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First Listen: Dubbest – “Better With Words”

There are some bands within the current reggae scene that take a while to grow on you, and there are others that immediately grab hold of people. Dubbest is one of the latter. My friend Jen, a huge fan of Rebelution, Stick Figure and Iya Terra, recently asked me for some recommendations of reggae bands that she may not know. I first sent her Dubbest and an hour later she responded, “OMG!  Thank you! I never heard of these guys. I think I might love them!” 

Similarly, during a recent camping trip, my turn to play selector came up. Knowing my friends enjoy reggae music, I played the latest Dubbest single, “Daydream.” The song had barely reached its midway point and my friends were already impressed. “Who are these guys?  Are they new or old?”  

I explained how they were a progressive roots band who came from the Boston area but had relocated to San Diego a few years ago.  I followed up “Daydream” with “Weeping Heart” and “Spend the Day” from their incredible Light Flashes LP and everyone around the campfire just gushed like melted marshmallows in s’mores. They drew comparisons to “One Draw” by Rita Marley, and the music of UB40, both of which I felt were spot-on.

Although their name might lead the unfamiliar to expect an instrumental, bass-forward mix, vocal snippets laden with echo and other trippy effects, on the contrary Dubbest have perfected a classic, straightforward roots reggae sound. Unlike bands such as The Expanders and 10 Ft. Ganja Plant who are loved and admired for their ability to recreate vintage 1970s vibes, with their latest two studio records including the forthcoming Gold Fever, Dubbest rather replicate the cleaner, more modern and techy sound of 1980s roots.  

They deliver that beloved, golden-era reggae with top-notch songwriting, out-of-sight vocals,  delightful harmonies and on-the-money production, courtesy of Craig “Dubfader” Welsch of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant fame. Under the precise guidance of Welsch, who had produced their previous Light Flashes LP and single “Heat and Water,” Dubbest recorded Gold Fever at Rear Window Studio in Brookline, MA, about 30 minutes from where they had grown up. Over seven 12-hour days, they laid down the foundation of the album “live,” standing in the same room, old-school style, before then recording vocals and guitar/key overdubs and selecting takes.

From the much-anticipated Gold Fever, available for pre-order October 11, today Rootfire premieres the second single, titled “Better with Words.” Minus the heavenly singing which is uniquely Dubbest keyboardist and vocalist, Ryan Thaxter, this captivating love song could easily be mistaken for Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs, two of the most internationally cherished Jamaican artists of all time. 

Like many men who find themselves tongue-tied when communicating with romantic partners, Thaxter expresses frustration for his inability to articulate his feelings. He sings, “I tried to speak but I wish I was better with words. The things that I’m thinking, you get to them first.” Surely, enough men can relate to this situation and sentiment.

“Better with Words,” like all of Gold Fever, furtively dazzles listeners with its gentle and melodic candescence.  

In order to give Rootfire readers more insight into the band and their recent work, Rootfire connected with Dubbest for a brief interview, which is available below.

Most of the band grew up together in the Boston area. Where specifically are you from? Did your hometown vibe have an impact on your passions for reggae music or did inspiration come from elsewhere? 

Andrew MacKenzie – We all grew up in Bridgewater, a small town on the south shore. As kids, there wasn’t really much to do, so playing music was what our Friday nights consisted of. We would show each other new music and that would add into the influence of the songs we would write. We weren’t aware of many American reggae bands other than John Brown’s Body, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, 10 Ft Ganja Plant, and the Aggrolites. 70s and 80s Jamaican reggae was what we really studied closely.

When you first started the band, did you aspire to record and tour professionally or was the initial idea just to play locally and have some fun? 

Cory Mahoney – Even at the very start of the band, we planned on doing it all. We wanted to record as much as possible and tour as soon as we could. Even in high school, we really reached for everything. We put out full lengths (hardcore punk/reggae) as much as we could. Once, when we were 16/17 years old, we booked a tour up to Canada from Boston, but our parents all discussed with each other and put that idea to bed quickly (Laughs.) None of us ever planned on staying local or just doing it for fun. We wanted this as a career.

When the band first started playing out, where were most of your gigs, and what kind of tunes were you playing? I assume it wasn’t all originals from the get-go. 

MacKenzie – The first shows we played were everywhere from local churches to small dive bars in Boston. For the first few years, we were under 21, and would have to wait outside to play since we couldn’t be inside the bar. Our earliest setlists were packed with original music for the most part. There were a few key covers in the early days (The Wailers’ “Small Axe” and Barrington Levy’s “Under Mi Sensi”) but we were really focused on writing and executing the sound that we were looking for. Very few songs survived from those days, aside from “Palm Tree,” which we still play live.

