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“You adjust. You Move on.” A conversation with The Pandemics

Bosstones-esque vocals, Pietaster-ish lyrics, Slackers-level musicianship and Reel Big Fish energy. You could make a solid case that The Pandemics is the quintessential American ska band. With killer guitars, a driving rhythm section and a load of horns —trombone, two trumpets, bari and alto saxophones—The Pandemics deliver room-shaking ska with a bit of punk attitude. And you can’t mistake the American accent in the half-sung, half-shouted vocals. A staple of the New York City scene, the band recently announced the departure of Brain Kennedy (guitars,/vocals, 2010-17) and Will Harris (bass, 2014-17). I caught up with bandleader and trombone player Chris Malone to see where they’ve been and how they’re powering through.

Chris Malone: The Pandemics started in earnest probably about seven years ago. We had our first show in December of 2010. It kind of came out of some frustrations I was having at the time. I was in a bunch of different ska bands back then. Great bands, but they were not as busy as I wanted to be. Around 2007, I met up with Mikkel and Johan from Babylove & the Van Dangos from Denmark, who happened to be in town. They wanted to set up a jam session while they were on vacation. From that—just messing around with a few different ideas freeform—came the roots of a couple of songs that would evolve into Pandemics songs. Before our first gig we had three years roughly of false starts, different lineups, but one of those songs from that session was Brain on Tap. It was the title track of our first full-length record and the first song I ever wrote lyrics for, beginning to end. I’m not taking all the credit, of course, but that song was when I went from playing trombone in other people’s bands to really being more of a songwriter, being a bandleader, just sort of taking on a lot of different challenges that had been only partially acquainted to before.

What was your overall vision? What did you want this band to be?

Well, I think that’s evolved a bit over time. At the beginning, I wanted something with a big horn sound, because it seemed like what a lot of bands—especially ones from Long Island where I toured—were minimizing their horn section. There’s reason to do that, of course. If you’re on the road there’s less mouths to feed, there’s less arrangements to do. You don’t necessarily need to have all eight or 10 people that you’d want with you to do a gig. It makes things a lot easier on the organizational side. Still, there was always an idea of us having a big horn section. At the time I was in several bands … Spider Nick & The Maddogs, Bigger Thomas, the Rudie Crew. I was looking to do something a little more contemporary. Playing ska punk music was something I was really looking forward to doing. And, it just worked out with the people I recruited.

When I started the band I gave people three records I listen to often. London Calling by The Clash, Shed Some Skin by Slow Gherkin from California, and Full Tension Beaters by Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. If you can get down with this, you can get down with us. To me, that hit a sweet spot of what I was looking to do—start a band that had a little bit more flexibility in some of the stuff I had been playing with but didn’t necessarily shy away from using a little distortion when it was called for, and that really was able to sort of be more than just a one trick pony.

How did your vision transform when it came to the band?

Being in a band is like making a series of compromises. I’d have an idea for a song, bring it to rehearsal, we’d jam on. It would change a little bit, take on the flavors of the other people in the group. Our first EP, Patient Zero, featured a bunch of guys who didn’t stay in the band, and it sounds a lot different than the first full-length album. A little harder, little punkier. Songs like As Seen Through Younger Eyes. That EP was something that we recorded on a shoestring budget at Spider Nick’s house. He was our sax player at the time. We did it over a series of weekends and one long weekend where we got snowed in. My buddy, Dima from Karikatura, another band I was playing with, engineered the whole thing, and did a great job for an improvised setting.

One of the most prominent features of the Pandemics: the big horn section.

What changed between the recording of that first EP and the Brain On Tap album?

Well, two big things really. Most of the tunes were written almost by an entirely different group of people, we changed our rhythm section completely and Spider Nick ended up selling his house and moving. So, the crew we recorded with, essentially the horn section and the rhythm section, moved on. But the big change was Brian Kennedy came on board with my buddy, Greg Steiner, on bass. For a variety of reasons, we had to scrap the guitar on all the tracks on the EP. Fortunately, Brian was able to step right in. He did things in a little less kooky manner, which ended up sort of being his signature. Brian really loves ska, centering on the years from 1959 to 1985. So, bands like Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals, The Specials, The Selecter. Everything up through English 2 Tone movement was in his wheelhouse. And, to be fair, he has a soft spot for bands like The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones as well on occasion. But it’s not something that he really gets into.

When I started my band, author, photographer and legendary rockabilly guitarist Frank De Blase warned me that, “No one will ever love your band as much as you do.”

That’s so true.

What it’s like to be a bandleader and have that passion for your band and sensing not everybody shares that love?

