- Thu, 2011-07-14 14:40
Originally bought together as a studio band for their label home New York's Easy Star Records, Easy Star All-Stars came to the attention of the globe with their 2003 debut Dub Side of The Moon. A reggae re-working of the Pink Floyd classic Dark Side of The Moon, the album has remained on the Billboard reggae charts since its release. Radiodread and Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band followed, which saw Radiohead's Ok Computer and The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band treated with an equally satisfying coat of dub reggae vibes.
Now the time has come for their fourth studio album First Light, their first of entirely original material. I Like Music caught up with the whole crew: Ras I Ray, Jennifer, Burord, Kirsty, Elenna, Menny More, Cliff and Shelton to chat about their decision to step away from covers, how the smoking ban has affected the New York reggae scene, the huge success of Dub Side of The Moon and why reggae music will always remain a unifying universal force.
"I Like Music because… it brings people together.” Easy Star All-Stars
ILM: We know Easy Star All-Stars from your first three reggae cover records: Dub Side of The Moon; Radiodread and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Dub Band. Aside from a small EP release in 2008, your fourth album First Light is your first offering of original material. Where did the decision come from to move away from covers?
Ras I Ray: It truly has been a long time coming. We did release the EP back in 2008 or something, but for our first full-length CD it’s been a long time coming. Fans have been requesting it for years and basically it was a time thing, we didn’t have the time because we were touring so much with the concept albums. When the time arose and we got the news from the record label that they were now ready to do this CD we were very excited. Since we’ve been touring with it, it’s been like a whole new era. For me personally, I can feel the difference in the sense that we’re doing original material, we own it more you know? When you perform it, you can feel that ownership. First Light is appropriately named, it is our first real original CD. I would say if it’s still well accepted maybe there will be a second light! (laughs)
ILM: How did the tracks come to be? Did you write as a group or seperately...
Jennifer: Elenna and Kirsty teamed up, I teamed up with the other drummer, Buford worked with Kirsty and Menny More, I call him the hit factory, he writes songs every day of the week! (laughs)
ILM: How and when do you typically write?
Menny More: It could be any way, just out of the blue. I remember one time, Vaporizer, that came from messing around on the piano or xylophone or something like that in a hotel room....
Jennifer: And we're together all the time so…
ILM: So you write on the road?
Ras I Ray: Oh yeah, we record on the road, we lay tracks on the road you know… That inspiration can come any time, so it’s basically whether we have time to catch it and hold it. A lot of times things just get, I mean...they go because you just don’t have the time to grasp it. We’ve been fortunate enough to get bits and pieces here along with things that members already had in their archives which led to a nice pool of songs to pull from.
ILM: How have you found the shows featuring material from First Light?
Jennifer: The energy of the crowd is special. Like Kirsty and Buford’s song First Light, when we get to the end, she gets people clapping and singing along and I don’t know...it’s kind of like you see them interact with the new songs that they don’t know yet.
ILM: You played three seperate shows at Glastonbury 2009, performing one of your albums each night on a different stage! How did you find it?
Elenna: Our tour bus was parked right next to the dance tent, so all night we could just hear 'boom, boom, boom, boom'...! It's like a switch that only stops for an hour or so each night then is turned back on!
Ras I Ray: But the experience was great, I mean you know, to do three days and three stages is rare for any band, so to pull that off at Glastonbury... That was an honour, to just give it out on all three days. I don’t think that there’s been another band to do that.
ILM: I don’t think there has.
Ras I Ray: Right now we’re holding that tight! (laughs)
Jennifer: And each stage was really different.
ILM: Right. Radiodread on the Park stage was wonderful!
Jennifer: Me too, that was my favourite.
Shelton: And there was a great hill, I climbed that hill and I looked at the whole festival, it was awesome.
ILM: You were born from Easy Star Records, which began over fifteen years ago in New York. What was the ethos and aim behind the label when it first came to be?
