Skankin' to Survive

Think the most recent ska revival is really nothing more than a passing phenomenon? History supports you. Back in the late '70s -- the last time ska was all the rage -- the fun lasted all of a few years. Other than that, the form's got little to show for itself beyond the prolonged success of reggae, its evolutionary offshoot. Of course, you'd never know any of this from talking with Ted Moll.

"I think ska is about ready to explode," says Moll, drummer and founding member of MU330. "There's a lot of bands out there; every day it seems like there's a new one popping up."

Failure was never an option worth entertaining for Moll and his St. Louis septet. That resilient viewpoint forms the basis for "Hang Tuff Hold Tight," an uplifting little mosh-skank anthem from the group's new indie CD Chumps on Parade. The song starts by running down a fat list of day-to-day hassles the band has endured on the road. "Drove all day, and now we won't get paid the third time this week / Showed up late and the club's got no PA, what can I say," laments lead singer Jason Nelson in one verse.

But just as soon as Nelson works up a froth, his whining is smothered by the resounding group sing-along, "Hang tough, hold tight; the ride's not over yet." Nothing, it seems, keeps these ska supermen down for long.

"We love to tour," says Moll. "Most of our songs are written while we're on the road, so that's why that stuff comes out. It does get tough at times, and trying to maintain any sort of relationships at home is hard. But I guess we're sort of numb to the whole thing."

Be careful not to lump MU330 in with the horde of new acts that have sprouted around the country in the nourishing glow of a punk-assisted ska resurgence, which began in the early '90s and has begun to pick up steam just recently. With seven years of practice, MU330 is hardly fresh to the scene. Along with frequent tourmates Blue Meanies and Buck-O-Nine, the group is part of a road-hardened old boys' network that, despite long hours, meager pay and only modest recognition, refuses to disperse. For MU330, going on tour was not an option; it was a necessity.

"We were killing ourselves playing St. Louis so often," Moll recalls. "We had no choice but to leave."

MU330 are, in part, with us today because of their boundless store of energy, which they attribute to an exceedingly high intake of caffeine and sweets. That surplus of artificial energy, they contend, is what allows them to continue their meagerly funded, zigzagging jaunts across the country. Last year, MU330 logged 70,000 miles and 200 days on the road in its continuing quest to build on its Midwestern fan base, and the group has gained a small but loyal national following -- town by town, club by club. They've also developed a discerning taste for fine vending-machine cuisine and deluxe hardwood-floor accommodations.

"We're on our third van," says Moll proudly. "The first one we wrecked in Colorado. Everyone was fine -- just a little shaken up. The second we bought in Denver, and then we crashed that one but we didn't total it. Eventually, it broke down, so we bought a brand-new van. We're still paying for that one. Thank God we all still live with our parents, or we wouldn't be able to make the payments."

MU330 came together as a teenage lark in 1988, when Moll, singer/guitarist Dan Potthast and bassist Chris Diebold started tossing around ideas and jamming in Moll's grandmother's basement. Stealing its name from a high school music course, the group sweated it out for a few years in St. Louis nightclubs and eventually solidified into its current lineup, which also includes Nelson, trombonist Rob Bell, trumpet player Nick Bauer and saxophonist Traygen Bilsland. Abandoning their day jobs in 1990, MU330 bought their first van and began touring. Inclusion on a number of ska compilations came later, as did the band's 1993 debut, Press, on the tiny No label.

From the beginning, MU330 has been adept at transcending ska's purity without violating its founding principles or its spirit. On the surface, the group sticks to a typical modern-day formula, thickening the bouncy rhythms and licks of the Two-Tone movement -- spearheaded in Britain in the late '70s by bands such as the Specials -- with the relentless pace, grinding guitars and defiantly American attitude of hard-core punk. Not always content to live by those loud-and-fast rules, MU330 also dabbles in unorthodox power-pop hooks, polished stadium-metal guitars and screwy double-bass-drum beats more akin to progressive rock than to ska.

Barring the needless bouts of silliness and sloppiness that mar the disc's last few numbers (18 tracks is way too many, anyway), Chumps is a crisply recorded, low-budget sleeper that deserves more attention than it is likely to get. Frustrating as it sounds, though, MU330 and its more-experienced brethren will likely be overshadowed by well-connected upstarts like Los Angeles' Goldfinger, ska-punk's band of the moment, which just scored a surprise radio hit with the unwieldy, sexually obvious romp "Here in Your Bedroom."

"There's been lot of trashing of Goldfinger, but I don't want to get into that," Moll says. "They haven't really been around all that much, so there is a lot of resentment [from other ska bands] because of that."

Maybe if MU330 were privy to a little more good luck and the resources of a music industry hub like L.A., they'd be on the airwaves by now. But that's neither here nor there, as far as Moll is concerned.

"For us, if it happens, it happens," he says.

MU330 performs Thursday, July 11, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7. Buck-O-Nine and Janitors Against Aparthide open. For info, call 863-7173.

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Hobart Rowland