Two Tone Army

If Brandon Jenison, who plays trumpet in ska band Mustard Plug, were to do standup comedy, he says he would have a great opening line. 

“The first thing I would say would be, ‘Hey, how’s it going? My name is Brandon, and I’m in a ska band,’” he tells Eugene Weekly over the phone. “I guarantee that would get laughs.” 

Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Mustard Plug is a part of an “In Defense of Ska” tour that makes a stop at Old Nick’s Pub Thursday, Sept. 15. The tour was originally planned for January 2022 but was postponed because a member from one of the bands had a health emergency. 

But health emergencies won’t stop folks from defending ska. 

The West Coast tour  features ska bands Mustard Plug, Buck-o-Nine and Omnigone. Author and Santa Cruz’s alt-weekly Good Times’ arts editor Aaron Carnes will also read a chapter from his book, In Defense of Ska, an in-depth look at ska and its rich history and future that EW reviewed for its 2021 Winter Reading issue. 

In December 2021, before the tour’s early 2022 dates were postponed, Jenison spoke with EW about what it was like playing in Mustard Plug in the 1990s and what keeps the ska band chugging along. 

Mustard Plug is one of many bands from the “third wave” of ska in the U.S. that came decades after the second wave in the U.K. during the ’70s and the first wave when ska was created in Jamaica in the ’60s.

Jenison joined Mustard Plug in 1994, three years after its formation, and he says that’s when he discovered what ska really was. He knew about some of the bands, such as Fishbone and Madness and The English Beat, he adds, but he didn’t know they were labeled as ska. The band gave him a stack of CDs to listen to and he says he knew who some of the artists were, just not that those groups were considered ska. 

And when he was with the band for about six months, he says Mustard Plug played a show with Rancid. “I was like, ‘Fuck I know who that is.’” 

That show happened at the final home show of a big tour. Mustard Plug opened for Rancid, who Jenison says were his punk rock idols, and Rocket from the Crypt. “To see them play and bond with them after the show was pretty nice,” Jenison says. 

Mustard Plug’s catalog has for the most part kept a familiar ska sound: guitar strumming on the upbeat, catchy horns and distorted guitar power chords in the chorus. But compared to other ska bands from the ’90s, Mustard Plug’s music — such as Evildoers Beware! released in 1997 — followed a more punk-oriented slant in the vein of Rancid or Operation Ivy. 

Having a punk element to Evildoers Beware! makes sense considering who the band worked with in the studio. The band’s producers were Jenison’s punk rock heroes: Bill Stevenson and Stephen Egerton of Descendents. “They had never recorded a ska band before,” he says. “It was a learning process for both of us. Now they’re like these big brother figures. It’s surreal.”

The band didn’t get the mainstream success that other ska groups of the third wave — such as Reel Big Fish and the Aquabats — but Jenison says he loves that he and the band can still go out and play festivals and go on tour like the “In the Defense of Ska” string of shows. 

“There’s just like, there’s the drive to create and still make art, and then play music with my friends is still there. So that’s really the thing that pushes it forward,” he says. 

Regardless of whether ska is en vogue or not, Jenison says for the past 30 years Mustard Plug has done its own thing and maintained its unique sound despite the ever-changing nature of the music industry. Whatever the band comes up with, he says, it sounds like Mustard Plug. He adds that it’s hard to describe what the Mustard Plug sound is:  It’s a vibe. 

And the band could be coming out with new music soon. After getting vaccinated in spring 2021, Jenison says the band decided to work on new songs that will hopefully become a new release.  

In addition to Mustard Plug playing with the younger band Omnigone at Old Nick’s, the band recently performed with other upcoming ska groups, such as Half Past Two and Kill Lincoln. Jenison hesitates to call the new ska bands “fourth wave” or “new tone” but he’s glad to see ska is alive and well. 

“We’re getting older and we still like to go out and play but we can’t do it all the time,” he says. “It’s just nice to still be sort of like given a little bit of respect and be involved with at all. It’s rad to see.”  

“In Defense of Ska” is 9 pm Thursday, Sept. 15, at Old Nick’s Pub. Tickets are $14.50 in advance, $16 at the door. 21+.