John Brown's Body Brings Out the Dub-side of Reggae
The Ithaca, New York/Boston-based reggae band, John Brown's Body (JBB), has been busy promoting its new EP JBB in Dub (September 2012) with tours all over North America over the last several months. With the eastern crowd anxious to experience the reggae-dub fusion sound the eight-piece band is known for, JBB is currently touring down the coast with Toubab Krewe, another multicultural and sonically unique musical group.
Inity Weekly’s Carla Felten (aka “Carlz”) attended the show in Raleigh, NC where JBB and Toubab Krewe harnessed enough positive energy to spill over onto the audience in abundant musical waves. JBB’s classic sound was mixed with deep, scaling bass riffs and complex, syncopated drumming, a perfectly synchronized horn section for emphasis, powerful vocals, and solid, finely honed guitar and keyboards contributions. There is an obvious cohesion and a strong connection to the sounds the band was making on stage. The vivacious presentation JBB gave led one enthusiastic listener to share with Inity Weekly, “This is my third time seeing JBB and it just gets better every time! They're amazing!”
What was also impressive about JBB, are the humble and welcoming attitudes the members had about themselves, their fans, and their messages in their music. Carlz was excited to have an opportunity to speak at length with Tommy Benedetti, co-founder and drummer of JBB, about the history of the band, their new album, and how it feels to be a catalyst of the ever-evolving sound of reggae music.
Carlz: There is an important history behind the band's name, John Brown's Body, what is it about this man's story that you wanted to embody in your music?
Tommy Benedetti: It was named by Kevin Kinsella, who was one of the original founders of the band, along with me. He was really interested in American history, and it wasn't something that I was aware of, or even taught in school, but it was something that we started reading about and it seemed like a great story and something definitely overlooked [John Brown was an American abolitionist whose violent anti-slavery efforts were instrumental in the onset of the Civil War, http://www.biography.com/people/john-brown-9228496]. The story and the way it related is something that we could work with; the name was unique enough that we could really make our own sound around it. It didn't pigeonhole us necessarily with a typical reggae band name. It's something that we could kind of mold our whole musical presentation around, so we kind of went with it.
Carlz: Did the name have more to do with what John Brown was fighting for [the abolishment of slavery], or in general, appreciating that someone was willing to go to any lengths to stand up for what they believed in?
TB: I think most of it, for me personally, is the last part of it - somebody that really believed that what he was doing was right by any means necessary.
Carlz: Your band has gone through a lot of transition and changes over the last several years. Could you talk about those changes and explain some influential events that stick out in your mind as to how JBB has come out stronger as a band?
TB: Yeah, we've definitely been through a bunch of changes. Some of them were that people didn't want to tour as much, some of them were a lot bigger events. I remember many times in the history of the band, whenever someone left thinking, “how we're going to fill these shoes?” Everyone who has been in the band had some pretty important contributions that they made and have been really good friends. It's not easy when somebody splits, but some of it made sense, some of it didn't. But we've been really solid for a bunch of years and I think that shows in the last show [we played], I think it shows in the new EP we just put out, and it's definitely going to show in the full-length we're putting out in a couple months. The obvious, biggest thing we dealt with was when Scott [Palmer – founding bassist] passed away in 2006. That was the time when the band went through a really major personnel shift, and the whole direction of the band took a little bit of a turn, but it ended up being way more refocused with a more specific purpose musically and it helped us get to where we are right now, in the last 5 years or so.
Carlz: Wow, and you've been there since the beginning, so you've been the one to see it from that point to where it is now, through all these changes. What made you stick with JBB this whole time?
TB: It's not easy sometimes because it takes a lot sacrifice, being a traveling musician. It has a lot of rewards, but it puts you through the test sometimes. It's been a part of my life since my mid-20s – so it's something that is a huge part of my life musically and it still feels amazing to go up and play shows. And every night to go up and play, it feels awesome – it feels right. And the best thing that really keeps me going is to hear people say that we keep getting better. As long as I hear that, then I know we're doing the right thing, and I definitely feel that in consecutive tours and consecutive records – and that's such a positive thing.
Carlz: Well there has definitely been a shift and maturity developing in your music over the years. This new EP, "JBB in Dub," speaks for itself in this new interpretation of your music. What inspiration do you have for this new sound and how have your fans received it?
