Flying Vipers have one of the coolest names in reggae.
According to twins John and Marc Beaudette, who comprise half of the core quartet and also play in two other Boston area bands, prog-rock/reggae mashup Destroy Babylon and The Macrotones, an afrobeat group, they chose the moniker in reference to 1940’s jazz slang for someone who smokes ganja. “Fats Waller’s “If You’re a Viper“, originally written by Stuff Smith, was a favorite novelty song of mine,” explained John. “Marc and I also played D&D as kids and there’s a creature called a flying viper, so it’s a nod to that as well. We’re way more nerdy than people may think.”
“Weed, jazz and the Monster Manual (2nd Edition). A good basis for any new adventure,” added Marc.
Of course, having a great name makes no guarantee that the music will follow suit. In this case, it does. Drop the crystal on their new vinyl, Cuttings, and instantly be transported to a cramped, concrete bunker in Kingston, Jamaica. A thick haze of ganja-smoke masks the sound engineering equipment, but you can hear the excited chatter of patois over the structure-shaking bass. The reverberations loosen small chips of plaster from the ceiling, which fall into your mug of stiff, black Blue Mountain Coffee. Your heart races from the caffeine you’ve imbibed, as your lungs expand and burn and your eyes become heavy. Through it all, the music pulses through you, alternately pulling you into darkness and pushing you toward the light.
In addition to John, who handles guitars, bass and melodica and Marc who plays drums and percussion, Flying Vipers include keyboardist Zack Brines, who plays in reggae/ska band Pressure Cooker, and “dubwise engineer” Jay Champany, a member of the mysterious vintage reggae supergroup, 10 Ft. Ganja Plant.
The fact that Flying Vipers list their mixing engineer as a band member tells you everything you need to know about their music: down and dirty dub reggae, recorded “inna classic stylee” as they might say in a Waterhouse beer garden.
Want to learn more about Flying Vipers background and their latest album, Cuttings? Check out the interview with the brothers Beaudette below.
To celebrate the release of Cuttings on vinyl this week, Rootfire is giving away three (in reverence to Flying Vipers’ “holy trinity of plants,” i.e. ganja, coffee and hops) albums to lucky fans. For a chance to win, enter the contest using the form at the bottom of this article.
RF: All members of FV have a deep history in the New England music community, but what ultimately brought you together to record as FV?
John: Zack had subbed in with our band Destroy Babylon and we played lots of shows with his band Pressure Cooker, so we knew Zack was a ringer. When Marc and I wanted to start a project that was more focused on reggae only, as opposed to the many different directions we took DB, we couldn’t think of a better collaborator than Zack.
Marc: We were lucky to get in on a few 10 Ft Ganja Plant sessions where we met Jay circa 2010, and I eventually joined another band of his, Truth & Rights, with Zack. Over the years we had heard a handful of Jays 8-track dubs and knew we wanted him involved in this new project. We sent around a few demos John made, and the very first time we played together became the Green Tape.
RF: Boston has been a hotbed of reggae music for decades. What do you attribute that to?
J: Boston’s love affair with reggae goes back to the early ’70s when the classic film The Harder They Come ran for years at a theater in Cambridge. When Bob Marley & the Wailers first started touring the states, they played week-long residencies in this area, and reggae got a lot of airtime on our numerous college radio stations. Boston had a few clubs like the Western Front that gave a space for reggae musicians to develop (we had the honor of supporting the Itals there before they closed). Our friend Deano Sounds runs a killer record label called Cultures of Soul, and they recently released a compilation of vintage Boston reggae (called Take Us Home) and have written about the history – check out this article by Noah Schaffer.
RF: Your biography mentions punk roots. Could you expand on those roots a bit?
