Hub City Stompers are a faSKAnating New Brunswick band who stay true to original ska music and its influence on the skinheads of late-1960s England, while also incorporating later elements of the island-originated genre, such as late ’70s 2 Tone, ska punk and ska-core.
Many initial skinheads were British youth, including blacks, who continued the working-class themes of Jamaican ska and rude boy acts, such as Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Duke Reid and Desmond Dekker. Years later, the skinhead movement’s social alienation and working-class unity attracted white supremacists, many of whom increasingly have grabbed recent headlines with their support of Donald Trump and alt-right, racially motivated politics. Hub City Stompers founding front man Travis Nelson said he finds that situation absurd, given that blacks were among the initial skinheads whose culture greatly was influenced by Jamaican immigrants.
Like the membership of ska, second wave 2 Tone bands such as The Specials, English Beat, and The Selecter, and 1980s third-wave pioneers The Toasters, Nelson is interracial. Raised in Trenton by black a dad and white mom, the veteran vocalist and songwriter cut his musical teeth from the late ’80s to the mid ‘90s at the fabled City Gardens, a haven for the ska, punk, hardcore and oi! music that appealed to skinheads. On several occasions, Nelson was among the City Garden skinheads who drove Nazi and white supremacist counterparts out of the club.
In the early ’90s, Nelson gravitated to New Brunswick to hear such punk bands as Bouncing Souls, Lifetime and the skinhead ska act Inspecter 7. Initially an ardent fan of Inspecter 7’s blend of ska’s three stylistic waves with punk, Nelson was asked to join in 1993, and so began a 24-year music career, including two albums on Radical Records and national tours with such contemporaries as The Pietasters and Mephiskapheles. All the while, Nelson, aka Rev. Sinister, has stayed true to his skinhead, hardcore and ska roots, while incorporating elements of hip-hop and jazz.
In 2002, while Inspecter 7 was on hiatus, Nelson and several of his bandmates formed Hub City Stompers, named after one of his i7 songs. Picking up where the predecessor had left off, Hub City Stompers continued to tour nationally and released an EP, an anthology, several singles and compilation tracks and four full-length studio albums:
2004’s Blood, Sweat and Beers and 2006’s Dirty Jersey on Megalith Records, an offshoot of the influential Moon Ska label.
2009’s Ska Ska Black Sheep and 2014’s Life after Death on Stubbon Records, the label of New Brunswick ska legend King Django (Skinnerbox, Version City).
A who’s who of regional ska, Hub City Stompers now include saxophonist-vocalist Jenny “Whiskey” DeSantis (Professor Plum), bassist “Reggae” Bob Vorhees (Predator Dub Assassins), guitarist Rod “Gorgeous” George (Bigger Thomas), drummer Joey “Pip” Piperato (The Heavy Beat), trombonist “G&T” James Kelly (Screwface, The Executives), and keyboardist-guitarist Greg “Pukey B” Behan. They recently recorded their fifth full-length studio album, Haters Dozen, which will be mixed and mastered for a spring release on a label to be determined, said Nelson, Hub City Stompers only original member.
On Sept. 10 in Boyd Park, the band will headline the main event of the fourth annual Hub City Sounds: ROCK New Brunswick, one of the expanded festival’s five events taking place throughout the weekend, which will include performances by a total of 18 New Brunswick and Central Jersey acts. ROCK New Brunswick marks the last gig for Pip, who will be replaced on skins by Behan. Hub City Stompers are seeking a keyboardist to play with them starting with a two-night stand with Mephiskapheles on Oct. 27 at the Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, also with the Jersey oi! band Broken Heroes, and Oct. 28 at Bowery Electric, New York City, also with the Brooklyn punk band 45 Adapters.
I recently chatted with Nelson about Hub City Stompers, as well as the mid-’80s to mid-’90s heyday of the New Brunswick and City Gardens scenes, gentrification’s impact on local music, and the misconception about skinheads often perpetuated by the media.
What is Dirty Jersey Hooligan Ska and how does it compare to other kinds of ska music?
The Dirty Jersey is just a reference to our Jersey pride and where we’re from and embracing the positive or negative views that people have of New Jersey. Hooligan Ska is more of a reference to us not being pigeonholed into that poppy, posi of checkers and plaid, the more modern third-wave stuff. When people hear the word ska, they have this image of this happy, skippy, vapid and aloof fun music, which it is. Ska is always supposed to be fun one way or another. Hooligan ska is more of a return to the real 2 Tone and traditional themes that weren’t always so happy-go-lucky.
