by Chris Jarvis
Hailing from Colchester, eight piece ska band New Town Kings offer a rounded sound drawing influences from across the history of ska and reggae music. Since 2007, they have been sharing stages with some of the bigger names in the scene, from Reel Big Fish to Gentleman’s Dub Club and from The Skints to The Aggrolites. Next week, they will be playing on the same bill as Zion Train and Mungo’s Hi-Fi. The long and varied list of acts New Town Kings have played with demonstrates the diversity in their sound – blending traditional ska, two-tone and reggae with hints of ska punk and the odd hip-hop vibe. Although not necessarily known for their political music, and more so instead for their strong and energetic live performances, New Town Kings recordings, whether it be News Stand, La La World or Change are steeped in political undertones. For this reason, I interviewed frontman Dabs Bonner to discuss his and the band’s political outlook, the relationship it has to their music and how he views it in a wider political context as part of our series Music That Matters.
I spoke to Dabs on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. With the rest of the band sound checking in the room next door as they warm up for a hometown show in Colchester to bring in the New Year, I squeezed in a lightning fast interview over the phone. Dabs is enthusiastic, filled with energy, polite and eloquent as we dive into a conversation on his political outlook: “We’re all victims of the society we live in, you know? I’m open, I’m liberal and I dunno, I’m quite disheartened by the political system we’ve got working for us at the minute. Yeah, I understand that we live within the bounds of society, but I think it’s all kind of falling apart at the minute. I mean, traditionally, I suppose I’m a lefty, you know? I’ve got maybe anarchic principles that within an ideal world – I don’t think we need governance. I dunno, it’s a tough question to answer in terms of the current political system, because I don’t really believe in two party politics and I don’t think it works.”
These thoughts are clearly backed up by a long period of contemplation and reflection – the words tumble rapidly out of his mouth without hesitation. Behind it all, there is an underpinning perspective and framework which shapes his thoughts and politics. I ask whether this political outlook has translated into activism of any kind outside of the world of music: “Not directly, no. I’ve got a quite a few of my friends who are involved in quite a few bits and bobs, but I’m more of a bystander than an activist. I’ll always go to the protests, you know? But no, I wouldn’t say I’m politically active in the traditional sense. It’s about all of us having our place and knowing what it is we can do to help. The reality is I’m in a fortunate position that I’ve got a band that’s profile’s growing at the moment and I truly believe that through music we can effect change and so that’s the most important way I can think of, like, using my time to be positive.”
Some would argue that this is a cop out, that progressives and politically minded people have a responsibility to be involved in organising and agitating for political change. I disagree, and I believe Dabs is correct to identify that an unhelpful, narrow definition of activism as organising demonstrations, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets as the primary form of making change ignores and erases a whole load of things, one of which is political engagement through culture. Throughout history, whether it was the punk movement in the 1970s, 1960s folk music in the US or the eruption of hip-hop in the 1980s and 90s, music has influenced the outlook of millions of people and inspired many to get politically active.
It is this that we move onto next – the interplay between music and politics, and the effects that political music can have on an individual and on society more broadly: “You raise awareness of things first and foremost. That’s one of the major things we can do, that through our music we can demonstrate viewpoints, get them heard, get enough people on board. All of a sudden you become a political movement within yourself. And by the way it’s always been the case, like in the eighties, there’s Band Aid and We Are the World, there’s African famine relief. More recently, obviously Pussy Riot. All that kind of stuff that happened, I think it’s really important because you have a position that as your profile rises you’re in a position that you can actually get people to listen to you. And so the theory is that that you write your own music based on expressing those kind of positive feelings and viewpoints that you do have in the hope of grabbing some people, you know? And the reality is that a lot of people out there, a lot of these political activists, a lot of these revolutionaries have really been inspired by song, so you know, you work as a catalyst to sort of enact that change. I see it as more of being a channel to express people’s views because a lot of time most people would agree with what the press would put down as being raving left wing, kind of, idealistic viewpoints. But why is it an ideal? Why is it an ideal to think that people will actually respond well to each other if given the chance to do so?”
a lot of people out there, a lot of these political
activists, a lot of these revolutionaries have really
been inspired by song
“Anyone who’s listened to a Bob Marley song understands the way music can affect their own viewpoints. For me personally, I know that I’ve grown up surrounded by conscious music and so without a shadow of a doubt, music would have informed my viewpoints on many, many things, you know? But obviously it’s not a strict linear equation, there’s always going to be bits and bobs that kind of float around, so maybe, yeah, you grab a viewpoint coming from lots of different angles, don’t you?”
