The Aggrolites: We’re coming out of the gates

Nobody planned this conversation. I certainly didn't, and the guys from The Aggrolites didn't expect it either. Sometimes, however, fate knows better what RudeMaker readers need. After the dirty reggae legends' show in Cottbus in November 2019, it decided that they had to read about "Reggae Now!", marinating records and the best skinhead reggae in the world.

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Roger Rivas and Jesse Wagner of The Aggrolites during an interview

Everything was going wrong with this trip from the start. First, our friends decided not to go, and only the two of us (editor Budzik and me) were left with no car to drive with. Because of that, we started to look for a place to sleep in Cottbus at the last moment and we found something far from the venue, and we had to return home the next day early in the morning. Along the way, it turned out that there were some protests at the coal-fired power plant in this part of Germany. Trains ended their routes in strange places, and substitute communication worked in a way we couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t easy to get some information in English at the railway stations and we had to play charades with the employees using a handful of German words. Finally, after several hours of travel, we lost some bottles of relaxation fluid. Only a good concert could save the day.

And it had to be good, because we last saw The Aggrolites at This Is Ska festival in 2013. Everything indicates that for the next 6 years they did not appear on our side of the Atlantic. We happened to meet Jesse singing with other projects at different European festivals, but we had to wait for funky reggae until fall 2019. In the meantime, the guys’ career slowed down a bit. They played here and there in their homeland, but not very often, and the rumors about their new album did not make us to believe that it would be released soon. You see, we were starved. Luckily, when we heard the first single, “Pound For Pound”, we knew the chances of a great new Aggro album were very good. And we were right!

I dreamed of hearing these songs live. It was supposed to be a gig on a par with the one in Warsaw in 2008 (and that one is among the best shows I’ve seen in my life!). Unfortunately, it turned out that everything was great, the guys were in great shape, but they played hardly any new songs. Jesse and Roger tried to explain this in our conversation, but my hunger remained.

Ah yes! The conversation. The one I did not plan, because the trip to Cottbus was supposed to be a private opportunity to meet some friends from different countries and have unlimited fun. I wanted to record the interview on another occasion because I expected The Aggrolites to play at some European festival in summer 2020 (how wrong I was then!). The fun got so out of control that it turned out that the guys would like to talk about various matters. We had a nice, chat, which you can listen to below. And for those who prefer to read, we have prepared a transcription.


Magdalena Miszewska: I was really excited before your show today. I can’t remember when was the last time I was going to a gig waiting to hear some tunes from a band’s newest album. I would call Reggae Now! a success. Do you feel the same? That it’s the best way to come back to the scene?

Jesse Wagner: We had a little bit of a hiatus, but we got back together over the years, and we recorded the new record. I’m very proud of it, very happy about it. The man right here, Roger recorded it, engineered it.

Roger Rivas: Yeah, the album is so special to us, because we made a conscious decision to write something that the fans of early Aggrolites would like. We really put that in the forefront. See, with the first two albums it was effortless. I would go over to his house, have some beers, and we were so much into skinhead reggae and rocksteady music that it came naturally. Over the years, all the albums were different chapters as far as where we were in our life, like him myself, anybody. So we said, “forget all that, let’s go back to when we were young”. During this tour, we got a lot of compliments on Reggae Now!. That’s really special to us because we know we’re doing something right. We know we’re doing something that the early fans of The Aggrolites enjoy.

MM: It’s funny you say that, because during the show you didn’t play many tunes from the new album, only two or three, and I was expecting a lot more. Are you sure the new songs are really as good as you sing they are?

JW: Yeah, I’m pretty sure they are.

RR: That has nothing to do with if we think they’re good or not. What happens is, and we don’t really think about it, but on every album we released there are like 3, 4, 5 songs that people really enjoy. We only get a certain amount of time to play the set. If it was up to us, we would play a vast majority of the new music.

MM: But it is up to you.

RR: Here’s the deal. There’s a word in Los Angeles called “marinate”. It’s when you take a piece of meat when you’re gonna barbecue, and you let the piece of meat stay in the juice for a long time before you barbecue. We want to let the new album marinate.

