World A Reggae interviews John Brown’s Body about new dub album!

As someone who has been a fan of dub reggae for some twenty-five years I must say that the new dub album by John Brown’s Body Kings and Queens in Dub is one of the most extraordinary dub albums I’ve heard in more than a decade.  First, the idea of bringing in the world’s best dubmixologists and reggae producers to each produce a track for the album is brilliant.  There are so many talented artists out there right now pushing all kinds of limits in the dub genre.  Also, the fact that the original tracks, which appeared on 2012’s Kings and Queens, are so strong, well-composed, written and produced gives the mixologists a huge advantage when entering the studio to do the remixes.  What JBB has given its fans is one hell of a heavy and hammering dub album and certainly one of the best reggae releases of 2015.

I had a chance to sit down with Drew Sayers (sax) and Tommy Benedetti (drums) from the band and talk with them about the new dub album and about the band’s future plans

WAR:  Who’s idea was it to have each track from the Kings and Queens LP mixed by a different dubmixologist?  Is this something that came from the label or within the group?

DREW: “It’s something the band has been wanting to do for a long time, but I have to say when talks started about this particular project it was a fully collaborative thing. Lem and Eric at Easy Star and the band together made a list of people we wanted to work with, a few of which are Easy Star artists to begin with (Ticklah, Lord Echo of the Black Seeds, Michael Goldwasser). I ended up reaching out to some other people as well, for example Dennis Bovell was just a shot in the dark. I am a huge fan of Pressure Sounds out of the UK and they have released some great music of his – a band favorite is the album ‘Decibel.’ I just found a general contact email on their website and they put me in touch with Dennis. It was a true honor to talk with him and have him on this album. Just the idea of having some of your favorite musicians re-interpret your music and apply their own style and approach is very humbling for us.”

WAR:  I am really impressed with many of the dub mixes.  I think that for instance Ticklah’s mix is fascinating because of how nuanced it is.  It has elements of dubstep/EDM, dub rock, trip-hop and more yet it doesn’t rely too heavily on one element.  It’s a really unique blend of all of them.  What are your thoughts on the dub mixes included here?  Are there any producers you would have liked to work with that were not included on the album?

DREW: “Well for Ticklah’s mix, first of all he is a very unique musician to begin with. I have known him the longest for his playing in Antibalas, and those guys have always been one of my favorite groups. He is a great improviser and piano player, but he is also a great producer with amazing taste. Combine his unique set of influences with Elliot’s original song ‘Starver’ which might be the most progressive song on Kings and Queens. I think that song came directly out of a lengthy obsession Elliot had with electronic music- and that came to a head a few years ago when we toured England and Europe and got hip to what DJ’s were playing over there. You can credit the end result of that dub to the unique vision both of those guys have.

Speaking in general about the album, yes of course there are other producers we would love to work with, for example Prince Fatty is someone I really dig a lot. Scientist is one of my favorites of any genre or era. But to be honest, this album is a dream come true for us. We assembled an all-star cast of some of our favorite musicians and producers and they are on our album!”

WAR:  There aren’t many contemporary reggae acts that would have the balls to put out a dub album at a time when reggae’s appeal seems to be more aligned with vocals and touring.  An artist was telling me recently that its almost to the point where it’s not even worth recording a studio album anymore, just put out a few singles and tour them.  Talk about why you think it is important to release dub material at a time when it does not seem cost-effective or popular.

DREW: “I really hope people don’t start deciding studio albums aren’t worth making. That’s depressing to me. Maybe we are just too old or something. I’m an album type of guy- I like to buy and listen to albums from start to finish and that’s what I am inspired by as a musician. I understand being savvy business-wise and doing the thing that will create the most possible revenue. I guess for JBB, we put the music first. We make musical decisions. I think that’s why through the ebb and flow of the music industry we remain relevant. I also think that, for better or for worse, JBB has never made decisions based on trying to become popular or being cost-effective. Maybe that has hurt us. It may be a cliché, but truthfully we do not make music for money or to be considered popular today or tomorrow. We just want to continue putting our message out there, make albums, and allow the passage of time to decide whether or not its important to a particular individual. Honestly, the fact that our peers and heroes wanted to be a part of this album is enough for me. In terms of releasing dub material specifically, it is all just music.”

