Everyone gets fired up when one of their favorite bands is set to release a new album. That emotion is magnified exponentially when said band hasn’t put out new music in eight years. Case in point: The Aggrolites.
For the uninitiated, The Aggrolites were founded in 2002 by singer Jesse Wagner and keyboardist Roger Rivas to back reggae legend Derrick Morgan for some live performances as well as to record music for a new album. That project never saw the light of day, but the recording sessions inspired the Aggrolites to stick together and put out music of their own.
The following year they released a debut album, Dirty Reggae. Their up-tempo early reggae with a Motown essence, flavored by Wagner’s soulful, gravelly bellow and driven by Rivas’s dazzling organ work, quickly took the reggae community by storm. After catching the attention of Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, they signed to his Hellcat Records label in 2005 and together released their next three records, which gained them further adoration and respect.
As often happens in the largely DIY American reggae scene, after a decade of writing, recording and hardcore touring, the grueling pace burned them out. Needing a break, band members sought a more equitable balance between their personal and professional lives. While staying active within the music community independent of their collective, The Aggrolites’ respite turned into an extended hiatus, with the exception of a few local shows each year.
Many of us Aggrolites fans, especially in places away from California, wondered if we had seen and heard the last of the band as we knew them. Thankfully, that is not the case.
After learning that the Los Angeles rockers were going to be dropping a new album, REGGAE NOW!, this spring, with feverish anticipation and unbridled excitement, Rootfire reached out to The Aggrolites camp and told them that we wanted to help promote their latest offering.
REGGAE NOW!, which drops May 24th on Pirates Press Records, delivers that sizzling Aggrolites sound and energy with full effect. It’s everything Aggrolites fans would expect – high octane, feel-good skinhead reggae with lighthearted and at times funny lyrics, bubbling keyboards, bouncy basslines and the unmistakable powerhouse vocals of singer Jesse Wagner.
From this collection of 14 zesty tracks, today Rootfire is proud to premiere “Groove Them Move Them,” three and a half minutes of pure elation. With a delightful melody, this simple but irresistible tune celebrates the revelry of reggae music, urging listeners to “Shake your hips, and groove them, to this reggae beat.”
The song continues, “Take your boots, and move them, down to Old Bond Street,” one of several lyrical references to different iconic Jamaican streets. This emulates the early reggae tendency to big up the sounds happening in different areas of Kingston, essentially acknowledging the street or neighborhood where an artist/producer came from, or the studio where the music was recorded. An example of this would be reggae legend Prince Buster’s “Shaking Up Orange Street,” which seems especially apropos given that Prince Buster will celebrate his 79th birthday on the same day as The Aggrolites release REGGAE NOW!
In Jamaican culture, where many people live in rural areas and lack a lot of basic necessities and amenities, the resourceful islanders concoct natural remedies to treat various ailments. One of these, roots tonic, has been purported to improve health in a variety of ways, most notably increasing stamina and sex drive. If this brew essentially cures whatever ails while boosting libido, consider Reggae Now! sonic tonic.
Rootfire readers seeking more insight into the new album as well as the history of the band and one of its founding members can read our interview with Roger Rivas below.
How would you describe the Los Angeles reggae community and how it may differ from other regional scenes?
Well first off, if you are a reggae fan in Los Angeles you are stoked. I have never been to another city that has so many reggae events on a weekly basis. The L.A reggae scene is a tight-knit one for the most part. People tend to be supportive and appreciative of what we got here. I would say reggae communities worldwide all share the common love for the music. No matter where you live, if you are a reggae fan you feel a part of “a club”. If I could find one thing that differs, it definitely would be the consistency of good reggae concerts and DJ nights. We are spoiled here in Los Angeles.
The Aggrolites coined the term “dirty reggae” to describe their music. Can you elaborate on how you chose that name and why you think it’s an appropriate moniker to describe The Aggrolites style?
Dirty usually has a negative connotation right? In music it tends to be quite the opposite. We appreciate the warmth and grittiness of old recordings. You wouldn’t classify the old Jamaican recordings of the 1960’s as “clean” by any means. Those rough characteristics are what we appreciate. Our songwriting and recording production lends a hand to that. We aim to remind you of these classic recordings. Dirty funk, dirty soul… Dirty Reggae.
I read that you recorded your entire first album, Dirty Reggae, in one day with the tracks recorded in one take, and similarly, most of the rhythm tracks for REGGAE NOW!, in one day. What prompted this approach, and how do you think it impacts the music?
This is very important! The freshness and rawness of going with an early take totally shows in the recording. Many bands nowadays will produce a track to death and beat all the life out of it. This also lends itself to the early days of Jamaican music. Tons of music was recorded with the first or second takes as the keeper. You can sometimes hear the imperfections, but that’s what adds. It doesn’t subtract in my book.
