Smoke And Mirrors Sound System are an American ska, rocksteady and reggae supergroup put together during the pandemic by John Roy who had previously played in many other ska bands in California and also played with the English Beat for a while. He had no work in his day job supplying sound for concerts and events so had more time to focus on his music. He called on many friends on the scene to help him put his idea into motion. Their album from last year “Strength In Numbers” is one of the best albums from the past few years from an American scene that has never really gone away since it’s inception in the early 80s but has seen a new resurgence in the past five years or so. Many US releases can be found for sale in the UK and Europe now, especially releases through Chuck Wren’s Jump Up label out of Chicago (who also distribute many other labels).
The band are currently hard at work on their upcoming second album which will feature cover versions and is due for release in the not too distant future. Some tracks have already had videos made for them and I include links below.
I caught up with John Roy, the brains behind the project, recently for a chat.
What got you into ska and who were your early influences and favourites?
My sister Sabrina is 7 years my senior and I listened through the wall as a kid to whatever she was playing on her record player.
She brought home the Dance Craze LP in perhaps ’81/’82 and I was instantly hooked on 2-Tone!
I was already in the habit of soaking in all information on the liner notes and staring at the artwork while listening to a record. No internet or MTV back then. I wanted to live in this fantastic world that exclaimed Equality with all complexions represented with unity as a pillar. I already loved swing/big band jazz/ soul, lounge and rock from my mum n dad’s collections of Reel to Reel tapes and LPs. This felt like a melting pot of everything!
Reading the credits, I noticed Prince Buster Credited and The Pioneers credited on numerous tunes.
A few special trips with my sister to Lou’s records and Blue Meanie Records , where There were actual reggae sections and ska sections-that did it!
I bought Skatalites, Pioneers, John Holt, 20 reggae classics (a Primer comp that informed Labour of
love imho) and all the bands on Dance Craze. I loved Madness, Specials, Selecter, Bodysnatchers, Bad Manners and the Beat etc. as well as local Reggae icon and Deejay Makeda Dread here in San Diego on 91x.
You started out with a band called Big Express while still at school, they supported big acts such as The Untouchables (who were the first huge American ska band). That must have felt like winning the lottery at such a young age? Another huge act in California at that time were The Donkey Show who you played alongside. I wonder how their sax player is doing nowadays? 😉 (For the non clued up, I’m referring to “Disco” Dave Hillyard of the Slackers and his own Rocksteady Seven band).
It was a dream come true and a whirlwind that I truly wish I’d savored even more.
Seeing Shows at Fender’s Ballroom (and playing them) alongside such bands as The Untouchables, The Key, The Question, The Donkey Show, The Jaywalkers, No Doubt etc. was a true eye opener.
My Black n White vision of Two-Tone expanded into Technicolor! Mods, Skins, Rudeboys, Scooterists and musicians in one place of all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds…
It was like the microcosm of The Big Express members as an entire scene of thousands. Brilliant!
Later, with Gangbusters, playing Country Club Reseda CA and Iguana’s in Tijuana was the stuff of legends! Seeing Donkey Show While in Big Express, I felt the pull of ska very strongly.
I already knew I had to play more of it. I’d also grown to love the Clash, Big Audio Dynamite and Fishbone- (fishbone is still head and shoulders above the crowd for power, talent, energy and message).
San Diego is a Small town at heart with a big population. We all worked hard at keeping a scene and shows going. I have so much love and respect and love for the Scooterists of my town. They are beautifully stubborn n loyal and gave many of my bands the crucial support we needed at many many shows.
When I smell burning two stroke oil, I know the show’s gonna be good!
After Big Express, you played in several bands in a variety of genres including funk, jazz, Latin cumbia and soul until the early 90s when you formed Unsteady, the band that you are most known for. In between you played in Dave Wakeling’s English Beat for a few years.
I definitely idolized all the Two-Tone bands and Saxa was the definition of Jamaican hipness that gave so much real flavor to The Beat’s sound. I’d recorded some tracks in Los Angeles and Dave Wakeling heard them as he was in the same studio for a session. He phoned me up and asked if I’d like to play a few lines over his music.
As a fan of The Beat growing up, did it feel surreal to be playing with Dave or did you take it all in your stride?
Well of course! He called me up on a show and I played the whole set. I’d been playing along to the albums for 15 years already. My sound is Ready made to give Saxa’s lines proper respect.
It was a good gig that paid me enough to help support Unsteady on our shoestring budget tours too. I’m a bit of a romantic fool with dreams of sharing this music with the world til I die.
I was lucky enough to meet my wife whilst touring with Dave through Chicago- forever thankful for that.
What sowed the seeds of Smoke And Mirrors Sound System? Was it an idea that was the result of the pandemic or was it something that had been fermenting in your head for a while and the situation gave you time to act on it?
Unsteady was really ramping up in 2018-2019. Kevin Hewitt, my organist, co-conspirator and musical brother made big plans to get music released, play out as much as we could , as we’re not spring chickens anymore! We had seized on the momentum of a few small tours and upcoming festivals when the bottom dropped out March of 2020. It took the wind out of the band’s sails and it wasn’t safe to rehearse. (I have MS and I’m on immunosuppressive therapy)
My live production rental company shut down too. It was dismal. I’ve been using Reason and Protools to create demos to share with bandmates to learn for Unsteady’s live sets as well as just a glorified note pad with song snippets and ideas.That quickly became my only outlet and release valve in isolation. I’m a mill in need of grain to grind, so I made a few dozen tunes with my limited skills at sequencing, playing and singing.
