Reggae innovators Easy Star All-Stars are performing at Phineas Phogg’s in Seville Quarter on the heels of their recently-released, full-length studio album “First Light.” This is the first album of original material from a band that normally showcases their talents by re-interpreting classics such as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” into “Dub Side of the Moon.”
IN recently caught up with founding member Michael Goldwasser.
IN: What is the history of the band’s formation?
GOLDWASSER: The band started in 1997 as the house band for our studio recordings. It was me on guitar and sometimes bass, Victor Axelrod, a.k.a. Ticklah, on keys, and a rotating cast of New York’s best reggae musicians filling out the rest of our needs. Originally, we were not thinking about the band as a touring entity, just a studio thing. But then we started doing some shows in the New York area, both backing up visiting Jamaican artists and some shows just on our own featuring local artists who had recorded for Easy Star Records. After the success of “Dub Side of the Moon,” there was demand for national and then international touring. Most of the musicians who had been playing in the Easy Star All-Stars in the studio and on stage were not available to tour, so we put together a new touring unit in 2003. Many of the members that are still on the road first joined the band back then.
IN: Is the band primarily New-York based?
GOLDWASSER: We are primarily New York-based, but a couple of the regular members do not currently reside in New York.
IN: You have your own label called Easy Star Records. Tell us about it.
GOLDWASSER: We started the label back in 1996 as an antidote to the less-than-amazing current reggae that we were hearing. We (partners Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer, Remy Gerstein and me) all loved classic reggae from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we felt that the stuff that was coming out just didn’t have the same vibes, largely because many Jamaican productions had abandoned live musicianship and vintage recording techniques. And the U.S.-based reggae wasn’t really hitting us either. We all loved dancehall reggae from Jamaica, and it was a big influence on us, but we thought that there was room for more quality roots music as well.
We began focusing on our own productions, and because so many Jamaican artists either lived in New York or passed through regularly, we were able to work with many great reggae veterans right from the beginning. Then, because of the relationships that we were forming with them and our reputation for both good music and clean business, artists started coming to us to put out their own self-produced music and also vintage recordings that had not been released outside of Jamaica.
Now, we are primarily focused on a two-pronged approach. We have our series of classic albums re-interpreted as reggae, and we also are putting out new albums by artists and bands that are really pushing the boundaries of reggae. For example, last fall we released “Connection” by Cas Haley, which combines reggae, pop, soul and blues in a way that hadn’t really been done before. And we have just signed The Green, a young band out of Hawaii. They are able to hit hard with traditional roots vibes, and also sing smooth four-part rhythm and blues-influenced harmonies. And touring is also very important for us in terms of bringing the music to as many people as possible. This year, the Easy Star All-Stars are doing a lot of touring with both Cas Haley and The Green.
IN: How were the albums “Dub Side of The Moon” and “Easy Stars Lonely Hearts Dub Band” conceived?
GOLDWASSER: In 1999, Lem had the idea for “Dub Side.” He was a big fan of the Pink Floyd album, and one day he was listening to it and had a “eureka” moment: What if we remade the album as reggae? So he brought the idea to the rest of us, and after I whipped up basic arrangements of some of the songs, we thought that we could make it work. After the success of “Dub Side,” there was great demand for us to do more albums in the same style. We deliberated for a long time before choosing the next two albums, “Radiodread” (based on Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) and “Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band” (the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper”). It’s important for us to choose albums that will sound great as reggae and also be able to take the fans and us to new places.
IN: Whose idea was it to take on the dub style and make that the band’s signature?
GOLDWASSER: Well, dub has become a natural part of reggae music. So if you make reggae, you probably have a mind for dub. I listened to a lot of dub growing up, and it has a lot of appeal to me as a producer because it is traditionally created in the studio. But because of the level of musicianship in the touring band, and because we always travel with a soundman who specializes in dub, we are able to do a lot of live dubbing in our shows as well. A lot of the individual nuances may not be so apparent to the audience, but they are a big part of our sound.
IN: What’s next for the band?
GOLDWASSER: We just released our album “First Light,” a full-length album of original material written by the band. We’ll spend a good part of this year touring to support the album. And we are beginning work on the next tribute album, which we plan to have out in 2012.
IN: Anything to add?
GOLDWASSER: I’d just like to thank all of our fans in Pensacola and the whole Gulf area. We know that you’ve been through a lot in the past few years, and we hope that our music has brought you some good vibes to help you through any trials and tribulations that have come your way.
EASY STAR ALL-STARS WITH CAS HALEY AND INDA GLO
WHEN: 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 13
WHERE: Phineas Phogg’s in Seville Quarter, 130 E. Government St.
COST: $15 adults, $17 under 21