You Guys Like Ska?

Jake Matter (@SkaOrNah) has dedicated his Twitter life to asking everyone (really, everyone) if they like ska so we don't have to do it ourselves.

The poet Chris Hannah of Propagandhi once wrote:

Ska sucks
Ska revival isn't cool you stupid fuck
The bands are only in it for the bucks
And if you don't believe me you're a schmuck
But the trend will die out with any luck

This was on “Ska Sucks,” from the band’s 1993 album “How To Clean Everything.” Set over a tinny, early ‘90s ska tune complete with smooth John K. Samson bass line, sarcastic Specials references and a few oi’s thrown in for good measure, it was an ironic fuck-you to the genre’s growing third wave.

Despite that scathing indictment, ska only got more popular in the following years. Bands like Reel Big Fish “sold out” onto movie appearances and big-name tours. Bands like Less than Jake found their way onto the most influential soundtracks known to man. Streetlight Manifesto helped keep the cabbie hat market alive.

Still, ska music has been the butt of a joke within the music world, despite it being largely harmless, contrary to plenty of other dudes in “emotional” bands that turned out to be real pieces of shit.

A lot like Weird Al, the most egregious sin ska musicians committed was dressing like improv comics and having fun, mostly minding their own business. Sure, some of it is tacky. Some of it isn’t even that great. But to judge a whole genre based on a few artists who burst into the mainstream is unfair. There’s plenty with depth and, dare I say, even nuance.

Despite years of jabs and a substantial drop in demand from studios for bands to appear in movies or create the score, it never truly disappeared. There was no Ska Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. Bands like Reel Big Fish are still working, Jeff Rosenstock just surprise-released a ska version of his last album, and a new generation of ska kids are carving out their own scenes and keeping it alive.

But just like all things that we’re supposed to be “ashamed of” or “guilty of” as a culture that puts so much stock into curating perfect taste, so many people hide their skanking histories.

Their … checkered past.

thunderous applause

Ska could not be that big and also disliked by so many simultaneously. The math just doesn’t add up. This would mean the world is full of liars who claim they never liked ska, ska fans who just have kept their love quiet over the last couple of decades while its popularity continued to wane, and maybe a few genuine haters.

We still talk about it, don’t we?

Over the last couple years, one guy has been doing the detective work for us, weeding through public figures to ask one simple question:

Do you like ska?

Jake Matter plays bass in Grey Matter, a band from Lansing, Michigan, that describes itself as “emotional skacore.” After one time on tour asking a certain beloved musician if he liked ska on Twitter (to no response), he kept going. Eventually, “Do They Like Ska” aka @SkaorNah was born. And it’s now grown to thousands of followers who suggest potential ska lovers or haters to Matter via Twitter. He’s even translated it into some pretty slick merch.

As an unabashed former ska kid (within reason), I wanted to talk to Jake about his quest to unmask ska lovers and haters from all reaches of pop culture and the public eye, as well as why ska is such a divisive thing when at its core it’s just kind of a silly, fun and low-stakes thing.

Brendan: So I guess the first question here is, why are you doing this? Why do you care who likes ska and who doesn’t?

Jake Matter: It started as a joke on tour one time. Just tweeting at Rivers Cuomo if he liked ska. He never responded. Two years later, after watching jeopardy one time, I asked Ken Jennings and he said no. I was like, ‘All right, this sucks,’ so I was going to start a Twitter so its not my name on this. It’s been that ever since.

So Ken Jennings was first, who was the most surprising?

Probably Elvis Costello off the top of my head.

What did he say?

It was really funny. I asked him in the normal format, where somebody suggests that I ask, and then I quote retweet it. Another funny one actually is that I tweeted Microsoft about the Master Chief. And that one is pinned on my account. And for whatever reason, Elvis Costello, older dude, whatever, instead of replying to my tweet asking him, replied to that tweet. And I can’t remember what band he tweeted, like, “This says it all!” and it was a link to a ska song. I was just blown away.

The fact that he did that, it kind of means that it wasn’t some young social media person. It was actually him. If he fucked up the social media aspect, it means it was probably really him responding.

Yeah, right. Elvis Costello somewhere in the world saw my Twitter asking if he likes ska on his phone and it prompted the response. I think it’s absolutely hilarious.

I mean, if you listen to Elvis Costello or a lot of people from that era, there’s so much ska influence on new wave and all of that … if he said no, he’s lying.

Elvis Costello even produced the first Specials album I think*, so it was, like, kind of low hanging fruit. A lot of the time, when I ask somebody, I look to see if it’s somebody who responds to people on Twitter, cause a lot of people just don’t do that. But if other people ask, I’ll just ask whoever if I see it. And that was one of the ones where I was like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to respond to this. That’d be ridiculous.’ And he totally did.

*Brendan’s note: Elvis Costello did produce the first Specials album.

Who hasn’t responded that you wish responded?

I guess Rivers Cuomo would be nice. Mostly just to put the original joke to bed. Tony Hawk also would be cool. I’ve asked Tony a couple times, and everybody is always like, ‘Have you ever played the games? There’s ska in those!’ And it’s like … he didn’t make the game. I’m sure he had input on the soundtrack, but that doesn’t mean he likes ska, you know what I mean?

[At this point I tell him that I once interviewed Tony Hawk about the video game soundtracks, and that he had at least some input on the songs on them. So there’s a good chance he likes a song by Goldfinger, Suicide Machines or Less than Jake.]

