In USA attitude to Jamaican music depends on which coast you live on (or perhaps on how much sun you get during the year). In California musical nerds strip away Treasure Isle and Studio One music to recreate it perfectly. In New York musicians write great songs by intuition or trial & error. From connecting both these worlds Reggae Workers Of The World emerged. Alongside Jesse Wagner from The Agrrolites and Vic Ruggiero from The Slackers there’s also Nico Léonard from The Moon Invaders throwing in his two euro-cents. Their second album “R.W.W. II” was released in May by Nico’s label, Badasonic Records. For this occasion they went touring in Europe.
We’ve met them in the end of June at This Is Ska Fetival in Rosslau, Germany. In a cramped car, protecting us from extremely cold end of spring, I’ve talked with Jesse and Vic about creating music, recording albums and correctly matching drums rythm with guitar melody.
Magdalena Miszewska: Ok, so you guys have been touring for a few days now in Europe with your new album. How is the response? How are the shows?
Jesse Wagner: So far it has been good. We just did two days in France and yesterday in Belgium. It’s been good responses. There’s people out there that know the new record already, so they’re requesting new songs.
Vic Ruggiero: Yeah, it’s very cool. We’re kind of a group made up of three different bands, so we have fans, that may come to see us because of that. “Aw, I love The Aggrolites”. “Oooh, I want to see The Slackers”. “I want to hear The Moon Invaders”. But now we have a whole bunch of our own songs and it’s starting to get interesting. It’s cool.
MM: How did you guys work on the second album? You all live in other places, but Victor, you are very often in Europe, I’ve seen you do some solo shows. I even thought for a while that you moved actually to Germany.
MM: You moved there?
VR: No, no. I thought so, too. I thought I moved to Germany too at one point.
MM: What happened? Were you working on this album or were you working on your solo things?
VR: Well, me, all I do is play music. The rest of my life just goes to hell, you know. If we have a tour we take some breaks, like we do a week of gigs and then we go back to Nico’s place and spend two days recording and then we go do another four days of gigs and we come back and do some more recording and that’s how we made the last record.
MM: And you’ve put it out on Nico’s new record label.
JW: Yeah, Badasonic Records.
VR: Which was kind of a surprise actually, because we were looking to maybe put it out on some other label. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it. We just knew we wanted to make it. And then Nico’s said, “Oh, I’m starting a record label. I would really love to release the record”. I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to give you more work”. He was just, “No, let me do it; I’m going to do a great job”.
MM: And I think he did, because I like the second record more than the first one.
VR: Oh yeah?
MM: I think it’s more tight. I was looking for a word to explain to you what I was thinking about it but I think that “tight” might be it. It just sounds like one great album with one concept. So how do you work on the songs? Do you divide them or do you work on the songs together?
JW: Yeah, it’s all over the place. Vic will have a song or I’ll have a song or I’ll have just the music part and Vic will write lyrics or we’ll get together and just write a song on the spot. The first album, there was a few songs that were kind of just made up, like, while we were in the room together. Because we all play reggae bands and ska bands, we wanted to try to play music that we’re influenced by, the different genres. So, we were kind of trying to do different styles rather than just making it all reggae or ska record.
MM: Vintage rock’n’roll, vintage pop, even the Beatles?
VR: Yeah, all sorts of stuff. I mean I think that was the funny thing, when we got together we started talking about what bands we all liked. We even did a little radio show thing. My ex-wife helped us out and she said, “Why don’t you do a little podcast of songs you like?”. And we all put our songs together and it was so funny because everybody likes weird old music, but it’s all different stuff. Nico put on some tunes and I was like, “Oh, man, I forgot about that tune. That’s a great tune.” And then Jesse put on something and I I had no idea Jesse would pick a song like that. And so then we realized that there was a lot of music we’d want to play together. And of course we all love old rootsy reggae and ska stuff. So, you know, that was going to be happening regardless.
MM: And I think that the second record is more Reggae Workers Of The World record because on the first one you’ve had some songs that sounded like, “Oh, this could be like The Slackers’ song, this could be The Aggrolites’ song” which isn’t bad because we all know that The Slackers or The Aggrolites are really great bands. But I think it’s less Slackers and Aggrolites on the second album – it’s more and more you. I think you can easily guess which band is playing the songs, you will now know that it’s Reggae Workers Of The World, not The Aggrolites or The Slackers.
VR: That’s good to hear. I think the best way that we write is when we’re all adding some little detail. Like, you know, Jesse had some great melodies and even he’d have piano parts and I’d be like, “Oh, look Jesse’s playing the piano. Tell me what to play.” He’s like: “Yeah, but I don’t have words. Vic maybe you can write some words.” And then the way you’re interviewing me, I do the same with Jesse. I say: “Hey Jesse, so tell me about this song. What do you think about it? Who’s this song about?” And then I start asking questions and I start writing stuff and then Jesse and Nico are sitting around and they’re talking, “Ah, do you think this guitar part is good? I don’t know. Maybe we need a tambourine or something.” It’s really fun creative stuff. The Slackers don’t always act that way. You know this is really like a fun kind of free place to create.
