Before they hit the stage to perform on the Hotting Up tour at NYC’s Webster Hall we sat down with Devin Morrison, guitarist and singer from The Expanders to talk about the tour, vintage Jamaican reggae and a lot more.
Reggae In NYC (RN)
The Expanders (EX)
RN: Alright. So, let’s just kick it off. I know you are on tour right now for a few nights with Iration and Hirie, how has the tour been going?
EX: Yeah, it’s really been a good tour so far. We’ve done four shows. Iration has this pretty big draw, so the crowds have been really good every night. We’ve gotten to play a few places that we haven’t played. We’ve started off in Morris, Kansas and we always have a nice time there. Then we went to Madison, Wisconsin, which we had never been to. Then Minneapolis, which we had never been too either. So, it’s been really good. It’s fun to play.
RN: I saw you guys have some other guest appearances on the tour as well. As you get to the festival s with bands like Slightly Stoopid, The Green and Collie Buddz?
EX: Yes, yes, yes. That’s (Cali Roots Festival) at the end of May, and we’ve been doing that a lot. Three or four years. We really look forward to that because that’s like the ‘Coachella’ of the reggae scene. It’s the one weekend where all the touring reggae their come and meet up. Come together, hang out, and catch up and stuff.
RN: In the reggae community there’s a big conversation about root revival. The idea that bands like Chronixx, Protoje and Jah9 are bringing back the roots music of reggae. I would put you guys squarely in that category as well. What would you say about that, do you think roots ever went away?
EX: Well, thank you for putting us in that category. It’s hard to say because, us in this band, we never really pay much attention to popular music. We were always into roots. I think you have your trends come and go within any kind of music and it seems like lately with the artists you just described that there’s kind of a shift back towards what people would call “roots”.
I feel like that has happened several times since the 70’s, in the first wave of roots music. I feel like in the late 90’s and the mid-late 90s, you have artists like Sizzla doing his take on what we call “roots”. It went away again and it’s coming back. I think it’s always there, in some way. For us, it’s just what we’ve always listened to, anyway. It’s always been there for us.
RN: Let’s talk about your music. Your latest album has been out for about 9 months now. How has the response to that album been?
EX: It’s been great. We’ve been lucky enough to have fans who really seem to just dig the music for the music. We’re really happy with putting the record out on Easy Star and they've been able to get us some exposure and distribution that we probably couldn’t have gotten otherwise. The whole experience with Hustling Culture has been a really good one.
RN: I read that the Hustling Culture album, for the band, was a little bit about coming into your own as songwriters and musicians. Tell me a little bit about that?
EX: Yeah. The first record we put out, came out in 2011, but we started recording it in about 2006. At that point, there was a core of the band that consisted of myself, John Butcher, who’s our guitar player, and Chiquis (Lozoya), who’s our bass player. Outside of the three of us and other musicians for drums, keys and percussion, we didn’t really have any solid members. It was just people doing recording sessions.
Then in 2008, about halfway through the recording of that record, John Asher joined the band who’s been with us ever since on drums. But even when he was recording with us for the first record, we hadn’t spent a lot of time performing or practicing together. It was really just a bunch of friends coming together to record an album of songs that I had written and then Chiquis and John had done the musical arrangements. Where as, for Hustling Culture, the band had been performing, practicing and recording for years by the time we started recording Hustling Culture. We knew how to play with each other more. The band had really coalesced musically and grown musically, because of the time we had spent together. That factor made the experience a little bit different and resulted in just a little bit more of a cohesive result.
RN: When you are putting some of those tracks together, what is the writing process like for you?
EX: Our writing process. I will write a song on my own, just on guitar, and record a little demo version and send it to everybody. If everybody likes it, we’ll build the musical aspects in practice. That part of the process is really Chiquis’ and John Butcher and John Asher. Even though I write the lyrics, by the end of the song, it’s a full team collaboration. That’s what the process is. I will bring a song and we’ll build it musically. And once we like it, then it’s ready to record.