J: We all grew up listening to punk and hardcore before we fell in love with Jamaican music. It was bands like The Clash and Bad Brains that got us into reggae and dub. The Rock Against Racism movement from the late 70’s UK had a lasting effect that eventually hit suburban America, while lots of the post-punk bands we love (like Gang of Four, The Pop Group) incorporated dub techniques into their sound. We’re still very much in that world too; we just released a post-hardcore project with our good friend & DB bandmate Rob Carmichael, called Minus Delta Vee, and Zack is in a killer garage rock band called Song Birds.
RF: Reggae and punk have had a connection dating back to 1970s England. Both genres are rooted in rebellion and social action. As a mostly instrumental dub outfit, do you think your music can still serve as an agent for change and if so, how?
J: Our other band Destroy Babylon was mostly all political & social commentary, and we’re always inspired by artists that use their musical voice to speak truth to power. I think it’s very much possible to send a message without necessarily using lyrics. During the civil rights era, you had jazz artists like John & Alice Coltrane, Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and many more speak volumes and take a stand without needing words. Flying Vipers certainly aren’t doing what those artists did, but I think we send our own message. It’s important we acknowledge that our music is deeply in debt to the Black artists from Jamaica that pioneered the sound and techniques. I think listening to reggae music as a white person and understanding where it comes from requires at least a certain level of openness and respect for the creators. Instrumental music could allow more interpretation from the listener to make meaning out of it, so while some just use it for chill background music, others can use it for deeper meditation and reflection.
RF: Focusing on your latest release, Cuttings, which just dropped on vinyl and cassette, does the title refer to recordings that were extracted from previous sessions? I’m thinking at the least it’s a reference to the fact that the music was recorded on a tape.
J: Yeah the title can work in a few different ways. Of course, there’s the horticultural meaning of the word (especially in the propagation of cannabis plants), there’s the song titles, aka cuts of the record, and the traditional method of splicing tape to make edits (not that we did that here). Most of the tunes were actually written and demo’d years ago for Destroy Babylon, but by the time we got the Vipers project going with Zack and Jay, we had a whole new crop of ideas that turned into The Green Tape. Then the next session we had more new songs, which became The Copper Tape. We finally went back to this original batch for the LP, so in a way you could say that they were cuttings from previous sessions.
RF: Do you have any favorite tracks on the album, and if so, why?
J: I’m partial to “Scorpio Son”, mainly because I love the bass clarinet played by our friend (and former bandmate in the Macrotones,) Emily Pecoraro. The intro to the tune had a slight spiritual jazz vibe (I’m a huge fan of Pharoah Sanders and that scene), and I thought bass clarinet could further that, like what Bennie Maupin brought to the electric Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock records.
M: “Two Twenties Clash” is one of the rhythms that had been kicking around forever, and I think it was the addition of the 3-part horn section that helped make it a standout. “Cloudkill” is another highlight for me that has almost a hip-hop beat, inspired by a DJ Shadow track we would play around with.
RF: One of my favorite questions to ask artists regarding instrumental tunes is how song titles are decided upon. Can you provide a little insight into some of the titles on this record?
J: Outside of the music, Vipers have three main ingredients for session fuel: coffee, cannabis, and hops. Most of the songs are titled after what we were drinking or what strain we were smoking at the time. That holy trinity of plants is another reason for the album title. “Mash Tun” is a term in home brewing, which we dabble in, and “Gesho” is a plant used in traditional Ethiopian beer and mead.
M: Some tracks are named on the spot and stick – “Willy’s Wonder” was one of those – while others have multiple working titles, and a week before it’s released we’ll finally settle on something. “Twin Donuts” is an ode to our old stomping grounds, when we lived a stone’s throw away from the best coffee shop in Allston. Well maybe not the best, but definitely the closest.
RF: I know the music is recorded on an 8-track cassette recorder, but how about the dub effects? What type of equipment is used for that?