MM: Your albums have things in common. One of them is a girl’s name in one of the songs. We’ve had Magdalena and now we have Danielle. Are they specific girls or they are just created of all the girls you know? And whose songs are they? Yours or yours?
JW: Danielle is an old Vic song from 20 years ago or more, I don’t know.
VR: Yeah, long time.
JW: Magdalena is a weird one. I wrote the music. It’s one of my first songs, I was like 12 years old when I wrote that song. I had stupid lyrics about some girl I had a crush on and it was like, “I love you.” It’s really a 12-year-old, you know, teenage young boy lyrics. But I always liked that song. And so I showed it to Vic. So Vic has a whole book of just lyrics and poems and he’s just always writing and he’s like, “I got this idea about this this girl that..” I don’t know, you can explain it. It haunts you because you missed the opportunity with her years ago.
VR: He wrote the song for one girl and then I was thinking about this other thing, “Oh, this is great, I love this. We have to think of a name that sounds like it’s a ghost name.” It’s got to be this name that’s like “bop bop bop bop.” It’s got to have one, two, three, four – four syllables in the name. So we’re going through all these names and I always loved the name Magdalena. I was like “Oh great!”
JW: Didn’t you find out that it was an actual ghost?
VR: Well, yeah! We were looking at ghost stories and it was like, “Oh, Magdalena.” And I was like, “Oh, Magdalena! Why did I not think of that?” I always wanted to write a song “Magdalena.”
MM: Well, the thing is I forgot to introduce myself when I was talking to you today. And actually it’s my name, Magdalena
JW: No way.
JW: Well, we wrote it about you.
MM: Oh really? That’s what I thought when I heard it the first time <laugh>.
VR: It was always my thing with the Polish girls Magda, it’s a great name.
MM: OK. I had a chance recently to talk to Victor Rice. He was at the Freedom Sounds Festival and we were talking about this kind of rivalry between bands from the East Coast and the West Coast. Does this rivalry between New York and L.A. exist? It doesn’t have to be like you are total enemies but he said that in New York you’ve got great songwriters and composers and in L.A. you’ve got masters of the beat, that people in L.A. just know how to play this kind of music.
JW: If the rivalry exists, then I’m playing both teams <laugh>.
MM: Yeah, at the end of our conversation we thought that Reggae Workers Of The World combine all those things. That they are the reggae super group. You are the bridge between New York and L.A..
VR: It’s funny because when I started playing one of the songs I was playing this bass line and it was kind of a rocksteady tune. Jesse says, “Oh, are you going to play a Studio One bass line or are you going to play…” What is it?’
JW: Treasure Isle.
VR: “Or a Treasure Isle bass line.” And I was like, “What?” He’s like, “You know, ‘cause the rest of the song sounds really Studio One and then you’re playing this weird Treasure Isle bass line” and I’m like, “Aaah yeah, why don’t you tell me what that means?”
JW: Yeah in L.A. We’re really nerdy about trying to sound old and so we really nerd it out on a lot Studio One records, the producers from that time and from Lee Perry to Coxsonne Dodd and so on, Duke Reed. So they always had their session musicians like Skatalites and so on and so there would be certain guys that would play a certain way like Family Man from the Upsetters, the bass player, you know, when it’s him, you always know his style and you always relate that to Lee Perry productions. Or Jackie Mittoo. You would always relate him to Studio One stuff. He was a great piano player. So that’s all.
VR: But it was funny because then at one point we’re driving around and Jesse says, “Hey is it okay if I put on a Slackers record?” And I say, “Yes, sure.” And then he’s listening and he goes, “Oh man, you know we would never be able to do this in California. You’re playing totally the wrong drumbeat for the guitar parts. Nobody would ever let you do this in California.” And I’m like, “Yeah, in New York we don’t even know what we’re doing. We’re trying to do something we think is kind of right. But we’re also like, I don’t know, this sounds kind of good, let’s just try it.” So it’s a different approach, I think.
MM: OK so maybe approach not rivalry. And because you both are guys from really known bands I have to take a chance and ask you about Aggrolites specifically because we would all like to know, what’s happening with your new album.
JW: It’s the same thing, it’s done and it’s recorded and mixed. It’s just we are doing this the opposite way as we normally would. Normally it would be a record label that would sign us and then we go in the studio and record it because the record label would pay for it. But this time around we’re fortunate because our organ player, Roger Rivas, has a studio in his house now and he’s been doing that for a while, mixing and recording bands in L.A. So Roger said, “Hey, let’s just record a record. Take our time. We don’t need to worry about renting studio, paying for things. Just come over and hang out and have some beers and record some songs.” And that’s how it was going the whole last year and it ended up becoming an album. No rush. And now we’re just sending it off and seeing what labels are interested. We’ll see what happens, hopefully soon
MM: And hopefully you’ll come to Europe because it’s been a while.
JW: And yes, maybe we’ll come back to Poland. Yeah, I hope so.
