Roots music isn’t dead. Marley’s still topping the reggae charts even though he passed away nearly thirty years ao, and most of the mainstream continues to hold him and his contemporaries as defining purveyors of reggae music. But it’s certainly hard to find music/bands nowadays who sound like that. Granted, musical progression is never a bad thing in my opinion, but that fiery rockers sound that dominated mid-1970’s Kingston is tough to find outside of your favorite selector’s record collection. Thankfully though, the kind folks over at Broken Complex records have unleashed upon us The Expanders’s self-titled debut, a rockers-bred slab of wax that sounds like it was released straight from the vaults of Studio One.
L.A.’s The Expanders have been kicking around the SoCal reggae scene for nearly a decade now, but their debut release is only being released today. Read on as lead vocalist/guitarist Devin Morrisson answers some of The Pier’s questions regarding the group’s history, the new album, and how recording an album over a five year period might make it a stronger release.
The Pier: Could you give me a little background into the how the band got started and how it’s changed over the years?
The Expanders: The band started in 2003, and at that time it was mainly an acoustic thing. The band is a harmony group, that’s one of our main features, and we started with just two guitars, singing harmonies, and a percussion player. We added a bassplayer to that same line-up and I think in 2004 we played at The Blue Beat Lounge [writer’s note: The Blue Beat Lounge was weekly ska show at the L.A. Knitting Factory which was the longest runing weekly ska venue in the world], and that was kind of the beginning of what the group turned into.
We met a lot of the local musicians at The Blue Beat Lounge. In LA there is a really big traditional ska scene that kind of started in the early 90’s with bands like Hepcat, so there’s a big community of musicians that are into old-school sounding ska and early reggae and rocksteady
The Pier: So I read that it took you nearly 5 years to record this album. Why did it take so long?
The Expanders: There’s several different factors that went into how long it took. We didn’t really have a set drummer who was a full-member of the band. When we started recording the album, we worked with a drummer named Blake who plays with a group called the Lions. He was kind of just filling in, but right after we did that first session, he got a new a gig and went on tour for a year, so he was out of the picture.
The studio where we recorded is called KillionSound, and it’s run by this guy named Sergio, who’s a working musician and always on the road, so the studio wasn’t available all of the time. There’s a lot of studios in LA, but we were going for a really old school sound, and that’s what they do at KillionSound. He was the guy we wanted to work with, that was the studio we wanted to record at, and it wasn’t available most of the time.
A third factor is that a lot of the guys in the band play in a lot of different bands – not so much right now, but for the majority of this band’s history that’s been the case. We weren’t able to put the time into rehearsing and writing songs in the way we have in the past year or so.
All that stuff kind of combines to make the album take way longer than it should have to record.
The Pier: Do you think recording in the album in such a slow, fragmented manner had any effect on the final outcome?
The Expanders: One positive outcome was that by the end we were able to weed out the mediocre songs. Over a four year period of time, I was writing a lot of songs. If we had put it out in say 2007, the selection of songs might not have been as strong. After four years when we finally got ready to mix the record we were able to say ‘alright, we really like these songs,” and a lot of those were songs that had been recorded in 2009 and 2010.
The Pier: And what was the role of J. Bonner throughout all of this?
The Expanders: J. was the original bass player for the Aggrolites, and we knew him just from playing shows in southern California. I think maybe in 2007 we opened for the Aggrolites in Echo Park, and that was probably the first time I met him. A couple of other guys in the band had known him for a while.
The Expanders are really the only band in LA that are playing rockers style mid-70’s reggae. Most of the bands out here either do traditional ska or they do what the Aggrolites are doing, you know like that early skinhead reggae vibe.
J. being a reggae fan was really into the Expanders because no one else was really doing what we were doing. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of his productions that he’s done on his own, but it sounds like Studio One. It’s amazing, the sound quality he got. It sounds like it was recorded 40 years ago. Once I heard that, he was the first choice to mix the record. We approached him with the idea and he was super into it. I think we started mixing it in September and we finished by November.
He also did all of the artwork for the album.
The Pier: I really love the album art. It’s a fantastic concept, and it really calls to mind some of the whacky, old Scientist covers
The Expanders: That’s exactly what were going for. That early ‘80’s Scientist cartoony look.
The Pier: Given reggae’s history as protest music, it’s also a very appropriate concept.
The Expanders: Nicky Bonner, J.’s wife, came up with concept for the sound system blowing away these kind of soldier guys with the evil eye on their helmet. The sound system on the cover is actually based on a real soundsystem that J. built. He’s got a really awesome sound system he put together that he brings out some times.
We had just told him that we wanted to go for that Scientist vibe and he came up with this idea of the soundsystem and music as a powerful weapon.
The Pier: So you were saying earlier that one of the reasons the album took so long to record is the amount of time you guys each spend playing with other groups…
The Expanders: Throughout the history of the band we have, though at the moment it’s a little bit less. Our bass player has been involved in pretty much all of the big ska and reggae bands in LA. Lately I’ve been playing in the Lions. I’m actually taking Sergio’s place at the moment because he is constantly on the road with his band, Orgone. Their keyboard player, Dan, actually plays keys on most of the record. Him and Roger from the Aggrolites kind of split the key duties on the record. Dan was in the band and playing shows with us for a long time until Orgone, since they’re total road warriors. They’re always on the road.
[Writer’s note: Orgone probably had one of the best live shows I saw in 2010. So funky. So fresh. So awesome. Definitely worth checking out.]
The Pier: Does that make playing in The Expanders a little more refreshing at all?
The Expanders: Lately we’ve been focusing pretty hard on the The Expanders, but yeah I guess so. When I play for an extended period of time with another group, it does feel nice to come back to The Expanders. It’s a real familiar vibe. I’m the leader of the band, but we all put our input in. It feels nice to be in charge for all of us, you know what I’m saying?
The Expanders is kind of the band where none of us really have to listen to someone else. I’m not in any bands where it’s a negative situation or anything like that, but in The Expanders we get to be the most creative.
The Pier: Cool. And finally, I’d like to just ask real quick if you guys will be doing any touring?
The Expanders: We don’t have any tour planned at the moment. I’m a full-time student. During the summer we’ll get some stuff going.
We’ve been doing as much as we can on the weekends. We’re playing all the time, but as far as an extended tour we don’t really have anything planned at the moment because of my schedule mainly.