Album review: Jamil Apostol “Off The Beaten Path”

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The issue with the folk revival is that we as listeners- since about 2009- have become saturated with artists. Beyond that, the style allows for a large amount of leniency in what constitutes “good” or “listenable”: Throw some open chords, an easy bass line, and some vocal harmonies into the pot and it’s pretty easy to bob your head to. This has made me weary of new folk artists, as there are many of them not saying much at all.

Jamil Apostol, however, has something fresh, that sort of musician who hops trains, sleeps a night in a field somewhere, and is just as happy playing to three people in a living as to a stadium- perhaps more so.

Does anyone remember Medicine For The People’s first album, On The Verge? Few contemporary fans probably do, but Nahko and crew started out with a lo-fi album robustly integrating a lot of spirit into some Appalachian-style instrumentation, replete with trumpet. I don’t think Off The Beaten Path foretells Jamil hitting Nahko highs, but I would say that there are parallels. I would also say that, as far as Americana goes, this album is better than many, even some large name acts.

Overall, I’m not the biggest fan of this kind of music. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but it sort of slips below my radar rather easily, so I took my time with Apostol’s work. “My Red White Blues” wins best track award. It’s political, no doubt about that. “Why would you ask for change/ when you can have a bill?” he asks. “Reload, replenish/ pop!/ One shot kills.” It’s just him and his guitar. The song would make Woody Guthrie proud, just a fierce, vocal performance.

“Homeless Romantic” is similar, lyrics rocketing forth over minimal instrumentation, and just as political. “Full Beaver Moon” adds pretty harmonica over finger-picked guitar and Jamil’s distinct alto dings, “Creatures of habit are at it again… As the dove sings her song.” It’s just vague enough to drum up myriad imagery. He often does this, mixing narrative with introspection.

The title track begins with eerie banjo and Jamil offering, “Started as a dream… All the leaves are falling/ into different directions.” The song discusses life and death. Had he added grandiose strings and fiery percussion, this would sound like a Sujan Stevens B-side.

But part of what makes Off The Beaten Path fancy-free is its sparsity and articulated use of instruments, as well as Jamil knowing his voice well, throwing it around at ideal points. The songs have a lot of heart, and even when the content is heavy the melodies are light, (take the sing-a-long aspect of “Open Ticket Ride”). Taking something classic, something traditional, and adding enough pizzazz to make it unique is quite a task. Fans of this “scene” will enjoy Jamil’s talent and the execution of this lively, colorful album.

https://www.jamilapostol.com

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Cali Roots 2018 coverage: My interview with For Peace Band

For Peace Band has been working hard since their inception. “RJ” Pereira (guitar and vocals), Freddy Boradllo (drums and vocals), Jacob Iosia (keyboards and vocals), and Danton Cruz (bass) hail from Guam, although their sound is steeped in both roots reggae and progressive styles from Hawaii and SoCal. For the ninth annual California Roots Festival in Monterey, CA, For Peace Band took the stage alongside Cali natives Iya Terra for the Saturday night after party.

The following day, a steadily warming Pacific coast afternoon stretches over the Monterey Fairgrounds as I meet up with Chris Santos, the band’s tour manager, RJ, and Freddy. The three greet me graciously. They carry calmness, focus, and politeness as we sit to talk about the timing of their performance, just before the July 27th release of their album, Always Love, drops.

Did you play anywhere else here at Cali Roots, other than the after party?

RJ: Well, we did that acoustic jam session at the Rootfire tent. That was new for us. We don’t do acoustic too much.

Freddy: We try and do that at home, more acoustic.

Do you live near each other back home?

RJ: Oh yeah! We all live, like ten minutes from one another.

I love this festival, to hear about new people or finally see bands I’ve heard about, like you.

RJ: Like, “Who’s that guy? What’s his name again? Xiuhtezcatl?” [Laughs]

Freddy: I liked seeing Atmosphere and Chronixx.

So, you’ve been here all weekend?

RJ: Since Thursday.

Chris: This is right where we want to be.

alwaysloveFreddy: The biggest fest I ever went to. Like, wait: there’s all my favorite artists here, like- in one day? [Laughs]

Chris: It’s been a long time coming that a Guam band performed here. This is, like, a right of passage.

When does your new album come out?

Chris: July 27th.

RJ: We released “Rarest Flower”. What did you think of that track?

I liked it. It had a lot of space in it. It reminded me of-

RJ: Like, Roots Radics. Like, pop and smooth.

Oh, wow. Yeah! I was thinking the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars.

RJ: Who?

They play a lot of African and reggae style stuff. I can hear similarities.

RJ: We wanted to do it like Gregory Isaacs, like “Cool Ruler”, which is so pocket.

He understood sparsity.

RJ: Oh yeah. Like Arise Roots a little too.

Yeah!

Freddy: We’re doing a tour with them, too! [Laughs]

Your new record is being released by the Rootsfire Cooperative record label. How did you get hooked up with Rootfire?

RJ: Reid [Foster] was generous with the opportunity.

How did you meet Reid?

Freddy: Steve Donovan.

