Voodoo Glow Skulls on Touring With the Toasters, Being ‘Bastards’ of Ska and Staying in the Game Since the ’80s
The Voodoo Glow Skulls weren’t the first crazy California kids to pair punk with ska. By the time they formed in 1988, Fishbone and Operation Ivy had already skanked a trail into the mosh pit, building on a tradition of hijacking Jamaican music that had begun in the late ’70s with Britain’s 2 Tone movement. What the Glow Skulls did was play faster and louder than anyone had dared, doing ska in such a way that hardcore kids might understand.
A quarter-century later, VGS are still mashing it up on a global scale, and on Oct. 2, they hit the road with New York City ska mainstays the Toasters for the Give ‘Em the Boot Tour Part 2, a month-long trip that wraps on Nov. 2 in the band’s hometown of Riverside. In advance of the trek — which finds the crew performing their 1995 commercial breakthrough ‘Firme’ in full — lead singer Frank Casillas chatted with Diffuser.fm about how he and his brothers Eddie (guitar) and Jorge (bass) created their Latin-influenced ska-core sound. He also shared his thoughts on whether another ska resurgence might be in the cards.
You’re touring with the Toasters, one of the only other ’80s ska bands still around today. Were you aware of them back then? Did they have much of a presence in California?
After I got into all the 2 Tone stuff, like Madness and the Specials and all that stuff in the ’80s, when Mike and I were listening to punk and heavy metal, one of the first bands that I ever got into in the ska genre was the Toasters. Their ‘Thrill Me Up’ cassette was one of the original ska albums I owned when I was a teenager. Definitely, we were aware of them. The ‘Thrill Me Up’ album, in my eyes, is a classic ska record. It’s definitive Toasters. That was when they were in their prime. In their peak, you know? To still be able to tour and nationally do three or four tours with the Toasters is a privilege and an honor, and we are glad to be considered in the same genre and same ballpark as those guys.
Back in the day, did the Glow Skulls ever thinking of sending a demo to the Toasters’ Moon label?
Early on we did do shows, like I said, we had played with the Toasters. They were selling records and going strong; they were in their prime. During that time, there were a lot of ska bands trying to go a more traditional route. I’m not going to say we were territorial, but they were kind of dividing. We were kind of like the bastards of the ska scene. We somehow got thrown into ska shows. Traditionalist didn’t really take a liking to us. It was kind of typical for us, because we weren’t exactly your trad ska band. We were more of your hardcore punk, Southern California-influenced Ska. It was a little difficult for us. Especially when we went to East coast for the first time. A lot of people didn’t take to us, and it wasn’t horrible, but people didn’t think we belonged in the ska scene. As time progresses and people see the bands obviously we haven’t gone anywhere, I think people kind of got beyond that. Now we compliment each other. At our shows, we are more of the aggressive ska, and then we have the Toasters that are more traditional 2 Tone ska.
It definitely seems like there was no precedent for the sort of hardcore-ska thing you guys were doing. There were punk-ska bands, but you guys, with the whole speed of it and how fast all the horn players were playing, were doing something totally different.
It just kind of happened that way. People always ask, “How did you guys come up with the style?” Its pretty much what you are saying now. I would just say we are a product of our environment. We are all Southern California, my two brothers and I are Mexican Americans. There’s a mix of black and Mexican culture that is prominent in Southern California culture in general. Then you’ve got the fact that I grew up in the late ’70s and ’80s listening to a variety of music. My dad played Latin records at home and then ’80s rock — all that type of stuff. That turned into heavy metal, and then we got into punk at the same time. So we were just kids who were musically confused, I guess you could say.
What prompted you guys to do the ‘Firme’ album on this tour all the way through?
We don’t really want to reinvent ourselves. A lot of bands try to reinvent themselves and just go a new direction … We thought it would be a good thing to just come back and do something that opened doors for us back in the day. That album is still very popular, and a lot of people say that’s their favorite record. “This record got me through high school.” “I used to skateboard to this record.” It means a lot to a lot of people. It influenced a lot of people in a lot of different ways. For us, we’re just wanting to do something fun. It’s an easy way for us to promote the band and create a little bit of spark in the band, maybe motivate some of our old fans to come out again. It’s been working out for us. People have been coming out during the last couple of tours to hear a lot of the old music. That’s the main reason we’re doing it, just to have fun and keep it exciting and fresh.
