LOUDER FEATURES: The Mighty Mighty BossToneS' Dicky talks community, music, and Madness
“Do you know what that is? Can you hear that? It’s this crow, which when it flies, you can hear its wings! When they land on the ground, they’re about the size of a five-year-old child - they seem to come up to my hip!”
This is the image that I am being painted of Los Angeles, down the phone to my home office in cloudy Manchester, England, by Dicky, frontman of ska punk legends The Mighty Mighty BossToneS. The sounds of crunching grass and a gently whipping breeze which I can hear lightly blowing in the background, coupled with the frankly alarming description of these hellish sounding monster-birds, almost make it sound like the stage veteran lives in some twisted version of the Land of Oz. However, despite being confined to this hellscape for the best part of a year, Dicky and the multitudes of other members of the BossToneS have remained undeterred. From the ashes of what should have been a year of raucous live shows and sun-kissed summer festival appearances, the band have fashioned their eleventh studio album, titled ‘When God Was Great’.
For all bands of any shape or size, the global coronavirus restrictions that have prevented them being able to meet, rehearse, record, and play shows have been perilous to navigate. But when your band consists of ten members, many of whom play large brass instruments (which are hardly subtle objects to sneak onto the subway), meeting face-to-face under the current restrictions is nigh-on impossible. However, according to Dicky, recording an album in a pandemic has also had its upsides (if not so much for the band’s respective bank balances!).
He recalls that: “We used it really to our advantage. Many people, ourselves included, massively improved our home recording set ups, because we knew we’d have to be doing stuff from home, so we all got ourselves better equipment. So, it meant we could call whoever was contributing to a track, and they could say ‘Okay, I’ll have that to you in an hour.’ I don’t want to tear that curtain down too much, but the truth of the matter is that the pandemic worked to our advantage in that respect, because everyone was home, so you’d give someone a call and they’d be like ‘Hello! I have nothing to do, give me something to record!’”
Despite the obvious challenges of having ten contributing band members to consider, the band’s abnormal size (as a collective, not individually!), has also had its upsides when it came to crafting this new record: “Having that many guys is a massive advantage.
“When you have that many members who have all lived as long as we’ve lived, we have the collective experience to say ‘Hey, I’d like to try this’, and bring other influences into it. If you say ‘Well, no, we can’t do that because we have to fit into this box’, then creatively you’re going to miss the mark and you’re going to lack. So, it’s a massive advantage, having that many guys who are able to branch out and bring other inspirations into it.”
This sense of camaraderie in a crisis is a hallmark of all bands who fall anywhere under the ‘punk’ umbrella. The BossToneS are no different – as their recent single ‘The Final Parade’ demonstrates in the most wonderfully anarchic way. The eight-minute-long magnum opus contains guest appearances from the crème-de-la-crème of punk rock royalty, including Tim Armstrong of Rancid (who was also heavily involved in the record’s production); ska punk prodigies The Interrupters; and the legend that is Roddy Radiation from The Specials, among countless others.
For Dicky, the process of creating that song was a true career highlight: “It was so nice, when we asked people to be involved and they’d come back and say ‘Yes, of course!’ – to know that we were respected enough and loved enough that people would want to get involved, that was a reminder that this hasn’t been a wasted career for us.”
However, as Dicky recalls, there was one famous frontman whose talents weren’t lent to the track: “We were trying very hard to get Suggs from Madness, who I’ve met a couple times. The first time was when I was 17, me and my buddy took a train down from Boston to New York City to see them play on Saturday Night Live, and I met Suggs and the rest of the guys from Madness there. And then in later years, I saw them play at Reading Festival when we were playing it: their manager knew I was an insane Madness fan, so he got me up on stage and I watched them there. So, it would have been a huge feather in my cap if we could have gotten Suggs. But I don’t think he could get his brain around what we were doing, and who this guy was who's been stealing from him his entire career!
“We were actually supposed to play with Madness at The Greek Theatre last May, and that show still hasn’t happened – I don’t blame Suggs for that though, I don’t think he saw us on the bill and went ‘What? I’m not playing with that idiot!’”
Despite all this playful camaraderie that exists today within the ska punk community, there is a blot on the history of the genre that still exists in many people’s recollections. Throughout the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, a breakaway fascist group of self-appointed ‘Nazi punks’ attempted to hijack the ska punk underground, spreading messages that promoted white supremacy and violence against many marginalised groups.
For Dicky, the memories of this time are still incredibly vivid: “When I think about who I am and where I come from, if you do the math you can figure out what was going on when I was growing up in Boston in the late 70s and into the 80s. As a kid, I was being asked to figure out who I was and what I believed in, and what we were coming up against was a city that was struggling with all of those issues, and so I had to figure it out for myself.
