How do you listen to music? Are you a lyric person or a music person? Do you love subject matter or sound? The Aggrolites’ nostalgic take on Jamaican reggae demands that listeners erase such distinctions. For this band, sound is content. Soulful sandpaper vocals, lubricated grooves, primitive recordings — it’s an aural approximation of ska’s Platonic, early state of grace. Think of Otis Redding fronting the Meters.
Formed in 2002 by five veteran SoCal musicians, the group conceived its ideas about the music during the mid-to-late-’90s ska re-revival, when groups like Rancid, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake and Sublime blew up, then quickly fell from favor. Those bands were modernizers and popularizers — punking up the music or giving it a radio-ready sheen. They thought of ska as something that needed improvement. The Aggrolites, by contrast, take pleasure in tradition.
Replicating the old school is always an appealing, comforting path, but not necessarily the ideal plan for commercial success — or even creative achievement — for a contemporary band. There are, however, good reasons for the Aggrolites’ approach. On the eve of their SoCal mini-tour, we spoke to the band’s guitarist, Brian Dixon, the architect of that sound. In his day job, he’s an engineer at Signet Sound, not-so-coincidentally a studio that once served as Motown’s West Coast home.
L.A. WEEKLY:Describe how you achieved that sound.
BRIAN DIXON: Well, we’re always trying to take a Jamaican approach — not to rip off the old-school reggae songs, but definitely the concepts they used for recordings. In the late ’60s, a studio was a room and a couple of microphones. It was really ghetto. So our album is 95 percent mono. That’s a huge part of the record. Each studio also had its own unique console organ, so we bought a bunch of different ones — the actual models they had. People ask if the recording is all analogue, or if we used vintage tube mikes and gear, but that’s not it. It’s all digital. We use whatever mikes are lying around. But it’s all done in a room at the same time, so there’s a lot of room bleed, and that gives everything that sticky, gritty sound.
Are the concerts also efforts to recapture the old school?
We’ve developed the live show a bit differently. For 30 years people have thought of reggae as watered-down, ganja-smoking, hippie pop music. But the old groups sang songs about gunfire outside the studio. The way we see it, it’s tough music — gangsta rap before there was gangsta rap. So our shows have a punk rock approach.
But do you bring all those organs on tour?
We’ll take one big console. It’s a nightmare. Basically it’s like an upright piano, and weighs just as much. It takes four people to move it around, and when we have to take it upstairs or downstairs, people are, like, why are you doing that? [Laughs.] It’s because we care about the music so much. And when fans see this big thing onstage, they like that we went to the trouble.
How did this specific band get together?
There’s a small army of musicians in Los Angeles that have been doing this music for 15, 20 years. I’m 33; our drummer is 36. We’ve been at it a long time. Around 2000, this small army started doing a lot of studio sessions — a lot of all-star projects. But for years no one played live, so nothing had momentum. Then the group that would become the Aggrolites backed [old-school reggae singer] Derrick Morgan. It was so easy, so comfortable. We hardly had to rehearse, because we already knew the music backwards and forwards. Soon we decided to become an official band.
Was there any audience at first?
Well, since we play specifically late-’60s/early-’70s reggae, we had a worldwide following literally the day we started. It was small but worldwide, almost all skinheads and rudeboys. Now it’s punk rockers, skater kids. Lately we’ve seen older people, parents, young kids, people into hip-hop. That’s what we wanted. We think reggae is like food. Food is for everybody. But at first it was the subculture of traditional skinheads who listen to this kind of music. They’re not the racist ones, they’re the ones that predated the whole punk rock racism thing. They call it skinhead reggae, though the real term is early reggae. We call it dirty reggae.
Can you break that down for me a little bit? I always get confused when people start talking about ska vs. reggae vs. rocksteady vs. dub.
Basically it goes like this. Jamaican music is completely different from Western music, and one of the ways it differs is that it’s described in eras, not styles. In rock, you talk about Elvis Presley or Dave Matthews, and it’s all rock. In Jamaica, everything is reggae, but it falls in different eras. There’s an agreed-upon system. ’62 to ’66 is the ska era. Rocksteady was ’67 and ’68. Early reggae is ’69 to ’71, and that’s what we play. ’72 to ’74 is roots reggae, and that’s the era Bob Marley got popular, so that’s what most people think about when they hear the word. ’72 to ’74 is the roots-reggae era. ’75 to ’79 was the rockers era. ’80 to ’84 was dancehall. If you were to ask a Jamaican, though, they wouldn’t get all technical like I do. They just call it oldies, like you do here talking about mom-and-dad music. No one listens to it there, except grandparents.
What about the rest of the ’80s and ’90s?
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’85 to ’89 is the digital era. They started using drum machines, and all the musicians lost their jobs. It’s the worst era of reggae. It’s just awful. From ’90 on is the ragga era, and it’s a lot like gangsta rap. Hardcore singing and growly voices.
You should be a reggae professor. But have you ever actually been to Jamaica?
No! [Laughs.] But our singer [Jesse Wagner] went last summer for his honeymoon. It’s a great story, because they were at a resort, and the house band was playing all this lame tourist stuff, and while they were taking a break, he asked them about some older songs — this Studio One track — and they were, like, “Hey, man, you gotta get up and sing it with us.” He gets up there, they go into the rhythm, and there he is, this little white kid from Los Angeles, tearing into it. Then they go into another, and he tears into it again, and all the employees of the resort who were actually around during those earlier eras started creeping out to check him. He became a little rock star.
The Aggrolites play the El Rey Theater, Sun., Nov. 19.