The Missouri based band Jah Roots is a breath of fresh air to the reggae genre. While I have followed the band for over a year it wasn’t until July 14th that I had an opportunity to not only see them perform live, but also to sit down and talk with them about their music, the band, and the bond of friendship that adds to the unique sound the band produces.
Reggae as a genre is sometimes overlooked in the United States but Jah Roots is a band that could change that. The sound that the band delivers is a unique blend of traditional reggae with strong undertones of rock, jazz, hip hop, ska, and folk and because of that blend, the fans are a blended bunch as well.
As we waited for the band ( Josh Nail/percussion, Eric Groves/drums, Mike Hulsey/Lead guitar/keyboards, Ras Josh/ vocals/guitar, I-Ron/vocals, Stephen Washburn/bass, and Phil Quidort/horns) to take the stage, I watched the outdoor amphitheatre begin to fill with a true melting pot of fans. I had watched several other bands perform that day and the change in the crowd when it came time for Jah Roots to perform was remarkable. From 5 year old children to bikers in full leather and even cowboys with snake skin boots, The Jah Roots fans crossed into every stereotyped group I could think of. The Fans in the crowd had come from all over the world to Tulsa Oklahoma simply to see Jah Roots perform; the young couple seated next to us was from the United Kingdom.
As Jah Roots took the stage the crowd came alive, and they stayed that way. By the end of the set the fans were chanting “one more song” and dancing on the stage. Jah Roots truly connects with an audience like no other band I’ve ever seen.
The set was amazing and electrifying and Jah Roots is truly one of the few bands that are better live than in studio. A Jah Roots live performance is more than a concert, it’s an experience not soon forgotten.
When the set was over the fans swarmed the stage to receive free cd’s and T-shirts that the band was giving away. This is something that is common with Jah Roots as the bands first three albums are all available for free download and Jah Roots encourages fans to not only download the bands music, but also to copy it and share it with others. The bands current album, Crucial, is the first “retail” offering from Jah Roots.
When the set was over, I followed the guys to a grassy patch not far from the stage and we sat down to begin the interview. Many things struck me about the band but as the interview progressed, some 55 minutes later, I had discovered that there was so much more to this band than meets the eye.
I started the interview discussing crowd feedback and what makes Jah Roots so unique.
Matt Stevenson, 19 years old from Tulsa Oklahoma, was just one fan I had interviewed.
Me: What do you think it is about Jah Roots that makes them so unique, so different from the rest of these bands?
MS: Oh man they got the most chill vibe, they got everything going’ they got the drums, they got everything.
Me: Did you come here tonight specifically to see them or just to enjoy the festival?
MS: I came to see them, that’s it.
The Bands reaction to what Mr. Stevenson had to say was positive, so I asked the guys why they thought the fans reacted that way .
Me: What is it that the fans are hearing?
Josh Nail: It’s a very evolved sound
Me: So where did it start, because if it’s evolved to this, where did it start?
Mike: It started with Josh (Ras Josh) and I, the lead singer. We played a few things and there was always like a dancyish feel to our music but, ya know we didn’t start off with reggae, we’d do bop stuff then
Eric says: It was more bluesy then
Mike: yeah, yeah, and we started doing a lot of reggae songs and started listening to all reggae and the next thing I, this cd, and I say this all the time, a cd and its got like Third World and Steel Pulse and all these bands and what we did is listen to this cd and this is all the best bands and then we bought all their cds and then we listened to all them, and the next thing you know, we had this funnel of reggae going into our heads, and then Josh is like all wrapped up in it and he’s on the computer and he’s on the computer every day, all day, and he’s got literally five hundred thousand songs ya know, and he’s like download, download, download ya know, like and lately we’ve started listening to stuff that’s not completely reggae ya know stuff like R&B and a lot of like south American reggae and German reggae
I-Ron: Reggae from all over the world really
Me: so what’s your favorite?
Josh Nail: Right now my favorite’s New Zealand reggae
Eric: yeah, yeah
Me: When I was talking to Josh (Ras Josh) I asked him about influences and he said, and you guys let me know if you agree with him or not okay? Peter Tosh, Culture, Sizzla, Turbulence, Fat Freddys Drop, Steel Pulse, Ben Harper, Jah Cure, Woodbelly, Billy Holiday
Josh Nail: yeah
I-Ron: yeah that’s true
Mike: wow Ben Harper I can’t believe he said that
Me: He also said Jazz, Blues and Rock, all of it.
