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Album Showcase: Alific – “Write it on the Wall”

I first started working with Rootfire about 7 years ago when founder Seth Herman had recruited me as a writer. I always thoroughly enjoyed conversing with Seth about reggae because he had such a vast knowledge of modern American reggae and endless personal connections to the artists and industry people alike. With roots from the Finger Lakes region of western New York and having managed American reggae pioneers John Brown’s Body, Seth seemed to have the finger on the pulse of everything and everyone in the scene.

I had been listening to John Brown’s Body and Slightly Stoopid for years and already been a fan of artists like Tribal Seeds, Stick Figure, The Expanders and Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, but Seth introduced me to some great artists that I had not yet heard of.

One in particular that I strongly recall was Brendan Dane, who goes by the professional name of Alific and had played bass with Stick Figure during their earliest days as a band that Scott Woodruff had assembled to perform his music live. In fact, Dane had first met Woodruff while students at the same New Hampshire boarding school.  “I was a senior and he was sophomore, so we didn’t really hang out at that point, but his older Jeff was in my year, and we were close friends,” Dane recounted.  “When Scott finally made the move to San Diego (from Massachusetts), Jeff linked us up and Scott and I started jamming together. I was already familiar with Stick Figure music, so it was an easy connection and collaboration.”

Dane fondly recalled, “It was definitely a time I’ll never forget. It never seemed like work. It was always fun.” Ultimately, Dane left Stick Figure in order to move to Washington D.C. because his girlfriend got a job there, and during those days the band members were not yet fully dedicated to touring. “It made the most sense at the time,” he emphasized, laughing, surely considering the growth of Stick Figure into one of the most in-demand, popular reggae acts of the current day.

It was during this time as a member of Stick Figure that Dane had first connected with Seth Herman. “Seth was managing JBB back in the day prior to Rootfire and I believe I contacted him to try and book some Stick shows or at least get some advice on how to become a bigger band. He was very helpful and, although didn’t even know me at all, he gave me his time and some great advice. He became a close friend immediately and I’m proud to call him a friend today.”

Seth had turned me on to some digital “mixed tapes” that he and Dane had collaborated on, along with Dane’s own musical output as Alific, an upbeat, melodic contemporary reggae/dub mashup that shared some sonic similarities with the music of Stick Figure at the time.

For reggae fans who enjoy dipping into other genres, these “mixed tapes” are worth digging into, a bit of a buried treasure from Rootfire’s history. Dane said that the two of them both felt their collaboration on the creation of the mixed tapes were very much like a “real band.” He explained, “Seth would give me a list of songs that he was feeling and I would throw in songs I liked. I would then mix them together in the most creative way I could, and he would give me notes on things that worked and things that could be improved. I used my mixing skills to creatively mix each song into one another using different music samples and matching BPMs (beats per minute) and song keys. Those mixed tapes were a lot of fun and would love to do another one at some point.”

Dane, who is once again based in San Diego after having bounced around for about the last ten years with stints living in the aforementioned Washington D.C., Las Vegas and Los Angeles, actually grew up in Athens, OH and spent his summers in New Hampshire.

He grew up playing piano, influenced greatly by his father who had always “been jamming on the keys” and who in fact plays “the blues piano riffs” on the majority of Alific’s tracks, until picking up the bass guitar in middle school.

As a child, Dane primarily listened to movie soundtracks. This comes as no surprise, as his music largely has a cinematic quality to it. “That was really how I started falling in love with music,” Dane recalled. “I always enjoyed how important the music is to a movie scene and listening back to the song, you can be transported right back in to the movie and the feel of when you first experienced it. That is definitely a dream of mine to write for TV/movies one day.”

After graduating from high school, Dane studied audio production at Ohio University, a school known for its musical curriculum located in the town in which he grew up.

He “had the honor” of studying under Eddie Ashworth, who has produced and engineered for Sublime, and Slight Stoopid, among others, who taught him a lot of the audio knowledge he still uses today, which he’s abetted by also attending few audio engineering trade schools along the way.

