When Richard “Sammy” Brooks throws up the classic Vulcan salute, four fingers spread into a V, and begins talking of outer space, fans of his seminal Long Island ska band, The Scofflaws, know what’s coming. On a good night, and there are many, their crowd-favorite tune, “William Shatner,” will have both band and audience flailing back and forth across the stage and dance floor in unison, all the way from one side to the other, rocking like the USS Enterprise is in trouble.
Between his saxophone parts, with horns playing and uplifting beat, Brooks sings, “He got a fine tan shirt with an emblem on the chest; The interstellar girls all like him the best. Captain of the crew and he knows kung fu; And he did Joan Collins in 1932.”
It’s a sight to behold, and a blast if you happen to be in on the action. It’s another unforgettable show from a band that’s been making Long Islanders and fans around the country dance since 1988.
During their most prolific period, in the mid to late 1990s, The Scofflaws played shows regularly at East End venues, but as Brooks managed more pressing family responsibilities, those appearances seemed to dwindle and the band’s profile began to fade locally. Then they reemerged at last year’s Sag Harbor American Music Festival, reminding old fans why we love them, and engaging a whole new set of admirers with their thrilling, get-up-and-move live show.
The Scofflaws returned to Sag Harbor for HarborFest earlier this month, and they’re back again for another Sag Harbor American Music Festival performance at Bay Street Theater this Saturday, September 28 (doors open at 8 p.m. and the horns begin blowing at 9 p.m.). You don’t want to miss it.
We recently spoke with Brooks about this weekend’s show and what’s happening with The Scofflaws these days. Most of all, we wanted to know if we’ll be seeing more of them here in the Hamptons.
Last year’s Sag Harbor American Music Festival was a pretty excellent show. What inspired your return?
We had a lot of fun, yessiree. It was great. Originally these jobs came through our guitar player Greg [Bucking], whose family lives out there in Sag Harbor, or nearby. So that’s how that came about. It’d been a while since we played out there. We used to be out there pretty regularly in the ’90s, in the summers, so we had a lot of our old-time pals come down and show up, and it was a lot of fun. It was great and the weather was beautiful.
And you’ve already been back playing this year’s HarborFest.
We just did it the other week. We had lovely weather. It was a nice breeze. We were well received. It was nice, too, because the majority of people there had never seen the act, and I love that. For them everything’s new, new, new. And I’m hitting them with everything, and it’s a lot of fun. We were able to make that prevalent vibe there, so it was great.
Your lineup has changed a lot over the last 31 years. How long have you been with this current group?
There’s really no newbies in there. Though sometimes there’s Brian Kelly, he’s the newest guy in the group. That’s when we add a second guitar. Then, if we go bigger than that, we put in Paul [Gebhardt] and then we have three horns, two guitars, bass [Brian Duggan] and drums [John Soldo]. We don’t really go much bigger than that. It doesn’t work out economically.
Brian’s the new guy, he’s been coming in and out for the past year. He’s the pup of the group. He’s in his 30s. Jared [Dubin], he’s next in line as far as new guys. He’s the guy on trombone. Brian [Duggan] has been with me 10 years at least, probably 15. John and I have been working together on and off over the past 30 years. He’s been in and out. So there’s a lot of integrity in the group that way, when he and I get up there and I’ve got these guys that know everything hard. I’m very happy with the team I have right now. I think it’s my best band ever. I’m really excited.
The last album you put out was in 1998. Are you working on anything new?
It’s been a quite while. We’ve got some stuff recorded but we didn’t release it. We’ve got to remix it and master it and all this. I’ve got to do some overdubs and modernize it a bit. We’ve got some new songs we’re working on. The past few years I got into taking care of my elderly mother and that whole thing. I really put the band on kind of a back burner. I did what I had to do to keep things running, but I was really more into taking care of my mother at the time. It’s what I had to do. I had to get my priorities together.
Well, you could always do the Billy Joel thing and just keep playing epic live shows.
I guess so, but I don’t know. Every show, I really enjoy performing because I’m always developing. There’s always new stuff for me to do. The art of saxophone playing is a lifelong thing. It’s an ongoing thing. As your level of ability increases, so does your level of enjoyment. It’s nuts how much I get off on practicing these days, because I’m getting all this sh_t together. It’s great, I’m having a lot of fun with it still.
Is that because the feeling of accomplishment is better or because everything just comes more naturally, allowing you to flow?
You can get those ideas to pop out. With the amount of hours, everything improves, your tone and things like that. It becomes easier, like with any job—the longer you do it, it gets easier. Every time you can reshuffle that deck, you come up with all these permutations and sh_t, it’s interchangeable. It’s fascinating and it keeps your brain engaged. It’s a good sport. And it keeps you out of the poolroom.
What’s the Long Island ska scene like these days? Are there still a lot of kids with Doc Martins and checkered suspenders coming out?
There are people who are interested in ska music, yeah. So, there are certain people who are part of that whole subculture scene who do come out, and then we’ve got just regular people who dig what we do. We’ve got a mixed audience. And then we’ve got people who are just music heads who dig what we do. There’s a lot of younger bands around, and we do stuff with them occasionally, but I’m not all that plugged into it because of what I’ve been doing the past couple years. I’ve been kind of downplaying sh_t a little bit and taking care of other things. There’s a bit of a scene out there. There’s a bunch of other bands. We team up with them, but every band is trying to do their own thing.
How did you cultivate your ability to interact so well with the crowd at performances, like when you rock the ship back and forth?
That’s the William Shatner thing when the ship starts rocking. We go from one side to the next and the crowd goes with us. You’ve got to kind of feel it out. Sometimes you say, with this crowd, nah, I don’t know if I should pull that one. But other times, you go, oh, this is going to work great here. A lot of times, too, when we start the tune, people are standing there looking at me like they’re ready for this. That’s the situation where I get into it. It’s kind of like feeling it out. And that’s through having gotten around and done what we’ve done for as long as we have. We call it reading the signs there, as far as how to work that. It’s a lot of fun when you’ve got everybody moving like that. And when people see it for the first time, their jaws drop. It’s like, what is going on here?
You said Greg’s family has a place in Sag Harbor?
His folks have the Variety Store in the middle of town. It’s a really cool store, They’ve got all sorts of neat stuff in there. It’s a wonderful village down there. I love it. In the ’90s I was out there a lot more. We used to play Stephen Talkhouse and the Handsome House, and we did some things out in Montauk from time to time. We’d kind of get a weekend thing happening out there. I got to spend a lot of time down there and I liked it. It’s got a nice atmosphere.
Are you looking for more opportunities to play out here?
We would like to get that going on again, yeah. I’m going to try to call the people at Stephen Talkhouse again, and get something out in Montauk. That would be a good room for us. It’s funny because I used to go to the Memory Motel way back when. I did something there a few years back, and when I walked in they had blown out the whole room and changed it all around. Montauk was no longer this sleepy, quiet quasi-fishing town. It went from Mayberry to, I don’t know. Everything’s got to grow and change. That’s just the nature of things. But, yeah, I want to get something happening out there because I like Montauk.
Before we go, do you have anything to add?
I’d like to conclude with “Live long and prosper,” the immortal words of Spock.
See The Scofflaws at the Sag Harbor American Music Festival this Saturday, September 28 at Bay Street Theater (1 Bay Street) in Sag Harbor. Get tickets and learn more at sagharbormusic.org.