Interview with Alpheus
04/02/2014 by Angus Taylor
London born singer Alpheus has always done things in his own way. He began his music career almost by accident when he became the last solo singer to be signed to the great Coxsone Dodd’s Studio 1 Records where he cut his debut album Quality Time in 1998. Then he turned towards Europe with follow-up Everything For A Reason for Special Delivery in 2007.
At this point it got really interesting. Alpheus, who from day one had a classic approach to the craft, swore off modern reggae altogether and pledged to make only rocksteady and ska. In 2011 he released the critically acclaimed From Creation, produced by Spain’s uncanny vintage re-creator Roberto Sanchez, which literally transported the ear back the 60s.
Now Alpheus is ready to drop his second album with Sanchez, Good Prevails, on Liquidator Records [Release date April 28th], continuing the same template of revived and original rhythms with a pinpoint accurate timeless sound.
Angus Taylor met Alpheus at Cotton’s Caribbean restaurant in London to talk about the trials and travails of making a record from a lavish multi instrumental era in a time when most music is made in a bedroom on a budget. Alpheus’ commitment to being an artist, rather than simply an entertainer was sounding loud and clear…
The title of the new album is Good Prevails. Your second album was called Everything For A Reason, and I know there is always a good reason behind the titles you choose. Is Good Prevails a comment on the way that good music, like rocksteady music endures and prevails, a comment on your own career, or a comment on life in general?
It’s a comment on life in general, 100%. I got the inspiration for that song from my mum, because I’ve only ever seen her do good! She’s taken some hard hits, hard times, but she always comes good at the end because she’s done good.
It’s interesting that you got the title from your mum because obviously the name Alpheus comes from your dad. So now you’ve paid tribute to them both.
It was nothing planned because at the time my mum was going through some hard times and some good times came and it made me write the song. But she’s always done good, only good, even in the face of bad has always tried to see the good part of it and walk out the other door. I’d seen it paid off for her, so I try to live that way. I hope everyone can. I just believe that good prevails in the end in all walks of life. I just turned that experience into a universal message.
Give me an example of how Good Prevails…
There was a situation where I used to work a long time ago as a bodyguard, and I have a licence to be that. That was about 2001 in Hounslow. When I first came back from America I was looking for money and I had to work. I was confronted one day by somebody with two bottles and they tried to put the bottles in my face. Instead of hitting him I held his wrists and said “Look man, this is not the day for that. Come on man, live good, live good”. He just dropped the bottles and he ran off. But I saw him again. It was a club and I was working on the door as a doorman at the time. He come back and you know what? He was a different guy! He came back, he’d just come from work, his vibe was up and he said “All I’ve ever done is done good, and I’m here now”. So that was an example.
How do you break down what’s on the album for the readers in terms of how many rhythms are original and how many are being licked back?
There’s 14 tracks on this album. It was 16 but we’ve cut it to 14. We’re going to save two. Two of them are instrumentals and I would say that about seven of the songs are original ska rocksteady compositions, six or seven written by Roberto Sanchez. We brought back some lovely Winston Riley rocksteady because we wanted to go into the era of the reggae in your jeggae, which is like 1970, ’71 when reggae was moving at a pace and you heard the guitar “choo-coo, choo-coo”. We’ve got a good few tracks of those really authentically made with Lone Ark Riddim Force Band. So we did one Winston Riley, we still touched some Coxsone Dodd, so yeah we still remade some stuff.
And, just like on the previous album, From Creation, there is some Phil Pratt on there.
Oh we can’t leave out Phil, man! We got two Phil Pratt, lovely roots rocksteady, because his rocksteady was on the tip of roots, with a glint of reggae and a lot of rocksteady because he used people like Lynn Taitt and so on. We got a really good feel from that, and I seem to fit on those rhythms well, so we really had a go.
From Creation was chosen by a lot of critics as being among their best albums of 2011. However it seems to me that you’re a bit more locked into the rhythms this time, whereas with From Creation you were trying something for the first time.
Yes, it was an experiment. And this is because after this album being out for three years and doing many shows and meeting many of the massive, it made me realise what they want from me and how they want it from me. So I’ve been able to really, as you say, lock in to it and make sure that the melodies and all of the topics fit the rhythms, and the demeanour and the texture of the rhythms. And I hope that I’ve done that.
The album’s coming out on Liquidator Records. As a Chelsea fan* how do you feel about that? [*Chelsea FC came out to Harry J All Stars Liquidator in the 1970s]
I’m very happy about that and I’m happy that Liquidator was brave and courageous to get involved in what can be a difficult market these days, but they believe and they’re an experienced ska rocksteady label. I big up Tony and all the team for working hard on this. I think everyone will feel the vibe that they’re going to give.
