An Interview with Travis Nelson of the Hub City Stompers

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To call the Hub City Stompers a “Ska band” is really doing them sort of an injustice, because in reality they are so much more. Their music infuses Oi!, Reggae, Punk, Jazz, Hip-Hop and more. It’s truly an amalgamation of so many genres, blended together to form the magical sound that is Hub City Stompers. The band’s focus on equality within Ska and throughout all of music is also refreshing, and is something that all fans of Ska music, or any music in general can get behind full force. Today we’ve got Travis Nelson, also known as Rev Sinister, who is the leader of Hub City Stompers. It was a real treat to have Travis aboard for this one, and I truly enjoyed getting to know him and his music a bit better. I believe you all will as well. Fans of the underground, this one’s for you. If you would like to learn more about the Hub City Stompers, you can head over to their Bandcamp here. Once you’ve done all of that, give this interview a read. Enjoy.

Andrew:
Travis, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a weird year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to pass the time?

Travis:
Yeah, this is some Twilight Zone stuff going on here. HCS is accustomed to being mad busy live show wise. So, the fact that we’re about to hit one year since we’ve played a show is something I can barely wrap my damn head around. 

As far as the band passing time, we haven’t been able to have proper full practices at the studio where we regularly rehearse. But we’ve had a some “semi-staffed” practices in our keyboardist/guitarist HanOi! Jay’s basement. We’ve also put out a few “virtual performance” videos to hopefully bring some form of entertainment to HCS fans, since we can’t currently provide it live.

Andrew:
Tell us about your backstory. What was your musical gateway so to speak?

Travis:
I’ve loved music since as far back as I can remember in my childhood, and I don’t mean kiddie music but rather the Classic Rock and what not that was emitting from the crappy radio speakers in my parents’ VW back in the 70s. But my initial gateway to underground music was my older brother. I first heard the sounds of Punk, Hardcore, Post-Punk, Alternative, Ska, Reggae, and Hip-Hop blaring from his room when I was in grade school. And when he was out of the house, I’d sneak in his room to further investigate and play his tapes. As I got older and came more and more into it on my own, I also found some very few like-minded individuals in my town into the same music. And then in 1987, I attended my first underground show (Fishbone) at the legendary City Gardens in Trenton, NJ, and that was that. The underground music scene was my new home.

Andrew:
Hub City Stompers have been around since 2002, right? Tell us about how the band got its start.

Travis:
Starting in early 1994, I was co-frontman of the New Jersey Ska band Inspecter 7 (or “i7” as we often abbreviate it to). We had a good run of it back then, with Ska experiencing a big “boom” in the mid to late 90s. We put out a couple albums on Radical Records, did some national tours, and it was a special and defining time and aspect of my life. After the “boom” toward the end of the 90s, everything seemed to peter out, not just in the scene but also in terms of i7’s drive. A lot of i7 seemed somewhat burnt out and we just seemed to produce and tour less and less. We did one last tour in October of 2000 with Youth Brigade, our ol’ Jersey homeboys, Bouncing Souls, and Mustard Plug and then in 2001, we just seemed to taper off in activity. By fall of 2001 we weren’t playing nor practicing. It was like i7 had gone into some unspoken hiatus or, for all we knew, end (for the record, i7 did eventually start playing again in 2003).

I was by no means done performing and being in a band, personally, so I decided to start a new band to keep going. Though a few other i7 members decided to join me in this endeavor at the time, including a founding member, and we still intended to perform Inspecter 7 songs along with new material, we still opted not to retain/continue the “Inspecter 7” name out of common sense and common decency given the absence of certain i7 members. However, as we did intend to carry on the same theme, style, and spirit of i7 we did choose to name the band after a i7 song I had written called “Hub City Stompers,” which was a homage to our crew of skins, punks, and mods that existed in the i7 hometown of New Brunswick, NJ (aka “Hub City”, in Jersey) between 1992 and 1994. It fit ideally and felt right, and that was that. We hunted down a few more members, had a full line-up and started practicing in mid 2002, recorded a song for the Megalith Records “Still Standing” Ska compilation released later that year, and started performing live shows that fall.

