Like a smooth, organic java blend, John Brown’s Body starts with the basics – in this case, Jamaican reggae music. Then the band adds ingredients – a dash of funk, a few liberal squeezes of rhythm ‘n’ blues, pop flourishes and some shaved electronica – and before you know it you’re still savoring smooth, aromatic reggae, but it has a slightly more pungent kick.
Between the four horns, the massive rhythm section and the synths and keyboards, John Brown’s Body makes a mighty, melodiously caffeinated sound. It’s joyful and it’s addictive.
The eight–piece band – some members live in Boston, others in Ithica, N.Y., still others in Brooklyn – is at the forefront of the relatively new “progressive reggae” world music movement. Vocalist and songwriter Elliot Martin and drummer Tommy Benedetti are the sole original members of a group that started, in 1991, as the Tribulations.
After the death in 2006 of founding bassist Scott Palmer, and the subsequent amicable departure of guitarist and songwriter Kevin Kinsella, the now Martin–led JBB recorded Amplify, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard reggae chart, and reached the Top Ten on the CMJ World Music chart.
Was the move into “progressive reggae” an evolution, or was there a “eureka” moment?
Tommy Benedetti: It’s definitely been a growth process. If there was any one moment when things changed drastically, it was when Kevin left the band in 2006. For a long time, we had two separate and distinct songwriting styles. And the first four JBB records were pretty rootsy – in a classic Jamaican composition style, and lyrical culture mediations inspired by Burning Spear and stuff like that. Elliot always wanted to sonically push the boundaries a little bit more. He had a heavier and I guess a more current edge to his music – and the guys in the band really started feeling that kind of vibe, and getting behind taking the music in a more progressive, heavier kind of direction. It was definitely an evolution, but when Kevin left the band that was definitely the spot where things shifted. And we were like “OK, now it’s all in.”
You went to the Berklee School of Music – were you always a reggae guy? How did it come into your orbit?
Tommy Benedetti: I knew the drummer for Tribulations at the time, and he was going to move on. He knew my playing, and he wanted me to just take the gig. No audition: The gig is yours. So I was like “OK, I guess I better learn some reggae.”
Honestly, I graduated music college and I wanted to get out on the road. Those guys were a working band. I grew up on rock and heavy stuff, Iron Maiden and AC/DC, but gradually I fell in love with the music. And I started discovering everything that I loved about all other musics contained in reggae and dub. I love the darkness, I love the thickness, but I also love the uplifting vibes. I love the precision of it. I love the craft of it. The harmony. And over the years, I ended up being like ‘Wow – reggae is kind of one size fits all for me. I really see everything that I love about blues, rock, pop even, in that music.’ We used to sit there in Boston and just listen for hours and hours and years and years.
When you began creating new reggae hybrids, did the purists complain?
Tommy Benedetti: When we were first starting to tour nationally, in ’98 or ’99, there were no bands that were doing it. 311 was just getting going. You look around now, you got your Matisyahu, you got your Souljah Fyah, you got Passafire from down there in Savannah – those are our boys. We were one of the first bands to really get out there and do our thing on the national level. Sure, we would go into Miami or New York, on tour with Burning Spear or Jimmy Cliff, and there would be a bunch of people standing with their arms folded ... but we couldn’t have given two fucks, honestly. I don’t have time for that. Listen, I love John Coltrane and Burning Spear as much as I love Medeski, Martin & Wood, whatever comes out of that music. Nobody can tell me or anybody else what music to play, or what music to be inspired by.
What’s next in the pipeline? How do you top Amplify?
Tommy Benedetti: We have a full–length in progress that we started at the end of 2011 out in Ithica. We got seven tracks fully recorded and done for that. We’re going to do another session and knock out a few more for the full–length. And we recorded six more tracks in Boston, and those are instrumentals and dubs. A couple of new tracks that have been in the live set for a while. So we’re going to release a six–song EP. I heard a few mixes from that recently. It’s going to be just brutal dub, heavy heavy sonic shit.
Do you have to resist the urge to say “Well, we’ve got seven songs towards our full–length ... screw it! Let’s just put these out as an EP”?
Tommy Benedetti: I see that point, for sure, but Elliot does the lion’s share of the writing, as far as the lyrics and the songs that end up on record, so it’s a long process for him. So as frustrated as I may get with it sometimes, you can’t force it. When it comes, it comes. And at this point in our career, as much as I wanted the record to come out a few months ago, there’s no use rushing it. We’ve got to put out the best thing we can put out. And when it comes out, we’ll get out there and do the work and it’ll be the best thing we’ve done yet. That’s what we’re shooting for.
John Brown’s Body
Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 29
With Domino Effect