For a brief period at the close of the 1980s, Milwaukee’s East Side was swaying like Kingston in two decades earlier, with bands like Wild Kingdom and International Jet Set packing clubs with their forays into ska and rock steady and, in Kingdom’s case, funk.
On Saturday, Aug. 22, the original lineup of International Jet Set reunites for the band’s first gig in 25, playing at the Miramar Theater, 2844 N. Oakland Ave., as part of the Revenge Scooter Club Rally.
Tickets for the show are $10 in advance and two bucks more on the day of the show. Details are here.
We caught up with frontman Dan Fernandez, who went on to sing with Kings Go Forth, and drummer Jeff Carpenter for a walk down memory lane and to catch up on what they – and bassist Jeff Villwock, keyboard player Rick Fernandez, guitarist Tim Pierce and hornsmen Ed Spangenberg, Kevin R. and Nate Gubin – have been up over the the past, oh, quarter-century or so.
OnMilwaukee.com: For those who weren't there – or are getting too old to remember, give us a quick history of IJS.
Dan Fernandez: My brother Rick (keyboards) and I grew up listening to a lot of Two-Tone Era ska groups like the Specials, the English Beat, Madness, the Selecter, Bad Manners, etc., and our annual tradition was going to see the ska concert movie "Dance Craze" at the Oriental Theater with all our friends.
So we were well-versed in the high energy of the ska scene, as well as punk and new wave. But the main precursor to IJS was Her Majesty's Secret Service, or H.M.S.S., which was a popular ska cover band which played in the summer and fall of 1984. Several members of IJS were in that group, which had as its lead singer Paul Finger – later of Wild Kingdom.
In the following years, many of us were playing in various bands, but Rick and many others had fond memories of H.M.S.S., that music and that era. We had also expanded our knowledge and music collections of Jamaican ska and reggae as well. So when Kevin – who played sax in H.M.S.S. – approached me and others about starting a ska/reggae group playing original music, it was an easy sell. We didn't have a name at the time, but we started making a lot of noise in the Fernandez family basement, and it all began.
OMC: Most of you guys had been in other bands before, too, right?
DF: Yes. I played bass and sang with the Jim OTTers – new wave cover band named after a Milwaukee weatherman – and did the same in Mood Groove, a reggae band which also featured Jeff Carpenter on drums. Rick, Kevin and Ed had played with The Blowtorch, among other bands, and they and most of the other guys had been in H.M.S.S. (Bassist Jeff Vilwock had been in H.M.S.S., too, and played in A Movement, too.)
OMC: IJS had good timing in Milwaukee, didn't it, in the sense that as Wild Kingdom – which had a dedicated following – had helped create a solid base of fans with a renewed interest in ska and rocksteady, as well as soul and funk. A lot of those fans became your fans, didn't they?
DF: Their presence definitely helped us; indeed, we played our first show with Wild Kingdom. Many of their fans were generally fans of ska and rocksteady, too, so yes, their presence provided us an audience that would be receptive to our group also. Of course, groups like Fishbone, the Toasters, and lots of other third wave ska groups had raised the profile of ska and reggae at that time, as well.
OMC: What happened in the end with the band? Why did it finish?
DF: At the end, there were a lot of things changing, a lot of transitions that made it hard to stay together. I was finishing college and moving to Chicago, other guys were about to start graduate studies, new jobs, etc. We were moving in a lot of different directions, and that became too big of an obstacle to overcome.
OMC: What have you and the other guys been doing in the interim, in terms of music, but also more broadly?
DF: Both Tim and I ended up going to law school and becoming attorneys, Rick went to medical school, and most of the guys moved on to various jobs and professions. I've been a prosecutor in Chicago for a long time now. Nate has moved around the U.S. – he's now in Boston – and lived in the U.K. for a bit. Ed moved to Seattle, Rick to D.C., Tim to New York then Madison.
Musically, I dabbled in various recording projects and performing, doing guest spots with various groups such as The Pacers and Eric Blowtorch. Then Jeff Carpenter and I started a pop reggae/ska group called The Sophisticates with some of our IJS bandmates. We'll play a short set of Sophisticates tunes at the show.
My most recent group was Kings Go Forth, which put out an album in 2010. Currently, I'm a DJ in Chicago with the Impala $ound Champions crew. Tim played with groups such as The Blue Tips and Eric Blowtorch, and Jeff Villwock did various musical projects too. Ed played in all sorts of groups, and now plays with a horn group called Tuba Luba in Seattle. Jeff Carpenter also played with Highball Holiday, and is currently a member of The Invaders, which had a new recording out last year.
OMC: Why the reunion and why now?
DF: The short answer is that we were asked a few times by the Revenge Scooter Club to do a reunion show for their annual party, and we finally said "yes." On previous occasions, beyond scheduling conflicts, I wasn't sure all of the guys would be willing and able to reunite for a show.
But Jeff Carpenter kept bringing it up as a possibility, and his keeping the faith led me to consider it more seriously. So, we started contacting bandmates, some of whom I hadn't seen or heard from in 10-20 years! Some of our more reclusive members agreed to do the show, and after that everyone joined in. For most of us, yes it will be fun to do the show, but it's also an opportunity to reunite with our old friends and revisit a great time (and great music) from our past.
Jeff Carpenter: As I get older, I really appreciate the power music has to bring people joy. Since the reunion has been announced, I've had people tap me on the shoulder and tell me with big smiles on their faces just how excited they are to see International Jet Set. Our bass player used to joke that each bass line he plays is a celebration of life. I'm beginning to feel that's true. Plus, the Revenge Scooter club has provided the perfect situation for a reunion with their Brew City Weekender Rally 2015.
OMC: What can we expect at the show?
DF: Some classic rock steady and ska, moving and skanking, and a few surprises. Nate would probably add, "hot party action." I expect that there will be many familiar faces from the past in attendance. I mean, even my parents are flying in for the show! So, you know, be there or be square.
JC: You can expect a celebration of life, a lot of happy people yelling "I want justice," and a show for the ages.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.