Local ska band Umbrella Bed has played hundreds of shows, released five full-length albums, and been a fixture in the local scene for many years. 2015 marks their 20th anniversary as a band. To celebrate the occasion MNSKA caught up with drummer Mitch Thompson and talked about sweaty basement shows, a risky gig in Bosnia, and possible plans for their next 20 years.
Congratulations on your 20 years together as band! What do you have planned to celebrate your platinum anniversary?
We are working with the Triple Rock to do a show on Friday, Nov. 6 and it is specifically a 20th year anniversary show. We are hacking through some ideas. Not sure yet who else is on the bill. We had hoped to have a new record out for it, but that’s not going to happen. That’s how we will start the next 20-year cycle!
What are you looking forward to in the years to come?
I really like the new music we are creating. We seem to have found a different vein of songwriting that is rooted in our ska and 2-Tone history but it is more pushing the genera and the boundaries but still being firmly rooted in the history. There is no desire not to keep going. We know we are pretty lucky to have a good, fun and manageable thing and I think we are more excited than we ever have been about our situation. We are going to just keep trying to see what can happen.
Twenty years is longer than a lot of marriages! What’s the key to staying successful / relevant / together as a band for this long?
I think ultimately we like making music to entertain each other and it’s nice that we are lucky enough to be able to have people interested in us sharing it with them sometimes.
We’ve been lucky that every time it looks like we have hit a dead end something new happens. I thought we were pretty much done for in the early 2000s and then the chance to be on Mad Butcher Records and tour Europe came up. Right at that point ska had hit a major low in the United States. It was hard to get gigs, or at least make them successful. It gave us something to focus on because in Europe it was a different story. It was hard to pull a tour together in 2005 but it also brought us together as a group, and it created an extremely tight bond. In 2011 a very key member in Mel Tepid left and instead of call it a day, we pushed hard and got back to work figuring out who we were.
Do you remember the first show as a band?
A basement party it south Minneapolis in July with no air conditioning. The floor was sweating with condensation it was so hot and humid. I am sure we were awful. In fact Hellrocket wasn’t even in the group yet. A great local trumpet player named Dan Frankowski was singing and he was terrible at it. Amazing trumpet player but a lousy singer. Horn players were sitting in chairs. There is a tape of it somewhere. Someone from then beginning to burgeon ska scene was there and helped us line up more gigs. So we must have been OK enough.
What were the early years of Umbrella Bed like?
It was a bit unbelievable really. Some of us had been hacking around in grunge bands and getting nowhere for a long time. We started a ska band on a lark and then end up in this thing that just took off. Three gigs in we are on shows that are full of people on good weekend nights. Six months later we are opening for the Skatalites at First Avenue. We get votes in the City Pages for best new band of the year. A few years later we open for a version of the Specials. Then of course ska tanked and it all stopped but it was an amazing first few years.
How did the founding members meet? How did newest members Frankie and Kabel get involved?
A guy we call Mel Tipped started the band and his first recruit was me and another guy named Harold Longley jumped in. I believe Harold recruited Eva Washburn and Matt Keller. Oh, crap, it was 20-years ago I don’t know!!
Kabel’s former band Small Kitchen Appliances had opened some shows for us and when we needed a guitar player we knew he liked us and was familiar with the songs. Frankie had come out to see us a few times and become friends with Kabel. When our long time bass player left, we recruited him to jump on board with us. They have been a major boost of enthusiasm for us and we are lucky they came a long.
How did you become affiliated with German label Mad Butcher Records?
We somehow ended up on a compilations series called “Skakin the Scum Away”. Not sure about how on that but it lead to a relationship. A great one for us. Really that simple, funny.
You seem to have a large fanbase in Europe, and you’ve toured there twice. How is the scene different there compared to here?
Well, I am not sure it’s a large fanbase but maybe! It is hard to say what was different. People certainly seemed like they were ready to have fun, dance and enjoy themselves. No pretension at all. Maybe just a bit freer with that than what can happen here. I am not sure how well they knew our music going in but once we started they certainly were ready to have fun and let go. Happens here sometimes, but we seem a bit more reserved about it all in the United States. I think over there, if they decided they are going to show, it seems like they were “all in”.
Your music videos are always really fun. How do you come up with themes for them? Can I be in the next one?
We are lucky to have connections into that industry and have found good people to help pull them together. Our primary director is a local actor in town named David Tufford. Usually we just say listen to the record and see if some ideas about a song come out. We might pick the song and say: “what comes to mind for this one?. There are more to come with the next project. I bet there will be a starring role in there for you. [Ed. note: Yes!]
Your lineup has stayed fairly consistent, though you have changed up some members. Is it challenging to make the transition with new members?
