Interview: Michael Goldwasser and the Easy Star All-Stars

Michael Goldwasser is the heart of the Easy Star All-Stars — a collaborative reggae group made up of members of bands on Easy Star Records, session players, and guest musicians. The latter is a category which has included everyone from reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry to up-and-comers like Matisyahu.

michael goldwasser of easy star all-starsGoldwasser occupies a unique position with the All-Stars as the group’s composer and unofficial creative director. He also plays many of the instruments on each album, both adapting and executing their adaptations before letting them loose on the road with a live band. The group’s first album, Dub Side of the Moon — plainly, a collection of reggae versions of the songs on the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon — was a modest commercial success and hit big with critics, nearly all of whom ran one variation or another on the theme of “it’s a gimmick, but it’s actually good.” Since then, they’ve released another record, a cover of Radiohead’s O.K. Computer titled Radiodread, and a mini-album of original material, hailed by Pitchfork Media as a smashing success.

Though unexpected, Easy Star’s publicist was strongly enthusiastic about MJL’s coverage. When I finally got to talk to Goldwasser, he was bubbling with enthusiasm as soon as he climbed on the phone. He barely gave me a chance to speak before we plunged straight in:

MJL: Hey, thanks for talking to us!

Michael Goldwasser: I’m psyched to be interviewed by a Jewish website. I’ve been a musician for a while, but I’ve been Jewish even longer. My identity as a Jew is a much more central part of my being than even my music is, and that feels strange to say in an interview…but, there it is.

What brought you to reggae in the first place?

I’ve loved reggae almost since I started playing music. I started learning guitar informally at about 13, and I got into reggae when I was 14 or so. I remember hearing reggae as a much younger kid — I have a weird memory of being seven or eight, in the car with my dad, who has eclectic tastes. Some reggae song was on the radio, and I asked him what it was and he said, “That’s reggae.”

One of the things that drew me to reggae as a teenager was that I realized the connection between reggae and Judaism. So many lyrics from reggae that are really well-known by reggae bands — Bob Marley lyrics — weren’t written by Bob Marley. They’re straight from the Tanakh and Tehilim. They’re singing about things that I already knew from my Jewish background.

The connection between Rastafarians thinking of the world-at-large as Babylon obviously comes from the Jewish concept of galut. It all made a lot of sense to me on that level.

Musically, it made a lot of sense — the basic beat of reggae, something about the rhythm pulled me in. Even today, when I don’t like a song, I can’t help but be moving to the rhythm.

There’s a certain spirituality about a lot of reggae that appeals to me as well. Even though they may be singing about a different conception of God than the Jewish one, it still has a basic spirituality that I find compelling. I think a lot of other people drawn to reggae are searching for it, too–I wasn’t, because I already had a Jewish spirituality, but I think a lot of other people were.

What is reggae spirituality like?

Reggae is very much informed by Rastafarianism, a religion that was created, I believe, in the 1920s and 1930s, and then exploded [in popularity] because Bob Marley was such a devout Rasta. Haile Selassie, who was the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974, is a manifestation of God, much like Christians believe that Jesus is. They took the Christian idea of a man being able to be God, and applied it to Haile Selassie. Ethiopia was the oldest nation in Africa, so it’s a black nationalist feeling as well. And there’s the idea of repatriation to Africa, that it’s the homeland of the black people and they aspire to be in Africa.

Where are you coming from, Jewishly? How did you grow up?

I’ve always strongly identified as a Jew. My father happens to be a rabbi, but I don’t think that’s what did it so much–strange as that may sound. My mother also had a strong Jewish upbringing, and that informed me as much as my father. I’ve always been interested in Judaism
I don’t daven every day, but I enjoy davening. The same with going to synagogue. I enjoy the community feeling of being with other Jews. I’ve always been very involved in social justice issues. I remember being about 5 years old, and my parents worked very hard to get a refusenik out of the USSR–this was in the ’70s, when it was very hard. They made calls to senators. Finally, they succeeded. I still remember his name, Ilya Levin.

I understood that, as Jews, we have to stay together and help each other and correct the evils of the world. Israel has to be a light into the nations. And speaking of Israel, I’ve always really loved Israel and treated it as my homeland. I’ve had the opportunity to produce music there and perform there. My wife and I lived on a kibbutz.

Are the All-Stars a steady band, or do you have a revolving cast of players?

There are several Jewish people who’ve been involved with the ES A-S, some of whom don’t identify as strongly with their Judaism–but I believe that anyone who’s Jewish should feel comfortable being the way they want to be.