Ras I Ray: It was the brainchild of four guys Michael Goldwasser, Remy Gerstein, Eric Smith and Lem Oppenheimer – reggae music lovers you know? Michael, being the musician amongst the four, he was the one that kind of drove it home to create a label that could recount the classics in reggae songs. At the time the digitized sound was taking over and the live band scene was on the wane, not many live bands were working and he wanted to bring the live band sound back to the forefront of reggae music. Easy Star started off as a sound system spinning records every week, that slowly built up and then they had cause to go into a label themselves. They started recording some of the great Jamaican artists you know? Sugar Minott, Sister Carol, and they would have studio musicians come in to back them up both in the studio and during the live performances. That’s what transformed into the Easy Star All-Stars, basically just studio musicians at first, then a backing band for live acts... It wasn’t until the release of Dub Side that it really solidified what we have today. We had to put together a touring entourage to represent the Dub Side because it became so popular. People wanted to see that band and there wasn’t a band at the time. We put a touring group of All-Stars together so we could take it on the road. Basically that’s where it all began – those four guys wanting to bring back the classic songs in reggae. It’s been over 15 years now and they’re still pushing it. I'm fortunate to say that I can see the new fan base that they’ve brought. You know, a lot of people that never thought that they would love reggae love it now and it’s because of Easy Star and the Dub Side and Sgt. Pepper’s and Radiodread, that really drew a whole new base of fans towards reggae, so I credit Easy Star for doing it.
ILM: What's the New York reggae scene like today?
Shelton: It's not like before. In my days they had a lot more clubs, a lot more bands going on. Since they put the smoking law, non smoking law into effect then all the reggae lot, a lot of reggae clubs closed down because you couldn’t smoke anymore ghanja in them... (laughs)
ILM: So where have those people gone? Are there house parties or...?
Shelton: They have basement parties in Harlem you know, if somebody got a brownstone house they have a party in the basement, you know, on a Saturday night.
Cliff: London is the new New York.
ILM: You can't smoke inside in London either. Is it far stricter in New York?
Easy Star All-Stars: (a collective yes).
Menny More: It’s the same thing here, you know before they open the doors people are doing it, then once they’ve got the doors open…
Jennifer: They’ve just passed a law that you can’t smoke even outside.
Cliff: Just public parks.
Jennifer: No, I think on sidewalks too. I think that's going too far. That’s taking away personal liberties. I'm against that.
ILM: Well, if we do come to New York, where should we go?
Menny More: To smoke? (laughs)
Easy Star All-Stars: (laughs)
ILM: (laughs) No...for music, for reggae?
Jennifer: There’s this really great night every Wednesday in the Village...
Menny More: Go to Footprints. Every Sunday.
Elenna: A lot of reggae artists will play at venues in the city but it’s normally like they’ll just come to town and play one show and then leave. It’s not so much of an intimate community party like there maybe was before...
ILM: Going back to the concept albums, how did you decide upon each artist?
Buford: I think Dub Side was the first idea in itself, it was just an idea that Lem had. From then they just, we just went through everyone to decide. It’s almost like a mathematical equation.
Jennifer: It’s more about the lyrics too, they wanted something that had meaningful lyrics.
Ras I Ray: Once you do something like Dub Side then you have to actually top it or come close....
ILM: Once you decided on those artists, how do you approach the translation into reggae?
Buford: Michael worked hard to translate Radiohead tracks that were in 7/4 into 4/4. It takes a lot of work, a lot of arranging.
ILM: What do you think makes a good cover?
Menny More: I think reggae can make any cover sound good, that’s been done since the beginning of time. Reggae is a music that will accept it. If somebody tries to cover R&B in R&B then it’s different, to me at least. Reggae music is the music that attracts everybody. It’s one of the simplest forms of music, with four beats in a bar. The music itself was founded on unity, it was a type of music that people would sing for liberation, you know what I mean? They sang for personal inner strength and things like that. Reggae is the music that stopped the apartheid movement. Reggae is the music for all.
