David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska Part 9
A little intro. David Hillyard is well known to general readers of this blog. He’s a very long standing OG member of The Slackers, founded his own Rocksteady 7, played on the now classic Hepcat album Out of Nowhere and even before that he was playing in San Diego as a founding member of the Donkey Show. It’s an understatement to say he’s had a long music career let alone one devoted to the likes of Ska. He of course has a distinct and passionate perspective on music in general and pointed thoughts on the state of Ska in the U.S. having toured here for over 20 years.
So it was a couple of years ago he decided to write down those thoughts and publish them to his Myspace blog for the world to read. As that social network has fallen out of favor and the feeling that his discussion should be read by more people than might see it now I reached out to him with a question. Would he be interested in having those comments being republished on our blog? Did he want to change or update anything? Nope still holds true.
EDITORS NOTE: Nothing was changed except a little clean up on punctuation and such.
His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 9
Originally Published on by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.
So what was going on around me while ska was big?
Well, things had gotten more serious with the Slackers. We finally recorded and released our first CD, on Moon Records, Better Late Than Never in 1996. We were just beginning to do more regular touring and starting making runs down the east coast down to Florida and back.
I was really excited. With the slackers we were spending a lot of time on original material. I had been ambivalent about the band initially but I got drawn in. The band was moving towards a coherent unit with an unique sound. So that was exciting to me. There are always ups and downs but when you feel like you’re a part of something good it doesn’t matter so much. When things are going good, it can still be hard if you’re not happy musically.
A little bit before the Slackers CD came out, Jeff Baker had gotten together the Stubborn All-Stars CD, Open Season. I think that came out in 1995. That was exciting for me too. Jeff had spent a lot of time arranging the music. It was the first time that I had to read charts for a project. So that was a challenge too. I was really relaxed on this CD. In some ways I play better on it than I do on the Slackers stuff. Probably because I didn’t have to think about anything other than saxophone on it.
Well, Jeff hooked Stubborn into an opening slot for Rancid in the UK. I got the call to make the tour, almost as a fluke. This was in late spring of 2006. Then from the touring we got the offer to play horns for Rancid on the Lollapalooza tour on 2006.
I don’t really know what Rancid’s motivations were. If they had known what was good for their careers they wouldn’t have called me! Hehe. They should know that I’m the kiss of commercial death! I guess I snuck in the door behind Jeff.
So with Rancid I got to see them at the end of their run from Out Come The Wolves. They were playing for pretty big crowds for Lollapalooza. Thousands of people. Of course, the headliner was Metallica that year. There was also the Ramones and some grunge band, I cant recall their name right off the bat.
Here is a video of the classic title track from the Jamaican film hit The Harder They Come with Rancid playing with members of The Slackers at the Free Tibet Concert.
Rancid was pretty popular at the time. After our first rehearsal with them in Kansas City we were at a Denny’s. Eating. We got mobbed by people who recognized them. There was definitely a crazy factor hanging around them.
It was funny coming back from touring with Rancid because I had been running around on a tour bus, getting per diems, and having people take care of me. Then I was back in my apartment in Brooklyn and hustling to get by.
The Slackers were definitely not playing stadiums at this time. We were lucky to get 200 people to our New York Shows. We would get 200-300 people at a really good show on the road but most of the time we would just do 100-125 when we were headlining. Did a lot of shows to 50 people. But I was having fun. I don’t think I really cared.
But we were about to take a step up. Tim Armstrong was getting Hellcat together and signed the Slackers, Hepcat, the Pietasters, the Gadjits, Us Bombs, and Dropkick Murphys.
Right after we put out Red Light we went out on 4 tours in a row. Red Light was the first CD that we had that had decent worldwide distribution. We first did a US tour headlining little clubs with Chris Murray as our opening act. It had a couple of good shows, but for the most part we were playing for small crowds. For example, our first LA show was to maybe 50 people. Flogging Molly was our other opener that night!
Check out this full concert from a show in Long Beach!
The next tour was the “Ska Mob” tour with the Slackers, Skinnerbox, and Stubborn All – Stars. I was playing sax with all 3 bands. It was great for my chops but really tiring. This was a frustrating tour. It happened in late 1997. You could already see the writing on the wall. Too many ska package tours in too short a time. We got booked some really shit holes too. Playing to a dozen people in Arkansas. Lots of half empty shows in the midwest and upper south. There were also some good shows in south Florida, Atlanta, and maybe somewhere else. But it was clear that we still had a long way to go to become popular.
The third tour was with Hepcat. This was early 1998. It was Hepcat, the Slackers, and the Gadjits. Now this tour was very successful. There were sold out shows in LA, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Orlando. Lots of good shows. Even on these tours its important to remember there were still a couple of dud nights like Dallas (50 people?). But this was one of those kick ass tours when a band is coming close to breaking. Hepcat was at the peak of their popularity and they were really killing. They were on the edges of the charts but couldn’t go any further in.
The final tour was our first European tour which was one of the funnest tours I’ve ever done.
At the end of these tours we had definitely increased the Slackers popularity by a lot but it was clear that our path was not going to be quick or easy.
So while Ska was “big”, I was gigging. Recording a lot. Occasionally on the larger stage but for the most part the Slackers were headlining small clubs or playing opening slots.