A couple of years ago, we played Israel, and our drummer, who’s Jewish, had never been there, and I could see him digging into his roots a little more. A trombonist who played on one of our records and used to play live, he’s become very religious.

Do you ever feel like you’re appropriating the music of another culture? Does it make you uncomfortable or worried about your own standing in reggae culture?

I’m not worried at all. Reggae is so informed by Jewish scripture that I would venture to say that reggae as we know it would not exist without Judaism. I’m producing and writing and arranging this music that, at its heart, comes from Scripture. For a Jamaican to say you shouldn’t be playing this because you’re Jewish doesn’t make any sense….I’m not concerned at all.

A greater concern for me is that I do sometimes have mixed feelings, while the music I’m making doesn’t. While I relate to the spirituality of reggae, it isn’t my religion. And it does sometimes feel awkward to me to be making music that isn’t what I believe in. With most of our recent projects, it isn’t an issue b/c we’re doing remakes of famous rock records, it’s not going to be about reggae spirituality — even though we bring the reggae spiritual vibe.

I think there are a lot of Jewish people in the reggae spiritual world who take on the trappings of Rasta without knowing what it involves, and it’s cool if they believe in that, but I think a lot of kids go to shows and don’t realize that if they go to synagogue and delve into their own religion, I think they could get a lot out of it. It’s a touchy issue, and I realize people who are reading this may be upset, but it’s definitely on my mind as someone who’s been dealing with this for years.

What inspired you about Sgt. Pepper? How do you decide which albums to cover?

The first album we did in this series of adaptations, The Dub Side of the Moon–the inspiration for that album, Len Oppenheimer, one of the cofounders of the label, was a big fan of Pink Floyd from when he was a teenager. He was listening to it one day in 1999, and he was like, “We could make a cool reggae version,” so he brought that idea to me.

I wrote a few arrangements and realized it could make a great record. So on the next album, we needed something that was a great concept album, that was really cohesive, and that it could work as reggae. After going back and forth on a lot of albums, we decided on OK Computer, because no one expected us to do it. It really surprised a lot of people in a good way.

For this last album, covering Sgt. Pepper, again we wanted a great concept album–this one’s considered the mother of all concept albums–and we wanted something that could appeal to a lot of people. Also, this was a chance for us to really change our ways in that our first two albums were dark and minor-key reggae, which I really love, but Sgt P is upbeat, and a major-key album, to apply the Easy Star sound to an upbeat and really fun album.

Any crazy stories about recording?

Oh, man–there are so many. I don’t know where to start…

OK, then — what was it like to record with Matisyahu?

Matis was cool. The song we had him on this album, from the Beatles record, it was George Harrison’s–not his first attempt at this, but it was his attempt to use the Indian music he’d learned to play in India and his attempt to go on a spiritual journey. We thought Matisyahu would be a good choice

The actual lyrics, while based in Hindu thought, aren’t that far from Hasidic mystical ideas about the relationship between man and God and the universe. I thought it made sense on that level, and I’d met Matisyahu in Israel because we performed there, and then he performed — we stayed late and he came early and we hung out. Then we finally got him in the studio, and the tapes started rolling.

And we got to teach a couple people about kashrut because he needed ginger tea, so we had our intern go out and buy a cutting board and a knife. Our intern had probably never thought about kashrut before, so it was a good lesson for him.

Do you think you’ll always play reggae? Do you ever think, like, “hey, why don’t I write a country song”?

Me, personally, I like many different styles of music. I haven’t had a lot of time lately, because I’ve been working on this stuff. One day I hope to put out an album of solo stuff. It’s going to have a Jewish influence, b/c I can’t help that, and I’d like to do some songs in Hebrew b/c I know a lot of Israeli singers I want to work with. Part would be reggae, but part would be other styles–I love R&B, I’m very into Mizrahi music. Hopefully it’ll be really cool…if I could ever find the time to do it.

In the near future?

The band’s touring right now. They’re leaving from Australia in a week. I’m in the studio, working on new music. If I’d been touring with the band, it would take forever just to get a session lined up and taken care of. The band’s going all over the world — we just went to Moscow for the first time, then Australia and Japan. And we’re going through potential albums to cover next. We probably will do a new album in a couple years. It’ll probably be the last thing that people expect us to do. I couldn’t tell you now, because we’re not exactly…uh, prepared to make a press release….

No hints?

(Laughs) We don’t even know what direction we’re going to take. Even if we would tell, we couldn’t.

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