In Malta, the Rifffs is a ska band that is the stuff of legends. Here, Ray and Rayvin talk to Alex Grech, who first watched the band live in 1979 and has remained a fan since.
We grew up on glam rock. Gary Glitter, the Sweet, Suzy Q. Then punk arrived and ruffled everybody’s feathers. And we started to get into the Specials and Madness. This June we watched the Specials at Brixton Academy. Ska is really back in the groove of life.
Rayvin has always been the glue to this band. In 2005, soon after he returned to Malta from New Zealand, he started calling the other members of the band. Initially, all we wanted to do was jam. After about an hour, we knew we were as tight as an outfit as we’d ever been. In April 2006, we recorded Life of Crime as a comeback singe. And it really dawned on us that most of our music only lived in peoples’ heads and vinyl. We also needed to record a CD to have any chance of returning to the international gigging circuit. The intention was initially to record the old songs. But Ray was writing new material and Moonstomp emerged out of our sessions.
2009 has been pretty special. We’ve played in Berlin, Leipzig, Olsi and Prague. Everywhere we went, we were virtual unknowns and ended up more than holding our own with the American ska bands. The highlight till now has to be the Mighty Sounds festival. A crazy three-day festival of new music in front of 4,000 people. It’s like a conveyor belt of 150 bands over three days… ska, reggae, punk.
We’re more of a family than a band. There’s endless source of inspiration from within. Ray may write the songs, but they just cannot come to life without the chemistry of the band.
When the world gets depressed, the ska bands re-emerge. At the end of the seventies we penned Dance music for the eighties depression. We’ve never seen so many ska bands as this year. Ska first showed up when music was losing its direction and it saved the day. Now, it just stands on its own, but it’s being rediscovered by a whole new wave of people.
We’re part of a generation’s life journey. We first hit the radio waves because of Noel Mallia and Ray Bajada. They played Dance Music for the eighties depression, and Too pushy mama, when other DJs did not quite know what to make of us. Those early songs are still in people’s memory banks. As are all the merchandise of the times. We used to screen-print all the t-shirts at Rayvin’s house.
To get anywhere in music these days, you need to build your own networks. Particularly online, where we make extensive use of MySpace. At one point this year we were no 2 in the ska charts in garagebands.com. People now also come up to us with their own projects. We particularly liked the work Jagged Edge House did with Jack the Ripper.
Over 30 years, you accumulate too many memories for standouts. Perhaps in 1981, at Wave Studio, in Hoxton Square, London. We look up and Marc Storace walked in with Ray Bonnici, the BBC journalist, who at the time worked as a freelancer for music magazines in London. John Peel playing us on Alternative Charts was pretty special.
In those early eighties, we stayed in various squats round London. Finally in 1981, we found a great house off Camberwell Road, between Oval and Camberwell Green in 1981. Two guys from Alternative Music got us in. We had food, electricity, everything we needed. We lived there for around six months. Then the skids came off. We were on a record label called Pinnacle, who went bust. They did not distribute any of our records to the shop.. though Peel was playing us on his show! We scattered in different directions. In 1982, we both formed Characters. We gigged for 10 years. We’re still proud of the music we made in that period.
We have 10 kids between us.The spirit of the Rifffs is still young. We’re still as crazy as we used to be. We just enjoy what we’re doing. Having a beer or walking down to the market. We’re still Valletta boys. The jokes are as bad as ever.
Ska is timeless. At the beer festival, we were amazed at how many young people just get it. In Berlin, this year, the audience seemed to be people aged 17 to 70. It’s pretty humbling to think that some of our music has already lasted 30 years. The Rifffs then, and the Riffs today are like twins. Pretty much the same levels of energy. We never really knew what to do with Rifffs mark 1. We experimented as a power ska band with some punk overtones. Now, we know that people will always be into music for the feet.
Trying to be a band in Malta has all sorts of challenges. It’s a great rehearsal place. It’s close to Europe. How many places can you get to play something like Rockestra? But we’re here because of other choices. Ray alternates between a full-time musician and a stay at home dad. Rayvin runs Panopus, a printing firm for architects and engineers in London. If you want to make it big, as a band, you still have no choice but to get out there and take your music to a larger public. We did. And we’ll continue to do so.
We know we still have edge, as a band. We’d love to play in Berlin every day. It’s such a cool city. Over there, we’re this band from the Med bringing ska music into a new era. If we can get rastafarians in Leipzig to dance, then we guess we can still hold our own with the best.
Photo: Allen Venables