“That song was based on the insignificance of what we truly are, up against the importance of what we are,” says Bosstones frontman Dicky Barrett. “Our place in the universe and who we think we are versus who we really are. It flip-flops back and forth between those two thoughts, ultimately landing on the importance of love and unity.”
The title was inspired by something Barrett’s dad liked to say back in the day: “It’s a wonderful day for the race.”
“I was always caught off guard,” says Barrett. “As a dopey kid, I would go, ‘What race?’ And he would always go, ‘The human race.’ It’s a tribute to him as well as a good message. We’re lucky to have what we have. We have this day, and we have who we are in ourselves. If that’s your starting point, that’s pretty damn good.”
Elsewhere on While We’re At It, the Bosstones’ 10th studio album and third with producer Ted Hutt, the politics are a little more explicit. The beat-driven “Divide” calls out a certain “unstable and erratic” leader, while “Here We Are” describes a nation in freefall over stabbing guitars.
“Hugo’s Wife” upends the notion that America was any better in the ‘50s. It’s all about Bosstones bassist Joe Gittleman’s grandfather Hugo Butler, a famed Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted during the communist witch hunts of the ’50s and forced to live in exile in Mexico with his wife, actress Jean Rouverol. The song ends with Barrett singing, “Political audacity that will go down in history / a lesson that we didn’t really learn.”
“I don’t think our politics are confusing,” says Barrett, who also serves as the announcer on Jimmy Kimmel Live! “I think people know where we stand and know the things we believe in. We say them, and we stand behind them.”
As much as While We’re At It reflects life in 2018, The Bosstones also want to offer fans an escape. The album kicks off with “Green Bay, Wisconsin,” a high-stepping romp about a Midwestern ska girl who quits her supermarket job and finds bliss at the Viva Lake Geneva Scooter Rally. Barrett says they were trying to write “the ultimate ska song,” and sure enough, the chorus references “One Step Beyond” by Madness and “Ranking Full Stop” by The English Beat.
Barrett grew up loving both of those British ska bands, who were part of the vehemently anti-racist 2 Tone movement. As luck would have it, While We’re At It drops the same day as Here We Go Love, the first new English Beat record since 1982. Upon learning of this coincidence, Barrett recounts the life-changing experience he had seeing the Beat open for The Pretenders when he was 17.
“The Pretenders put on a damn good show as I recall, but The English Beat was just everything to me,” Barrett says. “And then I had to have everything that was 2 Tone or ska from England. From there, I discovered the Jamaican music.”
The original ’60s Jamaican ska is known as the genre’s first wave, while 2 Tone represented the second. The Bosstones played a key role in what became known as third-wave ska, which began in the ’80s and achieved mainstream popularity in the mid-to-late ’90s, thanks to bands like No Doubt, Goldfinger, and Less Than Jake.
Whether we’ll ever see a fourth wave, it seems there’s renewed interest in ska at the moment. In the wake of Back to the Beach, The Bosstones will tour the country this summer and headline their very own Cranking and Skanking Fest in Worcester, Mass, in August. The lineup includes Jamaican legends Toots & the Maytals and L.A. third-wave pioneers Fishbone, who’ve reunited their classic lineup for the first time since the early ’90s.
“You can talk about the current political climate—I think people want to feel good this summer,” Barrett says. “Ska music is a way to do that. It’s worked in the past. Is it a coincidence? Maybe. As a guy that’s in a ska-punk band, am I hoping there’s some kind of resurgence? I don’t know. I’m going to do it anyway. I don’t need it to be a trend or be popular or anything. The Bosstones make Bosstones music whether it’s fashionable or not.”