JW: It’s really cool that both of you enjoy the new album and wanted to hear more songs. But it’s like any record that we put out, like Roger said — you let it sit for a while, let it marinate for a little bit, and then you play them. We test the waters. We only have an hour to play, so we have to play old songs to please the audience. But it really is important and very cool that you enjoy the new record. That means a lot to us. So the next time we come to Europe, hopefully, Poland, we will play more songs from the new album.

RR: That means a lot to us because it kind of shows us who the real, real fans are, those that are keeping up with what we’re doing. Because you got some people, for example, that maybe this is their first The Aggrolites show and they want to hear songs like “Love Isn’t Love”. It’s a constant legacy. And so, like Jesse said, next time we come around, we start incorporating more songs of Reggae Now!. It’s kind of a good problem to have, because you start deciding what songs will we play. OK, no “Funky Fire”?

JW: What would you have wanted to hear?

MM: I wanted to hear “Jackpot”, and you’ve played some instrumentals today.

JW: We promise, next time we come out to Europe, we will play “Jackpot”.

MM: Okay, so since we’re talking about “Jackpot” it’s really important to point out that your dad, Roger, was involved in recording this tune.

RR: Yeah, it’s kind of cool. The thing is, Jesse wrote “Jackpot”. Whatever song we have with The Aggrolites, either Jesse comes with the idea or I come with the idea and we just let it happen. That’s what makes the original Aggrolites sound, our first albums were like that. With “Jackpot” Jesse had the idea of doing this groove from a band called Average White Band. He wanted this certain organ flavor. I can only do what I do, I’m in a box. But my father is a really good organ player. He’s been able to play with certain people that we respect, like Tower Power, the funk band War. If people don’t know who those bands are, please, look them up, it’s Los Angeles soul music legacy. So when Jesse came with the idea, I said, “Whaa?! I can’t really deliver that exact thing”. And I asked him, “Do you mind if my dad does it?” Because he is that, he’s an older generation, he lived through the whole Chicano 70’s soul stuff. The funny point is, my dad is my dad, I don’t think he’s cool, he don’t think I’m cool, it’s family. We recorded the whole album at my studio. I remember the day, these guys weren’t there, and I told my dad, “Can you come and record?” He said, “Yeah, sure. Let me know whenever”. And then I’m like, “Can you come”? And he says, “Sure, whatever”. And he comes in just like that. He didn’t ask me what key it’s in or anything. He said, “Play it” and he played on his own. And that’s it.

JW: In one take.

RR: He just goes and does it, because he is such a magician, a really good musician. My grandmother made him have lessons. I never got lessons, but I’m glad I didn’t. Long story short, it’s a family affair. Not just my father, his father [points at Jesse] is an amazing guitar player as well. His dad is the reason why he listens to the music he listens to, and my dad is the reason why I listen to the music I listen to.

JW: It was a big honor to have Roger’s dad play with us. He’s an awesome guy.

RR: You know what’s funny? I’ve had more than a couple of people tell me, “That’s not you!” after hearing “Jackpot” [laughs]. The way my dad solos is very different than the way I solo. So they say, “Eeeee, that doesn’t sound like you” and it’s a compliment.

JW: It’s cool that you read the credits and saw that. That’s awesome, to pay attention to things like that.

MM: Well, that’s what they’re for. But, Mr Roger, don’t be so modest. Some amazing tunes came from your hand and your record studio. You weren’t really bored when The Aggrolites were on hiatus, you’ve had some work to do.

RR: We’re fortunate because a lot of bands can have an explosion and then right after that, maybe because the people have changed, they split. The thing about us is we’ve had certain periods of hiatus, like you said. But even though Jesse is shining on side projects and I am shining on side projects, we’re still here doing Aggrolites music, more intimate than ever. It’s a really cool thing, a release. I think if we didn’t have Roger Rivas And The Brothers Of Reggae, or Reggae Workers Of The World, we wouldn’t have had Reggae Now! or it would have been a lot different. It’s kind of a journey that you embrace and I don’t think a lot of bands can endure it. We each get to do our own thing and come back. Reggae Now!  came into being, because we wanted to record an Aggrolites album.

