Trailblazing reggae group John Brown’s Body (JBB) released their new album Fireflies on Sept 9th via Easy Star Records. Known for their progressive reggae sound which has been dubbed “future roots,” JBB is celebrating their 20th anniversary together. The band formed in Ithaca, NY back in 1996, and has been pushing the boundaries of reggae music ever since.
JBB has made the top of the charts their home with each of their last 3 albums grabbing a #1 spot on the Billboard Reggae Chart. The lineup has gone through a number of changes over the years, but the powerful, yet sweet voice of Elliot Martin, dynamic beats by drummer Tommy Benedetti, and best-in class horn section have been constant throughout. Aside from the two founding members Martin and Benedetti, the band is completed by Jay Spaker (guitar/vocals), Jon Petronzio (keys), Dan Africano (bass), Sam Dechenne (trumpet), TJ Sharper (trombone), and Mike Vitale (tenor sax).
We connected with Elliot and Tommy for an in-depth discussion on the band’s new album Fireflies, and to reminisce on the band’s last two decades playing together. We also looked ahead at what JBB hopes to achieve as they continue to pump out high quality music, year after year. Elliot takes us through his song writing process, and shares which current bands have inspired him.
Interview: John Brown’s Body
The Pier: JBB is celebrating it’s 20th year together as a band. Looking back over the last two decades, is there any one moment or accomplishment that stands out in particular?
Elliot: The overriding accomplishment is the fact that we’re still doing it. There have been countless moments when I thought we were done. We’ve played with so many amazing people. We’ve lost a lot of amazing people over the years. So many people have contributed to the life of this band that I can’t list them all. When a crucial band member steps out of the band it’s devastating. I’ve learned to accept those moments and to celebrate them. The JBB family is 20 years deep and still growing. We can call on any of them to contribute at any time, and if they have a chance they jump at the opportunity to do it. That’s extremely gratifying and inspiring. It’s been a long stretch of personal, emotional growth and the growth of a strong team. I wouldn’t trade that accomplishment for anything.
The Pier: And looking ahead, what else do you still want to achieve in music? Is there anything on the JBB bucket list that still needs to be crossed off?
Elliot: There’s always a lot to try and achieve. There are some of the bands out there that can tour and make a living out of it. They can travel the world and play huge shows — and they’re playing reggae! That still blows my mind. It’s difficult to create a strong fan base in the US. Because we haven’t toured relentlessly, that goal has been elusive. I would love to have it be a bit easier to tour the US and to be able to break into the international scene. There is so much support out there for bands like ours. We need to tap into that energy more so we can keep on doing this.
The Pier: JBB has been a major influence on so many of today’s emergent stars in the American reggae scene. As you continue making music, have you drawn any influence from some of the up and coming acts, or does that inspiration still come from the music you grew up on?
Elliot: Absolutely I draw inspiration from the newer bands. I tend to rely on my old way of writing. I hear so much of what’s out there and it’s exciting. I’m inside my head a lot, so it’s good to look at how people respond to the great songs that Scott (Woodruff) from Stick Figure writes. It’s pretty inspiring to watch people hang on every word that he sings. The same could be said for a lot of bands out there. Fortunate Youth, Rebelution, SOJA. The list goes on and on. All those bands are writing from the heart and they’ve been very successful in connecting to their fans in a very genuine way. I only hope I can achieve that in a small way.
The Pier: In the early days of JBB, you and Kevin Kinsella shared song writing responsibilities, but for the last couple of albums you’ve been in charge of all the song writing. Now, on the new album Fireflies you collaborated on song writing with your guitarist Jay Spaker. How was it writing in tandem again, and what element does Jay bring to this latest album?
Elliot: Back when Kevin was the principal songwriter, we never wrote on each others songs. We would harmonize together, but we never actually wrote a song with both voices trading verses like Jay and I. Jay has a really strong energy and charisma that is apparent to anyone that meets him. His songwriting style is more modern than mine, although we both share the same influences. I felt we needed his input very much and I’m really pleased to see his presence in the band grow. I love the energy that two lead singers can give out on stage. We try to play off each other.
It’s actually the first time I’ve written together with someone. I don’t find that very easy to do. Jay is the first person I’ve collaborated with who can easily take my songs and make them better, so I’m very grateful for that.
The Pier: It’s not too often that JBB’s songs include a guest vocalist, but “Hard Man Fe Dead” off the new album features Karim Israel of Arise Roots. Anything in particular that led you to seek out a verse from Karim?
Elliot: The original “Hard Man Fe Dead” is an old Prince Buster tune. I love that song — it’s just such a great Jamaican phrase. Prince Buster just passed away, so this new tune we wrote has some added significance. I love Karim Israel and the band Arise Roots. His vocal style is diverse, but he definitely has an authentic West Indian background. He seemed a natural to put his stamp on that song. He made my favorite verse of the song. I also reached out to The Expanders to do the harmonies on that one. We weren’t able to get that done, but The Expanders are experts on that style. Great harmonies in that band.
