Live And Direct
Cult reggae band or Top Of The Pops heroes? Nick Rowland talks to the men who've spent 14 years together and brought MIDI to reggae, and reggae to the pop charts.
After fourteen years as an "underground" band, Aswad have had their first No. 1 success. But where does high technology fit in with the hard-edged music of Rastafarian culture?
GOOD FRIDAY, ON stage at the Astoria, London. The lead vocalist steps forward to the microphone. "I don't know if you've seen our latest album. But when you do, you'll notice there's a little sticker on there which says 'Includes the hit single...' I just wanna say thank you to everyone who helped put that sticker there." In response, whistles, shouts and air horns: the packed auditorium goes wild. The record in question is at No. 1.
A familiar scene: youthful band plays live version of current hit to appreciative audience.
But hang on a minute, this is a band called Aswad. Aswad who have been together 14 years. Who in that time have never had a record in the Top 40, let alone at pole position. The reggae band from Ladbroke Grove with a hardcore grassroots following, the respect of many of their pop contemporaries for their electric stage presence, but who to Sharon and Kevin up Rockerfellers have been "Aswad? Who's Aswad?"
'Don't Turn Around' is the piece of vinyl which has reversed their fortunes, proving the crossover which has always been the band's aspiration. And while its sweet lovers rock tones may not represent Aswad at their hardest, the fact that they have that reputation behind them, gives hope for the future of reggae as a commercial genre. No wonder the present mood is one of euphoria, future expectation mixed with a healthy dose of disbelief.
Despite 14 years spent together in the music business, success has hit the band like a sledgehammer. You wouldn't know it seeing them on stage, but they are totally exhausted. What was intended to be just another tour has turned into a 24-hour press conference. Having ignored them for the last decade, the popular press has descended to claim Aswad for their own.
This much is obvious before the gig. Singer Brinsley Forde, bass player Tony Gad and drummer/singer (Angus) Drummie Zeb are running round like the proverbial blue-arsed flies, instinctively throwing quotes into any Walkman thrust under their nose and smiles at anyone armed with SLR and flash. I reckon under this sort of pressure they'd sign their grandmother away.
Drummie Zeb manages to sum it up in fewer words. As he rushes between interviews and photo sessions he's heard to mutter, "I'm dizzy, boss".
It was a very different story when Aswad released their first single, 'Back to Africa' in '76. At that time, the five-strong outfit - Forde and Drummie, plus Donald Benjamin (vocals and lead guitar), Courtney Hemmings (keyboards) and Ras George Levi (bass guitar) - had just signed to Island, the first UK reggae band to be taken up by a major label. 'Back To Africa' went straight to the top of the reggae charts, paving the way for the success (in reggae terms) of their eponymous debut album. This was quite an achievement considering that at the time it was thought that good reggae music was the sole preserve of Jamaican studios, even though on closer inspection many Jamaican records were little more than reggae covers of soul classics. Aswad's original sound and diverse influences proved to be the much needed boost of confidence the home-grown reggae scene needed, particularly as their message tempered the general cry of Rastafarianism with the everyday experiences of blacks in Britain: racial discrimination and continual police harassment.
Aswad and Island parted company shortly afterwards, the band leaving Britain to tour on the West Coast of Africa and record in Jamaica. It's Not Our Wish appeared in '78 on the Grove Music label, with Hulet the following year. Meanwhile Tony Gad had replaced Hemmings on keyboards, one of the band's more significant line-up changes. Gad joined in time to record a song called 'Warrior Charge', featured in Babylon, a film starring Brinsley Forde.
In 1980 Aswad moved to CBS, recording New Chapter and Not Satisfied. This too proved a short-lived alliance, though Not Satisfied charted briefly. Then Aswad were back with Island for Live and Direct, a recording made at the Notting Hill Carnival. This successfully captured the band's impressive stage performance and proved beyond all doubt that Aswad were now the most important influence in reggae. But as far as the long-hoped-for crossover to the wider pop world was concerned, well it simply wasn't happening.
