known as sell outs. We did the same thing we had always been doing. It was just that people gave a shit all of a sudden. Then, I realized it wasn’t so bad. I learned that the people that supported us before were proud of us and thought we deserved it. Pop music joined us on our terms; we didn’t join pop music on its terms.”
But after steadily touring and recording into the early 2000s, the band was ready for a break and splintered in 2003.
“At some point, we were doing over 300 shows a year,” says Barrett. “We thought it was a good time to exhale and take another breath and look around and discover ourselves and who we are and what we are outside of this bubble we’ve been in for close to 20 years. That’s what we did. It was scary and unfamiliar, and I thought, ‘What will I do without my best friends. For five or six years, we didn’t do any shows or write any music. I worked as an announcer on Jimmy Kimmel Live
and had a radio show and realized I wanted to be with my best friends. High school didn’t have to end for us.”
The band reformed in 2010 and then began work on a new studio effort. Slowly but surely, it assembled the songs for While We’re at It
, an album that completes a trilogy that began with 2009’s Pin Points and Gin Joints
“At the beginning of working on Pin Points and Gin Joints
, I felt that to say everything we wanted to say, it would take more than one album,” says Barrett. “I said it was Part One, which confused everyone, but I knew we would make three records with [producer] Ted [Hutt]. There was a bunch of different things I wanted. I wanted common themes and elements shared by all three of the records, and I wanted everything we did best but to not change things we’ve done before. I wanted it to be a jab and jab and knockout blow.”
The band channels Rancid on the lurching “Green Bay, Wisconsin” and the horns really go nuts on the rollicking "Closer to Nowhere." In “The Constant,” the band tells the classic American working-class story of what it calls the "under-appreciated laborer" who’s been chewed up, passed over, mistreated, ignored and finally spit out by a callous corporation. It serves as a terrific working class anthem.
“This is the exclamation point at the end of the sentence,” Barrett says of the album. “It’s very thorough and complete on its own but also part of the trilogy. In my point of view, rock at its best has two main qualities. It sounds good, and it has something to say. In a way, I do think that what the Clash were to London and what the Skatalites were to the Jamaica, we are to Boston.”
The timing for the album is right too. Bands such as the Interrupters have brought ska back into the limelight and introduced the music to a new audience. Not that its popularity matters to Barrett.
“People tell me that ska is popular again now, but if there’s a resurgence right now, that doesn’t matter to me. “I am always listening to it and loving it around the clock, 365 days a year.”
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mustard Plug, Buster Shuffle, 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $25-$35, houseofblues.com