Steve Shafer (The Duff Guide To Ska)

Interviews | Apr 16th, 2013

Stephen Shafer

Do you remember that amazing show that blew your mind and changed your life? Steve Shafer was there. Those amazing records that made up your teen years? Steve Shafer helped to put them out. That video on MTV you couldn’t get enough of? Steve Shafer filmed it…on a Super 8.

While his name might not be the first you think of when it comes to Moon Ska Records or 3rd Wave Ska, Steve Shafer was a dominant driving force behind the ska scene of the 1990s. He spent around a decade working at Moon Ska Records and then founded his own label called 7 Wonders of the World. Currently, he runs the most excellent ska blog The Duff Guide To Ska. We had the great pleasure of asking Steve a number of questions about getting into ska, his time at Moon, and where he sees ska today.

You have been long associated with ska music, when did ska first enter your life?
I first started hearing ska music in the early 1980s on WLIR, which was the “modern rock” commercial radio station on Long Island (which broadcast to the whole NYC metropolitan area) that included a fair amount of 2 Tone in their New Wave mix. As a result, I became a huge fan of The English Beat, The Specials, and The Selecter. Then in the mid-80s, The Untouchables Wild Child, Fishbone’s s/t debut EP, and The Toasters’ Recriminations EP came out and became essential listening for me. But I didn’t really consider myself a full-fledged ska fan until the late 80s, when I started going to ska shows in NYC (The Toasters, The NY Citizens, The Scofflaws) and picking up any ska records I could get my hands on. I mailed ordered a ton of records from Unicorn Records in the UK, from bands like No Sports, The Busters, The Trojans, Laurel Aitken, The Deltones, Potato 5, and many more.

Have you ever played in bands or have you always been behind the scenes?
Up until now, I’ve been a behind-the-scenes person, but I am involved with a new band, Rude Boy George, which is made up of members of NYC ska bands Bigger Thomas, Across the Aisle, and The Toasters. We’re doing ska, rocksteady, and reggae covers of New Wave classics from Human League, Modern English, Heaven 17, The Smiths, INXS, Soft Cell, Squeeze, Depeche Mode, Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper and more. I’m singing back-up vocals and playing a bit of melodica. Our first show is in May at Electric Avenue in Manhattan (the ska/reggae night co-sponsored by The Duff Guide to Ska and Marco on the Bass).

You had a very integral role at Moon Ska Records during its growth and peak, how did you get involved with the label? What were your primary duties?
In the late 80s, I had been regularly mail-ordering records and merch from Moon Records (at the time, Buck packed all of the orders!) and had started writing letters to Bucket, urging him to put on an international ska festival at CBGBs (a series of them were taking place in London at the time–and since I couldn’t get over to the UK, I thought it would be great if we could have some of those bands over here). At the same time, I was writing reviews for a California-based skazine called “Roughneck Business.” Bucket picked up the skazine while on tour with The Toasters and it caught his attention that I had declared The Scofflaws the best live band in NYC (at the time–it was around 1991–it was the truth). This spurred him to send me a letter asking me if I wanted to sign on as Moon Records’ unpaid promotions guy (I could get whatever Moon merch and releases I wanted and was always on The Toasters guest list).

So, I set up shop in my apartment’s kitchen with a one-page list of college radio stations and skazines that were on the label’s promo list, and worked on getting the word out about the label’s bands, releases, and tours at nights and on weekends (I had a day job to pay the rent). Eventually, I was hired full-time and with the help of interns and an assistant, built up a promo list that serviced over 1,500 college and alternative radio stations, music press, skazines, and regional and local writers that would play and review our releases and help preview our bands’ tours. In addition to all this, I was in charge of production and would shepherd each release from the hiring of graphic designers for the artwork, to sending the graphic files and masters to the pressing plant, through the approval process, to the delivery of the final product. I also helped with the licensing of our releases to our sister labels in Japan, Brazil, the UK, and Germany. I shot and edited The Toasters’ first music video (on Super-8 film!) that made its debut on MTV’s “120 Minutes” and was aired fairly regularly on MTV and M2. I put together several compilations, including the promo-only This Are Moon Ska series, Skarmageddon, Spawn of Skarmageddon, Skarmageddon 3, Moonshot, and Ska United: A Global Ska Sampler. And I helped oversee Ska Satellite Records, our affiliated label that we created to help develop new and promising bands.

It was one of the most fun, interesting, and creative jobs I’ve ever had and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to work for Bucket and all of the bands that were on Moon Records’ roster.