Chris: The way it all happened was, we met Donovan in Denver at a couple of shows, and while we were kicking back, he came to talk to us. The first conversation was just, like, “Yeah, you guys are good.” Then, the next tour with The Expanders, and we’re back in Denver. He shows up again. He said he saw us on an Instagram story. He wanted to see what we could do together. And then through them we met Rootfire and Reid Foster. We ended up having a killer conversation with [Reid], getting inspired.

Those connections are what this is all about.

Chris: When we come out here we’re able to link to cool and new people.

RJ: Bands we haven’t seen in a long time.

When did you start coming to the U.S. to start touring?

Freddy: 2015.

Chris: Our first tour in Hawaii.

RJ: Then we came up here with Josh [Heinrichs].

Freddy: There were two tours. The first one was with Fortunate Youth, not Josh.

Chris: Hmm…

RJ: Hmm…

[Laughs] A lot of touring, hunh?

Chris: It’s been three years and six tours. Really, a shout out to Fortunate Youth. They were the ones who really helped us out, believing in us.28616840_1900886099983598_4222777587565821841_o

RJ: Even touring in general, they showed us the ropes. We met a lot of people through them. We were ironically fans of each other. [Laughs]

Chris: I mean, for me, it’s like, when we were in New York and people were singing the lyrics.

Freddy: I stopped singing and they were there singing!

What’s the reggae scene like in Guam?

RJ: It’s rough, man. There is a lot of talent. The love for reggae music is there. But as for writing your own stuff, no. There’s more of a jam sesh, like backyard stuff.

Freddy: There’s a few bands out there.

Chris: There are a lot of musicians, but we’re the first ones to do it right for reggae. And that’s all because of R.J. and Freddy. Because of this, we’ve gotten to work with so many people who look out for us.

RJ: And they all believe in us! That’s the motivation, really! Like, “We just got here,” and they’re like, “Cool! Let’s go!” [Laughs]

Cali Roots 2018 coverage: My interview with Tropidelic

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Fast, heavy, and fun. These are words that describe a Tropidelic set. The band comes from Ohio, but the influences are very west coastal, pulling on the punk, reggae, and hip-hop legends such as 311 and Dirty Heads, bringing their own style with them.

For the ninth annual Cali Roots festival, Tropidelic was the opening band, (the first of 35 acts!). This is a bold undertaking for the band, who has been around for a while now, but are just beginning to tour hard and make themselves known. On stage, their energy is explosive, ricocheting between genres, engaging the audience, and beautifully mixing heavy music with lightheartedness.

As it turns out, they are also incredibly kind and gracious human beings. I was lucky enough to sit down with lead guitarist Bobby Chronic and lead singer Matt Roads (who goes by Roads). The following is a little history of the band and a little taste of their appeal:

You started everything off here at Cali Roots.

Bobby Chronic: It was a hell of an honor.

Matt Roads: Our thing is to give it all we have in terms of energy.

And you’re from Cleveland. What’s the scene like in Cleveland?

Roads: You’re looking at it [Laughs] It started for us as, “Let’s do something different,” because there’s not a lot of that going on. The jam band scene is big, like in the northeast. But in terms of reggae, not a whole lot going on. We’ve been lucky enough to forefront the scene.

Bobby: We have a lot of friends on the east coast, too, the wider you get, there’s a lot of good people.

Do you have a favorite place to play in Ohio?

Roads: Grog Shop is our home base, in our neighborhood.

Bobby: It’s an old punk bar kind of place.

Do you tour a lot?

Bobby: All the time. We’ll be out, maybe, 200 days this year.

I noticed the LAW Records and Passafire shirts on stage. Are you connected with them?

Roads: We’re on LAW Records, which is Pepper’s label. And we’re just fans of Passafire. We’d love to tour with them.

I think the sounds like a good match up.

img_6806.jpgRoads: Us too! [Laughs] I’ve listened to Passafire since I went to college, and the Submersible record did some shit to me. It’s amazing.

Yeah, like them, I think labeling your music is hard. It’s all over the place, but in a consistent way.

Bobby: I think that’s one of the best compliments we’ve gotten.

Roads: Thanks, man.

Bobby: It’s been a process over the last five or six years, kind of nailing down the eclectic individuality and putting together into one cohesive sound.

Did people come from different musical backgrounds?

Bobby: I used to go watch local shows when I was fresh out of high school. It snowballed, me being around enough and people being like, “We need a guitarist,” and I’m like, “Hell yeah! I need a band!” [Laughs]

You have a really dynamic style.

Bobby: It’s the only thing I’m good at. [Laughs]img_6809.jpg

Roads: The scene we have is tight knit, so you make connections quickly, too.

That’s how I feel here at this festival, and the audience has a lot of personal connections to the musicians.

Bobby: It’s badass.

Roads: We haven’t been out here much; hoping to get our feet wet. We just did San Diego. We’ll be playing Huntington Beach, and then coming out here on the Ballyhoo! tour. We got a splinter van and did a week or so in Colorado, playing with Wookiefoot. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them.

Only by name.

Bobby: They’re awesome.