TB: I think that the inspiration has been a continuation of what we love in music from the 1970s and early 80s - heavy drums and bass and the reggae and dub sound that comes out. Whether it's Burning Spear or Culture – a lot of bands from that era are a huge inspiration and always have been. But we love Bob Dylan and Radiohead and The Roots and other stuff that exists that is an inspiration as well. And as far as our new EP, we're real dub-heads, and I'm not talking dub-step or dub hop – I'm talking about the real stuff, the bare bones stuff with real organic, reggae music. It's like a lot of the UK stuff that has come out in late 70s and early 80s which has been really influential to me and an integral part of our lives, so we thought this was a good time to release something like this. We had the right studio and the right engineer and you know the rest - it all worked out.
Carlz: Well the new album is definitely organic dub – you can't stand still when you listen to it.
TB: Yeah, that's the idea!
Carlz: There has been a description I've seen associated with JBB, the term “future roots” - What does that mean to you, to the band, and how is it different than traditional roots reggae?
TB: It's like paying respect to the stuff from the past that's inspired us, but also it's our job to push that music forward, and I think we've been pretty successful at building our own sound over the years. As a musician, that's something I want to, sort of, hang my hat on – having an identifiable sound. The term future roots is something I believe Elliot [Martin – lead vocals] might have came up with a few years ago, and I think it describes sonically where we were going with Pressure Points (2005) and Amplify (2008). We were going in a more progressive direction sonically and roots-wise, but we always pay homage to the stuff that inspired us and gave us a foundation for establishing the JBB sound.
Carlz: What are the messages in your music that you want to pass along to your listeners?
TB: Well, Elliot writes all the lyrics, and writes great song lyrics, so he will touch on certain social things but not in such an obvious way – it's a more personalized outlook. But overall the band just tries to put out real positive energy and really big vibes, and we try to bring people into that. When that happens the sky's the limit; that's when we can take it to the stratosphere. With the musicianship, the energy, the sound, you just try to bring a real good energy to the concert hall and we want people leaving feeling better than when they came in.
Carlz: It seems like JBB definitely accomplishes that during shows. Now on a serious note, given that JBB is based out of Boston and New York, how has Hurricane Sandy affected you individually, as a band, or your fans? This tour is hitting towns all down the East Coast - What kind of effects of Sandy have you witnessed or are you expecting to see during your time on the road?
TB: It was tough because when Sandy hit, we were on tour – it was difficult being so far away and seeing it on the news and hearing about all the lives that had passed and people getting so affected by it. A few of us, including me, are from Boston and we didn't get affected too much. But a few guys are from Brooklyn and things are still going on down there. Someone from Jersey had trouble getting a hold of his folks. We're glad to be back – we've done a lot of work on the east coast and we're looking forward to doing what we can, musically, to make people feel good.
Carlz: Are there any social activist or humanitarian efforts that JBB is involved in or promotes by individual members or through your music?
TB: Not so much directly – people have approached us about setting up stuff at shows and we're usually open to that. We have worked with SSDP [Students for Sensible Drug Policy - http://ssdp.org/] to help them promote awareness for their program. We're trying to focus on our music right now, but if certain things come along we've definitely gotten involved. We love what we do and are trying to put out the best that we can.
Carlz: Speaking of, tell us a little more about your new album that you said you're putting out next year.
TB: Yeah, we're looking at the beginning of April 2013 coming out with full-length album. It will be all vocal tunes, new and fresh music. A lot of fresh sounds. It will be a classic JBB record, in the sense that there will be some rootsy tracks, some really progressive stuff – there's going to be something for everyone. We made sure that this record is exactly right. You can't really force this and I guarantee it will be worth the wait. It was the right thing to do to take the time to make sure the tunes are right and the studio was right - we didn't want to put out something unless we all felt 100% about it.
Carlz: How has reggae/dub been influential or a positive force in your life or even JBB? What are your hopes as a musician or for the band moving forward after this tour and album?
TB: Reggae has given me a career – it's a music that I love to play. I've been playing reggae music for the better part of 20 years now and it's been an exciting style to play musically as a drummer. Being a part of John Brown's Body has given me the opportunity to meet so many great people and to be a part of something like this is really satisfying. For the next record, when we get done with this tour, we have a few shows up here in New York in January and then hook back up with Toubab Krewe to tour on the West Coast in February. We haven't toured as much lately because we've been working on the record, but with the new EP out it's picking up again. Things are going to be very busy and we're excited about dropping some new sounds on people.