THE NEXT FEW years saw some creditable near misses. 'Chasing For The Breeze', '54-46 That's My Number' and 'Bubbling' (a Toots and the Maytals classic) gave them minor-league pop chart success in '84/'85, while 'Roots Rocking' and 'Gimme the Dub' struck hard at club level. But since Aswad were back with Simba, their own indie label at the time, the resources just weren't available for any greater success. No wonder then that survivors Gad, Forde and Zeb took their new management's advice and once more knocked on Island's door.
The current album, Distant Thunder has been over a year in the making. As you might guess from the mellow tones of 'Don't Turn Around', it's Aswad's slickest and most polished production to date, clearly aimed at daytime Radio One, not the "graveyard slot" on Kiss FM.
Ironic really, when you consider that just as Aswad have taken onboard mainstream pop's glossy production values, the recent chart success of hip-hop and house has shown that the charts are able to assimilate a more rough and ready approach to recording. There's further irony in the contrast between the sentiments of tracks like 'The Message' (the opening cover of Cymande's rare groove classic) and 'Set Them Free' (a musical discourse on Soweto, Sharpeville and sanctions) and the squeaky clean production.
"Gad: While we've become more familiar with the studio, the technology has become much more accessible - good sounds are so much easier to come by."
Surely reggae's rebel message and pop's plastic medium are, to a certain extent, mutually exclusive. Zeb, for one thinks not.
"What we want to do is not to turn reggae music into pop, but to make reggae music popular. There's a difference there. Why should the sound of reggae be 'dirty'? Why should it not be as polished as any other form of music? Yes, there is a tradition of reggae being a certain way, but if we try that, people say, 'This is violent music, it's not well produced so we're not going to play it.' But now they say, 'This is great, this is ethnic, let's put it on daytime radio'. It's not so much that we're looking for a commercial sound as much as an international sound. I see nothing wrong with that. Reggae has an international message."
But while Zeb sees the new Aswad studio style resulting from a more positive attitude to future direction, bassman Gad explains that, in practice, it has much to do with solving problems of the past.
"I think up to now we've been very uncomfortable in the studio and so we never really got down onto tape those vibes that we gave out live. But also, we had a lot of problems getting the sort of sound we always had at the back of our minds. I remember the times when we used to sit in the studio and spend the first few days just trying to get a good bass drum sound. That's tedious stuff, man. And when you ain't got too much money and you're paying for the studio, you end up doing things too quickly and always thinking at the end, you should have done that different, or better, by which time it's too late.
"What's happened though, is that while we've become much more familiar with the studio, the technology has also become much more accessible. Good sounds are so much easier to come by. If you want a good drum sound all you have to do is go out and find a good sample. I see no cheating in that, if the end result is that you don't spend days in the studio trying to mic up a real drum."
WHILE ASWAD HAVE consistently embraced new technology throughout their career, the name of programmer Pete Gleadall is mentioned as the "brother" who has really brought the band's equipment and attitudes bang up to date over the last two years. Both Gad and Zeb talk about MIDI and sampling as though they were inventions of the last 18 months, which leads me to suspect that it was really the latest deal with Island which allowed them to get into these particular things in a big way. On more than one occasion Forde has been heard to say that there's a big difference in how you use technology when you actually own it, rather than just hiring it in when you go into the studio.
This Gad confirms: "We've all got the MIDI gear at home now. So basically you can get to learn all about it before you go into the studio. At one time I used to have two tape decks. I bounced things from tape to tape and ended up with 16 tracks of hiss. Now I've got an MC500 sequencer, a TR707 and a TX81Z so I can sit in my house and get ideas down really quickly. Drummie has a Studio 440, Brinsley has a whole rack of gear too."
Apart from giving Aswad greater control of the overall band sound, both Zeb and Gad say that increasing control over the means of production also changed the way they approached recording Distant Thunder even before they went into the studio.
"This time we were able to plan ahead much more", elaborates Gad. "Instead of going in and just jamming together, we could all sit round and work on things together. Like we might all work on a drum pattern before all looking at the bassline."
"That's not to say that we put it all into a sequencer, took that into the studio and just pressed the button", counters Zeb quickly. "There was still a lot of jamming, but at an earlier stage, we were using the sequencers as digital recorders. Like I played rhythms into the Roland MC500 in real time using the metronome as a guide. Then we'd edit it, or just use it to trigger samples."