I admire people who are willing to relocate great distances from home to follow their dreams and I’m really curious about your relocation from the Boston area to San Diego in February, 2016. Was it planned from the beginning, or what prompted the move? Was it an easy, unanimous decision, or was there some hesitation? How did you choose San Diego over other west coast locations? Did you all move in together, or did you/do you live separately? Did you have any contacts out there at all? 

Kyle Hancock – We all made the decision to move about a year in advance and we had done one west coast tour before we decided. Carlos Culture and Mana Thome were the only contacts we really had as far as booking shows out there and they helped us get the seed planted. Some friends of ours showed us around the area too and we fell in love with the Southern California vibe. The five of us rented a house together in east county, San Diego, for the first two years. Now, we all have our own living situations, but all within San Diego County. We all get together multiple days a week still. 

What were the greatest challenges that you faced by relocating to California? 

Mahoney – It was absolutely a challenge and a risk in itself. We all drove across the country with only our clothes and gear, without a job or a place to live. Our plan was to just get to San Diego and figure it out. All five of us lived in a one bedroom Air BnB for 3 weeks while we looked for jobs and a house to rent. In that 3 weeks, we found day jobs and a house to rent. Then everything fell into place, more or less. On top of that challenge, all of our families are in Massachusetts, so of course that is always tough, but now that we tour often, we get to see them when we make the rounds.

What was it like getting started musically in your new home? Did you book gigs easily and quickly feel accepted into the community, or did it take a while to build relationships and a local following? 

Ryan Thaxter – We decided on February 2016 for the move and we basically treated the first month or two like a tour of Southern California. We had a bunch of shows booked out there before we even left Massachusetts. We settled in for a week or two and then started playing a few local gigs a week. That got our momentum going. We wanted to just play San Diego so much that it was hard to ignore our hustle. Some people definitely helped us out right away, like Carlos Culture, Mana Thome, Scott Clayton and a bunch of others. For the most part, we felt welcomed into the scene and we quickly had a little crew of people that were on our side. Then, it was just about building on what we had. We still had to work hard to get into people’s ears but it helped to have some people on our side from the get-go.

How would you compare the music scene, both reggae and otherwise, from Boston to San Diego? 

Mahoney – I would say they are pretty vastly different. The reason we moved to San Diego is because of the amazing reggae scene on the west coast. We played pretty heavily back home but the scene is much smaller, less reggae nights, less reggae bands. The jam-band scene in the Northeast is a huge part of the vibe out there. We were definitely inspired by that to an extent (all being Phish & Grateful Dead fans) but what we really loved was the few reggae bands coming from our area. John Brown’s Body/Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad/10ft Ganja Plant, all from Boston/NY, were our absolute favorite bands. We traveled far and wide to catch their shows as often as possible. Still, that’s the type of reggae we love deeply. There is a different sound between the two coasts, both great, but we really come from that Northeast reggae vibe. The first West Coast bands we were really bumping and loving were The Expanders and Arise Roots, both of which we’ve toured with and became close with. Also, we thought The Aggrolites were the best thing in the world. We’ve yet to play with them, but that day will be amazing. It’s really hard to picture not living on the west coast for the rest of my life, honestly though. I’m quite over those harsh Boston winters.

Do you think living in San Diego has had an influence on your songwriting? 

MacKenzie – San Diego brought us closer to the bands and artists that are really at the top of the reggae scene, so it’s easy to take notice of what they’re doing that keeps their live shows exciting. And to see all these bands working really hard keeps the spark lit under us to work harder too. 

You also released a live album in 2016, Live at the Belly Up, which is a legendary southern CA venue. What prompted you to release a live album at that point in your career? 

Hancock – We had been in California for about 4 months and we had heard a lot about the legendary Belly Up. We got the opportunity to open for The Wailers there and had our friends Derek Brown on keys and Erik Wainwright on percussion. The sound there is always amazing but the sound guy that night happened to record it from the soundboard and when we heard the tracks they sounded really nice so we decided to put it out as a live album. It also helped hold fans over in between studio releases since there was a few unrecorded tracks in the set we played. We also felt that it sort of represented our move and everything we had worked for up to that point. 

Your new album, Gold Fever, drops November 1. Where does the name come from? 

