This Friday, May 10, local quintet The Action! will be taking the stage at Funk ‘n Waffles, 307 S. Clinton St. in Syracuse. The 8 p.m. show features the genre-spanning rock band as they release their live album 20 Years Alive! and celebrate the twentieth anniversary as a band. Tickets are $10.
Matthew Blake & the Blues Dragons and Late Earth will be opening kicking off the show, which features The Action! playing songs from the ’90s ’til now, plus closing with a set that will be Reel Big Fish’s Turn the Radio Off in its entirety.
I was able to interview guitarist/lead vocalist Mike Gibson and trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Chris Nolan via phone. Bassist Adam Carkey, drummer Craig Chamberlain, and trombonist Dan King were unfortunately unavailable. Author’s note: This is the third time I’ve written about this band. I’ve also known the members for years, some dating back to the Split Rock Elementary School days.
In the late ’90s, the once eight-piece band was formed as Skatos — the Greek word for shit, or something along those lines. It was a time when bands like the aforementioned Reel Big Fish, The Toasters, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Hepcat, and No Doubt among several others were reveling in the Jamaican-born genre and turning the punk dial up more than preceding English two-tone had.
Chris Nolan: “I know we [performed], but I don’t remember anything. [Laughs] I do remember playing in talent shows. Those were big stressful events at the time. Nothing more stressful in my life than practicing for those talent shows.”
Mike Gibson: “The first time we played a talent show was maybe the fourth time we had played — ever. We were playing “April Fool’s Song,” and we were excited because we were playing on stage in the auditorium … and in the middle of the front row, there was a man who had his hands over his ears. Either it was too loud or he hated it or both, which made me feel even better.”
CN: “I think it was the same show. I was already nervous as it was, and someone stepped on my trumpet and literally folded it in half. I had to find another trumpet to play. And it wasn’t even my trumpet — it was my dad’s.”
MG: “Our first debut was a dance marathon at West Genesee High School. When you’re 16, you’re full of ego … you feel unstoppable. We kind of got our feet wet playing at the Town Shop. It was a stomping ground. Sadly, David Vermilya, the guy who opened the place, passed away a year or so ago. It was so sad because he was a great proponent for us … and other bands to play there. Other than school, this was the only place in town.”
Twenty years, from playing gymnasiums and the Camillus Town Shop among other teen-friendly haunts to private parties and bars. The Town Shop, which is still open, was a reputable venue to high school kids, and not just the West Genny students. Vermilya, who died in 2017, was always present at shows and supporting. It goes without saying the present day conversation sparked some mental background memories.
CN: “You also had to play the Westcott Community Center.”
MG: “Yeah, and it still is a place for local shows. I remember there was a place … Planet 505. I remember seeing another band — maybe it was Straighter Than Pete — and thought, Oh, we gotta play there.”
CN: “It was the first recurring gig we had. They had a great sound system.”
MG: “I don’t know that place made money on booking high school or college bands. They served alcohol … but we were playing at a venue that booked touring bands. It was a big deal.”
CN: “We also played our high school graduations. [Laughs]
MG: “Dude, remember I showed you those cassette tapes I found in my basement? It was audio pulled from a video of my graduation party.”
Gibson and Nolan talked about their songwriting strategies. In the Skatos days, the former had come prepared with several songs the band adopted for their catalog. They talked about being inspired by a former member’s poetry and other prompts. However, writing is a collaborative effort.
CN: “There was also no Garage Band. We would call each other on the phone sometimes [and play off each other].”
MG: “I would have to play my idea for the chord progression a thousand times while they thought about how the arrangement should go.”
CN: “And now you send demos that sound like fully-produced studio albums.”
Recording live is a little different and easier nowadays. The ages of the band members span from the young Gen X-ers to the oldest and societally deemed Millenials — the last to intentionally and habitually use a tape recorder to pull songs from the radio and CDs, make mixed tapes, and (importantly) to record a basement or garage practice session.
MG: “We’re all on the same page. We don’t want to do too much stuff we’ve done before. I feel like we’re always looking for something new and keep ourselves fresh. We’ve recorded ourselves live before, but for ourselves.”
The latest release 20 Years Alive! covers notable songs through the years, dating back to high school days. According to Gibson a live album felt right. It was recorded live at Shifty’s and mixed by Steve Sopchak. L.R.S. Records is putting the album out.
MG: “[Shifty’s] is our favorite place to play. It has a great vibe. We’ve never had a bad show there. The crowds are always great; they’re definitely there for the music.”
CN: “I feel like this is the most work we’ve put into … anything as a band. I think it brought us closer. But there was so much pressure. If one person messes up one part of a song, it’s garbage.”
MG: “We had to be okay with having some little flubs here and there. If someone really screws up, we need to stop playing right then and start over to not waste time.”
CN: “Which is why it needed to be at Shifty’s, because you can’t do that at Coleman’s.”
MG: “We didn’t want this album to sound like greatest hits played faster … and with cheering in the background.”
Unlike many of the popular bands today that play multiple shows on a tour and have numerous recordings to pull from to make a live album, The Action! had only one night to record and embrace whatever errs emitted from the speakers.
Tracks to note include the yell-the-lyrics-at-the-top-of-your-lungs “Jimmy,” the newly arranged “I Still Don’t Love You,” the crowd favorite and fist-pumping “I’ve Never Been to Boston,” and the upbeat and poppy “Too Scared 2 Dance.”
The quality of the local live album is notable and truly does the band justice. It captures their energy, Gibson’s interactions with the crowd, and the brass ear candy is generously seasoned in, adding to the robust flavor of the songs.
MG: “We didn’t practice as much as we wanted to. Part of the struggle of being in a band for 20 years and not being rich rockstars is that we have full-time jobs, full-time families, and full-time children we have to look after.”
The signing off track “Thank You” is blatant and literal; the lyrics touch on the above aspects of real life. Although the lyrics are truthful, they’re funny at the same time. It’s life.
MG: “I can only speak for myself — no matter what, I would still be performing in some way. But the fact I’m performing with the same guys for the last 20 years is incredible … and really lucky to keep doing it with such frequency.”
The Action! still acknowledges their roots, and there are elements found in some of their songs, but the five have evolved into something beyond ska. They’ve pulled from various genres and have nodded to notable artists whose music has inspired their songwriting.
Gibson and Nolan say the music scene in Syracuse or Central New York is a great one thanks to the fans. However, they feel businesses are very supportive of the club scenes, noting Shifty’s, Funk ‘n Waffles and Moondog’s Lounge in Auburn encourage not just music, but original music.
To keep the article at a readable length, the quotes from a 50-minute conversation were (significantly) pared down.