WAR:  I’ve been following this band closely since 1998.  One of the things I most respect about JBB is the band’s perseverance even in the face of real tragedy.  I don’t know many bands that could endure what this band has with the untimely death of Scott Palmer, something which would have derailed most groups.  How did you guys keep it together?

TOMMY: “Honestly, it was the music that got us through that particular time. Scott was a huge part of our sound. His playing and musicality, as well as his thunderous sound, helped JBB get to the next level sonically. Not to mention he was one of my closest friends. So losing him was a huge blow. After Scott passed, Kevin and our horn players also departed. At that point there was certainly the thought of the band not carrying on. But through the turmoil, the right players appeared and I was real excited about the new music that Elliot was writing. We felt that with the “Pressure Points” album, we had put ourselves in the position of being able to take JBB’s music in a real exciting direction with Elliot leading the way. When we got the new guys up and running, we realized that we would be able to write the next chapter in the band’s history with a fresh approach that would honor the JBB lineage while also really expanding the sound of the band.”

WAR:  I for one thought that when (lead singer) Kevin Kinsella left the band that JBB could not go on without this guy.  IMHO he’s such a tremendous talent as a vocalist, songwriter, and performer, and for many years seemed to embody everything about this band.  It’s one thing to lose a lead singer, that alone would bury most bands.  But to lose THIS lead singer is the reggae equivalent of Sabbath losing Ozzy or Van Halen losing David Lee Roth!  Yet he left, Elliot stepped in, and you guys are more popular and better sounding than ever.  What was it like to go through this and how did you do it?

TOMMY: “Being a dyed in the wool metal fan, I totally remember both of the events that you mention. I would personally say Sabbath made out pretty well with Ronnie James Dio stepping in! But anyway, yes Kevin’s contribution to JBB and the US Reggae scene cannot be emphasized enough. The thing to remember though, is that although Elliot’s role on the first 4 records was mostly harmony vocals, he always has been a fantastic lead vocalist! He just hadn’t really developed his songwriting approach until we got to the “Spirits All Around Us” record. So by the time Kevin stepped away, the next sonic chapter of the band had kind of already been put in motion with the “Pressure Points” album. I remember hearing “New Blood” on the radio in Boston and being so psyched and proud of this new sound that was taking shape. We just always put the music first. Period.”

WAR:  I would say that I’ve never seen a reggae act that kills it onstage like JBB.  It seems that JBB places a lot of emphasis on the live show.  IMHO with the way the record industry has gone over the past 15-20 years, touring is so important, perhaps as important as the quality of your studio releases.  How important is it to the band to maintain this reputation as the best live act in reggae?

DREW: “I don’t think it is important to us at all. I would start by saying that we would never consider ourselves to be the best live act in Reggae. With bands like Steel Pulse and The Skatalites or singers like Johnny Osbourne and Barrington Levy still out there playing shows and touring, it would be disrespectful to make that claim. We just want to contribute something to this music and hopefully inspire people in some way. And we will continue to release albums- we are already hard at work on an EP and a full-length. If anything, I would love it if people would just consider us good music and not worry to much about how it’s defined.”

WAR:  SOJA recently played Jamaica for the first time.  My friends Jah Works have also played Jamaica.  Has JBB played Jamaica?  If so, how were you received.  If not, is this something that you would like to do?

TOMMY:  “JBB has not played Jamaica. Although way back in 1994 (I think), The Tribulations did play 2 weeks of shows there. For those who don’t know, The Tribulations were the band that Kevin, Elliot and Josh Neuman formed in high school. I also played drums for them from 1993-1995 when we disbanded. So the players that were the initial JBB lineup for the “All Time” record did perform in JA together, just not as JBB. We have actually been to JA as JBB. It was a stop on Jam Cruise that we did. But we just partied for a few hours in Montego Bay, so I guess that doesn’t count. We’d love to get there with this current lineup for sure.”

WAR:  It seems that many of the US reggae acts are getting caught up in this new Cali Roots trend.  Dumbing down their music and trying to appeal to this fickle crowd of festival goers (I’m not a fan).  JBB has not gone down this path to pop/folk reggae.  In fact, by releasing a dub album you have gone in a totally different direction!  Again, something that endears the band to real serious reggae fans.  Do you feel the pressure to produce a brand of reggae that would have a wider appeal?

