On the new Mighty Mighty Bosstones album, making a ’90s video, and pandemic recording
There are many things that COVID-19 has taught us since it took over our everyday lives last year, and one of those things is how vital human connection is. You can only get so far with a phone call, a message on social media, or a video chat.
Sometimes, the best thing is to sit in the same room with a friend and shoot the breeze for an hour or two. In celebration of this sacred contact, and how much it is needed in these crazy times, Boston ska-punk legends the Mighty Mighty Bosstones released their 11th album, When God Was Great, via the Epitaph Records affiliate Hellcat Records on May 7. As you should always expect, it’s full of big cohesive rock sound driven by horns while maintaining the essential roots and feel that have made them one of the best bands to ever emerge from New England.
Vocalist Dicky Barrett and I recently spoke about how the album was made during the pandemic, creating a music video inspired by a film and a rock opera, the growth of podcasting, and of course, his feelings about virtual shows.
When God Was Great has a theme that centers on a collective sense of loss and the value of human connection. Was this theme conceived before COVID-19 changed everything? Or has the pandemic played a part in the songwriting?
The album was pretty much made in real time, so what was going on before the lockdowns, COVID-19, the pandemic and all that was what we always do. We were sort of loosely writing with each other, and when we came up with any musical ideas we would share them back and forth. We would usually do that for a certain amount of time and then we would see what we’ve got. When everything hit, we found ourselves with a lot more time and we were all in our various homes and places while trying to figure out what to do. Simultaneously, and probably because of the situation, we became a lot more prolific and that’s sort of what we did.
The sharing of ideas and what each of us were coming up with, which started out with us communicating with our closest friends, ramped up into a furious sort of pace. As things were happening we were commenting, taking notice, and I was writing lyrics about it.
To answer your question, it’s both yes and no. At that point, everyone was sending me stuff and sharing stuff with other guys in the band, then we figured that we had enough stuff for an album and it came really fast. It moved really quickly and we wanted to get it recorded, which was a difficult task during the crisis so we called an expert in Brett Gurewitz at Epitaph Records and he said that he’d be happy to help us make the record and we did.
We didn’t want to run from what we were dealing with and what we were experiencing. On the same note, we wanted it to be about this particular time but we also wanted it in the aftermath and after all is said and done to still feel like a pretty strong record. I think we achieved that.
I think you did too. How would you describe the experience of making this album versus the prior Bosstones releases? Were a lot of things done remotely with Brett’s help? Were you guys able to socially distance in the studio?
We got into a studio in California called the Ship Studio, which is owned by Tim Armstrong from Rancid who was the co-producer of the record with Ted Hutt. We just kind of put our heads down, guys flew in, and the studio is really, really cool. It’s an old, old studio but it’s also state of the art, it was owned by Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers before it was owned by Tim. It’s been passed from recording enthusiast to recording enthusiast throughout the years, the place was built back in the 1920s. We got ourselves in there and it was strange but wonderful, I was happy to be around my friends and there was nobody on the streets outside with things being shut down but there we were hammering away at what we considered to be a pretty damn good record.
That’s great that you guys were able to get together and do it rather than having to do it remotely or resort to doing things out of the ordinary.
There were certain elements of writing the record that we did remotely and there were certain elements that we used with certain guests on the record that were done remotely, but we stepped our game up when it came to home recording. We also knew that a lot of other musicians did the same thing, so calling a guy to give us a vocal track in the modern day is a lot better than it was even two years ago.
I can definitely tell. The music video for “I Don’t Believe In Anything” that came out in March has you guys riding scooters and dirt bikes out in the desert. Where was the video filmed at and what inspired the mix of this biker gang and post-apocalyptic theme?
What we were thinking was Mad Max meets Quadrophenia, that’s really what our bassist Joe Gittleman said. He just threw that out there and we ended up calling it “Mod Max,” so wherever that would take us. We pitched it as an idea to some friends of ours who run some big studios in California who have always been really good to us. We just laid that on them and they started putting it together. It was filmed in two different places—one place is really worth looking up and it’s called Bombay Beach, California, on something called the Salton Sea. Its Wikipedia page is pretty damn interesting, it’s a town on the bottom of California that’s completely abandoned.
Yeah, people just left it and it became contaminated which had something to do with the sea. You can read about it, so look that up. The other place was in some of the desert in Arizona with some of the dirt bike guys. We combined those two places to create this sort of futuristic end of times landscape and we wanted the mods and the scooters to look pristine from the ’60s but also super sharp. We just had fun with that and the kid that’s in the video is the son of one of the cameramen. I threw a leather jacket on him and all of a sudden he became a pivotal part of the whole story.
It was pretty cool and he was pretty good. We figured that this kid could be the link between the mods and the dirt bike guys and what the connection is. It was fun to make, and another thing we wanted to do was to make it the way videos used to be made, with there being some sort of story going on. We wanted it to feel like a good old-fashioned ’90s video where there’s something going on in it and there’s a story being told. It’s not necessarily the same story as the song but it’s reminiscent of the great golden era of MTV, it’s in that tradition which is what we were doing.
One of the many things that has occurred during the pandemic is the uptick of podcasts. As a person who has had an extensive career in radio and this type of format, what are your thoughts on this? Are you concerned about podcasting becoming oversaturated? Do you even dig the platform at all? Are you more of a purist when it comes to radio?
I’m probably a purist when it comes to radio, but I appreciate podcasting and all that it has to offer. With it you’ll find yourself 15 minutes into something thinking, What am I doing listening to this? I couldn’t care less, but content is content. I think the fine art of broadcasting is being watered down, for sure. It’s sort of like if anybody can do it, then who’s the best at it, will they rise to the top and where will that show its face? The easy answer is that I don’t give a shit, but the less obvious answer is that when things get watered down then things are watered down.
Having said that, there’s lots of podcasts and lots of different things I like to listen to. When I was a kid, there were three television channels and they had something else called UHF. On that you could watch The Three Stooges and Creature Double Feature and we would watch those three channels, that was it. Radio back then was really good, there was WBCN, WCOZ, and all of the AM stations. Nowadays, as far as things to watch and things to listen to, there’s so much.
With the new album being out, what are the Bosstones’ plans for the next few months? Do you plan on doing any virtual shows? Or do you plan on just waiting until it’s hopefully safe to have live music again later in the year?
To continue with the theme of being old man Barrett, when it comes to virtual shows or live streaming or anything like that we don’t want to be part of it. That’s not what we signed on for and that’s not rock-and-roll as I know it to be. I spent a lot of years touring the whole country as well as the entire world telling people that we, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, couldn’t do it without them, and I don’t really want to have them log on to be like, Hello, surprise! We could do it without you. It doesn’t feel good to me, other people have done it and they’ve found success and if people enjoy those then that’s great, good for them. A live music experience as I know it to be is that we all get in the same room, we start playing and we experience it that way.
If it’s a whole new world and those days are gone, I’ll accept that, but to reinvent the live music experience wheel, I don’t want to be one of those scientists or professors. I’ll leave that to someone else, but if someone says, Hey, there’s the stage and there will be people in this room, then I’ll get on that stage.
Now having said all that, I think there’s going to be a time when people are ready to get back into venues and to see live music the way we’ve always known it to be and what we fell in love with. I think people are probably going to take chances and they’re willing to risk their life, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be for us, so time will tell.
Read a longer version of this interview plus our review of In Defense of Ska by Aaron Carnes at digboston.com.