The Pier recently caught up with Karim Israel, lead vocalist of Arise Roots, to discuss his band’s first national headlining tour, what they learned from traveling with Tribal Seeds last summer, and the potential for a new album on the horizon. He also shared his thoughts on what separates LA from the rest of the California reggae community, and how the city’s rough edges have molded the band’s distinctive sound, which they describe as conscious roots music.
Alongside Israel is a skilled group of musicians, featuring Ron Montoya (drums), Rudy Covarrubias (bass), Todd Johnson (keys/vocals), Robert Sotelo (lead guitar), and Chris Brennan (guitar/vocals). The Los Angeles-based 6-piece has accumulated fans across the country due to the hypnotizing brand of reggae displayed on their 3 studio albums, Love & War (2014), Moving Forward (2013), and Lay Your Guns Down (2010). Arise Roots has proved an innate ability to create smooth love songs like “Cool Me Down” and “Lost In Your Ocean,” as well as militant, calls to action exhibited on tracks like “Fear Factory” and “People Are You Ready.”
In our discussion, Karim Israel breaks down whether it’s more natural for him to write songs about love or war, and we learn how a Craigslist ad played a big role in the band’s formation. Finally, we get a look into Karim’s dream team list of artists that he wants to write music with, and the one venue he and Arise Roots are dying to perform at.
Interview: Arise Roots
The Pier: Arise Roots has two brand new singles coming out this summer, one of which is “Rootsman Town” ft. Capleton. How did you establish that relationship with dancehall legend Capleton?
Karim: After we wrote the song we had a very short-list of people that we wanted. You know, a dream-team list of people that we wanted to collab with. We put feelers out for all of them and Capleton was one where I actually just cold called his manager, and she picked up. We started talking, I was telling her how big a fan we were of his, and if he would be open to dropping a verse for us. Capleton ended up being in the back of the room, and he seemed fairly open to it from the beginning. So we recorded a little demo in our rehearsal studio and shot it over to them. Then we rushed down to 17th Street Studio and recorded with Lewis Richards, which was another thing on our bucket list of people to record with. So we banged it out and sent it over, and then Capleton added his verse.
The two singles are the first new music released by the band since your 2014 album Love & War, does this mean there’s a new album on the horizon?
You know, we’re in the process of writing. Just writing, writing, writing. So whenever we feel that we have enough songs that have made it out of the lab, enough to come out with a full album, then we’ll go ahead and drop it. We don’t really have a time-frame in mind, we’re more so focusing on just the writing process itself. It’s the first time where we’re doing it where we’re not putting ourselves under a time constraint.
Was it the same process for Love & War?
To some degree, yeah. With Love & War we already had quite a few songs that were written between the last release, Moving Forward, so it was just time to put them all together on an album. This time around, we’re literally almost starting from scratch. In my opinion, we have maybe 3 or 4 songs that I feel are what I’d like to see on the album. Everything else will be just going back to the lab and creating. So it will be an album with a lot of songs that people haven’t heard yet. Usually when we come up with a song, we’ll play it and see what the crowd response is, and if people are feeling it we’ll keep going with it. But with this one we’re being very selective with what we play live because we want that freshness. It’s gonna be a lot of new music.
You’re heading out on the band’s first national headlining tour this summer, The Rootsman Summer Tour. What’s been the biggest difference in preparing for a tour where you’re the main act as opposed to an opener?
There’s a lot of different things obviously. It’s a lot of work, things don’t just fall into place. It’s a lot of negotiations. So that was different than just jumping on a tour and everything is already done.
Since we’re not going out with one of these huge national name bands, we’re playing smaller venues. But what’s different about being the headliner on the tour is that the people that come out are your actual tried-and-true fans. So whether it’s 5 people or 5,000 people, it’s people that genuinely want to see you. So the focus is different. We’re excited for every single person that’s there. And we’re as excited if not more excited for this tour than any other one that we’ve done just because it’s ours.
