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Interview: Michael Goldwasser of Easy Star Records

Interview: Michael Goldwasser of Easy Star Records

Easy Star Records has a stable of fine modern reggae bands, like John Brown’s Body, the Black Seeds, and Ticklah, but they’re most well known for their reggae filtered cover albums. The label’s house band, the Easy Star All-Stars, made a huge popular impact with 2003’s Dub Side of the Moon, their tribute to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Their fourth tribute album, Thrillah tackles Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller.

I had the chance to talk to Michael Goldwasser, one of the founders of Easy Star Records. As the musical director for the label, he’s been a strong creative force, working up song arrangements and driving the label’s tribute albums.

First I want to say that I’ve really enjoyed Easy Star All-Stars’ music for quite some time now. It’s really cool to talk with you.

Great, man. It means a lot to me when I hear from someone who’s been following us for a while. I’ve been putting my whole life into this project for the last 16 years. So it’s good to know someone’s listening.

I think it’s great, too, that the label releases some really great reggae, which is near and dear to my heart.

Thank you.

One of the first things I wanted to ask you was about living in Israel. I caught this in one of your recent interviews and I was surprised.

I’ve kind of been back and forth over the last few years. I haven’t permanently moved, but I’m kind of there half the time. You know, I just feel like it’s a better place to raise my kids. It’s nice. Do you happen to be Jewish?

I am, actually.

Ok. So, for me, it’s still pretty cool to be somewhere where everyone can pronounce my last name (laughs) and the calendar isn’t about Christian holidays and stuff like that. It’s pretty cool to not be the other for the first time in my life. I really enjoy my time there. They like reggae music there and I’ve recorded stuff for Easy Star there. So, there’s really good vibes.

How has that affected your music? Have you been exposed to things you wouldn’t have heard otherwise?

Specific musicians and groups, definitely. In general, the music coming out of Israel, I’ve been following a real long time. But what it’s brought to me is the inspiration of working with some good musicians, getting new ideas and being somewhere where reggae is… In Israel, because people really don’t expect to make any money at it, they’re just doing it for the love. Whereas here, when you’re a musician, you are kind of hoping to make some money. Even in reggae. In Israel, people are really more like, “Let’s just make some great music. Let’s just do and not be just thinking about getting paid.” I think that was really a nice breath of fresh air for me to work with people like that.

I think here, in the US, it’s not just the “eyes on the prize” that you’re talking about. There are plenty of dedicated amateurs, I’m one myself, but there’s something about being around enough people who can create an active music scene, then you can do some really cool things.

Yeah. And there is really a great reggae scene in Israel. All different styles of reggae are represented. You’ve got ska, groups who specialize in early ‘60s ska, all the way up through dancehall artists who want to sound like whoever’s popular now. And the same thing with sound systems – you have sound systems that go all the way back, so they can play mento (Jamaican folk music), and then you have sound systems that can play whatever record was released in Jamaica yesterday. So, there’s a wide range of reggae there and a lot of enthusiasm for different types of reggae.

Let’s get into some questions about the band. I’ve read that the original idea for Dub Side of the Moon was Lem Oppenheimer’s.

Yeah, it was Lem’s idea. Lem’s not a member of the band, but he was one of the founders of Easy Star Records.

I’m curious about your perspective. What did you think when he first suggested it? Did you have any sense it would get as big as it did?

Definitely not! (laughs) I was skeptical. I got into reggae to make original reggae or to work with Jamaican artists and try to forward what I considered to be an authentic kind of reggae. So the idea of covering entire rock album had never crossed my mind before. It wasn’t what I set out to do. But Lem’s idea obviously turned out to be brilliant. I wrote basic arrangements for a few of the songs, just in my home studio, after we had batted around the idea of the project for a while. Then I realized that it really could work. It was a logical continuation of what I was doing. I just had to realize that.

And I think that working out the timing to match the original track lengths, to allow for the “Dub Side of the Rainbow” experience [synching the album with The Wizard of Oz] was another cool aspect of it.

Yeah, we wanted to make it fun in lots of different ways. We were pretty ambitious. Because there was no standard that we had to meet, in terms of full album covers in reggae, we tried to do what we felt was right.

I’ve heard in other interviews that you chose to follow with a cover of Radiohead’s Ok Computer because they were a modern Pink Floyd and then the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper to challenge yourself with major keys. Now, you’ve covered Michael Jackson’s Thriller. We’ll talk about the album in a moment, but how do you pick your targets? Do you take requests from people?

We get lots of suggestions, but we’re not actively looking for requests. Basically, there’s a pool of great albums out there that everyone is pretty much aware of. It’s not hard to find a good list of things to consider. The hard part is finding albums that we feel will work on every song and that will also yield interesting results. We don’t want to do the same album over and over again in terms of what it will sound like on our end. I don’t think we’re ever going to pick a completely obscure album just because we think it could sound really cool. The reality is that a lot of people would not care. The music is a big part of it, but it also has to be something that people would be interested in.

Right. You need to pick something with enough commercial appeal to attract the audience but also has the artistic appeal to make it worth bothering with.

Yes, exactly.

My dream target would be Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. That would make an awesome album.

I’m actually a big jazz fan. I would love, one day, to attempt something like that.

