When Easy Star records set out to release a reggae adaptation of Dark side of the moon in 2003, they were faced with the perilous task of staying true to the original while taking the music in a whole new direction.
With musical director Michael Goldwasser at the helm, the label went in search of a supporting cast strong enough to undertake such an ambitious project. Drafting some of the finest musicians the New York scene had to offer, they created a dream team of modern reggae; the Easy Star All Stars. The album has remained on the Billboard reggae charts ever since.
In the eight years that followed, the band have released seminal versions of Radiohead’s Ok Computer and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; garnering praise from fans and critics alike.
And now with the release of First Light, their first full-length original album, the band are ready to show the world that there’s more to the Easy Star All Stars than trips down nostalgia lane. State caught up with the band before their performance in Cork city to talk about their past, present and future.
What inspired you to join Easy Star All Stars?
Ras: It wasn’t really a question of inspiration; it was more of an opportunity. You know, we were all in New York, and the label was based in New York. The inspiration is more of question of how we made the music; that’s through Jah himself. But with the band, that was just a wonderful opportunity to come and expand on what we already had in the reggae scene. Easy Star has been the vehicle for us to express ourselves for the last 8 years. I would say it’s just like when you get a good job. Every job has its beginning and its end.
Do you think there will be a time when the Easy Star All Stars will be no more?
Ras: Well no, I think there’s always going to be ‘An’ Easy Star All Stars; it just might be a different rotation of cast members. I think they set it up for it to be that way; no matter who’s there and who’s not, there is always going to be an Easy Star All Stars. Each member could pass it on to their grandchildren and it’ll still be the Easy Star All Stars. We’re just passing through; as the present line up.
Following the success of your first three concept albums, what made you decide to produce a full length original album?
Ras: It was time. We’d done the concept albums and they did quite well. They got us a lot of exposure and earned us a lot of fans, who probably wouldn’t have ever listened to reggae, but they love Pink Floyd, they love the Beatles, they love Radiohead, so they wanted to know what they sounded like as reggae. The concept albums gave us the opportunity to reach a wider audience with our own music.
Menny: It’s like the world’s expectation of us, you know, we’ve proven we can cover these albums in an original kind of way, so we also have to show the world our originality.
Ivan: We’ve spent the last eight years touring together so we wanted to create some music of our own. We’ve always had a policy to have a couple of original tunes in the set, so people weren’t just hearing those albums but getting a taste of the people on stage as well. So as the original songs became a bigger collection, Michael G said ‘let’s do a full-length’ album.
Was it difficult to arrange the album into a cohesive unit or did it come naturally?
Ivan: That’s where Michael G comes in. He’s the executive producer so he makes those decisions. It was kinda fun this time cos they made it sorta like a competition, they said ‘alright you have this amount of time to submit any demos you want, we’ll listen to everything’. There was definitely way more songs submitted than what made it on the record and he had to figure out what we were going to put out as a band. It’s not always about whether it’s a good song or not it’s just about creating the right combination of songs. There’s actually a couple of songs on there from the Israeli part of Easy Star All Stars. Michael G spends a bit of time in Israel. He’s got a collective of musicians he works with out there so they put a couple of those tunes on there. He wanted the majority of it to be the touring band but he wanted to throw that flavour in there too.
The album title First Light is quite evocative. What does the album title mean to you?
Ras: It’s not one dimension at all as you can tell; I think it takes on a different meaning every time we perform it. At one point, it can just mean ‘hey good morning, get up its first light’, you know or it could mean the dawn of a new era, the dawn of a new age, the dawn of a new generation; it’s timeless, it’s endless, it’s infinite.
The songwriters who wrote the song “First Light”, wrote it as a tribute to the first tour that we did way back in 2003, and that’s what really inspired the lyrical content; we were just retelling the story of how we experienced the first tour. It was like the dawn of a new vibe; being on the road together for the first time and performing “Dub side” live for the first time anywhere. First Light is there to recapture those moments; those first days. But as you can tell, the album takes on a lot more meaning than that.
While First Light is predominantly reggae in style, there are hints of motown and soul in some of the songs. Were these influences subconscious or did you want to expand on the band’s sound on this album?