If we had to quiz you, how many members of the Toasters can you name?
Many of them, but not all. I’m solid with anyone in the band from New York Fever through Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down (the period when I was working for Moon). And I could probably name the majority of members in the Skaboom through the This Gun for Hire albums. However, once Buck moved to Spain and began rotating members of the band, depending on whether he was touring in the States or Europe, I kind of lost the thread…

When did your relationship end with Moon? Were you there to turn out the lights?
I left in April 1999–I really didn’t want to leave, but the writing had been on the wall for some time (the warning signs started to appear in the summer of 1998), so I quit before they had to let me go. I was still drawing a salary, but there wasn’t much for me to do, so it seemed to make sense to find another job. I’d already had to lay off my promotions staff, didn’t have a promotions budget, and nothing else was going to be put into production. We were mostly just watching the UPS guy bring back thousands of returned CDs. It was a very bleak time and incredibly depressing to see all everything that we had worked so hard to build up turn to crap.

I wasn’t there to shut down the store. That heavy responsibility went to my friend and co-worker Ray Manuud, who helped run the store.

At that point, what were your initial thoughts on the future of ska?
I knew that US ska would continue, but the ska boom of the 1990s was definitely over. Ska was headed back underground, which in some ways was okay. The massive hype the ska scene had received in the mid-to-late 90s never really translated into huge sales for the label and so many of the ska bands who had put in the blood, sweat, and tears over the years never received their due or were able to make the transition to the next level.

Essentially, the major labels kind of hijacked the ska label (and the buzz around the real, underground ska scene that was exploding all over the USA) and applied it to several of their own acts that were never ska (and most of whom never claimed to be) and a lot of the mainstream music press was happy to go along with hyping these non-ska bands as ska, as long as the ad space was being purchased (I’m not even going to get into commercial radio). Interestingly enough, MTV pretty much got it right (just about all of our videos made it on M2 and 120 Minutes–and several were on MTV outright; The Toasters’ music was even used on several of their new game shows)–and the college radio stations were always incredibly supportive of our acts (they spread the word like no one else in the pre-internet age and made all the good things about the 1990s ska boom possible).

I had been around during the lean times before–so, I had experienced enough to know that the scene was cyclical. Ska would be back and I’d always love the music. Bucket has been quoted as saying–and I’m paraphrasing here–that ska is like malaria; once you’ve been infected, it’s always in your system

When did you start 7 Wonders of the World? What were some of your big releases?
I launched 7 Wonders of the World music in 1999 (with incredible technical support from a former Moon intern, Sarah Rudd). It was slow going at first, convincing bands to license their music to 7 Wonders, since this was in the days before iTunes and only a few companies were offering music digital downloads for sale. But I think what helped win over the artists was that we offered a non-exclusive license and that all sales were split 50-50 between 7 Wonders and each band (all of the label’s expenses came out of our end of the split). Plus, I did a fair amount of promotions for the artists. 7 Wonders’ sales were never significant, but many of the artists did make a little bit of money. 7 Wonders’ roster included Carlos Malcolm & His Afro-Jamaican Rhythms (JA/USA), NY Ska Jazz Ensemble (USA), Dr. Ring Ding (Germany), H. P. Setter (Germany), Capone & The Bullets (UK), Victor Rice (USA), Jin Jin (Germany), Provibes (Germany), dr. Green (Lithuania), The Delroys (USA), Winston Irie (Guyana/USA), Orange Street (USA), Take 5 (USA), Zimbobway’s King King Orchestra (USA), The Sifters (USA), Buford O’Sullivan (USA), and the Stubborn Allstars (USA) — and we had jazz records from Rick Faulkner (from NY Ska Jazz Ensemble) and Los Mas Valientes (USA), plus electronica from Subatomic Sound System (USA).

Is 7WOW still alive or has it been retired?
I had to shut it down in 2001 after I ran out of money (and since this was after the bubble burst, it was almost impossible to find any new backers, especially for a ska/reggae digital label). The label was too far ahead of the curve–ska music fans just weren’t ready to buy digital downloads back then–but I have no regrets about giving it a go (plus, 7 Wonders of the World Music was the first digital ska/reggae label ever!).

Was there a band that got away during your time, either at Moon or with 7WOW, that you look back on and think what could have been?
There were a lot of bands on both labels that were incredibly talented as both songwriters and performers–and never became as big as they would have in an ideal world. On the Moon side, some of the bands that should have been as big and popular as say an act like The Bosstones are Let’s Go Bowling, The Scofflaws, Easy Big Fella, Skavoovie and The Epitones, The Bluebeats, Dr. Ring Ding and the Senior Allstars, The Adjusters, The Skalars, NYSJE, The Skunks, Skinnerbox, and The Skoidats–all of them had the chops and then some. (Others did go on to some higher degree of success with other labels, including Hepcat, DHC, The Pietasters, The Slackers, and Spring Heeled Jack.)