Dane’s introduction to reggae came through his older brother who had played him the music of Bob Marley.  “I immediately loved the sound and from there branched out to other reggae artists,” Dane recalled.  “The music resonated with me as it seemed to flow with my own inner soul with positivity and summer, beach vibes.” Dane said he got heavily into reggae during his high school years at the boarding school in New Hampshire.  “Everyone in the dorms had their own style of decorations/posters and my room was filled with Bob Marley, Toots, Grateful Dead and Phish. I was in a band in high school, and we recorded and wrote only one song which was called ‘Daybreak’ and it was a reggae song.”  Dane later fell in love with the music of Sublime and “enjoyed the positive attitude overall through reggae and sub genres of reggae.”

While living in the nation’s capital in 2011, Dane released his first reggae album as Alific, titled Dub in the District. “I had been making music on my own for years prior to this but had always been in different bands and never felt confident enough to release something on my own,” he explained.  “Once in D.C., I found myself with limited friends and not much to do, so decided to just go for it and release my own album.”

This album had been influenced by the popular sounds of the city he called home at the time, specifically the electronic downtempo scene largely established by genre pioneers, Thievery Corporation, who in fact had a direct contribution to one of the songs. Dane had met the members of Thievery Corporation through other fellow musicians in the D.C. music community. “My buddy, Gordon Daniels, led a band called Lucky Dub and he knew just about everyone in the city, so he introduced me, which is how that collaboration started. I met Frank Mitchell Jr., who plays sax for Thievery Corp., and we jammed a few times. I asked him to play on my song ‘Madness’ and we went into a studio, and he just jammed through it in a few takes.”

Over the past dozen years, Dane has put out six albums, all somewhat different, yet at the same time all distinctly Alific. On March 24, 2023, he released his most recent, titled Write it on the Wall, which brings forth the sounds of violin much more prominently in his music, an instrument generally quite uncommon to reggae music.  “I’ve always loved the sound of the violin,” Dane said. “I think it can add a beautiful and ethereal undertone to any song that can add extra emotion and feel.”

The violin on the album comes courtesy of the extremely talented player Derek Waldmann, who goes by the moniker Man of the Forests. Dane and Waldmann had worked together on some songs in the past, but MOTF is all over this album. Their musical collaboration can vary from song to song. Sometimes, the two will just sit down and start writing together, and other times Dane may have a song that he asks Waldmann to play over. “Occasionally I’ll have a broad vision of what I think would sound good on the track. But the majority of the time when I ask him to play over a track, I let him play whatever he is feeling and then add input or keep it as is,” Dane said.

Write it on the Wall opens with the beautiful “Glimpse of Light,” a relaxing yet thoroughly uplifting instrumental that brings to mind the music of Stick Figure. Alific’s music often does, which is no surprise considering their ties.  MOTF’s violin drives the song over a crisp roots reggae beat with Dane weaving in plenty of psychedelic elements such as synth, echoing keys  and wisps of vocals. To me, this song is quintessential Alific.

After easing listeners into the album gently with the opener, Dane quickly shifts the vibe with the banger title track, which he announces at the beginning of the song is “about letting everybody know your inner truth, who you are, what you’re about, what you wanna go after…” This joyful song features spirited vocals in a sort of singjay style that fit perfectly with the popping kick drum. Celebratory lyrics like “Tonight I feel fine, got a really good vibe, got my best friend by my side, in my hand I got a pint” will put smiles on faces as the playful piano will have people boogieing.

Dane keeps the tempo brisk with the next song, “Sound of the Music,” featuring vocals from Seattle born and bred dancehall reggae artist, Bobby Hustle. According to Dane, this song dates back 9-10 years to when he was playing keys and deejaying for The Movement, another popular band from the American reggae-rock scene that he had been part of in the early days. “I made the main beat for the song in the tour van while on the road and shopped it around to the band members,” Dane recalls. “Bobby had been a good friend of The Movement for years, so he was always around for shows as a guest. He heard the track and really liked it and wrote some lyrics to it years ago.”  However, after Dane left the band, the song was kind of lost and he forgot about it for years. Upon rediscovering it, he started working on it again and sent the updated version back to Bobby Hustle and he laid down some vocals.