Menny: To be quite honest, reggae itself is based on that kind of vibe; you’ll hear every type of music in reggae, it’s always been that way. Bob Marley did it, Denis Brown did it, you name any great reggae artist, and you can hear that soul influence; they’re all connected. As they say in Jamaica, fingers can’t rock, you know what I mean; music can’t be mathematics. You’re gonna hear certain vibes in certain things, but we don’t think about it that way; we just let it flow.
Ivan: The foundation of the band will always be reggae but it’s fun to touch on other styles. Reggae itself is a mix of African, Caribbean & soul influences. And before reggae, there was ska in the 60s. From what I understand, those ska musicians in Jamaica were listening to soul & jazz records coming off the radio from Miami and they combined them with Caribbean rhythms. There’s a story about how reggae was supposedly invented in the summer of 1968. It was an unusually hot summer in Jamaica so they slowed the ska tempos down and there came that reg-gae reg-gae rhythm; that’s what I heard. I’d love to hear Toots’ take on that. I love that story.
Has it been more rewarding touring in support of First Light than your previous albums?
Menny: It’s all great; everything has its own respect. With the originals, we definitely feel it more, cos that’s our own material; we wrote it and recorded it, so then we feel it while performing it. It’s a different sort of vibe singing the Pink Floyd material cos the people already know it and sing along to it; but it’s just as rewarding.
Have there been particular gigs that stand out as being the most memorable for you as a band?
Jennifer: Definitely Glastonbury. We played three days there and each day we played a different album. The first day, we played Dub side in the dance tent; the second afternoon was Radiodread and then the third day we played Sgt. Pepper.
Menny: Yeah, Glastonbury has always been at the top of the list, no band has ever played three nights in a row before. On one stage, we were on at like 10 or 11am and there were thousands of people there for it cos they didn’t want to miss it. It was great to see people waking up early to see us, after acts like Bruce Springsteen the night before. They should have all been asleep... until at least 3pm!
What are your favourite songs to perform?
Ras: As of now, definitely the First Light material. The more we do it, the more it evolves; you feel ownership you know. Doing the concept stuff has been great, but I’m feeling it personally every night when we perform the First Light material. It becomes more and more a part of us. If I had to choose one song out of the new album, it would be “Something went wrong”. The people really get it, like they’re not just listening but they’re actually getting what the song is saying.
How has the new album been received on this tour?
Ras: We’ve had a few nice reviews, but even the greatest artists had their critics. You know guys like Elton John got bad reviews for songs they’d written, so we’ve got the full gambit I’m not going lie. We get some saying ‘the shit is whack’ and they hate it, and then on the other side there are those who love it. We know that’s just how it is when you’re put under the litmus test. For the most part, it’s been good.
Menny: It was surprising for me when people already knew the songs. I’m singing songs like “Something went wrong” and I see their lips moving to the words, and I’m thinking ‘damn these songs are so new’ and to see them singing it, that shows me that Easy Star are doing a good job in terms of spreading this new material, and it also shows me that we’ve written songs that the people enjoy enough to sing along to.
What albums have inspired you in the past?
Ras: Bob Marley’s Uprising really did it for me. I heard Uprising and here I am today; that was my life-changing moment.
Menny: Well, there have been a lot of them but Gregory Isaac’s Night Nurse was definitely one of them; that was one my mother bought; she was the one that would buy all the records. I would break needles every day playing those songs.
What have been your biggest challenges as a band?
Ras: I’d say just remaining true to the music; that’s always the biggest challenge. You know, the more popular you get, you’re always tempted to lose yourself and get lost in trying to please everyone. You can lose that certainty in yourself. So I think the greatest challenge is staying grounded.
Jennifer: Keeping it fresh, you don’t want to play a boring show or play the music the same way every night; you’ve got to always bring something new to it every night.
Ivan: It’s important that you deliver every night but you’re not always going to have the perfect conditions. Sometimes you know it’s just the luck of the draw. Yesterday we played in Dublin and the sound out front was great but there was a problem with the monitors on stage. In this business you can’t let stuff like that stop you. We could’ve spent the whole time trying to get it sorted out but we realised we gotta just play.
Easy Star All Stars were interviewed by John Ryan