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Lee Thompson: Ska-Man

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It’s the hottest day thus far of 2016, and Lee Thompson has just got back from walking his dog on Hampstead Heath with... an umbrella.

“I might have looked a bit weird,” Thompson admits, in his strong London accent, “with my four legged friend over Hampstead Heath with an umbrella.”

Believe it or not, this rather adequately sets the tone for our conversation. He’s a founding member of arguably the biggest and best known ska band on the planet, Madness; and he’s also formed the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, who will release their second album, Bite the Bullet, next Friday (August 26th). I spoke to Lee about a range of things on an unbearably hot day, including ska in 2016, his recent advert for Boots the chemist, and also viagra.

When I ask how and why he formed the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, I don’t get the straight answer I’m (foolishly) expecting:

“Well the trombone player in Madness, Mike, is a practical joker,” Thompson says. “One night, we were staying in a hotel in Manchester, and he ends up banging on the door of the room [Joe Auckland (another brass player in Madness) is staying in at one or two in the morning. He starts shouting. ‘Joe! Joe!’ And Joe goes, ‘what’s up mate?’ And Mike’s shouting, ‘it’s an emergency! Let me in!’ And poor Joe is in the shower. So what’s happened is he opens the door and ends up getting shut out in the hallway with just a little towel on. Mind you, he only needs a little towel."

I quickly find out that Lee loves a tangent, but as they’re so funny, I really don’t mind..! Thompson continues:

“So I see him and say, ‘Joe, what’s going on, there’s no sauna down here is there? He tells me Mike is up to his old tricks. So we sit down and get talking, and I find out he also plays the ukulele and the banjo. And Joe says, ‘this ska orchestra idea you’ve been going on about, why don’t we get a bunch of people together and do it?'"

The band recently starred in an advert for Boots hearing aids, which won them a hater or two, Thompson explains:

“I got a bit of a bollocking for doing that from this bloke on Twitter. He says, ‘next he’ll be doing adverts for viagra, and incontinence nappies.’ Well, I’ve got a surprise for you mate, that viagra advert could be in the pipeline!” Thompson lets out a wicked laugh, which tells me he’s probably joking. He also reckons that finding the saxophone was just one of those natural occurrences in life. “I was just always attracted to it; I played a bit of clarinet of school, and I tried the oboe, but that was too much on my bouche. King Curtis was a big influence, the Benny Hill theme, Jonny and the Hurricanes, Yakkety Sax, Dwayne Eddy, and of course Roxy Music. Whenever I went to a gig, I always ended up stood in front of the bell of the saxophone, so all of this rubbed off on me. That’s probably why I’m deaf in one ear, mind you.”

But are audiences still receiving ska with the same excitement as they did when Madness first broke out in the late ‘70s?

“Yeah, I think so,” Thompson says, with noticeable conviction. “I mean, it really is a summer sound. It seems to be in a lot of adverts and stuff – it’s come back with a vengeance this time. Round one was the mid to late ‘60s; round two, the late ‘70s, after the punk thing; you either went new-romantic or two tone, they were the two flavours of the month. I know myself, Mike Barson, and Suggs were ska, reggae, and motown. We started out doing rock and roll covers, worked some reggae in there, and it went down really well. We threw some ska in there, and next thing you know there’s a band up north called the Specials playing the same sort of music; it was just the right time and the right place.”

Thompson tells me about some current ska/reggae acts he likes who are keeping the scene alive and well, including LA-based the Aggrolites; he even quotes some lyrics down the phone for me: “Hey, gringo! Why you dig your hole?” He hollers, in a brilliant Hispanic accent. "That is not a hole, that is your grave.”

And to further prove that ska isn’t going anywhere, Madness played at this year’s Glastonbury festival, on the coveted Pyramid stage:

“Yeah, that was really good. Woody (Dan Woodgate) turned up on the day and hit the floor running. Suggs, on the other hand, got there three days before, and he was fucked. He’d been wandering around in another dimension. His daughters were there to look after him, mind you. So he didn’t really save his voice, he was a little bit croaky on stage.”

Madness are set to release their 12th studio album, Can’t Touch Us Now in October. So what will a 2016 Madness album sound like, then?

“That’s a good question,” Thompson laughs. “If it’s anything like the Ska Orchestra recording process, there’s been a good mood, put it that way; a good atmosphere. Everyone’s looking forward to going in to the studio. Unfortunately with Oui Oui Si Si - our last album, we moved producers, we moved studios, it just lost its momentum. Saying that, this album has actually taken longer, but it hasn’t lost the momentum. We haven’t lost the enthusiasm or hunger.

“I need to replace some of the brass parts I’m not happy with, but the rest of the boys are on the ball. They’ve done a good job. I’m gonna give ‘em a fucking gold star... [pauses] Maybe not Chrissy boy (Chris Foreman)... He thinks I’m a dictator: the Mussolini of the band. What an arsehole. If I’m Mussolini, he’s Hitler. I’ve said to him, for every finger you point, there are three fingers pointing back at you. And if someone else don’t, I’ll be knocking you out!”

Lee is interrupted by his dog attempting to eat his sofa, so I let him get off so he can get to his rehearsal with his Madness colleagues. The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra release their album Bite the Bullet on the August 25th, with an album launch at the 100 Club in London, which should be a special night (I’m told you get a free signed copy of the album if you attend). And with a new Madness album out in October, it does indeed seem that ska is enjoying another fresh lease of life. And that is in no small part thanks to the legend himself, Lee Thompson.

Words Adam Protz