“Sound of the Music” segues perfectly into the fourth track, “Let’s Get Lost,” another high energy tune with deep, resounding bass tones courtesy of a sub-bass MIDI patch.  The extra lows contrast really well with higher violin notes that give the tune its signature sound as well as the register of guest singer, Riley Grey, who joins Dane on vocals. According to Dane, he knew Riley Grey from some “live shows” and thought she had “and insanely beautiful voice,” so he sent her the rough mix of the song as an instrumental.  “Riley came up with the lyrics and chorus, melody and theme of the song,” said Dane. “She would send me rough ideas from her iPhone and I really loved them and felt it was a perfect fit to the song. We went into the studio and she knocked out the vocals in one session.”

From here, the album downshifts slightly with the next five tracks. This next section of mellower tunes begins with “Flowness,” an easy listening dub track featuring the noteworthy guitar work of Brendan Clemente, an up-and-coming artist loved by many in the American surf roots scene.  Dane said that he and Clemente had talked about collaborating for a while and he had this song “just kinda lying around.” At first, it didn’t have any guitar, but after Clemente sent a few live takes of him “jamming through the song,” Dane was “blown away.” Dane later “went in and cut up the riffs, rearranged and made a Frankenstein edit of all his takes into one for the final track.”

Following “Flowness” is “Every Reason,” a sweet, subdued love song about how life can be a rollercoaster, but a special someone can help you to get through. The tune features a verse sung by singer-songwriter Aaron Wolf, who has been friends for years with Dane.  The guys had always wanted to work together and when Dane sent Wolf the song, he immediately started writing lyrics for his verse.  Dane said that originally the song was called “Rain Outside” and had a different feel and message to it, but taking his cue from Wolf, he ended up changing his lyrics.

Dane handles the vocals by himself in the next two tracks, “Record Player” and “Stardust.” In both, he changes his singing style to a more hushed, intimate delivery, which differs from his singjay style used on the more upbeat tunes on the record. I wondered if Dane strategically chose to alter the the style of his delivery or if it kind of unfolded that way without making a conscious effort. He explained, “The vocal delivery depends on the song and how/when it was created. With ‘Stardust,’ I was alone in my house trying to write a love song, so my vocal style was softer than some of the other ones. ‘Write It On the Wall’ and’ Set Me Up’ I wrote at my family’s lake house looking out over the water and I was alone so on those I felt the need to sing more energetic and louder.  They’re all strategic choices depending on environment and message of the song.” 

Worth noting, “Stardust” implements the unmistakable sound of a banjo, which comes courtesy of Dane’s friend, Pat Hagan, who told Dane that he was “feeling a riff” for it when Dane had been “jamming the chords” for him. “I loved it so much and felt it gave the song that special feel,” Dane said. Not only does the banjo compliment the violin accents in the song so well, but it also flows perfectly into the next track, “Another One.”

An instrumental, “Another One” stands out with its Americana feel thanks to the violin that drives the melody, its boogie-woogie ragtime piano, and the prominence of the lap steel guitar played by Scott Walker. Dane knew Walker from his custom guitar making and always admired his skills with the lap steel. Dane and Walker had connected a few times via Instagram and exchanged compliments. They finally met in person for the first time at Great Stone Recording Studios (owned by Scott Woodruff) during a session and Dane asked him to play on “Another One” as it “kinda had a country feel.”

Dane revealed that he wrote the song strictly from the bassline. “I wanted to write a bassline similar to ‘Rosarito’ by Long Beach Dub Allstars. I always loved that song, and Eric Wilson’s bassline is super busy, but it works.”

