Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Catching up with Random Order

Queer ska mainstays keep groovin'

It’s been more than 20 years since Random Order first wowed audiences with its bouncy brand of punk ska music, but you wouldn’t know it looking at band founder S Lynn Phillips.

If anything, the boyish singer/songwriter looks more like the boy-next-door than ever, after completing the latest stage on his journey from female to male.

“I had the top surgery last September,” says Phillips of the operation to remove both breasts. “It was incredibly liberating, and I’ve luckily not had any bad reactions to it.”

Even his family is supportive, despite a little confusion from younger relatives.

“I’ve had some of the kids ask straight up if I’m a boy or a girl,” he chuckles. “But my nephew was here a couple of weeks ago, and he said I was his favourite uncle, so that’s pretty cool.”

Mamma isn’t quite as thrilled with the whole thing, but Phillips says she’s gradually coming around.

“She’s just kind of ignoring it. It’s hard for her to catch up, with the whole gay thing first and now this.”

Phillips left his country home in the Ottawa Valley and headed for the bright lights of Kitchener, embracing the local gay scene and making his first serious foray into music. The first incarnation of Random Order quickly gained fans with its energetic stage shows and infectious blend of ska and reggae.

“We’ve never played a show where no one danced,” says Phillips. “It doesn’t matter; I could be singing the most bitter lyrics from songs like ‘Glad to See You Go’ and ‘Double Standard Girl,’ but they’ll still come up to me after and say it’s such fun music they can even clean their house to it.”

The band has undergone several changes over the years. Oriana Barbato is the newest member, taking over the driving bass beats at the root of the band’s ska vibe. Barbato also plays for the Johnnies, a hard-driving punk band, and finds Random Order’s set list a nice change of pace.

“This music is way different in terms of bass lines,” Barbato says. “Sixty percent of these tunes are bass driven, so the baselines are much more thought out. You can really keep the groove, and I love being able to use my five-string bass for those really low reggae rhythms. And it looks good too, a girl playing bass!”

It’s quite an accomplishment for any band — never mind a queer ska band — to still be playing two decades after its inception. The economic downturn and shrinking number of live-music clubs makes life as a musician more difficult than ever, but Phillips remains philosophical.

“It’s going through that cycle again where karaoke is big and nobody books live bands,” he says. “One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve been having a hard time with venues closing after I’ve booked something, but I’ve waited it out before and I’ll wait it out again.”

In the meantime, Phillips and company are playing the festival circuit and planning for the 2011 release of their next album, produced by indie-darling Bob Wiseman. Merchandise and album sales are lucrative, though Phillips notes many festivals are still paying bands the same amount Random Order earned when it first started out.

“That’s the problem with expansion,” Phillips says. “It’s a little like Starbucks. But I’m a patient guy.”