The Pier: In the past, JBB has followed up albums with dub and remix versions. Are we being greedy to ask if there will be a dub or remix version of Fireflies?
Tommy: No, you’re not being greedy at all! There’s actually a bunch of dub mixes that already exist right now. We have some really great alternate dub mixes in the can right now that I’m sure will see the light of day at some point.
The record went through a couple phases. At first we were going to release it in the spring, and we were going to have 7 tracks and include 3 or 4 dub mixes as well. But Elliott had written a couple really sick tracks that we were starting to play live, and we delayed the release to go back in the studio in Boston and cut a few more tracks. Which turned out to be a really brilliant idea because they turned out to be the lead off tracks, “Who Paid Them Off?,” “Hard Man Fe Dead,” and one of Jay’s tracks “Like a Queen.” Those were all really fresh. And it delayed the record, but it was well worth it. It allowed us to have a 10-track full-length album, and be able to hold on to the dub mixes for a future release to drop on people.
The Pier: JBB is made up of members who live in both Ithaca, NY and Boston, MA. How does the band manage that situation?
Tommy: Well, it’s pretty much always been like that. We’ve always been a band between two or three cities. We had a few guys in NYC at some point as well. But that’s just the way it is now for a lot of bands. People gotta be where they gotta be.
We don’t rehearse a lot actually. If we’re gonna be going out on the road, we’ll either go to Boston or Ithaca a day early, and put some new tunes in the set or whatever. We do a lot of flying around, and we just meet up and take it from there. We try to take advantage of sound checks too. If there’s a tune that will have to get thrown in the set, we do our homework on it. We’ll come prepared and just knock it out.
The Pier: Is that easier being a veteran band at this point?
Tommy: Yeah, you know I think we’ve just come to this place where we know how to get it done, and what works best for us as people and musicians. We’ve got it down to a science in a lot of ways. We enjoy playing music together and getting together as much as we can, and we do what we gotta do to get the work done.
The Pier: As pioneers of the American reggae scene, what is the biggest difference that you’ve noticed from when you started in the 90s to where we are today?
Tommy: Well, the most obvious thing is that there’s a scene at all now. There really wasn’t one to speak of when we started out. We started touring nationally around ’98 or ’99, and we were packaging with the legend bands. Touring with Burning Spear, Israel Vibrations, and Jimmy Cliff. We had to really earn our spot in the mix, and those weren’t easy crowds to play for at the time. We were really the fanned out act, something very different than what people were used to seeing at that point in the national American reggae scene, which didn’t really exist.
There were definitely bands doing it regionally, don’t get me wrong. For sure. I’m not saying we were the first ever, obviously. But as far as a band to go out and sign, we signed to Shanachie Records, a really historic label, and we went out nationally and played with all these legendary Jamaican acts. It was heavy, you know.
Now, obviously there’s a scene that’s very pop reggae influenced. It’s not particularly what we go after musically, but it’s nice to see people being exposed to all types of reggae music. It’s a good thing. There’s a scene and a formula that bands can go out and plug into. You know, bills you can get on and get out and play in front of some people. It’s a lot different! That’s progress.
The Pier: Even after all these years, do you still feel like underdogs in any sense?
Tommy: No, I mean I’m not out here to play a popularity contest. I’m here to make the best music that we can make, and to play music that I really enjoy playing. I try to deal with the things that we can control, and that’s the music. I can’t control how many people like it, and if we appeal to younger kids or if we don’t. I don’t concern myself with that. We just try to make every show better than the last, and every record better than the last.
The Pier: JBB has performed at huge venues like Red Rocks, but the band also books some small clubs as well. What’s it like to go from one extreme to the other?
Tommy: We love that. You know, the record came out and debuted #1 on Billboard and iTunes and all that stuff. Which is fantastic, but we are still an underground band in some ways. And I love underground music myself, so that’s a badge that I wear with pride. We get to play all sorts of different sized rooms, and we like that a lot.
On this last tour that we just got off of, a lot of the rooms that we were playing were 200 to 300 cap. Little, small clubs that are super high energy. People right in your face. I love that type of environment. It’s also a challenge musically. There’s an art form to playing a small club versus an outdoor venue or an amphitheater. They’re all different kinds of approaches. So I like that we can play both.
Big thanks to Elliot and Tommy for taking some time to discuss the new album Fireflies, as well as JBB’s 20th anniversary together. We will continue enjoying the new album as we wait patiently for those dub mixes. Hope to see the rest of the band on tour!
Listen: John Brown’s Body – Who Paid Them Off?
Watch: John Brown’s Body – New Fashion Live @ Red Rocks 2015
Watch: John Brown’s Body – Step Inside [Official]