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Easy Star All Stars

Written by Corinne O'Keefe on March 5, 2009

Having already blown us away with their two previous albums Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread (reggae covers of Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer respectively) and with a national tour and release of their third album Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band (no points for guessing what that’s a cover of), new addition to the Music Feed fold Corinne O’Keefe sits down with head honcho Michael Goldwasser to discuss the band’s ‘higher’ points.

To begin with, if you read nothing more of this article, let it be known, that it is okay to smoke some grass. In fact, god wants you to, and that’s why he made it.

Now, the better half of us have known this fact for years, but for the rest of us, it takes that special someone, that mentor, that guiding light to reassure us that our recreational habits are not as destructive and unforgiving as our stepmothers have made them out to be, that despite our chip strewn fold out beds, and glazed-up eyes, we are the unmistakable image of those on the road to enlightenment. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you this guiding light, this constant force of reassurance, the new friend of us all – Michael Goldwasser.

Alongside advocating our long incubated social habits, ‘herb comes from the gound man, God put it there for us to smoke,” Michael Goldwasser is dub extraordinaire, and big cheese of reggae cover collective Easy Star All-Stars, hailing from the well-entrenched New York music scape. More recently, and amongst the heat of the anticipated release of All-Star’s third awaited album, Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, Michael has been dabbling in some not-so-top-secret, but still rather confidential, freelance music projects- the details of which I’m holding above you.

When I asked Michael if he considered himself a workaholic, the answer I read back when transcribed, ran something like this, “Ah, you know, I enjoy making music… I don’t consider myself an alcoholic.” Though not wholly accurate to what we had discussed, this made me snicker. In truth, Michael is a well-rounded figure, who enjoys spending time with his family, and the occasional long walk along the beach. No really, he’s a man not afraid to get the job done, even if it means three long years of hard work – which is how long it took to record, mix and produce the arrangements on Dub Side of the Moon.

Sitting with Michael now, newly chip-dust free and strong-postured, he oozes the kind of charisma that most of us can only dream of. What started as a studio project some twelve years ago, has taken the form of a musical dream – the kind of record and tour oasis, which for the rest of us, turns out to be a mirage upon approaching. Nevertheless, the ease with which he downplays these achievements is for the large part, overwhelming.  “You know, anyone could just throw together some reggae, but you can’t do it that way”. I tried to imagine myself “throwing together some reggae”, an image which I found both unsettling, and cruel. A person like me does not just throw together some reggae.

When I asked Michael to elaborate on his musical practice and the enormity of appropriating and rearranging some of music’s finest concept records, I’m told, “the thing is, what we do is not so much about songs, as about albums. What I have to really do when I start the whole process of an album is really listen to the whole album a lot and think about how it’d work as a whole, because if I just concentrate on each song on its own it could wind up being an album where every song sounds kinda the same, and I really don’t want that. I want every song to have it’s own role in the album and every song to sound distinct.”

“So a lot of what I do in the beginning of writing arrangements is just listening and thinking, you know, with certain songs I didn’t come up with the final arrangements for months, but I need to take that time to make sure I come up with something really interesting.”

So step one for throwing together some cover album reggae: reads listen. Listen a lot. I ask Michael (plead actually) to divulge step number two of the DIY dub guide. I relay it now to you in confidence, use it wisely and to great effect.

“Well, one of the main things is that in order to make a successful adaptation of any album you have to start with great source material. Sgt. Peppers is such a great and well loved album, but every song on it is interesting in its own way. Also, we really like to stick with the idea of a concept album such as Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer.”

“We always want to challenge ourselves and do something different and unlike Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer, Sgt. Peppers is a collection of pop-orientated songs. A lot of them are very short, very tightly constructed, and very different vibe to the first two albums, so we thought it’d be cool if we tried taking it in a different direction.”

Speaking of their new album, to be gracing our shores this April, I pose the question of whether the arrangements on the original Beatles album, played a hand at all in lending itself to a wider range of vocalists, as was employed by the Easy Star All-Stars in their Lonely Hearts Dub Band cover takes.

“You know I wasn’t really thinking in that regard… like the concept of George, Paul, John or Ringo, even, it’s just so much more interesting having all these different artists interpret classic songs. I mean we could do a great album with one singer throughout the whole album as well but it think it’s interesting to have different people involved.”

Looking over the group’s first two albums, Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread, it’s easy to see how this method has carried over from the project’s inception, not as a product of the source album, but as a process independent from it. However, as stated by the man himself, “what is interesting about this particular album is that, the Beatles, all of them except for Ringo, were high-tenors…compared to a normal male voice, which is more like a low tenor or baritone, so it was certainly a challenge to find all the right singers.”

It intrigues me somewhat, how and when Michael will draw the line of his own re-visioning. “You see I didn’t want to change the key of these songs. I felt that it would sound the best if it were all the same key as the originals. So I had to find singers who could really push the upper limits of their range and, certainly, some of the artists on the album haven’t sung that high in quite a while.”

Feeling sadly like our time was drawing to a near and fated close, I ask Michael when I can see him again. Apparently the man also draws the line at unwarranted affection. Turning away from me he mumbles some excuse like, “I’ve kind of relinquished my touring duties”, to which I probably responded with some heart-shattered eye watering, and a downward shifting glance. This he might of picked up on, as he hastily made to round off his initial cold reasoning with, “my main role now with the band is just to help them learn material and rehearse with them and really get this stuff to sound amazing live, so by the time we get to Australia, you know its gonna be a great show.”

Figuring now that I had nothing left to lose; I summon what’s left of my remaining courage to go for one last golden ticket- “can you at least put me on the door?” To this I’m told with similar skills of aversion, “We have a separate road manager who takes care of those things now”.

Was I wrong in thinking that’s a ‘no’?

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