In 1985, guitarist Jim Jones auditioned to join a Boston ska band called Bim Skala Bim. He thought it would be fun.
"I remember I was psyched to jump in, because it was a band that I actually knew the name of," Jones says. "The other bands I was auditioning for hadn't really been anywhere. It was cool to be in this band that knew people in the scene."
Over the next 15 years, Bim Skala Bim recorded nine studio albums, took home dozens of local music awards, toured with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish and the Dropkick Murphys, worked with famed Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller and performed at CBGBs. Fun, indeed.
"We set up to play, and the party starts," Jones says. "That's kind of how it always works out for us."
On Thursday, Sept. 8, Bim Skala Bim plays Cafe Nine in New Haven, with the Hempsteadys and Rude Boy George opening.
When Jones joined, Bim was reforming around singer Dan Vitale and bassist Mark Ferranti. By 1986, the classic lineup was set: Vitale, Ferranti, Jones, singer Jackie Starr (who left in 1989), drummer Jim Arhelger, percussionist Rick Barry, keyboard/sax player John Cameron and trombonist Vinny Nobile.
It took no time at all to get rolling. "That was the amazing thing," Jones says. "At our first shows, all of a sudden people were screaming and jumping around and acting like 5-year-olds, just having a ball. It was amazing, and it's still like that."
The band released "Bim Skala Bim," its debut album, in 1986. Vitale, Ferranti and the trombone player wrote most of the songs; soon, Jones and others were contributing.
"It became more of a mixed group of people writing together," Jones says. "We would work on a batch of songs, rehearse them and get them all together and hopefully play them out live for awhile before recording them. That was one of the great things about this band: There was writing chemistry, too. We got together, and songs just kind of came out. It just kind of worked that way."
The band's regular circuit consisted of clubs and colleges in the Northeast, though its reach extended as far south as Washington, D.C., Virginia and Florida, and west to Michigan and California. At its height, Bim played well over 100 shows a year, including two or three shows most weekends.
Bim's influences were all over the place. Jones was into classic rock and post-punk. Nobile played in Haitian bands. Barry was into world music. You hear pan-Caribbean styles, some Soca, a little dancehall and reggae.
"The musicianship was really good, and everybody could play everything," Jones says. "The rhythm was pretty much worked out from the beginning, and then the genius bass and drums would make it special."
Scene-wise, Bim skated along the fringes of the jam-band circuit and urban hardcore and punk scenes, without really belonging to any of them.
"There were bands that were very rigid about ska," Jones says. "They'd dress up and stuff. There was a whole thing. For us, ska was the main influence, but we crossed a lot of borders, musically and with fans. There were more people that liked us than hated us. That 'pick-it-up, pick-it-up' kind of thing: we weren't that. We were never really in the ska ghetto."
Bim sometimes took flak for not being authentic. "There would be skinheads at the back, not dancing. They'd look up and see me and Mark with long hair, not looking ska at all, but there was never any trouble."
Arguably, ska works best in square, round numbers: the straighter, the better. For the most part, Bim plays long shows consisting of three-minute-long pop songs, with few breaks in-between.
"People will dance the whole time," Jones says. "We don't have any songs that are 15 minutes long, or even eight minutes long, with open-ended jams. ... It's get in there, say it, and get out."
Occasionally, Bim explored the edges; "Wise Up," one of the band's most popular songs, starts with a minor-key section in 9/8, delivering a noticeable shock-wave to the dance floor. The meter evens out, as Nobile — ironically, perhaps — quotes the melody of the Confederate song "I Wish I Was in Dixie."
Jones is a natural writer. Songs and ideas flow out of him. (Full disclosure: he and I played in a band together for a couple of years.) "I come up with a lot of [stuff]," Jones says. "It's not always good. The great thing is that there are ideas coming from different directions. ... Nobody's ever, like, 'Nope, that's mine, you can't do anything with that.'"
Being in Bim was a full-time job — for a while, anyway; when it wasn't, Jones drove a cab. "I had jobs that would work around being a full-time musician. Some of us didn't have jobs for several years."
The college circuit made it viable. "There was an advantage to being in New England for the kind of band we are, and popular," Jones says. "There are tons of colleges within 10 hours of here, and they pay well."
Nobile and Barry left the band in 1996. When Jones moved to Los Angeles in 2002, the band broke up; Arhelger moved to Colorado, and Vitale headed for Panama.
"We'd been playing forever," Jones says. "I figured I'd do something different. I thought the band would replace me, but maybe it was a catalyst for other people to go off and do other stuff, too."
Bim reunited several years later. "Chet's Last Call," released in 2013, is the band's first new album in 13 years. (There's another half of the record that will come out soon.) Not much had changed.
"We were able to just pick it right back up again," Jones says. "We just practiced a little bit and started playing. The musicianship and the magic is still there, for sure."
BIM SKALA BIM plays Cafe Nine in New Haven on, Thursday, Sept. 8, at 8:30 p.m., with the Hempsteadys and Rude Boy George opening. Tickets are $12 to $15. cafenine.com