Reggaefying classic rock

Reggaefying classic rock

October 18, 2009 10:28

Don't be surprised if you start hearing reggae versions of songs by top Israeli rockers on the radio in the future. Michael Goldwasser, the mastermind behind New York-based record label Easy Star and the Easy Star All Stars, his scintillating band that has successfully reggaefied classic rock albums like Dark Side of The Moon and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, has moved to Kibbutz Ein Hashofet in the North and is planning on using his musical expertise to 'stir up' the local music scene. "I came to the conclusion that life is too short to not try and live in Israel, so my wife, two-year-old daughter and I arrived four weeks ago," Goldwasser told The Jerusalem Post last week, as he prepared for his band mates to arrive in the country for a show on Tuesday night at the Barby club in Tel Aviv as part of the Tel Aviv Music Festival. "I'm very in touch with my Judaism and with Israel. I've been a Zionist all my life. Israel has always been my spiritual home." In his adopted home, Goldwasser is going to concentrate on what he knows best - music. And untarnished, meanwhile, by the harsh realities of Israeli bureaucracy, he still possesses an idealist, kibbutz spirit of a new pioneer. "I'm going to get involved with bringing the music program on the kibbutz to the next level. It's a great challenge for me - bringing my music production skills here and trying to help both the kibbutz and the Israeli music industry," said Goldwasser, who recently produced an album for Israeli reggae band Hatikva 6. "There are a lot of musicians and artists living on the kibbutz, and it's a fertile ground for music people. There's a studio here, which while not on an international level, provides a good basis. "My goal is to improve the studio, record lots of great music, put on performances and generally make this more of musical center. I'm really looking forward to working with Israeli artists around the country of all different genres, not just reggae." But it's reggae that has solidified Goldwasser's international reputation as an impeccable music arranger and producer. "I started getting into playing music when I was 13, 14, when I started to learn how to play guitar. I was exposed to some older musicians who were hip to reggae and I started listening. The first album I bought was The Wailers' Catch a Fire - I listened to it over and over again and tried to play along," said Goldwasser, adding that his strong Jewish upbringing and devotion to reggae meshed naturally. "There's a strong connection between Judaism and Rastafarianism. A lot of the lyrics in traditional reggae songs come straight from Tehilim or other parts of the Tanach. There's the Lion of Judah symbol and the Rastafarians' reverence for Zion. It makes a lot of sense for a Jew to be interested in reggae," he said. This particular Jew was playing reggae in clubs by the time he was 15 and continued as a professional musician for the next decade or so. In 1997, he added record label founder to his resume, when he and two high school friends, Lem Oppenheim and Eric Smith, founded Easy Star. "We were sitting around and lamenting the dearth of good quality reggae," Goldwasser recalled. "Most of the records coming out of Jamaica at that time were using computers and drum machines. "I could appreciate it to an extent but we enjoyed the more traditional reggae from the past decades. What was coming out now was not sounding that great, so we decided 'let's try to do it ourselves.'" Because Goldwasser possessed the strongest musical background, he was elected to become the label's musical director and record producer. But it was Oppenheim, a long-time Pink Floyd fan, who initially thought of the idea that would transform the small label into an international phenomenon and spawn a new career for Goldwasser. "We had been doing Easy Star for about five years, and one day Lem came in and said, 'why don't we do this album as reggae music' and suggested Dark Side of the Moon," said Goldwasser. "Our basic premise was 'what if this album had been recorded in Jamaica in the late 1970s?' I came up with a few basic arrangements, and we realized that it could work and took it from there. "I spent about three years on and off making the album. I wanted to do a great job, which would mean not offending Pink Floyd fans while sticking true to reggae." The resulting album, called Dub Side of the Moon, was released in 2003, and gimmick aside, was universally acclaimed for striking the precise balance Goldwasser was aiming for, even prompting Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour to applaud the effort. Led by Goldwasser, the Easy Star All Stars, which had previously existed only as a studio band to back Easy Star artists, began touring around the world to enthusiastic audiences, one part Floyd fanatics, one part reggae rastas. "We realized that this could be a great thing to keep doing. No other label that I knew of was recreating classic albums in another style, especially not in reggae," said Goldwasser, who added that the prickly dilemma was to decide on which album to tackle next. "It was tough, we didn't want to do anything obvious like, 'ok, let's do The Wall next.' We realized that one of the reasons that Dark Side translated into another musical form so well was that it was cohesive and flowed both lyrically and musically," he said. After a lot of discussions, the topic kept coming back to Radiohead, hailed by some as the latter-day version of Pink Floyd and their landmark 1997 album Ok Computer, which fit the criteria Goldwasser was searching for. "Radiohead is groundbreaking and not afraid to take risks. Ok Computer has often been compared to Dark Side, so for a lot of reasons, it made sense," he said. The Easy Star All Star's version, dubbed Radiodread was released in 2006, and won over even more fans, including Radiohead front man Thom Yorke. "Yorke referred to us at a show in Philadelphia before playing a song from Ok Computer, saying that we had done a cool version of this song, and I've heard that they've played Dub Side of the Moon on their PA before shows. And eventually, through their management, we did hear that they loved the album," said Goldwasser. There hasn't been any response positive or negative from Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr to the band's latest effort - this year's adaption of Sgt. Pepper titled Easy Star Lonely Hearts Dub Band. According to Goldwasser, the decision to undertake one of The Beatles most ambitious albums derived from the same issue regarding the previous albums - cohesion. "With Sgt. Pepper, if we were looking at concept albums, then it's really the mother of all concept albums, so we'd have to tackle it eventually," he said. "It was a good time to do it as well; the previous albums were pretty dark, minor key affairs. It was a nice challenge to adapt to the upbeat major key Sgt. Pepper." With the reggae tribute albums taking up huge swatches of Goldwasser's time, he dropped out of the touring band a few years ago to concentrate on the arrangements and recording. His relation to the Easy Star All Stars is somewhat like that of Brian Wilson to the Beach Boys, but without the emotional damage. "I stopped touring regularly with the band for two reasons: Each album takes a year and a half to make and I need to concentrate on the record production. Secondly, I wanted to spend more time with my wife and daughter," said Goldwasser, who added that he wouldn't miss joining the band for their Tel Aviv show where they'll be performing selections from all three albums. "We have a solid base of band members who have been with us consistently since we launched, and then there is a roster of great musicians from the New York and Jamaican reggae scene who we switch in and out for tours. A lot of them work on different projects and aren't always available for each tour. "But I'll definitely be playing with the band in Israel - it's my home crowd," he laughed. While still adjusting to life on kibbutz and his new environs, Goldwasser is already planning the next Easy Star treatment of a classic album. Will it be The Clash's Kingston Calling, or maybe Led Zeppelin's Rastaman Graffiti? Goldwasser is holding the answer close to his chest. "That's something that everyone wants to know. But we're not going to tell."

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