Robert Hingley (center) is the remaining founding member of The Toasters.

Robert Hingley (center) is the remaining founding member of The Toasters.

The Toasters: Thirty years of ska 

Sure, ska had only a short commercial heyday in the '90s, when groups like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish charted on alternative radio. But it never really went away.

At least not for The Toasters. The New York-based collective is largely considered a forerunner in the ska movement in this country, bringing it to these shores in 1981. Founder Robert "Bucket" Hingley may be the only original member left, but he's proudly continued the tradition. In fact The Toasters are embarking on their 30th anniversary tour, which includes a stop at the Melody Inn's Punk Rock Night. Asked if he ever would've believed his band would reach such a milestone, Hingley said he wouldn't have bet on it.

"I would've said you're crazy," Hingley said by phone while on tour somewhere in Texas.

Keeping such an enterprise active for so long in such a mercurial business is quite a feat. Hingley said it's been possible for many simple reasons.

"It's always something I wanted to do," he said. "I've really enjoyed the touring life. It's always been a band that's designed to play out live rather than go in the studio. That's really what's set us up to be around for so long. The music business has changed pretty radically over the past 20 years. Fortunately we've managed to stay ahead of the curve. The touring idiom, The Toasters have managed to adapt to that quite well."

Indeed, The Toasters have only released nine studio albums in the past 30 years, most of them on Hingley's own Moon Ska Records (now defunct). Typically playing hundreds of shows a year, the live gig has always been the band's bread and butter.

"I think we've found a comfortable spot, and there's plenty of fans to keep it moving along for us," Hingley said.

Riding the third wave

That wasn't so much the case in the beginning.Hingley was attending university in the United Kingdom in the late '70s when he started hearing Two-Tone, a form of ska that incorporated punk and New Wave elements (though he was actually exposed to earlier forms of ska in the '60s, his first record purchase being Millie Smalls' "My Boy Lollipop").

"That kicked me off in the right direction," Hingley said. "I guess I brought it with me in my back pocket when I came to the States in 1980."

The problem was that ska hadn't really reached these shores yet.

"I was pretty surprised how little people knew of it," Hingley said.

Popular Two Tone acts like Madness and The English Beat were playing to almost non-existent crowds in New York at the time.

"It kind of made my mind up to take a stab at it," Hingley said. "The rest is pretty much history."

Working out of a comic book shop at the time, he didn't have trouble finding bandmates for his venture, known as Not Bob Marley before becoming The Toasters.

"Teaching them how to play ska music was the trick," Hingley said. "They always wanted to play up on the on beat. I was like no, it's one and three not two and four."

They followed their Two Tone brethren, playing to virtually no one in rinky-dink clubs. The Toasters eventually caught their break by getting on bills with the likes of Bad Brains and Murphy's Law, and becoming regulars at CBGB through one of the club's audition nights.

"They liked us enough to bring us back on the weekends," Hingley said. "That was the springboard for everything."

True worth recognized

It took another decade or so, but The Toasters came to inspire a host of bands that took advantage of the fruits of their labors. Hingley's Moon Ska Records was one of the biggest ska labels in the world during the mid-'90s.

"That was really a good time -- just being in the cockpit while all that was going on," he said. "Those years went by in a rush. But it was really fun to see all that happening. It always could've panned out in a different direction, but that's life. I think it's safe to say a lot more people know what ska music is now than they did in the '80s."

At the height of ska's popularity, The Toasters played festivals and what Hingley calls "enormo-domes." While Hingley appreciated the recognition the form was finally getting here, that part got away from its roots.

"The way ska music is, I think it's much better when you're in a tight little club," he said. "That's where the best atmospheres are generated. I don't mind playing the small-club circuit at all. It's much more down to the nitty-gritty and we have a good time doing it."

That mindset has taken them to some far-off places. One that sticks in Hingley's mind is Siberia.

"It was like a time warp," he said. "Even though it was 2005, there it was like 1975. They still had Communism and no clue what was going on in the West. It's part of a disappearing world. Pretty soon it's going to be McDonald's everywhere. I count ourselves lucky we can play some of these places whereit's still the old world."

What keeps it interesting for Hingley is that despite his globetrotting ways, there are still plenty of locales where The Toasters haven't played. Perhaps the group, which is releasing new material on vinyl in the spring and planning a reunion show with several former members in the fall, will only call it quits once they've played just about every corner of the planet.

"There's always a new crop of fans," Hingley said. "Everywhere you look there's always fresh blood to keep ska going."

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