Victor Rice: I feel like I’ve taken my place back

It was a very hot edition of the Freedom Sounds Festival, still at Gebäude 9. The organizers opened all the doors, but during the shows you didn't feel the airflow. Given these conditions, it was good to slow down a bit. Jamaicans came up with this already in 1966, when they turned ska into rocksteady. And that is a genre Victor Rice loves.

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Victor Rice interviewed for RudeMaker

During Freedom Sounds 2018, Victor Rice performed with his septet and promoted his third album, “Smoke”. It’s a record that he recorded long after moving from New York to São Paulo and, as he says, even if he wanted to, he couldn’t avoid Brazilian inspirations.

He mentioned during the interview that he already has ideas for the next 2 albums in his mind. Two days ago he announced that in May Easy Star Records will release one of them.

Before we get to know the new recording, listen to what Victor told me 2 years ago about “Smoke”, Brazilian fascinations, love of rocksteady and his relationship with the ska scene.

If you prefer to read rather than listen, you’ll find the transcript below.

Magdalena Miszewska: You didn’t know it… Well, you know it now, because I told you, but I’ve been here since yesterday and it’s really, really hot in the club. It’s really hot out there in Cologne this year. It’s nearly as hot, I think, as during the legendary Jamaican summer of 1966 when supposedly rocksteady music was born. I think that the music from your latest album, “Smoke”, will fit perfectly to the conditions.

Victor Rice: How perfect, thank you very much. I actually am very interested in the rocksteady era, and especially what was going on in Brazil at the same time. The samba rock thing was going on. That’s one of my favorite times in history.

MM: And probably that’s why you wanted to combine rocksteady and samba. But you said that it wasn’t obvious to you at the beginning that those two styles would merge together so fine.

VR: That’s true. I still have my doubts. To me the master of the beats would be if I came up with a rhythm that Brazilians thought was Brazilian and Jamaicans thought was Jamaican. And that doesn’t happen yet. All of my experiments with this fusion either lean to one side or they go to the other. I have some samba rocksteadys that really sound Jamaican and have some that sound more Brazilian. I think it’s an impossible task. I’m not trying to actually find this sound, but I think that if I go after it, whatever sound I get on the journey is worth it. I really like the results of the experiments, and I don’t think the experiment will ever end.

MM: So your album “Smoke” is just the first step of this project of finding the perfect combination?

VR: Yeah. “Smoke” for me is a lot of things because it’s been so long since my second record.

MM: 14 years?

VR: Yeah, 14 or 15 years. Technically, it’s my third record, but in a lot of ways I’m thinking about it like my first record. Like I’m starting over again. I already have two more records in mind that would sort of complete this set of what’s going on now musically.

MM: It’s the first time you tried to combine samba and rocksteady so maybe it’s the first record of this period of your musical journey.

VR: Yes, totally. And there’s plenty of ska on the record and maybe a little bit of reggae sounding. It’s not like I left my earlier roots or anything. It’s just I’m trying to put more into it.

MM: It was a long period between “In America” and “Smoke”, but you were a busy man during that time. You’ve played with other bands, you produced their albums, you were involved in music engineering, you moved to Brazil. What else have you been doing these 14 or 15 years?

VR: Well, during that time I never stopped making my music. I just never found enough consistency to call it a record. I have lots of lots of productions that I’ve never finished. Lots of songs that were written and never even made it out of the book, never even made it to the studio. And a lot of things that were recorded I just never finished because I wasn’t feeling it was going to go in the right direction. So there’s that. But there’s been a lot of work. I’ve been developing the dub show a lot, so that’s been working out a lot. But it’s not with a band, and it’s not a proper composing situation. It’s where I’m working somewhere between being an artist and an engineer. It’s been really satisfying, but now I feel like I need to do my music more and work with a band again and work with people. It’s been really exciting to get back to this. I guess in those 15 years I was just getting assimilated in Brazil, so it was a lot going on. A lot of people have come through my life and a lot of situations. It’s been an exciting time, and I feel like now that I’m going back to making my own music, whether I want to or not, Brazil has totally influenced what I was doing, what I am doing. I wasn’t looking for the influence. I didn’t go to Brazil for a musical reason. I went to Brazil just to get out of the U. S. I was just tired of that place.

MM: So it was a coincidence?

