When ska burst into the international consciousness in 1979, it was because a bunch of groups from English cities like Coventry, London and Birmingham were reviving the music of their parents, some of whom were emigrants from Jamaica – where the music was born at the end of the 1950s – and others who enjoyed the vintage sounds in U.K. clubs in the 1960s.
A few years later, that Two-Tone brand of ska – named for the label started by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, which released records by The Beat, The Selector and Madness, among others – was picked up by American bands, who juiced it up with high-octane punk rhythms. In Milwaukee, a handful of bands played the music. One of them, The Invaders, is still going strong.
The group has a new CD out – the first to reflect its slightly altered name, Max & the Invaders. We ask frontman and sole remaining founding member Kevin "Max" Wisniewski about The Invaders’ longevity and current incarnation...
OnMilwaukee.com: The band is clearly the longest-lived ska band in town. What do you think accounts for the longevity?
Kevin "Max" Wisniewski: First off, I guess I'm stubborn. But I've had a passion for the style since I was turned on to the British Two-Tone sound in '79. I just love writing and performing this music so much, that I never thought about giving it up. Always figured someone around here needs to carry the torch, why not me. Every time someone has left the line-up, I always had no trouble filling the spot, so here I am still hammering it out on stage today!
OMC: Has it been challenging to remain rooted in ska without becoming limited by being focused on a single genre?
KW: Not in the 1990s, but today, yes. The reality is, most all of our songs could be performed as straight rock numbers, just as I can take most any rock song and make it ska or reggae. More challenging today is not getting stereotyped and have people not see us because of it. So in that respect it has been limiting for us.
But I have always found that once people see and hear us, they love the stuff we do and the styles we do it in. We have been fortunate to have been nominated again this year for a WAMI Award, too, in our category. I never wanted to become just another rock band. This is way more fun.
OMC: How have you kept it fun and interesting for yourselves and for the fans?
KW: Really by continually changing up some of our older songs and keeping it fresh. We also try and challenge ourselves by adding new hooks and style influences into our new songs and rediscovering ways to change up the live show. I believe our newer songs are very different than our songs we did in the early days. Another factor is the changing band members. Every time a new person comes into the fold, they bring new ideas, playing style and influences into the songs thus breathing new life into old and even newer numbers.
OMC: Tell us about the new record. It's the first in a long time, isn't it?
KW: It is. Our last was in 2008 and this one is a polar opposite in how that CD was done. "Where Ya Gone" was a basement digital project that we rushed along. Though it has some great songs, the quality, in hindsight, was a little lacking. This new release "Runnin' On Fumes" has been a very long and meticulous process with no dead-lines or budget issues. We brought in many guest musicians who have either once been in the band or are good friends of the band. It's almost a reunion album.
We also were fortunate to bring in a producer who knows our style well. Friend, Rob "Bucket" Hingley was flown in to work his ideas into the mixing and engineering process. Rob is the founding member and frontman of the longest running ska band in the United States, "The Toasters." He also started Moon Records releasing and producing countless records during his reign. He now resides in Spain and operates Megalith Records, while still doing The Toasters thing on the road.
OMC: What was it like working with him?
KW: Buck was great to work with and we had a great time while he was here, too! He stayed at our home during his time here and was a gracious guest. The new CD has a great swash of styles within our genre. Influences from the past two decades can be heard over its 13 tracks that incorporate rock styles, calypso, punk, reggae and dancehall. Some of the songs the band has had in the sets for a while and I have been anxious to get them recorded properly, while a few others are brand new.
We laid down bed tracks at Walls Have Ears in November 2011. The initial hope was to have it out summer 2012. But the arrival of our son, Henry, in April that year put the skids on production time to a few hours here and there each week. Engineer Bill Stace was great in his patience and working with our limited schedule. Really, bringing in Bucket to produce reinvigorated our wanting to finish the CD.
The extended time also allowed more ideas to come into play and the mixes were much more meticulous than I have ever done. We think it's our best to date and that the results show it. On a humorous note, the project went so long that a few members changed in that time. New keyboardist/toaster Harsh was able to lay down a wicked toasting track on "Dancing in the Fallout" just before we went to mastering.
Henry went from a newborn to being almost 2 when the CD was released. The project therefore has been his whole life. Another fantastic opportunity was to have Channel 10/36 shoot a professional video for a song from the new CD for a music -oriented TV program hosted by Sandy Maxx. "Vesper" can now be seen on YouTube.com if you search "Max & the Invaders" or "Vesper." It's an entertaining and humorous plot done in a James Bond spy style.
OMC: Why the name alteration and why now?
KW: We've been thinking of ways to revitalize the band and promote it to a new generation. This step just seemed logical as I am and have been for nearly 25 years, the only original founding member and just happen to be the frontman, too. With the ever changing line-up of great musicians I've worked with to keep the band, my vision and dream going it always has been like Max and his Invaders anyway. This also sets us apart from the handful of other bands out there calling themselves The Invaders.
OMC: I trust The Invaders, as always, have a long list of gigs coming up as summer season approaches?
KW: I would not call it a long list. We've slowed the number of gigs down a bit these days since we don't really tour anymore. We found you can burnout the local fans pretty fast if you play the same area every month or so. So these days we are pursuing festivals and bigger events more than bar gigs to expand our fan base.
Because dates are added all the time and sometimes things change, I suggest checking in with us onreverbnation.com/theinvaders to see our current show listing and details. Our next show is May 17 at the infamous Up & Under Pub. Believe it or not, it will be our first time playing there in all these years and it will be a free, no-cover show, too.
Then we will be in Aurora, Ill., for the Wisconsin Beer & Cheese Tour on May 31, featuring a multitude of craft beers and cheeses. Our annual Milwaukee Boat Line Vista King Boat Cruise is on Saturday, Aug. 17 and we just booked the Bay View Art Beat in The Heat for Aug. 23. The band will be performing sometime in late Summer at "Great America" in Gurnee, too.
As of this interview we are still anxiously waiting to hear from events like Bastille Days. Bay View Bash, Cedarburg Summer Sounds and of course Summerfest, where we have headlined the Cascio Stage the last three years for some fabulous crowds. I'm also trying to get us back into State Fair where we have not played since they closed the Youth Stage in the late ‘90s.
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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.