> WE HOPE THE PEOPLE CAN BE HONEST ABOUT HOW THEY GET THIS MUSIC.
NOT JUST FOR US, FOR ALL MUSIC. <
Has it been difficult to put this album out? Is it difficult for you and Roberto to work despite the obvious critical acclaim that you and he get for your work?
Yes, it’s been very difficult because of funding. Although we had very good musical and critical acclaim on the From Creation album we wanted to make another one and a lot of the massive wanted us to make another one, and that’s what encouraged us to work hard for the last 12 or 18 months on this one. The thing was that because it’s so hard to recoup your investment in music, one because of piracy, and two because it’s an independent music, not like commercial pop music, it was hard to get the funding to reinvest into the musicians that we use, to make good music, so we finally had to take a gamble on our own and make it happen. And we hope the people can support it and be honest about how they get this music. Not just for us, for all music. If there’s no support of it, if you’re not going to pay for it, then how do you expect good music to continue? All of the other genres of music, their music’s continuing. They’re on the side of the bus or the train, on the radio or on the TV because, you know what? Their public supports it and buys it. That’s what we need if we want the music to keep on extending and making good music with live musicians. That costs money.
In terms of how music is consumed in the last couple of years, people don’t talk so much about buying music, they talk about renting music. Streaming, on-demand audio sites have sort of plugged the hole where people used to just outright download illegally. Is that the future of music? That people just pay a subscription fee and listen to music? Do you think that they should still keep buying it? If it’s vintage music, should they consume it in a vintage way?
People should still keep buying, obviously, to support the artists and the music, and to actually acquire the music personally and have it, the way we used to have our CDs and LPs. When I love an album I want the actual material in my hand, and I still think it’s like that now but it needs to be encouraged more. It needs to be encouraged more because it’s really hard times, and there’s a good chosen few musicians who still want to make music the authentic way, and that takes investment.
Weren’t you at all tempted at some point though in trying to get funds to just go “Hey! Special Delivery, let’s put out some one drop albums. Let’s do a dancehall album!”
(laughing a lot) Oh man, I tell you something… you really know what’s happening out there Angus, but you know what? I couldn’t, after seeing the good critical acclaim that we got for the roots rocksteady ska from From Creation there was no way I could turn back and go and do one drop or nowadays reggae. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it because it was just an overwhelming amount of love from the massive about the last album From Creation that I wanted to continue it. And if I couldn’t continue it I was just going to stop to sing, I didn’t care, I wasn’t going to make another album.
So it’s not about money and profits then, it’s about trying to make sure you cover your costs and do what you need to do.
It’s about what’s right. About making the right music. I’ve seen how it can affect people when you make good music. I didn’t want to start to make it because it was a hustle, or because it was my income.
So what other sources of income are available to you apart from doing shows and putting out recorded music?
Well, I’m really into football and I’ve gone to the FA and got my FA level 1 and 2, so I have achieved some professional football coaching and I coach the community kids that live near me. There is a local team and I help to coach them. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s funds and I love it. It’s nice helping the youths. A lot of these youths have no parents but they’ve got football and the last few years I’ve been involved, since I’ve been a qualified coach.
Tarrus Riley just released a rocksteady album and there is talk about trying to start a rocksteady revolution in Jamaica and bring it back. Do you think this is something that can be achieved?
I haven’t heard the album but I heard one of the tracks from Tarrus Riley where there is rocksteady in it and I was pleased to hear that. If people went back to the foundation or forward to the foundation it would be better because if the public would understand what it takes to make good music and how it sounds… it takes funds and it takes love. If you don’t have the funds you can’t pay the band, I mean Lone Ark Riddim Force, there’s 12 or 13 people in the band. They all still need to eat as well as enjoy to play. Let’s not take the piss out of these people. These guys are playing on instruments that are 85 years old, that cost money. One of the guys that plays the horns in there, his trumpet cost €3,000. That’s because it’s 85 years old and he can get the authentic sound. He can’t come to a session for nothing and go back to his family if someone is stealing the music. I’ve just had enough of it.
But you hear some of the musicians from the rocksteady ska and early reggae days say they weren’t getting paid what they should. Often they say they were just coming from the countryside and they just wanted to hear themselves on the radio.
And today we live in a time where people are more aware of royalties and paying people fairly. But unfortunately we’re also in a world where that number of people touring in a band or recording, is seen as too expensive, too many overheads, so they’d cut the costs and play the horns on a keyboard, and so on. So if you look back there was never a time when all these musicians made wonderful music and got what they deserved, and today isn’t that time either, so what’s the way forward?
