Ska's the Limit

The Pinstripes want to change the perception of Ska

Dec 23, 2008 at 2:06 pm

The word Ska conjures up differing responses, and many are sadly negative. Whether through sub-par bands or kneejerk reactions against the genre’s ’80s commercialization, the mere mention of Ska rubs some people the wrong way.

To that end, The Pinstripes have a mission. The septet wants to replace that downcast opinion by offering a joyous hybrid of Reggae, Soul and Punk that is reverential in emulating the Studio 1 movement a half a century ago while incorporating contemporary perspectives.

“In terms of popular mainstream genres, I don’t know many that are so pigeonholed,” says vocalist/saxophonist Mike Sarason about the Ska backlash. “When we have band talks, that’s a lot of what we talk about. For the most part, we feel if you like music and you hear our music, especially if you hear it live, you’re going to like us. It’s just getting you in that venue or getting you to buy that CD or click the Web site. How can we play what we want to play and still reach the people we think we can?”

For a young band, The Pinstripes have a long history. The group began as a high school Punk band formed by bassist Chris Grannen, guitarist Matt Kursmark and drummer Jared Goldfarb, which ultimately morphed into The Pinstripes after a sonic shift to Ska with the addition of Sarason and trumpeter Ben Pitz. A high school band challenge victory brought a cash windfall and recording time, resulting in their debut 2004 EP.

“We were in high school and thought, ‘Ska. Let’s try to play it,’ ” Grannen says. “We weren’t good at it. It was something to do ... we didn’t know much about Funk.”

Fundamental changes have redefined the Pinstripes along the way. Goldfarb left to pursue his Jewish studies (he remains connected as the group’s self-proclaimed “Jewish mascot” and vocal advocate). He’s the dance floor dervish in a yarmulke at a Pinstripes show.

“Their musical vision is this growing positivity,” Goldfarb says. “They look at a world that has problems, (using) songs with social commentary, and do something positive. If you go to the show and see the chemistry that’s developed, you’re touched in this positive way. The closest vessel to convey that is Ska. Now it’s more Reggae, Dub and World, but it all revolves around the vision of ‘We’re going to take a dark world and light it up.’ ”

“For the record, I’m in it to get girls,” Grannen adds.

The band’s original lead singer, Candice Washburn, left to concentrate on her Jazz studies after recording 2006’s debut full-length Higher Ground. With Washburn’s departure, Sarason assumed lead vocalist duties when Kursmark booked a show before they’d hired a replacement. With his ascension to frontman, The Pinstripes’ dynamic has clearly changed.

“We went from American Ska influence to a more rootsy sound,” Sarason says. “Now we’re listening to traditional Jamaican stuff and bands that emulate that style. And revival bands in general, like the Soul revival; we just spent all day talking about Daptone Records and Sharon Jones.”

Goldfarb’s replacement behind the kit was equally important. Casey Weissbuch — a dead ringer for Seth Rogen’s little brother — drums like a Jamaican Keith Moon, giving the rhythm section a pulse that is simultaneously frenetic and tightly controlled.

“I played with Chris and Matt and with a Punk band called Forest Fire for awhile,” Weissbuch says. “I basically just followed these guys around until they let me be in the band.”

By then The Pinstripes had already added trombonist Chap Sowash, an SCPA grad and Jazz major who had played in area Ska bands, one with Sarason’s brother. Sarason invited him to play on a song they were recording and he remained.

“I was actually looking for a gig and messaged them,” Sowash says. “After my first show, they asked me to join. I joined at a good time. It was right before they recorded Higher Ground, followed by a tour over the summer. It was when things were starting to get serious.”

The Pinstripes’ sophomore full-length, last year’s The Decay, showed the band’s significant maturation — Sarason cites it as transitional between their youthful past and developing future — and their recently recorded four-song demo is further evidence of their evolving musical identity.

“The music has progressed with our maturity level,” Pitz says. “We all got older and started listening to more traditional Ska. We started to grow up and get out of the phases we were in. And we have this massive amount of chemistry.”

Perhaps the Pinstripes’ most impressive facet is their commitment in the face of physical separation. Sarason attends college in Chicago, Weissbuch is a Nashville music student and Kursmark lives in Columbus, but all stay in constant contact through e-mail, texts and message boards. The out-of-towners return at regular intervals for gigs, practices and writing sessions; the fact that they resume their diligent work ethic from a dead stop each time speaks volumes about their musical and personal bonds.

Although quiet during the interview, the band credits Kursmark as the Pinstripes’ cornerstone. He books shows (including several Eastern seaboard/Midwest mini-tours), organizes practices, designs and executes artwork and generally manages the band. The five members in attendance (keyboardist Jack Wright was absent) and Goldfarb applaud after the laundry list of Kursmark’s responsibilities.

“Thank you,” he says, making Calvin Coolidge seem chatty.

2009 could be the Pinstripes’ big year. They plan to do more touring, writing and recording, and both Sarason and Weissbuch graduate next June, which will allow them to concentrate more fully on the band.

At the interview’s conclusion in their borrowed practice space, The Pinstripes blow through four new songs, including the propulsively hair-raising “Come On In” and the Soul-charged “I’ll Be Waiting.” From this impromptu performance, it’s clear that the Pinstripes truly shine on stage. As the song notes, shades may be necessary for a future this bright.

“We’ve been together for four or five days and we’ve been working to write new songs and perfect old ones,” Grannen says. “I just feel real positive about the work we’ve been doing and the progress we’re making.”

THE PINSTRIPES perform a fifth anniversary show Saturday at the Mad Hatter with The Lions Rampant, Loudmouth and the Green Room Rockers. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.