Roads: They’re kind of like us, in the sense that it’s hip-hop, jam, reggae… but all very positive. They have a die hard fan base. They’re mostly in the midwest, from Minneapolis.

img_6811.jpgBobby: Super cultured band. They switch costumes. They have a whole show.

Roads: A Pfunk sort of show.

Are you able to see other music?

Bobby: We’re leaving late tomorrow afternoon, to get to the next gig.

Roads: I’m psyched for Atmosphere tonight. 311 is one of our all time favorite bands too.

Anything you want to readers to know about?

Roads: Connect on our socials. It’s all about Spotify now.

Bobby: Spotfy is convenient, so organized and easy to find what you’re looking for.

They don’t pay, though, do they?

Roads: They do… It’s something like 1500 plays equals the same amount as a download. It’s a different world; Spotify has a strong control on the market.

Bobby: So different from when we were kids. Like, you could buy CDs or give your mom’s computer a virus because you’re downloading something. [Laughs]

Cali Roots 2018 coverage: My interview with Hirie

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Back in 2016 two friends of mine, Seth Herman and Curtis Bergesen, sent me an album from their newest addition to the Rootfire family, Hirie. I’d heard “Sensi Boy’ before and loved the hook, but was unsure about her overall. That was ignorance. I’ve since become a fan to the singer who claims Hawaii as her home, but who has lived all over the world. Her mix of cultures and ethnicity, accentuated by her charisma and undeniable physical beauty, makes her a powerful force in reggae music.

This interview was a long time coming. She’s as fun, soulful, and courageous in real life as she seems in her songs, and I’m grateful to present some of her story here:

JP: I feel like you’re a Cali Roots institution, a very busy and active person here.

Hirie: I feel like this is the mecca of what we have, so you have to milk that as much as possible. I love Cali Roots.

JP: I was here three years ago and you were interviewing everyone.

Hirie: Oh, that year? Oh wow, it’s way different in here. I was interviewing Trevor Hall. It was orange in here.

JP: My first interview here was Trevor Hall, and I was out of it, and he’s so chill that we had a few minutes of just chilling.

Hirie: I interviewed him here right when he had to shave his head. He’s super vegan, I guess. You can’t bring meat on his bus. That’s really cool. But I love meat. My daughter came up to me the other day and she was like, “You know, Mom, I feel bad for eating animals sometimes… But they taste so good!” I was like, “It is tough. Bacon!” I’ve been getting into veggies lately. I never had veggies as a kid. I’m trying things for the first time, three years eating vegetables.

JP: What’s your favorite veggie?

Hirie: I love brussel sprouts, fried, with pancetta, you know, bacon. I love cooking. Broccolini is cool. I’m learning how much easier it is to eat than broccoli. My husband steams [broccoli] with sesame oil and salt, like Asian style. It’s dank. Ooh. New one: Fennel. He broils it with olive oil, balsamic, salt, and vinegar. He bakes it until it’s crispy.

JP: When you’re cookbook comes out we’ll look for the fennel recipe.

Hirie: I am making a cookbook! I do a lot of food posts. I love cooking. My husband and I are taking it on as a couples project. Having grown up everywhere, it’s a clusterfuck, like my father’s Shepard’s pie, or ausobuco from Italy… If I’m home I’ll cook all three meals. I don’t cut corners. I start from scratch. It’s nice to be home for that.

JP: Are you home a lot? You’ve been pushing hard these past few years.

Hirie: We slept in our apartment I think 20 days out of 2018. Before we found this place we were homeless because of that reason, like, “We’re not paying rent!” When we came home we crashed at our friends’ places, but that got old because you get home from tour and you’re still living out of a suitcase. For a year and a half! My daughter had no toys. We’d go to the storage unit and she’d try to milk it as much as possible. She loved it; she forgot. It was a luxury to play with toys.

JP: You wrote a song for your daughter.

Hirie: She’s around, with my dad. They only thing missing here was that they were going to do a daycare for the parents, but they didn’t.

JP: You’ve performed here quite often at this festival.

Hirie: It’s been five years in a row.IMG_6832

JP: Wait, did you play here three years ago?

Hirie: I did. I did five years in a row, but the after party, or the acoustic pop-up, or like the acoustic Bowl. Even when they don’t invite us, I email them and say, “If you need anything, we’re available.” Because, you know, this is it! If you’re here, it means something.

JP: The guest appearances so far have been amazing, even people who aren’t performing.

Hirie: I’ve never seen 311, either!

JP: Anyone else throughout the years that you’d never gotten to see before this festival?

Hirie: Tash Sultana. I’ve been dying to see her play. And her girlfriend was a fan of ours before she even met Tash, and so it all came full circle. I thought that was really cool.

JP: I want to thank you for bringing Nattali Rize out.

Hirie: She’s become, like, a friend! That’s the good thing about touring.

JP: She’s on your record [Wandering Soul], too.

Hirie: But I didn’t even know her when she was on my record. I just really wanted a chick! I had some names, but she was the most unique, so when I asked her she was down. So it was a pre-tour friendship.

JP: I love that you represent the feminine power in this scene.

