Imagine if Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour was a guitar-toting Rasta, or Radiohead’s Thom Yorke was a roots-reggae crooner.
That is exactly what New York’s Easy Star All-Stars did and the results have ensured them a globetrotting 10-year career so far.
Since Dub Side of the Moon, the band’s recreation of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as a dub-reggae album, first hit shelves to rave reviews in 2003, the Easy Star All-Stars have been an in-demand live act.
“I was listening to the original album while walking around New York City, going store to store to try to sell our second release, Ghetto Know-ledge, by the Meditations,” says Lem Oppenheimer, one of the co-founders of Easy Star Records.
“It occurred to me as I listened that the music could work as reggae covers and that the two fan bases shared enough in common (like a love of marijuana, to begin with) that it would be a worthy experiment to try.”
The rest is history with the album remaining on the Billboard reggae charts since its release in 2003 and selling more than 85 000 copies to date.
A recreation of Radiohead’s OK Computer as the album Radiodread followed in 2006 and the band’s take on the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, titled Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, hit the shelves in 2009.
Now in 2010 the band is back with a fresh take on Pink Floyd’s classic album, called Dubber Side of the Moon, and the band is set to play their first shows in South Africa, thanks to Jump Media, which is also bringing legendary British ska band the English Beat out on the same weekend.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to Easy Star Records co-founders Michael Goldwasser, Eric Smith and Oppenheimer, as well as Easy Star All-Stars’ trombonist, Buford O’Sullivan, to get the lowdown on their albums so far and their tour of South Africa.
How did this band/project come about?
Goldwasser: We started Easy Star Records in 1996 and soon thereafter we began recording songs for what would be our first album, Easy Star Volume One (1998).
The band on the recordings was me and a rotating cast of New York’s finest reggae musicians, so to get our name in people’s minds more, we called the band Easy Star All-Stars. In 1999 Lem had the idea for Dub Side of the Moon. He had been a big fan of Dark Side of the Moon since high school and one day it occurred to him that a reggae version of that album could be really interesting.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered in translating popular pop and rock songs into dub versions?
Goldwasser: Producing the cover material is a great challenge that really pushes me creatively and intellectually. I need to figure out how to reinterpret classic music, making it sound fresh and different, but still recognisable to the average person, so it’s a balancing act. One very specific challenge that I have faced on all three of our albums so far has been dealing with odd meters.
All reggae is in 4/4 time, as is much of Western pop music, but I’ve had to figure out how to adapt songs like Money from Dark Side of the Moon that is in 7/4 time to make it work as reggae, or songs like Paranoid Android from OK Computer that changes meters several times over the course of the song. In fact, Radiohead has some songs that change meters every few bars! But somehow I’ve been able to make it all work as reggae.
Do you have a favourite cover version that you have done?
Smith: Exit Music (For a Film) from Radiodread, featuring the late, great Sugar Minott on vocals.
Oppenheimer: Either Exit Music (For a Film), which translated the dread feelings of the original so perfectly into roots reggae, Within You Without You, which captured the musical experimentalism of the Beatles and turned it into a grooving, mind-blowing dub, or The Great Gig in the Sky.
O’Sullivan: Let Down with Toots [Hibbert] from Radiodread.
Goldwasser: Exit Music (For a Film) featuring Sugar Minott. Even before he passed away, it was my favourite thing that we’ve done, but now there is even more poignancy to it.
After making a name for yourselves with your covers albums, the band is now starting to record its own material. Tell us about that?
Goldwasser: We are working on a new album of originals by the Easy Star All-Stars right now. There is a special energy that comes from working on material that was written by the musicians involved. I’m trying to finish up recording within the next few weeks and then mix before the end of the year. It will be out early next year.
What can South African audiences expect from your live show?
O’Sullivan: A great party. Dancing, jumping, screaming.
Oppenheimer: And that’s just Buford backstage before the show!
O’Sullivan: The live show is all about the energy we pour out on stage. There are five vocalists, two horns and a solid band. It is about bringing on a really good time.
Oppenheimer: It’s a great mix of songs from all three of the tribute albums, with some original tunes by the band.
Is this your first tour to Africa? If not, tell us about your previous tours on the continent?
Oppenheimer: This will be the band’s first stop south of the equator, though the only stop before was in Egypt a few years ago.
This band has played on six continents and in more than 125 countries, so it is no stranger to exploring new places, but we’ve wanted to make it to South Africa for a while, so this is an exciting honour.
The Easy Star All-Stars, supported by DJ Fletcher, 7ft Soundsystem and Mr Cat & the Jackal, play at The Assembly in Cape Town on Wednesday November 10. They play at Johannesburg’s Tanz Café on Thursday November 11 with support from Tidal Waves. Tickets cost R170 in Cape Town and R150 in Johannesburg. The English Beat, with support from Absynthe, will play at Tanz Café on Friday November 12 and with support from the Rudimentals and the Lancastar Band at Mercury Live in Cape Town on Saturday November 13. Tickets for Johannesburg range between R100 and R220 and tickets in Cape Town are R150