After announcing their appearance at this year’s Fuji Rock we wanted to find out a little bit more about LA ska-band Jump With Joey, who are reforming especially for the fest after a 17-year hiatus. Luckily, we caught up with Joey Altruda and Willie McNeil in Tokyo a few weeks ago to talk about the band’s beginnings, their Japan-connection, and what they’re looking forward to at this year’s Fuji Rock festival.
During last month’s Fuji Rock line-up announcements you may have seen a band slip into the line-up with little fanfare and no artist photo. Given the diversity of bands that play at Fuji Rock there’s always bound to be one or two bands you may not be familiar with, but for those in the know the announcement that Jump With Joey would be playing the festival came as a very welcome surprise.
When they formed the band in 1989, founding members Willie McNeil and Joey Altruda were no strangers to the live scene, having already made a name for themselves in Tupelo Chain Sex – a band which by all accounts was an anarchic, avant-garde brand of psychobilly; something a SPIN Magazine journalist described as a meeting between “Charlie Parker and, say, The Dead Kennedys.” Jump With Joey, who dealt in a tropical Ska base with Latin flare, only initially released their 3 albums in Japan, and have always remained something of a cult entity as a result.
“I think that adds to the mystique of the band,” says Willie. “Since we didn’t have a deal in the US until later, the records were only available here [in Japan], and since we only played our residency we were kind of…mysterious.”
Originating as a 7-piece outfit, the band held a 5-year residency at LA’s KingKing Club where they began with covers of The Skatalites, Louis Jordan and Henry Mancini, showcasing numbers from genres ranging from New Orleans Blues, Jump Swing to Blue Beat Ska. All of this fed into their sound when they began to write their own music, though the Latin vibe became a much more organic addition as the band progressed.
“When we were doing the swing and blues stuff, “ says Joey Altruda, “It was at the infancy of the 90s swing revival, but by the mid-90s we were more of a Ska group. Our guitarist left and we replaced him with a percussionist and that’s when we started infusing more of the Latin element into the Ska.”
“I think it’s fair to say we were the first band to mix Latin and Ska, “ adds drummer Willie McNeil, “we were the originators of that sound. A lot of bands mixed Ska with Latin after that.”
Did the band have any contemporaries playing anything similar?
“Hepcat,” replies Willie.
“Yeska,” adds Joey, “They were a few years younger than us. They took our sound and made their own version of it.”
How did Jump With Joey fit in with the third-wave of Ska?
“The third-wave encompassed different eras of Ska,” says Joey, “because The Skatelites played as part of the third wave, as we did, and other traditional bands like Hepcat, plus the 2-tone and Ska-punk bands. People think more about the “rock” Ska bands of the third wave, but it really encompassed everything.”
Jump With Joey’s brand of Ska nods to their Jamaican influences, something that reflects their interest in the original sound system scene, as well as a musical progression slightly apart from the Ska of the 90s that came filtered through the British resurgence in the 80s and punk music.
“What set Jump With Joey apart at the time,” comments Joey, “is that we were writing arrangements. We weren’t just figuring things out by ear and memorizing – we were penning arrangements, so there was articulation and unity within the band. I think it motivated some people to study music so they could bring themselves up to the same kind of level.”
In the early 90s, Jump With Joey toured three times in Japan, originally touring with Fishbone around the Parco bars of Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo, and later playing with granddaddies of the Japanese Ska scene The Ska Flames. The band also released 3 albums in Japan, a move that helped to cement their underground status by making tracking down their work in the US all the more difficult and sought-after.
“Jason (Mayall) was the manager of Tupelo Chain Sex, and a lot of the first Ska music I heard was from his record collection, which was a big influence,” begins Willie. “Back then he was working for Smash, and he came to see us play as said: `If you guys make an album, I can probably get you a deal`. We recorded our first album live, in-studio.”
“It was a really fast turn-around,” adds Joey. “Within a week, we had an album.”
Jump With Joey are also known for their frequent collaborations with other musicians, including Roland Alphonso and Ernest Ranglin, the latter of whom will also be making an appearance at this year’s Fuji Rock.
“That was really Joe’s influence,“ says Willie. “Joe was always interested in older artists, like guitarist John Collins, so he was always seeking out older musicians to hang with them and pick their brains…”
“Some of them would give me lessons, or mentor me… A promoter we knew had brought Roland Alphonso to LA from New York and he guested with us for some live shows, and that became a long friendship, and then he ended up as a guest, with Ernest Ranglin, on our third tour.
This will be Jump With Joey’s first (and only?) year performing at Fuji Rock, but Willie is a long-term Fuji Rock fixture, having played for the last ten years with his “Big Willie’s Burlesque” troupe of musicians and burlesque performers.
What have been some of his best memories of Fuji Rock over the past decade?
“I think the best experience is seeing some of the other bands playing, like this band from the Solomon Islands, Narasirato. The Palace of Wonders is my favourite venue at Fuji Rock. To me, it’s the little things like seeing some quirky Japanese band that’s wearing dusters and has their hair combed over their eyes – seeing obscure things your wouldn’t see anywhere else. For me that’s what makes the festival unique – they have the big names, if that’s what you’re into, but if you want to dig deeper you can find these little stages where you can [do that], and sometimes you find a real gem.”
How does it compare with other festivals?
“It’s very Japanese,” Willie deadpans. “It’s very clean and orderly. There’s no trash anywhere; people walk about with ashtrays around their necks – you don’t see a cigarette butt anywhere. It’s not like that in Europe or in the States. And what also makes it unique is the rain. I’m amazed at how people deal with it.”
For Joey this will be his first Fuji Rock. What’s he looking forward to?
“I’m looking forward to connecting with friends of mine who are in other bands, like Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Beck and other people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for a long time, like the Chilli Peppers, who we used to play on the same bill with in Tupelo Chain Sex. The curiosity of the unknown – what might happen.”
The mystique of Jump With Joey may well remain after Fuji Rock. With one warm-up show before the festival in LA and no current plans beyond July, this may be festivalgoers’ one chance to see the band in action. Luckily, the Jump With Joey will be playing all three-days of the festival, and with a very special performance lined up for the Green Stage before Lee Scratch Perry on the Saturday they promise a show not to be missed.
Text: Laura Cooper