Hirie: We’re very lucky.

JP: I was thinking about that for you. You could easily go total pop and reach a larger audience, but you’re sticking with reggae.

Hirie: I can remember those being some of the words in the review that you did [of Wandering Soul], like, “She could easily be this!” As a bucket list goal, it would be to have a song that crossed into mainstream and people would be like, “Damn!” You know when MAGIC! did “Rude”, but their problem was they came out with a major hit, but then the rest of their music was… They don’t know what they’re doing- a mixture. So, they never fit into the reggae community and the pop community only knew them for one reggae song. What I would love to do is be reggae and have one song that crossed, and then people say it’s dope and want to come listen to reggae music.

JP: That’s how I feel about Brandi Carlile.

Hirie: Oh yeah: “All of these lines that cross my face!” She’s got that song “Shadow On The Wall”. She’s hella rock.

JP: What are you into other than reggae?

Hirie: I grew up with a lot of Gypsy Kings, and Enya, and Norah Jones. I lived in Italy, so a lot of Andrea Bocelli and Pavarotti. I love it all; that’s why we’re such a clusterfuck on stage.

JP: I love your band.

Hirie: They’re good players. They come from the weirdest backgrounds: metal, jazz, funk, and church… Now we’re learning to tone down and have moments, versus being like, bang bang bang! Throw out all the cards right away, which I love! But we’re learning to pull back.

JP: Who have you learned from over the years?

Hirie: So many bands, obviously. Tribal Seeds, the way of their energy, the way the musicians amplify the set, and the heavy rock side I love. And Slightly Stoopid are a jam band, good at improvising, and putting a lot of effort into something but having it come out like butter. Or even Pato Banton. We copy his dance moves a lot. His show is so tight.

JP: Alpha Blondy made me wicked happy this year.

Hirie: I haven’t scene Alpha Blondy before, but Stick Figure does a cover of “Cocody Rock”, and I get to sing “What’s Going On” [by the Four None Blondes] in there because it’s the same riddim. It’s so cool! Closer To The Sun, we’ll be there this year.

JP: I was just talking about that festival.

Hirie: So, you know Seth [Herman] and Curtis [Bergesen]?

JP: I met Curtis first. He was touring with Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. I just met the band at a show.

downloadHirie: He’s cool. We didn’t have have a great start. It was the dumbest thing ever: I’d never met him and he’s so tall and intimidating. I was at the first Cali Roots and these fans came up and said, “Can we get a picture with you?” So I was like, “Excuse me; will you take a picture?” And I didn’t realize he was in a conversation, and I was just trying to grab the closest person. And he was like, “I’m sorry. Let me stop my conversation right now to take your picture. Please, smile.” He was such a dick. [Laughs] And I was like, “The fans!” It doesn’t even matter about me, but don’t make them feel bad. Then I told my husband, and he told Seth, and Seth told Curtis, and I was so embarrassed. It was the worst tattle tale. He had to apologize and he said, “That’s just who I am.” I said, “You’re an asshole.” Then we became the best of friends! I love his new collage page. I forget that it’s him. I see it and think, “Sick!”

JP: When you get asked on stage, do you freestyle?

Sometimes.

JP: Are you good at it?

Hirie: No. It’s so scary. Yesterday, Fortunate Youth asked me to jump on their set and said, “Sing Gonzo’s part on ‘Sweet Love’,” and I was like, “Yeah!” Then I had to fucking run and find reception because I had no reception and couldn’t find the lyrics or watch the video on YouTube. I was five songs away from having to sing it, and am in the production office borrowing an iPad, recording the video onto my phone and writing it on my hand. Then I’m at the Bowl, singing the song for the first time!

JP: [Laughs] I love Fortunate Youth.

Hirie: I learned a lot from them. They don’t take anything too seriously and that really allows the audience to feel comfortable. It’s usually a shit show, in a good way, on tour with them. I crawl onto stage after being blackout drunk, like two songs img_6892.jpgbefore my feature. And then Dan [Kelly] is just like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” like, way too comfortable. Do you notice that about him? He’s got that look to him. You know his story with Fortunate Youth? He was a plumber, and he’d go to open mics and they were already a band. They saw him and said, “Do you want to join and sing?” I think it was a side thing for him at first. And he was in his 30s. He never thought it’d be like it is now. He’s got two daughters and most of the songs are about them, so when you pick at his songs… Some of the words are just too much for me. His music is strong willed.

JP: I appreciate that the scene is big and supportive. I love coming from the east coast and seeing what it’s like out here.

Hirie: [Sigh] The musicians that come out of the east coast are superior in a way because everyone is so trained and has a great ear. Out here it’s hooky and catchy, but can be sloppy. You can hear the difference between the east and west. The west gets a lot more attention and it’s more of a party scene and everyone is really open. On the east coast it’s niche, but refined: John Brown’s Body, Giant Panda, The Hip Abduction…

JP: What’s it like for you to walk out on stage and see so many people?

Hirie: It’s overwhelming, for sure. There’s so much pressure. You want to put in everything you can.

JP: I play at a local cafe and when there are eight people there I think, “There are too many people here!”

