Covered in Dub09.11.2010
The Easy Star All Stars are possibly the most successful cover band in the world. Although they don’t really do covers, more like reggae versions of carefully selected pop and rock classics from Pink Floyd, Radiohead and The Beatles. Dub re-imaginings of cult tracks. A formula that has proven very successful for the New York based dub band, currently touring South Africa for the first time.
But don’t get it twisted, the Easy Star All Stars have always produced original music. They just got diverted into doing dub covers and suddenly they hit pay dirt with Dub Side of the Moon, a collection of dub versions of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The album has lived on the Billboard reggae charts since its release in 2003 and has sold over 85 000 copies. That success led them to do release dub covers of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and dub versions of Radiohead’s OK Computer, released as Radiodread, with the monster “Karma Police” dub version on it.
We hooked up with Easy Star Records co-founders Michael Goldwasser, Eric Smith and Lem Oppenheimer, as well as trombonist, Buford O’Sullivan on the even of their first gig in Jozi, tomorrow night.
MAHALA: How did this band/project come about?
Michael Goldwasser: We started Easy Star Records in 1996, and soon thereafter we began recording songs for what would be our first album, Easy Star Volume One (1998). The band on the recordings was me and a rotating cast of NY’s finest reggae musicians, so to get our name in people’s minds more, we called the band “Easy Star All-Stars”. Then whenever I would record or perform live, that’s what we called the band. We mostly played in NYC, backing up Jamaican artists such as the late Sugar Minott and Johnny Osbourne, as well as putting on tribute shows to Augustus Pablo, Dennis Brown, and Jackie Mittoo.
In 1999, Lem had the idea for Dub Side. He had been a big fan of Pink Floyd since high school, and one day it occurred to him that a reggae version of that album could be really interesting. So he brought the idea to Eric and I, and then I came up with a couple of basic arrangements that I demo’d in my home studio. We realized that it really could work, and the rest is history. Once the album took off, there was a great demand for live renditions of the album all over the world, so I put together a touring outfit, the basis of which has been on the road spreading these vibes since 2003.
What made you pick the Dark Side of the Moon as the first album?
Lem Oppenheimer: The idea came from Dark Side itself. I was listening to the original album while walking around New York City, going store to store to try and sell our second release, Ghetto Knowledge by the Meditations. It occurred to me as I listened that the music could work as reggae covers, and that the two fan bases shared enough in common (like a love of Marijuana, to begin with) that it would be a worthy experiment to try. Once we came up with the name and Michael came back with an early demo arrangement or two, we knew we were on to something. We had been searching for a project that could really expand reggae into more mainstream areas without dampening the music in any way.
What is it about Pink Floyd, Radiohead and The Beatles that made you decide on them?
Michael Goldwasser: It wasn’t so much about the specific groups, though obviously these three bands are amazing. It really had to do with the albums in question. As we were deciding on each project, the three albums that we chose seemed the best fit for what we were trying to do at the time. All three of them have a very cohesive feel to them, where it’s about the experience of the album as a whole, not just a collection of songs. But it certainly helped that all three albums are made up of great, interesting songs that we were able to expand upon using reggae and dub.
You made your name as being a cover band, but have also ventured into original material, which do you ultimately prefer producing, and why?
Michael Goldwasser: I really enjoy producing both kinds of projects. Producing the cover material is a great challenge that really pushes me creatively and intellectually. I need to figure out how to re-interpret classic music, making it sound fresh and different, but still recognizable to the average person, so it’s a balancing act. I have to put a tremendous amount of time into writing the arrangements before anything gets recorded, but it’s fun for me. But I also love producing original material. There’s no blueprint that I have to follow, so there’s a lot more freedom. And there is a special energy that comes from working on material that was written by the musicians involved. We are working on a new album of originals by the Easy Star All-Stars right now and it has been a blast.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered in translating popular pop and rock songs into dub versions?
Michael Goldwasser: Well, one challenge is what I mentioned above – finding the balance between being true to the source material and creating something new. One very specific challenge that I have faced on all three of our albums so far has been dealing with odd meters. All reggae is in 4/4 time, as is much of Western pop music, but I’ve had to figure out how to adapt songs like “Money” from Dark Side of the Moon that is in 7/4 time to make it work as reggae, or songs like “Paranoid Android” from OK Computer that changes meters several times over the course of the song. In fact, Radiohead has some songs that change meters every few bars! But somehow I’ve been able to make it all work as reggae.
Do you have a favourite cover version which you’ve done!
Eric Smith: “Exit Music (For A Film)” from Radiodread, featuring the late, great Sugar Minott on vocals.