The new album follows suit with the most classic Aggrolites recordings – upbeat, feel good early/skinhead reggae. In the press release, Jesse mentions that the band had gone a little out of the box with the last studio record, IV. In what way would you say the band did that and how did that experience prompt the band, if at all, to return more to your roots with REGGAE NOW!?
Its cliché and I know a lot of bands say this but we grew as musicians. Since IV, we have all had the opportunity to write and release with other side projects. You need that outlet as an artist. You grow and are influenced musically by different things. That directly reflects your songwriting. I think this allowed us to recognize and promote that particular style that we had in early Aggro recordings. After time you want to re-visit the same writing approach you did early in your career. It’s fun. Back in the day, Jesse and I would get together with some brews and just write. No pressure or expectations. You know when it’s right. Like Quincy Jones said “You know when you get goosebumps, there is a pretty good chance they will too” We are proud of how this new album is reminiscent of the early Aggro days.
True to that Aggro style, approximately a third of the 14 tracks on REGGAE NOW! Are instrumental (or mostly instrumental.) I’m curious, does the writing process begin with the intention of keeping them instrumental, or is there a more mundane reason for it, like nobody felt like writing lyrics to it.
Funny you say that, 1 of the tracks “15 or 50” was the case of nothing really coming up lyrically. All the other instrumentals were written specifically to be instrumental tracks. Being that our main influence is reggae from the late 60’s its only right to approach instrumentals with the same importance as vocal tunes.
I’ve also wondered how the titles of instrumental tracks are chosen, and whether they are randomly named, or if the title ties in to the music. On “Western Taipan” off the new record, for example, there is that little sinister sounding vocal introduction about the serpent slithering through the grass, but beyond that, do you feel the music somehow relates to a snake? Or am I reading into this all way too deeply?
For the case of “Wester Taipan” we had a dope spooky instrumental. In that case we wrote a list of deadly animals and BAM! The western taipan is not a snake you want to mess with. It kind of lends itself to the mood of the song. If you look at the early Jamaican instrumental albums like let’s say by The Upsetters or Jackie Mittoo, you find that just reading the names off the back of the LP intrigues you to want to listen. With vocal tunes you kind of already in a box with what the title will be. You can go ANYWHERE with instrumental tunes. That’s the overall goal with naming those. Cool names that grab the listener.
Focusing on the song that we are premiering today, “Move Them Grove Them,” the lyrics reference several different streets. I’m curious, are these actual streets in a specific neighborhood? It reminds me of those old rocksteady and early reggae tunes that would big up the street the studio was on. Was that what you guys were going for?
Totally nailed it! Jesse had the idea for the lyrics. He came in with a bunch of cool reference streets of studios and other relevant places. Definite shout outs to the old hoods.
Looking back, it was my love of Rancid that first introduced me to The Aggrolites. Could you tell me a little bit about how The Aggrolites first linked up with Tim Armstrong, which ultimately led to the band putting out three albums on Hellcat Records?
Yeah. It was all about those “Give em the boot” comps. We were lucky enough to get on a couple and that ultimately lead to a 3 album deal with Hellcat/Epitaph. Man were we stoked! Tim then had us serve as the backing band for his solo album “A Poets Life”. That relationship helped us out tons as you could imagine. They type of Skinhead reggae sound we were doing translated well to punks, psychobilly and other fans of the label.
On a personal level, how were you first introduced to reggae music? Was it love at first listen, or did it take a while to grow on you? What aspects of the music appeal to you?
SKA! In Jr High school a buddy of mine was a big influence on me musically. His older sister was dating a skinhead and that’s how he got a hold of music. 2-tone at first then Jamaican ska. Everything was cassette at that point. I remember borrowing a cassette from him and in sharpie it said “Studio 1” for the longest time I thought studio 1 was a band. It ended up being The Skatalites. Either way I needed more. Over time the same characteristics that got you moving to ska, then gets you moving to rocksteady and early reggae. I think it needed to happen I that order. If The Pioneers or Upsetters were the first thing I heard, I might not have hit me the same way.
When did you first start playing keyboards? Who are your greatest influences as a musician?
Started messing around with piano in early high school. My father has always played piano so growing up it was always there. After finding my musical identity through Jamaican music, I found the connection. I could write ska songs! As simple as they were (C minor ska stuff) I could then write melodies/rhythm/ and bass parts for my early ska bands. Hands down my father is my greatest influence. He is a monster on keys, but I don’t just learn from him in that area alone. There is a lot that comes with being a musician other than playing your instrument that no one teaches you about. The lifestyle. The pros and cons. The highs and the lows. It’s one of the most unique jobs to choose as a profession. As far as Jamaican influences I would say those obvious dudes like Jackie Mittoo and Winston Wright. There were many other organ/piano players, but those 2 guys right there. Wow! Oh definitely Gladdy Anderson.
