Michael Goldwasser of reggae supergroup, Easy Star All Stars ventured through the aftermath of hurricane Sandy to talk to us about their forthcoming UK tour, which includes a show at York’s The Duchess on November 7th. The New York based group have released four tribute albums to date, covering Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Radiohead and most recently, Michael Jackson’s seminal album ‘Thriller’. The band has pulled through the storm and is raring to begin their 16-date UK tour, where the most adverse weather condition that they are likely to face is a little drizzle.
What’s the situation like in New York at the moment?
“Crazy! I think four and a half million people lost power, including me and we only just got it back on this morning .The entire area looks devastated by the storm- there are trees everywhere and a lot of roads are blocked off. There are no traffic lights in some areas so driving is a bit treacherous! But we survived so…!”
So it will be a relief to start your 16 date UK tour?
“We’re looking forward to going somewhere safe and getting away from this storm!”
What are you looking forward to in particular?
“Well we love playing in the UK! I know it may sound trite but we’ve played the UK once or twice a year really and have done for the last 10 years. The crowds are always great, we love the people in general and we just love being there! So we’re definitely looking forward to this tour”
And what about York?
“We’ve played York before and it’s always a great crowd. We hope to see some of the fans we’ve made friends with over the years”.
Why is it so important for you to tour in the UK?
“The UK is an important music market. Next to the US it’s the most important place we could play in terms of demand and having fans there. Our first three tribute albums were tributes to British bands so there’s a connection there. Also, for me personally, I’m a really big fan of UK reggae and I have been since I was a kid. As a producer, songwriter and musician, I’ve been very much influenced by bands such as Steel Pulse and I’ve had the pleasure of working with bands such as Aswad and Matumbi who were very important in creating the UK reggae sound in the 70s. I look to the UK as much as I look to Jamaica in terms of where my musical influence comes from”
When you’re choosing an album to cover, do you look for specific qualities?
“Yes, definitely. When we’re looking at albums, we’re looking for albums where every song is interesting and diverse and could make a good reggae version. We wouldn’t want to do an album where there are two amazing songs but the others are just OK. We always want to do something different and, since we’ve done rock and pop on the first three albums, we thought it would be great to base an album on an R&B album because American R&B was very influential towards the development of Jamaican music, even before reggae and it is up to this day. There is a big connection between American R&B and Jamaican music and I think that this is lost for a lot of people.”
What does Thriller mean to you personally?
“Thriller to me personally is an album that I’ve loved since it came out and it was really a great experience for me to listen as more than a fan, as an arranger and a producer. I had to get into each song and deconstruct it in my head and really analyse the song writing. It allowed me to really understand Michael Jackson better as a vocalist. Although he is iconic and maybe the most famous pop star in the world, I think his musicianship is often overlooked. He did things with his voice that no one had done before. I’ve always been a fan but after analysing this album in so much detail, I have a lot more respect for him now. “
Do you find that any genres lend themselves particularly well to reggae or are any particularly hard?
“It’s not so much about genre, it’s more about the actual songs. Each album we’ve covered has had its own problems. I’ve never really thought about doing something like speed metal as reggae but I’ve got a feeling that it would be a little difficult! But I’m open to any challenge- basically it’s all about great songs. I like to think that there is no genre of music that I could not turn into reggae but we have yet to see!”
Do you have any favourite songs to perform live?
“Oh, wow! I think my favourite song to perform live, and we don’t do it so much these days, is ‘Exit Music – for a Film’ from our album Radiodread.It was sung on our album by Sugar Minott who passed away a couple of years ago. We were pretty close and we’ve done a lot of work with him. I think he did such an amazing job in the studio on performing this song and making it his own. It was seeing greatness happening, just watching his face while he was singing. Whenever we perform it now, I remember that and it makes me feel really good. It also just happens that I like the song and I like the way our version came out.
Which song gets the best audience response?
“There’s quite a few that the crowds really seem to love! I’d say that the tops are probably ‘Money’ from ‘Dub side of the Moon’, ‘Karma Police’ from ‘Radiodread’ and ‘With a little help from my friends’ from ‘Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band’ and from the new album I’d probably say ‘Billie Jean’.
Obviously, Michael Jackson can’t give you any feedback but in the past have you had any response from the artists on your covers?
“Yeah, it’s been so cool! With all these albums we work very closely with the publishers and management of the band to make sure they’re happy. In 2003, Roger Waters sent us a fax- it was so funny! It just said ‘I received your album but it is my policy not to comment on covers of my work’. But it was signed by him and I thought it was really cool that Roger Waters had acknowledged our existence! A few years later, we heard David Gilmour saying on the radio that he finds our album great fun so we know that David is cool with it! With our Radiohead project, we know that all the members of Radiohead really enjoyed it and they invited us to one of their shows in New York where I got to meet them. The best thing is that at one of their shows, it’s reported that Thom Yorke said from the stage that he really loves our version of ‘Let Down’. Having seen Radiohead, I know that Thom Yorke doesn’t say much from stage so it’s pretty amazing that he said that! We haven’t had any response from the surviving members of the Beatles or their families although we do know that George Harrison’s son is a big fan of Dub Side of the Moon! We’ve not heard anything from Michael Jackson’s family but I hope that, even if people don’t like what we’ve done, they’d understand that we’ve done it with a lot of love and respect and that’s important to me.”
What about Michael Jackson fans – have you had any response from them?
“Yeah, so far everyone’s been really positive! I think if you’re a Michael Jackson fan, even a huge mega-fan, you’d respect something like this which is truly a tribute to Michael and his music. A lot of the musicians who played on the album are big Michael Jackson fans so we were all really excited to play this stuff together. I’m sure there will be some people who say that you can’t mess with Michael Jackson but overall most of these people enjoy what we’ve done”
Do you think you’ve inspired some people who would usually listen to reggae to listen to different genres, or vice versa?
“Oh, definitely and that’s been our goal since the beginning. We know from experience – from emails or meeting people at concerts – that we’ve got a lot of people into reggae! We’ve met guys in their sixties who are huge Pink Floyd fans who used to hate reggae who have listened to ‘Dub Side of the Moon’ and realised that reggae can be really cool and have started listening to it out of choice! We’ve met loads of people like that so I feel like we’ve done some good work in terms of breaking down barriers and changing peoples’ minds about music, which is really important to us”
What about the future – what are your plans?
“We want to do both originals and covers. As everyone knows, its really tough to sell records these days! We have to be really judicious in what we decide to do. If we think we can do an album of originals again, enough to break even at least, then that would be something to consider because, although this series of cover albums has been a great way for us to spread reggae vibes, we want to express ourselves too in terms of writing and putting out our own material.
Easy Star All Stars will be playing at Duchess on 7th November. For more info on the show, click here.