MM: We’re waiting, so get in touch with us when you’ll be ready with the album.
MM: And what are you up to with The Slackers. You’ve been to Europe recently. Last year?
VR: And we’re coming back in late October and November. We’ll be doing a tour. The Slackers are always busy. We are actually trying to be less busy these days because we were driving ourselves crazy. So now we’re trying to slow ourselves down at least every few months to take a little bit of a break.
MM: Well it’s funny that you say it because you are a super busy man always doing something.
VR: Yeah, I know, I have problems like that, yeah. When we started this band, The Slackers were so busy and I thought to myself I really can’t afford to have another band. But when I saw that these guys were free I said, “I’m really going to be aggravated with myself if I don’t make a band with these guys. It’s my opportunity.” So me, I have this problem. Art is the reason I’m alive and it also kind of ruins my life, you know.
MM: But Jesse, you are also a busy musician, you are playing with Hepcat or playing with other bands who invite you to their shows and you’ve played a lot of shows with other bands recently.
JW: Yeah, The Aggrolites have slowed down a lot in the last so many years because the older you get the harder sometimes it becomes. You get families and kids and jobs and marriage and things like that. But locally I’ve been keeping pretty busy. There’s a funk music group called The Orgone and they’re from L.A. So I’ve done a couple of 45’s with them and I’ve done a lot of things where I’ve gotten guest spots. Mr. T Bone has a band called The Uppertones and he’s invited me to sing a couple of songs on his albums. And there was even stuff like a group called Slightly Stupid. They’re a totally different style of ska and reggae, punk. Yeah, I’ve been keeping busy. I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been getting phone calls and just not turning anything down. Yeah, Hepcat I grew up on those guys listening to them as a kid. And so I was always kind of like their little brother. Their guitar player’s busy with family and kids so there’s a lot of times they just call me to substitute for him. That’s been cool. With Slackers I’ve done some things. Got to play guitar, because Jay broke his wrist or something, he was out for a while. So I got to play for them for time being.
MM: And you told them that they should play differently?
JW: No, no <laugh>. I didn’t want to get kicked out. I didn’t want them to leave me on the side of the road somewhere I had to figure out how to get back to Los Angeles.
VR: But you played “Old Dog” really calypso. That was the cool thing. Jesse would bring in some other detail, sing a different kind of song. Like we were doing the Louis Prima song.
VR: We get to do things with Jesse that we couldn’t do by ourselves. And also things that he wouldn’t do with The Aggrolites.
JW: We would never sing “Just A Gigolo” with The Aggrolites.
VR: Yeah, and it’s funny because when I was hanging out with Jesse over the years, I’d be like, “Man, there’s so much more that you could do. We got to make sure that you do all the things you can do.” And the same is with me. I feel like with The Slackers I get to do a lot. Like I have a lot of freedom to do whatever ideas. But The Slackers are just that kind of band. They are who they are. And I couldn’t do some of the things I do with these guys. Like we made a Serge Gainsbourg kind of song and that was really fun. We made some kind of weird 70s rock tune. We really do it cool and when The Slackers do it, it always just sounds like The Slackers.
JW: That’s weird how we end up making songs. I think Nico is definitely a big part of it. His drumming. Because Nico’s amazing. Nico is so good at just knowing exactly how to play the boogaloo beat or old time ska. Nico listens to stuff the way that me and Vic do. You listen to more than just, “OK this is a drumbeat.” When we covered “Real Rock” Nico would take it and know exactly how to do that beat. The other great thing when I was with The Slackers was getting to harmonize with people, because in Aggrolites we have singers. Jeff Roffredo, our bass player, sings and Roger has been learning how to sing over the last so many years, but they never were singers like Vic and Glen or sing lead and all that stuff. So it’s really nice being in a group that I could harmonize with instead of having to cover the parts that are too hard for other guys to do. I would always have to do that in The Aggrolites, make it somehow fit or work. But that was fun playing with these guys.
VR: Yeah, and having a third harmony is beautiful. In The Slackers <laugh>.
MM: And the last and most important question is when are you guys going to play in Poland, because you’ve mentioned The Uppertones and they’ve already been in Poland two times during one year. I know it’s easier for them because they spend most of the time in Europe, but you are in Europe now and there’s no Poland on the list.
JW: Yeah, I know. That’s a great call because Poland when Aggrolites played there it was really responsive, that show is amazing for us. And if T-Bone is doing good out there I think maybe we have a good chance. There’s a good scene in Poland.
VR: And the cities are great. I like the cities I’ve been to in Poland, so yeah, I hope we get out there soon. I think next time we are going tour in Europe it’s going to be sometime next year. So maybe we’ll try to make sure we get out further east.
MM: OK. We’ll check the list.
VR: You can give us some ideas., right? Because you know..
MM: I will. I will.
VR: Oh good, good.
MM: OK, so, thank you guys very much. See you in Poland.
JW: Dziękuję. Is that right?
VR: Yeah, dziękuję, dziękuję.
MM: Yes that’s right.