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Mephiskapheles: Skanking through the brimstone 

click to enlarge Mephiskapheles has given us almost 30 years of weird-as-hell Satanic ska. - ROB TIMKO
  • Rob Timko
  • Mephiskapheles has given us almost 30 years of weird-as-hell Satanic ska.
Satan is real!

Or at least that was the contention of the Louvin Brothers, country legends who made that claim in the title of their 1959 gospel album. The record cover reinforced their message, with Ira and Charlie standing in front of a fiery pit, dressed in white suits with arms outstretched, as what appears to be a life-size cardboard Satan looms in the background.

In the years since, the Lord of Darkness has made frequent cameo appearances on album covers — he’s especially fond of Dio — while subliminal Satanic symbols run rampant in Beyoncé, Britney, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga videos, at least according to the YouTube conspiracy theorists who deconstruct them in hour-long diatribes.

And then there’s Satanic ska band Mephiskapheles. Forged in the crucible of New York City’s Lower East Side back in the ’90s, the group was pieced together from the remains of a defunct hardcore band called The Shaved Pigs. With their punk-rock intensity and tongue-in-cheek attitude, Mephiskapheles soon established themselves in the city’s underground scene. They released a cassette called DEMOn and began selling it at shows.

As time went on, the group’s arrangements became increasingly adventurous. A song called “Center of the…” shifted abruptly from a bouncy ska rhythm into a dirgey interpretation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which found their three-piece horn section sounding more Sun Ra than Skatalites. With singer/toaster Andre A. Worrell, aka the Nubian Nightmare, at front and center, Mephiskapheles’ controlled cacophony suggested the manic volatility of Fishbone, the eerier elements of late-period Specials and the cabaret decadence of Kurt Weill. Except much louder.

“That early mix of punk, jazz and experimental music wasn’t really a conscious thing,” says bassist Mike Bitz, who also composes much of the band’s music. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s make a ska band, but make it weird, like a Satanic ska band!’ That’s just how we play, that’s how we write, that’s what came out of us. So it takes a little bit of open-mindedness to get into it, but the fans who really dig it have been with us through all these years, which has really been amazing.”
Sacrilegious though they may be, the band does have a reverence for the ska tradition, which is part of the reason why Bitz, unlike most of his contemporaries, insists on playing standup bass. He still has fond memories of discussing upright bass strings with Lloyd Brevett of seminal Jamaican ska band The Skatalites.

“I love electric bass, I have nothing against it,” says Bitz. “But really, the music began on the upright bass, and there’s something about the thumpiness of it that just belongs in the music. When the Skatalites first got started, the upright bass was there right from the beginning.”

As the ’90s progressed, Mephiskapheles began spreading the gospel of Satanic ska to a broader audience, attaching themselves to tours with The Buzzcocks and, less happily, Gwar, whose fans threw bottles at them during a gig in Detroit.

They also upped their game in the recording studio. Through some Faustian bargain, they managed to get Bill Laswell, the famed producer and leader of the band Material, to man the mixing board for their proper debut album God Bless Satan.

“He did an incredible job,” says Bitz, who still radiates gratitude two decades later. “When he took the reins with the mix, he just turned it into something awesome. Without him, it wouldn’t have sounded nearly as good. We were very lucky to work with him so early in our career.”


Subsequent releases like Maximum Perversion and Might-ay White-ay continued to push the Satanic theme, while the band succumbed to much baser instincts by recording a ska version of the Bumblebee tuna song.

Following a decade of recording and touring, the band took a long break to pursue other side projects, including Bitz’s Burn Guitars, a band that featured three bass players and no guitarist. Mephiskapheles reunited in 2013 to play Chicago’s Riot Fest, then released a four-song, self-titled EP in 2015. In October, they’ll go down to Mexico to play the Non Stop Ska Festival, followed by a West Coast tour and the release of a new EP called Never Born Again.

And yes, they’re still playing the role of Satanic ska band, which they see as a valid response to the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of our times. “Religion has been the cause of so much death and demise throughout humanity,” says Bitz. “So Satanic ska is a really good way to combat that.”
Of course, if God and Satan really are real, Bitz and his bandmates are pretty much screwed.

“Well, you know, we’ve been screwed since the first time we stepped into the van,” says Bitz. “We probably should be sitting in church reading the Bible, but we don’t do that. And if we do go to hell, we’ll at least know that we had an awesome time here.”
 

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