Mike: And its funny cause, I mean if you had asked him that like a year ago he wouldn’t have named anybody but, you know, reggae, reggae, reggae. But the thing is, his minds opening up a little more and he’s realizing that there’s all that stuff, I still love that stuff so
Me: Billy Holiday surprised me
Mike: He’ll put on one of his cds and there will be like Midnight and this all reggae, and then all the sudden it will pop into The Beatles for like 10 tracks
Eric: We all come from different musical backgrounds too. We all grew up listening to kinda different things
Mike (pointing to Stephen and Nail) yours and mine and Josh’s is all pretty much the same (pointing to I-Ron and Eric) your twos is a little different
Me :( to Eric): What makes it so different?
Eric: I listened to a lot of heavy metal
Nail: and punk rock
I-Ron: Mine was dance stuff and hip hop ya know? stuff like that
Me: So then that’s why the fans are hearing the punk, and rap and hip hop and rock in your music?
Eric: We all like reggae a lot ya know
I-Ron: yeah and we all do stuff that we like. We just kinda bring it in
Mike: we all have our own things about reggae that we like
I-Ron: we just kinda bring it all in and make our sound
Mike: I wanna say something that’s really important too and it’s that we play with a lot of bands ya know and we like a lot of bands, but I think one advantage that we have over every other band is , and this is gonna sound trashy and low but check this out, Me and Josh were playing and the guys would come to every show, we were all best friends, and we all grew up together, But me and Josh were playing and everyone else didn’t play or played a little bit, we had another Conga player we had another bass player, and the thing is that all these other musicians failed in the long run, and our friends, they come in and sit with us and the next thing you know our lifetime friends have become our band members. Like Stephan, he never played bass before and now he’s bad ass, he’s just a bad ass bass player
I-Ron: yeah he played guitar before
Mike: And why everything worked, we did have to take a step back, you know, we were sounding this good me and Josh, and then we add Stephan and then all the sudden it’s like this and we get Nail and its like this again, and this again, and we keep doin that but the thing is the core is all best friends. Its not like we met this musician here and we hired this musician here and this and that, everybody is just friends and that’s the thing. We’ve had other people play with us, we’ve had other musicians and like I said, all of that didn’t work out. It’s like I always compare it to a relationship, like a girlfriend or a wife relationship because you have to be honest with them, you have to live with them, you have to travel with them, like I said ya know? and not only that you gotta treat them all with Motherfuckin respect ya know and that’s really hard to do sometimes when you got 7, 8 guys ya know
Me : living in a van?
The guys: yeah, yeah
Mike: Yeah and that’s the thing is you gotta be respectful and you gotta treat it like that you can’t hold shit back and ya know and the benefit of being a friend in the first place is that its easier to communicate rather than holding a grudge against a dude and you don’t know how to talk to him about it cause you don’t know him very well ya know
Me: So do you think that contributes to performance? Because when you guys are on stage it’s like a huge party
Eric: it is
Me: Is a lot of your live performance just add lib stuff? I mean the melody is there but there are changes too.
Eric: Very much so
Mike: I’m Embarrassed to say, but we don’t really even practice. The thing is, we feel everything and all the changes and all the stops, we come to all those live
Eric: Over the years ya know
Mike: Yeah. These songs have evolved to what they are just because of live performances.
Me: You guys promote downloading of your music. Download it and share it, that’s kind of been your mantra.
Me: What do you think a record company’s take is going to be on that?
Nail: They really aren’t gonna like it
Eric: We would never sign a record deal
Mike: It doesn’t really matter. Were going to be independent forever, that’s the way it’s gonna be.
Stephan: We’ve tried that route
Eric: I mean the record industry is crashing
Mike: In a nutshell we found out the hard way and that’s the thing. There are steps to success, and they’re invisible, no body knows them, it’s all trial and error. You have this record label and the only reason they are interested in you is because they are going to make money off of you okay? They are in the business to do that and the thing is, and here’s the deal, they get you, and they turn you into what they think will make them the most money , and the thing is, we can’t do that.
Nail: Yeah, and it’s totally different than what your whole vision of the band is
Mike: Yeah and we don’t need people telling us what to do and not only that. A lot of these people don’t really know shit
Stephan: I mean, this is our life ya’ know? We have to make this work for us
Mike: And our sales ya’ know, our stuff is for sale online, and if we sold them through a record company we would only make a fraction of what we make selling them ourselves. It’s a little more difficult to do, but were not in debt to anyone.
Eric: It’s taken us a year and a half but, we sell our music online at CD baby.com, and internetarchive.org and since we have released Crucial, we’ve gone to the number one selling Reggae band on Cd baby.
You can view the video for “Crucial” Here:
Jah Roots Crucial
Mike: For other bands that are trying to make it, one thing that we do, and this is really hard, but one thing is that no body in the band gets paid.