VR: Not coincidence. It’s just I loved Brazil and I knew I wanted to live there, so that was easy. But I wasn’t going there to study Brazilian music. It’s just there’s no way you can’t hear it, no way you can’t be affected.

MM: I know Brazil only from some movies or TV series. Is it really a country that is buzzing with music? I have the impression that music is everywhere in Brazil.

VR: I confess that I don’t really know Brazil. I love São Paulo, and when I moved there, I stayed there. There’s so much of Brazil I never saw, so I can only speak really to São Paulo, and I can tell you it is buzzing with all forms of art. It’s an amazing city. It’s the way they used to talk about Berlin. Every artist of every type of every medium is making things happen down there. Visual, sonic, linear, non-linear, dance, there’s no end to it. That’s fascinating for me to be in the middle of that much activity. I feel like it’s the best place to be right now for an artist.

MM: It’s a funny thing that you’re from the U.S., you live in Brazil, you recorded an album which tries to merge samba and rocksteady, but when you were looking for musicians who would play with you, you went to Europe.

VR: Well, here’s the thing (laugh). I’ve known Nico and the boys from Belgium for 15 years. They know my music and they know how I do it, and it was an easy choice to get them in the studio. Nico has an amazing studio and Nico and I understand very much what we’re trying to do. It is kind of odd that I would make a Brazilian influenced record in Belgium with Europeans. There’s no Brazilians on the record, but it was a perfect combination of me being available and hanging out in Europe. I was there for months. We made the sessions in 2013 and I had extended periods at Nico’s and we played some shows together. But I also had an extended period alone in Italy, where I started to come up with some of these ideas that wound up on the record. When I came back to Belgium, all we needed to do was to record some things. It was the first time I had a consistent full record, 10 songs that work together. And it’s been great ever since. I feel like I’m back in it again, like I’ve taken my place back.

MM: Did you write all the songs by yourself and then went to the guys to record it, or they’ve added something from themselves as well?

VR: Normally, I write first on paper with a pencil. I hear the sounds in my head and I work it out on paper. When I come to them, everything is written, for the horns, for everyone. Maybe a little bit of experimenting with the tempo or the beat. The only thing I don’t write are the solos and the interpretations, improvising. Other than that I’m kind of a control freak when it comes to the music.

MM: Did you produce your album yourself?

VR: I guess you could say that. I arranged for everything to happen and then I mixed it myself in São Paulo in my studio. I took care of everything, even the artwork. I knew who could do what, and this is the first time that I had 100% creative control of the record. The fact that I did everything I wanted to do and a label like Easy Star would say: “Yeah, this is great. We’ll put it out just the way it is”, that’s an amazing affirmation for me. It’s a confirmation that I know what I’m doing and I can trust myself a little more. That’s a great feeling.

MM: When we think of Victor Rice, we can see so many sides of your musical career. You produce albums, do the dub shows, record albums with other musicians. Do you consider yourself more of a sound engineer or a musician?

VR: I definitely consider myself a musician first. That’s what I went to school for and that’s what I took more seriously. The engineering part is something I was taught later. Someone who taught me so much about engineering said that it’s much easier to teach a musician how to engineer than it is to teach an engineer how to be musical. You can’t teach music to just anybody, but you can teach engineering to a musician and they’ll get it. I still consider myself a musician first, and I think because of that I need to be playing more bass, I need to be on the stage more. I’m looking to take care of that better. It’s great to be out of the studio. I think I would burn myself out there, cause it just doesn’t feed me the way my own music will. I came to the realization that if I don’t make my music, nobody will, because only I can do it. I’m looking for a balance between my musical life and my professional life as an engineer and producer. I think Europe is going to see me more in the next couple of years.

MM: I think you’re in Europe really often. There’s this situation I keep wondering about. In Poland, many jazz musicians consider the United States the promised land. If you’re a jazz musician, you have to go to the U.S. and play some shows there. And if you gain some popularity then you are a real jazz musician. But looking at the ska scene or punk bands and all those alternative genres, you see that people from The United States consider Europe their promised land because they can play big tours, and they talk about the people being so much more into the music than in the U.S. Do you think about Europe in this terms, like it’s a promised land for a musician?