Image Credit: Bryan Kremkau

Andrew:
What were some of Hub City Stompers’ earliest influences as a band? Who were/are some of your greatest personal influences?

Travis:
Of course, as previously stated, we took our i7 style along with us. But with HCS, I also wanted to diversify and broaden our sound more so than i7 had. So we definitely incorporated more direct aspects of genres such as 2Tone, early Ska, 80s European Ska, Reggae, Hardcore, Oi!, and even Hip-Hop, all favorite genres of mine for sure. And I can definitely say that be it from a musical style aspect or simply a performance/attitude aspect, I definitely applied some of my personal favorites and influences to HCS writing and performance, such as Bad Manners, Madness, The Busters, Judge Dread, The Paragons, Symarip, Murphy’s Law, Sheer Terror, The Wretched Ones, 4 Skins, and like I said, even Hip-Hop such as Boogie Down Productions/KRS-ONE.

Andrew:
One of the cool things about Hub City Stompers is the commitment to staying true to early Ska. In an age where Third Wave has sort of taken over, what lead you as a group to go in the opposite direction?

Travis:
Truth be told, we’re not as “trad” nor “anti-Third Wave” as people sometimes perceive us to be. While we definitely stress the importance and significance of acknowledging the authentic roots of Ska, and definitely do so ourselves in some of our music, we are by no means “Ska purists” that consider original Ska to be the only legitimate form of Ska. And that is clearly illustrated in our music, with all of the aforementioned influences clearly apparent. HCS does in fact play “Third Wave” (at least EARLY Third Wave style) and “Ska Punk” and “Skacore.” That kind of stuff makes up a large part of our catalog and we regularly perform with (and are close friends with) bands that could certainly fall under any of those categories. However, I think the distinction between us and the Third Wave bands you are referring to is that we, as I mentioned, do in fact acknowledge original Ska and apply it as an influence; we don’t so strictly adhere to one monotonous formulaic style, and our Ska Punk and Skacore songs aren’t composed and performed in a way that waters down the individual Ska, Punk, or Hardcore influences to the point where they don’t even sound like the genres they claim to represent. Additionally, we openly reject and call out those with narrow-minded attitudes that ignore and shit on the roots of Ska and that consider Third Wave to be the only valid form of Ska. That rejection and call-out was manifested most in our song “Ska Train to Dorkville.” That song, along with our significant Skinhead following, seems to have created the perception that we are “anti-Third Wave.” However, if people paid a little closer attention to the song itself instead of just focusing on the “F bombs” in it they will see that the song rather specifically calls out the more narrow-minded Third-Wave-Only ignoramuses and also directly addresses the gross gentrification and white-washing that Ska has suffered over the years.

Hell, we even have a song coming from the opposite side of that fence, entitled “Bring Back the Dorks,” which blatantly bashes the pretentious trad Ska purists while also addressing the rampant and offensive gentrification of Ska. 

The bottom line is that with a musical genre as diverse and versatile as Ska has evolved to be, nobody who claims to be a fan should be boxing out any of the various styles and sub-genres therein. You don’t necessarily have to love one style or another, but the diversity should be appreciated and the roots should NEVER be dismissed.

Andrew:
There areva lot of misconceptions regarding the old school, Ska Skinhead culture. What can you tell us about it? What is the message and creed so to speak?