DREW:  “We don’t feel that pressure at all. Personally, I don’t think about that kind of stuff. I think if you do it will detract from the music. I’m not 100% sure what the Cali Roots trend is but for me, if someone defines themselves as a member of that community, I would love for them to be fans of JBB. Anybody who enjoys our music, whether they are into black metal or free jazz like us, or Sublime, it’s all-good with me. We have toured and played shows with SOJA and Rebelution and Slightly Stoopid- I’m not sure if they are considered a part of that trend, but those guys are really supportive of us and we love playing with them and for their fans. We have also toured with Galactic, The Motet, Toubab Krewe. A lot of people consider those bands to be on the Jam scene. That community is one of the most supportive live music communities I have ever seen. I would love for those people to be fans of JBB. I guess my point is I am always surprised at the diversity of fans we have at our shows.”

WAR:  I think this is an interesting time for reggae.  There are bands from the US that are really, really talented, many of them signed with Easy Star.  There is also a host of really talented, conscious artists emerging from Jamaica.  I would say reggae coming from JA is at its best quality in more than two decades.  Then you have the whole Virgin Islands contingent, who really set a new standard for roots reggae, changing the whole sound and vibe of everything.  A tremendous fan base in Europe that is really unprecedented for reggae. What are your thoughts on the current state of reggae?  How does JBB fit into this whole formula?

DREW:  “I think the tradition of Jamaican music is one of the most important contributions to culture around the world and I think that will continue to be the case for a very long time. I think the way we fit in to that formula is that we are fans of the music, and like to consider ourselves students of the music. We are constantly learning from the greats to this very day. And when you look at the current state of Reggae, it’s obvious that it continues to have a huge influence on all genres of music, on hip-hop, indie-rock, electronic music etc.”

WAR:  Have you toured Europe, played any of the huge festivals there?  How was that?  If not, do you have plans to?

DREW:  “We have been to Europe and the UK a few times now, including festival dates in France with the Skatalites as well as some club dates with the Aggrolites and on our own. We also did a countrywide tour of the UK with Easy Star All-Stars, which was a really special trip for us. We definitely have plans to go back in the near future. People seemed to really respond to our music so I would love to make it happen more regularly.”

WAR:  JBB has been very fortunate to be associated with great record labels.  Shanachie is one of the finest indie labels in the US and JBB gave us 3 albums while signed with them.  Easy Star is by far the flagship label for US reggae.  Many reggae acts never sign to a label, or they operate under their own label.  Talk about your experiences with Shanachie and Easy Star.  Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

TOMMY:  “Yes, times were different when we signed with Shanachie back in 1998. We are still great friends with the guy who came to see us at Wetlands in NYC and eventually signed the band to Shanachie at a gig at Brown University in Providence, RI. We were real excited to be on a label that released records by some of our favorite artists: Dennis Brown, Augustus Pablo and of course Culture to name a few. For us it was a big step and it got our CD’s into record stores all over the place, which enabled us to go out and support these records everywhere. Keep in mind, there was no “scene” back then to plug into. So we played a ton of gigs. I think it gave us a bit of cred, being associated with Shanachie and it was an exciting time for the band. As far as Easy Star, at this point those guys are family! Super supportive, open to ideas, they just get it. It’s been great to be a part of the label since 2005,and to still be with them and see how far they’ve come. They’ve really believed in JBB over the years and have stood by us through some tough times and some triumphs as well. We just do our best to give them the most inspired music that we can deliver…I thing Kings and Queens and the brand new Kings and Queens in Dub live up to that. As far as what I would do differently- I don’t know. I try not to think that way too much. I’m right here, right now.”

12. Any plans to release a live album?

DREW:  “Not presently, but that’s a good idea. I think for now we will continue to focus on studio albums because we really enjoy making those. The EP we are working on now is sounding really great- we are recording with Craig Welsch (Dubfader) at his studio in Boston. Besides the dubs he did for the new album, we last worked with him for “JBB in Dub” and of course he also produced “All Time” and “Among Them’.  We do record most of our shows with some pretty good equipment- you can check some of those out on the Live Music Archive online.”

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