Interview: The Aggrolites

maxwell barna interviews the west coast reggae band as they prepare to perform at the wonder bar in asbury park, n.j.

It’s not every day that a group of musicians can say they got together, did their thing and truly had a lasting impact on their genre –- not with a straight face, anyway. This claim is especially true when discussing reggae music. We get it – a lot of it sounds the same, and we like it that way. Two-, three- and four-chord progressions, heavy drums and enough bass to liberate the windows from their frames — that’s reggae music.

Or so it was, and for quite a while. Sure, bands have changed the way we’ve heard it over the decades, adding their own twist and spice to it. But I would argue that very few have truly changed the face of the genre as much as the band whose interview you’re about to read. Somewhere along the way, these guys turned the genre on its fucking head. They are the pioneers of Dirty Reggae, a brand characterized by enough grit, rock ‘n’ roll and straight up soul to keep you shakin’ that ass — this is reggae music.

Jesse Wagner, lead singer of The Aggrolites

I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Aggrolites live. It was exactly five years ago yesterday, July 25, 2007, at The 449 Room in Trenton, N.J. I was only 17 years old at the time, and I still remember what it felt like to see these guys play. They hit the stage with a passion and energy so fierce that words really can’t do it justice. I was in a band myself, at the time, and I just remember thinking that with their energy, fire, and their rhythmic movements, this band made my silly group of reggae rockers look like amateur hour.

Aggrolites frontman Jesse Wagner was kind enough to take some time out of their busy schedule to sit down with me and discuss the band’s current tour, Unity Tour 2012, with the legendary 311 and Slightly Stoopid, the possibility of a new record in the new year, how he copes with being on the road for such a large period of time, and, of course, his favorite beer — a choice which surprised even me!

You can catch Jesse and The Aggrolites tonight, July 26 at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, as they bring their brand of funky, dirty reggae to the Jersey Shore!

Pop-Break: Where can a band possibly go from the top? You guys have backed for Phyllis Dillon, Tim Armstrong, the legendary Derrick Morgan and countless others. And not that it needed to be, but your sound has been validated by the likes of Prince Buster and beyond. What does a band who’s already lived out every early/skinhead reggae band’s dream do next?

Jesse Wagner: You know what, that’s hard to say, because the way I’ve always thought of it is that I never really knew where it would go. I was always just happy to play. From starting off playing back yard parties, to putting out a 45, to getting signed to Hellcat [Records], to backing up Prince Buster and Phyllis Dillon — that’s all just a huge, huge deal. And of course, getting to go on tour with Madness and getting to meet all these people over the years that you never thought you’d meet in your life. I just count every day as a blessing, and the longer that the band continues, the more blessed I feel.

PB: Rugged Road came out a little under a year and a half ago, and it has done extremely well. While a lot of groups tend to change or modify their sound over time for one reason or another, it seems as though you’ve found the secret formula to writing great songs. Talent + grit x soul / sweat = dirty reggae. Is that about right?

JW: Yeah, well the thing is all our albums are different. We’ve tried everything from writing songs individually to getting in a room and just writing a rhythm on the spot. But with Rugged Road, that was a particular concept. We had wanted to put out 45’s for years, and the only reason it’s on a CD at all is because it’s easier to sell that way on the road. It was originally five separate 45’s, and each 45 was inspired by a certain old school reggae classic. We did it on analog, we wanted it out on 45 and we wanted to record it the same way — coming into the studio without any idea; just totally free and open, nothing written or pre-planned. Just get in the room, set up the microphones and just have everyone jam out on the rhythms. That’s how the old school bands like Sound Dimension and The Upsetters did it back in the day.

Pop-Break: Since we’re discussing how you guys record, there’s something that has always perplexed me… I think I remember reading the album Dirty Reggae was recorded on one microphone, in one day, and a lot of it was impromptu. Was that another album, or am I correct? Can you tell me a bit about that?

JW: No, Dirty Reggae was like that. Like I said, we try to do that a lot. A lot of the songs on the self-titled [album] are like that. Really, on all the albums there are a lot of songs that are written like that, but Dirty Reggae definitely was that first one. At the time, we weren’t touring or playing that many gigs. We were in the studio more than we were on the stage back when we were recording Dirty Reggae, because at the time we had a connection to a studio in Hollywood; one of our former members used to work at the studio. We would go in after hours when the studio would be closed, from around 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., and just record whatever we could. We’d all just go into a room and go for it.

PB: So what’s next? I know Unleashed Live Vol. 1 came out this past September, but can we expect anything new out of the studio from The Aggrolites any time soon?

JW: Yes, actually. Well, we’re touring like crazy right now. We just started off this Slightly Stoopid/311 tour July 5, and we’re pretty much going to be gone until the end of the year. But before we went on tour, we were writing songs, getting together, having rehearsals and jammin’ out demos and things like that. We’d love to have an album soon, but first we have to get off the road to record it and work it out. Everything takes time and space, but everyone will definitely be hearing something soon.