One huge disappointment was Bad Manners not coming over to tour and play the second New England Ska Festival after we had released their really terrific “Heavy Petting” album (which tanked without the band playing any dates here).

Around 1996 or 1997, Mercury Records (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ label) was very eager to sign The Toasters (one of their A&R guys had been following them around for months). The negotiations eventually broke down after Bucket balked at their insistence on handling all of Moon Records’ manufacturing and distribution. Buck was concerned that Mercury would have too much control over the label’s destiny and could easily destroy all that we had built up either through indifference or purposeful neglect–they could easily starve us to death by choking the production and distribution process. Buck also was cognizant that The Toasters’ releases were by far Moon Records’ biggest sellers. If he tried to make a deal with Mercury just for The Toasters, it would have had a huge negative impact on Moon, by depriving it of much needed revenue that was used to manufacture and promote releases from all the other acts on the roster. Having said all that, I’d have loved to see The Toasters receive a major label promotional push that could have propelled them into the big time.

There also was this wild meeting that Buck, Matt Malles, and I had with Tim and Lars from Rancid in 1998, where there was talk of releasing a Toasters/Rancid split single on Moon Records, but someone at Hellcat (who used to be one of my interns working out of my apartment and ended up stealing Moon’s promo list) prevented it from moving forward. It was incredible to see how much respect Tim had for Bucket. One of the stories that came up was that Operation Ivy originally submitted their demo tape of Energy to Moon in the late 80s, but at that point, the label was suffering from a series of distributor failures, so it was very cash-strapped (plus Bucket admitted that he probably wouldn’t have put it out even if he’d had the funds, since it was too much on the punk tip).

For 7 Wonders of the World Music, the one artist that I couldn’t convince to sign was Laurel Aitken, whom I had gotten to know at Moon, when I helped promote his 1998 tour of the USA (also, fans kept on swiping his pork pie hat; so, he’d ring me up and I had to keep running upstairs to 99X, buying him new hats, and overnighting them to the venues he was playing!). I called him several times at his home in Leicester, England and he was always such a gentleman about turning me down. He wanted to release his music on CD and had no interest in doing digital downloads.

You currently run one of the most popular ska blogs out there. What was the original intention in starting that blog?
I had taken a break from ska after having to shut down 7 Wonders–plus I had two young children that kept me busy (and was doing what I had to in order to eke out a living). But then in 2008, I began to check out the scene again and realized that there were very few people covering the scene like the skazines used to back in the pre-internet age. So, I figured I would do what I could to help promote the scene and the bands that are keeping it going. Plus, I love writing about music, so what better way to do this than a blog?

Top 5 Favorite Moon/7WOW Releases
This is a bit like having to identify a favorite child. I’m going to cop out and name the key releases from the late 80s that set me on my ska course for the next couple of decades: The Toasters’ Thrill Me Up; The NY Citizens’ On the Move; The Scofflaws’ debut album; and the Ska Face and Skankin’ Round the World compilations.

Who are some bands you are digging now musically?
I’ve been really into recent or upcoming releases from The Frightnrs, The Scotch Bonnets, King Django, Hollie Cook, Prince Fatty, 2000 Tons of TNT, Bigger Thomas, The Toasters, King Hammond, Sammy Kay, The Snails, Pressure Cooker, Madness, The Bullbuckers, The Bionic Rats, Dr. Ring Ding, and the Captain Black No Stars.

Putting a music industry hat on, are there ska artists, new or old, which you are impressed with in how they run their bands as a business? Being from touring, distribution, labels, etc.?
In this age of illegal music file sharing–which has eviscerated the sales of recorded music–I have great respect for any ska band that is out there touring, playing gigs regularly, and recording and releasing new music. It’s all a labor of love, that’s for sure. Unless/until the majority of music fans start modifying their behavior and start buying recorded music again on vinyl or CD or digitally, the only feasible way forward is the Kickstarter/crowd funding model. Ska fans literally have to come together to invest in their favorite bands, so they can afford to keep on making the music that we want and love. I’ve invested in crowd funding projects with The Shifters, The Scotch Bonnets, Sammy Kay, Moondust Records/Reggae 69 Club, The Sentiments, the Urban Pirate Booty 7″ series, the Big Ska Gamble 7″ Record Club, and more…

Be sure to check out Steve’s blog, The Duff Guide To Ska


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