There’s no doubt about it: ska has an image problem. Nationally, its popularity has declined so much since the third-wave explosion of the late 90s that for many, it seems goofy stereotypes are all that’s left. For anyone attending a ska show at the 331 Club in early January, though, it would have been hard to tell that ska isn’t the hottest thing going right now. The members of Umbrella Bed, opening for fellow locals the Dropsteppers, danced around onstage, giving their fans a taste of the classic 2-Tone style they’ve been playing around with since 1995.
A couple days later, I talked to Umbrella Bed drummer Mitch Thompson about ska’s dicey reputation. Even when Umbrella Bed gets reviewed by national websites—which has happening more lately since their new EP came out—there’s usually some sort of a disclaimer. “Every one of these reviews will look at ska like, ‘If you like this sort of thing,’” he says. “They kind of put this little asterisk.”
No matter what its reputation—or maybe because of its reputation—ska communities are insular, carrying on in little pockets all over the country and certainly online. In the Twin Cities, a particularly passionate scene is hoisted by fans and musicians who prize supporting each other as fervently as they raise their horns.
“It’s something that’s been steadily growing over the years,” said Courtney Klos, one of the local ska scene’s key players and a co-director of MN Ska, an online resource for fans and bands. Klos and his Prizefighters band mate Aaron Porter are credited with more than just running a website — they’re the ones who book most of the ska shows around town, promoting local acts and making sure national musicians feel at home when they’re coming through the Twin Cities; they often having touring bands stay at their places.
Porter, one of the original founders of the website, is the closest thing you’ll find to a local ska historian. He said MN Ska is the latest platform that brings fans together, but it isn’t the first. In the 90s, Kingpin Records roused the scene by signing ska bands and hosting events. After the label packed up and moved to Los Angeles in 1998, the all-ages Foxfire Coffee Lounge (the storied spot’s location at 319 1st Avenue North is now part of the Venue) became a central ska spot. When Foxfire closed in 2000, musicians and fans lost a foothold. Porter and a group of fellow ska-heads started the MN Ska website in 2003 in an attempt to revive the scene. “It was a group of friends that were just talking about there being a lack of ska shows,” he said.
The website and the collective it represents have been a big source for energy and assistance for local bands. “There’s always young bands that will pop up,” Klos said. “We no longer have to seek out bands.” For the St. Paul band Drunk History, whose members met at McNally Smith College and are all in their early twenties, the collective helped get things off the ground.
Drunk History’s lead vocalist Natalie Lassman said Jeff Bockenhauer, local mustachioed man-about-ska-town, invited them to play at his light-hearted Ska-POW! concert last year. “Pretty much ever since then, he’s kept us in mind,” she says. She added that the MN Ska crew has come out to a few of Drunk History’s shows to record videos and share them, along with doing promotion beforehand. “They were able to get to such a wider audience than we could with just our Facebook page and Twitter and what-not,” Lassman said.
A once-robust forum on the website has been largely abandoned for social media, but it used to be “like Facebook before Facebook,” as Klos puts it. Porter mentioned that two people got married after meeting there. Although it’s inactive, the forum is still there for anyone who wants to comb through it, all of its warm fuzzies and show announcements remaining as evidence of a scene that looks out for its own. Ska has a lot of little fights to fight, image-wise, but the MN Ska collective helps bolster its local reputation. Klos notes that ska bands do well getting booked at one of the Cedar Avenue venues, like the Nomad World Pub, the Cedar Cultural Center, and the Red Sea, with the Triple Rock Social Club being something of a home base.
The ska scene in Minnesota is small but mighty, proud and enthusiastic while still holding onto modesty and self-awareness—it’s the kind of thing that only happens when a relatively small group of people gather to celebrate something that enjoys the benefits of no longer being considered particularly cool. “We’re few but we’re energetic,” says Klos, “and we’ll show up to the shows.”
Sarah Harper is a student at the University of Minnesota.