Bringing reggae back into the mainstream: more than one music critic has levelled such praise at Easy Star All-Stars.
And to present Jamaican music to a wider audience has always been a stated aim of the band’s arranger and producer, Michael Goldwasser.
“I don’t think we’ve taken it into the mainstream per se,” Goldwasser muses from his home in New York City. “You’re not going to hear us or reggae in general on American pop radio. But we brought a lot of new fans to reggae – people who would say, ‘Man, I’m a Pink Floyd fan. I never listened to reggae and then I listened to ‘Dub Side’ and I really liked it and now I go to reggae shows and buy reggae records.’”
Easy Star All-Stars started out over 15 years ago as a label-based rotating collective of top-notch session musicians. But it was a conversation in 1999 between Goldwasser and Easy Star Records partner Lem Oppenheimer that would change the group’s direction and solidify them as a fulltime entity on the busy North Atlantic reggae scene.
“Lem Oppenheimer is a big fan of Pink Floyd, and ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ specifically. He was listening to it one day after we’d been running the label for a few years and he just had the idea, ‘Wow! Maybe we could redo this as reggae.’ At first I was a little sceptical, because I wasn’t as big a fan of the original album and I didn’t set out to do reggae adaptations of rock albums.”
Goldwasser says the eureka moment only came after he sat down to work on some alternative arrangements for ‘Breathe’.
“I realised, ‘wow, this works really well’. I came up with a bassline and a drum pattern and started laying down the chords and thought, ‘this is going to work’. We certainly didn’t know that it was going to become some sort of phenomenon where I could be anywhere in the world and someone has heard of ‘Dub Side Of The Moon’ – I just thought that it was an interesting idea and that hopefully people might like it.”
Listeners more than liked ‘Dub Side Of The Moon’. The album has remained on the Billboard Reggae Charts since its release in 2003, and to this day the band still tour the record specifically. More cover albums would follow: ‘Radiodread’, the band’s take on Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, in 2007, and ‘Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band’ in 2009.
But in August of this year the All-Stars’ shtick took a new turn with their reinterpretation of ‘Thriller’, Michael Jackson’s seminal 1982 album. The result is ‘Thrillah’, and it’s the first time the band have covered an album from their own side of the Atlantic, let alone one that has burrowed itself so deeply into pop-cultural consciousness.
“One of the basic criteria for choosing a record to adapt is that it has to be a great album to begin with and have songs that are diverse and stand up on their own,” Goldwasser explains. “‘Thriller’ certainly meets those marks in terms of having so many songs on it that are incredibly well-loved around the world and, from my point of view, are fantastically well-written and produced.
“Aside from that, I am a lifelong Michael Jackson fan – really from the time I was a kid – and ‘Thriller’ made a big impact on pretty much the entire world. So it’s a record that I was very, very familiar with – although until taking on this project I hadn’t analysed it in the way that I’d need to, to arrange and produce it. It’s such a great record to me.”
But Goldwasser also has a knack for musicology, and through ‘Thriller’ he spotted a chance to drive home the 60-year connection between reggae music and American R&B.
“Since the beginning, modern Jamaican music – in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with ska up through whatever’s going on in the Kingston studios at this minute – has always been very informed by American R&B music. But I think that’s lost on a lot of people, especially in the US. There are a lot of great home-grown reggae bands, and the style of reggae they play is very much informed by Bob Marley and other roots like that, and then also informed by rock music, but there’s not much of an obvious R&B influence in there. I think there’s a whole generation of kids growing up listening to American reggae who don’t get the connection between black American music and Jamaican music and how it all relates back to Africa … That’s part of the reason why I thought that this was an important record to do. I could have just done another rock record, but I felt like taking it to a different place and a logical place like R&B was the right move.”
The latest challenge is presenting the work in a live environment. Easy Star All-Stars live is a totally different beast to the studio band, to the extent that Goldwasser won’t actually be travelling to Australia when they headline Island Vibe later this month.
“Once ‘Dub Side Of The Moon’ came out there was a lot of demand for national and international touring, so I put together a unit of musicians that would be good for that … They’re two different entities, but what’s cool is that the live show will get taken in different directions to what I created in the studio because of the different vibe the live musicians are bringing to it.
“Since early September, we’ve been playing seven of the nine songs from ‘Thrillah’ and it’s going over really well. One of the fun things about what we do is when you see people in the crowd who may not have bought the record, but then they realise what we’re doing and they start singing along, and they have this look on their face,” Goldwasser laughs. “They’re just singing along with us and it’s just a great vibe.”
Easy Star All-Stars Headline Island Vibe Festival, Stradbroke Island, October 26-28.
Island Vibe Festival webpage