Ska or Nah got to 1,000 followers pretty quick, and my initial plan was I was going to pay a Cameo for either Tony Hawk or Bam Margera—whoever’s cheaper, I think it’s Bam Margera—to say they like ska on cameo. But I had gotten laid off from both of my jobs because of COVID when we hit 1,000 followers. So I was like, ‘OK, I’ll just wait.’ And then that Loudwire article came out, and we hit like 2,000 and then 2,500 immediately. So I think when it hits 3,000 I’m probably going to hit somebody up on Cameo, because it’s too funny not too, I think.

I would say hit up Tony Hawk before Bam. There’s that old cKy bit where he goes around saying, like, ‘You guys listen to ska? That shit is TERRIBLE! That shit fucking sucks!’

Oh, that’s so funny. It’s funny you say that, I just downloaded all of Viva la Bam and cky and haven’t watched it all yet. I can’t wait to see that.

So maybe you do want Bam to see if he changes his tune for a buck.

For, like, the 200 dollars or whatever his Cameo is.

I feel like for everyone who is a modern punk fan, if they say they didn’t get into ska at least a little bit, I feel like they’re lying, too.

I think that’s almost universally true.

Why do you think so many people think they need to hide the fact that they were into ska?

I don’t know. You know, it’s like … I was young enough to have really missed the entire third wave besides just hearing about it. But I know that toward the end, like when anything gets popular, things get oversaturated and embarrassing kind of. It’s an extension of that.

Every era has one band that’s the butt of a joke, like Nickelback or Hoobastank or something, but we’ve relegated an entire genre to this joke status, which is kind of unfair based on how huge it was.

It was everywhere. Obviously I wish it wasn’t like that. But at the same time I get it.

Gwen Stefani is a judge on The Voice and she was in a ska band!

I know, right? She’s like the one that got out I guess.

The one. So, what do you hope to achieve from this account the most, making it public that cool and influential people like ska?

I think my stance on it has kind of evolved as more people have said yes. Because initially it was, like, just funny to ask people. It’s a funny question I think. I would say, I don’t know, maybe nothing even. Maybe there’s no point to it and it’s just funny. But at the same time, I think that when cool people reply, I’m always like, ‘Hell yeah.’ and I’m like, ‘You should check out my ska band!’ But that feels like the worst thing ever to do, so I haven’t done it.

From following your Twitter, I’ve noticed that the people have said that they do like it are nine times out of ten cool people. The ones who are like, ‘No, fuck that,’ are people I didn’t have high hopes for anyway.

Yeah, that’s kind of what I’ve thought, too. It was really, really funny when Converge said fuck no. I really didn’t expect to get a response from that one. And that was so funny too, cause, obviously I have no idea who runs their Twitter account, but that somebody replied and posted a screenshot that day of their drummer listening to like first wave ska and posting about it on Instagram.

Do you think ska will ever become “cool” again?

I don’t know. I think it’s kind of cool now, right? I don’t think it will ever be the way it was in the ‘90s, but I also don’t think the infrastructure for music to do that again really even exists. I’ve been playing in a ska band for like seven years, and this is the first time … not the first time … but less and less so … it feels like when I say [I play in a ska band] less people grimace immediately.

What do you mean when you say the infrastructure isn’t there?

The music industry is just so different, you know what I mean? People don’t buy records the way they used to, the radio is different. I don’t know. It’s also hard for me to say because last time ska was popular I was 3 years old.

I know what you mean, though. Something in the universe just lined up for this genre of music to work in the ‘90s.

It’d be sick if it happened again. It was just a part of the larger ‘90s punk breaking into the mainstream, and I don’t know that that either will happen again.

Somehow a door opened for sideburns and Hawaiian shirts and let Reel Big Fish in.

That door got slammed shut after Reel Big Fish.

Maybe they slammed that door behind themselves.

It’s funny, as we talk about how there are bands like Nickelback that get pigeonholed for being the worst of the worst, I feel like Reel Big Fish gets a lot of shit for being, like, the really quintessential cringey ska band. And that feels bad. The Reel Big Fish records are good.

I’ve seen Reel Big Fish multiple times. They’re great.

I’ve seen them a ton of times and they’ve always been incredibly good every time I’ve seen them.

You have seven or so guys in a band, that’s no easy task.

No, it’s a nightmare. I say from experience. Having more than four or five people in a band is nearly impossible.

So you’ve already said who you want to respond and what you want out of it. Is there anything you feel like you can do to sway public opinion to accepting ska a little more?

I don’t know. I think that the current, I almost said ‘wave’ out of reflex, but it’s not necessarily a fourth wave. The current crop of bands that are playing ska right now are doing it in a really cool and legitimate way. And I feel like that’s the best way to do that. A lot of serious bands making really seriously good music, if that makes sense.

It does. And now we wait for the “Song Exploder” episode about “Two-Tone Army.”

Swing music isn’t allowed to come back, though.

Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is We Are the Union.

Thanks for reading! Sorry it’s been a little while. I’ve been at a point with my real life and job where I didn’t want to give myself homework for a minute there. But, I am extremely excited to say that I am getting back in the freelance game after a little break this past year. Please read my first story for Stereogum, in which I interviewed Sum 41 guitarist/vocalist Deryck Whibley about the 20th anniversary of “Fat Lip” and “All Killer No Filler.” For a guy who grew up skateboarding listening to Sum 41, this was pretty much a dream come true.

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