Tenor saxophonist Dave Hillyard has played in numerous ska acts over the years, including the Slackers, Hepcat, and the Stubborn All-Stars. Additionally, his work as the frontman of Dave Hillyard & the Rocksteady 7 yielded one of the ’90s ska boom’s finest releases in 1999’s Playtime. The Rocksteady 7 have a new album out now via ORG Music, entitled Plague Doctor, marking their first recordings since 2018’s The Giver. It’s a fantastic collection of songs which cover rocksteady, ska, reggae, and elements of South American music. I spoke with Hillyard about it ahead of the album’s release.

The last year has been interesting, in terms of ska, as there were three books about ska that came out last summer. As a musician, what’s it been like observing it?

It’s funny that there’s this flurry of writing about it. I suppose it’s all about a fair amount of the fans of ska from the ’90s or something. As a musician, last year was weird because in 2020, everything was shut down and then last year, we were half in half out. In some ways it was more complicated, trying to figure out what to do: were they safe? Was it good to go out? There was a lot of ethical questions to answer and figure out.

This album was recorded in the very depths of 2020’s lockdown. Reading the story of how you all had to radically adjust how you make music and record – it doesn’t sound like it listening to the album, but what were some of those struggles for you and the musicians that make up the Rocksteady 7?

With Rocksteady 7, it’s always players that were scattered a bit. The core is me and Larry [McDonald, percussion] and then I have my New York crew who does most of the recordings – guys like Glen Hackett on drums and Dan Jeselsohn on bass and it was before vaccination. It was in the middle of it, late spring 2020. We were in different rooms. It was really lucky that the sound guy adjusted to quarantine and basically set up his house as the recording studio and a live streaming place.

We were able to be in different rooms in the same house with little video screens and in headphones, so we could communicate with each other. It was surprisingly easy. Usually with Rocksteady 7, we get in a big room and there’s seven or eight musicians – depending on the setup – and we knock out the tunes together over the course of a couple of days and this one, we were all in different places.

I had to mail it all out and send it around to different people. They would do their part and then we’d pop it back in and in New Jersey and then send out a rough mix of that and then someone else would pop their part in. I mean, in some ways, that’s more typical of how people make music these days, but for Rocksteady 7, it was a change because we were used to that spontaneity of being together.

I’ve always held that – the first album we did was a live recording. I think there was just one or two overdubs on it, just mostly cosmetic stuff and that’s been the case for most of the Rocksteady 7 albums: 95-100% live. This one, it was not, but it still has a lot of that feeling. One of the things I appreciate is that they listen to each other really well, so that when I send it along to somebody, they hear what everybody else is doing, then add a complimentary part, improvising off what other people are doing. Then the next person improvises off of that, and off of that, going down the chain until it’s done.

How have you changed your approach to this music over the course of your career? Playtime had that 20th anniversary edition on vinyl that came out a couple of years ago. Hepcat’s Out of Nowhere turns 30 next year. Then there are all these seminal albums on which you’ve played, both as part of the Slackers, but also with the Stubborn All-Stars and Rancid. How has your approach changed over the past 30-plus years – or has it?

Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve tried to resign myself to getting better. [laughs] During quarantine, one of the things trying to keep myself sane was having a regular practice schedule, ’cause sometimes I let that go if I got so many gigs, I don’t do all my little exercises and stuff, because I’m on the road and I’m playing. But the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to have a regular practice schedule to keep my brain fresh and limber. I’m always trying to improve myself, always trying to find something to work on that I think is like a weak spot.

With music, strong rhythms are always important to me, so reggae and ska and soul and R&B – it’s got to have a pop. It’s got to have a strong group and they’re just making some nice melodic statements on top of it, you know? That’s a goal: something with hooks, something catchy. Sometimes, they get a little bit more abstract, but for the most part, even the more abstract stuff has a melody. It may just not be a melody that you’re used to hearing, you know?

There are song titles on this album, including the album title, that seem like they were very much influenced by the time in which they were recorded: “Plague Doctor,” “Was I Made for These Times,” et cetera.

Sometimes it’s like you’re just trying to capture some emotions. “Plague Doctor,” Larry did – I think – five or six percussion tracks on that. He made a virtual percussion choir. The melody, for me, was like some old folk song that I had never heard before. It’s trying to find something that locked in with that, ’cause that one started with a rhythm. Larry just created a rhythm and then we added to it the melody and the harmonies on top of it. That one’s trying to be music as a healing experience.

I think that’s important – it’s something that they heal your heart and your mind. With “Was I Made for These Times,” that’s a wistful song. It’s a ballad, even though it’s ska, too. It has that ballad quality, thinking about jazz from the ’40s and ’50s and ’30s even. It could be a vocal standard kind of thing, although I never got around to writing lyrics lyrics to.

That’s the thing – it’s like my horn line is my lyrics and, and hopefully you get some wistfulness. That one was definitely a feeling like, there’s so many times in the last couple of years where it’s been like, “What the hell? Am I up to this?”

While the Rocksteady 7 has had lyrical songs over the course of the last 20-odd years, I think most people definitely think of it as an instrumental band. How do you approach the music you make in this project versus that you make with the Slackers where Vic’s lyrics and vocals are such a strong part of that?

With the Slackers, I think my record is three songs on the album, so you write a bunch of stuff. You know it’s good. It’s really stiff competition because everybody in the Slackers can write, you know, and then there’s like a vetting process, which can be brutal. You have to present your tune and everybody’s critical about it. Rocksteady 7, it started with tunes that were rejected by other bands.

I wrote “Playtime” back in LA in the early ’90s. That one, I brought to Hepcat and they were just like, “Dave, what are you doing? We don’t get this at all,” so like a lot of things, they end up on the solo album. With Rocksteady 7, I met Larry at a show and he was playing congas with the Skatalites and I was like, “Oh man, this guy is just killing it.”

I talked to him after the set and I realized I knew who he was from records and I had a bunch of his records and we just had this great conversation about music – about ska and reggae and the connections to Latin music and Afro-Cuban music, and Jazz – American jazz, as opposed to world jazz and it was like how all of this stuff fits together and there are different sides of the same music. The manifesto of Rocksteady 7 came out of that.

Over the years the core mission is doing jazz improvisations over Jamaican ska and reggae rhythms, and trying to at least make sure that – a lot of times when people from more of a jazz background do ska and reggae, the rhythm suffers, and they become rinky-dink. They aren’t really heavy, so it’s trying to make sure that all the parts in your musical stew have are strong flavors and that the improvisations are strong – that everything about it and the songwriting is strong that there’s no stylistic weak link in it.

Dave Hillyard & the Rocksteady 7’s Plague Doctor is out now from ORG Music.