MM: We’ll come back to The Aggrolites album later, but now let’s talk a little bit about the Rivas Recordings and the things you do with other bands.

RR: The actual label is kind of an outlet for stuff that I do at my studio. I have my own humble studio. But what’s cool about that is there are so many studios, that people will pay money to go to, and they will set up microphones and hit record, but there’s no attention, and they don’t nurture the actual outcome. That comes with everything since day one. There are so many elements —- the placement of the microphones, EQing, and so on. When you have someone that is leading it, that understands what the outcome should be, in this case skinhead reggae, rocksteady, you’re gonna have a better result.

MM: It’s not that easy to find a studio like that, right?

RR: It’s not at all. So, for example, I have a studio myself. Our guitar player that played tonight, Chris Brennan, he has an amazing studio in Los Angeles as well. And he is one of those, and I am one of those people that live and breathe for original reggae music. It’s going to show in the final product. For me, the release label is just an outlet to release stuff. I found out, that it’s not hard to release vinyl. The only reason that succeeds is because people like it. If I release the first vinyl, the second vinyl, and no one likes it or buys it, it stops there. So when people do gravitate towards it, it shows you that there’s demand for it and it’s a beautiful and humbling thing. I enjoy it, I’m gonna always do it.

MM: When The Aggrolites were on hiatus, The Steady 45’s emerged on the reggae scene and have been getting better and better since. Did you feel that they were catching up with you or maybe even have a chance to overtake you in the U.S.?

RR: The great part about that is, that in Los Angeles there’s competition, but it’s such a friendly competition. You got bands like The Steady 45’s or Delirians who record in my studio, and they look up to The Aggrolites. But when Aggrolites were recording, we were looking up to bands like Hepcat, The Donkey Show, Let’s Go Bowling. It continues to go era by era, generation by generation. It’s such a beautiful thing, and I’m going to tell you why. When we started playing music, the guys in Hepcat gone, “Whaaa? What the fuck is that?” And then we’re listening to The Steady 45’s, Delirians and we’re like, “Whaaa?” It’s a passing of the torch, that we love. Because you can’t hate it. It’s such a small group of people that love original Jamaican music, that you have to support it. We do that in Los Angeles always.

MM: You’re just a bunch of nerds [smiles].

RR: Yes, yeah, yes!

JW: Reggae nerds!

RR: That’s why Steady 45’s and Delirians come to my studio to record. I’m not there to make money. Everyone gets excited when you can perform and record a song.

MM: Do the guys from Steady 45’s tell you where the microphones should be or you know it better?

RR: No, I’m in charge of that. And what’s cool, is when they trust you, because it’s like the bigger brother thing. I’ll be the bigger brother to them, just like Greg Lee, Alex Désert and Deston Berry from Hepcat are the bigger brothers to us. And Steady 45’s will be the bigger brothers to some young guys who’ll appear someday, when we are old… But we’re not old, we’re young, still. Anyway, it’s always going to go on.

JW: Well, I got about six months left [grunts in pain].

MM: No! You have to record the Jesse & The Badasonics album. Come on!

RR: Ask him about that. That’s the beautiful shit right there.

MM: We already talked about that, last year at Freedom Sounds Festival.

JW: It’ll happen.

MM: Let’s go back to The Aggrolites. Your albums are always really long. It just feels like maybe you’ve had a lot of ideas and you decided to put all of them on an album. As if you didn’t really choose between them.

JW: We’ve always felt that the time that we were together, the time that we were making music was important. So anything that we could put on tape or record or anything, that was it. We wanted to put out as much music as we possibly could. We’re really honored and thankful that we’re still around almost 18 years later. But over the years, it was always just everything we have ideas for, let’s throw it out and record it. That was always the passion of The Aggrolites.

MM: But did you feel that all those ideas that you’ve put on your albums were always ready to be recorded?

JW: I felt good about all of it, to be honest.

