The Road to the Royal Family Affair: Interview with John Brown’s Body

bill bodkin speaks with the fathers of ‘future roots’ reggae …

The Road to the Royal Family Affair continues on with a look at the “future roots” reggae band John Brown’s Body. In our preview article, Alan Evans of Soulive spoke very fondly of the band, saying they were of the band he was looking forward to seeing personally and the band audiences in general should discover.

Taking the advice of the drummer, we recently checked the band’s work and was floored at the sounds that came through my laptop. John Brown’s Body has crafted a sound that deftly combines the traditional stylings of roots reggae with a crazy electronic soundscape. It’s one of those sounds that make you pay attention — it makes you listen mouth agape and it makes you discover that not all reggae music is created equal. No, some are given the gift of smashing genres, of breaking down musical judgements and converting people who love all walks of music to the sound of John Brown’s Body.

Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin sat down with Tommy Benedetti, drummer for John Brown’s Body, to talk about JBB, The Royal Family Affair and what exactly future roots reggae is.

Pop-Break: Your sound has been described as “future roots” reggae. What exactly is that?

Tommy Benedetti: It means building off our inspirations, which was definitely the earlier dub and reggae stuff from the ’70s and ’80s. That’s the stuff we’ve been listening to for 20 years now, and it still inspires us ’till this day. We do use the blocks of that, mostly the drum and bass and the approach, the horn section. Those elements we use as a springboard to what we’re doing.

But here we are in 2011, and we don’t want to be rehashing and doing stuff that’s already been done. It’s our job as musicians right now to inject experience and new sounds into the conversation. I think we’ve managed to come up with a unique sound over the years. It’s basically taking textures from today’s music, which we love and are inspired by and using the building blocks from the music we love from the ’70s and ’80s, Jamaican music, and putting our own little twist on it.

PB: What was your inspiration to go this route? At what time in your career did you decide that was the sound you wanted to go with?

TB: It wasn’t so much of a one time decision point — it was more of an evolution over a few records. It’s still evolving to this day which is a good thing and I think that’s why we’re lucky enough to this day to still be doing what we do.

We did start off as a more traditional [roots reggae band], at least in approach to songwriting and composition and arranging. We had two singers for the first bunch of records and one of them Kevin Kinsella was more based in the classic kinda roots compositional style. Elliot Martin, who is our current singer, was leaning more towards the more progressive sound. So over the last three albums as Elliot stepped towards the forefront. Kevin ended up leaving the band in 2006, so when that happened, we were able to go full boar into that direction. We had more of a focused kinda presentation and sound. So the band instead of having one singer that this type of approach and a singer that had another approach. It was an evolution over a few records, and goes it on today thankfully.

PB: What is it about this sound that you thought made it a cool direction to go with? And what songs or artists influenced or convinced you that this was a direction the band should take?

TB: It was just one of those intangible things. We had gotten to the point where we had toured all over the place for many years, and the band just came to a crossroads point in our careers and personally. We knew for the band to continue on and to continue grow and evolve musically, we had to follow where we were being led musically.

You know ,I love roots reggae and I love dub music very heavily, but we were inspired by Massive Attack and Radiohead, stuff that really has a lot of textures and layers to it and has a current, modern-edge vibe to it. So artists like that really inspired us to move in that direction a little bit more and see where we could take the musically sonically and not depend so much on stuff we were leaning on for the first few records.

It was basically do or die. We had to step up and make some new sounds happen, or the band wasn’t probably going to continue at one point.

PB: What was the initial reaction from the fanbase? Changing your sound can really turn a lot of people off — they just want to hear the same old stuff. But conversely, other fans get antsy and bored if you keep producing the same old, same old. It’s not the best situation to be in.

TB: Yeah, for sure. We know those guys in Soulive really well, and we know they’ve been switching it up and keeping fresh over the last bunch of ears as well. They could speak to it, too. God bless the fans — we love them for their support, and they’ve been with us for many years and many personnel changes, but sometimes you become their band and they become attached to you for a certain period of time of their lives. They attach this meaning to your music and it doesn’t always translate to what’s best for the artists. You know, for artists and musicians that are career bands like JBB or Souliv,e it’s really important for us to grow and keep challenging ourselves.

So yeah, I think along the way, we might’ve lost some fans. But for every person we lost, we probably ended up gaining a handful because, like I said, I think the presentation of the band became more focused and it became easier for people to figure out what the band was about.

Overall, there’s always some rocky road when you’re challenging yourself, but we didn’t have to prove anything to anyone but ourselves. It’s worked out — people are with us on this journey, our fans are really dedicated music lovers. We’re not the flavor of the week band. People come to listen to us are really into music, and that’s why we love doing what we do.