Travis:
The misconception is about the Skinhead subculture in general. And due to that misconception and miseducation, a lot of people don’t even know about the connection between Ska, Reggae, and original Skinheads and how Ska/Reggae is the original musical identity of that subculture. The hijacking of the Skinhead name by white supremacists, and the rampant disinformation spread due to the media’s coverage of those hijackers and ignorance towards true and original Skins, is something anyone and everyone involved in the true Skinhead subculture is familiar with and has to deal with at some point. At least these days there are more informational resources so that refuting the misinformation is easier to do. You can simply Google “Skinhead” and read the Wikipedia history to learn about its true origins, or watch pieces such as Don Letts’ The Story of Skinhead on YouTube. We didn’t have that luxury coming up as Skins back in the 80s and early 90s. So, someone accusing you of being a neo-Nazi was either going to listen to your refutation (if you even bothered giving them one) or there was going to be a fight.  

But now more than ever, it is all too easy to just educate oneself to the truth that the Skinhead subculture is not a bunch of white power primates, and that it’s roots are very much linked to black/Afro-Caribbean culture. And that the very origins of Skinhead involved that Afro-Caribbean culture mixing with white working class culture. Without either, the Skinhead subculture would not exist.

By the same token, however, when properly educating people regarding the fraudulent white supremacist representation of Skinheads, people should not be trying to reinvent the Skinhead subculture as some kind of hand-holding, “Kumbaya” peace movement. Violence has always been part of the subculture, period. And any suggestion otherwise is an outright lie. So, while it is not a white supremacist subculture, it is a violent one, it is a working class one, and it is a proud one. It is not simply about fashion or even music. It is not a subculture to be marketed. And that explains why it is more and more moving towards extinction these days.

Andrew:
Growing up, what drew you to Ska music and culture? 

Travis:
The sound, initially. When I was a kid, the grooves of The Specials and The English Beat booming from my older brother’s room hooked me. I had never heard anything like it at that point. Then as I explored Ska and Reggae further, the understanding that it was music of black origin reached me, a young black boy, in an even more special way. And being biracial, by the time I discovered 2Tone, I was hooked just as much by the message as I was by the sound.

Truth be told, as I came up in the underground/Punk music scene in general, Hardcore was my main homestead. But Ska, along with all the other genres I previously mentioned, was of course always there as I always had a diverse array of musical loves. 

Andrew:
As a vocalist and lyricist, who are your biggest influences? How did you go about developing your own unique style?

Travis:
I’d have to say my own warped mind is my biggest influence, honestly. But there are definitely outside influences and performers whose style of delivery and performance and entertainment and mindset I’ve always enjoyed and admired.  To me, front men such as Judge Dread, Angelo Moore, Buster Bloodvessel, Jimmy Gestapo, Paul Bearer, and KRS-ONE have always been experts at ideally blending their words, performance, and presence with the music to make their live sets and even recorded songs the most entertaining and enjoyable they can be. And, hell, even non-musical performers I’m a fan of such as George Carlin have had an influence on me. Each performer I mentioned breaks molds and mores that people tend to expect performers to follow. And they just lay themselves out there any fucking way they want. And not in a way that’s simply boorish, but in a way that allows them to be and let out that part of themselves and not put on same lame, pretentious act. 

Seeing what performers like that do and have done, each in their own unique way, and then applying that same manner to my own distinct personality and mixed-up brain, and blending it with the driving music HCS creates, makes for a damn good show…I think. And I’ve had the opportunity to get more and more comfortable with and hone my performance over the years, starting with Inspecter 7 back in ’94 and my Oi!/Hardcore side project Steel Toe Solution in ’97.

Andrew:
Often times lyricists are only telling stories when they write, and other times, words can be intensely personal. Which is it for you? 

Travis:
It is both, and more, for me. My lyrics vary from stories or scenarios I just think up, to references to things I’ve experienced in life, to direct and specific stories of things that have actually happened in my life (or others’ lives), to topics and situations in society and the world, to breaking balls, to just plain old jokes. They can come from any direction.

Andrew:
If you had to boil down the message of the Hub City Stompers, what would it be?

Travis:
I could never boil down our content to just one message. We’re a bunch of unhinged, dirty Jerseyans with too much shit to say. But some basic messages we portray would be: have fun, enjoy life, laugh, open your mind, be yourself, don’t take superficial things too seriously, don’t be a bigoted asshole, take no shit, and hate the hate.

