Reggae music collective Easy Star All-Stars have announced additional dates to their current U.S. tour, including June 20 at Slim’s, with the band playing hits from all of their cover albums plus original material.
This rotating roster of musicians and singers, which started back in 1997 by the co-founders of New York City-based Easy Star Records, is best known for their dub-heavy reinterpretations of famous albums, specifically Radiohead’s OK Computer (titled Radiodread), Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Thrillah), The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band), and most famously Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (Dub Side of the Moon).
The latter has been so well-received over the years that the Easy Star All-Stars were able to do a dedicated tour last year playing tracks solely from that cover album and make a complete remix record. The band has toured in more than 30 countries across 6 continents, averaging over 100 shows per year for the past five years.
In advance of their upcoming show, we spoke to both founder and producer Michael Goldwasser as well as touring drummer Ivan ‘Ive09′ Katz for their full perspective on the current state of reggae music, details on numerous collaborations, and the collective’s love for San Francisco.
What are your thoughts about the current state of reggae before you head to play California Roots festival?
MG: Yes. It’s great. It’s been growing every year. It’s nice. What we’ve fomented in the U.S. reggae movement, starting 20 years ago. Now, we’re starting to see a lot of things come to fruition. Lots of interesting and creative bands based in America, which is what we didn’t see back when we started doing it.
Any situation where people are making positive music and making people happy with it is great! There’s a lot of great bands in the U.S. now making reggae. My only issue with it, it’s not across the board, but sometimes there may be a lack of recognition for the progenitors from Jamaica who made this all possible. It’s not out of malice, some of these artists or bands haven’t been exposed to the entire breadth of reggae music. So I’m always try to expose them to older stuff that could be a positive influence on them and open their minds to what they can be about. It’s an ongoing process.
How did you get start collaborating with Eric Rachmany from Rebelution?
MG: I think their manager Dean reached out to me. He said, hey guys, would you like to do a remix? We worked on a remix for one of their songs on their second album. They liked it so much asked me to do production on their next album and an entire dub version of the album. The relationship has just continued. I’ve spent a good amount of time with their manager Dean, who’s doing great things to bring to band to every corner of the world. I did a remix for their last album, which came out on Easy Star.
Everything in life really is about relationships. If its just about business or music, there’s something missing. It’s got to be about the relationship with the people. That’s one of the things I treasure is building relationships like with Eric from Rebelution and Dean, their manager. Relationships last longer than business and even music.
What is your best memory from performing in SF?
MG: First of all, I love San Francisco. It’s a great city. There was this club that closed maybe 10 years ago, it was called Maritime Hall. I played a show out there. I was touring as the guitarist for the Meditations, a roots reggae trio from Jamaica. We eventually signed to Easy Star. I was touring as their guitarist. We tour all across the country.
In San Francisco, we played Maritime Hall and it was double bill with Sugar Minott, may he rest in peace and is one of my favorite singers. At that point, I don’t know if we had started any real business relationship with him. It was just a great show to play in. Huge hall, packed house, getting to see my favorite singer Sugar perform, and then play that big house with the Meditations and bring positive vibes.
How do you find you balance between creating music independently and collaborating with others?
MG: In general, it’s more about working with other people to develop their music. However, I did spend most of 2014 writing, recording, and mixing my first solo album. It’s not reggae at all. It’s R&B, soul, funk. It’s called Goldswagger, which is a play on my last name. It’s yet to be released. Easy Star is great at marketing reggae, but I don’t know if we can effectively market R&B.
That was a great experience for me to take a break from always helping other people making their music or even the Easy Star All-Stars. It’s great fun and great challenge, but it’s still not my original music. Write a lot, perform with great musicians and great singers and express myself in a different way. Even fans kind of pigeon hole you. The reggae guy who does dub reinterpretations of classic albums. But really I’m multifaceted. I love r&B, soul and funk as much as I love reggae, jazz, afrobeat, a lot of different stuff. It’s a chance to express myself in a true way without worrying about boundaries, genres and stuff like that.
That said, the work I’ve done recently has been producing and mixing other people’s stuff. There’s no master plan, but whatever seems to come my way. Whether it’s my stuff or someone else’s stuff.
What’s next for Easy Star All-Stars?