“I didn’t just want to go with what the older generations believed, I needed to know who my people were and who were my allies. I didn’t want to define who ‘my people’ were by saying ‘Okay, your beliefs are different, or you grew up differently, or your skin colour is different, or your sexual preference is different to mine’. Looking back, my life would not have been as good as it has been if I’d said ‘No, I don’t want to walk with you, you’re not my type of person’. I wanted to define ‘my people’ by how you treat other people, what your values are, and whether you want to unify and bring people together, because there’s a lot of people who want to divide us. When I learned that you can’t tell the people that are going to fuck you up by what they look like, or where they grew up, or what their ethnic background is - when you learn that, then you’re heading in the right direction.
“But if you’d told us as kids that by now everything wasn’t going to be a whole lot different, that it won’t be in your lifetime that things will change, then we would have fallen on the floor in disbelief, because surely if we’ve figured it out, then everybody else will.”
Tragically, these issues are continuing to rear their ugly head. Following the Black Lives Matter protests across the world last summer, a rise in white supremacist viewpoints has been crawling out from the hidden dark corners of society and the internet, and breaking very much so into the public eye. As Dicky comments, the responsibility for outing this anti-equalitarian rhetoric lies within the punk community itself: “What the BossToneS have done is led by example. It only takes seeing a photograph of us to realise that there is diversity among us as men - saying that, it would be tough to find a woman in there, so maybe we’re not as diverse as we could be!”
Perhaps not surprisingly, my offer at this point to boost the BossToneS’ diversity levels further by taking up a post as their triangle player, owing to my own limited musical capabilities, was met only with a kind chuckle from the other end of the phone.
“It’s not an exclusionary thing – as much as it’s about having fun and being funny, we also haven’t just talked the talk, we’ve walked the walk. This is who we are, and it’s never even been considered. As far as the scene goes, I like to think that the people who enjoy our music and what we’re doing feel the same way, but if people need to be reminded, we’re not afraid to tell them. If you’re going to tell me that anybody in my band is less than anybody else for any reason, then I’m going to tell you to fuck off!
“At a time when there are so many things pulling us apart, we wanted to give the feeling that there is unity, and it doesn’t have to be about division or separation, which is an important message of this new album.”
So, for a band like the BossToneS, there is only one way they could have possibly thought to express their frustrations with the state of the world, and that is through their music. Their soon-to-be-unveiled eleventh studio record is pessimistically titled ‘When God Was Great’: however, the band hope that their typically uplifting melodies will provide a source of catharsis after such a turbulent year.
When asked about the impact he wanted this record to have, Dicky commented in deadpan fashion: “Don’t be afraid to use the word ‘masterpiece’. If someone calls the new BossToneS record a masterpiece, just let that happen! It’s a record that we poured our hearts into – and I don’t just mean me and the other BossToneS, I also mean Ted Hutt and Tim Armstrong who co-produced it, and everyone who supported us, including Brett Gurewitz from Epitaph Records, other members of the BossToneS from throughout the years who contributed to it, and all the other bands within the punk and ska punk community who we’ve shared stages with and travelled through the years with. It was a real community effort that culminated in something that I’m extremely proud of.
“It expresses the things that I wanted to say, and it lives in real time. It came from us as we were experiencing it, and so I think it offers hope and optimism, but it doesn’t bury its head in the sand either.
“It has a lot of different elements to it, so I think there’s something there for everyone, but I think together as a package they all blend well together. We really just allowed the songs to be what they wanted to be; we didn’t force them into any sort of box, I think we’re well past that. Some might say, ‘well this song isn’t punk enough’, but we feel that we’ve been doing this too long to say that ‘The BossToneS are only *this*’. You don’t make records for as long as we have by listening to what other people think you should be. I’m extremely proud of it.”
Accompanying the BossToneS into this next phase of their stellar music career are a cavalcade of their friends and peers, all of whom are bringing new life to the ever-evolving pantheon of punk rock. While there are countless bands that the BossToneS adore, there are a few who are shining exceptionally brightly (so have your notepads at the ready, people!)
Dicky comments emphatically that: “There are lots of great bands coming through - I don’t want to sound like the old guy who did a little bit of homework and started naming hip young bands! But Buster Shuffle are tremendous, and they are as well-versed in the history of the genre as I have ever known – that guy Jet, he’s not faking it, he really knows his stuff, and he’s a really good guy and a really good soul.
“The Interrupters are great, and really well-produced – and those three guys are brothers, and then Aimee is Kevin’s wife, so it really is a family operation!
Ultimately, that is the essence of what The Mighty Mighty BossToneS, and the punk rock scene as a whole, is all about. Angsty, heartfelt music that tells it like it is has always appealed to the outcasts of this world, and made them feel that little bit less alone. At the end of the day, it is family that matters more than anything – whether that is blood family with whom you can share your passions, or the family you choose who share them too.*
*In case anyone was wondering, it was definitely Dicky who said that… definitely…
'When God Was Great' is due for release on the 7th of May via Hellcat Records - pre-order or pre-save the record here: