UTG INTERVIEW: Umbrella Bed

umbrella bed

Two decades as a band is a feat for any act, but it’s even more impressive to have that king of longevity in a genre that never seems to get the kind of recognition it deserves. Minneapolis’ Umbrella Bed is an eight-piece 2-tone/ska band that has overcome the odds, and after 18 years of grinding have just put out their best release yet.

We had the chance to speak with Umbrella Bed about Refill, the band’s extensive history, and the state of the ska genre. Read through the break and get acquainted with Umbrella Bed in this extensive interview.

You’ve all been together for nearly two decades. What keeps Umbrella Bed going strong? And what has kept majority of the original line-up together?

Creating our own music, recording it and then bringing it out live means so much to all of us. There is nothing else like playing in a band. I think we realized that early on. Whatever life brings or even what the marketplace may say about our music, we want to keep making music and if nothing else we would do it for each other. Luckily we have always pieced together a reason beyond just playing to each other.

Beyond tremendous friendship and respect, I think one thing that has keep much of the original line up together is economic reality. An eight piece group by the nature of its size can’t even consider doing music for a living, at least through this one entity. There just isn’t enough money for it, especially in today’s music business. That enables us to do what we do without any consideration of its economic impact because in the end, money changes everything. Taking it out of the equation as much as possible means music is front and center. Bands don’t talk about that stuff much but it’s there and it affects lots of things that have nothing to do with playing music with each other. We argue about money but it’s more about how to use it to support our art, not how I am going to pay the rent.

2-Tone and Ska aren’t exactly dead but many would consider them to be on the endangered list. How would you say the genres have changed since you got your start back in ’95?

Ska had a fantastic underground scene when we came around in 1995 and the flirtation with mainstream in the late 1990s killed that because suddenly there was this sense that there was this mainstream audience. Bands were getting signed to major labels and it was the next “big thing.” I don’t think the mainstream audience was ever there and/or didn’t really understand it. The genre took a hit for “failing” and lost a lot of its core fans during the whole thing. The swing scene encountered the same fate. Ska also lost its credibility because I think the “goofy” element took front and center instead of the music. We have a goofy element and there is nothing wrong with music being fun but I think from a “serious” music fan’s standpoint, all they saw was that aspect. It’s ironic because ska before that actually had major social implications about things like race and economics in both the 1960s and then in late 1979 and 1980.

That underground scene rebuilt itself in most major cities and there is a “scene” all over the world but there is no doubt almost being “popular” hurt its credibility.

For us, ska is simply the framework that binds the whole thing together, sort of like you would say Green Day is a punk band. But in the US I think sometimes the moniker “ska band” is an idea that gets you dismissed from the get-go because of a generalization of the niche that just isn’t real. Sad, but true. We are proudly a ska band, but we simply write some good alternative minded pop songs first and foremost and use the ska format to present them. I could make a statement about labels and music and such, but we certainly use it to our benefit when we can and then sometimes complain about it when it hurts.

When I hear someone say that they dislike or even hate ska, it’s kind of an eyebrow raising moment for me. Really? It is such an infectious, upbeat music, even when it’s making harsh social commentary or telling a sad story. I can understand it not being your thing, but hate it? Man, do you have pulse!

Any bands in particular that you’re happy to see are still going at it?

Tons. From the original 2-Tone scene, The Specials getting back together was a big, big deal in the UK. They are selling out large venues throughout Europe. Other 2-Tone acts like the Selector, the English Beat and Madness are still going strong with many key members still involved. Acts from the early days of ska in Jamaica have been playing shows around the United States. One of our old band mates Aaron Porter and his band the Prizefighters have been the backing band for old Jamaican singing legends playing shows in Chicago and Toronto. I think they have something lined up with Susan Cadogan, Norma Fraser and Charlie Organair, big time crooner types from the 1960s.

Have you ever had a desire to drastically change your sound?

Yes, and in a lot of ways we often do, but we have always felt the challenge is to do so within the framework that is our sound. We are alternative minded pop fueled by the roots of 2-tone ska. Some ska purists might easily argue we are not ska, we just have a ska influence, but that allows us to get away with a lot of stuff.

There are a lot of influences that fall into one song. Maybe the singer was just listening to Vampire Weekend, the bass player has been practicing with his punk band, the guitar player is on another Dave Grohl binge, the sax player’s been digging into rockabilly, the trombone player was just working with a Dixieland band and you throw all that into the stew and see what comes out. But you are guided by the framework that we call 2-Tone otherwise you end up like a sort of variety act. All bands have some sort of framework they are using and what maybe makes one song stand out as different it is out of their normal zone.

