It's one thing to work three decades as a touring musician when your band is big enough to hit the road a couple times each year, stay in decent hotels and hire roadies to do the heavy lifting.
It's an entirely different thing to do what ska pioneers The Toasters have done for the past three decades.
The Toasters are road warriors, you see, spending hours in the van and driving thousands of miles to play in venues of all shapes, sizes and levels of cleanliness. They'll stop in Bend for two shows this weekend (see “If you go”) to add to their tally of somewhere around 5,000 gigs since Robert “Bucket” Hingley formed the band in New York City in 1981.
Back then, The Toasters were an integral part of something special: Their first show was with punk legends Bad Brains, they played regularly at New York's iconic CBGB club, and they're now considered one of the pioneers of ska's “third wave,” which revived the pop-punk-meets-reggae genre before its popularity crested in the mid-1990s.
And Hingley, who's in his mid-50s and lives in Valencia, Spain, has been there the whole time. He's the only original member left in The Toasters, which means he's not only a grizzled veteran of the touring-band lifestyle, he's also a wellspring of knowledge about the business side of things. He was nice enough to answer a few questions from a passenger seat somewhere in Wyoming.
GO!: Last I heard, The Toasters were closing in on 5,000 gigs. Have you reached that milestone?
Bucket: I've got to go back and reconstruct it because we had a laptop stolen a couple years ago that had all the dates. But if it's not 5,000 yet, we must be getting real close. We might get there next year, which will be our 30th year anniversary, so that's a lot of numerology.
GO!: Have you given any thought to slowing down and scaling back the tour schedule?
Bucket: I think we're actually playing more at the moment. I think at the end of the '90s we slowed down a little bit because there was a bit of a crash in the market and we had to close up our record label, so there was a lot of stuff to take care of there. But I think now we're starting to play more shows than ever, simply because the value of recorded music has gone into the toilet. So as a musician, really the only way you can make your money is to play live gigs.
Since I like playing live, that's alright. We're going to do between 150 and 200 shows in 2010.
GO!: So you still enjoy it? The van rides, loading gear in and out ... you still have fun?
Bucket: It can get tedious sometimes, but a lot of it depends on having the right bunch of guys (to travel) with. Even though we've been on the road 30 years, there's still places like Bend that we're going to for the first time, so in that respect, there's still ... plenty of ways to keep it fresh.
GO!: Do you guys find that there's an audience for ska in smaller towns?
Bucket: (In the) really small towns, sometimes those shows are a lot better than playing in the big cities, by virtue of the fact that when you're going out to play places where (bands) normally don't go, the people are much more likely to come out. I guess it's more of a novelty. They appreciate the fact that you're going there and playing for them, so the turnouts of the shows tend to be better in the small markets, believe it or not.
People get jaded in the big cities because they can see whatever they want all the time, so for them it's like ho-hum. But in Bend, Oregon, I guess it's more of a splash when a band comes through.
GO!: I read somewhere about your efforts to run The Toasters according to a set of core principles. Can you tell me about those principles?
Bucket: What we've tried to do is always keep in touch with the fans and (not decline to) play shows because the venue wasn't big enough or we didn't have a nice hotel, or that kind of stuff. We still run it like a punk-rock band in that sense.
Otherwise, it's about sticking to your own music and not trying to follow trends, and not writing tunes to sound like something because the record label wants you to do that. I think just sticking to playing 2 Tone ska music, which hasn't always been popular, I think that's what's helped us stick around for a long time, because people appreciate that.
GO!: Last question: When you started the The Toasters in 1981, did you think you'd still be doing it in 2010?
Bucket: Oh, hell no. If you'd asked me that question then I'd have thought you were nuts. Now I'm the one that's nuts and you're making a lot of sense.