Hirie: Those can be way more intimidating because here you can’t stare at one face, but in a crowd of eight you’re really dissecting their emotions, like, “He’s not watching!” You start to worry. I love that, though.

JP: And here at Cali Roots you’re on all the time.

Hirie: It’s a good thing. It’s in my nature to seek out conversation. I notice how much harder it is than it used to be to just flow through and hang out with friends at a festival like this. I can’t walk from point A to point B… But reggae is different, so loving. Like, Tash being able to say, “If any of you are homophobic, get the fuck out of here.” To be able to say that now and not hear “Boo!” and nothing is thrown… And we had E-40 and Atmosphere.

JP: I’d never seen him live.

Hirie: I remember Zion I one year killing it. I like that they mix hip-hop with reggae; they go good together. Hip-hop is so conscious- at least, old school hip-hop. Tash’s biggest song is reggae. A lot of pop artists come out with a reggae song that smashes. So, it’s like, “Fuck! Why can’t a reggae artist smash a song and be pop for a minute!”

JP: What’s it like on your end, coming to this festival?

Hirie: Oh, man. Production is always nice! We get lucky with good vibes. So, going to a super dark place from where we are right now, there was one point yesterday that somebody was talking to me, looking a little wonky. They reached into their bagIMG_6962 for their cellphone or something, but with everything going on I stepped back thinking, “This is it!” Because as a musician you’re constantly in the face of potential danger these days. The statistics say more students have died from gunshots than anybody in the military this year. There are more child fatalities in schools than the war! The student reached in and it was his phone, but I had that feeling in my gut. I thought, “What a shitty world to live in. Do I run? Do I charge?”

JP: You’ve got quite the fan base. Do you have any creepy fans?

Hirie: I mean, maybe, but not really, nothing I’m worried about.

JP: You put out a new single, “Sun and Shine”, with a cool music video, with Nahko in it. Are you two friends?

Hirie: We’re of the same Filipino bloodline. He’s been here. I missed it! He’s awkward too. He’s good at breaking the ice and helping awkward moments. I’ve seen him in the middle of a conversation start picking his nose.

JP: Getting into your music spoke to me because we come from such different backgrounds, but some of music resonates on a deep level.

Hirie: This one painter told me that when he paints it’s not even him; he doesn’t know what he’s painting. The strokes just come out. He said he never had any plans for what he was about to paint. I feel like when I write songs. I don’t think about what I’m writing, I just put it down. Then I read it back later and go, “Damn… That’s not me! I would have never said that!” You have to flow and not expect anything.

JP: What was the first song you wrote?

Hirie: Ever? It was called “A Place For You In My Heart” [Laughs] It was real cheese. Still my dad’s favorite.

JP: When you started singing, was it reggae music?

Hirie: I always thought I’d do more alternative, like Michelle Branch and Paramore, and Evanencese. But I always wrote with a skank. I love reggae.

 

 

Cali Roots 2018 coverage: My interview with Ozomatli

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For over twenty years, Ozomatli has been a hard touring act, although their roots in southern Los Angeles has brought sounds of cumbia, hip-hop, reggae, funk, rock, and more across the states and world. Oftentimes, the sound is straight-up fun, but the messages are usually sociopolitical, the execution positive.

Recently on tour with Chali 2na rapping again, Ozomatli has entered yet another renaissance; the group’s ability to evolve and grow is inspirational. For their performance at Cali Roots 2018, Ozo drove up from L.A. the day of their set, and Ulises Bella (saxophone) and Asdru Sierra (trumpet, lead vocals) rushed to our interview, quickly finding their pace and relaxing into the Monterey vibes.

Seems like you have a lot of interviews coming up. Do you know how many you have?

Ulises: Right now, only you, I think.

Asdru: There’s six of us, so we’re spread around.

Cali Roots seems like a fitting place for Ozomatli.

Ulises: I think this is our first time doing it… Yeah. We’ve done a lot of reggae festivals over the years. We’re always the non-reggae act that’s acceptable for these kinds of festivals. [Laughs] I think it’s because we bring a lot of energy; we’re fucking with a lot of dance music from all over.

And I think your message is fitting of the scene.

Ulises: For sure.

I know your most recent album [Non-Stop Mexico → Jamaica] focuses on reggae, so I didn’t know if you were going to go that route for your set.

Ulises: You know, that album is already kind of a year old, so we might do some of it. The thing is exactly that: we’re at a reggae festival, so like, should we play reggae? Or should we stand out by doing something a little different? But that particular project was a departure from what we usually do, taking really famous Spanish songs, new and old, and giving them the reggae treatment. What really pushed it over the edge was getting Sly and Robbie to play on it. download

What was it like to work with them?

Ulises: Well, what was that single we did with them?

Asdru: We were on one of their records; it was called “Affinity”. We hit it off since then.

Well, it seems that taking care of equipment and everything, the crew here is helpful.

Asdru: Super nice. [To Ulises] Did you get that sweater for free?

Ulises: Yeah.

Oh, yeah, that’s a Cali Roots sweater.

