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Eastern Standard Time

It's About Time...

by Julio Diaz

Eastern Standard Time are one of the most exciting, talented, and experienced ska-jazz bands around. Their 1998 release, Second Hand , was easily one of the year's ska highlights, a beautiful, masterful piece of work that wound up on a lot of year-end best of ska lists. Hardly surprising, considering the band came together when several ex-members of such seminal DC ska bands as the Skunks, the Checkered Cabs, and the Pietasters came together to play traditional ska music, something that was a rarity on the east coast at the time.

   The band's name, in fact, comes from a traditional ska tune -- a song written by the late trombonist Don Drummond and performed by the legendary Skatalites. Drummer James McDonald says the band chose the name because of the song, but doesn't necessarily think the song represents them. "It made sense because it was our time zone, and it was a great song that sounded like a good name for a band, as well," he says. "It wasn't something that could easily be confused with something else. I liked the way it sounded from the very beginning. Obviously, the song was a favorite, but we didn't take the direct inspiration for the band name from the song. It was sort of a coincidence. The other coincidence is that the time change had just taken place -- in fact, the first meeting we had, the three people that started the band, myself, [guitarist Matt] "Digital" [Fry], and [former frontman] Ted Morris, was on the day that the clocks changed. It's funny, because Digital, who named himself after a watch, is almost perennially late. I think he's never really on time -- except for that one day [of the meeting] when the clock changed, and he forgot to change his and actually showed up an hour early, which was on time. That's really where the name came from."

photo coutesy of http://www.easternstandardtime.com

   The band came together around the nucleus of McDonald (who'd previously been the drummer for the Skunks), Fry (guitarist for the Checkered Cabs), and Morris. "It's kind of ironic, the way we got together," McDonald reveals. "We hadn't known that any of us had left our other bands. We'd all left for different reasons. I had left the Skunks almost a year previously because we just had a difference of opinion about where the band was going to go. The band, at that point, was playing almost five nights a week, and making pretty good money for a ska band in those days, so it really wasn't outside the realm of possibility for us to quit our jobs and take it to the next level. They really weren't ready to do that, there was a lot of hemming and hawing, and finally, I said 'guys, I think this is too much, and I think I should step probably out, because I'm not going to be satisfied.' So I had a rather friendly parting with the Skunks, but apparently that wasn't so for the rest of the members of Eastern Standard Time. Chris Watt (bass) was fired from the Pietasters, and Digital left the Checkered Cabs -- they say they fired him, he says he quit -- but the upshot is, they were not on good terms, and a lot of baggage came along with that. Ted Morris was a person that I had been in touch with for years. He'd been a DJ in Los Angeles -- actually in Glenwood, California, but the station broadcast into the Los Angeles area -- and I'd known him from doing promotional stuff for the Skunks. [After Morris moved to DC,] I bumped into him, totally by chance, on the street, and he said, 'hey, are you interested in joining a band?' I explained to him my situation with the Skunks, and told him, 'I'm really not so sure I want to get involved in something that from the ground level, starting something, that's going to be just for fun.' He said, 'well, I have Chris Watt from the Pietasters and Digital from the Checkered Cabs,' and at that point, I was like, 'well, you can't really go wrong -- that's the strongest ska rhythm section that DC has to offer, why don't we do it?' So we all sat down together and came up with the band."

   Morris, it turns out, was a big influence in the band's formative days. "Ted did toasting and various other things," McDonald explains. "He was, in a sense, a selecter, he would tell us which songs to play next, and interface with the audience, and look real nice. He had a selection of really, really cool clothes. That sounds really shallow, but when you're in show business, it's important. [He provided] a lot of guidance -- I mean, he was a DJ, he knew exactly what people wanted to hear. The reason he wanted to start a traditional band was he moved to DC because his wife got a job there, and basically found that there was no traditional ska whatsoever. It was a really big thing on the west coast."

   With a rhythm section and a frontman in place and a sound in mind, the nascent band set out to fill out the roster. Initially, they found help in a most unexpected place. McDonald elaborates, "when we got together, since I was on pretty good terms with my old band, I just kind of roped them in, and brought the Skunks' horn section on board, as well as the original Skunks keyboard player. We also added a tenor saxophone player who was quite renowned in the jazz scene, by the name of Fred Foss. Fred played with all kinds of people -- Lionel Hampton, Sun Ra, all kinds of people -- so it was really nice to have someone of that caliber, of course."