J: Everything is recorded and mixed on a Tascam 488 portastudio (originally mkI, then we upgraded to the mkII). For effects, the two main units we use are a Roland RE-201 Space Echo and a Tapco 4400 spring reverb tank. The Tascam has two separate Aux sends, so each of these units are routed to the board. Sometimes we’ll add in a third FX option in the chain, like a phaser or synth pedal. Most of the phaser sound is achieved with a Source Audio Lunar pedal, that comes close to the depth of a Mutron Bi-Phase. We never track with any effects, the only exceptions being a rare wah on the rhythm guitar, and an envelope filter on the clav. Jay will turn the aux dials as well as tweaking the outboard gear during the live mix. The main output of the portastudio – Jay’s live mix – goes to a digital recorder, and that’s the final product.
RF: Back in February, you released the second track on the album, “Two Twenties Clash,” as a single. I assume the title is at least partly in reference to the Culture song “Two Sevens Clash,” from their monumental debut album of the same name, which had been based on the Marcus Garvey prophecy for chaos revolving around the date of July 7, 1977. Since then, the world, and the U.S.A. in particular, have been set aflame in fear, controversy, and struggle unlike most of us have ever experienced before. It seems oddly prophetic, but what inspired the title? Was there a general sense of foreboding, or a specific incident that spurred the name?
J: The title was definitely a nod to Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, and we even released the single on February 20th, 2020 (2/20/20). I thought of the name some time during 2019, knowing that 2020 was going to be a politically tumultuous year because of the election. Even without the pandemic, the Trump administration has caused so much division and damage. Add Covid on top of the worst presidency of our lifetime and it has been a perfect shitstorm of a year.
M: For my graphic design day job, I’ve developed a close working relationship with a factory in China, and we were privy to the seriousness of the spread early on. At the start of 2020, we had the name settled, artwork ready. Suddenly my job was put on hold directly following Chinese New Year, and just as the 2/20 release approached, the virus had reached Massachusetts. Our great friend and band photographer was working that infamous Boston conference, and she was one of the first Covid patients in the US. Needless to say it was wild (and horrifying) to watch everything unfold immediately after posting our apocalyptic new single. As the situation grew more dire, it made us rethink even releasing the album, knowing there were much more important things to turn our attention to. We joined the protests and continued to discuss the role of music and art during such turbulent times, and ultimately decided to get it out and give most of the profit towards charities. It’s insane to think that was only a few months ago, and we’re still in the middle of it all.
RF: I love the “chirps” in “Willy’s Wonder.” Is this just an effect or were the sound of actual birds used and then just messed with? Over the years, I can recall similar sounds of birds in music by Culture and Peter Tosh (off the top of my head.) I’m curious what the inspiration was for adding this to the song? For me, a lot of the keyboard sounds throughout the album have a sinister vibe to them, but the chirping effect seems to brighten the song. Was that it?
J: Yeah that synth bird chirp noise is silly but it’s pretty classic. We didn’t have the right gear to do it that same way – Marc actually found a small plastic bird whistle that you fill with water. Similar results! The LP has a mostly dark overtone, but “Willy’s Wonder” is one of the more upbeat riddims, so we thought the bird was a nice way to help balance out all the dread.
M: I acquired that hot pink bird whistle from an arcade ticket booth many summers back, and have been wanting to use it since the first Vipers session. I’m so glad it finally made a little birdhouse in the soul of Willy.
RF: When writing and recording the music, is there any consideration given to what Jay will do with the mix down the road?
J: Not typically. While there have been a few instances of us suggesting a possible idea for the dub mix, the vast majority is left up to Jay. He has such a great ear for composing dub mixes that are classic but not tired. We always debate releasing the straight-up untouched instrumental versions of the tunes only so people can hear just how much Jay’s mixing changes the song.
M: Only when I listen back and hear a drum flub. Then I kindly ask Jay to “dub that part out.”
RF: TDK or Maxell, Sony or Fuji? Thinking Memorex is shit.
J: TDK is preferred, but these days it’s tough to find anything new or NOS, so really we’ll use whatever HiBias Type 2 tapes we can get our hands on.
M: Gotta give it to Maxell for the best commercial, though.
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