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EASY STAR ALL-STARS
EASY STAR’S THRILLAH - BIOGRAPHICAL INFO - JUNE 2012
Easy Star All-Stars are almost ten years into a series of releases that began with an attempt to transform an entire album – Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – into reggae. At the time, the band was one of the few artists who had ever tried covering or re-arranging a whole album, but in the nine years since Dub Side Of The Moon’s 2003 release, this trend has become bigger and bigger, with major music festivals building must-see events from the concept and labels releasing numerous records across different genres replicating it. Since 2003, Easy Star All-Stars have tackled two more classic records (Radiodread (2006) from Radiohead’s OK Computer and Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band (2009) from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s), along with two albums worth of original songs and a remix of Dub Side of the Moon. They have grown into an international touring phenomenon, playing on 6 continents in over 30 countries. So when they settled in to make their next tribute album, they kept circling back to one in particular: The Greatest Selling Album of All Time – Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Producer/guitarist/arranger Michael Goldwasser, along with his Easy Star Records partners and co-founders Eric Smith and Lem Oppenheimer, began the process of picking the next tribute album in 2009, right after the release of Lonely Hearts. They scoured music history, looking at albums big and small, popular and cultish, in all genres, applying their usual criteria that had served them well on the previous three projects: can the songs translate to reggae effectively? Is there a big enough audience for this record? And if so, is that audience open to reggae? In the end, they decided on Thriller, which marked a number of firsts in this series: the first album by an American artist; the first non-concept album; the first R&B/soul record; the first release from the 80s.
“For me, I was most excited for Thriller,” says Michael Goldwasser. “I was always more of an R&B/soul and reggae kid growing up and I have an intense personal connection to Michael Jackson’s music.”
As usual, the process initially involved Goldwasser spending a few months on arranging the songs. “Writing the arrangements for this album was a cool challenge. I didn’t have to try to make non-dance music into dance music as on our previous albums because the original Thriller is so danceable already. I needed to find ways to make each song groove in a different way from the original version – I didn’t want any of the arrangements to be obvious in that regard.” In the end, Goldwasser’s arrangements are some of the most interesting in his career: a few, like “The Girl Is Mine,” “The Lady In My Life” and “Thriller” are over reggae riddims the band’s core fan base will be more used to, while songs like “Billie Jean” and “Baby Be Mine” are much more progressive and non-traditional. “Beat It” gets slowed down and turned into an emotional gutwrench of a song, emphasizing the lyrics’ themes on conflict, aggression, and non-violence. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” takes a hint from Jackson’s use of Manu Dibango’s landmark hit “Soul Makossa,” going in a straight-up Afrobeat direction.
“I’m really excited about the different approach that we took - 8 minutes of Afrobeat to start the record,” says Goldwasser. “We expect the majority of our fans are like us – music heads who are into lots of genres besides just reggae. We’ve obviously touched on this with other releases on the label by Tommy T, The Black Seeds and others.”
When it came time for recording, there were a few new faces involved. After all this time, it’s often hard to describe the All-Stars in simple terms; like Parliament/ Funkadelic’s or King Crimson’s constantly-shifting line-ups, or even Marvel Comics’ The Avengers, the band draws contributions from a large yet tightly-knit collective. Although some players come and go (and come back again), there is a strong sense of family among the members. Alumni stay in touch and drop by - sometimes bringing new music with them, and always sharing their deep understanding of reggae’s roots and their ideas to take the music further. For the majority of these sessions, Goldwasser worked with ESA touring band keyboardist Elenna Canlas, bassist Yossi Fine (who has worked with everyone from David Bowie, Lou Reed and Naughty By Nature to Gil Evans, Stanley Jordan and Hassan Hakmoun), and Dub Trio/Matisyahu drummer Joe Tomino. They were joined by ESA members Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod, Shelton Garner Jr., Buford O’Sullivan, Jenny Hill, Ivan Katz, Kirsty Rock, Ruff Scott and Joanne Williams, and others. Andy Farag, from Umphrey’s McGee, added percussion, while many of the horn tracks came courtesy of the horn section from Israel’s highly-acclaimed funk/hip hop band Hadag Nachash.
Michael Jackson’s distinct vocal styling did present some challenges in pairing guest vocalists with the material, which led the group to bring some new voices into the fold in addition to bringing back favorites like Michael Rose (Black Uhuru), Steel Pulse and Luciano, each of whom appeared on Lonely Hearts, to bring vibes to three of the best known songs (“Beat It,” “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean”). Another returning singer is Mojo Morgan, of Morgan Heritage, who last worked with the group on “Electioneering” from Radiodread. Other songs are handled by ESA members Kirsty Rock (“P.Y.T.”), and the combination of JoWil and Ruff Scott (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”). Longtime ESA touring partner and label mate Cas Haley brings his amazing voice to “Human Nature,” while fast-rising Hawaiian reggae stars The Green bring their distinctive harmonies to “Baby Be Mine.” Up-and-coming Jamaican singer Christopher Martin shows off his vocal talents on “The Lady In My Life.”
Now that the hard work on this record is done, the band is looking forward to bringing this music on the road, adding some dance/pop songs to their already loaded sets. The band’s live show, which was nominated for a UK Festy Award in 2009 after their unprecedented three-day, three-stage appearance at Glastonbury, already features tracks from the band’s previous three tribute albums, along with original material. A fall tour of the U.S. and U.K. is already set up, with more to come over the next year. Goldwasser will sit out most of it so he can focus on other Easy Star Records releases, remixes for other artists (like Rebelution, Umphrey’s McGee and Yoko Ono), and getting to work on the next tribute album.
For more information please contact
Eric Smith at Easy Star Records, 212.736.2160, firstname.lastname@example.org