MG: We don’t have a new album coming out right now for Easy Star All-Stars. The theme of this tour is a greatest hits from all of our albums. So far, it’s going well cause people want to hear all of these. On Easy Star Records, we’ve been working with a lot of up-and-coming bands. We’re going to continue to put out music by lots of different artists from the U.S. reggae scene. I don’t have a real schedule in front of me or anything. We have a lot of good stuff in the time pipeline. Continuing to try and build the U.S. reggae scene as much as we can.
We also chatted with touring drummer Ivan Katz about the formation of Easy Star All-Stars, his love for San Francisco, and details about their numerous musical collaborations.
How did you first get introduced to Michael Goldwasser?
IK: Me and Michael came up together in the New York City music scene. We met back in the 90s. At the time, we were both in two different bands. I was the leader of a live hip-hop band called Primordial Source and he had his own band Special Requests, which was a R& B band with some elements of reggae. We became colleagues because we were both being band members on the up and up trying to make soul, reggae, hip-hop.
We realized we had a lot of common interests in the music we were into and we were both coming up in the New York city scene. And the the New York City scene is cool because New York City as always has always had a huge reggae influence, partially because of the Jamaican scene. It is also the birthplace for hip-hop and it’s also one of the heaviest places for soul and R&B in the world. We were two kids growing up together, music lovers.
How did you start playing for the Easy Star All-Stars?
IK: When he started Easy Star Records along with Eric Smith and Lem Oppenheimer and Remy Gerstein in the late 90s, I was very involved and very supportive because they said, hey, we’re starting this indie reggae label, give the artists the respect they deserved and put out new and exciting reggae music. That’s how the path started.
What has been your favorite touring moment from Easy Star?
IK: Yeah, many. One was being in Rio, Brazil, playing in this district of Rio called Lapa, where all the live music happens. The crowd was so live and energetic. It was amazing! Another one was playing Glastonbury in the UK, which is like one of the biggest festivals in the world.
Where is the most unexpected place you’ve every performed live?
IK: In Egypt. In Chang Mai, Thailand. And we played in Australia, not as unexpected as bands do go out there, but it’s a long journey. They knew Easy Star’s music, they’re reggae lovers and love what Easy Star was doing. Taking stuff like Pink Floyd, Radiohead, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson and re-imagining it reggae style. They loved our original stuff too. Another favorite place I played was in Mexico. Those audiences are amazing.
What did you learn from touring last year for Dub Side of the Moon?
IK: We learned that the crowd’s response was really positive. We sort of introduced the mashup concepts, where people enjoy the [entire] set and the vibe just keeps flowing.
Does Easy Star have any new material in the pipeline?
IK: It’s mostly about celebrating all the music we’ve created so far. These inter-collaborations, a bunch of band members are in the songwriting process working on original music. The Easy Star All-Stars, the touring ban started in 2003. Now we’re going on 12 years. the ebbs and flows of the tide, there’s times where we’re gearing up for a new album and there’s times where we’re just celebrating the catalog we’ve created.
It’s fun to watch audiences come back and enjoy those songs. One of the things that our new set has is that we’ve re-arranged some songs and have a bit of a mashup going between some of the songs. It makes the set new and interesting even if you are a familiar Easy Star fan. You are going to get something new even if you know the song.
What other projects have you been working on?
IK: Everybody in the band has other projects they are involved in. They have impressive resumes. For example Jenny Hill, she used to tour with Burning Spear. Everyone in the band comes from an interesting background with other projects. They’re working in other genres, a la afrobeat, dance music, soul, pop and jazz. Being a New York-based band, everyone is part of the vibrant scene here.
Everyone works on various different projects. For example, I’m the playing drums with The Chronic Horns project which consists of Jenny Hill on Sax, Bufuord O’Sullivan on trombone, Ras Droppa on bass, and Shelton Garner on guitar. I also have a gig tonight with Shelton Garner on guitar – a cool acoustic soul thing. There’s all kinds of different projects happening. I’m also doing some reggae songwriting with Ruff Scott, who is our MC/vocalist. There’s all kind of cross collaborations and a whole bunch of projects.
Easy Star Records has their whole own expanding roster of reggae groups. I would say it’s a New York based collective with all kinds of collaborations within the band members for various different projects.