RN: I heard you guys used vintage equipment for this album, to get an authentic sound?
EX: We did the same for the first two albums too. All three of our records are recorded to analog. Well, the first record and Hustling Culture were both recorded in a studio called Kilion Sound. That’s owned by the guitar player in a band called Orgone, who play funk, dirty disco and stuff. They’re from LA. We’ve been playing with them for years and they have a studio where they have collected vintage analog equipment, old microphones and compressors and stuff. We’ve always recorded there. We’re not recreating the sound of old Jamaica because there’s more to that than just buying old equipment. I wouldn’t say our records really sound like old Jamaican music, but that’s definitely our goal and we like to record all in one room, put it to tape and you get that warm sound. We always try to keep that as a core of our sound.
RN: The second album Old Time Something is such an interesting album because you could’ve covered so many different “old” reggae songs. Many bands would have just picked, non-Legend Bob Marley. But you guys choose some real classics and obscurities for the common listener. What made you choose those tracks specifically?
EX: A lot of those tracks were songs that we have been playing live for a long time. Since the start of the band. Because when we started, we had just begun to start writing songs. We didn’t have a lot of original material and like I said, everyone in the band has always just been super into old school Jamaican music.
A lot of us were lucky growing up in LA from various different sources to be exposed to a lot of really obscure Jamaican music. We had a lot of tapes that record collectors would make, and a lot of the songs that ended up being an Old Time Something, were songs that we just kind of grown up with. Listening on tapes people had given us and listening to DJs around LA spin them. We have been playing songs like Conquering Lion by The Ethiopians and Fire is Burning by Justin Hinds, things like that. We’ve just been playing live for so long that we figured, let’s record these songs so that when we do continue to play them in our live set the fans will know and be able to sing along. It will increase their enjoyment of the show experience for them.
But also and mainly, we recorded the record because those songs, nobody knows them and they’re just such great songs. So much Jamaican music that nobody knows about because it was pressed in maybe one, very limited edition seven inch pressing and never got any radio play for whatever reason. People just don’t know them. I think we all feel a little sense of responsibility. If we are out here to play roots reggae music then we need to do what we can to pay homage to the artists that created it and really formed this whole genre that now so many people are benefiting from the existence of. We’ve made a point on the back of the record, if you go to the download site and look at next to every song it says who the original artist is and how you can possibly find the record. We really just want to expose that music to the people.
RN: That exposure is great. So many people don’t get to hear some of that older stuff. Is that part of the reason you guys gave it away for free?
EX: Yeah, I mean, we knew from the get go that we weren’t trying to make money off of someone else’s songs. It just made sense to give it away for free. Keeping with our mission of trying to expose people to that music. Even if there was some way we could’ve made money off it, it didn't really feel like the right thing to do. Maybe someday, we’ll re-release it and properly license every song and try to do it legit, but for now, it’s really cool as a free giveaway.
RN: In California you’ve had an opportunity to play with some great artists: Alton Ellis, The Maytones and The Ethiopians. Any one memory stand out as a great experience that you had?
EX: Every single one of those opportunities we had backing those Jamaican artists, really just meant so much to us. They were all amazing in their own ways. We learned a lot. We grew up idolizing all these guys and just to be able to play music with them, be in a rehearsal stage with them, listening to them do their thing, it was incredible. I’d say that if I had to choose the one that stood out the most, it would be Leonard Dillon, because The Ethiopians have always been our biggest inspiration. Also, Alton Ellis because he was the first artist we backed. We didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know what he was going to think of us. At that time, I was about 23 years old or something when we did that and I really had no idea what Alton was going to think of this 23 year-old white kid trying to learn all his songs and he just made us feel so good about what we were doing. We had one rehearsal that went well, we requested another one for the next day, and he was down. The next day when he showed up he brought us a twelve pack of Corona and a large pizza. That was just a trip to have Alton Ellis bringing us that stuff. That one and the Leonard Dillon show really meant a lot to us.