RR: This is the platform that we always believe in. If you ask that same question to The Skatalites, of course, they’re going to say no, because back in those days, it was fucking boo-boo-boo-boo-boo-boo-boom! 6 songs a day. Coxsone Dodd – boom, boom, boom! 6 songs a day. Duke Reid – 6 songs a day, bam, bam, bam! There’s a certain magic to embracing the spur of the moment vibe of it. “Hot Stop”, the first song of our first album, we recorded that at 3 in the morning. We recorded the rest of the songs from Dirty Reggae during the day, then we were sleeping, drinking and I said, “Guys, go in the studio”. 3 in the morning and we went bragadaddo-braga-boom-poom [imitates the song’s intro].

JW: It was magic. You know, most people think about making a hit record, that should only be 11 songs, or 10, or less. But the way that we have always felt is to let everything out there, show it to the world, and let it go.

MM: It seems to me that Reggae Now! is more consistent. That you thought more about this album than the other ones.

JW: I don’t really think so, no. Like Roger said, we got together and wrote a record. We brought it back to Dirty Reggae and things like that. We just did it.

RR: You have to understand that when we were writing Dirty Reggae, there were no expectations at all. It was just fun. We did it and it was great, people liked it. When we did the second album, there were still no expectations. It was a let’s have fun approach. But the self-titled album got so much acclaim and that coincided with the stuff that we did with Tim Armstrong, A Poet’s Life. And so we thought, “Wow, okay, how do we do a 3rd album?” Reggae Hit L.A. was still fun, but we did more of an experimental thing, like a Lee Perry thing. On IV, the songs we wrote were reflective of where we were at. Then we did Rugged Road, but it wasn’t an album, it was a collection of 45’s. Every song on that album was written on the spot. That’s pure Jamaica. Reggae Now! was recorded in the same format that we did Dirty Reggae.

JW: We recorded Reggae Now! in what? One day.

RR: The basis for it was the same as for the first 2 albums, which was: I’m gonna go to Jesse’s house with some beers and we’re gonna have fun.

JW: Roger would have a lot of rhythms and organ melodies, and then I would listen, and come back with vocal ideas, and vice versa. There’d be songs where I would have rhythm ideas, and Roger would come back with a really cool organ lead. But that’s the way we always worked.

RR: And on Reggae Now! we were trying to resurrect the magic of the first two albums consciously. How did we do the first two albums? Well, you came over with beer and we partied.

MM: Then you have lyrics like Aggro is Aggro statistically.

JW: Yeah, that’s from “Pound For Pound”. That’s just talking about the last so many years. Me and Roger are the original members. We’ve been together for.. shit! I’ve spent more time with this guy than I had with anyone in my life.

RR: Our girls get jealous because we spend so much time together [Jesse laughs].

JW: “Pound For Pound” was just kind of saying it was 8 years since we’ve had an album. So it’s like, “We’re back! We’re coming out of the gates”. Saying that is in respect of people like Derick Morgan or Clancy Eccles.

RR: All the originators of Jamaican sound came out of the gates bragging about it — [everybody gives examples] I’m the prince, tougher than tough, strong like lion we are iron and things like that [sings: Don’t you brag and don’t you boast].

JW: It was going off of that vibe saying, “Hey, we’re The Aggrolites. We’ve been together forever, and it’s been 8 years since we had an album. Let’s come out and…” I don’t know if you know this term in Poland, but we say, “Our shit don’t stink”. So let’s tell them, “Our shit don’t stink. We’re here. We’ve never gone anywhere. We’re back with a vengeance”.

RR: You get to the point where you’re young and you think you’re the best thing ever, and then you start to realize that you’re not. You start to be humble as you get older. And then you get to the point where you go, “I’m still humble, but I do realize that a lot of people appreciate this music”. So let’s assume the role that our shit don’t stink [laughs].

JW: I’m going to be very conceited right now.

RR: But it’s still humble. We can be in that role now and then.

JW: I’m the most worried person. But I’m gonna honestly say, with full confidence, that The Aggrolites is the best skinhead reggae band right now.

MM: But there are also Travelers…

Michał Budzik: Greatest band from Mexico, Travelers All Stars.

[everyone shouting and praising Travelers All Stars]

JW: Those guys are awesome.