As it turns out, in this technological age, there are dozens of great players I’ve been bandmates with and many more folks I’ve met on the road who were in a similar predicament.
We all needed a lift and I was introduced to many more players through mutual mates too! Why not make an imaginary dream band of my favourite players if we could play for anyone in real life?
Then it follows to reason that I should share this with everyone I possibly could everywhere… Since I do love vinyl… why not make as many records in a few years as I’d made in a few decades?
Nothing’s out of the realm of possibility when everything else is gone. And here we are!
How easy or difficult was it to get everyone on board? You’ve put together what seems to the casual ska fan as a who’s who of the music. There’s Lady Hatchet from The Scotch Bonnets, New York ska and dub legend Victor Rice (now a resident of Brazil), Jeremy Pena of the Bandulus, Jeff Baker aka King Django, Korey Horn from the Aggrolites and many more. Are there any musicians or singers who you would have loved to have on board but weren’t available?
There were varying degrees of ease and difficulty. I won’t bring anyone down who couldn’t or wouldn’t contribute. I can just say that these great players have the drive! I’ve seen spectacular contributions from around the world and I’m still looking for more! If a performer has the means and caliber, I’m chuffed to have them- not enough hours in the day!
My friend Roger Rivas told me ‘Game recognizes Game’ – he has the drive and hustle and I completely respect that in him. Hatchet, Ricey, Jeremy, Django, Korey, Gil Sharone, Eddie Ocampo,
Disco Dave Hillyard, Chris Cancelliere, Buford O’Sullivan, Dunia Best Sinnreich, Rebecca Jade, Brian Jordan, Doug Shaffer, Tony Devenish , Felipe Machado ,
Jayson Nugent, Jon Quan, Brian Lockrem, Brent Ford, Alex Gonzalez, Emilio Martinez, Esteban Florez Valenzuela, Tori Roze and so many more great players on these records have that same drive/determination/dedication.
I pushed everyone, but they’re all self starters! Ask everyone. The worst they can say is no.
The project was put together utilising the wonders of the internet. Are there plans for you to eventually tour in person? Would there be a core group of members or would you attempt to have all thirty plus personnel on the stage at the same time?
It’s my dream to have a huge band, but money, logistics, life, pandemics, family, jobs, responsibility all have their own specific pull. Currently I’ve put 8 of us together with my multitrack recording of the tunes filling in extra horns, bgv, keys, guitars and a click track for Chris, the drummer , to keep us in line.
I learned a lot from Playing with Paul from OMD a couple of decades ago. He had a six piece with his tracks to reproduce his iconic OMD hits. We definitely veer into live, no tracks, playing and it spontaneous! I’ve pulled from the Unsteady catalogue to play many more tunes live on the fly (since Kevin, Doug and I were in that band). My hope would be to play many large festivals and call up players to cameo on the tunes they played on for me in every city we’d visit.
If there’s a promoter out there that reads this… Book us!
As well as making music, you have an audio business providing rigging, backlines, etc. How do you balance this with your music or do you find that the two go hand in hand?
Currently, I run the day to day of my business , but it’s a quarter of what it was pre-pandemic.
My hope would be a return to profitability and more employees to sustain it and support my passion of making music. I work on music before shop hours, occasionally during shop hours between rentals/quotes and after shop hours. Bless my wife for that.
Q8: You’re currently working on the next album as we speak. When can we expect that to drop?
The Undercover Album is at the pressing plant and I’m just waiting like hundreds of other clients for it to be pressed….. a few more months hopefully?
I’m also working on the Dub album with Brian Wallace-it’s finished and awaiting Krees Borbon’s artwork, as well as pressing plant wait times.
An Ep is due quite soon from Jump Up Records- I’m quite excited about it- Roger Rivas mixed, dubbed and played on it with a couple of my skinhead reggae heroes, Dan Vitale of Bim Skala Bim, Steady Earnest
and my new friend and collaborator Tony Devenish of Rebelation .
Steadybeat Records is releasing a single 7” in Spanish very very soon that we hope to perform with an expanded group in San Diego and Los Angeles.
What do you do to relax in your downtime and do you have any tips for balancing your time between the music and your family life?
I watch old and new sci fi movies with my wife Andrea and my Terrier Chief during most of my free time. Thankful Andrea’s been supportive all along!
I’m terribly focused so I need to listen to her more when she tells me to look after myself, sleep and eat right.
I’m in no way a good example lol!
Finally, what are your top five ska/rocksteady/reggae tunes of all time?
You’ve given me too small of a lifeboat, so I’m shooting from the hip.
These 5 tunes Just evoke a feeling so…
Man in The Street is one of the most powerful live tunes and Skatalites recordings of it take me to my first show with them every time.
Joggin’ by Freddie MacGregor is beyond fire!!! That Rhythm Section is legendary under Freddy
Your House by Steel Pulse is the sound of a crucial band at full strength. Play a one drop like that and I’m in love.
Joey Altruda’s They Call me Mr. Knibb is unmatched. You must hear it. From Skauthentic on Steadybeat
On My Radio by The Selecter is a tune I have to get out of my seat when I hear it- It is energizing!
Thanks for the chat and best of luck with the forthcoming album!
Bandcamp – https://smokeandmirrorssoundsystem.bandcamp.com/releases
Releases can be purchased in the UK from Juno at: https://www.juno.co.uk/artists/Smoke+%2526+Mirrors+Soundsystem/
John’s personal work site can be found here (for anyone in the area who would like to hire him): http://www.johnroysound.com/