PB: You mentioned that right now you’re on the road for the 2012 Unity Tour with Slightly Stoopid and 311. I was fortunate enough to have interviewed RyMo of Slightly Stoopid a year or so back and he seems like a great dude. How are you guys diggin’ the tour thus far?

JW: The tour’s great, man! Honestly, there are great bands that treat us very well. Like, we’re very good friends with Flogging Molly, very good friends with the Street Dogs, and there are a lot of other bands that treat us very well and with respect. But with Slightly Stoopid, these guys are really, really the most humble band I’ve ever met in my life. They’re such great musicians, but at the same time they all have a total humbleness and they just treat us with the utmost respect.

And we did a little run with 311 a few years ago, but never got a chance to really meet them because it was only a three-day tour. But this time, meeting those guys is the exact same experience. It’s just a really cool feeling to see a band with so much success that still has that kind of humbleness to them and appreciation for what we do. We get a lot of kind words and respect from them. They’re making the tour very easy.

It’s a bus tour, so that means really long, long drives. The routing is ridiculous; something like 500-mile rides every day. The way that we’ve been treated by them has made it really easy for us. It’s not one of those “show up at the venue, here’s the room, show up to the stage, play, and get out of there,” type of setups. Everybody treats you like a brother, and that’s the most important thing on tour. You’re family when you go on the road, and those guys know how to be on the road. I really can’t be more thankful for that.

PB: It has to be a lot of work, though. I looked at the schedule, and it seems like you guys are booked solid. I imagine constant shows from July through September doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for rest and relaxation. How do you get what you need to keep going and keep it up? Does it get difficult?

JW: Everything just takes time to learn. We’ve been doing this now for five years full-time, and we’ve been on the road about 200 days a year, which is roughly around 150-something shows a year. We’re gone more than we are home, and you just kind of have to get used to it. It just kind of becomes routine, getting used to being in a different city, state and country; meeting different people every day; sleeping in a different bed every night.

I find it kind of funny, because when I go home I’ll go on a trip with my family to Las Vegas or something, which is about a 3.5-hour drive from where I live, and to me it seems like a trip to the supermarket. But for everyone else, they’re always like, “Oh my God! We’ve been in that car forever!” We just did a drive from Houston, Texas all the way to Florida, and it was a little under 1,000 miles and 19 hours straight. You just get used to things, like everything else. But the coolest thing about it is every night you get to meet people who appreciate your music, and you get to make people smile. I think that’s what keeps me going.

PB: Ahh, yeah, I’m just getting home from a little trip to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, myself. I don’t care where you put me out in Southern California, I always have a great time. Do you ever miss it? Is there ever a point where you just say, “Man, I want to be home right fucking now”?

JW: Oh yeah, man. I say it all the time [laughs]. Really, I’ve been all over the world. Mostly all over Europe, to Japan, all over the states and even played Réunion Island, [France]. I feel very happy with the fact that I was born and raised in such a cool part of the world. In Los Angeles, you have the mountains, you have the ocean, you have the city, you have the desert — everything is right there, in Southern California.

PB: Let’s get back to the tour for a moment. All the bands on the bill are extremely talented in their own right, but I don’t think it’s too unfair to say that The Aggrolites style of hard, early-style, skinhead reggae doesn’t exactly fit perfectly with the laid back, relaxed groove of Slightly Stoopid, nor with the edgy reggae rock of 311. How do you feel about the line-up?

JW: Nah, not at all. When everybody is backstage and when everybody’s hanging out, we all treat each other really well. We’ve heard nothing but nice things from 311 and especially Slightly Stoopid. I mean, these guys are barbecuing every night, and they have a DJ that just spins old school reggae. Slightly Stoopid and 311 are big fans and are into the same music we are. It all comes down to the point that it’s reggae music. Everybody loves it.

PB: Over the years, people have come to know The Aggrolites as a consistently tight live band that puts on one hell of a show. What can we expect to see FOLLOWING the end of the Unity Tour, as far as shows are concerned?

JW: We’re going to be doing a follow-up tour from all the markets we’re hitting now. We’re playing huge amphitheaters for thousands of people every night. In October we’re going to do a U.S. run that’s going to hit all the same cities and just see if we got anybody out of each show. We’re going to be touring all the way until December, then we’re going to have some time off to start getting an album recorded.

PB: Alright… Final question. It’s something that I ask to everyone; something that you simply cannot refuse to answer. So here it is: If you were stuck on an island for the rest of your life, and you only had one beer to drink … One beer for the rest of your days, what would it be? And I mean only one beer; as much or little as you’d like, served any way you prefer.

JW: You know, I would have pulled the cool guy answer and said some kind of European import beer from Belgium like Chimay, or I could say Red Stripe to sound like I’m all reggae, or something like Newcastle to sound all England… But to be honest, man, I’m 32 years old and uhh, if I’m stuck on an island, where it’s really hot every day, just give me a Miller Lite [laughs].

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