Did they find that having their own home setups meant that their songwriting became less of a collaboration than in the past because each of them now had the power to come up with a finished track?
"Gad: Pop music is doing today what reggae was doing in the early 70s - taking parts out of the mix, or bringing in echo effects is all taken from Dub."
Gad shakes his head: "I know what you're saying. There is a danger of that, of one man sitting at home and making tracks by himself, which is why you get a lot of records produced so quickly, but without any real quality. But I think where Aswad are concerned, it would be impossible for just one of us to come up with anything whole by himself. I mean, I'm really the player in the group, Drummie engineers and Brinsley writes, so really it's only when we all get together that it comes out as the finished whole."
A different and more objective perspective on the triumvirate in action comes from the man who's currently tickling the ivories with them on stage; Michael 'Cool Walk' Martin joined the expanded stage line-up just over a year ago, though he too was involved in the recording of Distant Thunder. (It's his keyboard playing that you can hear on 'Don't Turn Around'.) "Basically", he says with a smile, "I get called in whenever they get stuck. Like when there's a technical keyboard part or they just want someone with new ideas to take them in a different direction."
Martin is currently at the Guildhall School of Music studying piano and jazz composition, though with Aswad's heavy touring schedule ahead, it's unlikely he'll be doing much studying for the next few months. Before joining Aswad, he toured with Maxi Priest, a reggae artist who has also made a successful crossover to the mainstream pop charts with an equally well-crafted sound.
"I must say that before I started working with Aswad, I couldn't really understand this thing of 'Britain's greatest reggae band'. Now I do. I don't know if it goes with the years they've been together, but there's something that makes the music gel much more than the other British bands I've played with. It's more like guys in Jamaica. I think it's because a lot of their thing is really very spontaneous. Other people wanted it played exactly like their album, which was cool, because after all it was their gig. But Aswad are much more relaxed about things.
"Now I realise that a lot of it has got to do with their rhythmic concept which has the foundations and influences of all 'black' music. So you find a flavour of calypso and latin or touches of African along with a hardcore reggae bassline. Like, they have breaks that no-one else would have, or spontaneous patterns between the bass and drums.
"They're really open-minded to all kinds of different musical styles. They want you to come in and try something out. That's where my jazz background comes in. And the new lead guitarist has got that as well - he's really jazz orientated. You know, he takes two chords and turns them into four - and they listen to what you suggest too. In that respect they don't make you feel like a session player. When I came in to the studio there was a basic foundation, obviously, but I was allowed to spread harmonically over the top and stretch the chords a bit and make them more interesting. Perhaps listen to the brass and then stretch the arrangements down to meet it."
Martin sees his experience with Aswad as quite a contrast to the kind of amateur and semi-pro reggae acts he played with as a teenager.
"They didn't experiment at all. It was like there was a strict definition of reggae which you had to stick to. I used to think, man, there has to be more to music than this. That's partly why I decided to go to college and study jazz.
"Reggae has a lot of experimenting still to do and Aswad seem prepared to do it. It's like 'Don't Turn Around' - a lot of people don't automatically think of it as a reggae track, I think because the keyboard arrangements actually take your mind away from it, they disguise it in a strange way. It shows that reggae doesn't have to be heavy, or just drum and bass, that it can be just about good songs and good arrangements."
Main man Zeb is happy to confirm this spirit of keeping options open, putting it down to the kind of musical company that Aswad have kept over the last 14 years.
"Soul, hip hop, calypso - we listen to all these things, we know the people involved, so naturally we end up being influenced. It just seems to come out. But we don't analyse things. Often I'm doing things on the drums and I don't know what I'm playing until I listen to it on tape. Then someone might point out I've been playing a bossa nova beat or something, like on 'Warrior Charge', say, which has that kind of feel. Man, I don't know what a bossa nova beat is, but it must be there inside me."
"Martin: As more of a player than a programmer, I don't like the playability of the D50 compared to the DX7 - it feels like the early synthesisers."
