The best line on the new Save Ferris EP, Checkered Past, comes toward the end of opener “Anything.” Powered by perky brass and run-in-place guitar—ingredients that propelled the Orange County band to the forefront of the ‘90s ska boom—the song is a love letter from frontwoman Monique Powell to her husband. It culminates with the kind of romantic declaration one makes as a grown-up who knows what really matters: “My cat thinks you’re the shit.”
“That’s everyone in the band’s favorite line,” Powell tells Paste. “I was going to take it out of the song. I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. It’s just a placeholder.’ They were like, ‘But it’s true. You have to keep it in.’”
It was a rare moment of second guessing for Powell, who’s willed Save Ferris back into being over the last few years. The idea to reboot the group came just before she underwent surgery for a degenerative spinal condition. The procedure was a success, but after hiring all new sidemen for a 2013 “reunion show”—nominally Save Ferris’ first gig since going on hiatus in 2002—Powell fought a public battle with her former bandmates over use of the name. They claimed they’d never been asked to reform, she insisted she’d reached out, and the whole thing wound up in court.
Powell ultimately won the right to tour and record as Save Ferris, and in another victory, ASCAP amended the credits on the band’s 1997 debut album, It Means Everything, to reflect her songwriting contributions. With the drama behind her, Powell launched a PledgeMusic campaign to fund Checkered Past, the first Save Ferris release in 18 years.
“You would think I feel pressure, but I didn’t,” says Powell. “I was extremely involved in the history of Save Ferris and the writing of the songs. The naysayers have been a group of young men between the ages of 25 and 40. They all live in or around Orange County. They just don’t want to admit that I had any part whatsoever in the writing of the songs.”
Listening to Checkered Past, which Powell wrote mostly by herself, it’s clear the 41-year-old operatically trained vocalist played a role shaping the Save Ferris sound. In terms of energy, infectiousness and instrumentation, the five new songs would’ve fit comfortably on It Means Everything, a record that earned Powell endless comparisons to the original SoCal ska queen, Gwen Stefani. That’s despite what she and guest Neville Staples—he of ‘70s U.K. ska-revival kings the Specials—say on the “New Sound,” a dubby declaration of something fresh skanking into town.
“Coming back after all these years, I really didn’t know what everyone wanted,” says Powell. “I knew I loved that first album so much. That was probably the greatest time of my entire life, recording that album. I loved the simple production of it. But I’m not 19 anymore. I had to make my experiences as an adult part of the process of writing as well.”
That explains “Anything”—Powell’s thank-you to her husband for sticking with her through the surgery and all the legal stuff—and the pissed-off and punky “Golden Silence” and “Do I Even Like You?” The EP’s closer, “Goodbye Brother,” is a heart-tugging reggae tune about some unspecified familial loss. It’s far weightier than anything Save Ferris would’ve tried in the ‘90s, when they were best known for their cover of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ ‘80s favorite “Come On Eileen.”
“Goodbye Brother” includes background vocals from Powell’s father, who joined the group in the studio on his birthday last September, right after he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died on Jan. 9, about a month before Save Ferris was to release Checkered Past and embark on a U.S. tour that runs through late March.
By reviving Save Ferris for this EP, the tour and the possible full-length being talked about for this summer, Powell hopes to give fans what she herself will get from the experience: a much-needed release. While the band had no trouble pushing such frivolity in the ‘90s—when their giddy, apolitical ska provided the perfect soundtrack for the carefree Clinton years—it might be tougher sell in President Trump’s dystopian America. Or it might be exactly what audiences are looking for.
“When tragedy occurs, some people throw themselves into action, and some people—in order to salvage their sanity—walk away from it and try to focus on being happy,” Powell says. “I’m usually a person who throws myself into action. Politically, I’m obviously following what’s going on. But with my dad being sick and all that, I just thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t turn on the news. I can’t think about what state the country is in, and what’s going to be going on the next few years.’”
“Because I will fucking fall apart,” she adds. “I’m the kind of person that would go to a ska show, because if I don’t make myself happy, I will literally die in my sleep.”
In the unlikely event Powell were to break from her escapist mission statement and write an anti-Trump anthem, it would be uniquely Save Ferris in nature. Like that new tune “Anything,” it would be a little silly, and it might even have vaguely to do with cats.
“I would probably write a really nice song about pussy grabbing,” Powell says. “Lots and lots about pussy grabbing.”
Check out an exclusive premiere of Save Ferris’ “New Sound” video below, and preorder Checkered Past here.