I think one thing we really do different is that we have never been a band that then also has a horn-section. Our horn players function as an integral part of how our pop-songs get their story told. We aren’t trying to awkwardly fit them into the arrangements, they are what propel our arrangements. We have a french horn on every song and although that may be an unique thing and maybe even a signature thing, the role and outcome is not any different than a guitar solo, a second guitar part or synth-keyboard part. We love creating catchy little pop tunes and we go about it our own way and 2-Tone or ska, if you will, gives us a springboard.

I think unless you are David Bowie, most bands live and die by what first defines them. I mean the Rolling Stones are still just a blues band, right?

I think sometimes for the ska scene, we aren’t “ska enough” and I think that’s okay because that means we are trying to push things forward a bit or it becomes more of “influenced by…”

So REFILL just came out last month. How would you say it differs from your previous works? Anything in particular you did differently this time with writing or recording?

We had a founding member, Mel Tepid, leave. He was our main songwriter for years but the change was a kick in the pants and to everyone’s surprise we’ve hit a creative vein that is actually better than anything we’ve ever had. And, it is truly a group effort on every song. We struggle with every note, every section and it’s purely a respectful labor of love. We have seasoned songwriters and young guys in the band that give us this wide range of perspectives and skills and everyone has a voice in the song’s arc and story.

Honestly this is the first album in a long time where I felt like we did everything right. We did everything how we wanted to do it. It sounds good, fresh and big. We made a decision a few years back that because of money we tried doing everything more “in-house” and DIY and it shows on our last few records. It didn’t do the songs justice. This time we went into a studio called Shock and Audio and worked with Andrew Zoellner as producer and engineer. The last time we were in a “real” studio we spent like $12,000 to $15,000 to make a full record and the economics just didn’t work going forward. But that whole world has changed too. Andrew’s setup isn’t huge, it’s in a tiny little space in the Uptown area of Minneapolis but what he can do with a mix of modern and old style equipment is very, very big indeed and way more affordable. It’s really exciting how this turned out and I am thrilled about future projects.

It really feels to us like a band just getting started. It’s taken 18 years to really find our feet and we are ready to go.

Any reason why you chose to release an EP rather than another full-length?

There are a lot of reasons, but even before the Pixies had announced their idea of a 3-EP cycle, we were on a similar idea. I think the way everything is going, the approach for many bands is likely going to be more and more small events instead of one big album push, etc. Some bands write music or a block of songs that need to be presented in a long format but so often when you are doing a whole album you kind of end up in a crunch to come up with more and more songs to just fill it out. Yeah, sometimes those end up being ones people like but most of the time they are filler. Why not focus on 5 to 6 really great songs you like and believe in? Today you can come up with a great song, record it and release in a very short arc of time. It’s new and fresh to you and exciting and keeps the band excited that what you are working on will get released soon.

From a marketing standpoint in a short attention span internet based world, doing many events keeps you in front of people.

At least that is my theory. But, we might put it all together as one big album for our 20th anniversary. I am old enough to still think in terms of a full album and the EP was hard to stay with, even though it was my idea. I felt like we were cheating or something. The early history of rock and roll and records really did focus on shorter releases like this and I am really starting to think it has better impact this way, at least for us.

Whose hands are on the album cover and where can I get one of those glasses?

It’s my hand and our bass player Frankie Guerra. We have been working on getting some beer sponsorship to help pull doing glasses together. It’s expensive but believe me, we REALLY want to make a batch of those glasses.

Also, there are some “easter eggs” as far as the beer taps in the background. Can you explain the choice to use the images that you did? How many people pick up on that?

Each beer tap image is a version of one of our old album covers and then the logo glass on the front is empty and someone has a drink ticket for a refill. Turn it over and the glass is refilled. We were bouncing ideas around back and forth and really didn’t like any of them and then Frankie presented this one and everyone was like, “good, done, perfect.” It really spelled out where we were, we hadn’t done anything in awhile and it was time for a refill!

Someone just posted on our Facebook site that they just “got it.” So I am guessing mostly just the band gets it but it’s fun either way and I think the photos really turned out great.

So what bands would you say influenced you way back when you all started out? Do any of those bands still play a role in how you write and the sound you aim for?