I push Dabs a little further to give his view as to what role music has in bringing about political change: “The reality is that people can understand and empathise with a viewpoint that’s expressed musically a lot easier than they might be able to grab hold of a newspaper article or something along those lines. So basically, we can energise our moral sentiment through music, you know? So like, through rhythm, through melody – people have a natural understanding of those. One of our tunes, we’ve just written is about the refugee crisis that’s going on at the moment. I don’t even like the term refugee crisis, you know, because we don’t have a crisis, they do.”
At this point Dabs loses his train of thought, getting distracted by the sound check next door, and chuckles as he goes to shut out the noise, before continuing: “It’s simple man, particularly in this day when we’ve got social networking, when we’ve got all the capacity, all the media outlets, we can genuinely, genuinely effect change. It starts with the writing. You write the words and you do everything you can to get that out there. And if you’ve got like 100 fans, you may have 100 thousand fans, the reality is if you can connect with those people, if you can demonstrate to those people that what you’re doing is out of a deep and genuine heartfelt belief, as opposed to like capitalising on popular sentiment. The actual reality, that through putting out music, people listen to the music and they go away and you can affect their viewpoints. If you’re an artist and you’re a well-known artist and loads of people like you, then it’s just like any situation, you know? People are swayed by the viewpoints of people they like and respect, so we as musicians if we can really kind of garner that kind of faith in people, it can only do positive things.”
New Town Kings have ridden a new wave of popularity in recent months, as part of a reggae revival going on across the country with reggae bands having a resurgence in their following. They are not alone, therefore, in their increasing fan base. We talked briefly about the other bands on the scene that are doing similar things, talking about similar issues and doing it through music: “You know that hip-hop music basically effected reggae and so dancehall happened out of that kind of rudeboy culture effecting reggae. Now what’s happened is you’ve got acts like Chronixx and Kabaka Pyramid and Protoje and, like, conscious reggae is starting to come back. And obviously there was big controversies throughout the nineties and the beginning of this century with regards to lots of reggae musicians with like ridiculous homophobic sentiments and, you know, all of the negative misogyny and this, that and the other and so basically I think thoughtful people are beginning to take the music back. There’s plenty of people out there and we’re really riding a wave at the minute, and it just so happens that the world is probably more in need of that now than it has been for a good while, so it’s been a pleasure to be a part of it.”
Before we wrap up, I take a few minutes to chat about the music in and of itself and what plans they have for the future: “Basically, we’re recording in February at Konk Studios with Dan Boyle. But, yeah man, we’ve got a lot of stuff that’s happening at the minute, too much to list if I’m honest, but it’s all, sort of, pointing towards the new album release. It’s gonna be big for us man. It’s gonna be the first album that I’ve recorded with the band. It’s the band’s first album in like four years. We’ve been releasing a few singles and getting a really good response and we’re really excited. Yeah, it’s all going off for us. We’re expecting this year to be the big year for us, you know? There’s a lot of people been waiting to hear, not blowing my own trumpet, but been waiting for an album with me on it at as well, because obviously with a new front man, people want to know what’s going on. And I think we’ve got more of a conscious kind of vibe going on now, you know? I think the band, I think we’re all just like hitting our maturity, we’ve hit our groove nicely, so keep your ears peeled for our next album, it’s gonna be out late Spring I reckon.”
Their new single, Something More is an infectious reggae tune, with a rocksteady feel and harking back to the early ska days of the 1950s and 1960s. I ask whether this is a departure from the broader influences that filled previous New Town Kings music: “Reggae, rocksteady, is something I’ve always grown up around. Reggae’s been in my family for a long time, so that’s a natural thing. The ska that we’re playing now is maybe a little more along the lines of Jamaican traditional ska, but we’ve also got a few hip-hop elements that creep into our ska. We’ve got some, kind of, big, heavy, hip-hop bass drum lines fused in with ska rhythm and the pattern is maybe a little bit more dancehall-y, but I’ll have to send you the album when we get it and you can tell me the answer to that question!”
We finish here, as Dabs jubilantly promises me that the next time they play in Norwich, he’ll give me a call and get me to come out to a show, before hanging up to finally join his bandmates in sound checking for that night’s show. Throughout the interview, I was struck by the enthusiasm and positivity with which he spoke about both his politics and his music. If there is one final thought of his I’d like to leave you with it is this: “It’s very important for all creative people to realise that we’re in a position whereby you know we’re fighting a fight. There’s a big fight happening right now, and I’m not talking about the war on this, or the war on that. I’m talking about people’s hearts and minds and the actual reality that we can either be a culture of violence, aggression and force, or we can look towards the similarities we have, you know?”
2016 will be a big year for New Town Kings, and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to talk their frontman before they begin to grow and grow into a much bigger musical force.