By Brian Winters
On the verge of releasing their upcoming album Longshot, Georgia-based reggae rock quartet Passafire sat down with us to chat just before jumping on stage at Manhattan's Gramercy Theatre. Longshot, Passafire's 6th studio album, will be available on May 12th, 2017 via legendary New York label Easy Star Records.
Passafire is currently on a co-headlining tour with Ballyhoo!, and receiving support from Bumpin' Uglies. During their stop in NYC on April 8th, Passafire rocked the crowd with a scattering of classics such as “Dimming Sky,” “Kilo,” “Start From Scratch,” and “Ghost Man,” as well as singles off the new record “Longshot” and “Blow.” The packed Gramercy Theatre crowd was also treated to the debut live performance of “Find My Way,” an absolute rocker.
The group was formed back in 2003 at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA. Nearly a decade and a half later, Passafire has earned a dedicated fanbase and recognition as one of the biggest names in reggae rock. Easy Star Records added Passafire to their elite roster of artists in 2013, just prior to the release of the band's last full album Vines. Passafire is formed by Ted Bowne (lead vocals/guitar), Mike DeGuzman (keys/guitar), and brothers Will Kubley (bass/vocals) and Nick Kubley (drums).
The entire Passafire crew and Easy Star Records CEO Eric Smith took time before their performance to discuss a whole host of topics, including their anticipated new album Longshot, their experience touring Europe, and the special relationship between Passafire and Easy Star Records. Check it out below.
Reggae in NYC: Let's start with the new album coming out, Longshot. Can you talk about the two new singles you've put out from that, the title track “Longshot” and “Blow” featuring Mr. Lif? “Blow” seems completely out of left field, while “Longshot” sounds a bit like classic Passafire.
Will Kubley: Does it? Someone told me they thought “Longshot” sounded like “Laquiji.” Like that same dum-dum dum-dum kind of vibe, and that threw me off, but when I went back and listened to it I guess it does make sense someone would think that.
Nick Kubley: And Blow is our first song with a featured artist, ever.
Yeah! So how did the collaboration with Mr. Lif come about?
Ted Bowne: I hit him up on Instagram. I've been a fan of Mr. Lif for a longtime, just listening to stuff he's done with STS9 at first and now with Thievery Corporation. And I just thought that his concepts that he raps about a lot, that he'd be able to tailor something to that particular mood we were going for with that song. I like that timbre of his voice too, it goes well over the grimy backing beat that we provided for him. I think it turned out well.
Will Kubley: We were kind of doing the song with, where the feature is now, just a hole. We were kind of like “what if we...” and we started thinking of people. Ted is probably the biggest hip-hop head out of us all, and he reached out and made it happen. And we were like “Ok! We've got a feature.”
Were you opposed to having a feature before this?
Ted Bowne: No, it just never really occured to us to do that. We had talked about having other people in the genre, you know just for the sake of bridging gaps within the genre and collaborating within the genre, but more so we just wanted to pick someone that we actually respected and enjoyed. Like Will said, I've been into hip-hop since I was 12 years old, so to finally have an actual, legit rapper on a track, and the verse that he wrote is sick. It sounds awesome, so I'm excited about it.
How about the rest of the album. What kind of sound can we expect?
Will Kubley: We crossed a lot of ground this time, as we always do.
How long have you guys been working on this album?
Will Kubley: Off and on for about 2 years. In between tours we would book writing sessions, around 4 or 5 days at a time. We did that 3 times in random spots, wherever a tour was ending or starting up.
Mike DeGuzman: Because none of us live in the same state. So we had to actually set up time, rather than just having a rehearsal like many others bands do that live in the same place.
Because Passafire incorporates so many different sounds in the music, would you guys be at all interested in doing an album that was completely outside of reggae?
Ted Bowne: I think our albums are already completely different than the bands that we play with. Some of the songs on the album, like the one we just played in soundcheck “Find My Way” has no reggae element whatsoever. There are several other songs on the album that don't either.
Nick Kubley: I think the weirder thing to do would be to do an album that's all reggae. That would be pretty cool actually.
I was thinking along the lines of say Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad's two albums Bright Days and Country, both completely Americana and folk.
Will Kubley: Oh yeah, right! Well, we don't dictate that we get our perfect ratios of rock and reggae or whatever else we're doing. I think it just comes naturally as a centerpoint that drew us all together in the first place. So it kind of happens naturally that way. Who knows, Nick wants to do an entire metal album!
Would Easy Star allow that?
Nick Kubley: Ha, doubt it.
