Easy Star All-Stars - Dub And Cover
It’s not everyday a group has the balls to cover the Beatles, yet that’s what New York reggae collective Easy Star All-Stars have done, and in dub form no less with Easy Stars' Lonely Hearts Dub Band. 3D’s Cyclone found out what it’s like reinterpreting a classic from co-founding member of the brassy Statesiders Michael Goldwasser.
They may not have a major label behind them, or a big budget, but Easy Star All-Stars command an international fanbase. The collective are back in a new 2009 incarnation with Easy Stars' Lonely Hearts Dub Band, dubifying The Beatles' much-feted Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It follows their previous projects Dub Side Of The Moon, based on Pink Floyd's opus, and Radiodread, a dub interpretation of OK Computer.
Dub Side was in the US reggae charts for over five years. According to the group's Michael Goldwasser, this kind of success ensured that Easy Star All-Stars were able to get permission to cover The Beatles, whose publishers are ultra-protective (just ask Danger Mouse). “It wasn't so difficult, it took a while but, luckily, we have a track record because of Dub Side... and Radiodread, so the publishers took us much more seriously than if we were just saying, 'This is gonna be our first album, we wanna do The Beatles.' They heard what we did before, they knew that we had some success and that we treated the music with respect and very seriously. We weren't gonna make a joke of The Beatles by doing this. In that regard, I don't think it was much of a problem, but, when you're dealing with a huge company like The Beatles' publishers, it can take a while for the process to work out. But they were very co-operative and supportive and, indeed, I think they're excited about the project as well.”
Easy Star All-Stars grew out of the New York reggae label Easy Star Records in 1997, the band conceived by co-founders Goldwasser, Eric Smith and Lem Oppenheimer. Goldwasser is the most hands-on. He's the producer, arranger and musical director - and he plays guitar. The line-up is otherwise fluid. Easy Star All-Stars have cut original material - notably last year's EP Until That Day - but they're best known for covers.
Easy Star don't rush albums. They contemplated Sgt Pepper's for some years. “The idea first came during the recording sessions with Dub Side.... Our drummer just joked, 'Next time out we gotta do Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Dub Band.' The idea stuck in my head. Then, when it came time to choose our second album, we were considering Sgt Pepper's as well, but we decided we wanted to go for something completely unexpected, like covering OK Computer, which I really don't think anyone would have thought we were gonna do. But Sgt Pepper's was still a candidate. Then, when it came time to decide on a third album, we were thinking of lots of different things. We probably seriously considered 15 or 20 different albums - [but] we kept coming back to Sgt Pepper's.
“Really, it's not about The Beatles so much as the album Sgt Pepper's. We have to start with a great album - and a good concept album. We don't wanna just do a collection of songs. It's gotta be something that has some cohesiveness to it and makes sense. A lot of people have covered The Beatles, and there have been many reggae covers of The Beatles' hits, but this was a chance to do a whole album - and especially an album where a lot of the songs haven't been heavily covered. I don't think there are a lotta covers out there of Fixing A Hole or Good Morning Good Morning, so we thought that would be a great chance to pay tribute to The Beatles, but in a very different way than most bands usually do.”
With Easy Stars' Lonely Hearts Dub Band, Goldwasser has secured impressive guests, among them recent Australian visitor Michael Rose of Black Uhuru fame, dancehall icon Luciano, and Hasidic Jewish star Matisyahu, while old collaborators (Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul) reappear. Rose sings A Day In The Life. “He was good to work with. It took a little while to get it going. Part of it was he didn't really know the song yet and I think he didn't quite understand what a great song it is and how important the song is to so many people. But, once he got that, then it was much easier for him to turn in an amazing performance.”
The most challenging song to cover, Goldwasser says, was, in fact, A Day In The Life because of its “grandiosity.” However, approaching Sgt Pepper's was an easier prospect than OK Computer as it's “less musically complex.”
Goldwasser is reluctant to divulge the other albums they discussed remaking prior to settling on Sgt Pepper's. “Our policy is to not reveal those things, because there may be something that we've half done, but then we may revisit it and decide we do wanna put that out,” he teases. “We want everything we do to be a surprise. So we really don't talk about what's coming next, or what we may have passed on in deciding to do this album, 'cause the next album that comes out, whenever it comes out, we wanna be able to reveal it on our own terms.”
He's also wary of copycats. “We take a long time to make each album because we really just wanna put a lot of work into it, but it would stink if we said, ‘We're doing album XYZ,' and then, by the time we actually had it ready, someone else had already done their own cheapo version of it and put it out and ruined everything for us.”
Until 2003, and Dub Side, Easy Star were a studio band, although its members performed with the label's other acts. They've since played some unlikely gigs, including the wedding of a NY mayor's daughter. The band are bound for Australia, ahead of their first Glastonbury, but Goldwasser won't be accompanying them. He sits out tours to focus on studio work, producing the likes of Israel's Hatikva 6. Currently, he's plotting a Dub Side remix album with the input of various electronic producers. Nevertheless, Michael promises a tight show. “We're gonna heavily feature songs from this new album but, because we've never been to Australia before, we certainly wanna play a whole lotta songs from Dub Side and Radiodread as well. We know we have a lot of fans in Australia who wanna hear that stuff, too. It's a mix of those three albums and then also some originals written by people in the band.”
WHO: Easy Star All-Stars
WHAT: Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band through MGM / Play Byron Bay Bluesfest 2009; Manning Bar
WHEN: Out now / Monday 13 April / Thursday 16 April