If you don’t remember the checker-loving, trumpet- and trombone-blaring ska sensations called The Mighty Mighty Basstones all that well, you’ll feel like a pretty big fucking idiot after listening to their breakthrough single "The Impression That I Get"—a song that launched their 1997 album Let’s Face It into platinum status. (And, most famously soundtracked scenes in Chasing Amy and Step Brothers.)
Pretty much anyone who was an ardent follower of the punk rock scene in the 90s and early 2000s was at least something of a ska fan, catching bands like the Pietasters to Catch 22, to Big D And The Kids Table play at many of the popular punk festivals, including the Vans Warped Tour. Punk and ska have always been intertwined—though ska has somewhat fallen out of favor these days. Bands like Rancid and NOFX who are key players in the scene, found a way to meld both styles into one. I even saw emo hopefuls (at the time) The Starting Line open for The Mighty Mighty Bosstones back in 2001, a pretty a-typical pairing.
But none of those other bands had a member quite like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ dancer, Ben Carr, a Bostonian who is also a former employee of Harmonix, the creators of Rock Band. "Skanking" his ass off as his full-time job since the band formed in 1983, and maybe throwing in a few backup vocals from time to time, Ben continues to dance around stage and flail his arms, even though the band only plays about 10 shows a year now. He also serves as the band’s sort-of tour manager, booking hotels and taking on most of the other tour duties for the whopping 8-member band. Now, after 10 studio albums—their latest of which being 2011’s The Magic of Youth—Carr remains one of the only four original band members that are still with the Bosstones, 31 years later. We caught up with Carr to talk about going from a roadie to Bosstones' "dancing guy," the dangers of his job, and why the band is always so damn dressed up.
Who's idea was it to add a dancer to the Bosstones? How did you end up in the band?
It was a very organic happening. Short story is, I was a roadie, basically. A club said you gotta be 21 or in the band so the guys were like “He’s in the band!” and they said well you gotta get up on stage now and I just kind of went with it. I knew all the songs, I would go to every practice so I sort of got up there and jumped around and sang some backup vocals just so I could stay in the show and not get kicked out.
Were you all just friends or did you know anyone particular in the band?
Me, Joe Gittleman and our original guitarist Nate Albert were all friends around freshman year, eighth grade, around that era. There was always music in our lives and it started developing. When Dicky came into our lives just from the Boston music scene, he made us realize that if we want to be in a band, we have to be serious and practice and really try for something—so he was the one who kind of “gelled” it all together.
What did your parents think when you told them you were gonna dance in a ska band as your career?
It kind of developed, it wasn’t like “I dropped out of college, Mom. I’m gonna be a dancer.” It was nothing like that. It started back in high school and we were just hanging out, being friends, and my parents were very supportive. They were sort of alternative themselves and grew up in the hippie culture, before punk rock was what it was, so they were all about going against the grain and following your own “beat” if you will.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Were music and dancing always a passion?
I wanted to be an Astronaut or a Fireman.
Do you have any formal training in dance or do you just wing it and do what feels right in the moment?
I’ve never had any other dance experience, The Bosstones is my first and only girlfriend. I do a fair amount of winging it. In fact one of my signature moves is the "Hoof and Wing Step." picture a quick shuffle into a rotating bunny hop. You're right though I have to be able to go with what feels right in the moment. In my line of work you need to be able to think on your feet. You need to be able to do everything on your feet.
Do you ever get too tired to keep on dancing during a show? Have you ever injured yourself while dancing and/or danced through any injuries before?
I did miss 3 ½ songs once because I fell asleep but I was in another room in a different part of the building and no one knew where I was so that’s on me. I'm constantly getting hurt, though. Ankles need to be taped, knees need to be iced, blisters need tending. Sucking it up and powering through a twisted ankle or pulled hamstring is the name of the ska-dancing game. You’re up there and you just gotta do it. You maybe change a step or two but you don’t leave the stage. I try to remember to stretch, but sometimes I forget that even.
What do you think your dancing adds to the band's dynamic and live presence?
It takes away the pressure of Dicky having to jump around. Nobody else has to jump around, really, I’m jumping around for them. They can all concentrate on their instruments and I take that pressure off. It sort of gives the audience something to feed on, you know? How many times have you been at a show where you’re like, “No one else is jumping around, nobody is dancing, the band is kind of just staring at their shoes, I guess I will.” You know, my dancing is kind of like saying, “It’s ok to dance, it’s ok to move around. We’re doing it, you guys do it!”
What's going on in your head while you're dancing up there?
It could be anything from “I wish that person would put their camera down and enjoy the show” to “Did I remember to turn off the coffee maker?” to “Oh, I don’t have my glasses on, I can’t read the setlist. I hope I know the songs.” Sometimes I just end up spacing out and I don’t even realize I’m doing what I’m doing anymore.
Why are you guys always dressed so formally?
