As well as putting on the event, Sean also leads the ska and rock steady band Phoenix City All-stars who draw inspiration from the likes of Studio One and The Skatalites. Sean has also launched new record label Phoenix City Rec.Co.
M asked Sean about the history of The London International Ska Festival, songwriting and inspiration as well as some top ska selections.
What was it about ska and reggae that attracted you to the music?
I was a little young for the two tone movement but I remember watching The Specials Ghost Town video on Top of The Pops and it really grabbing me. It was a perfect video for an era-defining song. From there I really got into the whole Specials, Madness, Selecter and The Beat thing. They were all very immediate bands with immediate songs, with a great look, style and brilliantly written songs. Through them I discovered original Jamaican ska and reggae artists like Prince Buster, Toots and The Maytals, The Pioneers, The Skatalites and Dandy Livingstone which opened up a whole new world for me.
What’s your definition of ska and how does it differ from other Jamaican styles of music?
Well it was Jamaica’s first very own musical form. It Inspired by rhythm and blues, mento and other latin styles, but it was Jamaica’s own – Invented on and unique to the island.. Ska is a hybrid of sounds that emphasized the offbeat. It was and is such an optimistic and jump up sound that coincided with the optimism Jamaican independence brought. 50 years on it still sounds just as fresh and vibrant.
What inspired you to become a musician yourself and play your favourite music?
I was lucky to grow up with a group of friends who all wanted to be in a band. We were playing gigs and recording by the age of 14 and going to see the likes of Madness and UB40. Listening to old two tone records was the inspiration for us to start a band.
How do you create new music, do new songs come from a lyrical or rhythmic inspiration?
Both. I’ll either have a bassline or melody come to me and will build a song around that or a lyrical idea will arrive first and I’ll build the chords later. 99% of the time if a lyrical idea comes to me it will have a melody already attached to it.
Where did the idea for the International Ska Festival come from?
A combination of youthful enthusiasm and naivety. I was 17 when I launched the first one at The Fridge in Brixton in 1988. We had a great scene back then with the likes of Potato 5, Hotknives, The Deltones, Forest Hillbillies, Trojans, Maroon Town and my own school band The Loafers. The late greats, Laurel Aitken and Desmond Dekker were both still gigging. No one told me I couldn’t do it, so I gathered all the bands together that I could and put them in Brixton. Without a penny spent in advertising we packed the place out and the London International Ska Festival was born.
Are there any particular highlights lined-up for the festival that you would like to tell us about?
Dandy Livingstone is making a world exclusive comeback show. He wrote the original Rudy, A Message To You and had chart hits with Suzanne Beware of The Devil and Big City. He was also a prolific producer and pretty much launched Trojan Records producing the likes of Nicky Thomas and Tony Tribe, including his great take of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine long before UB40 turned it into the global smash. We’ve got lots of other Jamaican legends playing; Rico Rodriguez, Owen Gray (who was the second artist ever on Island Records and also the second artist on Studio One), The Pioneers, Freddie Notes (who did Montego Bay) and Dave Barker (from Dave and Ansell Collins). From the two tone era we’ve got Neville Staple and Jerry Dammers from The Specials and Neol Davies from The Selecter. In addition we have lots of contemporary artists from all over the world. I think we’ve got 50+ artists now. Last year had a very special atmosphere, so I’m very much looking forward to that again.
What do you think is the future for ska music?
I think it’ll stay the way it’s always been. Every now and then you get a resurgence in popularity and the odd chart hit, or The Specials or Madness reforming, but that aside it’s always there on a global level. There are scenes all over the world, from the Phillipines to Mexico, all over South America to Japan, it’s never gone away. For The London International Ska Festival this year we’ve sold tickets to Russia, Australia, Mexico, Dubai, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, USA and all over UK and the rest of Europe – it’s incredible. As a musical form it’s had its critics over the years, but I love the fact that ska has influenced and been picked up by every generation. It’s incredible how far it’s spread and how many people have been influenced by it.
Can you give us five ska classics for the uninitiated to check out?
Eddie Perkins – My Darling
Tommy McCook & the Supersonics – Ska Jam
The Wailers – Simmer Down
Jackie Mittoo – El Bang Bang
Phoenix City All-stars ft.Dave Barker – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Phoenix City Allstars will be performing at the O2 Islington Academy on 4 May. The 7″ single Phoenix City Allstars featuring Dave Barker – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is exclusive to the London International Ska Festival.