A couple of years ago Travis Nelson — a.k.a. Rev Sinister, “The Sinister Minister,” the founding member and frontman of New Brunswick’s Hub City Stompers — and other members of the venerable underground ska/punk/reggae band were on hiatus — kind of.
It was during that time they reconnected with Inspecter 7, another ska group that Nelson “begat” in the early 1990s.
And while things didn’t work out the way one hoped, the reconfigured Inspecter 7 experienced a once-in-a-lifetime event: their cover of the ska chestnut “One Step Beyond” became part of the soundtrack of the hit film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, known for using eclectic and excellent music for his film soundtracks.
“I still don’t know how they came across it, and I’ll always wonder,” says the bewildered Nelson. After all, Inspecter 7’s version was a cover of the version by Madness, which was a cover of the original by ska/reggae pioneer Prince Buster, recorded back in 1964. “I remember being contacted in the summer of 2013. They said, ‘We want to use your song on a movie soundtrack,’ but I don’t remember them telling me the title of the movie or who the director was, so I thought it was some indie film,” says Nelson.
“Then, right about the time we were ending the Inspecter 7 endeavor, we found out that it was on a Martin Scorsese film, and I thought, ‘I guess it wasn’t some minor movie,’” he says. “I’ve gone on YouTube to find the scene, and it’s pretty amazing to hear it. Everyone thought it was cool, but not a lot came from it, but who cares? I can say, ‘My band had a song in a Martin Scorsese movie.’”
Since then Hub City Stompers has been re-energized, and the seven-person ensemble will appear Backstage at the Championship Bar in Trenton on Sunday, June 19, where it will co-headline with the Toasters. The gig is a make-up show, originally set for the weekend of January 23 and 24, but canceled because of the massive snow storm that hit the area.
It’s only the beginning of a busy summer for Hub City Stompers, which just last weekend played the kickoff party for the Punk Rock Bowling and Music Festival in Asbury Park. In August the band will journey to the Midwest/ North Central U.S., for SKAppleton, the largest annual ska concert in the country, held near Appleton, Wisconsin, (August 13). Then on August 14 it will be featured at Midwest Ska Fest in Chicago.
“Then for Labor Day, we’ll be heading out to Minneapolis, for Midwest Live and Loud (September 1 through 4), which features not just ska, but all kinds of underground music,” says Nelson, a resident of Bordentown, which he jokingly calls “the punk rock retirement community.”
“All kinds of underground” might be a good way to describe Hub City Stompers’ music and Nelson’s songwriting. The group describes itself as “embracing various styles and eras of ska from the 1960s through the 1980s, and adding reggae, punk, oi! (a punk sub genre), hardcore, and even hip-hop, jazz and classical influences,” and adds, “they manage to avoid a typical, formulaic ska sound and steer clear of cliche poppy ska lyrics.”
(Incidentally, ska is defined by the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll as “a pre-reggae Jamaican dance rhythm popular in the 1960s.”)
It all started with punk rock, and especially hardcore for Nelson, who works as a supervisor for mail services at Rutgers University.
“That was my main music, and some traditional punk,” he says. “I liked all kinds of underground music, but hardcore was my main thing. It’s ironic that I joined a ska band, in fact I think it was (City Gardens promoter/Man Cave owner) Randy Now who suggested that me and Alex Franklin — who was also a City Gardens regular — start a ska band. I don’t know if he was joking or not.”
“I liked punk and hardcore because there weren’t a lot of rules — and it was a way to get a lot of your anger out,” Nelson says.
“From the beginning, with Hub City Stompers and even with Inspecter 7, influences came from all over the underground scene, from vocal stylings, to subject matter, to influences, etc.,” he says. “We’re influenced by ska and reggae but also by hardcore and oi!, and there’s even hip-hop in some of the stuff I’ve written.”
Hub City Stompers explores a variety of subjects, and its songs do touch on social and political matters, but with humor. Nelson reflects that the only way to deal with the media overkill of the 2016 presidential primary and political news is with mass doses of humor, and maybe some Pepto Bismol.
“We haven’t written about the 2016 election since it’s almost too easy; everyone is talking about it,” he says. “In fact, it’s kind of being pushed down your throat, so I doubt we’ll write about it. It’s even getting sickening.”
“Hub City Stompers’ songs address all kinds of things, and our songs do have some social and political depth, but we tend to be tongue-in-cheek,” he explains. “We get the point across, but the more serious the topic, the more humor we put into it.”
Nelson was born in Pittsburgh, and raised “going back and forth between” Pennington, New Brunswick, and Trenton. Nelson’s father was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Trenton throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s. His mother is a retired attorney/partner at Pelletierri, Rabstein and Altman, originally in Trenton and now in Princeton.