I think we all came in very “alternative” minded. I know I really loved things that had a ska influence, often referred to as reggae at the time, by bands like early Police or Elvis Costello. Some of us were very familiar and into the Specials. One thing that hurt us early on but that I still love and respect about this band to this day is that we kind of always did it our own way. We hit the ska scene at a time that if we had modified our approach some we probably would have been more popular but we always remained true to ourselves. Occasionally we would try to write a “third wave” batch of songs because that was what was popular but it didn’t work, it wasn’t who we were. We were always much more on the alternative pop spectrum and leaned more to something like the Talking Heads or XTC then the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and that is why we refer to ourselves as a 2-Tone. Bands like the Specials, the English Beat, Madness, Bad Manners, The Selector, etc. really used the ska sound as their framework to play alternative pop music.

It’s funny, I think everyone in the band has a different idea of what we are trying to sound like but at some point you are trying to just be yourself by pulling all of that together into one vision. Personally I think the English Beat are the template for us and I am always saying, “do that English Beat thing on that song.” Early Madness is a bit like that too. If we are struggling with a section, a lot of times we have said: “do that Madness thing on the bass line.” I am also fond of saying, “Do that Buzzcocks-like guitar part on that,” which always gets a funny reaction but I really really love how the Buzzcocks are this seminal punk band but have some of the most poppy songs in the world.

It’s fun to see newer popular bands like Vampire Weekend and Franz Ferdinand drop in some 2-Tone references into their music. FF did a whole dub remix of one of their recent records. Lilly Allen is a guilty pleasure for a few of us and she has all sorts of 2-Tone references in her work. Seeing a newer artist influenced by those things and dropping them into their work inspires us.

We also have a wide age range and both our guitar players, Kabel Lefto and the Frankie, are younger and their influences are significantly different. Which is an awesome, awesome thing. They were sort of influenced by Umbrella Bed and now have a big role in defining it.

Now that the EP is out, what have you been working on in the meantime? Is the next release in the works?

Like I said, we hope Refill is the first of a series of three EPs that will be released through German label MadButcher Records over the next two years. The label has basically agreed to the idea. The EP decision, versus doing an album, is a reflection of the changing landscape of how new music is consumed. As our record label owner is quick to note, “Nobody buys CDs anymore.” We are planning on focusing on smaller releases in combo of compact discs, downloads, more than likely some vinyl and then visually through the video medium. We hope to get the next thing out by the end of 2014. We want to stay active and this is the best way to go about it. We have the next EP already written. We can’t wait to share it.

We’ve been getting really good buzz with Refill on a much broader scale than we have seen in a long time and maybe honestly, ever. At our last practice that buzz was just inspiring everyone and the songs we already had worked out really started to go to the next level.

Are you currently touring in support of the new songs or have plans to going into 2014?

Don’t know yet. It takes time, it takes money. Buzz creates opportunities and so we are optimistic. We are an eight-piece band and eight people are expensive to take on the road. Europe, before the economic downturn, worked great because the clubs had a guarantee on the table so you knew you could get to the next city with some money in the gas tank. That went away. Without a major promoter that is a huge deal. We love it though, so I really hope something happens.

How would you describe a UB live show to someone who has never attended one?

Our lead singer, Hellrocket, has a saying: “What we lack in talent we make up for in energy.” I think that kind of tells you what a show is like. Live we will gladly suffer a few bad notes in the wake of giving people something to watch. Few people remember the bad notes, but everyone remembers the energy. I like to call our shows organized chaos. We rarely can’t turn even a hostile crowd into one having a good time.

Having already been together for 18 years, how long do you foresee Umbrella Bed carrying on? And do you think ska will ever die off?

I am so excited about our new EP — it’s like a rebirth and that sort of is the idea. It is a short and sweet EP; get in and get out and full of energy. The first 7 seconds is meant to be a curious conversation that ends with the line, “I thought they would be smart enough to know when to call it a day.” It’s an inside joke jolted away by a jarring guitar intro for the song “Wish That It Would Stop.” It’s a statement signaling to ourselves and the rest of the world that we are just getting started.

This will sound corny but Umbrella Bed is like a family, which is to say it isn’t always easy. There have been plenty of times over the years where quitting and throwing in the towel would have been the path of least resistance. But, I think the idea of not coming together on a regular basis and do what we do is an unbearable notion. We broke up once and it lasted six months or less. So what is different is that we are really bound together and a tight knit group and very committed to making our art together, whatever obstacles may come or success for that matter.

Even if that obstacle is that ska has died off! But it won’t, I really don’t think it ever will.

 

Written and conducted by: Brian Lion – Follow him on Twitter

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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