Gad: "It's not so different anyway. What pop music is doing today is taken from what reggae was doing in the early '70s. Like the idea of mixing a track, of taking parts out of the mix, or bringing in echo effects - all that is taken from Dub. Reggae shouldn't be really thought of as a separate thing."
ON STAGE IS really the best place to see Aswad in action: the technology, the improvisation, the sheer good time that is had by all. It's one hell of a band, and everyone seems to have a stack of gear behind them. Forde sports electric guitar with a MIDI pickup controlling a TX7, the sound of both being processed by an SPX90 and Roland GP8. Zeb sits behind a set of Simmons pads and an Octapad which trigger a combination of two SDS9's and the S900. (The Studio 440 has been dropped after many breakdowns - it's now known as the Hassle Machine.) Meanwhile, Gad alternates between electric bass and the Roland GR77 MIDI bass controller.
"Before the GR77, I really used to get bogged down on the bass. I originally joined the band as a keyboard player, so in the studio I used to do all the basslines on a keyboard. But when we played live, the keyboard player had to do them instead because we usually wanted those specific keyboard sounds again. So when the MIDI bass came out, it was like 'Fucking hell, it's arrived'. Suddenly it was like I was free. And it meant it allowed me to get an identity on the bass, which is really important to me. Up to then I was beginning to feel that in terms of sound possibilities the bass guitar had just about become redundant."
Also plugging into the power of MIDI live is lead guitarist Stanley 'Soon Come' Andrew. Meanwhile, over his right shoulder can be seen Martin with D50 and two DX7's, one of which acts as a controller keyboard for an S900.
"They just gave me a D50 to play. Up to then I'd worked mainly on the DX7. I must say, as more of a player than a programmer, I don't like the playability of the D50 compared to the DX7 - it feels to me like the early synthesisers. But the sounds just knock me out. It's the reverb I suppose which makes the sounds so much more sparkly and clear. The highs really ping - I have to get one after the tour."
Meanwhile to Martin's left there's another keyboard player on RD1000 piano and another D50, who also doubles up on drums (not simultaneously, you understand) whenever Zeb comes centre stage to sing lead vocal. Only the four-piece brass section are exclusively acoustic.
But while this may sound like MIDI paradise to hi-tech addicts, Martin explains that, when just about everybody in the band has access to the same sorts of sounds, it takes some getting used to and not an inconsiderable amount of organisation.
"I must admit that when I found out what Aswad used on stage, I had a few problems with it. I think it was partly an ego thing I suppose, like 'Look, I'm the keyboard player and these sounds are my patch so leave it alone'. But then I realised that if we worked it out, we could actually get some really powerful arrangements. If the guitar plays a wash of strings or whatever, it gives the keyboard player the freedom to do something else. Your hands aren't tied to just padding out the sound.
"In the end, with Brinsley in particular, it worked out naturally. We just gave each other space at the right time. He didn't interfere with my keyboard parts, didn't try to play over me. And if he did, well, it's his band anyway! But I'm glad now because through having to be careful about who was doing what, I really opened my ears to what he was playing."
As for the future, there's a lyric on Distant Thunder which sums up Aswad's aspirations: "I'd like to find a melody that the whole wide world could sing". That's quite an ambition, especially if you've got to get the world to listen to your melody first. Happily, 'Don't Turn Around' seems to have opened things up, not just for the album but for the massive world tour too, a tour which has already taken in venues like Hammersmith Odeon - where no reggae band has played for eight years. You won't see them again on these shores for a while, though. Currently in Europe, the band will go to Japan and then spend several months in the States. But if Aswad become international big business, could there be a danger of losing contact with their roots?
Zeb: "As I've said before, this album is still for all our hardcore fans, for all the people who have supported us, but it's also for the world, for the kids who see us on Top Of The Pops. I think reggae can take it."
The closing comment comes from Martin: "I'm glad it happened for them. After Marley and Tosh, reggae has had no ambassadors. The success of 'Don't Turn Around' is like a ray of hope. It shows to all the other reggae bands out there that something can happen."
And as if to illustrate the point, as I leave Aswad's Astoria gig, a leaflet is thrust into my hand advertising an evening of Message and Music, featuring Misty in Roots, Benjamin Zephania and Ras Messengers.
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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