Eric: We all have jobs
Mike: We distribute money for the trip; everybody gets paid per day to eat
Nail: Like five dollars a meal
Mike: The reason that we do that is that we have faith that someday we will be able to do this for a career, and get paid, but we’ve been doing this the entire time and not getting paid, and every once and a while when we’re doing good everyone will get kicked down some money, but nobody’s in it for the money. It’s all on faith that someday we could do it for money ya’ know.
Nail: We’ve been doing this for years without getting any money
Eric: I don’t wanna work my nine to five if I don’t have to
I-Ron: Fortunately we’ve got positions (in their regular jobs) where our bosses would like to see us succeed so we get the time off when we need it
Mike: We’re pretty lucky. And by the way if anybody in the band is short on money, we’re not gonna let them go in debt. We’ll give them the money to pay their bill, and there’s no favoritism. If somebody can’t make it we’ll be like, here’s your money, but you better get your shit together.
I-Ron: Every dollar goes back to the band
Me: So what’s the best cure for a hangover?
Mike: Gatorade I think
Eric: Don’t drink too much in the first place
I-Ron: I don’t drink
Mike: I’ll tell ya’ what the best cure for a hangover is, is a spliff
Me: You guys are pretty outspoken about your support to legalize marijuana, Does that stop with marijuana?
I-Ron: Yeah it does stop with Marijuana
I-Ron: We don’t encourage anything else, strictly weed
Mike: Yeah if anybody in the band was found doing drugs they would definitely be beat up.
I-Ron: the thing is that nobody really wants to do drugs. We’ve all experimented when we were young and we’ve all reached a point where we don’t want our lives screwed up
Eric: If we were doing drugs, we couldn’t do what we do
Nail: And that’s the thing, I think everybody saw like the separation between drugs and herb, and there is definitely a huge separation that a lot of people don’t see, like they just group weed back in with all drugs and I don’t feel like it’s like that at all. Herb helps so many people and if people would just look it up and do the research for themselves, even if they don’t smoke.
I-Ron: yeah like my family, they’d rather I smoked weed than drank alcohol, and that’s what it took, I’m not trippin’ on acid, I’m not shooting heroin, I’m smokin’ herb. When people just look at us their like, Druggie or hippie
Mike: Yeah I hate that
I-Ron: Or Taliban because of the beards, They call us all kinds of stupid stuff just cause they don’t know about us and then once they get a chance to hear us, it’s a whole different thing. I don’t know, it’s a whole different thing before people see you do something that you love
Mike: That’s the one problem I think is that people do associate us with other drugs even though it’s in so many of our songs, so many lyrics of ours that say this is no crack cocaine, this is no meth, speed ya know whatever, then we play a concert and twenty people come up to you and say ya know you were frying on stage and I’m like, no, I wasn’t.
Me: So there’s a strict line between marijuana and other drugs for you?
Stephan: Yeah there is, for sure there is.
I-Ron: Yeah like I said, we’ve all tried other drugs and seen that they aren’t for us
Mike: It’d be cool if we could get to people before they try other drugs
Me: Well maybe you can just by doing what you’re doing, by putting your music out there
Mike: We hope. That’s thing, that’s what we try to do but ya’ know when people associate us with other stuff it’s hard
Eric: We try to work with honorable groups
Mike: I find that if we play with a band and we find out that they are using drugs, we actually end up not playing with them.
Me: So it’s not just the lyrics then, its physical actions
Nail: yeah, it’s a lifestyle
Me: Do you think that the internet is the future for any band, for every band?
Eric: Yeah nobody goes to a record store to buy CDs anymore, there’s no room for the middle man anymore
I-Ron: yeah we got so excited to have our stuff sold out of tower records, and then we were like; there is no more tower records
Me: You address a lot of political issues in your music
I-Ron: This is real life. It’s the real life that we have to live in and it’s gonna be a bad situation if we don’t make it a good situation
Eric: We see every day how other people live, how we live, and its tough man, and it’s the inspiration for the music that we do
I-Ron: Deep down every single person has a conscience and you know your right from your wrong and if everyone had it in themselves to wanna do right, you wouldn’t have wrong, you know what I mean
Me: There’s almost a folk quality to your music
Eric: right, it’s story telling music
I-Ron: to me, that’s what separates music good from bad
Eric: music is such a powerful force; everybody likes music, so why fill it with stuff that’s not important
Mike: You have such a big influence over people who are listening to you, why not do something good with it
I-Ron: Were blessed is all I can say. Were blessed to be able to put out a sound that people will listen to
Me: Is there anything anybody wish’s I would have asked tonight that I didn’t ask?
Mike: even if you didn’t ask it I think we pretty much covered it
You can view the slideshow of photo’s taken during the concert here Jah Roots Slide Show
To stay up to date with Jah Roots, Visit their Myspace page at http://www.myspace.com/jahroots