Mahoney – So… “Gold Fever” is basically a wing sauce/pizza sauce that anywhere worth eating at would have back home in Bridgewater, MA. It’s something like Buffalo sauce, honey mustard, with some extra flavors thrown in. I don’t know where the hell it was invented but every pizza spot in our hometown had it, and it is soooooo good! I’ve never seen it anywhere but in the South Shore MA area. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. On top of that origin, we thought about how back in the gold rush days, they were all moving west to Cali to find gold, and it kind of hit home for us. We came to California to find (musical) success, from a small east coast town with the best pizza sauce in the world. That’s where we got “Gold Fever.”  Now everybody go visit Bridgewater, MA, and go to Baldies Pizza or College Pizza and eat a Gold Fever pizza and tell them Dubbest sent ya. I can’t wait for you all to hear this album.

You once again worked with Craig Welsch, who did an amazing job on your previous album, Light Flashes. How did you link up with Craig? Did the connection come through the Boston music scene? What about Craig do you find to be a good match for Dubbest? 

MacKenzie – Originally, we met Craig at the Western Front in Cambridge. We were opening for The Itals and he happened to be there. I talked to him and gave him our demo. He reached out a few weeks later saying he saw potential, and was down to do a single with us. That led to us recording the “Heat And Water” single with him in late 2011. His sound and production skills were exactly what we needed to lock in a sound that was our own. He’s brutally honest, and always works with us to find a middle ground when we we’re at a crossroads trying to make a song flow. His music taste matches nicely with ours as well. He’s good at referencing old Jamaican tracks when we are having trouble locking in a groove. It always feels like home when we walk into his studio and start jamming on all of the vintage gear. At this point in our career, it’s hard to think of us being comfortable recording anywhere else.

I read that Craig had provided a lot of vintage instruments used in recording Light Flashes, and Gold Fever.If you’re using Craig’s instruments to record, is it a challenge to reproduce the sound when performing live? 

Thaxter – The selection of instruments is definitely a part of what makes the sound of those recordings what it is. We used a lot of really cool vintage gear which gives you a little more of an old school sound. When you’re in the studio the goal is just to make a great album, so we’re not thinking about how we are going to reproduce it live; but there is a challenge sometimes recreating it. But playing live gives you an opportunity to inject a different energy into the songs. So maybe it doesn’t sound JUST like the album, but we make sure to cover the crucial details and then just really dig in and put a live energy into it, maybe some improvisation or a new twist on the song. I think our songs tend to be more laid back in the studio. There’s a little more of an edge live, and we are feeding off of the audience’s energy. But also, having nice vintage gear can only take you so far. At the end of the day, your sound is still mostly dependent on how you play, your technique and style, not as much what instrument you’re playing. A really good musician can make a cheap, beat up instrument sound like great music. 

What era of Jamaican music or artists most inspire your songwriting? 

Thaxter – I think we all take a lot of inspiration from the reggae of the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties. The sound of dub early 80s dub is probably some of my favorite stuff, like the string of albums that Scientist released in ’81 and ’82. It still sounds sort of raw, scratchy and vintage, but with the electronic advances of the 80s coming into play. The classic backing bands like Sly & Robbie, Soul Syndicate and Roots Radics are some of our favorites. That’s where our heads are at instrumentally, I think. Vocally, we really get into the harmonies of The Itals, Wailing Souls and Mighty Diamonds, and unique vocalists like Joseph Hill from Culture, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis and Barry Brown. These guys are all from the 70s and 80s as well. There’s so much to learn from these first few decades after reggae was invented, and those were the people laying down the groundwork for the whole genre. Reggae is a lot more flexible than people think. Even when you are sticking to the classic roots sound, you can get pretty wacky and eccentric with it. There is still some great roots reggae coming out nowadays though. Some of our favorite modern bands are 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, The Aggrolites, The Frightnrs, The Expanders, Arise Roots, John Brown’s Body, etc. Roots reggae is still kicking. Each of us draw inspiration from all kinds of other music too, of course, from jazz and funk to Motown and soul, hip hop, ambient music; anything cool and authentic. We are all pretty big Phish fans too so we definitely put some of that psychedelic improvisation into every show. 

Dubbest has been together for ten years now. You’ve had the opportunity to tour with some well-known bands, work with respected producers and you’re about to release your third full length studio album. What have you learned during this time? 

Hancock – Musically and performance-wise we learned a whole lot watching bands that we have toured with or opened for (or had as support). Things like putting together a concise setlist and always trying to put on the best show possible. Also, things like stage presence and connecting with the crowd make a huge difference. Working with Craig on our last two studio albums really helped us get more perspective on the music and refine our playing. I would have to say the main things we have learned as people are to keep your egos in check and treat everybody like they’re your own family. There is always someone working harder than you out there and you can never stop grinding no matter how hard it may seem. You will always see your hard work pay off even if it takes a while.

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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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