"The Sound of Ska Makes People Feel Like They're Connected"
An interview with New Orleans ska band Bad Operation
Daniel” D-Ray” Ray slides through his trombone lick while resting comfortably on bassist Greg Rodrigue’s shoulders, who, by the way, is slowly spinning in a circle. Rodrigue laughs and struggles to keep Ray steady the duration of his horn part. Behind them, zoomed in at an almost monster scale is drummer Robert Landry pounding away on his part, while a separate shot of Landry on the far left, has him skanking to the music at full intensity. When the camera cuts back to the full band, a psychedelic pattern of black and white lines swirls in the background while at least two shots of each member are clustered into the tight frame, making the 5-piece band look like a huge chaotic mass of people enjoying music with complete abandon. Which, at the moment, is quite appealing.
This was New Orleans ska band Bad Operation’s debut to the world, their fun, claustrophobic video for “Perilous,”—released in October—an infectious mid-tempo ska song with gritty 2 Tone grooves, joyous yet vulnerable vocals, and a steady, driving ska rhythm and half-time breaks that demands anyone in earshot drop what they’re doing and start dancing immediately.
The group announced its existence online on March 11 this year, and then said little else until October when they dropped this brilliant black and white video (and one of the best ska songs of the year.) Even if they were completely unknown, their video, filmed in a warehouse at Urban South Brewery in August (and edited by Thou’s Mitch Wells) captured something sorely missing during our global pandemic from months of a depressing lockdown and for many people, complete social isolation: The sense of community you feel at a ska show.
“People are thriving for human connection. Ska has always been uniquely powerful in its ability to unite and connect people. Even just the sound of ska makes people feel like they're connected to something,” Rodrigue says. “We're interacting with people digitally, but I think people can feel our energy. They can feel it through the sound. They can feel it through the video. It's been good.”
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Around the same time Bad Operation released “Perilous,” they announced that their self-titled debut album would release on December 18th. With no live shows to promote themselves, just a string of successive videos all shot in black & white and with equally impressive ska grooves, they’ve managed to make themselves an important band in a year with several impressive ska releases, including some by popular ’90s acts.
And rightfully so. The group’s songwriting within a strictly-ska sound is incredibly nuanced, with the interplay of guitar, trombone, bass, and keys creating subtly complex layers, with parts that weave in and out at times, adding a heightened sense of dynamics, punctuated by the raw instrumentation. But none of it strays from its core mission of making you feel like jumping out of your seat and dancing. They make ska that sounds triumphant, the kind that’s only possible after struggle; happiness that’s aware of the darkness that lurks around the corner.
As Bad Operation prepares for the release of their debut album, people in the ska scene are paying attention. But what’s surprising about the group is that they’ve never even played a show.
They tried. The whole goal of the band when they formed in late 2019 was to record some tunes and play a couple of shows. It was a low stakes endeavor.
“I remember having a conversation. ‘We're going to play two shows, release an EP, and then we're never going to do it again. Op Ivy did it. Let's do it,’” says Landry. “There was no real band goals.”
The group recorded 8 tracks and booked themselves to play New Orleans coffee shop Hey Café on March 12th. Guitarist Brian Pretus, a member of popular local hardcore band PEARS was supposed to head out on tour a few weeks after the show. The members of Bad Operation wanted to have this one fun gig, and when Pretus got back from tour in May, they could finish the record and figure out what they wanted to do next, if anything.
Like most of us, they were surprised when a pandemic overtook the world and shut down live music. On the day of their show, things were unclear, but escalating quickly. Hours before the show was supposed to start, they texted back and forth with each other, trying to figure out if it was safe or not. To top things off, Ray was running a fever. He ended up being fine, but they decided to not take any chances and to just cancel the show.
Soon PEARS canceled their tour as well. During those first couple of months of lockdown, Bad Operation didn’t do much of anything. Everything felt off and it was hard to feel motivated. By late Spring, they started talking again. Now that the world had completely flipped upside-down, it was time to figure out what to do with these Bad Operation recordings.
The group was very new, but the members' roots in the genre were deep. From 2004 till 2010, Rodrigue played in New Orleans ska band Fatter Than Albert. Ray joined in 2007 and also played in other groups like Samurai Deli, Emergence, and The Flaming Tsunamis. During this same time period, Landry played in local ska band Angry Banana. On a near-weekly basis, they played packed local shows in New Orleans thriving 2000s ska scene and had the time of their lives.
Eventually, they moved on to other genres. In 2012, Ray, Rodrigue, and Landry, along with guitarist Josh Campbell formed indie/post-punk four-piece All People, a great, emotive, and serious guitar-driven band.
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As time passed, the three-former scenesters talked about their love for their ska years. In 2018, at a joint bachelor/bachelorette party that Ray and his partner were having, Rodrigue told his bandmates that they should form a ska cover band. “People want to hear the hits. We're going to show up and just do that. And we're going to make money,” Rodrigue recalls. The idea sounded fun, even if nothing came of it right away.
Instead, Rodrigue, Landry, and Pretus started the mostly punk band The Rooks. Ray would hop on the organ occasionally. Their collective love for ska kept popping up, to the point that they discussed making a “Rooks ska record.” They invited friend and local guitarist Dominic Minix to sing lead vocals. He played with Christian Scott, Nicholas Payton, Solange, as well as with his own jazz-pop group, but had never fronted a band before. He also was a huge ska fan and went to all the New Orleans ska shows back in the 2000s.
The five-piece clicked right away at their first rehearsal two weeks before the end of 2019. The name Bad Operation was a flippant association of Bad Brains and Bad Operation. This same mindset led all their early decisions. Rather than stress over every idea, they wanted to operate creatively with little effort. When Minix worked on lyrics for the first two songs (“Perilous” and “Bagel Rooks.”), they told him to not over-think it. He wrote the songs in twenty minutes. Both were reflections on his recent sobriety. He talks about feeling powerless and weak (“I’m at the end of my wits and now I’m gonna quit”) but then shifts to hope and a sense of tenacity. (“Is there anything you need? Let the music set you free.”). The upbeat sound of the music emphasized this sense of earned happiness.
“What came out was what was in my heart. What was bubbling under the surface. Facing all this shit that's in front of us,” Minix says. “I think that's also a New Orleans thing. One thing about being a New Orleans artist is you make it happen with as little means as you have. It's sweet but it's got some grit to it. We can't shake the New Orleans look, sound, and feeling from us.”
As they approached the summer and had some time to process how the pandemic derailed all their plans, they reconsidered what to do with the music they’d recorded. There was a spontaneity to the music that was infectious, but as experienced musicians, they could massage the parts and elevate the recordings to new heights. They decided to record two new songs and to pick apart every detail of the recordings. They re-recorded some lines, added and removed parts that might have been clashing sonically. They added vocals, horn lines, and overdubbed guitars and organs. Not only were they making each moment the best it could be, but they were learning about the songs they made—learning about their chemistry as a ska band.
“We didn't have the ability to practice as much as we necessarily would have,” Ray says. “We were getting together in the studio, writing the songs off the recordings. We couldn’t play live. We couldn’t work out the songs the way we wanted.”
The result of all their hard work combined both a lifetime of loving ska and experience they’d gained through other genres. The songs are mature, but also exuberant. And it comes just in time, as lockdown fatigue is reaching a moment of collective madness.
“When I was in high school, ska was a place where I could go see live music. I got away from that for a while. At a certain point, the locals didn't want a ska scene, so it kind of fizzled out,” Minix says. “I'm grateful for Bad Operation because I can pay back what ska gave me when I was an adolescent kid. It’s really cool to be able to give something back to this music that gave me so much.”