Syracuse ska rockers The Action! released their fifth studio album, entitled 5, in October, 20 watts had a chat with lead vocalist/guitarist Mike Gibson to find out what went into the album and the band’s nearly 20 year run in the local scene.
20 Watts: Now, the internet tells me you used to go by Skatos. This is true?
Mike Gibson: Yup, that’s right. We started way back when we were in high school and we played together for five to six years or something, and then when we all went off to college it got harder to play and perform regularly because we were spread out. But then most of us all ended up being back in town so we picked it up again.
20: What were those beginning stages back in high school?
M.G.: Originally there were seven of us, which is way too many people to have in a band, just FYI. Five is much more comfortable. Some of the guys knew each other. All the horn players — we had two additional horn players originally — so the four horn players at the time and the drummer all knew each other from being in the high school band together. It was my current trumpet player Chris Nolan who got us together at first. He started listening to bands like Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Punk-ska music was popular for two weeks in the late ’90s and it was kind of blowing up. Chris heard it and was like, “Oh, man, I want to do this.” The other trumpet player, Brandon Hall, he’s not in the band anymore, knew this guitar player who could do it, and I knew Adam, the bass player, and so we just kind of formulated. So, some of the guys knew each other and were friends before, and some of us kind of came into it blind. But now, after we’ve been together for so long, I consider these guys my best friends. And that would not have been the case for a few of them had it not been for the band.
20: What’s the timeline here and when did you start playing together again?
M.G.: We started in fall of 1998. So next year will be our 20th anniversary, which is fucking crazy. I think it’s kind of rare for a band that isn’t being paid to do it professionally to stay together for that long with original members. I think that’s unique, especially since we’re all married and have kids now. If you throw those obstacles — eh, obstacles sounds kind of negative — but if you throw that into the mix, it’s shocking that we still are able to play as often as we do, and write and record and put out records. And then it was probably around 2003 that we started playing less because we were spread out. Then, in 2006, Brandon was actually diagnosed with leukemia. We wanted to have a benefit concert for him, so we got a bunch of bands and we got back together to play this reunion/benefit show to try to raise a bunch of money for him. That was the catalyst for staying back together. We were doing this for Brandon this one time, but it’s fun. We all live here again, so why don’t we keep doing it?
20: So where did the new name The Action! come from, and why include the exclamation point?
M.G.: We had improved our skills since high school. We thought that we were a lot better of a band and needed a better name, or at least a different one. But naming a band is one of the hardest things about being in a band. It’s really difficult. We spent a really long time on it. We had a whole list where we spent a week using a shared doc, throwing in names, whether they were stupid or funny or serious. And then we had a practice where we implemented this whole voting system. Everybody picked their top five, and then we voted. Out of those, everyone picked their top two, and then we voted. We kept whittling it down. I don’t remember what the result of that was, but we didn’t like the name we came up with. We spent hours doing it and then said it was dumb. Then, I just happened to be wearing — I’m a comic book nerd — a shirt that said Action Comics on it, and my bass player just looked at me and said, “What the fuck, how about The Action Comics?” I was like, “What about The Action?” We put an exclamation point on the end of it, but I don’t know why. I think it was my drummer’s idea, kind of his immediate response. We were like sure, yeah, no problem. It’s also a minuscule thing, but it helps differentiate us from this English band in the ’60s called The Action.
20: That was my next question.
M.G.: We didn’t think it would be a big deal. It was a long time ago and we’re completely different and we’re playing in Syracuse, New York. We’re not going to tour England any time soon. But we’ve actually been mistaken for them online more times than you would expect. People come to us, “I’m putting together a compilation of ’60’s cult favorites.” And we’ll just say, “OK, wrong Facebook page. You clearly didn’t look at any of the photos. Do we look like we’re 70-year-old dudes that are playing in London?” No. We’re in our thirties and exclusively play in Syracuse. You could do two seconds of research and realize we’re not the same band. But, yeah, it hasn’t been a real issue and we always said from the start that if it becomes an issue we would just change the name. We were just sick of trying to come up with something better. It’s simple and easy to remember. It’s not the most creative name out there, but it’s effective and it works. I care less about the name and more about the music that we’re making.
20: What was the process of making the new album?
