After over three decades in the music business, success isn’t necessarily measured in gold records. It’s more of a fermented, liquid gold, according to The Toasters’ Robert “Bucket” Hingley.
“I think when you have your own beer, you know you’ve made it. I got a lot more of a kick out of that.”
Having their own beer is exactly what Bucket’s band have. The Shebeen Black IPA was crafted by the Ska Brewing Company to commemorate thirty years of The Toasters – the revered third-wave ska ensemble that have become pioneers of the genre. It’s been a crazy and colorful path for the band, fuelled by Hingley’s long-held passion for ska.
“When I moved back to England [from Africa] when I was nine, ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small was Top of the Pops. I just kind of gravitated towards it. That was the first ska record I bought, in 1964, and I’ve been listening to the music ever since.”
Following his army-enlisted father everywhere from Germany to South Africa as a child gave Hingley a taste for the jetsetter life. Crossing the Atlantic in the late 70s to settle in New York City could have just been another travel experience. Instead, the move kicked off a chain of events that shaped The Toasters.
What began “as a laugh” for work mates in New York City quickly evolved into a more serious venture of releasing records and performing gigs.
In 1985, their Recriminations EP became the first nationally distributed US ska record. In 1996 they played their 2000th live show and in 1997 their music video for “2Tone Army” was picked up by MTV. In the 15 years since then, The Toasters have added hundreds more gigs to their already-impressive swag. They’ve also played everywhere from Venezuela to Siberia where “they were still operating as though the whole Communist system was still in effect. It was like being in a time machine,” and they have taken their tally of studio albums to nine.
In Australia for Ska Nation, The Toasters will make sure that the festival’s fifth and final year goes off with a bang. The fact that the event won’t be continuing isn’t surprising to Hingley, but it isn’t worrying, either.
“I think [events like Ska Nation] will eventually be resurrected, perhaps under a different name… because of the strong subculture. Ska is probably one of the last, few unadulterated forms of independent music left. The high watermark for ska was in the mid-90s…[but] it has sixty years of roots and culture.”
It’s the ability to bounce back from obscurity that has Hingley confident in its staying power. Ska and its spin offs (reggae, 2 tone, ska punk – to name a few) have generally skirted the borders of the music mainstream. Commercial success for The Toasters, however, hasn’t been so elusive.
“We’ve been called ‘The Sound of New York City’ by the New York Times… ‘Ska Pioneers’ by Billboard Magazine and the ‘Next Big Thing’ by Alternative Press,” recites Hingley, “So now and again the mainstream media takes a look at the genre and likes what it sees.”
The unpredictable commercial prominence of ska has never fazed Hingley, who is well versed in the in-and-out popularity of the genre.
“I always say just because the mainstream doesn’t know it’s there, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Ska music has a way of going into the underground, which is where it is now, before it kinda regroups and comes out with a different metamorphosis.”
With each metamorphosis comes a new fan base and for The Toasters, with each new fan base comes a responsibility to perform live to them where possible. “That’s the one thing the industry can’t take away from you is the fact that people want to go see music live. Positioning the band as a live act was the smartest thing we ever did.”
Having toured mainly the Americas and Europe over the last three decades, Hingley is constantly humbled by the reception the band receives.
“[Places like] Bogatar, Colombia… you wouldn’t think of that as the thriving hotbed for ska but they love it. People in South America really have an affinity for the music,” explains Hingley.
An affinity for ska shouldn’t be hard to come across when The Toasters hit St Kilda in September. For Hingley and the “Lean Mean Ska Machine” (his accompanying bass player, drummer and rhythm and horn sections), Ska Nation is just one leg of an eleven day Australian tour.
The tour will see them travelling around the nation with local ska legends The Resignators, where the two bands will play alongside a mezcla of Victorian and interstate acts, including the Melbourne Ska Orchestra and Steel City Allstars Touring is something Hingley is particularly grateful for, given the current climate of the music industry.
“The financial parameters of touring now mean that you have a stripped down package. We’ve been looking for someone to bring us to Australia for a while and it’s just been a matter of finding the right person. We’re pretty excited.”
The buzz around fellow ska bands and tales of Australia itself have Hingley and the band super keen to jump on the plane.
“I’m expecting it to be kind of like a mix between England and America… I’m really intrigued to check it out for myself.”
The Toasters play Ska Nation #5: The Final Episode this Saturday 15th September at Melbourne’s The Espy. Full details here.