Interview: Easy Star All-Stars

maxwell barna is easy like sunday morning…

For as long as there have been musicians writing original music, there have been people trying to cover their tunes. For AC/DC, there will always be an AC/DShe (The San Francisco-based all female AC/DC tribute band); Led Zeppelin will always have a Dread Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin tunes set to a funky reggae beat, sang by an Elvis impersonator — no, I’m not kidding); Sublime will always have a Badfish; The Beatles will always have hundreds upon hundreds of all different types of bands trying to recreate their brand of magic. Hell, I’m sure if you looked hard enough, there was some dipshit in the 16th and 17th centuries trying to steal some of Mozart and Beethoven’s fire. There are thousands upon thousands of bar bands who make entire livings off of playing renditions of other peoples’ tracks.

Easy Star's Michael Goldwasser (right) is the brains behind some of the best tribute albums of the last two decades

But that isn’t to say that all cover bands are necessarily bad. In fact, there are some bands whose methodology, grace and style speak volumes about their respect for artistic integrity; bands whose utter uniqueness shines through in every song. There are bands that don’t cover songs, but rather recreate them as almost collaborations between the original artists and themselves. As mentioned above, AC/Dshe, Dread Zeppelin and Badfish are pretty solid examples of this.

It is my opinion, however, that these bands pale in comparison to the Easy Star All-Stars.

The Easy Star All-Stars (ESAS) are a New York City-based reggae collective who specialize primarily in writing and performing creative renditions of awesome music. They changed the music world in 2003 with the release of their debut record, Dub Side of the Moon, a tribute to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (Duh!). Since its release, Dub Side of the Moon has remained solidly on the Billboard Reggae charts. In 2006 ESAS released Radiodread — their tribute to Radiohead’s 1997 OK Computer, gaining the public approval of both Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. And in 2009 they released Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band. If you don’t know which classic album they decided to pay homage to with that release, then you might as well throw your computer out a window.

Anyway… Michael Goldwasser (pictured above at the control panel), Easy Star Records co-founder and the brains behind ESAS, was kind enough to sit down and chat with me about the band’s latest release, Thrillah, which pays tribute to the number one selling record of all time — Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). We also spoke about the group’s original music releases, their tour schedule and the legal and artistic processes involved with releasing tribute records. Enjoy!

Pop-Break: I want to talk about the news that everyone’s probably most excited about, and that’s the recent release of Easy Star All-Star’s Thrillah, which dropped last month. I’m sure that’s a huge step forward for you guys. How has the response been?

Michael Goldwasser: I’d say the response has been great. Our fans are digging it. In general, it’s just harder to get people to buy music these days (laughs). So it’s always a challenge, but musically I think that anyone who has liked our previous efforts is going to like this.

There’s a certain sound that I think I’ve developed as a producer that our fans have come to expect. And some people have actually commented that this album, sonically, kind of brings them back to some of the vibes of Dub Side of the Moon.

I just kind of went for a grittier approach on some things, just cause that’s what I was feeling on certain songs.

PB: I haven’t had the chance to listen to the record in its entirety, but I have gotten to listen to a few tracks. What I’ve heard, I’ve really enjoyed. It’s not just straight-cut reggae. There’s a lot of drum and bass, a lot of afrobeat — all things I really dug from it. What I found real intriguing is up until now the Easy Star All-Stars have gained a reputation for taking ROCK records and introducing them to the reggae world (See: Radiodread, Lonely Hearts Dub Band, and Dub Side of the Moon). But Michael Jackson’s Thriller wasn’t as much a rock album as it was a pop and R&B album. Can you discuss the process? Why did you select Thriller to cover?

MG: Well, one of the main criteria for selecting an album is that it had to be a great album to start with. It has to be a record with really great and interesting songs on it that are all kind of different from each other. So Thriller certainly meets that criteria, just like all of the other albums we have selected.

But we also want every album to be different in its own way. And I thought it was important with this one to pay tribute to an R&B album because American R&B was so instrumental in the development of Jamaican music, even before reggae, with ska, rocksteady and dancehall. Whatever is being recorded in Kingston right now is probably influenced in some way by current American hip-hop and R&B. So the connection between black American music and reggae music is very, very strong.

I kind of feel like that’s lost on the younger generation of reggae fans in the U.S. They revere Bob Marley, of course, and are really into the current crop of American-based reggae bands, who are all great, but are maybe a little more rock-influenced. Because of that, there’s no obvious R&B connection, for the most part. I think a lot of the younger fans just don’t know that R&B is so important to reggae, and that there would be no reggae music, as we know it, without R&B. I thought it would be a good statement to make, saying, “This is an important album in pop and R&B history, and it makes a lot of sense to adapt it to a reggae album.”

PB: Did remaking an R&B album instead of a rock album mean making changes to the ways the band begins to re-write the songs? Can you talk about the artistic process involved with undertaking such a task?

