“We started this month in 1992,” says Unsteady founder/saxman John Roy. In fact, the ska-driven band has only gotten larger. “We used to have seven people. Now we’re up to nine. There were some years where we’d play, like, six times a year. Now we’re up to 20.”
But it is true that Unsteady, Buck-O-Nine, the Donkey Show, and other local bands had a lot more attention during the ska boom years of the late-80s through the mid-90s.
“We used to open up for the Untouchables, Fishbone, and Bad Manners,” says Roy. “We‘d play the Belly Up, [the long shuttered] Bacchanal, Winstons, and the old Casbah. We played Iguana’s [in Tijuana] five times. I opened for Bad Manners and Skatalites at UCSD’s Price Ballroom. It was sold out. What a sweat box.”
Actually, Roy has been playing the upbeat danceable Jamaican-borne dance music commonly known as ska for almost three decades. “I started in the Gangbusters in 1989. They were straight up ska. With Unsteady we mixed in soul, reggae and funk, just like Citizen X and Fishbone, who were my idols at the time.”
Also surviving from San Diego’s ska golden era are the 30-year-old Secret Society Scooter Club and the Pharoahs. “Usually, if the Pharoahs do a rally they’ll call us. We played their 25th anniversary at the Ken Club.”
Adding soulful authenticity is Roy’s longest serving bandmate, Kevin Hewitt, who plays the Hammond B-3 organ. “He joined in 1995. It’s an odyssey to carry an instrument that weighs 300 pounds with you every time you play.
“Kevin works at Guitar Center. I have an audio production business. We also have a church music director and three high school music teachers. We have to keep turning out kids that play in marching bands so that when I’m 70, I’ll still have someone to play with. Basically we’re all just nerds who want to keep going.”
Roy makes it clear that Unsteady’s repertoire doesn’t always jibe with ska purists. “We’ve never appealed to the elitists, and that’s okay. We’ve always wanted to play for people with an open mind. If you’re too much of purist for us, I say, go ahead and live your life, but you’re not in 1967 Jamaica.”
At 26 years old, Unsteady isn’t slowing down.
“In July, we have a gig at the Music Box with Western Standard Time, a 20-piece all-star group fronted by Greg Lee of Hepcat…I just got a box of our new 7-inch split single we made with Monkey from San Jose [on the other side]. They’ve also been around for like 25 years. We put out our first split 7-inch with Monkey 20 years ago.”
Unsteady’s show Friday, April 20 at the Ugly Dog Pub (formerly Kelly’s Pub near SDSU) is a “4/20” celebration. “I guess the bar is tying in the show in to an advocacy of cannabis product,” says Roy.
But since when does ska equate with pot?
“Yeah, that’s more reggae,” Roy explains. “But reggae is a direct descendant of ska. And we do play some reggae stuff that swings. Then we’ll come back and play some hard and fast dance tunes. Then we’ll slow it down because we’re old. If we only played hard and fast all the time, we could only play 30 minutes a night.”
Unsteady also appears May 6 at the Soda Bar with Los Kung Fu Monkeys.