Ulises: This guy just got a free sweater! See how nice these motherfuckers are?

Asdru: The artist’s name was Bal or Tal, or Tavy… Damn, I forget his name! He said his dad brought him to one of these festivals and I got to talk to him, that I rolled up here and wanted to buy one of his sweaters, and he said, “Oh, man; you can have one for free!” Then he told me his story. So, I’m going to rock it on stage. He was cool.IMG_6917

I was thinking about this interview and thinking about the first time I heard you, it was actually at a shop in Burlington, Vermont.

Asdru: What record shop?

Disc Go Round.

Asdru: Oh, because we had a friend that worked at the one downstairs.

Pure Pop.

Asdru: Yes! We used to always go there. Are they still there?

Yes.

Asdru: So great that record stores are still around.

Well, now they sell a lot of vinyl. Do you put your stuff out on vinyl?

Asdru: We have in the past. This last new one we put out on vinyl, and I think our first record too. In fact, it was good vinyl, thick and heavy. It sounds really great. We service the DJ community that way. [Laughs]

I’m a CD man myself. I have such a big collection, I’m not switching over.

Asdru: I know how you feel! Then, sometimes, it’s like the CD will be as cheap or cheaper than the download and I’m like, “Well, fuck it. I’m going to be an old man about it and buy the CD.” Or download and steal it, right?

Ulises: Sometimes I like the art in an LP, a giant piece of art. I loved that as a kid.

Asdru: You can’t roll a joint on an MP3.

Ulises: It was cool to get the record and the artwork. I remember all the Santana ones that had different detail in it, and you could open it up and see the lyrics. You could see who was playing bass. You don’t have that anymore. I don’t think Sly and Robbie would have a career if you didn’t know they were the ones playing those instruments. They had their credit. You don’t get that now- things we’re missing now with just clicking digital art and having it pop up. It was a package deal. I like records, the preparation of it, the sound quality. I remember being a kid and my dad having people over to listen to a record, and everyone would gather around the record player; it had to be a German sound system. It sounded nice and warm because it had tubes. I remember turning it on: Hmmmmm. It would turn on like that.

Live music is still like that.

Asdru: One thing they can’t bottle up and sell, if you think about it.

Ulises: Us. [Laughs]

Asdru: You could watch this festival from the house, but it won’t be the same.

Will you be able to stay and see more of the music?

Asdru: Probably not; we’re driving right back.

Ulises: I literally parked the truck facing a certain way, so we could load stuff and drive out.

How many shows do you do a year?

Asdru: A lot less than we used to. There was a point in our careers where we were on the road eight months out of the year. That was a heavy grind. It took a lot from all our lives over the years.

Do you get recognized as players in Ozomatli?

Asdru: It definitely helps if we’re all around together. “Well, there goes Ozomatli.” I got recognized the other day.

Ulises: Yeah?

Asdru: Yeah! [Laughs]

You do a good job of sticking around after the show and talking with people.

Asdru: Usually. To our detriment, almost. It’s like we’re really friendly, we’re down to Earth. We’ll sign whatever. We’re not trying to hide.

Ulises: We don’t trash people and don’t want to be trashed. We like our fans; they’re pretty cool.

Asdru: We get a good mix of people, multi-generational, multi-ethnic… Everything. IMG_6913

I haven’t seen you in a bit, so I’m excited for today.

Ulises: Us too, man. It’s a cool job. [Laughs]

Asdru: Yeah, drive up four hours, play for people, and go home!

That must be nice.

Asdru: The advantage of sleeping in your own bed after a gig is worth it.

Ulises: I’d like to teleport home!

Asdru: We have a Concord Jet waiting. [Laughs]

Ulises: That’s old school, man! Like driving around in an Eagle van. You know those? Those were the shit back then.

Asdru: Still the shit, if you ask me.

Ulises: Like driving around in a ’57 Chevy. They’re old, compared to now. You push a button now and boom! Danger, Will Robinson!

Asdru: I still have a CD player in my car, but it’s jammed.

Ulises: What CD is it?

Asdru: It’s like five CDs that are permanently stuck in there. It’s all right, I hook up my iPod anyway. I guess that’s another old person thing. [Laughs]

Ulises: Do you remember, people used to give you their demo CD and put stickers on them? That’s what would make them get stuck.

It’s fun to see you in California, your home state.

Asdru: Well, we’ll be back to the Higher Ground again.

Ulises: It’s still there, right?

Asdru: Well, remember, they have the new one now. We played at the new one.

Ulises: We did?

Asdru: Yeah. [Laughs] You don’t remember the move.

Ulises: I’d probably still drive to the old one!

Last question. I don’t know if you get this a lot, but I am curious where the name Ozomatli comes from.

Asdru: It’s from the Aztec calendar. It’s a little monkey; he represents the God of Dance.

Ulises: The one of the harvest. Whenever there’s a harvest, that’s when he breaks through, the orchestrator of the jungle and mischief.

Asdru: He looks like a little monkey with a mohawk. Check it out. Google Ozomatli images.download (1)

Ulises: The party god, of a sort, because when the harvest comes, it’s time to party.

