It’s less than 24 hours before Boston’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones board their busses for a month-and-a-half cross-country trek that, for the fourth time in five years, will have them co-headlining the immensely popular punk-oriented Warped Tour. It also happens to be less than two weeks before the Bosstones, who spent the better part of the past decade signed to Mercury/Island/Def Jam, release A Jackknife to a Swan (SideOneDummy), their first full-length independent album of new material since 1990’s Devil’s Night Out (Taang!), and the first ever Bosstones album written and recorded without the help of departed founding guitarist Nate Albert.
In the meantime, Albert, who wrote the hooks for many of the Bosstones’ best-known tunes, has returned to musicmaking with the Blink-182-ish pop punk of his solo band the Kickovers. And while Dicky Barrett was helping introduce Albert’s replacement, Lawrence Katz, to the ways of writing Bosstones tunes, founding bassist Joe Gittleman was off working up material for his own solo project (he recently released the debut CD). In other words, whatever creative pressure there was on Barrett and the Bosstones to follow up the multi-platinum 1997 disc Let’s Face It (Mercury) with another big hit or two on 2000’s Pay Attention (Island), this time around the stakes may be even higher. Barrett, Gittleman, Katz, and the five other members of the band are going to have to prove that, with all the changes that have taken place over the past few years, the Bosstones are still a healthy, happy, functioning entity.
If any of this is weighing heavily on Barrett’s mind, it’d be hard to tell from the way he attacks his plate of steak tips at a corner bar near his home in the South End. Indeed, after all these years — something approaching 20 if you go back to the first few Bosstones shows at the Rat — he may look a little older and sound a lot wiser, but he’s still just as proud and happy to call himself a Bosstone as he was back in the day. And despite the penchant for self-depreciating comments he’s cultivated over the years to help navigate his way through the dozens and dozens of interviews he ends up doing every time the Bosstones put out a new album, he’s just as casually confident as ever — cool as the proverbial cucumber, despite the onset of the latest wave of summer heat and humidity.
"Yeah, I felt like there was a bone slipping in my hip," he jokes when I bring up the behind-the-scenes roller-coaster ride of ups and downs that the Bosstones have endured since they realized that Pay Attention wasn’t going to be the runaway hit that Let’s Face It was. "But," he’s quick to add, "it’s not a sob-story woe-is-me kind of thing. I think that people at Island/Def Jam, individually, even though they’re working within a corporation, are good people. Let’s Face It came out, did really well, and I don’t credit ourselves or our songs for that — it was just time. With Green Day all over the radio and Rancid on the radio and No Doubt blowing up into the hugest pop band of all time, it would have been hard for people not to look into what it is that we’d been doing for so many years. I think that if all that had happened when [1994’s] Question the Answers came out, then ‘Kinder Words’ would have been that year’s ‘The Impression That I Get.’ Or maybe ‘Impression’ is just a special song . . . I don’t know. But it was like Mercury looked around to see if they had a Green Day on their label and they suddenly realized, ‘Well, we have the Bosstones.’
"And that was fine, and it was fun, and at certain points it was nerve-racking. I was scared because our fan base was always bigger than our radio airplay or anything that goes on with MTV. And my least favorite bands in the world have been the ones that get hammered down your throat by the industry. But we sold records, and we bought houses, and our fans just said, ‘It wasn’t your fault; it couldn’t have happened to nicer guys.’ "
The split with Mercury, which had already been folded into the Island/Def Jam portion of the Seagrams/Universal conglomerate, was, by all accounts, much less traumatic for Barrett and the band than the departure of Albert. "The Washington Post ended up calling Pay Attention one of the best albums of the year that you probably won’t hear in 2000, which is pretty much the story of that album. I mean, we went in the studio and made Pay Attention while they were firing all these people who were involved in the making of Let’s Face It, telling us the whole time, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And then they decided to drop us without even hearing any of the demos for the next record, which is fine with me because I think it would have hurt my feelings if they had listened to a couple of songs and then decided to let us go."
The band landed on their feet at SideOneDummy, an imprint started by their current manager, Joe Sib, who himself is a veteran of the punk band 22 Jacks, and who has signed the Irish punk band Flogging Molly as well as Gittleman’s side project Avoid One Thing. But having already found a guitarist who could take Albert’s place on the road, they still had to face up to writing an album that could match the mix of muscle, melody, and brotherly mayhem that’s always characterized the best of the Bosstones, not to mention the horn charts, the seamless dynamic shifts, and the seasoned ska breaks that have defined the Bosstones’ sound since the very beginning.