MG: Yeah, no problem. Well, I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but Easy Star All-Stars isn’t really a band in the conventional sense, where a group of people get together and say, “Okay, let’s do this.” It’s really me as the producer and whomever I hire for a particular album. So really, and I’m not saying this to take personal credit, I write all the arrangements, and most of the ideas that you hear on these records are mine. I write the arrangements, I make demos in my home studio and then I have whichever musicians I’ve decided to use for that particular project learn all the parts.

In a way, that makes it a lot simpler. I’m not relying on other people or hoping that everyone is just going to get together and make magic. I feel like I’ve been able to map it out ahead of time. These albums are almost fully arranged in my home studio before we even record a note in the recording studio. That’s really the process.

And then mixing is also kind of a whole other step of arrangement, especially because I use so many dub effects live. I’m not automated on a computer. I’m pulling up faders, muting things on the board, adjusting the effects and changing the feedback of the delay. I’m doing that all live. So that’s a whole other aspect of arrangement basically, because what you hear as the finished product is not the same as if you rip all the tracks that have been recorded on the board and then let it go. The mixing is a whole other level of arrangement. I hope that sort of answered your question (Laughs).

PB: Yeah, it definitely did. And it makes perfect sense, because all of the Easy Star All-Star releases have been chock full of guest artists, which I’m sure can be difficult to arrange. And Thrillah is no different. I know Steel Pulse is on “The Girl is Mine” and I know Luciano’s on a track as well. Who else is on this record?

Photo Credit: Ben Sarle

MG: OK, let’s start with the musicians. On this album, I brought in some new people for the core unit; some people who I’ve wanted to work with and who I knew would fit well on this album. On bass, there’s Yossi Fine, who’s an amazing bassist and producer in his own right. He’s played bass for people like David Bowie and Lou Reed. He used to tour with Stanley Jordan, and has just played with a lot of people. He also has a very intimate knowledge of the original album, Thriller.

The drums, for most of the album, are played by Joe Tomino, who is the drummer for the Dub Trio — a great experimental dub, reggae, rock outfit based in New York. And [the Dub Trio] also, for the past few years, have been touring as Matisyahu’s backing band. So he’s a really amazing drummer who’s just really fun to work with in the studio. So I brought him in on this.

And then I had a lot of the horns done by this horn section from Israel, where I live part-time. They’re this band called Hadag Nachash. They’re one of the more popular bands in Israel, and they’re just amazing musicians. We’ve worked with each other in the past, they’ve played on some other Easy Star stuff, and we really get each other. So it was great to bring them in for this.

On percussion I had Andy Farag from Umphrey’s McGee — they’re known as kind of a jam band — but I knew he’s a big reggae fan, and I’ve done some work with that band, and we’ve had a nice relationship and he’s just a great guy. So I asked him to come play some percussion on the album.

So, the Easy Star All-Stars has always been a kind of collective of musicians in and out of the scene. That’s what happened with this album.

PB: I know this is the first cover album you’ve put out in three years. Before that, you released the EP Until that Day, and a full-length album of original songs titled First Light. How was the transition from writing cover music, to original music, and then back to cover music?

MG: Well we’ve had a pretty stable touring band on the road now since 2003. And people do come and go out of the touring band, but there’s a core unit that just tours. Especially when we didn’t have a lot of tribute albums to perform live, there were plenty of originals that got played when we performed. And someone in the band would write something, or we’d write something together, and then play it live and the fans would really enjoy it — sometimes as much as the cover material.

That was really the origin of the Until That Day EP that we put out a few years ago. And the response to that was so great that we decided we wanted to put out an entire album of originals, written by people in the touring band. We asked everyone in the band, along with the greater Easy Star collective, to submit songs for the album. We took the songs we thought were the best, and made the record. It was a very great experience and very different from doing these tribute albums. It’s more of a group effort. Even though I’m still at the helm producing, the actual arrangements were more by whoever wrote the particular song.

And it’s also great for the people in the touring band. As a musician, I know it’s a special feeling to perform something that you wrote, and perform it live, and have fans really getting into it. It’s great to be able to give that to all the people that work so hard in the touring band.

PB: About the album art for Thrillah… I thought it was pretty interesting. In fact, I think it’s probably the most unique out of all the releases you guys have put out. How was the idea for that conceived?

MG: I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was to go with the whole referencing the famous Michael Jackson “Thriller” video. We couldn’t just do something like have a dread in the same outfit as Michael Jackson on the traditional Thriller, because it just gets into copyright issues with the owners of the original photograph on the original record and things like that.

So we wanted to do something different, but we wanted to do something that would still say to someone, “Hey, that must be a reggae version of Thriller.” The idea of doing a whole scene with dreads and having them surrounded by zombies and doing that as a photograph was pretty daunting. And there are a lot of very great and very cool album covers in reggae history that were illustrated, either as drawings or paintings. So we thought it would be cool to reference the Michael Jackson Thriller video and reference all these classic reggae album covers by having the illustrated version of that content.

PB: Very cool. Are you on the road with the band? How does that work?