Why the lineup change, especially in the midst of recording an album?
Our drummer is the only one who doesn’t live in New Jersey. He lives out in Lehigh Valley, PA, so as you can imagine, it’s a bit of travel for him to get here. I guess he feels he’s at a transitional part of his life … but he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. He’s put in five years of time.
Fortunately for us, our keyboard player’s first instrument is drums, so he’s just hopping behind the drums. But Joey already is on the record. We’re good to go. Everything’s laid down, so he’s on it. We’re looking for … a full-time keyboard player … multiple instruments would be encouraged, but we’ll take keys. We’ve existed as many as a nine-piece and small a five-piece, so we can adapt.
What is the title Haters Dozen a reference to?
It’s a reference to baker’s dozen because it’s going to be 13 tracks. We’ve also been seen as the black sheep of the ska scene. We’re not always in line with the whole poppy ska that some of the newer generation in the ska scene think that ska is supposed to be … Some people have this image of us as this darker horse in the scene. That and our connection to the skinhead scene, which, to this day, is somehow still misunderstood.
People have a narrow-minded view of the ska scene and think it’s supposed to be a bunch of people running around and running in a circle and singing about nothing, then I guess, you’re going to think, “What they hell are they?” So Haters Dozen is a reference to that as well … people who don’t get it.
After so many years of playing ska music, what is it about that style that still interests you, and how do Hub City Stompers keep it fresh and exciting?
You have to have the passion in the first place. I enjoy listening to the music and performing it. It’s an adventure to play music you created to other scenes of people. It’s something you have to have a certain chemistry for. I can think of practical reasons or allegiances where you’d have to stop, but short of that, I have a hard time racking my brain around why you wouldn’t want to do this even if you’re not making a ton of money. If you’re playing underground music, you’re not making a ton of money. It’s music that I enjoy very much. If I wasn’t in the band, I would like this music.
People say, “You could do the poppy ska thing, then you’d make more money,” but then it would be a chore for me. Then it would be a job. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror playing that crap that I don’t appreciate. That’s the whole point: I do appreciate the music, I appreciate the scene, and I appreciate the people who like it. That’s what keeps it interesting to me.
And while we’re not making a lot of money, we are making enough to self-sustain the band so that people aren’t going into the poorhouse … The band pays for everything.
You have tasty gigs coming up, including Hub City Sounds: ROCK New Brunswick. How does it feel to be headlining that festival in the year of its expansion? What does that mean to you?
It’s very cool given my memories of the New Brunswick music scene. It’s not the same as it was. Everything’s relegated to the basements now, so to have a larger event like this where there’s all kinds of different music is awesome because that’s the New Brunswick I remember, that’s the New Brunswick that I knew growing up seeing shows with the Souls and Bigger Thomas, Lifetime, and Lucy Brown. That was Brunfus, man. That was what I loved about it.
It got eaten up by corporate stuff. I’ve explained that in interviews: “You don’t understand what New Brunswick used to be. I wish you could have seen it before the money ate it up.” I was running around all over New Jersey going to shows, but New Brunswick was the epicenter. I was banned from City Gardens in 1994, so I was in New Brunswick all the time.
It’s a good idea to get old bands and new bands together, and all different genres. It’s a cool thing. That’s the kind of shows I like, when it’s all different stuff. I have my preferences, punk and hardcore, but there’s something about a mixed bill show that makes it so just not boring.
Several New Brunswick bands, such as Lifetime, Bouncing Souls, and members of dollys, have moved to Asbury Park and several other New Brunswick bands play in Asbury more than they play in New Brunswick because there is such a lack of venues in Hub City. What do you think can be done to remedy the lack of venues and by whom?
Nothing, just being realistic. Unless some person who came up in the ’80s or ’90s New Brunswick scene wins the lottery and is able to buy a building off the Barrood’s or rent it, I don’t know what can be done. It’s hard to fight monsters like the hospital, Johnson & Johnson, Rutgers and the builders downtown. That’s why everything is in the basements now. What can you honestly do about?
We have a song about that on our fifth [record] called “The Take Back.” And it’s not just here. It’s the gentrification of New York City, the destruction of the punk scene there in Lower Manhattan. What are you going to do against all that money? Money is a beast.
There have been more national acts who have come out of New Brunswick than any other city in the state. Does the City of New Brunswick, the authorities, have a responsibility to recognize its rock music history more or is Hub City Sounds and Hub City Music Festival enough?
