Harrison Stafford, the lead singer and guitarist for Groundation, made some available time to speak with The Pier regarding the band’s upcoming release “Building An Ark” as well as their upcoming international tour touching four different continents. Within the conversation, we also spoke about the early beginnings back in 1997 on the campus of Sonoma State in California, as well as the overwhelming embrace for American reggae bands internationally. Enjoy!
The Pier: Harrison, it’s great that you were able to take the time out for this interview. I know you are in between tours right now, along with a highly anticipated full-length album set to drop. First, let’s talk about the recent Bob Marley Tribute tour in honor of his birthday.
Groundation: Well, we as a group, Groundation have been playing a similar tour as this one for the past twelve years. So, this has been a big tradition for us as a band. It has been an honor to give such a tribute to Bob. We were in Europe last year for it. We were touring the east coast the year before that. So, this has been our way of returning back to the roots of it in California. We played The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California on February 6th for the actual birthday show. We performed there at The Catalyst twelve years ago to the date, so it was especially nice to return there this time.
The Pier: Now, the band has some time off right now in between tours. I saw you are headed internationally in a couple weeks in support of the new album…
Groundation: Yeah! You know, we are kind of coming and going. We are going to Australia and New Zealand for a few festivals and headlining shows down there. After that, we are going to Europe for some promotions. The European tour starts April 17th, all the way until May 13th. We will have some time off after that, but July we will back in Europe and off to South America until September. October and November will be the official start of the Build An Ark Tour in North America, so our supporters in the states can look forward to that!
The Pier: As a band, you guys are known for your relentless touring and getting in front of the fans as much as possible. About how many dates a year does Groundation typically perform?
Groundation: That’s a good question. I don’t know the exact number, but I can tell you that we tour about eight months a year, at a minimum. Yeah, we are definitely on the road for eight months a year, so I would anticipate the number being around 150 shows a year, playing to all communities of the world. We like to connect with the people, so performing and getting out on the road is what we enjoy.
The Pier: And, I am sure that number will only rise in the coming months with the release of Building An Ark on March 20th. Can you give the fans the background of who helped with the recording of this album?
Groundation: Exactly! Yes, March 20th, Building An Ark! We are very excited. What can I say about the album? Well, it was produced by Marcus Urani and myself, as it always has been. We recorded everything with analog, everything on a two-inch tape. We do it all old-school. Marcus goes back to his studio and transfers all the analog tapes into the digital world and the digital form. They do overdubs and things at Marcus’ studios. Then it was off to Jamaica to record some of my lead vocals, along with the girls, Kim and Kerry’s vocals. We also had our percussionist come in with us to record, just to get the sound just right. This album really shows the nine of us. It shows who we are onstage. It really highlights who we are. There are no guest vocalists. The guest vocalists would really be the girls. It is really Kim and Kerry, they form much more of a leading role. They are on four of the ten tracks, along with myself, sharing the lead role for the voice. Their voices are awesome! Absolutely awesome! It is much more about the full sound of the band. This is the first time we are really highlighting them with a nice balanced role with the lead vocals. We also have Lukas Nelson playing the lead guitar on one song, that is Willie Nelson’s son performing. There are softer, more country-esque vocals on the album. Some acoustic guitars and a piano are featured. It is very stripped down. There is a varying dynamic to the album, but there is subtleness to the album. As the years go on, you learn about song writing and just telling a story. We have tried different things on our albums, you learn what to do and what not do, and you get better. We have been around for about fourteen years, and this is our eighth studio album, so we should be getting pretty good at this! (Laughs)
The Pier: You can certainly say that! Now, what pushed you, or motivated you to interchange your lead vocals with the backing singers? Was it more of going back to the roots and visualizing how Bob Marley utilized the I Three?
Groundation: It was just that comfort level. We always wanted to do it. I myself always wanted to do it. Some might say that I am the leader of Groundation, but that is just because I am in the front and center of the stage singing. I always wanted to be in a group where we were all leading. I never sat back and said, “I want to be a famous rock star”. I never had that thinking. I just wanted to create music that moves people. To me, a part of it was trying to find that magic sound where you can just step back and say, “Wow!” Now, Kim and Kerry have been a part of the group since 2005, and they have really enhanced the depth of our sound. For this album, we tried to highlight that as much as possible, while bringing the choice lyrics to the fans.