It’s a little bit scary, but at the same time it’s exciting. We don’t know what each show is going to be like. We’ve played in LA so much. We’ve fought and scraped and scratched. So we’re used to playing in front of 2 people or 2,000. We’re ready to rock the house no matter who’s there.
Last year, Arise Roots went on a national tour supporting Tribal Seeds on their Summer Smoke Out Tour. Was there anything you learned from them about handling the grind of a long tour?
Oh yeah, definitely. Just seeing how their operation is run at that size. The production and the behind the scenes, and just seeing how much it takes to work a show at that magnitude, and venues of that size. Even as far as the merch game, and seeing how thorough the guys have to be with the merch, and how much merch to bring on tour. The amount of boxes that they had to bring blew my mind. And we learned just how important having a team is, having people who are down and willing to do the dirty work. It was really cool and inspiring to see that whole thing come together.
People might not know this but all the members of Arise Roots actually work full time outside of the band. So how do you manage that work/life/music balance?
For us in particular, a lot of us don’t even just have jobs we have careers. So what that has done is taken care of the bills and the business and money side of things. So what happens is a lot of that pressure is actually taken off of us. So now we can sit back and have the freedom and the luxury of doing the music because we love the music. Truthfully, I’m not in any rush to change that. I’m happy that my job pays my bills and that I can do the music completely for the love.
Is that what gives you the ability to take your time with an album like you mentioned before?
Yeah, definitely! So we’re not under the gun and we don’t feel like we have to put this out. We don’t want to put out anything just for the sake of putting something out. We’re trying to put out the best of what we can do. We have so many songs right now on the cutting room floor. We’ll do a song and like a month later say, “eh, we thought it was cool at the time, but eh maybe not.” And if we were under the gun that song might end up on an album and down the road we might not be as proud. So us having careers affords us some luxury, some freedom to put more time, effort, and love into the project.
But obviously it puts up barriers too. There’s been so many tours that we’ve turned down because of the responsibilities that we have. But at the same time, we get to keep doing what we love and what ever is supposed to happen, wherever we are supposed to be we’ll be.
Your drummer, Ron Montoya, started the band back in 2010 with the idea of playing 70’s style roots reggae. How did you get introduced to him and the rest of the band, and is the vision for Arise Roots still the same as it was 6 years ago?
We first met on Craigslist actually. I answered the ad for a band looking for a vocalist, and in that band Ron was the drummer, but it wasn’t the right fit for me. So once that didn’t work out, a few months down the road I answered another ad for a guy setting up a roots project. I go to the audition and in walks Ron from a few months before, and we’re looking at each other like, “don’t we know each other from somewhere?” This project though, the schedule still never worked. But a few months down the road he hit me up saying he found someone who plays keys, Todd, and another guy that plays bass, Rudy. So we branched off and did our own thing.
It was revolving around roots, because we all love roots reggae. From that first jam we could feel something was there. So, literally from that day in 2010 we’ve been jamming ever since. A month later, we auditioned Robert, our lead guitarist, and 5 minutes after he started playing we just knew. Sign him up.
And the focus has always been to do the music we love the most; Roots reggae music.
The last album, Love & War, seemed like just that..a split of songs about love & war, or standing up to social injustices. So, in terms of songwriting which comes more naturally to you?
War. Automatically. And when I say war it’s not guns and tanks, it’s the struggle. Whether it’s the inner struggle inside your own mind, you know, the battles that we deal with. Our shortcomings or our struggles, a lot of that stuff comes from the battle we have within ourselves.
Then outside of your own person, just the struggle of life. We’re all going traveling through space together, you know? We have so many situations that are common to all of us, that we’ve all been through before. So when we start talking about these things it resonates with somebody because we’ve all been through similar if not the same things, but just in different variations.