Andrew:
The band’s most recent album, Blood, Sweat and Years, was released in 2019. Any chance that we see some new music soon?

Travis:
Well, this past year has put the kibosh on most of our practice and rehearsing. So, while we are able to do some composing and rudimentary recording virtually, we haven’t really been able to put a lot of new stuff together to where it could be released. I know a lot of us have been writing material on our own in lockdown. So, when HCS can finally start convening together again we will not only be boning up on our preexisting material for live shows, but we will definitely be putting together material for a new album. 

I can’t say what the precise timeline would be at this point, but the ideal would be to have something out for our 20th anniversary in 2022. 

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CD’s? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Travis:
I guess I evolve with the times. Vinyl and tapes were obviously my thing back in the 80s, then I added CDs by late 80s/early 90s and that was my main and preferred musical medium from then on, and I do mostly digital now, personally. I buy most of my stuff off iTunes when I purchase digitally. I realize there’s many various means for digital music these days, but I happen to be terribly inept at technology, apps etc. I have to rely on the younger and more tech savvy HCS members to sort shit out a lot of the time.  

I was never a “collector” of any medium, per se. I just bought a lot because I wanted to listen to the music. Most of my old vinyl has been sold off by now, but I still have a ton of tapes, which I guess are now making some bizarre come back, so maybe I’ll start selling them shits!  

Our trombone player, Gin & Tonic James, is a huge vinyl collector, by the way.

Andrew:
2020 was a weird year, but we still saw a lot of great music released. What are some of your must have albums of 2020?

Travis:
I have been admittedly deplorable at following new music this year. But there have definitely been a few notable releases that popped up on my radar such as The Suicide Machines Revolution Spring, Body Count Carnivore,  Victor Rice Drink, Crazy Baldhead Go Oasis, and The Bandulus Love A Woman. One of my favorite NYHC bands SubZero also released a couple dope tracks recently. 

Andrew:
What are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?

Travis:
The English Beat Special Beat Service and Fishbone Fishbone were my most significant introductions to Ska at crucial stages. Black Flag Damaged served the same purpose in terms of Hardcore. Run-DMC ’s Self Titled LP did the same in terms of Hip-Hop. The Pogues Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash, Poguetry in Motion, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God not just musically but because there’s also some sentimental connection with my family there, and Massive Attack Mezzanine simply because the whole damn album is so damn good it gives me chills. 

As an additional note of significance, Special Beat Service, Damaged, Run-DMC, Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash, Poguetry in Motion, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God were all introduced to me by my aforementioned older brother, who passed away in 1991. Yet another reason they will always hold a special place in my heart. 

Andrew:
What’s next for Hub City Stompers once COVID-19 calms down?

Travis:
Play and tour and play and tour, and tour some more! And rehearse and record so this stuff we’ve been writing and sitting on in lockdown can finally be unleashed on the unsuspecting masses. 

Andrew:
Last question. In your opinion, what is the current state of the Ska scene? Who is carrying the torch?

Well, I’ve seen it worse and I’ve certainly seen it better. There seems to be a lot of online interest. I just want to see how that translates to live Ska shows when we’re on the other side of COVID-19 and they can happen again.  

Musically, I actually like a good amount of what I’m seeing. The diversity in the music is still holding strong so that a lot of bands are thankfully holding their own sound and not just being cookie cutter crap. 

A couple standout mentions would be Catbite, who have consistently thrown me for a loop in the best of ways with their fun, danceable, and versatile sounds, and also Bad Operation out of New Orleans who also mix it up just beautifully with 2Tone, Ska Punk, and Rocksteady, and who refreshingly and thankfully have a black frontman. I mention and stress the latter because black representation in Ska is painfully absent and desperately needed.

Interested in diving deeper into the work of Hub City Stompers? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.
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