Getting back to Thrillah… Like the other cover albums, you catch the original feel and you still found something interesting to add, they weren’t slavish copies. In particular, I wanted to ask you about “Beat It.” That was probably one of my favorite tracks on the new album. Michael Jackson’s original has a dichotomy between the cheery, flippant pop attitude of the music and the seriousness of the lyrics. Your arrangement brought the music more in line with the message.

I’m glad you caught that. That was a big part of the intent. To me that song makes sense as kind of a lament about the gun violence that’s plagued Jamaica since the ‘70s. To me, it made sense in that regard. It made sense to slow it down and get this very dread, reggae feel instead of trying to match the up-tempo feel of the original. That’s totally what we were going for.

People who aren’t familiar with reggae assume it’s just a simple chank. Your artistic decisions, like mixing in a fair amount of dub, can really open up people’s minds about what reggae can do. I think the expressiveness you get on “Beat It” is a cool thing.

Thank you. One of our goals is not just to reach reggae fans, we want to reach fans from outside the reggae world and introduce them to reggae and show them that there’s some variety of different styles within reggae. On this album, I actually made it a point not to have any one-drop rhythms at all. To some people, all reggae is, is the one-drop beat. So I thought, “Let’s mix it up and use lots of different drum patterns.” But not a one-drop. We tried to get away from standard reggae.

Michael Jackson was such an iconic performer, much like the Beatles, Radiohead and Pink Floyd. When you started attacking this, what qualities were you hoping to pull out the most in this project?

I thought it would be futile to try to match Michael Jackson’s vocal prowess. We have some great guest vocalists, but Michael Jackson was an incredible singer with a five octave range. He had all these different ways of using his voice and he really came into his own with the album Thriller. To try to reach those highs would be impossible. So, instead, I wanted to get the overall vibes of Michael. The album Thriller is comprised of nine songs that are all very different from each other, in very interesting, different ways. There were several song writers involved, it wasn’t just Michael Jackson. Rod Temperton wrote three of the songs; he’s a highly acclaimed songwriter. Quincy Jones co-wrote one of the songs with James Ingram. Steve Porcaro and John Bettis wrote a song. So, there’s a lot of different vibes in there. I tried to bring out the different songwriting styles as well.

I know you had a lot of great guest contributors involved with the record. Are any of them touring with the band?

Several of the members of the touring band appeared on the record. Kirsty Rock, who has sung on all four of our tribute albums, is our lead female singer with the touring band. Ruff Scott, who appears on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is touring with the band right now. On a few shows, Cas Haley, who sings “Human Nature” and is a member of the greater Easy Star family will be performing “Human Nature” with us. If there are opportunities to have any of the other guest stars appear on stage with us, we’re going to try to make it happen. It’s always such a great thrill for the fans.

There are some great guests. I was familiar with Michael Rose, of course, and some of the other guests. But this album introduced me to some artists I didn’t know, like the Green.

Great! They’re a group of relatively young guys from Hawaii. We put out their last album last year, it’s called Ways & Means. They’re multi-talented, but one of the great things is that they’re four lead singers – four singers who harmonize well with each other and trade off leads. Unfortunately, it’s rare in reggae these days to have a group with so many powerful singers, so we’re really happy to work with them.

I’ve also reviewed your album of original music, First Light. Do you have any more original music in the pipeline?

Definitely everyone in the band writes and there’s always original music that could be recorded. It’s really more of a matter of finding the right time to work on it and put it out. Unfortunately, the music business is tougher and tougher. It’s harder to actually sell music, with this culture of people feeling like music shouldn’t be paid for anymore. So, every album we put out is a big financial risk for us. So if we put out an album of originals, which would probably not sell as well as our tribute albums, it’s a bigger risk. So we have to look at it carefully, but I certainly hope that we have another one sometime in the near future.

I hope so. When I first heard about First Light I thought the band might be trying to prove their real reggae cred. But listening to the album, there were some great moments.

Thank you. It was great fun to work on. It was great to put on a different producer’s hat than usual, in terms of approaching the original material. I wrote some of the songs, too, so it was great to put on my songwriter’s hat. I think it’s a great album, I’m really happy with it. To me, Thrillah is a logical extension of First Light in that on First Light, we explored a lot of the R&B roots that many of us in the band have already, which weren’t apparent on our efforts where we were paying tribute to classic rock albums. So, there’s definitely an R&B influence on First Light and then, of course, with Thriller being an R&B or R&B/pop album – to me, it’s a very logical extension.

I didn’t think of that until you mentioned it, but you’re right. I know one of the coolest things on First Light was the decision to do the same song twice, in two different genres with “Break of Dawn” and “In the Light.”

Yeah, originally, I was thinking to do a straight up R&B remix of “Break of Dawn” but then when we were messing around in the studio, we realized it would be much cooler to totally change the tempo and vibe entirely and even redo the vocals – have Joanne, the lead singer and composer of the lyrics, take a different approach. That was great fun for us when we did “In the Light.” It’s just a straight up R&B song, no real reggae influence at all. For us in the band, it made a lot of sense, because that’s what we listen to, too.

And hearing her voice do both songs shifts your thinking about the range of her singing style.

Definitely.

Thank very for your time and thank you for making some great music.

Wow, you’re welcome.

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