Interview: Save Ferris' Monique Powell on ‘90s nostalgia, ‘Checkered Past’ and what’s next

Since the ‘90s, Save Ferris has been in the ranks of the top bands ever having emerged out of Southern California. Alongside other successful third wave ska groups that took over the airwaves at the time, lead singer, Monique Powell, rose to fame as the literal voice of a generation. Her dynamic stage presence and colorful personality landed songs like “Come on Eileen” and “The World Is New” on the playlist of every teenager in America; it even had her center stage with a cameo in the popular movie, “10 Things I Hate About You.”

The full circle moment of a band whose name was born from an ‘80s cult classic (‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’), now being part of the same phenomenon a decade later, was one that made fans proud, as it earned the group a rightful spot in pop culture history. 

“In the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of female presence, so I really had to pull on a very odd sort of mentors,” Powell says sitting across a table overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Recounting her origins as an opera singer and how her earliest musical influence came from her father, the vocalist reminisced about her college days at Cal State Fullerton, pre-Save Ferris, living on campus just south of Los Angeles. It was eventually other Orange County bands such as The Skeletones, The Nuckle Brothers and Reel Big Fish that drew her out to local shows, leading Powell to take the next logical step of getting into a band. 

AXS: When you were first getting established, how was it being a female in a male-dominated industry?

Monique Powell: It was so different. It’s so weird to talk about a time that I lived when women in general were treated in such a different way. When I did my first Warped Tour in ‘98, I was the only girl on either stage. I came back 19 years later, and I was the oldest girl on all seven stages. The difference is I felt like I had so much support and I could be myself finally. In the ‘90s there was a lot more pressure to act a certain way, look a certain way. I think back now, and I had all these great things happening but there was this dark shadow of ‘you’re not good enough,’ ‘you’re not thin enough.’ The world is so much bigger now. Young people are exposed to so much more. There’s a place for everybody. The girls who feel different can go on the internet to find the information they need to find these influences from anywhere in the world that they can relate to. For as many naysayers as there are, there are twice as many positive outlets. I’m not saying it’s easy, but, for me, it’s the naysayers that made me work harder.

AXS: So, your latest album, Checkered Past, just came out in 2017. What was it that made you want to do this now?

MP: That’s a longer story. In 2013, I was diagnosed with a condition; my neck was disintegrating. I had been living with it for a long time and I didn’t know what it was. There was spinal cord damage and the doctor said I potentially wouldn’t be walking in four years. In order to fix it, they would have to go through the front of the neck and told me I would never sing again. I had three doctors ask me how important it was for me to sing anymore. They said, ‘you can walk or you can sing.’ By some incredible act of luck, I was able to find a doctor who got a team together. They went through the back and completely rebuilt my neck. Right before I went under, I said to my dad, if after I can walk and I can sing, I will bring the band back, because I literally thought I was going to die. I thought I would never have to do it. So, when I woke up I looked at my dad and I was like, ‘f*ck.’ I’ve got to keep my word to my dad. That was when I started putting the ball in motion. I literally had to learn how to hold my head up again. The band gave me something to look forward to. So, we came back, played this show, and we sold out Pacific Amphitheatre. It showed me people wanted to see Save Ferris. I said as long as people wanted to see Save Ferris, I’ll bring them shows.

Flash forward a couple of years, planning the first Save Ferris tour since 2003 and we’re doing the first EP. When I was writing songs for the EP, this song just came to me one day, called ‘Goodbye Brother.’ It came through me in 15 minutes. I thought this is nice; maybe it’ll go on the record, maybe not. So, we’re recording with John Avila from Oingo Boingo and it’s my dad’s birthday. I said, ‘my dad’s got a great voice. He should sing on this record.’ So, John Avila, the angel that he is, arranged an entire day for my dad to come in and sing on that song. Then my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He died right after we released the EP. Just a couple of days later, I went on my first tour. My dad got to see me bring the band back, he got to see me sell out Pacific Amphitheatre and he got to sing on the record. He got really sick after that. Coincidentally, the song is about losing someone. At the time when I wrote the song it had nothing to do with him because he was fine. So, this has a much deeper meaning to me.

There was also a fight in the beginning; I had to fight to bring the band back. There is so much more in it for me. I really approach everything so differently now. The era, this stage of my career, the foundation is based on something far more important than me being a star, or me making money, there’s so much more. I’m very aware of the responsibility. And I really enjoy every moment.

AXS: So, whether it’s a longtime fan or a new fan, what do you really want listeners to know about the album?

MP: Each song has its own personality. There are five different songs with a different facet that I think Save Ferris has encompassed over the years. Each song has its own feeling. But my inspiration underneath it all was the first self-released Save Ferris EP. That’s my favorite. You really hear where we were at that time, and we were in the middle of something so fun. I definitely wanted to bring that into the EP. I’m looking at it as a fan, and what we bring from that perspective, because I’m a fan first. What I love to bring is the aspect of fun. Forget the problems at the door for a couple of minutes, come to a show and dance your troubles away. So, it was really important for me to create this experience for people. You’re not just going to a show; you’re actually experiencing something that’s never going to happen again. It’s really organic, there might be mistakes here and there but we’re still having a good time together.

Powell also tells AXS she’s currently in the early stages of working on a new full-length album. A “modern-day Save Ferris” she calls it. “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I do want to make a modern-sounding record. The last EP was a tribute to who we were. Now I’m letting that go. I’m thinking if I was my 19-year-old self and I was starting my first ska band, what would that sound like today? It’s going to be cool.”

Save Ferris is playing Back To The Beach Fest in Southern California at the end of April, and after that, they’ll be heading to Europe. Also just announced, this summer, Save Ferris is set to release their very-first live record on Limited Edition Vinyl via Hardline Entertainment. It’s now available for pre-sale here.

Head over to the website for more and stay up-to-date with Save Ferris on social media for the latest.