Musical trends come and go almost as often as the bands that create them, so for local Ska band Umbrella Bed, 10 years in the business is quite an achievement. The nine-piece band—which includes St. Anthony resident Eva Grooms and Northsider Mitch Thompson—has released four CDs during their tenure and recently returned from a European tour to promote their latest, One Small Skank for Man.
Umbrella Bed started as a basement project in 1995 when Thompson’s long-time band mate asked him if he wanted to play Ska music. Previous rock and roll projects between the two had been short lived, but this time their timing was synchronistic to an emerging Ska scene in Minneapolis.
“There was a scene emerging,” recalled Thompson, “and we ended up landing really good shows right away, which is unusual for a new band. We played weekend college shows and club dates and it blossomed from there.”
Thompson explained that Ska music evolved in three waves. It originated in Jamaica during the late 1950s, as locals infused traditional calypso music with elements of American jazz and rhythm and blues (R&B) to create a new sound, which later morphed into Reggae.
During the 1960s, Ska became popular in England, especially London and Coventry, among youth who identified themselves at “Mods” and “Rudeboys.” British bands like the Specials and the English Beat grew out of this movement, adding punk and R&B into their blend of Ska, which often addressed racial issues.
The third, more modern wave of Ska came in the late 1990s; it built on past legacies, adding further elements of punk sounds with fast guitar riffs. Thompson said Ska has always been popular with younger people, from teens to college age.
During the late 1990s, Umbrella Bed shared the spotlight with a number of local Ska bands—Siren Six, the Jinkies, 3 Minute Hero and others—playing gigs throughout the Twin Cities at venues including the Turf Club, 7th St. Entry, the Fine Line Music Cafe and the Whole at Coffman Union on the University of Minnesota campus. In 1996 they opened for the Specials and two years later headlined a show at the Fine Line to a crowd of nearly 600 fans. Because the music is so popular with a younger set, venues that offered all-ages shows drew the biggest crowds.
Umbrella Bed has nine players and all use stage names. They are: Mitch Thompson (Dutch Buddha) on drums, Tom Sales (Mel Tepid) on bass, Eva Grooms (Eva Washburn) on French horn, Joy Judge (O-Joya) on trombone, Matt Keller (Al Teagarden) on trombone, Dave Steglich (Hellrocket) on vocals and trumpet, Scott Wilcock (DJ Waycool) on saxophone, Martin Maiers (Cappy) on guitar and Aaron Porter (Lord Grab & Flee) on guitar.
Fluctuating between seven and nine members, most of the group has been together since its inception in 1995. Judge, Wilcock and Porter are the newest members, and have been with Umbrella Bed for a couple years. Thompson and Grooms agreed that coordinating logistics for a nine-piece band of 20-to-40-somethings is challenging. Still, they said, weekly rehearsals are well attended and that for the band’s recent European tour, spouses and family members were extremely supportive.
“You can’t have the expectation that you’re going to do a lot of stuff,” said Grooms. “But this tour was more than likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so families were supportive.”
Thompson said he often takes the lead when it comes to e-mailing band members about meetings and gigs, and that issues are usually resolved by consensus. “Rehearsals have been the one consistent thing,” he added. “It’s been on Thursday nights for the last 10 years. People like it because it’s fun—it’s their hobby—and we know we’re lucky to be in a band.”
Umbrella Bed has recorded and produced four CDs largely on their own, but when German record label Mad Butcher contacted them about using one of their songs on a Ska compilation for distribution in Europe, they began to dream of a tour that would take them across “the pond” rather than across the river.
Thompson and Grooms know their Mad Butcher label representative simply as “Mike.” After half-joking about touring Europe, Thompson recalled how Mike said, “You get yourselves here and you’ll be taken care of the rest of the time.”
Playing gigs almost every day on little sleep and lots of beer was both exhilarating and grueling. Thompson and Grooms recalled the tour fondly, gushing about the generous hospitality of their European hosts.
Grooms noted the difference between the United States and Europe in how clubs treat musicians. “The thing to me that was so amazing was that the bars fed you dinner, gave you a place to sleep, fed you breakfast and gave you all the free beer you wanted. And if they didn’t have a place to sleep at the club, then the promoters or local kids in the scene would put you up in their flats.
“In Budapest we slept in this couple’s flat—11 of us—on different mattresses. They fed us and put us up for the night, even though they had very little money. It was wonderful to meet the people who actually live there.”
Sometimes after gigs, band members would faction off and stay with locals. “We were walking around France, pulling our little wheely carts,” recalled Grooms, smiling broadly. “We’re following this punk guy with a Mohawk who’s pointing to people saying, ‘You stay here…four of you go in this car…two of you go here.’ A lot of nights we weren’t asleep until dawn because you’d play a gig, hang out, drink beer and then find a place to stay. In a couple of towns I remember listening to the church bells chiming ‘6’ and then I’d get to sleep. I was in heaven!”
They said concerts were well attended and crowds were generally young. With fewer underage drinking laws in Europe, kids could get into shows in bars. Umbrella Bed also played in what Thompson described as large youth centers in Germany.
Grooms said, “Ska has always been popular with young people, but in Europe the crowd was younger and rowdier. For the most part, rock and roll is perpetuated and attended by young people. But in this country, you have to be over 21 to go to a show (at a place that serves alcohol).”
Thompson said, “The other primary difference is that the crowd was incredibly enthusiastic because we were an out-of-town band. In France, both shows were sold out and the crowd went bonkers. I think it was the most amazing thing we’d ever experienced as a band.”
Grooms agreed, and noted that the group played encores in Dijon, France. “That doesn’t happen [here]—even if your mom’s in the audience!”
Besides France, Germany and the Czech Republic, Umbrella Bed traveled to Vienna, Austria; Passau, Bavaria; and Novi Sad, Serbia. Everywhere they went, locals engaged band members in conversations about politics and global issues.
And while they were warmly welcomed across most of Europe, things turned somber in Serbia, when before the gig, the band’s driver, promoter and label representative were attacked by a gang of youth wearing masks, wielding baseball bats and yelling, “Get out of here Americans!”
“We didn’t anticipate that there might be some friction toward people from the United States,” Thompson said. “We thought we were these good will ambassadors, but there was political friction in Novi Sad.”
Grooms described the city as “war torn” from bombings it endured during the Clinton administration, and said that despite the record label’s attempt to promote anti-fascist artists, some political extremists were on hand before the show.
“The label we are on is very anti-fascist. Mike is very left wing politics—more of a socialist—and wants to educate people about being tolerant. He wants to support the scene down there [in Serbia], and I think he wants to educate American and Canadian bands that ‘the world is a big place and not everybody likes you’ so we can learn how to deal with that.”
Despite some turmoil beforehand, the gig went off without a hitch. “I kept thinking, ‘if we can just start playing, everything’s going to be fine,’” said Thompson. And it was.
Back in the U.S., Umbrella Bed held a CD release party for “One Small Skank for Man” in November and now is taking a break. Thompson said that despite the ebbs and flows in Ska and the music business in general, Umbrella Bed is here to stay. “I don’t think it will ever end . . . even if we play once every three years. Some people will be there and some people won’t. At this point the band’s established itself and we just have a great time performing.”