No, it’s not enough. I can’t say that they should have a responsibility, but ideally, it’s probably more in their interest if they would realize considering what’s come out of this city, but they’re never going to see it that way because there are other things that they see that are more economically viable in their eyes. Their bottom line is very different from ours. It’s a shame because can you imagine how big a fest you could have with all the bands from New Brunswick? It would be ridiculous.
I’ve fantasized for years about some venue that would bring New Brunswick back, but just look around you. New Brunswick is not that New Brunswick anymore. And a lot of it is not just having a venue here. It’s the culture and feel of the place too. And that ain’t gonna be the same, just like in the Lower East Side and the East Village turned into freakin’ Princeton. Putting a venue there is pointless now anyway I guess.
How did City Gardens help to put Jersey on the musical map?
Look at everyone that played there, look at that happened there, look at what it is compared to now. Retrospect really slaps you in the face. It was very important to me to find this place where all these other liked-minded freaks and angry people would converge and listen to this music that we all loved and just go nuts for it. And the relationships made from that creating a bigger universe. And I met the New Brunswick people at City Gardens. And you found all the other scenes in New Jersey: the Shore scene, the 8 Ball Crew guys, the TriState Crew guys who were my friends back then. Philly and Delaware would come into Trenton. Just everything that spawned from was a universe unto its own. It’s pretty amazing to look back it at.
But it’s hard. I knew it was something special to me back then. It was so huge. There were so many people there, yet it was still underground. It was the minority of kids back then who were into punk. Pop concerts seemed to be advertised everywhere and there was no Internet, yet we still seemed to find each other. And that was a place where we knew we could find each other. And everyone that you wanted to see played there. Look at the damn flyers.
You’re pissed off at what you think the world is, what you think everybody else thinks the world is, and how you’re supposedly supposed to be. It became a world of its own. It’s not that you necessarily need to validate your thinking. You’re pretty sure shit’s fucked up, it’s nonsense: This is how society is supposed to be, this what you’re told to do, and this is how you’re told to live and believe. You know in your core, it’s a bunch of BS, but in your local little town, depending on where you are, you don’t see anyone else like that. Even meeting one other like-minded individual was cool and then going to a place where there’s a world of individuals, granted with different beliefs, but having the mentality, like, “We don’t play by the rules because the rules are BS.” It was a great feeling.
But I didn’t look like the rest of the people on Calhoun Street. I looked like that Nazi they’d seen on the news. Sometimes people would listen to reason and see the obvious and sometimes they wouldn’t. I was fightin’ Nazis in the club and fightin’ the homeboys outside the club.
Skinheads have been around since the late ’60s. How did the Nazi thing come into it, given that some of the first skinheads were young, working-class blacks in England?
It started as an offshoot of the Mods. The Mods went the paisley, acid-rock way, and others wanted to separate themselves from society more, and adopted the white working-class look with work boots and jeans. They wanted to separate themselves from society even more, so no better way to do that than to adopt the black culture that was in London at the time, the Jamaican immigrants, the sons and daughters of the rude boys and the rude girls, listening to reggae and ska. That was their musical identity, and they adopted some of their style. You had white skins. You had black skins too at the time.
It’s a complete contradiction. You’re calling yourself a skinhead, which the very roots of your supposed subculture are actually from black culture. They didn’t care. They were stupid enough to be Nazis in the first place. You think they’re going to care about that?
We fought them 20 years ago on the streets and in the clubs. This isn’t new to us. It’s old hat to me. It’s getting welcomed platform. During the last administration, boy, were they pissed. A darkie in office, boy, did that piss them off. So they’ve been simmering for eight years with that administration, now you’ve got this dude who’s turning a blind eye to everything. And they’re like, “Let’s do it. Let’s party.”
It’s a shame. I just wish skinheads would be skinheads behind what actually is involved in the skinhead culture: the working-class ideals, the music, the fashion, the sense of pride … When you bring white supremacy into it, you’re automatically making a contradiction to the scene you supposedly belong to … The word skinhead associates so much with racism and Nazis now, it’s so hard to even separate.
In my songs, I’m not preaching against racism. I’m making fun of it in Hub City Stompers lyrics. I don’t cry about it because that’s what the Nazis want. That gives them power. Don’t give them power. Laugh at them and crush them when they need to be crushed.
Catch Hub City Stompers at Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, NJ for “War At The Shore” Sept. 1 – Sept. 3, at Boyd Park New Brunswick, NJ for “Rock New Brunswick on Sept. 10, and at Wonder Bar on Oct. 27. For more information visit facebook.com/hubcitystompers.