During the band’s lengthy hiatus from recording and touring, each band member stayed active in the music scene with other projects. You established a recording studio, Rivas Recordings, and helped form several other bands. Obviously your role in producing records there makes it unique, but is there anything else, like with the physical structure or other features, that set it apart from other recording studios? Could you tell us a little bit about what bands you had a hand in putting together or helping along the way?
Yeah. By default each studio and producer is going to be a major ingredient in the cooking of the sauce. It’s simple at Rivas Studios, I can help deliver a specific kind of sound. If you are a fan of vintage music and want to re-create the feeling, then let’s do it! If you want to make some great reggae music, bring it here. I don’t try to come off as your standard studio that can tackle any genre. Quite the opposite. I’m selective who I work with as the client should be as well. I have old school equipment and boast myself on having the same type models of organs and pianos from early Jamaica. My approach is going be old school. Everyone needs to be on the same page. You are all creating this thing you want to be proud of. It trips me out when a band spends so much time nurturing their grooves, parts and nuances of a song, but yet goes into a studio that’s not use to specializing in that sound. We recorded the whole last Aggrolites album here as well as the last 2 albums from The Delirians and upcoming album from The Steady 45s. All those boys get it! Top musicians that know Jamaican music. All the music that has come out on my Rivas label has been recorded in house as well. More recently a top new act by the name of The First Cuts released a single here. Go scope it at rivasrecordings.com
What reggae bands have recently impressed you the most, including the bands that you’ve personally worked with and beyond?
Hmm. I am constantly impressed by musicians more than bands. For example I will see live bands and musicians all the time, but working with them in the studio gives you a different perspective. Their superpowers come out. I am always impressed by the way a player will adlib. Or what tone they set there equipment at. A certain guitar lick that will remind me of an old Jamaican tune. I get excited. It’s like we are part of a nerdy club. Steady 45s and Delirians really nail it individually. Love working with them. A band that I feel really gets it as well is The Travellers Allstars out of Mexico. Those boys are dead on it. The feel is spot on. If I could get them in Rivas Studios that would be awesome.
What did you miss about working with The Aggrolites, if anything, during the band’s hiatus from recording and touring?
There was really nothing to miss. haha I mean we were constantly playing shows at least a couple of times a month. We are in constant communication with each other as well. If anything I am looking forward to the whole “new album” feeling of touring. So I guess you can say I miss not having new music to promote.
What ultimately prompted the band to record and tour again? What are you most looking forward to with the band getting back on the road? Do you foresee more continuous touring, or will you cross that bridge after this tour?
I am big on marketing. A band is a business. You NEED new material/ product constantly especially in this day of social media and content coming and going. It just makes sense. We are all busy dudes, but we finally decided it was time. I wish more bands would realize this. There is no reason why bands shouldn’t be releasing a lot more than they do. Of course it has to be good and not crap. Touring is just another part of the business plan. There are pros and cons with being on the road for months at a time. Any touring musician can sympathize with that. When we were young we were road warriors. We are a lot older now. None of us are looking to do that again. Shows and tour runs we do have to make sense. If there is one thing for certain, it’s that we want to reach all of our fans worldwide. This summer we are hitting the U.S and Canada hard with Long Beach Dub Allstars. This November we will be rocking a month long European tour.
What are the most memorable moments of your career as a member of The Aggrolites and/or during your life within the reggae community?
Probably being able to meet and share the stage with some of the originators that you grew up listening to. I remember being a kid going to Hepcat shows and now Alex and Deston are singing on the new Aggro record. (Cat’s out the bag). Would have never guessed that. Being able to back up Prince Buster, Alton Ellis, and Leonard Dillion. Are you kidding me? I have had so many doors open for me by being in The Aggrolites. Opportunities that are shaping my musical career now. Definitely grateful.
Do you have any favorite Aggrolites songs from your catalog and from the new album?
That’s always a rough one. Like right now I have listened to the songs off the new album probably more than anybody. I like “Aggro Invasion” I am proud of it being a product of inspiration from Lee Perry. What I am proud most about “REGGAE NOW!” is that you can let the whole album play. In the past I might not have said that about previous albums. This new album has potential for each song to be someone’s favorite.
As if a new Aggrolites album wasn’t thrilling enough, the news gets even better for Aggrolites fans. The band will embark on a national tour in support of Long Beach Dub Allstars, starting in their hometown on May 23rd and continuing through early August while making nearly 40 stops. Reggae fans should do everything in their power to make one of these shows and be prepared to boogie and sweat.