VR: Definitely, and the jazz musicians do as well. Here’s the thing. All musicians want to go to New York. Any jazz musician on the planet is going to want to go to New York to test themselves and see where they rate. And to gain that knowledge and that insight, but also just to see how you compare. I do think New York is still like the number one proving ground for a jazz musician. Now, if you want to make a living playing jazz, it’s not gonna happen in New York. Jazz musicians are like cockroaches in New York, there’s just there’s too many of them. I always knew this, even going to conservatory, that the good life for a musician, functioning, dignified, practical life, is in Europe. That’s where people appreciate music more. Sure, Americans might make some great music, but it’s appreciated even more in Europe. I know a lot of jazz musicians who live in New York, but they tour Europe. That’s how they get along. So I wasn’t surprised that during my first time in Europe I felt the same feeling. I was like: “Okay, New York is great. I think I know what I want to do, but ultimately, if I wanna enjoy the life of a musician, I should probably move to Europe or somewhere”. I chose Brazil because it doesn’t snow (laugh).

MM: That’s a real advantage. And since we were talking about New York, maybe we could take a step back in time to the 90s, when the ska scene was blooming there and you were a part of it. How do you remember those times?

VR: I remember them well. I smile when I think about it. It’s funny when I think about the people I was playing with, who I’m still playing with today. I don’t think in the 90s we were thinking about who’s still gonna be doing this 30 years from now. It’s great to see which sessions we did that wound up being important and which groups that we formed, because for every group that people know, like Stubborn All-Stars or New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble or something, for everyone, there’s like five or six groups that didn’t get there. It’s great to look back and think about it. We didn’t know that making “Dub Side Of The Moon” was gonna be a big deal. There was never a time when we were making a record going: “This is the one that everyone’s gonna know”. It’s fun to look back and also to know how many friends I still have from then. It’s great. I do enjoy thinking about how active in real-time it was in the 90s when we were doing this stuff. It just seems so natural, like what else would we do. It just seemed so easy and not like we were preparing for a future of doing it, either. I mean, I didn’t know that I would never leave the ska scene (laughs).

MM: I think now L.A. is a really important place for ska music. There are so many bands from this side of The States.

VR: Yeah, there’s this rivalry between New York and L.A. from the beginning. I like the way somebody put it that New York has the songwriters, but they’re not so reverent to the beat, to trying to play it exactly the right way. And they say that nobody plays the ska better than in L. A., like Hepcat or any of those guys out there. These guys really master the beat. But the tunes are more conventional. I mean, what L.A. has on New York is the execution. I think New York has a composing style that is more diverse.

MM: Well, maybe it’s time for a giant super all-star L.A.-New York ska band, which would be the monster of ska music in the United States.

VR: Yeah, yeah. Reggae Workers Of The World (laugh)! They even got Nico, so Europe is represented as well. I think, in three people you’ve got killer fucking ska band right there. It’s not a ska band, but…

MM: Well, it’s somewhere near.

VR: Yeah, yeah. I mean, they’re more than just playing ska, they can do so many other things. I don’t know if they consider themselves a ska band or not, but I do think yeah, East and West together, right there.

MM: Despite this rivalry we were talking about, between L.A. and New York, you are working with a band from L.A., Hepcat. You did the dub version of their record, “Out Of Nowhere”.

VR: Yes, that was an amazing thing, because I remember when that record came out. Before I knew who Hepcat was, I was playing in The Scofflaws and I thought we were the only band that cares about playing like The Skatalites. That makes us the best because we’re the only ones who care. And then I saw Hepcat and heard them and thought: “Oh my God, they’re so much better”. I was upset. It’s so funny for me to go back to that record and be able to mess with it and be able to do things to this record that did so much to me. In a way that record fucked me up, and then I got a chance to fuck up the record. Now the cycle is complete. Ah, Hepcat know. All those guys, they know I love what they’re doing. I think this rivalry thing just kind of melts away after a while because the best respect the best, and especially those who’re still doing it. It’s not easy to keep it up. I think anybody who’s still doing it has already got respect from everybody.

MM: Do you have any other albums you would like to mess with?

VR: Oooh, oooh, that’s a good one! I want The Aggrolites’ first record, cause that fucked me up, too. If you’re listening to make you listen to me, Brian, Jesse, Roger, let me get a chance to fuck that record up because that record fucked me up.


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