Music Q&A: Easy Star All-Stars

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Revisiting their acclaimed Radiodread album live at Manchester’s Band On The Wall (5 July) the New Yorkers are celebrating 10 years since the release of their radical reggae/dub tribute to OK Computer. Founding band member Michael G and musical director and guitarist Shelton Garner Jr tell Big Issue North about what makes the band unique.

Tell us a bit about your sound and your influences.
Michael G: From its inception, the goal was for the project to have a nice big sound featuring several vocalists and a full band including a horn section. So in that sense, the great bands of the 1970s were a big influence – The Revolutionaries, Lloyd Parks and We The People, Aswad, Steel Pulse, The Wailers. But another key to our sound is the dub aspect, certainly in our recordings but also in our live shows, and in that regard I am influenced by mixers like King Tubby, Scientist, and Dennis Bovell.
Shelton: I think the sound of the band has classic reggae as its foundation while bringing in the sounds of the current reggae scene. Always keeping an eye on what’s current, looking toward the future, but never losing our roots – no pun intended.

How has the band evolved over the years?
The band started out solely as a studio project – I had co-founded Easy Star Records with three friends and we proceeded to start recording some of my compositions and voicing reggae artists on them. Every session would be me on guitar and sometimes bass, Victor Axelrod aka Ticklah on keys, and then whichever other musicians I felt were right for the songs that we were recording that day. We wanted to call the band something and we also thought of it as an opportunity to further brand the label so we chose the name Easy Star All-Stars – Easy Star for the label and All-Stars because the musicians were culled from the best of the NY reggae scene. We started doing live shows around the NY area a couple of years later, still with a rotating cast of musicians, but it wasn’t until 2003 and the popularity of Dub Side of the Moon that we became a consistent touring band that could perform internationally. And we’ve grown into a band that is really well known for a specific thing – our reggae re-interpretations of classic albums.
S: As musical director, my goal has been to create a show more akin to a Broadway play. Not just focusing on the music but also incorporating elements that keep the show’s energy up and taking the audience on a journey. Also thinking about what keeps the show visually stimulating as well.

Why did you feel now was the time to revisit Radiodread?
2016 is the 10th anniversary of the original release of the album so we thought that a re-issue with some new music and a tour would be a nice way to celebrate. And it gave us a good excuse to work with Morgan Heritage again for our version of High and Dry.

What else are you up to at the moment artistically?
I’m in the process of figuring out the next Easy Star All-Stars album. Aside from that I’m also working on producing several non-Easy Star albums right now, so I’m keeping busy.

How do you stand out from the crowd in a saturated industry?
Easy Star All-Stars are unique in the fact that we not only cover other artists’ music (outside of the reggae genre) but we cover full albums – keeping intact the musical intent of the original while offering a very creative take on it by putting our signature sound into the mix.
M: I agree. As far as I know we are the only band that does what we do – full album versions of the classics. So I think that that will always set us apart.

Were there any alternative band names before you arrived at this one?
It’s been 20 years so a bit difficult to remember. I don’t think so though. For the label itself, we had culled it down to Easy Star Records, Champion Records, Cornerstone Records and a few others.

What’s on your rider?
Band rider is fresh fruits, nuts, cheese, coconut water, bottled water, chips and assorted snacks, juice beverages, beer, wine, liquor. We ask for either a bottle of a white tequila or whiskey, though usually we prefer shots of tequila. We try to get a local beer if we can. And it’s red wine. We also need our water room temperature, and need plenty of hand towels for the stage.

Tell us about your worst live show.
One was in Moscow, 2009. First time playing Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts album. We did a lot of rehearsing beforehand but despite our efforts, there were a lot of hiccups in that show. Another is when one of our members decided to put his instrument down and go out into the crowd. It was cool for about a minute. After a few minutes, I looked out into the audience and said band member is looking right back at me clapping along with the rest of the crowd. I’m sure he loved it, but we had a show to finish. I wasn’t happy. The end.

Antonia Charlesworth

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