Backstage: An Easy Star All-Star Story
SETTING THE STAGE
The Easy Star All-Stars are the brainchild of reggae record label Easy Star Records co-founders Michael Goldwasser, Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer and Remy Gerstein. The All-Stars are best known as a tribute band, covering some of music’s greatest albums. The band’s first release, the cleverly named “Dub Side of the Moon,” is a reggae and dub spin on Pink Floyd’s classic “Dark Side of the Moon.” The All-Stars followed-up in 2006 with “Radiodread,” a tribute to Rabiohead’s “Ok Computer.” The band has covered the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and released their first album of originals in 2011, entitled “First Light.” With a diverse line-up of talent and solid musicianship, the All-Stars have become a hallmark in the modern day reggae scene for their unique ability to “reggae-fy” classic rock, alternative, and now, pop-R&B albums.
In 2012 the All-Stars took on, arguably, their greatest challenge to date—to give Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album a reggae face-lift. Not only is “Thriller” a classic pop album, it is probably the greatest pop album of all-time, featuring some of the most recognizable and timeless songs in music history. The musical influence of the album can’t be overstated, nor completely understood. Since the album’s release 30-years ago, songs like “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It” have been on repeat across the world. Appropriately titled “Thrillah,” the All-Star’s album features creative twists on the classic songs and an impressive list of collaborators, including reggae legends Michael Rose of Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse, as well as up-and-comers The Green and Cas Haley. Building on the success of their previous tribute albums, “Thrillah” is the band’s first attempt at “deconstructing” a pop album, and rebuilding it as reggae.
While the Easy Star All-Stars are a “studio” band, they are also a “touring band.” I was fortune to sit down with all eight members of the band before their set at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver, CO. The “green room” at Cervantes isn’t exactly green. As a matter of fact, it can barely be considered a room—especially one that comfortably holds nine people. However, the cozy confines lent itself to a discussion that spanned topics like the challenges of translating “Thrillah” live and staying true to MJ’s songs while giving them the All-Star twist.
FROM THE STUDIO TO THE VENUE: Taking “Thrillah” on the Road
Similar to the band’s other albums, the All-Stars found unique ways to give “Thriller” a makeover in the studio. This reggae makeover led to some challenges when playing the album in a live setting. For example, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” has a distinct afro-beat rhythm. “We do the song in afro-beats, which is really cool. The entire band is around afro-beat players, but as a band we have never played to an afro-beat groove. So, this is a cool and developing challenge for us…it’s a completely different feel for us,” says drummer Ivan Katz.
In addition to the rhythm challenges, “Thrillah” was recorded with multi-layered tracks, particularly in the horn section and the keyboard parts. “As the horn section we had to basically take lines or synthesizer parts, or six horns, and reduce them to two (parts). So, we had to pick out the juicy notes to play….we have to be three times as juicy to make it sound fat and full, ha!” says trombone player Buford O’Sullivan and saxophonist Jenny Hill. Keyboardist and vocalist Elenna Canlas explains, “Translating the album to live setting can be challenging, because there are so many parts that are multi-tracked and we have to reduce it to one person’s job…so, it can be a challenge.”
“Thrillah” is overflowing with collaborators, like Michael Rose, Steel Pulse, Luciano, Mojo Morgan, The Green, Cas Haley and others. In fact, 9 of the 11 songs on the album feature a collaborator. Rose’s unmistakable voice is the cornerstone to “Beat It,” while The Green lend multi-piece harmonies to “Baby Be Mine.”
So, if the album is built on collaborators, and those collaborators aren’t going on tour with the All-Stars, how will the songs translate live? This is a challenge that the All-Stars have always faced, given that collaborators are a part of the studio formula. The band’s onstage presence and musicianship helps fans forget about the studio collaborators. “All of our lead singers have amazing stage presence. So, when they’re out there singing I think the audience is focused on their energy, and probably forget about who is singing on the album.” Says Hill. “…the majority of our fans are so used to hearing us sing the songs live, that they aren’t attached to the way the song sounds on the records. It rarely comes up like, ‘where is this person (collaborator) or that person.”
With so many songs to choose from, it is a challenge to create the set list, because even though the band is working out the new material live, fans still want to hear songs from the All-Stars’ other albums, like “Dub Side of the Moon” or the band’s originals. A part of this challenge is left to guitarist and musical director Shelton Garner. “It’s a challenge because it’s not just me (creating the set-list), there are also four guys who run the label, and they each have their own albums that are so close to them. Each one wants this song on the set list, or that song on the set list. So, you gotta match that with what we like to play, with what the audience likes and the occasional birthday request—it’s a huge pot of songs,” explains Garner. In fact, because the pot is so large the band has yet to play “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady In My Life” live—but, as they continue to work through the album these songs will make it into the set list
GIVING THRILLAH THE ALL-STAR TWIST: Giving the Classic Songs a New Identity
One of the interesting aspects of being a “tribute” or cover band is the balance between changing a recognizable song just enough to make it “yours” and keeping it recognizable. Additionally, when you add in the fact that the All-Stars routinely take on classic albums, the balance is even more important. However, the All-Stars have a proven ability to successfully strike this balance and reinvent timeless songs. “Playing the songs in a reggae groove is like reinventing them. MJ’s songs are so incredible and have been covered by so many people. But, we feel like we are not just a cover band because we are putting it down over a reggae groove—that’s our flavor and how we make them different,” saying Katz.
In addition to the reggae groove, the All-Star vocalists bring their own styles to the songs. “Certainly, MJ has his own attitude and his own thing going on, so bringing my flavor to the songs and not trying to duplicate what he did is important…I do my own thing. People don’t want to hear you doing Michael Jackson… (people want to see) you bring your own flavor to the songs,” says vocalist Kirsty Rock.
For the All-Stars, experience has taught them that every song is constantly evolving and taking on its own identity. Not surprisingly, the band expects and welcomes this process with “Thrillah.” “We had the same challenge with ‘Dub Side.’ Just like the other albums, there will be a time when we will have our own identity. Over time, the more we do it (play Thrillah) live, the songs become more us….the more it will become our own. We are adding things into the songs that were never planned—something’s may pass, but others will stick. There is a lot of room, for a lot more morphing,” saying bassist Ras IRAY.
WHATS NEXT: A Bob Marley Tribute Album?
The Easy Star All-Stars are currently on the road in the support of “Thrillah.” The band has several stops in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Even as the band enjoys the moment, they are always looking ahead. “I hope that we are able to create more original material. I think that everybody in the band is professional. It’s a pleasure for me to be around such great musicians. So, I hope later on that we can have original stuff coming from each one of us…maybe the next album or album after that,” says vocalist Ruff Scott.
While there aren’t any definitive plans for the All-Star’s next album there is clearly one artist the band won’t be taking on—probably ever. “I can tell you what we won’t be doing. One of the fans asked if we would ever do a Bob Marley tribute album. I wondered to myself, ‘How are we going to reinterpret Bob Marley into a reggae style?’ Ha! Ha!” saxophonist Jenny Hill says sarcastically.
Article & Photos By: Kit Chalberg
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Easy Star All-Star’s Thrillah on iTunes by clicking HERE