If people are going to pay their hard-earned money to come see us, we’re gonna dress up for them. We’re gonna look good. You know, you don’t go to your grandma’s house for Sunday dinner and wear cutoff shorts and a dirty t-shirt right? Yeah, it’s an event, people are coming to see a show, we’re putting on a show.
Have you ever had any stage fright? How did you deal with it?
I don’t get stage fright with the band, but I can’t get up in front of a group or room of people and speak. I have stage fright that way, but with the band it’s a different thing, a different energy.
Your song "The Impression That I Get" can be heard on TV, at weddings, and pretty much everywhere else. How does it feel to be a contributing factor to such a timeless hit?
I'm very proud of the work my band does and the music The Mighty Mighty Bosstones have created. It's a huge part of my life and I've been considered THE Bosstone by many, for years now. Our music is made with passion. The guys that write the songs write it based on what they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing, they’re not writing based on a formula. They’re not writing songs for radio, they’re not writing songs for a record company, they’re writing songs for our fans and themselves so it’s all heart. It’s all emotion, it’s all them. You can hear it, you can tell. It’s all from the heart, it’s all pure. It’s been 30 years and every tour has been awesome and blends together. It’s awesome to be with my best friends and brothers and to tour and to be able to do it for this long.
What was it like to be featured in Clueless? Did anyone get lucky with Alicia Silverstone?
[Laughs] I can’t talk about that! I’m gonna take the fifth on that one. Uh, it was great to be involved in a cult classic, although we didn’t know it was going to be such a cult hit at the time. But when we were approached by the director [Amy Hecklering], who did Fast Times At Ridgemont High, when you got credentials like that it’s a no-brainer to get on board. It was great to be part of that.
When you’re dancing at home, what do you listen to? Do you find yourself inventing new moves and having to remember them for shows?
I don’t dance at home, but right now I’m listening to a Descendents station on Pandora which has the Descendents and Bad Religion and NOFX and all this sort of West Coast punk. Yesterday I was listening to a Biggie Smalls station, so I really listen to everything. I spend more time trying to remember the old moves. I danced at a few weddings like anyone else would but for the most part the majority of my dancing is done on stage during Mighty Mighty Bosstones shows.
Do you play any instruments? Are you involved in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ songwriting process?
When we are recording music I am with my band in the studio. I enjoy the camaraderie. I like to say I've danced on every Bosstones album. I throw in some background vocals here or there. I’m usually hanging out. In the early days I would go on the beer runs, but we kind of cut back on that. I’m there as part of the group, giving my feedback. The band is the band and everyone’s stake in it is pretty high, so we’re all in when it comes to songwriting and recording.
You guys used to say New York was like your second home. What were some of the venues you loved to play back then that aren’t around anymore?
We played Roseland Ballroom a bunch of times and that just got demolished. We only played CBGB’s once but that was like the rat of New York. Coming up, Murphy’s Law took us under their wing and took us out on the road for the first time so a lot of our peers and people we looked up to came out of New York and that’s why it was like our second home. It’s hard to compare anything to Boston, but New York has a pretty big fan energy as well.
As you know, ska music bred a unique form of dancing called "skanking"—who do you think does it or did it the best?
I would think the original Jamaican Rude Boys of the 60s were master at skanking but the English Two-Tone movement of the 70s seemed to know what they were doing as well. Nowadays, I’d have to say the Less Than Jake guys are all up on it, and Streetlight Manifesto. Gwen Stefani is actually pretty good too.
Do you still work for Harmonix, the creators of Rock Band? Is that why there’s a Mighty Mighty Bosstones song in Rock Band 2?
I was doing some behind-the-scenes tour manager stuff in their office, just making sure everything is up and running. They made a dance game and didn't put me in it…. I am no longer with the company.
Who do you think would be most likely to beat you in a game of Dance Dance Revolution?
Our trombone player Chris Rhodes could probably beat me. I just dance my dance, I can’t dance anyone else’s.
Have you ever gotten in the way of a fellow band member or tripped on any cords?
I don't remember ever tripping on anything and those guys get in my way as far as I'm concerned.
Have you ever experienced any criticism?
Everyone questions it, like “What does that guy do?” but I ignore it, because this is what I do and if people don’t understand it, they don’t understand it. I’m not going to hold that against them. But yeah, sometimes people don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing.
Have you ever had anything thrown at you from the crowd?
Sure. Bottles and shoes and drinking glasses. I don’t feel like I’m targeted, I just feel like people are throwing stuff because they’re morons.
Where are the best ska fans located?
Is ska music still relevant? What’s in store for the future of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones?
I'm not sure if ska music is still relevant or ever really needs to be relevant all I know is it's always really good. Ska is always around, there’s always the undercurrent of ska and there’s always a new band that pops their head up. It’s never gone away and it will never go away, we’re always gonna be there. I don’t know the next “big” ska band, no, but they’re out there lurking.
Michael Haskoor is a writer living in New York. He's on Twitter - @Tweetskoor.