Interview: Easy Star All-Stars

Interview: Easy Star All-Stars

Internationally known for their stunning reggae tribute albums such as Dub Side of the Moon and Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, the Easy Star All-Stars are looking to break new ground with their first-ever original full-length entitled First Light. Michael G, the band’s producer and arranger, sat down with The Pier to discuss the All-Stars’ latest release (sorry, but still no word on what the next tribute album will be…trust me, I’m getting anxious, too)..

The Pier: After the success of the three original albums, what made you decide to embark upon a full-length original album?
Michael G: There were several reasons. First, I think a lot of fans wanted it. The band has been playing originals from the Until That Day EP as well as other originals that hadn’t been recorded, and fans came to really like them. We know everyone in the touring band is a capable songwriter, and it just made sense to try to come up with a collection of tunes written by the band.
It’s also important to establish that aspect of the bands identity so that people understand the band to the fullest. We’re not just a band that can play great reggae versions of songs by Pink Floyd, Radiohead or The Beatles, but we can write and perform our own stuff just as well.

The Pier: Since everyone in the band contributed, were you worried about the album lacking any sense of cohesion?
Michael G: No, I think there are certain unifying factors. Most of it was recorded in the same studio with the same musicians. I think it sounds like a record made by a band, not just a bunch of songs thrown together.
Also, Eric [Smith], Lem [Oppenheimer], and I went through all the demo submissions. We have 14 songs on the album, but we had way more than fourteen songs submitted. There were others that we felt were good songs, but just too different from the rest of the vibes. Not that different is essentially bad, but it had to fit the overall vibe somehow.

The Pier: I noticed that one of the tracks, One Likkle Draw, takes it’s riddim directly from the Easy Star All-Stars remix of Cas Haley’s Better. Why did you want to revive that beat?
Michael G: One day I was listening to it and I just came up with chorus and I thought “wow, there’s a new song!” And we didn’t have an herb song for the album yet, which was kind of crazy considering the amount of herb people in the band smoke.
There’s a long history in reggae of a producer reusing music, sometimes out of laziness or for economic reasons, but also because sometimes it’s like “yeah I really like that riddim. I want to see what else I can do with it.” It was fun to try to produce and mix it differently than the Cas Haley version.

The Pier: Speaking of a history of reusing the same beat, Break of Dawn and In The Light have very similar lyrics, right?
Michael G: In the Light started out as an R&B version of Break of Dawn. But then it got so far from the original that it kind of just took on it’s own identity and we wanted to give it it’s own title. We felt like just calling it Break of Dawn (remix) would not have done it justice because it’s so much more than that. But yes, the lyrics are pretty much the exact same lyrics.

The Pier: This time around you were working with the original songwriters, which isn’t really the case with the tribute albums
Michael G: Yeah unfortunately. It would be so dope to hang out with Paul McCartney

The Pier: No doubt. As a producer and arranger, was this album a bit of a change for you considering you were working directly with the songwriters?
Michael G: I can’t really take credit for a lot of the arrangements on the album. Whoever wrote the songs really came up with a lot of the components of the music, and then fleshing it out and playing with the band in rehearsal added to the arrangement as well. There were certain songs that I didn’t have a ton to do with in terms of arrangement. Although mixing itself is a form of arranging in my book, but in the conventional sense of the term, it really fell much more to the writers.

The Pier: So Victor Axelrod a.k.a. Ticklah and Victor Rice didn’t contribute to the album this time around?
Michael G: Correct, but not because we didn’t want them to be on it. It was more because of scheduling conflicts, and them both being so busy

The Pier: Do you think the album’s got different vibes than the tribute albums, considering they’ve contributed to all of them thus far?
Michael G: I don’t know…I guess I never really analyzed it that way. I think that the different vibes from the tribute albums aren’t due to the fact that Victor and Victor aren’t playing on it. I just think it’s more because it’s original material being played by the people who wrote it which gives it a different vibe.
People will sometimes approach a project differently, maybe even subconsciously, just because it’s their music.

The Pier:Could you expand on that??
Michael G: It’s funny because a lot of people assume that it’s just better to work on your own stuff, but I don’t feel that way. I definitely love writing and contributing songs to this album, but doing the tribute albums is a great challenge for me. Coming up with really good arrangements of all these tunes really does use the composer’s part of my brain.
They’re very different animals in a way, composing and arranging, but I really enjoy them both. I couldn’t say I like something better if I wrote it because I really enjoy the challenge of taking some classic work and trying to reinterpret it. For me that can be as fulfilling as producing something that I wrote.

The Pier: It sounds like this must have been a very rewarding process for everyone in the band?
Michael G: The members of the touring band have been working really hard on the road to present this music that I produced and the fans love it. They love hearing the reggae versions of Beatles, Radiohead, and Pink Floyd. But I really feel like they deserve to have an album of their originals out there.
It was great for me having seen these musicians working with this band since 2003, and some of the people in the band I’ve known since the early 90’s, not as a producer, but just as someone who knows and cares about these musicians. It was really rewarding to see them blossom in this sort of way.

The Pier: How do you see First Light’s place within the band’s catalog? I know that it may be hard to speculate, but in ten years when you look back, how do you think you’ll view the whole experience of recording and releasing a full-length original album with Easy Star All-Stars?
Michael G: Wow. That’s a tough question. It’s hard to project like that. I’d like to think that our fans will embrace this album, love it, and want more great original albums from the Easy Star All-Stars. But I also think that the legacy we’ve created through the tribute albums will probably continue to define us on a certain level. I’d love to think that First Light is going to out-sell Dub Side of the Moon, but that is unlikely. And that’s okay. I think this album has the potential to certainly satisfy our current fans, but also bring us a lot of new fans who will enjoy the music.

The Pier: Well I’m all out of questions, but if you have anything you’d like to add, please feel free.
Michael G: Hmm…I should be more prepared for a question like that. I just want the fans to know that this album to me is a great reggae album, but to me it’s more than that. It’s about making great music and a lot of that happens to be reggae. But this album shows off a lot of the other influences that we have like R&B, soul, and jazz.
I’m hoping that people will recognize the level of musicianship, and that we are really multi-faceted as musicians. And I really hope people will understand the Easy Star All-Stars better from this album.

Easy Star All-Star Links:
Easy Star All-Stars Website
Easy Star All-Stars Facebook
Easy Star All-Stars Twitter

– Interview by: Chris Castro
[Click HERE to read Dave Foral’s official Album Review for Easy Star All-Stars First Light release]