Lem Oppenheimer: Either “Exit Music,” which translated the dread feelings of the original so perfectly into roots reggae; “Within You Without You,” which captured the musical experimentalism of the Beatles and turned it into a grooving, mind blowing dub; or “The Great Gig In The Sky.”
Buford O’Sullivan: “Let Down” with Toots from Radiodread.
Michael Goldwasser: “Exit Music (For A Film)” featuring Sugar Minott. Even before he passed away, it was my favorite thing that we’ve done, but now there is even more poignancy to it.
Describe the ESAS live show…
Buford O’Sullivan: The live show is all about the energy we pour out on stage. There are five vocalists, two horns and a solid band. It is about bringing on a really good time.
Lem Oppenheimer: It’s a great mix of songs from all three of the tribute albums, along with some original tunes by the band. Personally, I love the mix – you get moments of pure roots reggae, moments of dancehall, different voices, harmonies and moments for individual musicians to solo.
In the light of genres like dubstep and dancehall, has it become harder, or easier, to keep pure dub music relevant… and why?
Michael Goldwasser: Dub music is always going to be relevant regardless of how other genres are doing. There is a core audience that appreciates dub and will seek it out, and it is going to keep on influencing other styles. But I don’t really worry about whether dub is “pure” or not. I happen to lean towards more traditional Jamaican and older UK styles of dub when I am mixing, but that’s because that’s what I enjoy listening to the most. But you can really apply dub techniques to any style and it will work as long as it is done judiciously. If the originators of dub (or any style really) were concerned with keeping things “pure”, then we wouldn’t have the experimentation that has led to all of the music that we treasure today.
What has the response been like from the musicians whose work you have covered, have members of Pink Floyd, The Beatles or Radiohead contacted you about the tribute albums?
Michael Goldwasser: It’s been great. Through their management, Radiohead has told us that they all really love Radiodread and appreciated our attention to detail, which was a great compliment for me as the arranger/producer. Moreover, Thom Yorke made an announcement about our version of “Let Down” from the stage at a concert in Philadelphia. As for Pink Floyd, Roger Waters sent us a fax thanking us for sending him Dub Side of the Moon, but he added that he has a policy against endorsing covers of his work. But we did get an indirect Pink Floyd endorsement because we heard David Gilmour being interviewed on BBC1 Radio, and he told the interviewer that our album was “great fun” and that he wished that he had seen us when we played in London. We haven’t heard anything from Paul or Ringo or the families of John and George, but that’s not to say that they won’t contact us in the future.
I see you have a new EP out that harks back to Dub Side of the Moon, tell me about the EP and what it entails?
Lem Oppenheimer: It’s actually a full-length release, featuring the complete sequence of the original Dub Side of the Moon, which has been remixed track by track by other producers, along with some bonus tracks. We brought in some serious dub masters, like Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood and Scientist, along with some new school dub producers, like Canada’s Juno Award-winning Dubmatix and the mysterious 10 Ft Ganja Plant. It was also important to us to go more modern, touching on Dubstep and some other current trends influenced strongly by dub and reggae, since this album really came about from the global touring schedule of the All-Stars, and the exposure to what was going on out in the world within the genre. So that’s where artists like Groove Corporation, Dreadzone, Dubphonic and The Alchemist come in. It’s also a balance of artists within our circle, like The Alchemist (who does the All-Stars’ live sound, but is also one half of Liquid Agents) and Victor Rice (who played bass on Dub Side, engineered Radiodread, etc), and producers we had never met before, like Groove Corp, Kalbata, Border Crossing. The whole record was a chance to revisit and reimagine an old favorite, and the results are excellent – basically an alternate universe version of Dub Side.
A dub versions cover… Interesting. Tell us a bit more about your plans for an album of original material by the Easy Star All Stars?
Michael Goldwasser: We are currently working on said album. I’m trying to finish up recording within the next few weeks and then mix before the end of the year. It’s a great collection of songs, and everyone in the touring group’s talents as writers and musicians are featured. I’ve been having a great time working on it. It will be out early next year.
Is this your first tour to Africa?
Lem Oppenheimer: This will be the band’s first stop south of the Equator, though the only stop before was in Egypt a few years ago. This band has played on 6 continents and over 12 countries, so it is no stranger to exploring new places, but we’ve wanted to make it to South Africa for a while, so this is an exciting honour.
*Catch the Easy Star All Stars live at The Assembly in Cape Town – 10 November 2010
*Catch the Easy Star All Stars and Tidal Waves Live at Tanz Cafe in Jozi – 11 November 2010