Interview: Michael Goldwasser, Easy Star All-Stars.
Having previously released reggae covers of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Radiohead’s OK Computer, what made you decide to cover The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for your latest project?
Our thing is that we like to do concept albums. We don’t just want to do a collection of songs, or greatest hits, in reggae. We want to do higher albums that work really well as a cohesive unit, where the songs make sense together. Sgt. Pepper’s is considered to be one of the first concept albums, so that made it a logical choice.
Besides that, our first two albums were – because of the source material – were somewhat dark, minor key affairs. We thought it would be a great challenge to apply our sound to something different: to a more upbeat, major key, pop-orientated album.
As a resident of New York City, is it important that the albums that you choose are all British? Because they’ve all been British so far.
I think it’s somewhat of a coincidence. Or maybe it’s just that the British make the best albums? I don’t know if this informs the decision-making, but I did grow up being something of a musical Anglophile – even with reggae, as a lot of my favourite reggae comes from British bands.
Were there any delicate negotiations involved, when it came to assigning tracks to your various guest artists? [Steel Pulse, Ranking Roger, Max Romeo, U-Roy, Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul, The Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru’s Michael Rose, Third World’s Bunny Rugs and others.] Or did they just do what they were told?
The funny thing is, that while Sgt. Pepper’s is considered by many people in the rock and pop world to be one of the greatest albums of all time, a lot of Jamaicans – while they might be familiar with The Beatles – don’t know the album. It’s such a well known album, but it doesn’t have a lot of so-called “hits” on it. There are songs that get played on rock radio each year in America, such as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day In The Life”, but you don’t hear a lot of the deeper album cuts. And therefore they haven’t been covered a lot. So it was great for us to be able to do songs like “Fixing A Hole” and “Getting Better”, that probably haven’t been adapted. I’m sure that there’s covers of every Beatles song, but they’re not so well-known.
Listening through to the Beatles originals, how easy was it for you to imagine them as reggae versions?
There were certainly some tracks that were pretty difficult. My overall first impression was that it would be a very difficult project. Partly it’s because the vibe of the album is very different from our first two albums. Partly it’s the reverence that people have for this album.
It’s always good to attack that sense of reverence.
Oh yeah, and I have no problem with doing it – but it’s something to think about. I spent about six months just writing the arrangements. The beginning period was really just listening to the album, and immersing myself on a deeper level. I was very familiar with the album from the time that I was a child, but I hadn’t really analysed it on an intellectual and musical level.
Certain songs came easier. With something like “Lovely Rita”, I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to do with it musically.
I‘d have thought “Within You, Without You” would be a challenge. That was the one that I just couldn’t imagine, before I played the album. But I like what you’ve done. You’ve put that “Sleng Teng” rhythm underneath it…
Hey, you’re the second reviewer who caught that, which is great. That arrangement was really difficult, because originally part of it is in 10:8 time, and then in 3 time. With our previous two albums, I’d done a lot of experimentation with doing reggae in odd time signatures – but on this one, just because of the pop aspect of it, I wanted to keep this album for the most part in 4:4 time. So I knew I had to get some kind of 4:4 beat and rhythm to this song. So, yes, this one was pretty tough.
Our bassist Victor Rice, who also mixed the album, wrote the string arrangement. He did a brilliant job of making it work in basically 5 time over 4. And then the whole “Sleng Teng” thing didn’t come about until we were actually in the mixing studio. I was like: you know what, this just isn’t night. It’s just not good enough. And I was just fooling around, and I thought: what if I replace the original bassline for it? I’d somehow got the idea of interpolating “Sleng Teng”, and that really glued the song together for me. It gave me the drive that it needed.
Another song which I didn’t think would work is “When I’m 64”, but it’s one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album. Especially with that extended dub section, which has a kind of Rico Rodriguez feel to it…
Yeah, with the trombone. “When I’m 64” was also difficult. I think that in England, people understand that it’s somewhat of a tribute to the whole 1920s music hall genre. But in America, people couldn’t quite relate to it on that level. I know quite a few people who actually just don’t like the song. They think that it’s too corny: “This isn’t rock and roll, what is this?”
In the course of my life, I’ve heard a lot of reggae covers of other music that I thought were very corny. It could be corny because of the source material, or corny because of making it reggae. So I had to be really careful to give it something that would make it sound cool to reggae fans and rock fans alike.
I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the arrangement, but I was just somehow thinking: OK, Twenties music hall in London; I’m gonna transport that to early Eighties dancehall in Jamaica. It’s kinda got the vibe of a classic Sugar Minott song called “Herbman Hustling”, and then I was like: well, let’s get Sugar Minott in to sing this one.
Have you had any response, from the Beatles camp? Do you know if they’re even aware of it?
Well, we do all of our albums above board. Before we put anything out, we’re dealing with the management and the publishers. We don’t want to fly under the radar. We want everyone to hear this, and we wouldn’t want to give anyone a reason to sue us.
So a long time ago, we dealt with Apple Corps: the Beatles company that they set up in 1968, which still technically administers their business. We got approval from them, and then we dealt with their publishers, Sony ATV, which was a much more lengthy procedure. That being said, we’ve not yet heard a response from Paul or Ringo or Olivia Harrison or Yoko Ono – but we really, really hope to get some responses from them.
I’d like to think that if Paul heard this, he would like it. I’m pretty sure that he likes reggae, and it seems like he’s into experimentation. Even if this album tanks commercially, if Paul McCartney ever said to me “I really appreciate what you did with my music”, I would remember that for the rest of my life.
Will your live show be dominated by Sgt. Pepper, or do you split it between the other projects?
We do a pretty long show, and with this new album we’re certainly going to play the majority of it. But because so many people love Dub Side Of The Moon and Radiodread, we’re still going to give them a healthy serving of those songs as well.
Do you carry a mental shortlist of albums that you might consider for your next project?
Oh, sure. When we did Dub Side Of The Moon, we didn’t realise that we were going to create a series. But once that became somewhat successful, we’ve thought about many dozens of albums. There are some that I’ve even started writing arrangements for. So we have a bunch in mind for the next one. I can’t tell you what it could be, because we try to surprise people when it comes out.
For what it’s worth, my vote would go to REM’s Automatic For The People. I’d like to hear you tackle that one.
I will register your vote!