Will Kubley: We all have other musical outlets outside of the band, which I think gets those other things we want to express out while Passafire remains what it is.
I saw that Passafire recently did a feature on a track for a German band called Jamaram.
Ted Bowne: Yeah, Will and I did a feature for Jamaram. I sang and Will sang and played guitar. That was a fun day, we went over hung out and played in their recording studio, and they made us an epic meal. Outside of Munich. Just a fun little collaboration that they released on their new album.
Passafire toured Europe a couple years ago. You guys played some pretty small towns in Germany and Austria, right?
Will Kubley: Yeah, the last two summers and that's where we met Jamaram.
Mike DeGuzman: Every single city that exists in Germany, we played.
Will Kubley: The smallest of the small and the biggest of the big.
Ted Bowne: We did three months the first time and a month and a half the second time. Mostly concentrated in Germany and Austria. Our booking agent over there is based in Germany and has the most pull in Germany and Austria. But that first summer we were over there we did Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, UK, and Netherlands
Was there a following out there that you knew about?
Ted Bowne: It was more for exposure.
Nick Kubley: We had a handful of fans here and there, but nothing crazy. It was basically like starting over.
Ted Bowne: When we played in the UK there were some people that came up and expressed that they had listened to us for a while and had been waiting for us to come over, but a lot of the mainland Europe shows nobody knew about us. Mainland Europe in the reggae sense of things is very much all about roots and dancehall. The whole hybrid reggae rock thing hasn't really taken off over there. So we were over there representing what we do over here. And some people like it, and some people really like it, and they've never heard it before. They're like “I've never heard somebody mash up two kinds of music like that!” But every now and then people were like “It's got to be reggae only” (*Ted nails a German impression here.) Oh ok, sorry, didn't mean to piss you off.
Will Kubley: Ha yeah, literally people would say that to us. Just “No.”
Ted Bowne: “It's not reggae.” Austrians are super blunt.
Will Kubley: They are, but most people warmed up to it. It was really cool to see, and to hop on and chameleon our way through these rock and reggae festivals.
Mike DeGuzman: I mean it's partly the reason why we were brought over. Because we could chameleon our way through all these different opportunities. We played straight up rock fests in the Czech Republic and...
Ted Bowne: Sick Of It All headlined one of the festivals we played and then the next day we were playing Summerjam with Wyclef Jean.
Eric Smith of Easy Star Records: We do feel an evolution of the market, what's happening with the US reggae scene, the hybrids in the US scene are starting to make their way over to the UK. The main stream establishment hasn't really caught on, but you're starting to see it in the bands that are coming up as well. There were some kids in the audience who saw what Passafire did and they pick up on that.
Ted Bowne: There was a band we played with called The Tips, very much going for that 3-piece Sublime, punk rock reggae thing. They have there own songs, but it's very reminiscent of Sublime. And there is a sort of an underground Sublime following over there, but really most of these reggae festivals we were on all the other artists were roots artists. We stuck out, which was good because to stick out amongst a bunch of other artists that kind of sound the same, they're gonna go home and remember the one band that played a bunch of metal riffs between reggae songs.
Will Kubley: Every reggae-head has an inner metal-head and vice versa. We would get off stage at these festivals and the rootsiest of rootsy bands would be like (*fist bump*) “that was fuckin' sick.” That was the biggest compliment for us.
It's pretty clear Passafire has been an influence on a lot of bands coming up, but who were the biggest influences for you all? Was it Sublime or was it more the Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and roots side of reggae?
Mike DeGuzman: I'd say both. A good mix of all of them.
Will Kubley: Every 14 year old goes through their “Sublime is the greatest band in the world” phase.
Ted Bowne: Well, in our generation...
Will Kubley: Ha, yes. To clarify, I mean for us. You know, you're like “have you heard this! ...and Led Zeppelin?!”
Ted Bowne: Will and Nick are brothers, so I'd say early on Umphrey's McGee was probably the biggest one for them. A lot of Phish. A lot of jam.
Nick Kubley: Well, that didn't happen until later. I'd say for the band it's probably John Brown's Body and Easy Star bands, honestly.
Ted Bowne: Yeah, John Brown's Body, Black Seeds, Easy Star All-Stars. Just go down the roster, haha! I'm serious, though.
Will Kubley: Look at any interview with us and we always rep John Brown's Body. You know, everyone hears Bob Marley and Sublime, but then when Nick showed me JBB's album Spirits All Around Us, it was like “oh, this can go in a completely different direction.” It felt exciting to listen to that album, and it still does. When I joined the band, I think JBB was our starting off point, especially that album.