ILM: As you've already mentioned, your first three albums bought a new audience to reggae music. How do you maintain the traditions and roots of reggae for the original fans and at the same time, open things up to new audiences?
Ras I Ray: I guess that’s the magic that’s involved in it. It’s almost difficult to explain. Basically I mean, just the way that reggae is constructed, it has this science behind it – the way it’s mixed, the way it’s recorded and even the way it’s played. For some reggae bands it doesn’t work, it’s just that something isn’t there, but when you have it, you have it and I think that’s what Easy Star has been able to capture, that magic of being able to maintain the roots. Like you said, the core reggae fans can still identify with it, but we still leave enough space so it has a mass appeal. I’m trying to find the words to explain it and I can’t but it’s been happening for us, we’ve been fortunate to be able to capture that and to not lose it.
ILM: Do you maintain a diverse crowd at your shows?
Ras I Ray: Oh, as time passed after Dub side that became even more apparent. We look out in the audience and see the hardcore reggae fans and then this mass diversity of fans that would probably have never been to a reggae concert before. And the age range is huge, we have the fan base from The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead all coming together. That's the magic of it.
ILM: How do you see the future of reggae music?
Menny More: Reggae is going into all different types of vibes. Right now you have dubstep which is a new type of reggae, you know what I mean? A lot of people love it, it keeps the same kind of original bass lines to a point but then also adds the electro and the techno kind of vibes that people are after these days. It’s all good still, it keeps you on your feet from my point of view.
ILM: Following that, what have you been listening to recently?
Ras I Ray: I’ve been finding myself drawn to a lot of the reggae coming out of exotic places that we’ve been able to tour. It’s amazing to see the local reggae bands that come out of these places. Recently we were in Thailand and it was amazing to see these Thai reggae acts bringing their version of the hits. Italy, France and Israel too – that’s how we can see how reggae really has broken down barriers. Take away the vocals and it's staright up reggae, but then hearing it sung in Hebrew or Italian, people are really grasping it. They own it, they feel it. They’re comfortable singing their own form of language over that foundation. It really has universal appeal.
ILM: Having been part of Easy Star All-Stars for a while now, what would be your advice to young musicians?
Shelton: It’s hard work man.
Elenna: Don’t do it for the money. (laughs)
Menny More: You have to sacrifice a lot. You’ve got to have knowledge about the music business and know the ins and outs and know how to get around certain vibes, because there are people there that are going to put you down or try to put their crew or their people ahead of you, so you have to find ways around that stuff you know?
Elenna: And keep your original dream in mind.
ILM: What's next for Easy Stars?
Shelton: There’s another project coming down the line but we’re not allowed to tell you what it is, it’s a secret! (laughs)
Jennifer: I think the label is trying to reach out to a lot of reggae bands that are coming from different places in the States. The Green are from Hawaii and our label mates John Brown’s Body, they’re from the North East so they’re just kind of trying to put reggae, original reggae from the States out there.
Ras I Ray: It’s quite clear that Dub Side is something that will keep us working for quite some time. I mean it’s amazing the influence that CD has had on people and still has on people, we’re still gathering a fan base and record sales are still being made. I think the new artists Easy Star have started signing are about trying to reach an even broader audience. You know, Cas Haley and The Green, they have more of a middle of the road kind of reggae sound and it’s not as dubby as what the All-Stars bring, it’s more like radio friendly reggae I would say. I think they’re really looking at the full spectrum of how to work as a label and appeal on a broad scale...
ILM: How about future Easy Star All-Stars releases? Are there any more cover albums planned?
Ras I Ray: With the release of the next secret, which I can’t tell you about, you know...I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around that one yet. But I know that there’s a future, so how it’s going to unfold...for me personally, we'll see. But this next project is going to be a woo yeah!
Shelton: I think it’s going to be great man! (laughs)
Cliff: I’m not even doubting whether we’re going to be able to pull this off...