Ska feels good
Chico’s Big Tree Fall Down invites everyone to the skank pit
Ska is fun music. Even if you don’t know your 2 Tone from your third wave, when the guitar starts to hiccup that bright rhythm and the horn section blows a catchy hook, the energetic sound is pretty irresistible.
“If you get in that pocket when it’s just rowin’ right, it feels good,” said Chris Zinna, guitarist/vocalist for Big Tree Fall Down, as he sat inside the Naked Lounge coffee house talking about his band’s upcoming CD-release party and about the dance-floor-friendly music he plays. “I think that’s another big thing with ska and reggae: You can get involved; you can dance!”
There’s likely not anyone in Chico more involved with playing ska—as well as most of the other popular forms of music with Jamaican roots—than Zinna. (In fact, it seemed more than just a coincidence that the seminal reggae soundtrack The Harder They Come happened to be playing over the café’s speakers as we talked.) In addition to the bombastic seven-member BTFD, Zinna plays keyboard and sings in Chico/San Francisco ska crew Boss 501. He also DJs a monthly reggae, soul, rocksteady and ska dance night at The Maltese Bar & Taproom as DJ Esco Chris, the same moniker under which he recorded and played all instruments on 2012’s Reggae Imposter, a bouncy, six-song love note to organ-heavy reggae from 1969-75. “It’s basically my tribute to the early Jamaican stuff,” he said.
While Zinna’s activity in the local music scene makes him maybe the most visible member of the band, it was drummer Joe Stone who started Big Tree Fall Down. At first, it was just him jamming in his living room with tenor saxophonist Robert Matson, as a sax and drum duo, with Stone shaping the band’s early tunes before bringing them to the eventual group.
“I had different song melodies and ideas,” Stone said in a recent phone interview, adding that since he didn’t have much experience on nonrhythm instruments, “I’d just whistle them and hum them.”
The humming method worked just fine in the group of experienced players he joined up with, most of whom were members of two of the more popular local ska bands of the last few years. Baritone saxophonist/vocalist Daniel “Sterny” Sternberg, trombonist Charlie Francis and Zinna are all in Boss 501. And trumpet player Eric Lefevers and lead singer Rusty Johnson were both in popular local ska-punk crew Brass Hysteria (which busted up its Chico unit and moved the band to San Diego). Rounding out the band is Jack McGrath on bass.
Stone is also in the recording arts program at Chico State, and he’s the one who engineered what will be the group’s debut album, Go Home Tree, You’re Drunk. “I recorded the whole thing straight out of my living room,” he said.
And it is an impressively big-sounding collection of tunes that draws inspiration from many points along the ska spectrum—from the spooky-sounding nod to The Specials (“Devil Inside”) to sprinting ska-punk (“Get Outta My Way”). Especially infectious is the mid-tempo “Yesterday Today,” with the horn section drifting in and out of the loping melody as the song gradually builds from just horns to a cacophony of drums and fuzzed-out guitar. But the strongest tracks are the many melodic, quick-tempoed straight-up modern ska numbers—“Drift Away,” “Big Ups,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Forcing You”—that prove so irresistible to the band’s dancing crowds.
Since the recording, BTFD actually lost vocalist Johnson, who moved to So Cal. This might seem like a fairly big problem, since he sang most of the songs on the new album, but Stone said that, by the time Johnson had joined, “we had already written all the lyrics.” And wanting to avoid being added to the list of disbanded local ska bands (e.g., Brass Hysteria, and the recently deceased Frankie Doppler’s Nuclear Sunrise), they just reclaimed their words and divvied the singing duties among the main songwriters—Stone, Matson, Zinna and Sterny—and kept on skankin’.