Whether it’s financial struggle, emotional struggle, or whatever. There’s so much in that word, I feel that we’ve only touched on a piece of that because that word is so deep, so widespread, and so multifaceted. But that’s what roots music is! You can talk about war and struggle forever and never run out of material because the world is tough. It’s beautiful, but there’s a lot of issues that are rough. Human conflict never stops, and internal conflict never stops. So just tapping into that was what that was about.
Obviously California is the hotbed of reggae music in the US, but what about Los Angeles in particular helped shape Arise Roots’ sound?
LA is different than a lot of the other Cali scenes. There’s a lot of surf rock roots sound in California, but LA has a lot of roughness, and rough edges. I think the grind and the struggle of LA is more real than in any other city or town in California. LA breeds a different type of sound and feel. You do get those ideas and sights of struggle a lot easier than you would in a lot of other places in California. So with that being the case the stuff that we see and are around is just…I’ve worked in the South Central-Watt’s Community for the past 10 years, and I’ve seen that struggle on a daily basis.
Of course there’s gangs, poverty, and violence all over California but in LA it’s on another level. LA just breeds a certain type of ruggedness. Our content isn’t a surf party type of music, and not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that where we are, and what we see, and what we’re dealing with reflects more of where we’re from. And that’s LA.
Ok, so stepping outside of LA and the rest of the California reggae community, is there anyone that you’d love to collaborate with, maybe even outside of reggae?
Outside of reggae, Nahko & Medicine for the People. I really like them. I would love to do a song with Nahko. He’s definitely on my list.
Also, we’re huge on the classics, and the generals of reggae. Our list would include so many of those guys from Barrington Levy to The Congos. I feel like as time goes and these guys get older the time is shrinking to have access to these artists. But you know I wish we had the budget to just have at it.
And with the distance between LA and Jamaica it makes it tough, but I would love to have Don Carlos, Israel Vibrations, Mykal Rose, Vaughn Benjamin from Midnite. I have such a huge wish list of people to work with it’s almost like naming your favorite child!
To wrap up our conversation, are there any goals that you and the rest of the band have set out to accomplish moving forward?
For us, we want to push our music and our sound as far as possible. I know that may seem vague, but whatever that entails. Push it as far as we can. We believe in our music and we believe it gives a voice to people, situations, and problems. There’s nothing wrong with partying and having a good time, but when the party is over and you go back home people still deal with very real issues, and that’s what we like to address with our music.
We just want to go and travel as far as it possibly can. There’s so many venues, and countries that we’d love to play. My mom is a missionary, so I grew up a missionary as well. I’ve been all over the world, and there’s so many places around the world that I’d love to get back to and play music. So many places have shaped my world view and the way I think and view things. I’d love to get back to some of these countries and really just play, not for any fame or fortune, strictly just play the music. Sharing that love with somebody through music.
In terms of venues, I’ll tell you there is one place that I’m so stoked to play at, and whenever that day comes I’ll be ecstatic. Red Rocks in Colorado. I don’t know when it’s gonna happen, but someday I’m gonna play Red Rocks, and I’m gonna be freakin’ stoked to play. So whoever out there has any connections to Red Rocks, listen to what I’m saying right now, somehow, someway, get us booked at Red Rocks and you will make this young man extremely happy.
Watch: Arise Roots – “Rootsman Town” (feat. Capleton)
Arise Roots have already released their first single of the summer, “Rootsman Town” ft. Capleton, and the second, “Crisis,” is on its way. In addition to digital formats, “Crisis” will be available on vinyl via Angel City Records later this summer.
If you enjoyed our chat with Karim Israel, The Pier will be linking up with him in the coming weeks to go further in depth with the lead vocalist. We’ll be discussing his father’s trailblazing career as a musician, Karim’s own career aside from music as a teacher in South Central Los Angeles, his upbringing traveling the world as a missionary with his mother, and whether or not we’ll see him on anymore TV commercials for Apple.
Watch: Arise Roots – “Love You Right” (Compilation Footage HD)