You mentioned record labels. VGS are interesting because you were on two of the bigger punk labels of the last 20 years: Epitaph and Victory. Which label do you think was a better fit or you guys, looking back in hindsight?
Also, we were on another record label that was considered one of the bigger labels and probably responsible for a lot of Epitaph’s success. That was Dr. Strange Records. That’s who put out ‘Who Is, This Is?’ They also worked with Face to Face — a lot of bands that have come a long way since then and have moved on to bigger and better record labels. Southern California — that’s where all that type of music comes from. That particular time, a lot of the music was coming out of Southern California punk rock. Epitaph, all of that stuff was just growing really fast. A lot of it was just being part of the scene at the right time, being at the right place at the right time. Playing shows, being in the mix. Again, the fact that we weren’t necessarily a punk band or a ska band. We would play with anyone. We’d be like, “Yeah, throw us on a hardcore show. Throw us on a whatever show, a straight edge show.” We’d somehow get in on any show … We were actually booking shows. We were involved in the music scene in a lot of ways; we owned a record store for like five years. We did shows at those record store locations. I think all that stuff taught us a lot and got us a lot of recognition early on.
The cool thing about Dr. Strange and those labels was if you liked one band, you just knew that all of their other acts were going to be cool. That doesn’t really happen anymore.
Oh, those days are long gone, man. There’s a resurgence of vinyl. Some people say vinyl never went away, blah blah. It’s cool that there are people trying. I just thing the fatality of young kids and the attention spans are just not really there. They’re so sucked into YouTube and social media, which can be helpful to help market your band, but it’s just watered everything down. There’s no substance anymore. There are no meat and potatoes anymore. There’s no walking to the record store and buying a record, looking through the album artwork, sitting in a record store for three hours looking at album covers and art work. Those days are long gone. It sucks.
Was there one moment back in the mid ’90s where you could sort of tell ska was going to blow up and that you might have a shot at being on MTV?
We did have some of that success.
‘Fat Randy‘ was on MTV.
We were on ’120 minutes’ and all those shows when MTV was actually playing music and music videos. We did get some of that. MTV Latino, we had a pretty good run on there. We did the ‘Firme (en Español)’ album, which did surprisingly well. Obviously when Reel Big Fish and No Doubt got some commercial success, everybody was wanting to sign ska bands. That was just — it was the thing. The Bosstones are probably one of the more successful ska bands of this era that’s out there now. Those guys had their big success. There were a lot of bands that weren’t on a major label. We also had an opportunity to do that. We were approached by a few major labels, and we turned them down, because we saw that they didn’t get it. When we were meeting with these A&R people, and they were telling us how they were going to market the band, it wasn’t really anything that we were that appealed to us. It was just a different language to us. We were just so used to doing everything independently and going on our own tours, printing our own merch and doing our own stuff. When Epitaph came along, that was the obvious decision. Brett [Gurewitz] was cool; he had been there and done that.
We were fortunate enough to jump in at the right time and go along for the ride of riding the coattails of, dare I say, the Offspring and bands that became commercially huge. We used to play with the Offspring when they were in a van eating canned food just like we were. You see those guys blow up, and to be able to go on tour with them and do cool stuff with bands, it’s a lot of hard work, despite of what people say. It was a cool thing. We’re still around; a lot of those bands are long gone. They’re frying taco shells and hamburgers, and we’re still playing music and going on tour when we want to. A lot of those bands can’t play anymore. They signed record deals that got them nowhere, and they’ve broken up and didn’t succeed.
Would you say a “fourth wave” of ska has started out there, based on what you’ve seen touring?
The ’80s are making somewhat of a comeback in general. A lot of the punk bands are going back to the ’80s sound. There’s a reason why the ’80s punk bands have all of a sudden reunited. You’ve got Black Flag; all these bands are getting back together with different members and whatnot. Different versions of old school bands that weren’t doing well in the ’80s are all of a sudden news again. It’s all-good to get a little bit of interest again. I don’t know how long its going to last, but if anything I think it’ll be more of a fad, honestly. Our shows have been pretty consistent, because we won’t go somewhere and play a thousand-seater because we know we’ll draw 200 to 300 people. We’ll go to a bar and play or a smaller venue and play where it’s safer and 150 on a Tuesday night doesn’t look so bad. So we’ve never really noticed a big resurgence. It’ll happen when it happens. If it does, that’d be awesome. We take things in stride.