Honestly the worst part is having to play some songs that everyone knows over and over to train in the new person. Some of these songs have been played for 20-years so imagine playing them 6 times straight at practice!
What is the most memorable show you’ve played with the current line up?
This lineup has played two different opening slots with the English Beat and the first one was an incredibly great experience all around at the Cabooze. The first Ska-Pow! we played at the Triple Rock was really fun and well-received. The very first gig was a sold-out fall party at Nye’s in the basement.
I know a few members of the band are also involved in other musical side projects. Briefly, what are they?
Frankie plays bass for the pop-punk band the Drones. Joy, our trombone player, works in a lot of different Dixieland and related bands. Scott the sax player has a new, as of yet unnamed, rockabilly band that he plays guitar in.
How have outside musical influences shaped the band over time, especially on the new record?
I think from the get-go the ska theme was what tied together diverse musical interests into a cohesive sound. Oftentimes when we are working on new music we realize it’s maybe getting a bit too far astray of the ska sound so we say, “what can we do to bring it around to the standing theme a bit more?” It’s a great way to incorporate a lot of different influences but be a bit sonically aligned. That said, I don’t feel we have ever been dead on with any of the “ska sounds”, first wave, second or third wave and maybe sometimes that has made us less appealing to the “ska scene” but it keeps us fresh and I hope surprising.
Would you please play “Why Would I Lie?” one more time? Or Cocomo Joe?
Well, Mel our former bass player wrote and sang “Why Would I Lie” and since he left the band it hasn’t felt right to do it. Frankie does not like “Cocomo Joe” at all for some reason. We pretty much had rehearsed it up-to-speed with him in the band but it made him too cranky so we moved on!
I remember a show years ago at the Triple Rock where somebody in the band (Hellrocket, if I am remembering correctly) was in a car accident on the way to the venue, and the rest of the band soldiered on with the show. Partway through, the absent member showed up and joined in! What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at a show?
When we played in Novi Sad, Bosnia in 2005 we were a bit naive about what it meant to be in Bosnia as US citizens. It was only a few years removed from US planes bombing under the United Nations sanctions. It was a risky to be there. Our label man Mike the Mad Butcher and our driver were attacked n a situation away from us about three hours before show time. They fought them off. The bouncers were keeping away the “trouble makers” at the door so the show could proceed. At the end of the night we were told to “get the hell out of the area, now!” because some people were coming to make trouble. There were bottles under the tires of our van. It was unreal to say the least. I could go on, but lets just say that is the craziest show I have ever been apart of.
You have played shows with legends such as Skatalites, the Beat, the Specials, and the Toasters, to name a few. Are there any bands you’d like to play a show with in the future?
We’ve been crazy fortunate and won’t be greedy! That said, Madness and Bad Manners come to mind. I would like to play the main room at First Avenue again. It’s been a long time since we did so and it is such a great experience.
Many venues have opened and closed in the Twin Cities over the past two decades. Is there any place that isn’t around anymore that you wish still existed?
The Uptown Bar and Grill was a mainstay at our height of local popularity. We drew very well there 150 to 200 people were not out of the question. So I definitely miss that and what the Uptown area was at that point in time in history.
What are your observations on the local music scene over the past 20 years?
My biggest observation is that you have to do what you do and stop trying to figure it all out. Which of course, I would be smart to take my own advice and I never do. The scene definitely doesn’t sit still. We had a moment in the sun, as it were, and things move on to the next thing and that is where the real work begins for a band to survive being around a long time.
Right now I think the scene is seeing a certain amount of concentration of decision makers at the club level. Clubs like First Ave, The Cedar Cultural Center, The Turf Club, Fine Line etc. are all tied in to each other, tied in with The Current. On the surface is very smart and feels good but I wonder if it doesn’t streamline interests too much and get everything too much in sync? I suppose it has always been that way in some form or another. It’s hard to not have a bit of chip on your shoulder as a ska band member. The whole style is so often dismissed in the mainstream despite it historically significant roots and the fact that it is just so infectiously upbeat, catchy and fun. It’s hard to know where a band like Umbrella Bed fits in or any of the local ska band for that matter.
Oftentimes I find it difficult to plan events and get-togethers with only a few people. How do you coordinate band things with so many members?
Everyone wants “it” to happen. That makes a big difference. I think we all know if we don’t try to be available for the band things will eventually fizzle out. Rule one is that we practice on the same day every week. You need a good reason to miss it, you don’t plan things for that day that you can control. When it comes to gigs, well, everyone wants that to happen and try hard to make it so. It is hard sometimes and we play out soooo much less than we used to but that’s OK. We need keep our energy up if we are going to do this another 20 years!
Catch Umbrella Bed at their next show on August 1 at Saint Anthony Villagefest, and add their anniversary show on November 6th to your calendar!