Asdru: So you know about that up here. Coming to party.

 

 

Album review: Dub Apocalypse “Frozen Planet”

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Dub Apocalypse has, for the past few years, taken the northeast underground reggae scene by storm, playing numerous shows at small clubs and bars, opening for bigger acts, and basically laying low while hitting high. The band began as a rotating cast of characters, always with Tommy Benedetti (of John Brown’s Body fame) on the drumkit. Johnny Trama on guitar, and Timo Shanko on bass and sax. For Frozen Planet (self-released, 2018) the album features the more solidified touring group, including, Aaron Bellamy (bass) and Van Gordon Martin (guitar). While “dub” appears in their name, DA is really more of an instrumental reggae band- with a few dubby moments. Frozen Planet‘s biggest achievement is song structure, a mix of freeform-sounding jams and controlled movements.

Because of the large quantities of what I’ll call “big city sax”, much of these songs come off jazzy, both in flow and feel, especially “Goes Around Comes Around”, a pitching, swinging upbeat tune stuffed with sax twittering. Even here, though, the roots reggae sound rides cool and easy, and the best part of Dub Apocalypse is the respect to the groove, with enough musical twists and turns that these wordless tracks don’t get boring.

“Angel Blood” carries the heaviest dub vibe, twin bass and guitar lines part funk and part rock. The horns, also twin, weave in and out like cascading water. The song also collapses and rebuilds throughout in this kind of cosmic, meditative dub that’s my favorite because it continuously leans into itself, a groove so repetitive but not stifled that it could go on forever. “Sunstroke” is nearly as dubbed out, and “Answer Dancer” crosses a similar sound with more surfer vibes.

Two songs stand above the rest:“Burning the Colosseum” fires from the getgo; ferociously tearing through solos, the drums notably punctuated. at each one drop. The song’s makeup shows how talented and wise these musicians are, yet the sound remains holy roots oriented. Conversely, “Moving On” is ethereal, vibrant, and rises like a hot air balloon.

I might be biased, being longtime fans of Van Gordon Martin and Tommy Benedetti, but the musicianship here is undeniable. Fans of dub and instrumental reggae will love Frozen Planet. For those who don’t like sax, this may not be the album for you. Overall, though, this little gem should not be overlooked.

Album review: Ras Professor “Jah Mi Praise”

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Let’s talk genuine reggae for a moment. Jah Mi Praise, an EP released by Ras Professor out of Florida, is a six-song Rasta meditation, and while the Professor is unknown in the larger reggae world, I want to highlight the fire he breathes. The production of JMP is above par, turning up the bass and bass drum while keeping the rhythms quieter. Beyond that, his voice, a crackling baritone, is reminiscent of some of the dancehall originators.

Now, admittedly, I’m not a huge dancehall fan. “Good Herbs” doesn’t hit me as strikingly as the Nyabinghi style “Job”, but stepping back from my own preferences for a second, Ras Prof does a solid job of restraining intensity often overblown in dancehall. Instead, he hangs back over soft organ and allows his voice to develop melody even in the hammering lyricism.

Press Along” is similar, although the melody is undeniably catchy, and “Slew A Million” also ratchets down. “Can’t take the heat/ get outta the kitchen,” he begins, calling out Babylon with spite and glory. “We are the prevention!” he beckons. Yet “Lightning” and “Job” are my favorite tracks, probably because they have grooves: the former a bass-heavy rock steady remix and the latter, as mentioned, Nyabinghi in roots.

Lyrical content here doesn’t vary from Rasta consciousness, (It’s Job from the Bible, and not job like summer camp, as I first suspected). Even though I listen to all kinds of reggae, I believe that sticking strictly to this form might alienate a potential wider audience, yet Ras Professor’s authenticity is clear from the first musical measure to the last, his talent easily apparent.

If you’re seeking some of the most underground contemporary dancehall/reggae out there, check out Jah Mi Prasie and get a lesson from the Professor.

Album review: Jordaan Mason “Earth To Ursa Major”

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Jordaan Mason’s epic Eath To Ursa Major is intended as an exploration of topics such as, gender dysphoria, surviving sexual violence, and living with Bipolar Disorder symptoms, things rarely if ever overtly discussed through music. ETUM, self-produced and released by the Toronto-based musician, did not go through the pristine decorating of high end mastering, and sounds like it was recorded in a stairwell somewhere, which it actually was. This low fi sound is simultaneously endearing (especially because it’s rather well-done) and one of ETUM‘s two greatest weaknesses. Had these 17 tracks, rich with airy piano, strings, and Jordaan’s ghostly howl, had the chance to undergo more professional production I firmly believe the various elements would shine at appropriate times.

The second major bump for Jordaan’s release is how painfully slow every song is. In terms of song structure, feel, and lyrical layering, the best comparison I have is Sufjan Stevens, (although Neutral Milk Hotel comes to mind too), yet both of these bands recognize that, as much as they enjoy achingly slow, crawling songs, the periodic uptempo track allows for sonic contours; much needed when the song content is generally depressing and self-defeating. In my head, I speed up such tracks as “Awl/Leather” and “Liturgy Part 3” into scanty jaunts a la Ben Folds Five, which would pull out so much from these songs, would add pop elements that would enliven the album.