He also has an older brother who taught him well about the wonders of punk and hardcore, presenting him with a cassette tape of Black Flag’s “Damaged” — a punk rock classic — sometime around 1983.
“It’s been all uphill — or downhill — from there,” Nelson says. “I got into underground through my older brother, then found like-minded people at Hopewell High School, and then started going to City Gardens around 1987. I’d always liked music, though, even at age 10, when my mom took me to see the Rolling Stones on the ‘Tattoo You’ tour at JFK stadium in Philadelphia,” in 1981.
“But with all that teenage angst going on, when I heard Black Flag, it opened up a whole new universe,” he says. “You think you’re the only person who’s into it, and then you find friends. Then there was City Gardens — that was my music scene. I mix things up, but I’m pretty positive my first show at City Gardens was Fishbone in 1987.”
Nelson says he played piano and bass for a while, but not very well. He concluded that he would be a better writer and performer than instrumentalist, but most of all he was a “big appreciator” of City Gardens’ live shows. He says he didn’t play in bands until he founded/joined Inspecter 7 in 1994.
“Inspecter 7 was the forerunner for Hub City Stompers,” he says. “We toured nationally and put out some albums, but by 2001 everyone was jaded. We just fizzled out and stopped touring and playing. But I wasn’t done — I didn’t want to stop, so I formed Hub City Stompers.”
Some of Inspecter 7’s personnel came along to the new group, and Nelson hand-picked the rest. As far as the name for the new band, “‘Hub City Stompers’ was a song I had written, so it’s an Inspecter 7 reference — a (shoutout) to the punks who used to hang out in New Brunswick, a tribute to them,” Nelson says. “We were throwing out names and we didn’t want to be ‘Inspecter 7 Part Two,’ so Lord Skoochie (Eric Schroeder), one of our original sax players, suggested ‘Hub City Stompers’ and that’s what we’ve called ourselves ever since.”
Since officially forming in 2002, the lineup for Hub City Stompers has changed and evolved, and there are more than a dozen former and sometimes “fill-in” members. The band crosses genders and age groups, and draws from regional ska bands such as Bigger Thomas, Professor Plum, Predator Dub Assassins, Bomb Town, and the Heavy Beat.
Soulful and rock-solid, Hub City Stompers’ current lineup includes Jenny Whiskey on tenor sax and vocals, Reggae Bob on bass, Rod Gorgeous on guitar, Joey Pip on drums, G&T James on trombone, and Pukey B. on keyboards.
“G&T James is James Kelly. He’s a more recent addition,” Nelson says. “He had an awesome audition, in fact he grew up coming to Hub City Stompers shows — we always saw him in the audience. Although he’s one of the younger members, he knows a lot musically, probably more than us.”
“For some time Jenny Whiskey was a one-woman horn section, so she loves the addition of James. It gives her the ability to harmonize,” he says.
Hub City Stompers loves to play live, has toured extensively, and will continue to do so, since “playing live is what it’s mostly about,” Nelson says. However, the group does write and record and has a number of albums out, including “Life After Death,” released in 2014 on New Brunswick-based Stubborn Records.
“That was our last full-length album,” Nelson says. “Last fall we released a best of the first three albums compilation on vinyl, called ‘Caedes Sudor Fermentum: Best of the Dirty Jersey Years,’ through Crowd Control Media in California.” (Rough translation: “Blood, Sweat, and Beers,” which is the name of Hub City Stompers’ 2004 album on Megalith Records.)
“We like to record, but it’s hard because it costs money, the timing (can be tricky), and you have to have the right bunch of songs,” he explains. “Right now we’re on the brink of having a new album. It’s all been written, so we’ll be ready to record this summer or fall, and hopefully it will be released in 2017. We’ll be studio hunting and label hunting, and we’re anxious to get back into the studio. This will be the first album with this lineup on every song.”
Nelson notes that everybody in the band has a nickname and his reflects, in part, his childhood, growing up a “P.K.,” or “Preacher’s Kid.”
“My dad was ‘The Rev’ and I’m just ‘Rev,’” he says. “I’d dress in minister garb on stage, but it doesn’t have much to do with religion. It’s just like a musical church: the stage is a church or pulpit, and we’re up there preaching our gospel, our underground punk rock gospel.”
Hub City Stompers and The Toasters, Backstage at the Championship Bar, 931 Chambers Street, Trenton. Sunday, June 19. Doors open at 6 p.m. $13. www.facebook.com/ChampionshipBar or www.facebook.com/hubcitystompers and www.reverbnation.com/hubcitystompers. 609-394-5502.