You get to a point where it’s not really just a band. It’s a family. And the people in the band are your brothers and sisters. And, as a bandleader, maybe I’m the older brother. But we’re the sum of our parts, which is the way I’ve always looked at it. And, occasionally there’s some friction there. It’s not always sunshine and unicorn farts. A lot of times it’s competing agendas and competing ideologies that clash. As much as [departing Pandemics guitarist] Brian and I butt heads stylistically and personally sometimes, he’s still my brother. I still love him. But, it’s going to be an adjustment when he goes in a couple months. I’m not gonna lie, it’s gonna be tough. He sings a good third of our set usually, maybe a third-and-a-half, depending on instrumentals. Just to give me a break sometimes ’cause that loud, rough voice can take a toll on you, especially a couple nights in a row. It’s gonna be an adjustment. But, that’s life man. You adjust. You move on.

How do you, as a bandleader, pick it up from there, how do you keep people motivated and keep true to your vision?

For me, it’s about keeping motivated, scratching itches where I can. If I can’t get it done with The Pandemics, I can accept that and accept that respect that everyone’s got their own situation outside of the band. And, just try and keep yourself motivated and happy. Because a lot of being in a band, especially as a bandleader, it’s like any other leadership position, very often it’s a thankless job. And, it’s just a matter of you getting stuff done.

Pandemics live

You have spots to fill in your band. Which is more important, musical talent or personality?

You obviously shoot for A+ in both. But, I think that and it varies from person to person. And, it also depends on what kind of situation your band’s in. If you’re going on tour and you need somebody because somebody can’t go at the last minute, you’re gonna try, your standards may decline in either area if it means you don’t have to cancel the tour because you have, at that point, well, we have eight people. I have seven other people depending on me to get stuff done. But, ideally, if you’re not out on tour I think that, if you got the right person, with the right personality, with the right drive, if they love what they’re doing, the skills will come along. There’s a lot of talented people out there and sometimes it’s just a matter of letting them do their thing, you know?

The best thing you can do is try and reduce the amount of down time while also finding the right people. A good example would be last August when our drummer, Jake, who had been with us a year-and-a-half or so, left. We ended up picking up a new drummer, Dan, who played his first show with us on Halloween at Hallowmas. It’s actually Jake’s cousin. And, it just sort of worked out that as Jake was looking to do something else professionally that Dan was looking for a band. So, it was a pretty good fit and it worked out great.

Forty years from now, looking back on The Pandemics, what do you think you’re going to be most proud of?

When you’re in a band, you’re always looking toward that next thing or that next accomplishment, that next plateau to get to that next goal. You need to set loftier goals.

It’s a never-ending cycle. When I first started the band, I had no idea that we’d go on to do some of the things that we’ve done. We’ve opened up for my favorite band, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, twice now, which is really cool. We’ve been the backing band for Roddy Radiation from The Specials. We backed Pete Cooper from The Porkers. We’ve played with English Beat a handful of times. Selecter, Pilfers, Toasters. You literally can pick a ska band on the east coast, we’ve played with them—a handful of times probably.

So, I mean it’s cool … We were kind of the international welcome band in New York City for a couple years. Maybe we still are. Tokyo Ska, OreSkaBand from Japan, Melbourne Ska Orchestra and the Resignators from Australia. Maybe it’s just an Asia thing. But, it’s been cool that we’ve sort of been able to represent New York in that way and I don’t think we’re anywhere near done yet. Oh, here’s another thing. We were on tour with the Skatalites last year for the Northeast leg of their tour. Those shows were so fun, man. They were really cool. And, the Skatalites were all really cool.

Your last album was Hard Headed back in 2013. With these changes to the band, I’m sure you’re moving toward something new. I know your immediate plans are to fill the positions and get everybody up to speed. What comes after that?

Well, I mean, this is an area where we kind of differed in opinion, me and the guys leaving. I want to get back to doing some of the stuff that I’d been looking to do, some of the sort of harder stuff. But, at the same time, one of the things I really want to do is I really want to set up the band so that we can tour a little bit, do a lot more gigs that aren’t necessarily just on Long Island. Maybe get up to Rochester, maybe get out to Buffalo, maybe get up to Boston. All these places that we haven’t been in a while because of people’s personal schedules or work schedules. Those are the two big goals for me. And, a lot of it is going to be feeling out how things stick with the new people we find. It’s New York City, you get a lot of people coming through that are creative people. So, you have the chance to find a lot more people than you would necessarily in Wyoming. But, at the same time, one’s so busy in New York, it’s very difficult to find somebody who doesn’t have another project going on that takes up all their time or who’s gonna be the right fit depending on all those reasons … whether their personality is abrasive or they’re talented enough or having your own gear. There’s a lot of moving pieces to figure out.

I’m always writing new music anyway and I’m sure that the rest of my band’s got ideas for other stuff too. A lot of it’s just the next couple of months, we’ve got these next two gigs, we start finding people and we’ll see what goes from there. But, I want to be a much more active band than we’ve been over the last few years.

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Described by friends as “way, way too obsessed with ska,” Charles Benoit lives in Rochester, NY, where he writes novels (Young Adult noir) and plays tenor sax in Some Ska Band. Incriminating details and paparazzi-quality photos at charlesbenoit.com.
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