The best song, which is one of the faster and more pulsing tracks anyway, is “Why Fit?” The lyrics are gorgeous: “If I can’t make myself a home/ I guess I don’t belong here… Will anyone ever know my name?” The humdrum of it all reminds me of Dr. Dog. One song that does function as a dragger is “Fire/Housework”, with it’s horror-shaped organ. “What he call sung/ I call unheard,” Jordaan grumbles in a ruminant and fearful manner that is gripping.

Perhaps ETUM is just a bit too avant garde for my tastes. The numerous artsy, brief instrumentals and the many melodies anchored with gravity deserve some fine tuning. In a way, this album could almost be Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood To The Head or The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, and I think all that would take is a savvy producer to bump Jordaan’s heart and soul and add some spotlights.

That being said, I know plenty of people who will sink readily into the bath of this album, as cold and dark as the water might be. This album is not about a hero, but an anti-hero, a fallen angel; a story where redemption might be there, down the line, but has no room within the confines of these tracks. If that’s tempting then I say check out Earth To Ursa Major.

Album review: Qais Essar “The Ghost You Love Most”

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The last place you’d probably look for Afghan-inspired instrumental folk-rock would be Phoenix, Arizona. You may not even ever really go looking for such a strange genre, but Qais Essar- who, yes, lives in the Southwest- uses an ancient Afgahni instrument called a Rabab along with a 70’s style rock backline to make a half-hour’s worth of spirited, zanny music.

All too easily, he could have thrown a cheesy set of electronica loops behind his melodies and he’d have made something contemporary and easily digestible, but unsatisfied with the simple, Qais keeps things sounding organic and nuanced, in a very jazz fusion-y way, but much more focused.

“The Culmination of a Sorrowful Sound” starts everything off, a very theatrical, swerving river of a song, barely rising above a whisper. Much of the album cascades this way, down to the album’s closer, “Untitled”, which is a peaceful, sleepy, jazzy composition.

There’s not much detail to go into about the song particulars. The album carries a feel all the way through. It’s yogic, in a way; very conscious of its own breath, and relaxed while being strong. “Journey to Qaf” exemplifies this, moving eerily slowly upwards until it bursts into a fluid jam.

The Rabab is a very Asian-sounding stringed instrument, often piercing and quite vibrated. If you’re not interested in that sound at all, you’re not gong to be invested in the foundation of The Ghost You Love Most. People who enjoy the soundscape the Middle East mastered long before any prog rock band did will enjoy the smarts behind these compositions.

Album review: Mellow Mood “Large”

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Twins Jacopo and Lorenzo Garzia make up the heartbeat of Mellow Mood, and backed by one of the tightest backlines of the century, Large (Cumbancha, 2018) is on track to being one of the best sounding reggae albums I’ve heard in recent years. Lyrically, the duo balances on the thin wire that is traditional reggae themes and contemporary ingenuity, although, as much as a stickler I am for words, leeway is given because the delivery is on point. Bless the production, but also, the instrumentation is built solid and bright. Jacopo and Lorenzo have unique sounding voices too. And this is warrior music, fired at us.

Sound of War” is perhaps the best example. The vibe frolics, then they cast out, “People you take it too easy/ Like unnu play with a ball/ Talk you a talk so easy/ While them want start a war,” and the chorus is a glitzy, “Rampimpim/ rampampam/ This yah the sound of a war/ Rampempem rampampam/ So we wake up in a war.” The sound is classic future roots, maybe something Black Uhuru would have created.

The title track moves that way too, bouncing into old school reggae, pulsing with delays, breakdowns, a slender one drop in the drums, and vocal harmonies. The chorus is catchy, while the verses are meditative and pointed: “In the west we nuh feed no soul/ In the west we just deck the shell/ Big brands dictating our wants/ Easy we fall under their spell.”

Some songs are on the awesome end of more pop-centric dancehall/reggae roots. “Heart To No One” is a great example of this, a flexed muscle in the same sleeve as the likes of Stephen Marley, New Kingston, or Collie Buddz.

Other songs pull on these same reigns but end up being pulled down a different track. “It Can’t Work” is a powerfully political song: “Expose the medias/ Lies about Syria/ Same about Libia.” “Daddy” is a dank version of this too. Ostensibly a cliché reggae track (the fierce one drop and oompa-loompa bassline sets this up), the song is actually a really beautiful letter to the twins’ father: “Me give thanks to you becaw you chose a great mother/ Kept the family together… Nothing coulda better how you raised me and mi bredda.”

In fact, all these songs are quite simply, really, really good in terms of relevance, production, content, and delivery. The only fault of Large may be that the song structures are very similar to one another. Every chorus involves a one to three-word hook, like they’re shooting for anthems without realizing not every song needs to be sung along to.

Still, I didn’t see this album coming. It’s a fast-paced, hearty blast of contemporary reggae, and it’s fun as well as political. I highly recommend fans of modern reggae check Large out.