141 Spruce St. #2
Watertown, MA 02472 / 716-481-0476
The Aggrolites: We Want it Dirty...
The results might be what you could expect from this collaboration: more laid-back, more instrumental, darker,
and way hea...
of 2

Feature writing sample - Performer Magazine

Published on: Mar 3, 2016

Transcripts - Feature writing sample - Performer Magazine

  • 1. NATE LESKOVIC 141 Spruce St. #2 Watertown, MA 02472 / 716-481-0476 The Aggrolites: We Want it Dirty and Real (an excerpt from Performer Magazine, May 2011) By Nate Leskovic Too often now, genre designations/fabrications are just an exercise in wishful creativity or another way to say “these guys are doing something new and interesting.” But with LA’s venerable Aggrolites, the simple words “Dirty Reggae” are as genuine as the Jamaican movement that inspired them. For nine years, The Aggrolites have been organ-grinding, skanking, and belting out their soul-infused, tradition- representing sound around the world, and for nine years they’ve stayed on top. You could call it a reaction to the commercialized “reggae” of chart-toppers like Sublime and – gulp – No Doubt that polluted the 90s, but that’s not even close. The Aggros just live and preach the Jamaican sound like its devout devotees around the world are so famous for doing. Formed as a one-off, all-star back-up band for rocksteady legend Derrick Morgan in 2002 (Jamaicans are so entrenched in the digital-riddim realm now, the old masters often travel without countrymen and find local bands to play with while touring), the unnamed Aggrolites basically decided to stay together because it felt good, says vocalist and guitarist Jesse Wagner. They had all been doing session work, back-up work, and playing in instrumental skinhead reggae bands (the faster, organ-heavy, more soul-based style that grew out of rocksteady and characterized 1968-70 like Lee “Scratch” Perry’s house band, the Upsetters, Clancy Eccles’ band, the Dynamites, and Toots & the Maytals). “We wanted to do it just like the Jamaicans were doing it back in the day,” says Wagner. “Just put everyone in a room. One rhythm to the next. Pound out 20-30 songs at a time and then go for it. One guy would be overdubbing an organ line, I’d be in another room writing lyrics, and that’s how it went. One take.” And that’s Dirty Reggae. If you don’t know them, they’re one of those bands that you’ve heard about before but never heard, but when you hear a random track at a bar you’re magically able to synthesize what you’ve heard and read about them with their vibe and go: “This must be The Aggrolites.” It’s party music, it’s music that makes you want to grunt “ha!” – it’s dirty reggae. “We’re totally influenced by the old stuff,” says Wagner about their Jamaican predecessors. “The old bands that we used to have were totally trying to sound like the old groups. But the Aggrolites are paying homage. When we started calling it dirty reggae we knew that we could never do it as well. Me, as a singer, I’m obviously not Jamaican. I’m not Rastafarian, I’m not from there. I’m influenced by American soul music. But I know the old reggae guys were too. And all those old recordings – they were one live take and had that gritty sound. We love that dirty sound. That’s what comes from doing live takes. You start making a rhythm and a couple minutes later you see what comes out. Sometimes it’s what’s slightly out of tune or a wrong note that creates the magic in songs.” For the Aggrolites’ latest, Rugged Road, released in February, they once again returned to this ideal. The past couple records took on a more songwriting direction, as different bandmembers brought preconceived ideas to the table. But for this first release on Young Cub Records, it was strictly old school. The importance of the session’s concept is encapsulated in the title Rugged Road, named after the Rugg Road studio in the Boston neighborhood of Allston where it was cut. The studio building is even featured on the album cover art (though it’s trumped up a bit with a fantasy marquee). “We wanted that magic in the room,” says Wagner. “Just sit down and start vibing. It’s not like anybody is showboating in reggae. It’s like a big unit. Once you get that down, it gets heavy. Rugged Road is probably the closes thing to a dirty reggae record. And it was the first time that we worked with a guy other than ourselves to record.” This notable guy, engineer and producer Craig Welsch – impresario of John Brown’s Body recording spinoff roots/dub project 10 Foot. Ganja Plant – is known for his knowledge of the old reggae and their recording techniques. “He really made it happen, and he’s passionate about what he does – we wanted that creative input,” Wagner says.
  • 2. The results might be what you could expect from this collaboration: more laid-back, more instrumental, darker, and way heavy on the reverb. Fans looking for a new collection of their signature singalongs might be disappointed (though if you feel this way, head straight for the perfectly simple and satisfying “Complicated Girl” for a sweet vocal performance from Wagner and a two-minute perma-grin), but will hopefully embrace getting dizzy and lost in the sonic delights presented here. “The Heat” is a sinister stroll in the park with an evil clown. “Enemy Dub” snickers with nasty organ-ness from Roger Rivas. And it was all recorded analog to tape, so it can sound the way it’s supposed to. The band promo’d the release with two 7-inches, and the entire record is available on 12-inch. “We’ve only released one 45 as a band before,” says Wagner. “And that’s crucial to reggae. Especially for DJs.” Reggae is special in the way it is sacred and proselytized by its adherents, and getting vinyl into the hands of those that spin it is as important as getting “care packages” from bloated, overhyped industry bands into the hands of commercial radio station managers used to be (or might unfortunately still be). But in reggae it’s not about the quality of the chemical incentive, it’s about the authenticity of the music. Fortunately, bands can also take that into their own hands with proper touring and exposure. But often, it’s as much about making sure people know about true reggae as it is plugging your own band. “When we started to take the Aggrolites seriously, full-time, one of the biggest things was not to pigeon ourselves,” says Wagner. “Like let’s get out and play with the Dropkick Murphys. It would be cool to hear some old Derrick Morgan or Prince Buster on the radio. We were playing big shows in Europe before the US. People over there really understand old-school reggae. People over here say they love reggae, and they only have the [Bob Marley] Legend album. We want to open people up to everything out there. Bob is great, but there’s so much more. Just between the years ’69 to ’72 – I don’t think anyone could hear all of that music in their lifetime.” True to this pledge, the Aggrolites hooked up with the quirky and psychedelic, H.R. Pufnstuf-throwback children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba! to record videos for a couple tracks. Their cover of the E.K. Bunch’s “Bannana” put skinhead reggae into the feet and minds of the hippest kids and encouraged them to eat healthy (this is a must see on YouTube). “Think about little kids singing that,” says Wagner. “It’s probably the first time in history that skinhead reggae was performed on Nickelodeon. Now we got 30-year-old moms coming to see us play with their 3-year-old kids.”

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