M.G.: As we’ve gotten older, the whole process of being in a band has gotten way more complicated. Our schedules are insane. It can be anything from Friday night because my wife and I have a date night or I can’t practice Saturday because my kid has soccer. These life events that weren’t even a blip on our radar when we started are now creeping up. So, I say all that because we actually started recording this album about five years ago. Our previous full length was called Accelerator and that came out in 2012. Basically, the recording process during that wasn’t super positive. It was stressful. We were working with some people who were rushing us and not really understanding the sound we were going for. So this time we wanted to make sure, above all else, that we were taking our time and just trying to make the best record that we can. Somebody won some studio time in an auction or something, so we got a day’s worth of recording and we banged out four songs. That was probably four years ago. Little by little, we started chipping away. My brother in law, his name’s Brett Hoban, he runs Hoban Studio in Baldwinsville. We started going out there and working with him. We’d get a handful of songs that we liked and then we’d go out and record them, see how they sounded. We ended up putting out a vinyl EP of some instrumental songs that we did, but we still wanted a full length eventually. Things that normal people do do kind of get in the way, so it’s not like we can spend all day every day for two weeks out in the studio. So, Then t’s just like a Sunday night here or a Friday night here. It took a long time but I also liked that it did because of the previous experience we had. We could really take our time and if something didn’t sound right, we didn’t have to just say, “good enough.” So, over five years we chipped away, and that’s one of the reasons we called it 5. It seemed like there were so many fives. There’s five band members now, it took five years to make, it’s our fifth full length album.
20: On your bandcamp there’s a motto that says, “Ska is dead and we killed it. We can show you where the bodies are buried.” I need an explanation.
M.G.: That’s right, I forgot about that. Here’s the thing. We started, obviously, being influenced by bands like Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Toasters and other ska/pun/third-wave/whatever you want to call it. I, personally, am sick of writing straight up ska music. I think as a songwriter, if you want to call yourself a ska punk band, then you have to write a specific sound and style. That can be fun, but I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years. And as a songwriter, it’s kind of boring for me. I feel like I’ve done it. Everyone in The Action! is a really good musician. We’re all good players. We all work really well together. So for us to keep writing the same three-chord, bouncy ska jam over and over again, that’s not fun. I want to try to play in styles that we’ve never played in. I want to switch things up. If you listen to 5, there’s not really a song on it that has a ska beat. The label of “ska band” is something that we’ve struggled with for awhile because I feel like if you see any band with a horn section you say they’re a ska band. But if you tell someone about a ska band, that person has an idea in their head of a pinstripe suit and the “pick-it-up, pick-it-up, pick-it-up,” stuff. We’ve never really done that. We’ve always been more rock with a horn section in the background. Closer to Green Day with a horn section and less like The Toasters. So I think that motto of “ska is dead and we killed” speaks to that a little bit. I don’t want to talk shit about other ska bands — there are great bands out there that do a really great job of making that genre exciting. I will still go see a band like Less Than Jake anytime they come around here. But for me personally, I feel like there’s more I can accomplish as a writer and there’s more that we can accomplish as a band if we don’t keep ourselves pigeonholed in one genre. It’s us wanting to break the bounds of what people expect from us. We play a lot of bar shows where we have to play all night. In that, we’ll do a lot of originals and we’ll do a lot of covers as well. We have a song on 5 called “I’m gonna beat up your boyfriend” and it’s like a punk-rock, Ramones-styled song with horns. And then the next song will be something by Lady Gaga. We try to switch it up because I don’t want to be a band where someone sees us one or two times and then says, “Oh, I get it.” I always want to try to be different at every show.
20: What would be your favorite show you guys have played?
M.G.: We’ve had the chance to open for a couple of bands that we really like, one of those being Reel Big Fish. We’ve played with them at the Lost Horizon a few times. It’s kind of a dive, but it’s also kind of a great venue to see a band like that. Playing with them is always cool because the crowd is always great and they’re always ready to party. I think they’re one of those bands that has one founding member left, but they’re still playing the songs you grew up with. Another place is called Shifty’s, it’s been around a long time and is also kind of a dive, but it is the greatest place to play in Syracuse. I don’t have a specific memory of a time we played there, but every time the crowd is great, the vibe is great. It’ a great music bar. Check it out sometime. Their chicken wings are phenomenal.
(This article first appeared in a shortened format in the fall 2017 edition of 20 Watts Magazine.)