RN: You have a section of downloadable tracks on your site referencing the sound system. Let me ask you, it’s 40 years ago, Jamaica, you are walking down the street and it forks, where do you go, Coxone Dodd or Duke Reid?
EX: That’s a good question. I think for me, I can only answer for myself, and I’m going Studio One every time.
RN: Do you guys follow any of the current sound systems that are out today?
EX: Not so much. I think, maybe our drummer, John Asher, might be a little more intuned to that and our keyboard player Roy (Fishell) too might know a little bit more about that. I really don’t, but I would like to. Well, I take one thing back. There’s a sound system in LA called Echodelic Sound that runs The Dub Club. It’s been going on for more than a decade now every Wednesday. It’s the biggest reggae night in Southern California. The biggest weekly reggae night and they’re amazing. Selectors Tom Chasteen and Boss Harmony, it’s called Echodelic Sound and they have Tippa Lee, Jah Faith and Lloyd Hemmings on the mic every Wednesday. At this point, I can say that I kind of grew up listening to those guys.
RN: We touched on this earlier, the idea that there are two camps in reggae. Caribbean/Jamaican reggae and what’s called West Coast or Cali reggae. I think the show you guys are doing is unique with three different sounds all coming together. What are your thoughts?
EX: It’s really important to bring it all together. We really feel that way. I get the feeling sometimes that people assume we don’t feel that way because we play an old style of music but everyone has their musical preferences. It’s ok to say ‘I like this one kind of music more than this other kind of music.’ There’s no real need to take it any further than that. We always say what’s good for one band of the reggae scene, whether they’re playing reggae rock, roots, and throwback stuff, whatever it is. What’s good for one band is ultimately good for all of us. The fact that you have some bands really blowing up on such a huge level where they are selling out two nights in a row at a premier venue at a big city, that’s amazing for reggae music. Everybody benefits from that.
It is important that some of those bands recognize where the music comes from, talk about it, and make people aware of it. But I see that happening. I see a lot of the bigger bands like Slightly Stoopid and Rebelution doing exactly that. You know, brining Don Carlos on tour with them and talking about old school music, I think there’s no need for the scenes to be separate. I understand you may be a fan of one music, not going to see a band who playa the other kind of music, but that’s your musical preference. But we can all benefit from just coming together and making the scene a little more tight knit.
RN: I’ve read in other interviews as you correct people when they call your music rocksteady. I would refer to it more as Rocker’s music. How would you define your sound to someone who hasn’t heard it or those terms before?
EX: Rocker’s music is really what we do play. As well as early 80’s rub-a-dub, early dancehall style, Roots Radics style. Those are the main things that we do. Nowadays, we aren’t using the ‘rocker’ term too much because of the existence of the reggae/rock genre. And for us, the term ‘rockers’ gets too easily confused with the term rock/reggae, so we don’t use that term so much. We definitely don’t do, like you’ve mentioned, we don’t do too much rocksteady. Although we love rocksteady, we listen to a grip of rocksteady. But just thus far we haven’t recorded rocksteady songs, which is a very specific genre recorded between ‘66 and ‘68. We don’t do too much of it, but we just like to say we play vintage Jamaican music because that’s what we grew up listening to and that’s what we love. Any kind of music that a musician listens to a lot is going to come out in the music that they themselves create. For the most part, we just listened to ‘70s and early ‘80s Jamaican music our whole lives.
RN: On that note, what reggae do you have playing on your iPod right now?
EX: Well, let’s see. I’ll turn my iPod on, I got it right here. The Itals, first thing that comes up. Our tour iPod has a lot of 70’s and ‘80s stuff. I’m also a big fan of the band Midnite, I also got a lot of old gospel, like early Sam Cooke. John Butcher and I are really into old country music, like George Jones and Merle Haggard, stuff like that. Chiquis plays a lot of boogaloo and salsa and stuff like that, and a lot of Jamaican music. We have a heavy influence of Jamaican music, but lots of other stuff that comes on too.