MG: No, I’m not currently on the road. I used to be in the touring band on the road, but after a while it became impossible to actually produce records and be on the road for 150-200 nights a year. Before, you mentioned that these albums came out three years apart. Well, they’d be coming out six years apart if I was on the road (laughs).

I currently work with the touring band to get the show ready in terms of rehearsals and making new arrangements for the live show. But I only play with the band when they’re in the New York area or in Israel.

So I still play with the band a handful of times a year, but I’m not out there touring with the road warriors.

PB: I know they’re on the road now with Passafire, and then in less than a month they’ll be spending some quality time with The Aggrolites, and then after that they’re off to the UK to spend some times with The Skins. That sounds incredibly busy. Is it just all about promoting the new record, or are there any major plans in the future?

MG: Well yeah, all the touring going on right now through the end of 2012 and maybe into early 2013 is because we have this new album out and want to bring the Thrillah live show to as many people as possible. And also there’s just more demand for the band when there’s a new album out. That’s why we’re doing so much touring now.

And we’ll just see what the next year brings. We have to see how this album does. Hopefully it does really well and we can keep touring for a while. Also, 2013 will be the 10-year anniversary of Dub Side of the Moon, which is still our most popular album. So we’d like to do some really cool Dub Side of the Moon full-play concerts with some really cool guest artists.

PB: I know you literally just released Thrillah, but are there any possible ideas being thrown around for what we might see next from the Easy Star All-Stars?

MG: Well, we’ve got some stuff in the pipeline, but the ink isn’t dry yet, so I really can’t say.

PB: I’d say you’re in a truly unique position with the work you do for Easy Star Records and the Easy Star All-Stars. The band and records have gained a tremendous amount of notoriety over the past decade for the work you and they have done remaking classic hit records. I’ve always wanted to ask you, especially now that I understand the process that goes into it: If you could pick any record, any record on the entire planet, to remake yourself; to not have to consent with anyone or collaborate with any particular artists… Just one record that you could just completely do your way, whose would it be and why?

MG: You know what, I want to tell you but I just can’t. I can’t because I am hoping that this record I have in mind is THE record that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I hope that it will be in this series. Maybe it won’t be the next one that we do, but maybe somewhere down the road. And I’d rather it be a surprise when we finally do it. So I can’t tell you, even though I want to, because the way you phrased it is really enticing… But I have to remain tight-lipped on that.

PB: Some of the things I’ve always wondered about are the legal aspects involved with putting out one of these records. As far as the strategic, legal aspects of it, how do you go about making it happen? Are there any hoops that you have to jump through?

MG: Yeah, there are definitely hoops, but we’re experienced enough to be pretty good at jumping through them.

There are two aspects to it. The first is the publishing the intellectual property that is every song. You need to get licenses for that, and we’ve always worked very closely with the publishers of the materials in order to make that happen. It’s in their best interest because they make money. Every unit we sell or every time one of our versions gets played on the radio or on television, they make more money than we do.

Logistically, as long as you don’t change the lyrics or add lyrics or change the melody [to a song] too much, you technically don’t need permission. You can get what’s called a Compulsory Mechanical License — sorry if I’m getting too technical. But basically it’s not that difficult to cover stuff if you’re willing to stay within a certain framework, which is not changing particular aspects of it too much, or at all, really.

Also, we always like to work with the management of the artist, just to make sure they’re happy and there are no possible copyright issues. Say, for instance, with Dub Side of the Moon, we weren’t able to use our original art concept because it was just too close to the Pink Floyd original album cover. But since we were working with them, they let us know that.

And with Thrillah, we reached out to the executor of the Jackson estate and let him know what we were doing. He didn’t say that we couldn’t do it, so it’s all good.

PB: Alright, now for my final question. It’s one that you absolutely, positively must answer. If you were stuck on an island for the rest of your life and had only one beer to drink… One beer out of all the beers you’ve ever had in your entire life. You could have as much of it or as little of it as you’d like, when ever and however you’d want it. What beer would you choose?

MG: Have you ever asked that question to anyone and they just said, “Hey man, I’m a recovering alcoholic?”

PB: Absolutely! (Laughs) [Note: At this point I veered off onto a small tangent and told the story of the time I asked this question to a recovering alcoholic. But I doubt any of you actually care about that… If you do, come find me at the bar sometime, buy me a beer, and I’ll gladly tell that tale! For now, let’s just get back to the good stuff…]

MG: Well I’d like to think that if I’m stuck on a desert island I’d like to have access to fresh water (laughs).

But since I’m not an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic, my answer will be a little more concise. It’s one that I bet no one has given you… Well, I shouldn’t bet, but I doubt it. I would pick GoldStar [Lager]. I don’t know anyone outside of Israel who’s ever had GoldStar. For me, it’s not like it’s the greatest beer in the world, but it reminds me of being back home in Israel. So if I’m going to be stuck on a desert island, I’d want a beer that reminded me of home.

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