The Pier: Take us back to the very beginning in 1997 at Sonoma State in California. How were the beginnings and formation of Groundation back then?
Groundation: It was definitely formed in great love and great admiration and dedication for the love of music. The people who were involved, I first called up the bass man, Ryan Newman. I called him up first in the summer of ’97 and said, “Ryan, I really want to do something special, and something really different.” We called our keyboard man, Marcus Urani. So, before the year started, our next semester we were ready to go straightforward on this new project. It was going to be close to the roots-reggae music, because that was my backbone. That is really where I come from as a singer. The back of reggae music is that voice of equality, the struggle for justice and a better world. That is the reason I chose to sing. It is a rallying of people, especially when you have a thousand people in the room with a microphone… people tend to be a little more conscious and want to better themselves. I always had the reggae background, but we had the serious nature of holding the music. Same with our band members. Marcus Urani didn’t start playing keyboard two-years before I called him. Same with Ryan Newman, he didn’t start playing bass a year before I called him. Music for us was not trying to have that Pop song on the radio. It was not trying to be millionaire people. For the first year, we spent crowded up in a little drum room on the campus of Sonoma State. Just four of us, we played Cultjah songs. Burning Spear songs, Bob Marley songs, Israel Vibration songs, Don Carlos, Hydraman, you know? Playing conscious music! That was our roots and has formed us today. They liked jazz music, because that is what they were studying at the time, but born out of the samething. People who came to their instruments, it was the heart and soul of music that brought us together. That right away was different than selling Pop music or a certain image. Musicians coming together for a specific purpose, you know?
We never intended on having a song on the radio. In fact, it was never even a conversation from the start. When you listen to Bob Marley’s “Sun Is Shining”, what is really making everything work? Why is it moving so much? How does everything feel like it is in the right position? The feel of the music in a real song… if you listen to some American bands, they could be playing the same notes, but it just doesn’t have the same feeling to it. The overall feeling you get from the music is the difference maker. Having the time to spend getting the feel for the music that we loved, for over a year just practicing really helped us get to where we are now. It was the foundation that was built. For this upcoming album, the sound will be a little bit different than any of the past Groundation albums. It’s going to be the Groundation one! Not to say that it is any better or any worse, either! Just who we are as musicians and our intent as we have grown, the sound has transformed.
The Pier: Now, you mentioned American reggae bands, how do feel currently about the reggae music being produced by other bands on the west coast and nationally? What are some comparisons or differences between European reggae bands and bands from the islands?
Groundation: I feel really good about it. I feel like there is some separation between American reggae music, European reggae music, Australian reggae music, Brazilian reggae music and Jamaican reggae music. I have to give thanks though; because of the backbone of reggae music is all conscious. It’s all about love. It’s all about coming together for a stronger and better good. Right now, there are a lot of American reggae bands that are really strong both in the United States and in Europe. Rebelution and SOJA are bringing reggae to a whole new level. For Rebelution to sell, I think 16,000 records, or something like that, in less than a week is incredible. That doesn’t even include digital sales! And, SOJA was very similar with their new release. It is great for them! For reggae music to be accepted on a broad scale and in popular form is a blessing. For us to be a part of that is an honor. What some of these groups are producing, it is great for all of us, really.
The Pier: It is a pleasure to witness right before our eyes! 2012 has been a very fruitful year for reggae music and the fans. First it was Rebelution’s album, then SOJA, Anuhea’s new release and yet we wait for another album in the long line of greats from Groundation. Perhaps those branches of success will extend into the Groundation camp?
Groundation: Well, spreading the music that we all love can only help out each other and the people who love and need this music. For us to continue releasing music and touring the world and bringing this beautiful music to fans across the globe is an amazing feeling. That is one thing that all of us bands truly cherish. With our upcoming tour, it will be great to see all of our European fans once again, while going back to South American and continue where we left off last year!
The Pier: Sounds like the next eight months on tour will be eventful! Truly, I can’t thank you enough! It was a pleasure to speak with you, and good luck with the “Building An Ark” album release and tour! The fans will be in for a treat!
Groundation: Thank you! It has been a blessing!