Formed by Michael Goldwasser, Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer and Remy Gerstein in 1997, the Easy Star All Stars were originally conceived as a studio band, consisting of a rotating collective of NYC-based reggae musicians and vocalists for Easy Star Records, the label that Goldwasser co-founded in 1996. Shortly after the Easy Star All-Stars formed, the band had recorded a number of tracks that Goldwasser had written with the idea that they’d initially be released as singles and then as a compilation album, Easy Star, Volume 1.
And in the 18 years since Easy Star Records’ founding, the label has developed a reputation for pushing the boundaries of modern, contemporary reggae as artists such as John Brown’s Body, the Black Seeds, Ticklah, and Tommy T, as well as legends, the Meditations and Sister Carol have called the label their home. However, it’s the label’s house band that has put the label on the map internationally. In fact, three of the Easy Star All Stars efforts, Dub Side of the Moon, a reggae interpretation of Pink Floyd’s classic, Dark Side of the Moon; Radiodread, reggae interpretations of Radiohead; and Easy Stars’ Lonely Dub Hearts Band, a reggae interpretation of the Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper are not only some of the label’s best known and beloved releases, they are among independent reggae’s top-selling releases. And yet it’s Dub Side of the Moon that has proven to be the New York-based band’s seminal and most popular effort. Interestingly, I can still remember the first time I heard the album. I was sitting in the LIC Bar, drinking a pint of Guinness and waiting for a singer/songwriter showcase to start, when I heard Dub Side and I can remember that it made an impression on me: at the time I thought it was a pretty cool, and very fun idea. Granted, considering the rhythms and chord progressions a reggae interoperation of the material of Dark Side isn’t a stretch of the imagination.
But repeated listens actually reveals how incredible the Easy Stars All-Stars’ Dub Side of the Moon is as it’s an album that manages to cover it’s source material lovingly, including the key points that everyone would remember from Dark Side but without religious reverence that would prevent them from putting their unique and playful take on the material. And although the album was released ten years ago, the album manages to be as vibrant, playful and as necessary as ever.
Easy Stars All Stars have been commemorating the tenth anniversary of Dub Side’s release with a lengthy tour, that will have them stopping by Brooklyn Bowl with John Brown’s Body next week. And this will also coincide with the release of a special tenth anniversary edition of the album.
I recently spoke with the Easy Star All-Stars’ Michael Goldwasser at length about Dub Side, the Dub Side Anniversary tour and how they go about choosing which artist and album they’d pay homage to in a very revealing Q&A. And Goldwasser offers some really great advice for any artist trying to make it.
Check it out below.
Photo by: Jammi York (L-R: Jenny Hill – sax, Elenna Canlas – keys/vocals, Buford O’Sullivan (in back) – trombone, Ruff Scott – vocals. Ras Iray – bass/vocals, Shelton Garner Jr. (in back) – guitar/vocals, Michael Goldwasser – guitar. Ivan Katz (in back) – drums, Kirsty Rock – vocals)
Photo by: Jammi York
WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was your calling?
Michael Goldwasser: I can’t remember ever not being into music. My parents always had different kinds of music playing and it was a big part of my life from my earliest days. I wrote my first song when I was about 7 or 8 (I still remember part of it) and I started teaching myself to play guitar at around 13. I don’t know if I ever considered it a “calling” per se, but by the time I was 16 playing in clubs and bars around NYC and I definitely envisioned doing music as a career.
WRH: How did the band meet?
MG: The band first came together as strictly a studio thing. I had co-founded Easy Star Records in 1996 and we started recording tracks that I had written soon thereafter, with the idea of releasing them as singles and then as a compilation cd, which wound up being our first release, Easy Star Volume One. So every time I needed to produce a session, I would get together other musicians from the NY reggae scene to play on it, and the musicians varied according to the needs of the song or even just who was available. It was always me on guitar and Victor Axelrod a.k.a. Ticklah on keys, and then whomever else we needed to fill out the group. Since we wanted to help brand the label, we decided to refer to the band as the Easy Star All-Stars. The lineup of the touring band, including the current cast of players, is primarily made up of musicians that I’ve known for a long time, some of whom were even involved in some of Easy Star’s earliest sessions.
WRH: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is arguably one of the most beloved and popular albums of the past 50 years. I recently saw a stat that said that 1 in every 12 people own a copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side. So you’re talking about an album that many people know – often knowing every single note, every single utterance. How did you manage to reverently adhere to the spirit of the album while rearranging the material in a way to create a new interpretation? Was there any point as you were going about rearranging the material when you wondered if it wasn’t going to work? Has anyone from Pink Floyd contacted you another the album?
