Interview with Easy Star's Michael Goldwasser by Adam Tait

by StephenMorris
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on 07 November 2012 in Features

There have been countless times in the history of reggae music when fans have set around in hazy rooms and complained about the state of the music and how it has become a plethora of plasticky imitations of the great albums that have gone before. For the most part these conversations are as far as it goes, but in 1996 one of them resulted in Michael Goldwasser and three friends forming Easy Star Records, a label that has since become something of a reggae institution.

“Everything that was coming out of Jamaica at the time was really computerised, all the stuff coming out of the US was just copies of Bob Marley,” Goldwasser remembers. “We were sat around decrying the state of reggae music and we just thought ‘why don’t we do it ourselves’.”

So that was what they did. Goldwasser, already a musician in the New York reggae scene, started gathering various musicians to play on original tracks he was writing. “We started out just wanting to make original reggae music. We wanted to be an original Jamaican reggae label, although not run by Jamaicans.

“Then we started working with some reggae artists and producers with stuff in the vaults, or stuff that had never been released. It was all stuff from the 70s and 80s, which is personally my favourite period of reggae music.”

But it is the label’s series of reggae covers of much loved albums that they have become best known for. This began in 1999 with the suggestion to cover Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, a cover album that has now become a seminal reggae record.

“One of my partners [Lem Oppenhiemer] was the one to suggest we do a reggae version of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. He was a big fan of the original, and we’d been working so hard at Easy Star that we were all hearing everything through a kind of prism of reggae. So he was listening to the Floyd album one day and it just struck him that this could work as a reggae album.

“He brought this idea to the rest of us, and as the producer I went away and worked out some basic arrangements for the tracks in my home studio. And that’s when it really hit us that his could genuinely work.”

Indeed, it did genuinely work, and ‘Dub Side Of The Moon’ won widespread critical acclaim taking Easy Star to a much wider audience. “We didn’t set out to do a series of these albums,” Goldwasser explains. “But the record was so well received by critics and fans alike, we thought that maybe we could make a series.”

Having realised the potential for this sort of reggae cover project, Goldwasser and the Easy Star collective set about deciding which album would be the next to get the cover treatment.

“It became much more difficult after that first one. To start with there’d been no expectations from people. We thought it would be too easy to do another Pink Floyd record, even though people were asking for one from that era. We wanted to do something that people wouldn’t expect, but also one that would make sense for us to do.”

The success of ‘Dubside Of The Moon’ played a part in the selection of Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ as the second album. “Any album we choose had to be made up of interesting, great songs that stand on their own, not just as part of an album. But also we wanted there to be some sort of cohesion.

“We heard that Radiohead were fans of ‘Dubside Of The Moon’ and had been playing it before and after their shows. We thought that of they liked what we were doing, that was probably a good sign, and it turns out that they very much liked what we did with their record.”

The next choice almost made itself for the group. “Even from the time of doing ‘Dubside…’ we were already thinking that ‘Sgt Pepper…’ could be a good album to do one day. It just made sense; if we were going to do concept albums, ‘Sgt Pepper…’ is kind of the mother of all concept albums.”

But that’s not to say it was a decision taken lightly; each of the Easy Star cover projects was after at least a year of deliberation and discussion.

“We decided on ‘Sgt Pepper…’ ultimately because it’s an album of great songs that we thought would adapt well to reggae in an interesting fashion. We liked the fact that, even though there have been hundreds and hundreds of Beatles covers, and loads even within reggae music, there had been very few covers of the songs from Sgt Pepper’s. We thought we’d be mining some new territory.”

So, that about brings us up to this summer’s release – Easy Star’s ‘Thrillah’. Again, a pretty huge album to take on. “With Thriller we decided to go away from the idea of doing another concept album, though we still felt that the songs on Thriller had some cohesion between them.”

It was also a chance for Goldwasser to work in another area of music he loved; R’n’B. “I thought it would be nice to have a change, instead of doing a rock album, to do an R’n’B album, not just because I love R’n’B, but there’s a very strong connection between American R’n’B and Jamaican music.

And the connection goes right back to the very early days of modern Jamaican music. The ska of the 60s is very much influenced by what was going on in the American R’n’B scene at the time.

“To this day R’n’B informs what is going on in Jamaica, whatever is being recorded in Kingston at the minute is likely influenced by the US R’n’B and hip-hop scene. I think that connection can get lost on people these days, not so much in the UK where there’s a strong Caribbean population, but in the US where the younger reggae fans know Bob Marley and the current crop of US reggae musicians but they’re not aware of that connection.

“So we weren’t trying to be pedantic with ‘Thrillah’. We weren’t trying to teach any lessons. It’s more that we’re hoping that people listening will get that connection from it.”

‘Darkside Of The Moon’, ‘OK Computer’, ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘Thriller’. These are some of the most loved records of our time. Taking on covers of them then, was a risk, and Easy Star must have been aware that some fans might see it as sacrilege.

“I certainly understand that there’s going to be people with concerns, because they hold the original to be sacred, but I can’t say I’ve ever been worried,” Goldwasser says.

“Anyone who listens to what we’ve done, sure they might not like it and that’s fine, but I think they’ll understand that we did all these albums with a lot of love and respect for the original.

These weren’t things we did by just showing up at the studio and dashed them out in a few days. A lot of thought and time went into these records, I spent months just listening to the originals and writing the arrangements before we even set foot in the studio.”

Although it is the covers series that Easy Star are most widely known for, the label was set up to produce original material, and, as you would expect, the majority of Goldwasser’s professional output has been original.

“As a producer, working on a tribute album and working on original material are very different things. I feel lucky that I get to do both, making tribute albums is something the most producers never get to do.

“It’s great getting to work on albums I love, I was a fan of ‘Thriller’ when it very first came out, but working on it with Easy Star was the first time I really sat down and analysed the record. It definitely gave me a new appreciation of Quincy Jones’ production and all the song writers who worked on the album.”

Across his career and the Easy Star projects, Goldwasser has lived something tha looks like a reggae fans dream, working with artists from Third World to Steel Pulse to Toots and The Maytals.

“Being a reggae fan myself, and just a pretty humble guy (he really does seem of the humblest guys around) it just amazes me that I’ve worked with any of these artists. Third World and Yellowman was the first reggae show I went to, back in the 80s, so to be working with Third World just blew me away.”

Humility seems to be a bit of a theme within reggae music, with egos playing a very small part in comparison to other areas of the music industry. “One thing about working with Steel Pulse, these guys are one of the biggest reggae bands in the world, but their attitude was ‘Michael, tell us what you need, we’re going to work until it’s right. I couldn’t believe it, maybe it’s the British work ethic.

“It’s kind of refreshing about reggae, you can’t loads of money so everyone is forced to stay humble. It’s hard to get a big head because no one makes that sort of money. English reggae stars are just cool down to earth people who work really hard.”

So where to next, for the man who’s worked with the genre’s greatest? “I’d love to work with any of the Marleys, just for the legacy, but in general there isn’t anyone I’ve especially got my eye on. There’s people outside of reggae I’d love to work with, Stevie Wonder would be amazing to work with, or Alicia Keys, or I’d like to see what I could do with an artist like Rhianna.

“I just want to make music, I don’t care about genre. I love jazz music. I’d love to work on a jazz album one day. I’ve been really blessed to work with so many of my idols in reggae music. I’m looking forward to working with some of my idols in other genres.”

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