I’m not going to lie. When I found out that 90s ska band Save Ferris was back together (well sort of, vivacious redhead and insanely talented songstress Monique Powell is still at the helm with a new lineup) and had put together their first album in nearly 20 years, 12-year-old me got really, really excited.
I was immediately transported back to my awkward middle school years, complete with face full of braces and a confused sense of style (at the time it seemed really cool!) that was meant to channel skater chick-meets-punk rock but didn’t quite come together. But I digress.
I would listen to 1997’s It Means Everything on my Discman over and over again, connecting with Powell’s cheeky lyrics, upbeat ska sound and inspiring role as the kick ass female lead of the band. Also, her band’s name was inspired by one of the best movies of all time (#johnhughesfanforlife). Come on, what’s not to love?
And now, with the band on tour for their new album, Checkered Past, I had the chance to catch up with Powell (swoon!) before her upcoming performance at the Black Cat this Wednesday. Read on for a slightly fangirl Q&A with this fab singer-songwriter.
On Tap: Save Ferris has switched up its lineup multiple times over the years. How has that impacted the band’s sound, and how would you describe your sound under the current lineup?
Monique Powell: Well, with the old lineups, the sound didn’t change too much as Brian and I were the only writers in the band after I joined. So, the sound grew naturally as we grew. The new band is made up of a number of truly exceptional musicians with immense creativity and musical talent, so the songs are developing accordingly. My voice as a writer has also changed as I’ve grown up a lot over the years. Sometimes I just want to write something simple and reminiscent of [our] first album, sometimes I like to indulge myself emotionally [and] sometimes I’m inspired by other artists.
OT: What initially drew you to ska music? Would you still describe ska as the band’s genre, or has it evolved into something else in recent years?
MP: My friends were all in ska bands back in the day. When I was in college, I started going to their shows, and I fell in love with the music and the scene. It was just natural that I’d end up in a ska band eventually, as I was a singer studying music at the time. I’d say we still play ska. My vision is to bring in a lot of the first and second wave in style and feel, but I just have to honor where the creative process takes me. So we’ll see!
OT: The band’s had a 10-year hiatus in recent years, and you’ve just put out your first album in almost two decades. How does it feel to be back in the swing of things after some pretty significant gaps in time?
MP: It’s just like riding a bike! I fell back into the swing very naturally.
OT: Tell me about Checkered Past. What inspired the songs? Who wrote most of them? Who did you collaborate with as part of the creative process?
MP: I am the chief songwriter in the band. I do love to collaborate, particularly with my bandmates because we all work so well together. A few lines of “New Sound” and “Anything” were brought to me by Patrick, and I developed the songs from there. A lot of the parts of “New Sound” fell into place for me while in the studio with John Avila. Gordon and I did some work together on “Golden Silence” and “Do I Even Like You?” while holed up at a cabin in the woods during a writing trip we took as a band.
OT: I’m really digging “New Sound.” It’s got a bit of a reggae vibe to it. Would you say this song sets the tone for the entire album, or is each song notably different? What’s your favorite track on the album and why?
MP: I wanted each song on the album to have its own identity, and represent different aspects of the personality of [Save Ferris]. “New Sound” represents the current sound and possible future sound for us. “New Sound” would be my fave right now. I love the production, and I love that Neville [Staple, of The Specials] was involved.
OT: Who were your main influences when you started out as a band in the 90s? What about now?
MP: It’s hard to say who my influences were in the 90s, exactly. Mostly, I’d say I was influenced by the bands in our scene and all around us at the time. I’m very influenced by first wave ska now, mostly.
OT: As a hardcore fan since 1997’s It Means Everything, (“Spam” and “Under 21” will forever be two of my all-time faves), I’ve looked up to you as a strong female vocalist in music for two decades. Your pipes are insane, and you’re such a fun, colorful and unique presence in an often redundant, vanilla era in music. How do you feel that you’ve evolved as a songstress since you got your start? Where do you hope to be in the next few years?
MP: That’s very kind of you, thank you. Right now, the stage character is very pinup sexy and well-developed, whereas before, I didn’t feel I had a developed style and image. My pipes have gotten better too, I think. The sound of my voice feels richer.
OT: What are you most excited about regarding your new tour? How has the start of the tour been?
MP: So far, the tour has been a blast. Some shows have [had] an insane number of people and are sold out. [In] some markets, due to tour routing, we’re required to play for smaller audiences and clubs. Those are my favorite shows. [It] reminds me of what I think CBGB might have been back in the day.
OT: And last but not least, any favorite stories about our nation’s capital?
MP: I remember the 9:30 Club fondly, and the rich history of the DC punk scene always makes me excited to be there. Really looking forward to the Black Cat!
Catch Powell and her band at the Black Cat on Wednesday, March 1. Doors open at 7:30; tickets are $20. Baby Baby and The Fuss will open. Learn more about Save Ferris at www.saveferris.com.
Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com