Ted Bowne: You know how there's the NOFX kids, die hard NOFX fans, and they wear the Fat Wreck Chords shirts to the shows. Not only to say I support the band, but I know what label you're on. I did that shit with Easy Star. I went to a JBB show and I wore my Easy Star shirt, and somebody in the band was like “Where did you even get that? I don't even have one of those. I've never seen someone at one of our shows wearing Easy Star, that's pretty cool.” Well, I got it and I'm representing!
Eric Smith: What's also interesting is, on our roster there are two bands that you can say nobody sounds like them. And that's JBB and Passafire. These bands are truly unique.
Ted Bowne: Spirits All Around Us, there are at least five or six tracks that exemplify how JBB takes reggae and grits it up. They take reggae and add this gritty edge to it that's not so smooth. It's not just like sitting back with a corona on the beach, it's working music. Picking up boxes, welding shit. It's hard edge music, but it's still beautiful, and musical, and very eclectic. That album woke us up.
John Brown's Body and Passafire both have some pretty great lyrics to go with the music. Are lyrics something you guys take a lot of pride in?
Will Kubley: Ted writes the majority of them and I write some too. In the early albums we would collectively edit lyrics. We still kind of do that, but now we kind of know each other's tastes as far as lyrics. Like “that's not gonna fly, I'm not even gonna bring that one up.”
Ted: Before it even goes there, everybody's like “Oh, Will's gonna hate that one,” or “Nick's not gonna get behind that.”
Mike DeGuzman: I'd like to add that, as far as me joining the band, three albums were out before I joined. And I think a big part of me joining the band was that I wanted to be part of something that I personally wanted to represent as myself as well, instead of something that's just plastic. When Passafire came to me, I knew that's a band that I respected musically, but also lyrically. I know as I grow with the band, it's something I can represent as myself.
Will Kubley: We definitely take a lot of time with lyrics. It's super important to all of us. There's no reggae checklist that we go down when we write lyrics.
True. If you took the music away and just read the lyrics you probably wouldn't know what genre the song is.
Will Kubley: Yeah, absolutely. The majority of it is very personal experience. Ted's a great story teller and he can put you in whatever world he wants to.
Ted Bowne: All of our personal unique experiences are actually one in the same. We all go through the same shit for the most part. It may be different circumstances, but we all go through emotional highs and lows. We all go through physical highs and lows. Everyone in the world. So if you write about something that affects you, chances are millions of other people are gonna have at least a similar, if not the exact same experience. So if you write from the heart about things you actually experience it's way more relatable than writing about fantasy type stuff. We've had the songs that are like “Party Party Party!” Not necessarily like that, but just fun and light hearted, but for the most part we try to focus on stuff that makes you think and reflect on yourself.
Mike, you were playing an Allman Brothers' riff during soundcheck, Ted's got on a Grateful Dead sweatshirt, and Nick was talking about Umphrey's McGee before, so are you guys also big into jam bands? Do you want to jam more too?
Mike DeGuzman: Yeah! I was playing some Phish too.
Will Kubley: We definitely came up in the jam scene.
Nick Kubley: We're actually probably gonna tour with The Werks in the fall too. Bridging the gap.
Will Kubley: If you look at our catalog as a whole. All of those nerdy, musical moments, that are just one step ahead of normal chord progressions, I think might have come from our background appreciating the musicality involved in jam bands. Their lyrics might not always be the best, but musicality you can't fuck with them. But people are coming to see musicians at the top of their craft performing, and that's what we've carried through.
Ted Bowne: Bands like Umphrey's McGee get lumped into “jam bands,” but even if it's a 10 or 15 minute song, they've planned out every little bit. It's very intricate music.
Nick Kubley: Out of all those bands Umphrey's probably has the best songwriting and lyrics.
Will Kubley: Not to bash the lyrics. There's a right time and right place for everything.
To wrap up our conversation, what's left on the bucket list for Passafire?
Ted Bowne: Red Rocks.
Mike DeGuzman: Continuing international touring for sure. Maybe Japan and the rest of Asia, or Australia and New Zealand.
Ted Bowne: Brazil and South America too. Europe was fun, but now we're hungry for more international outreach.
Big thanks again to Ted, Will, Nick, and Mike of Passafire, as well as Eric of Easy Star Records for taking some time before their show to chat with Reggae In NYC. Make sure to support the new album Longshot when it drops on May 12th, 2017. Check back with Reggae In NYC regularly to see the next time Passafire comes through New York.