Known for reinventing songs such as Radiohead’s Karma Police, Pink Floyd’s Money, and Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Easy Star All Stars have been setting the standard for covering music in their own way. Open about the fact that they are a product of artists coming together through the encouragement of their managers, Easy Star All Stars chose to highlight the positive side of the business end of music, and have nothing but positive things to say about the industry. Join us as we sit down with members Kirsty Rock (Vocals), Buford O’Sullivan (Trombone), Ivan Katz (Drums), Jenny Hill (Saxophone), and Ruff Scott (Vocals) of Easy Star All Stars about their own philosophy on their music.
So you feature a lot of other artists in your music, how do you decide which outside artists to work with?
Ivan: The heads of the label, Eric, Lem, and Michael, they make the decision of which tribute album we might do… For example, Sargent Pepper, or we’re going to do Radiohead and make it Radiodread, and then in that process they chose these guests.
Where is the tradeoff between decisions made by you, and decisions made by the label?
Kirsty: Most of our decision making is for the live shows. We chose the set lists, and which songs we’re going to perform.
Buford: We work up some arrangements, and as we tour, we develop our own rhythm of the song, and (the song) kind of melds and ages as the tour goes on. Currently we’re all working on new stuff. We’re like factories of tunes and jams, so all of this just percolates together, however, it is an Easy Star show, and we do play the Easy Star albums, and in that respect it’s a performance (of our own work)
Ivan: One thing that’s really fun is being a live musician, weather you’re a vocalist or an instrumentalist, you subconsciously make decisions, because even if you’re playing a set song, (and say) ok, we’re going to play this song from Radiodread, when you play it, automatically you’re going to be creative in it because the live show is all about it’s own energy, so we all make those decisions as performing artists. Subconsciously, we’re figuring out how to play together and bring it, and that’s the beauty of live performance.
Jenny: And also, a live thing we do is we insert some cool stuff, like solos. So for Paranoid Android, Bufford O’Sullivan is featured as a soloist underneath the vocals, underneath the rhythms, or on top of the rhythms, and I do Climbing Up the Walls underneath Kirsty’s vocals. That (performance) changes every night.
Ruff: As far as I’m concerned, the songs that I do on the albums is not necessarily exactly how others might be DJ’ing it, but I keep the actual chorus, and I inject some of my own original lyrics in there, so what you might get (are the lyrics on the album) and then I’ll bring a change and a vibe onstage, you’re not going to get exactly what you would get at the next show.
Jenny: And we feed off of the audience too. The better the audience, the better the show, you know?
So thinking back to your Radiodread album. The story I heard many years ago when I first was introduced to your music was that originally, Easy Star did not have the approval to put out a cover album of Radiohead’s OK Computer album, but you went ahead and recorded it anyway, and sent it to Thom Yorke who later approved it after hearing your music. Is this story true?
Ivan: That is true. At first, like you said, (Yorke thought) “Cover our stuff in Reggae? Yeah whatever” and then (after hearing it) they were like “Oh Snap! This is kind of dope!” … (on that same note) I wish I could ask Michael Jackson what he thinks of our version of Thriller. I’m sure he would dig it.
What would you have done if Yorke had said no to the Radiodread album after you had already gone through the process of making the album?
Buford: Well… The business of the band is definitely separate from the live performance. The business of the band is (that) they’re friends from childhood, they came up in New York together, and the had the same kind of crazy idea to make a label based on the New York Reggae scene based on roots, production, real horns, and real drums, so as far as which album is made, they’re very careful in investing their time and money. If Radiohead had said “no” they probably would have found another record.
Ivan: There is a process, you have to get permission… The proper legal permissions have to be obtained to do something like that.
Buford: Easy Star is one of the few examples of when they (the artistic and business sides of music) it works. The business side of those who had the idea for “Dub Side of the Moon” said “How do we do that? We need a band!” So they searched around, found people in the Reggae scene, and they made that record, so it is kind of a melding of the business and the art.
What is the process of deciding who to cover next?
Ruff: I guess the decision goes to the producer, Michael. He’s the one who makes the final decision because he has to go to the studio and build the production. For me, I would love to see something done with Stevie Wonder. I think that would jell right with Reggae.
Ivan: From my observation, as the drummer of the last 13 years, whatever they chose, regardless of the genre or who it is, the common thread is they’re all anthem-like songs, and they tend to go with albums that are strong from beginning to end. We’ve lost that concept, because of the way things are, people today aren’t buying whole albums.
How do you balance how much time is spent covering other people’s work, and how much time is spent creating Easy Star All Stars originals?
Buford: They (Management) like to have to have one or of the concept albums come out, then we’ll do some original stuff, then a couple more concepts will come out, then some more originals, so they kind of have a strategy about which is released when.
Ruff: All of the artists in Easy Star right now have been doing their own work. I met Kirsty through another band, and she’s been doing other work with other musicians, we actually did a song together back in the day. I’ve been doing some work with Ivan too. Jenny, has her album that she just released, and I’m working on some music, so we have a lot of original stuff, but what happens on the business side of things is that our originals might not sell as much, of course, as a “Pink Floyd”.
Jenny: I have a lot of originals, but I’ve noticed when I check Spotify or other streaming websites, they’re always going to go for the cover tune. When you write, people can create beautiful music, but the consumer might go for the tune they might have already heard before, and you can see it reflected in the graphs and your sales.
Ivan: Obviously we focus on the tribute albums, of course people want to hear Dubside, Radiodread, etcetera, etcetera, but we always have a least a couple of original songs in a set, and it’s always balanced out nice. It gives it a different flavor because there is something amazing about us performing these tribute albums live, but people catch a different type of connection when you have various songs.
Any message you guys want to send to your Bay Area fans?
Ivan: We love the Bay! Easy Star is a good fit for the Bay, because the Bay gets down. They understand what we’re doing. They’re not just here judging it and questioning it. “Y’all are hella dope” that’s what they say in the Bay, right? I want to move out to the Bay.
You have covered a lot of songs in Easy Star, if you had to pick one artist to cover any one of your original songs what would they be?
Jenny: I’m a Tenor Sax player, so, he’s no longer with us, but I would pick Gato Barbieri to play any of my songs that I write for Tenor Sax. (Probably the song) Drive West. Gato is the man.
Ruff: For me of course it would be Shabba Ranks, and he’d be doing “Pass the Lighter.”
Kirsty: David Bowie. (Covering anything)
Buford: I think D-Funked should be playing “The Vaporizer Song.”
Ivan: Maybe I’d write something that’s dope enough that Stevie Wonder would want to put his magic to.
What is a question that nobody ever asks you that you wish you could talk about more in interviews?
Kirsty: Food questions. I always want to talk about food.
Ivan: Food is life! And so, one of the things that is really fun about this band is that we all love food. We have vegetarians, and we have carnivores, and we have people that will eat everything. Part of the fun is that everywhere we go; part of the experience is “what’s going to happen food-wise”
Jenny: Bus life. I feel like we’re a rolling slumber party, it’s really fun in the bus. For me it’s like having eight brothers and one sister and we’re having fun.
Ruff: We also love another kind of food, which is the brain food, so that has to be straight. Mentally, the road is not an easy thing. You get road lag, and you need some things to calm you down.