RR: Can I be honest with you? He’s been listening to fucking skinhead reggae [points at Jesse] since he was a fucking kid. I’ve been listening to skinhead reggae since I was a kid, really. But when you hear the magic… I will say this – for me the best skinhead reggae band in the world is Travelers All Stars. We’ve just got done playing there and they GET IT. The average person that says they like them doesn’t really know why they like them. We like them because they know. The guitar player listens to skinhead reggae. The drummer, the bass player, the keyboard player listen to skinhead reggae. They know the shit. We are not original fuckin skinhead reggae music. We’re influenced by it, but we created dirty reggae. We’re a new thing, a different thing.

MM: I love those funky vibes that The Aggrolites brought to the scene.

RR: And that’s what Jesse said, no one can touch us on that because we’re the creators of dirty reggae. It’s a special feeling, and a vibe, and an aura that comes across. For old school Jamaican reggae, if that’s the goal, Travelers’ sound is top of my list. But for dirty reggae, I’m comfortable sitting back, going we’re the best fucking skinhead reggae band in the world doing that. I know it sounds really crazy, but we’re very humble still [laughs].

MM: Well, it’s a fact. There’s no need to discuss it.

RR: No, we’re joking. There’s such a small club of people doing skinhead reggae that no one can afford to not support everyone else, and we do that. Me and Jesse, less than a year ago, we flew to Mexico and we had Travelers All Stars as a backing band and they are amazing. Their heart is so into it. And I can go on and on about Mexico, and about how Mexican bands are not on the same wavelength as American bands or even European bands, and how they even get more points in my book because they ARE from Mexico. I’m Mexican, but I don’t speak Spanish, I’m Americanized, I’m from Los Angeles. But when I see them I go, “Oh, my gosh!” They’re from Mexico City and they play skinhead reggae better than anybody in Europe, and anybody in America, hands down. And I’m so proud of that.

JW: That is true. Massive respect to Travelers All Stars.

MM: There’s kind of a big reggae vibe going on in South America. Is it going on in the States too? Do you feel that ska and reggae have better times coming up? I think that you’ve played a lot of gigs last year, a lot of festivals in the USA. Or maybe it just looks like this from our perspective, that it’s a good time for ska and reggae in the United States.

JW: It’s a great time for ska and reggae.

RR: There are things called fads and eras. If something’s cool, then people gravitate towards it. And for a long time in the 90s or the 2000s ska was cool. Then skinhead reggae was cool, everyone was playing it. Now, if we go to L. A. there’s a bunch of lowrider soul music that’s cool. But I have more respect for people that stick to what they love. So we stick to what we love and we’re always gonna play skinhead reggae. We keep it real. People in Los Angeles are spoiled because we get so many good shows. But there’s a reason why, because there’s such demand.

MM: You’ve got a great community.

RR: We do, I love it. We’re very fortunate to live there. That’s why when we come to Europe… Like right now, when we get done with this interview, I’m gonna go across the street and hear some 45’s that I’ve never heard before. My favorite part of touring Europe is nights like this, where I can go and bother the DJ, and point, and listen to 45’s that I’ve never heard before, because I deejay at home as well. With that being said, first of all, you’re an amazing interviewer.

JW: She knows her shit.

MM: Well, I know your shit.

RR: If you have any more questions…

MM: Yes, I have. If you are going to bother the DJ, you should ask him, if he’s going to play Al Wilson’s “The Snake”.

RR: [imitating Jamaican accent] Is not no soul night. Sorry, dawta, ain’t no soul night [laughs]. Is it an inside joke? I hope it is. I hope they don’t play soul. Can I be real me? I’m speaking on behalf of Roger Rivas, not The Aggrolites. I get the connection between soul and reggae, but it’s OK to like reggae only and not be a northern soul guy. We love soul, we love northern soul, we love reggae music. But right now – reggae. Reggae now!

Discussion (1 reply)

  1. It was one of my favorite interviews ever, What I like the most, is how you guide them to be themselves and every one in conversation wanted to talk at same time… Second, I have had goosebumps when every one recognized the work that Travellers All Stars is making. We would like to here many interviews from you and our favorite bands. Many greetings from Mexico! ??

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