PB: Speaking of keeping the band fresh, you’ve had quite a number of personnel changes over the years. How hard was it to evolve your sound and incorporate new musicians into the band? Was it a challenge for the band, especially when it came to your live show which incorporates a lot of sound production and effects in it?

TB: Honestly, we’ve been incredibly lucky and it hasn’t been as difficult as it could be [as] we’ve been able to keep that common thread going through the band all these years. A lot of it has rested on drum and bass and having that consistency … we’ve been incredibly lucky in the bass world to have these banging bass players help continue the thread of the sound.

It’s not just the notes and the parts that make up the JBB sound — it’s the sound of their instruments, it’s a way of life. A lot of that rests on the keyboards, too — the texture of the keyboards, the sounds and gear they bring the table. In that aspect as well, we’ve been lucky to find like-minded people that fit into the family. When that happens, there’s much that you can you, you do it. You get on the road, you knock it out and they get integrated into the family and into the sound quick. We’ve been pretty lucky over the years.

PB: Speaking of Family, let’s transition to The Royal Family Affair. Alan Evans really put you guys over as being an amazing band. What’s your relationship with Soulive, and what are you looking forward to most on this festival?

Tommy Benedetti of John Brown's Body

TB: That’s really great to hear. We have a tremendous amount of respect for what they’ve done in their career, and their musicianship and their dedication to their craft. That’s one of the things that we share in common — the dedication to the music and work ethic we both have. You’d be hard press to find two bands that work harder than JBB and Soulive for the last, damn, eight or nine years.

Our history … I remember we played a show together up in Burlington, Vt., at the old Higher Ground. It was the [Soulive] trio at the time, and they were just coming out and of course we were blown away.

I was familiar with the Evans Brothers [Alan and Neal] as well from Albany, N.Y. when they used to play with Teeter Prince as Moon Boot Lover, an incredibly fun band. I was already familiar with their work and seeing them come together with Kraz [Eric Krasno] and hearing what they were doing and approaching that music and doing a similar thing to what we were doing — taking a classic style of music and really updating it and bringing it to the people of the current time and doing it with a new energy and real passion.

So, we’ve been lucky enough to plays show together over the years, mostly festivals. We’ve run into each over the years anywhere in the country and it’s always great to see them. Shit, we did that Dave Matthews cruise a few years ago with them. So it’s cool we haven’t had too much of a chance to throw down and hang out. It’s been greetings, how it’s going, they check out us and if we can we catch them. I’m looking forward to getting to hang with them and see where they’re at and see Lettuce, of course. Know those cats, too. Looking forward to seeing [John] Medeski. I’ve been lucky to play with him a couple times in my life. Looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do with Skerik. It’s going to be an intense weekend of music. So psyched.

PB: You mentioned Burlington, Vt. It seems a lot of bands of your genre and a lot of bands in the reggae, funk and jam scenes in New York and New Jersey love playing Vermont, in particular Burltington. What is it about this town that makes it a hotbed for your scene, and what his this town down to foster your sound and career?

TB: There’s hotbeds around the country that are really just above and beyond supporters of live music specifically. Burlington, Vt., is just one of those places. It has to do with having a venue as well that is a showcase, a professional venue that really respects and treats the bands well. The Higher Ground has been that venue for well over a decade. They bring the cream of the crop through Burlington. If it wasn’t for them, maybe The Flynn Theater that’s a little bigger.

It also relates to a place called Boulder, Colo., which is a college-scene kinda vibe, so there’s always fresh ears coming in and coming out. They just live music and they’re just very supportive. The Fox Theater in Boulder is comparable to Higher Ground — incredibly professional venue and all the bands go through there and look forward to playing those venues. There’s always going to be heading up that way.

PB: In 2008, Amplify debuted No. 1 on the reggae charts. Are there any plans to release new music or a new record soon?

TB: There’s definitely new music in the works. We just debuted a new song called “Invitation” at The Grass Roots Festival in New York. We worked on that pretty hard in rehearsals, one in Boston and one out in Ithaca, we rehearsed a bit. We definitely have got new music; we probably have a half dozen tunes in the can, ready to record. I live in Boston, some guys live in New York, so it’s not the quickest process for us to get an album together. We kinda go at our own pace. Elliot our singer does most of the songwriting, so when the music comes, it comes. It’s nothing that can be forced. We did Amplify at the end of 2008 and we did a remix called ReAmplify that came in 2009. So it’s been a couple of years. I’d say hopefully and realistically we should be able to put something out in 2012.

Pop-Break’s Road to the Royal Family Affair Series:

Interview with Break Science

Interview with The London Souls

Interview with John Brown’s Body

Interview with Karl Denson

Pop-Preview: The Road to the Royal Family Affair

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites