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Easy Star All-Stars

There can scarcely be a music fan that did not encounter the Easy Star All-Stars' roots reggae take on Pink Floyds Dark Side Of The Moon entitled - well what else really but Dub Side Of The Moon - whilst wandering around more or less any festival back in 2003/2004. This inspired reinterpretation was so popular that it then led onto equally fine versions of Radiohead's OK Computer (Radiodread in 2006) and the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band in 2008) - plus a cracking dub version of Dark Side... entitled Dubber Side Of The Moon in 2010. So, with their rootsy take on Michael Jackson's Thriller (Thrillah) due out very soon we fired off a bunch of questions to the main man behind the mixing desk, the band and the label, Michael Goldwasser, beginning with did he come from a musical background?

Michael: “While neither of my parents were musicians, they were great music lovers and we always listened to music together as a family. All different styles - jazz, classical, Latin, soul, rock, folk, African, pop, Jewish music.”

Total Music: What are your earliest musical memories and did you play in any bands?

Michael: “My earliest musical memory is probably my mother singing me Hebrew lullabies as a young child. I also remember a song that I wrote when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old - it's somewhat embarrassing musically, but the lyrics are actually somewhat insightful. I started my first band when I was 15 and I played in clubs and bars all around NYC throughout high school, which was great fun.”

Total Music: Where did your love of reggae come from?

Michael on-stageMichael: “Well, it comes from three different things. First of all, being Jewish, reggae made a lot of sense to me lyrically because a lot of Rasta (and therefore, reggae) iconography and concepts come from the Jewish Bible - Zion. the Lion of Judah, the Israelites making an exodus, etc. This is because Rastafari is deeply rooted in Jewish Scripture. So when I first started listening to Bob Marley and other roots artists I quickly recognized that some of the lyrics were quotes or interpolations of Biblical passages that were already familiar to me and I felt a kind of comfort with reggae. Reggae also appealed to me because from a young age I was concerned with social issues - fighting against injustice, inequality, and corruption - and roots reggae lyrics were often touching on these issues. Hearing an album like Handsworth Revolution by Steel Pulse for the first time really blew me away because they talked about their situation living in Birmingham but the lyrics had a real universality to them. Lastly, the basic rhythmic vibe of reggae hooked me immediately. Something about the way the bass and drums move and interact in all forms of reggae really speaks to me, which is part of why I've become adept at taking other styles of music and recreating them as reggae.”

Total Music: How did Easy Star Records come about?

Michael: “Back in the early/mid 90's, I used to spend a lot of time sitting around with my friends Eric Smith, Remy Gerstein, and Lem Oppenheimer (Lem and I were also flat-mates) listening to reggae and going to reggae shows. We seemed to often be lamenting the dearth of new quality reggae that we were hearing, so we finally decided to do it ourselves. And being the only musician of the bunch, I became the producer.”

Total Music: The Dark Side Of The Moon cover album Dub Side Of The Moon was an inspired idea how did you get the initial idea?

Michael: “I can't take credit for that - that was Lem's idea. He was a big fan of Dark Side Of The Moon, and one day in 1999, after we had been doing Easy Star for a few years, he was listening to the Pink Floyd album when the idea hit him - "hey, maybe this could work as reggae!". Inspiration from a thought-enhancing substance may have been involved...”

East Star All Stars

Total Music: Having done Pink Floyd so successfully your next choice, was a far less obvious choice given that Pink Floyd's music lends itself to dub far more readily than Radiohead's, so why OK Computer?

Michael: “Well, we wanted to do something that no one would expect. We also knew from the experience of doing Dub Side Of The Moon that it was important to do a great album where all of the songs were varied and interesting in their own ways. We also liked that OK Computer was sometimes referred to as a 90's analogue to Dark Side Of The Moon because of its progressive and experimental nature. And it didn't hurt that we had heard that Dub Side... was being played over the PA before or after Radiohead concerts.”

Total Music: Your next cover project (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) was an even braver leap into the unknown, did The Beatles need a more radical approach than previous projects?

Michael: “One of the reasons that we wanted to tackle Sgt. Peppers... was to get the chance to apply our methodology and sound to a very different kind of record. The first two albums that we did were mostly dark minor-key affairs, but reggae also has an equally important major-key, pop side, and we wanted to explore that. But really, it was the same overall approach - what would the original album have sounded like had it been recorded and mixed in Jamaica in the late 70's/early 80's.”

Total Music: How do you feel your 'non-cover' projects like First Light and Until That Day sit alongside your more high profile (as far as the press are concerned at least) cover albums?

Michael: “I love the original projects, too. As a producer, it is a very different challenge to do originals vs. covers and I enjoy the different approaches that I have to take. It's hard to compare them though - they are almost like different genres to me. But if you listen to them together, I think that you can get a sense of what we're about as a whole.”

Total Music: Many of our readers will be unaware that you do a lot of production work outside the Easy Star All-Stars reinterpretations (like a complete dub version of Rebelution's Peace Of Mind album and remixes for Yoko Ono, Umphrey’s McGee, and Tommy T of Gogol Bordello). Can you tell us about some of the projects you have worked on that you are most proud of?

Michael: “That's tough - I've worked on so many cool things. I'd say that one of the projects that I'm most proud of is the album Hatikva 6 that I produced for the band [of the same name] in Israel. I really love them as a band and as people, and by producing their debut album I was able to really raise their profile, as the first single ('Im Epgosh Et Elohim' translated is 'If I Meet My God') became a big radio hit over there. Since then, they've released three more albums and have become pretty popular. I'm also really proud of an album that I produced for Corey Harris called Zion Crossroads. He is thought of more as a blues/roots artist, but he is also a follower of Rastafari and he loves reggae, so it was great to help him explore that side of himself. Shortly after we did the album, he received a MacArthur 'Genius' Award - so I can honestly say that I produced an album for a genius! ”

Total Music: On the face of it Michael Jackson's Thriller would seem to lend itself far more easily to a reggae interpretation, why did you choose this instead of something more unlikely like Pet Sounds?

Michael: “Well, it would have been too easy for us to do yet another rock or pop/rock album - we want to keep things a bit unpredictable. And I thought that it was important to tackle an R&B album because R&B, and black American music in general, has been so important to the development of reggae. I think that there are a lot of younger reggae fans (at least in the U.S.) that don't really get that connection - they like the current crop of more rock-influenced American reggae bands, and Bob Marley of course, but they haven't been exposed to the deeper roots yet.
And I wouldn't say that Thriller was easier to adapt - it was a whole new challenge of trying to take an already danceable album and find ways to make it danceable in ways that were different from the original. So it leant itself to re-interpretation for the same reasons as the first three albums - it's a great album filled with interesting and diverse songs. But the adaptation part was still a lot of work. ”

Michael at work behind the mixing desk

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