“Ska music engages everyone, especially in a live environment”, Ivan Borg tells me a couple of minutes before we take a seat for an advance listen of The Rifffs’ new album, Can’t stop the people. The young bass player should know; after all he’s played countless gigs, among them some significant ones abroad too with this band ever since stepping into original bassist Cook’s shoes some years ago. “A lot of people mistakenly think Ska is just about the guitar upstroke, but there really is so much more going on”. A big Ska fan since my early teens, I don’t really need convincing, but if anyone is in doubt, they only need to take one listen to Whole lot of nothing to see what he is referring to.
The Rifffs’ latest single is possibly their biggest radio hit since the now-legendary Dance Music for the 80s Depression, the latter still as popular as ever. It is also the new album’s opening track and serves as a most appropriate reference point for what is to follow which, further to the reggae slant and brass intro of previous single Start the revolution, pretty much points to an old-school injection and a stronger brass presence in the band’s signature punky Ska. “The overall sound comprises many elements”, Borg points out. I ask whether it may have been a case of going back to the roots to find the way forward, to which Ray Mercieca – the band’s singer, guitarist and main songwriter – replies by saying, “It’s like having a jigsaw puzzle and putting the pieces in the right place. It may sound a bit adventurous, which I have to say we are, but I think we’ve succeeded in capturing the sound we were looking for”.
Guitarist Rayvin Portelli mentions a few more pointers as to what helped shape the music on Can’t stop the people. “There’s a lot to learn from the roots of Ska and reggae and how they’ve evolved”, he explains, adding that he likes to share what he finds with the rest of the band. “Through the music of artists like Prince Fatty, Hollie Cook, and The Gentleman Dub Club we got turned on to old-school artists and Studio One legends like The Skatalites and The Maytals. I think The Skatalites had a lot to do with the strong brass presence on the new album”.
Both Mercieca and producer Howard Keith, at whose Jagged House Studios the album was recorded, agree on one thing, namely that the album was a case of the band going after what they felt sounded right and not caring about how the new songs would be received. It’s a particularly interesting observation, on which Keith expands even further. “It wasn’t easy for the band to let go of the punky edge that defined their earlier songs and that had become part and parcel of their sound, but I think allowing the songs more space, and more importantly more brass, brought out a different characteristic that the band felt quite comfortable with, and it shows in the way the songs have turned out”.
Testing out some of the new songs in their live sets, The Rifffs were happy with the crowd’s response, and now feel confident that the 10 songs on the new album are more than a fitting follow-up to their acclaimed Moonstomp debut. “We’ve re-recorded one of our old songs, Little Girl, which fits in quite well with what we’re doing now”, Mercieca tells me, and with a cheeky glint in his eye adds, “and I can exclusively tell you that we’ve got Neville Staple guesting on one of the songs, too”. For the uninitiated, Staple used to be in The Specials, widely revered within the world of 2-Tone as the Original Rude Boy, so it is only fitting to have him on a song by Malta’s very own Original Rude Boys, and if you’re wondering what a Rude Boy is, a quick Wiki search will sort you out presto.
Further to Borg’s comment earlier that there is more to Ska than most people think, the rest of the album blends rocksteady, dirty reggae, even a dab of soul into the mainly brass-driven songs. “There’s all of that and more”, Mercieca confirms, but in the end, it sounds like The Rifffs and nothing but”, and perhaps he’s right, for here is a band that has yet to be outdone within the local scene and if things work out right, they’ll be pushing their music even further beyond our shores than they have done already. “Our experiences abroad, particularly our performances at the Mighty Sounds Festival have given us a big boost”, the band’s frontman continues. “I can’t begin to describe how great it feels to get such an overwhelming response considering we were relatively unknown to them”.
This is not a problem The Rifffs have to worry much about these days, certainly not locally anyway, as their recent explosive performance at the Music & Steel Festival proved only too well. But what do they feel it is about the band that appeals to a fanbase that now boasts several generations? It may be the element of ‘coolness’ that their music possesses, or even their legacy as one of the most important bands to come out of Malta, but as Portelli puts quite neatly, “I think it’s all down to the fact that Ska is music you can dance to and it puts a smile on people’s faces”. I second that wholeheartedly, in full faith that their album launch gig on the Earth Garden Roots Stage on Saturday June 7 will be an incredible experience for all those present, not least the band itself.
The Rifffs are Ray Mercieca (vocals, guitar), Rayvin Portelli (guitar), Najju (drums), Ivan Borg (bass), Matthew Borg (keyboards, vocals), Russu (trumpet). Mario Borg (saxophone) and Dominic (trombone).
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (01 June 2014)