Ska just isn’t what it used to be. In the genre’s salad days of the 1960s, it was associated with luminous names such as Toots & the Maytals and The Wailers, who used a fresh and upbeat dancehall aesthetic to energize Jamaica, the sound’s birthplace.
Within a decade or two, English bands like The Clash and The Specials were using Ska for protest songs, refining the style with an edge of social commentary.
Today, after the third wave of ska soared into the American mainstream in the 1990s, it’s more likely to be identified with bland Punk Rock mixed with some horns.
This shift is especially pertinent to Tomas Kalnoky, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of Streetlight Manifesto. The band’s horn-heavy sound is not quite Ska, yet not quite something else.
“We don’t go out of our way to separate ourselves from Ska, but it definitely can be frustrating to always be clumped in with Ska bands,” he says. “We rarely take cues from Ska bands. We don’t dress a certain way. We don’t wear porkpie hats or checkerboard shoes.”
Even more pervasive than the 1990s fashion sense linked to the genre is the way the songs were typically more about good times than personal introspection:
“All the songs were in major keys and were midtempo, only happy, crappy songs about girls, beer and whatnot,” Kalnoky says. “Now, when someone says ‘Ska,’ they immediately associate it with something like that. I don’t think (those bands) have anything in common with us musically or ideologically. We can’t relate to it but we still have that stigma.”
Considering that Kalnoky’s earlier band, Catch 22, was a considerable force in the '90s Ska explosion (providing some immediate name recognition for Streetlight), his words might seem hypocritical or ironic. However, it’s not as if Kalnoky completely disavows the genre as a whole (“It’d be pompous to deny the fact that (Streetlight is) very Ska-influenced,” he says), it’s that the stereotypes associated with the genre hurt Kalnoky’s attempts to emphasize a sense of creativity over conformity.
When he was briefly part of Catch 22, he crafted Third Wave masterwork Keasbey Nights in his bedroom on an acoustic guitar, designing a record that traded disposable and dated party vibes for tales of bank robberies and social outcasts. Yet, by the time he returned to a full band with Streetlight Manifesto and its debut, Everything Goes Numb, those constrictions had to be shaken off all over again.
What makes Kalnoky’s world fascinating is the wide cast of characters involved, many of which are taken from real life or previous sources (Dylan, Salinger, Hemingway, Camus and Pinocchio puppet master Mister Gepetto are all names found in the lyrics) and dozens of metaphorical statements that may or may not have interconnected meanings. The inspiration for Kalnoky’s style is rooted is his love for another medium.
“I was a huge comic book nerd growing up,” he says. “I collected comics obsessively and I think that led into the way I approached music. I like when there’s a big kind of universe that’s all tied in and you have to look for the connection.”
Along with Kalnoky’s words, much of Streetlight’s success has come from their startlingly crisp and complex sound. Full of bold guitars and agile brass, it’s been incredibly successful in creating converts
Kalnoky adds proudly, “One of the things we love is that a lot of our fans aren’t Ska fans. When someone that clearly doesn’t belong at a Ska show comes to one of our shows … that’s the ultimate compliment.”
The most recently completed work by the East Brunswick, N.J., septet is the much delayed Somewhere in the Between, which was the first real product recorded by the stable troupe of musicians that comprise Streetlight’s touring lineup. By Kalnoky’s estimate, the disc’s appearance last year was long overdue for more than just the fans:
“The important thing to us is that we are keeping ourselves sane as musicians because it can get frustrating at times to do the same thing every night,” he says. “Adding a whole new batch of songs to our repertoire has been a lifesaver.”
Now, as they tour the globe mercilessly, Streetlight is already in the thick of laying down more material. They’re currently working on the first of eight records for a project called 99 Songs of the Revolution (in which Kalnoky and Co. will create 99 covers) and are currently hoping to have it out by this spring or early summer. Not only is Kalnoky acutely aware of his enthusiasts’ skepticism about their release dates (“All of our fans know at this point that ‘firm dates’ and ‘Streetlight Manifesto’ are two concepts that don’t go together”), he’s got a good handle on the band’s long-term existence.
As Kalnoky explains, “I’ve always been a big fan of bands that call it quits at the top as opposed as trying to pander and trying really hard to stay relevant. Once we hit what we think is our peak, it would be a good time for us to bow out or go on hiatus.”
This alone proves that even with their timeless quality, the Streetlight Manifesto members have a better grasp on the lifespan of music than their partying Ska contemporaries.
STREETLIGHT MANIFESTO plays Thursday at Bogart’s with Reel Big Fish and Tip the Van. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.