"I think that a certain challenge comes with every record," Barrett muses. "I remember feeling that way with all of them. Before Let’s Face It, there was a lot of attention being given to lesser bands that were doing exactly what we’d been doing for years. And I wondered, ‘Can we do it?’ I told the president of Mercury at the time, Danny Goldberg, all about what our fans mean to us, and our integrity, and this and that. And he goes, ‘You’re just afraid to sell a million records.’ I was like, ‘You just fucking said that to the wrong motherfucker . . . I’m not afraid of anything.’ So there’s always been some kind of challenge with every record. You know, ‘Can we do it?’ ‘Can we take it on the road?’ ‘Can we do it without Nate?’ "
As an answer to that last question, A Jackknife to a Swan offers a resounding yes. Indeed, the Bosstones barely seem to have skipped a beat. As a songwriting partner for Barrett, Katz has simply taken over where Albert left off. And despite Gittleman’s commitments to his own project, he either saved the best stuff for A Jackknife to a Swan or just doubled his songwriting output without diminishing any of its quality. The ratio of ska to punk is a little higher here than on Pay Attention, but that’s by design: though Barrett doesn’t like to admit it, the band consciously cut back on the ska for Pay Attention because they’d been told by Island that ska was out and punk was in. (Indeed, at around the same point in time, No Doubt went so far as to eliminate ska altogether from their radio-friendly formula.) Apart from that, you’d be hard pressed to find a track on the new disc that wouldn’t sound right at home on any of the best Bosstone discs.
Well, except for the final track, which is an acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica-driven bluesy number that finds Barrett boldly going where the Bosstones have never been before. Like the Irish-flavored "Riot on Broad Street," from Pay Attention, "Seven Ways to Sunday" would seem to suggest that the Bosstones have a lot more musical life left in them than your average ska-punk outfit. But that shouldn’t come as any surprise to fans who have been following the band for the past decade or so. In fact, to the degree that both tracks reflect the band’s musical integrity, "Seven Ways to Sunday" is every bit as responsible for keeping Bosstone fans fervent as a punk-rocking number like "I Want My City Back" (an ode to the end of Kenmore Square as we once knew it) is.
"What I can say about this record is that we wanted the energy and the angst and the ‘who gives a fuck?’ attitude of our earlier records along with the more advanced and smarter songwriting that we’ve recently been able to pull off," Barrett explains. " ‘Seven Ways To Sunday’ was pretty much written by me with Joe helping me through it — it’s the ‘O Bosstones, Where Art Thou?’ track. And I don’t think I’ve ever fought harder for a song. I started writing it one day when I was hanging out with [former Morphine drummer] Billy Conway. We were doing something for television together. And it was really strange because I had this real Morphine kind of thing running through my head. I told him, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull it off, and I certainly don’t know if I’ll get any cooperation from the punk-rockers in my band.’ And he just said, ‘Stick with it . . . it’ll come.’ So I did."
Obviously exhilarated by the new-found freedom that being on a smaller label has afforded the Bosstones, Barrett barely seems surprised that the band have survived the trials and tribulations of the past two years. In fact, in the emerging Internet-supported infrastructure that’s open to indie labels and especially to groups who, like the Bosstones, already have a deep, solid bond with a fan base that’s several hundred thousand strong in the US alone, he and his band are looking at an open road full of all kinds of new opportunities. "If we sell as many copies of Jackknife to a Swan as we did of Pay Attention, then Ben Carr [the band’s long-time on-stage dancer, or, as he’s credited in the liner notes, "The Bosstone"] gets a new pair of dancing shoes. That’s the simple math of it. In the world of Universal Records, yeah, Pay Attention was a failure. But in their world, anything that’s not as big as Let’s Face It is a failure."
As for Barrett’s own plans, being the most visible member of the Bosstones would certainly make some kind of solo project a future possibility. But mustering as much sarcasm as possible, he responds, "People can barely tolerate me in the Bosstones. When I announce, ‘Here comes the Dicky Barrett solo project,’ it’ll be like, ‘Finally. . . finally he’s going to lose those talented guys. This is going to be great!’ "