MG: I think that one of the reasons that Dub Side of the Moon worked out the way that it did was that I did not have any real reverence for the album. I had a lot of respect for the album and what it meant to people, but I tried to approach the process more as just a musical challenge. Ticklah (who co-produced the album with me) and I were determined to make a good reggae album, but to also use as many of the key melodic and harmonic elements from the original as possible. I think that we knew relatively early on that it would work – the question was more whether fans of the original album would be cool with what we did.
We have received some contact from Pink Floyd. Roger Waters sent us a fax thanking us for sending him the album, but also saying that it’s his policy not to comment on covers of his work. Clare Torry, who sang on the original “The Great Gig In the Sky” called us and wound up becoming quite an Easy Star All-Stars fan, even coming to see us in the UK. And while this doesn’t count as contacting us, we did hear David Gilmour saying on BBC Radio that he thought that our album was “great fun” and that he had wished that he had seen us on our last trip to London.
WRH: Why Dark Side of the Moon?
MG: Several reasons. First of all, we thought that it would be good to make a splash and do something that a lot of people would know and that was also considered a great work of art. Musically, it seemed like it could translate to reggae since the tempos were pretty in line with reggae and the chord structures generally could work with reggae bass lines. And there was a lot of space for dub effects. Lyrically, a lot of the songs spoke to universal issues that could make sense when transferred to a Jamaican milieu. And then there is the fact that both Pink Floyd and reggae have associations with drugs of some sort….
WRH: What makes Dub Side of the Moon so interesting to me is how the band at times faithfully recreates some of Dark Side’s ambiance and tone, while playing with listener’s expectations – and it works remarkably well. In particular, in “Money,” David Gilmour’s great guitar solo is replaced with a reggae break and instead of the cash register motif at the beginning, you have a guy smoking a bong; the guitar solo on “Time” is also replaced by a reggae break; whereas “Us and Them” and “Any Colour You Like” are fairly faithful to original for example. How did you come up with some of the ideas on the album that really play with expectations?
MG: We just wanted to make the album as authentically reggae as possible. So it made sense to replace Gilmour’s solos with more traditional reggae elements such as chatting and trombone. And we wanted to reference the key moments of the original that everyone loves, but we still wanted to reggae-fy them, hence replacing the cash register with the bong.
WRH: Dub Side is arguably one of your better known albums. Have you ever felt as though everything you’ve released since then has been compared to Dub Side? How do you combat that?
MG: I think that Dub Side is hands down our best known album, and that makes a lot of sense since it was groundbreaking, and since it covered such a well-loved album. So of course, every subsequent album has been compared to it, and I have no problem with that. I personally feel that each album after Dub Side has continued to explore the subgenre that we’ve created in new and interesting ways, so I don’t think that we need to combat the comparisons – we’ve just got to keep making compelling music.
WRH: You’re touring to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Dub Side of the Moon’s release. What brought that about? Do you see the band touring to commemorate the 10th, the 15th, the 20th anniversary of the album? How has the response been for the tour so far? (ED Note: I stand corrected – the tour is for the 10th anniversary of the album, not the 5th.)
MG: It’s actually a tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the album. We’ve been touring pretty consistently since the album’s release, and over the years we would periodically bust out a full play of the album for special occasions. The response was always great, and we figured that an anniversary like this would be a good reason to do some touring with the full album. The response has been amazing – it is really nice to see the fans taking the full journey to the Dub Side with us once again. I have no idea if we’ll do other tours like this for other anniversaries, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
WRH: Each of your albums focus on a re-interpretation of a particular album. How do you figure which album and artists you’ll focus on?
MG: It’s an arduous process. We want to cover albums that are great from beginning to end and that have some kind of “album” vibe to them, not just a collection of songs. We also want to try to do something different each time out. And we want to do albums that have a real following so that fans will take notice. We probably spend a year of just bandying about ideas and carefully considering every song on each album before coming to any decisions.
WRH: What advice would you give for artists trying to make a name for themselves? Is there anything you’d likely do again if given the chance?
MG: One really important thing is for artists to try to have their own voice and not try to sound like someone else or be what they’re not. While it’s true that sometimes major labels seem to be looking for artists that sound just like what is popular at the moment, I think that the artists that really wind up mattering are the ones that are being true to their artistic vision, and especially if they have something unique about them. On a practical level, if you are an artist trying to make a name for yourself, you need to work your ass off – you can’t expect things to come easily. I often advise artists to be willing to just get in a van and tour like crazy, even if they can’t make any real money from it yet. Play wherever you can whenever you can, and if you are really good, the crowds will grow and the buzz will build. And one more important piece of advice – learn as much as you can about the business side of the music industry, especially publishing. In an ideal world, we could all just make music and not have to worry about the business, but realistically, artists need to be on top of their business if they want to be successful.