   While the early line-up met with some success, the band naturally went through some growing pains. "Basically, it became too much of a drag for [the Skunks' horns and keyboardist] to be able to play in two bands at the same time," McDonald states, "and obviously, the Skunks were their first priority, so we needed to find our own horn section. We found our current piano player -- on a tip from somebody, we went up to this bar, and here's this blind guy playing the piano while a dwarf tap dances on the bar! It was so surreal, it was like one of these complete, alienationist, German, turn-of-the-century Vaudeville-type things. We basically came up to him and asked, 'are you interested in playing in this band?' We described it to him, and told him who was on board, and he was like, 'yeah!' and he came to practice and never left, and that's how we got Eric Schwarz on piano. The horn section kind of fell out in different ways. Eventually Fred left the band -- he put out a solo record, and that did very, very well for him, and it became difficult for him to do the band. We picked up various horn players along the way, from several other bands, too. There were a couple of bands in DC -- one called the Classifieds, which split, and in the middle of that split, we got their trombone player, Phil Cooper -- and from a band called the favorites, who at one time had been a part of the Downbeat Rulers, we got a trumpet player by the name of Franklin Wade, who was with us until last year. Actually, at that point, Elias Rodriguez, who was the original trumpet player in Eastern Standard Time, and had been in the Skunks along with me, came back to the band. From the ashes of a band called the GLG-20's, we added on alto and baritone saxophones, Kristy Lupejkis and Stephen Petix. Also from the Downbeat Rulers, we stole one of their trombone players, that's how we got Mark Bultman. Chris Watt did leave in April or May of this year, and was replaced by my brother, Robbie McDonald, but we had known for over a year that Chris was going to have to leave the band. He lives almost an hour and a half south of us, and was coming up for practice every week as well as playing all the shows. He had just bought a house, and it was pretty tough, because he spent so much time on the road. We still keep in very close contact with him. We really did not want him to leave -- it took us a year to find a replacement for him, out of respect for his wishes."

   Unsurprisingly, a band with such stellar talent and history was successful in drawing hometown crowds almost from the start, but McDonald feels people really weren't going out to see EST on the strength of their old bands. "It was kind of interesting," he recalls, "because we did make small mention on our flyers and so forth, 'Eastern Standard Time, featuring former members of blah-blah-blah.' We thought we were going to really have to do that, but we found that after a few shows, it wasn't necessary anymore, we had our own crowd. I think that was partially due to the fact that Ted was a very big mouth, in the sense that he was always talking to everyone, he was always talking about the band, as well as all the rest of us. I think that also there were no other traditional bands [in the area] at the time. We certainly gained a huge skinhead following, we gained a huge scooterist following -- almost overnight, just by virtue of the fact that we were playing traditional music."

   The traditional sound was the band's bread and butter, and while it's still a vital aspect of their music, the band slowly found itself migrating to a more jazz-oriented sound, a variation that's become known as ska-jazz. "Actually, migrating into the ska-jazz format came several months -- almost half a year -- after starting the band." McDonald reveals. "When we had several jazz players in the band, it became a natural progression. We also, to a certain extent, felt that we needed to say, 'this is what we're doing with this recipe, but none of us are Jamaican.' At the time, it was 1995-96, not 1964. [We wanted to] put forth our own experiences and culture."

   With a distinctive sound and the critical success of their debut album, you'd think that the band would have gathered a huge following by touring, and they have -- in Europe. The band has largely concentrated their touring efforts on the other side of the Atlantic, which has left them relatively obscure in their home country, at least outside the DC area. This might seem to be more difficult than slogging it out on the homefront, but McDonald says, "it's a combination of two important things. First of all, I went to college in Germany, and consequentially, I had a lot of contacts in the scene over there, but also, I had been trying for years to build the groundwork to take the Skunks over to Europe, because I've always wanted to tour Europe with a band. So, I had an awful lot of things ready to go when I had a band that was ready to go over there. The second part of the equation is that the style of music we play is very well received in Europe. In many cases, while jazz was being looked down upon in the States, it's been treasured in Europe. We've been able to go over playing a mixture of ska and jazz, and play some of the top jazz clubs in Europe, which is quite an honor." McDonald weighs the pros and cons of this approach, adding "whether or not it's a good idea, or was a good idea in retrospect, is kind of relative, because we did spend so much time concentrating on building the band in Europe that we're sort of less known in the United States than we probably would have been had we spent an equal amount of time touring here. I think that that has been the downfall, that in our own country, people may know the name of the band, or might have heard one song here or there, but they haven't experienced us live because our touring's been limited to New England and the Midwest and Canada. We've pretty much realized now that it's very important for us to be seen, not just heard, because there's an awful lot that can be solidified in somebody's mind, whether or not they like a band or remember a band by actually seeing the band play. So, on the one hand, it's a very good thing that we've concentrated on Europe -- I would say that we're a fairly well known and established American band there, we sell as many records there as we do in the States. The downside is that fewer people know us in the States than probably could have, but you can 'could've, should've, would've' yourself to death."

   The band intends to redress any perceived imbalance in the next year by touring fairly extensively in both the States and Europe. In fact, we'll get a chance to make up for lost time with the band here in the Southeast at the end of this month, as the band comes down for an extended visit. At press time, they're confirmed for November 26th at Jack Rabbit's in Jacksonville, the Space Coast Arts Festival in Cocoa Beach on November 27th, the 28th in Ft. Lauderdale at Fu-Bar, the 30th at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, December 1st at the Covered Dish in Gainesville, and December 2nd at the Cow Haus in Tallahassee. Try to fit EST into your schedule -- you'll be glad you did!

   That said, the band also plans on entering the studio early next year for the long-awaited follow up to Second Hand , as well, which will again be on the DC-based Beatville label, home of many of the most exciting ska releases these last two years. Perhaps in 2000, it'll finally be time for the US to catch up with what Europe already knows -- no matter where you go, for the best in ska-jazz, it's always Eastern Standard Time.

   For up to the minute information, check out http://www.easternstandardtime.com.