Dane, Johnny Cosmic and K Bong in the studio.

The energy kicks back up with a gleeful cover of Hopeton Lewis’ highly danceable early rocksteady classic, “Take it Easy,” which includes collaborations from Stick Figure’s Johnny Cosmic and K Bong, who had auditioned to be the band’s keyboard player when Dane had still played bass for them. Dane had been covering “Take it Easy” for about a dozen years in various bands and jams with friends. “I’ve always just loved the simplicity of the hook and lyrics,” he explained.

The momentum keeps rolling with, “Set Me Up,” a radiant rocker Dane wrote while overlooking the water while at his family’s lake house that features his singjay vocal style. The jubilant song celebrates the joy of reggae music and sunsets. In one section, Dane mimics the early Bob Marley hit, “Put it On,” which he based the entire song on, keeping the same melody and using almost the same bassline.

After “Set Me Up,” serving as sort of an interlude, “Green Hillz,” is a pretty violin-led instrumental with acoustic guitar elevated by ethereal vocal samples.

See-sawing between down-tempo and up-tempo, Write it on the Wall pivots back to a hopping tune titled “Check Your Heart,” which features keys that resemble brass, vocal samples and record scratching, before finally winding down with an acoustic number called “Up to Me,” which finds Dane singing gently over violin, skanking guitar and some keyboard accents.

One aspect of LPs that I find very interesting is the order of the songs, which I think has a significant impact on the listener’s experience. I asked Dane about how much strategy he put into planning the order of the tracks and what was the reasoning behind the order. He explained, “This is a very important stage of the album and there is a strategy used. I usually start with which song I want to start the album and which song I want last. Then I’ll fill in the rest. The order is chosen depending on song key and BPM (beats per minute) and if it’s an instrumental or a song with vocals. I try not to put all the instrumentals together and sometimes a song can be too fast or too slow following another song, so I use these BPM to determine the next song.”

I also asked Dane what typically inspires his lyrics and how he decides which songs will have lyrics and which should remain instrumental. He said his lyrics come from a variety of different inspirations, whether it be a love song or a specific message he wants to convey to the listener. Sometimes he gets inspiration from other songs’ lyrics and will base a song off of one line.  In terms of which songs get vocals and which ones don’t, he said there are a few variables but that he tends to sing only on songs that he plays guitar on since playing bass and singing is difficult for him. “If it’s a technical bassline like the song ‘Another One,’ there is no way I could sing and play that at the same time.”

With Write it on the Wall, Alific generously gives fans an hour of engaging music over 14 diverse songs, combining multiple styles of reggae with instrumentation common to Americana, bluegrass and country and production elements of dub.  Fans of Alific are sure to be stoked and for those who are unfamiliar, now is a great time to dive in to the music of this truly unique artist.

Alific will be joining Rootfire for a Listening Party on the Rootfire channel on the Stationhead app on Monday, May 8, at 8pm ET.

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Ever since becoming deeply moved and then essentially obsessed with reggae music as a teenager, Dave has always strove to learn as much as possible about the history and culture of reggae music, Jamaica and Rastafari, the ideology and lifestyle intertwined with reggae. 

Over the years, he has interviewed many personalities throughout the reggae world including Ziggy Marley, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, Bradley Nowell and many artists in the progressive roots scene.

Dave has also written and published a novel, “The Cosmic Burrito,” a tale of two friends who drive across the USA in search of the ultimate burrito. He plays ice hockey weekly for a recreational team he founded and manages, Team Rasta.

Reggae music has filled his life with a richness for which he will forever be grateful, and he gives thanks to musicians far and wide, past and present, whether they perform roots, dub, dancehall, skinhead, rocksteady or ska, whether their tools are analog or digital, as well as the producers, promoters, soundsystems, selectors and the reggae massive at large who comprise the international reggae community.

You can follow Dave on Instagram at @rootsdude and Twitter at @ElCosmicBurrito.

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