You know what? The way forward is only one thing, and that is honesty and that’s a hard thing to ask a human being to do. But love conquers all and if you love something you can be honest within it and make it happen. That’s all we can ask for. Back then, yes, they just wanted to hear theirself and see theirself on the label and a lot of money was not involved, but they did get paid, small yes, but they did get paid for a session. I know that because I worked with Mr Dodd and Mr Dodd told me, they got paid for sessions, they didn’t go there and play for free. They lined up at the door and hoped they can get a session, and they’d try and share the money out. They didn’t write the music, most of the artists, they were session musicians and they got paid. That’s what it is in music, they get paid for it. You get some musicians “Oh, I didn’t get no money!” but did you know you were asked for hire, you weren’t a writer. If you was a writer and you put your name there… but that’s another subject, man. But it is the truth.
Let’s talk about some of themes of the album. One of the tracks is about changing your life and not being a rudeboy. Were you ever a rudeboy?
Yes, I think so. When you’re a teenager and you’re 15, 16… I used to have my hair in braids, plaits like the guy Leroy in Fame. I was on the street with my boys and we used to hang out and we used to do everything that was rude, you know… stay out late, play knock down ginger, we just live that way and that’s a rudie. That song is called Rudie No More and it’s a ska. Its rhythm is written by Roberto Sanchez, the rhythm is called the Shower Riddim. It’s just about someone saying “Look man, I don’t want to be rudie anymore, I want to try and live straight because my family is at stake here”.
So it’s not about yourself?
No, no, no. I know someone like that, so this song’s about that person, but it’s a universal message.
There’s also a song about envy, something that is very common in music.
That song is called Our Strength and basically it’s about all of us. I wrote it about a girl, she was having a hard time at work, she was going to lose her job just because they were being a bully, and I said “Don’t worry, just be strong” and then the song goes “As long as there’s life in me they’re not going to treat us like dirt”. It’s basically about standing up for yourself no matter how you look, how you feel, and loving yourself and not letting anything that is supposed to be superior than you fight you down. I’m a strong believer of that kind of upliftment.
These are reality songs. We’ve talked before in the first interview we ever did, about how for you, and for me as well as a consumer of music, a good love song is a reality song. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah! There’s some very good love songs that when they’re sung from the heart and real experience, you can tell. You can tell from all genres of music. In rocksteady it’s important to be able to sing a good love song. I enjoy doing that. I think there’s two songs that are love songs on the album but they’re deep. One of them is called The Right One and I think it’s on a Winston Riley, I’m not sure. But it really is one of my favourite tunes.
How long were you in Santander recording this album?
I had to do it in about three different trips, so to sing the album maybe two to three weeks if you total all the days up, but to write the album, a bit more than a year.
> I CANNOT EXPLAIN THE GENIUS OF ROBERTO SANCHEZ. <
What was that time like with you and Roberto? Was it intense?
It was fantastic. I’m talking about him and I get goose-pimples. I cannot explain the genius of this person. He’s crazy-genius. I mean he plays a Hammond, an old 1960-something Hammond that he brought back on a boat from Brighton. He went to Brighton one day, 20 years ago, and he bought that Hammond and brought it back on a boat to Santander. He plays it like he’s Phantom of the Opera. And when he plays it you have to leave the room. He doesn’t want you in the room when he’s playing it, because he goes into this place. So I have to wait, and he’s going (makes thumping sound) and he’s brilliant! Working with him is the best thing. There’s never anyone else in the studio, just me and him, that’s how he likes it. It works. We’re very creative, we definitely know each other and we never have any disagreements whatsoever about the production of the music. It just flows, it’s brilliant.
There was one thing in a previous interview you said you and Roberto had a disagreement about. Your musical theory learning was not on the same level as his. Have you improved in that way and can you play a musical instrument yet? You said you were going to about three years ago.
(laughs) You know what? I haven’t. He’s not happy about that because he says I have to learn one. He plays about nine instruments and I don’t play any except my voice, but I think it’s just laziness, man. And I’m sorry to him for that!
Can you give me an “A”?
No, I don’t know what that is! (laughs)
Will you be making any videos for the album?
I never made a video before and the first time we’re going to make two video clips for two of the songs off Good Prevails in Switzerland in two weeks’ time because I found a nice set of film students. I saw some of their work on YouTube and I called them. They said “Come on!” and I’m going to make two songs, one rocksteady and one ska. I’m really looking forward to it because it’s my first time. Not totally enthusiastic about being in front of the camera but I realise you have to do it.
It was Dennis Brown’s birthday the other day. Did you ever meet Dennis Brown?
Yes. When I was living in New York we were coming from Don Juan Studios which is right there in Flatbush, New York, Don Moody’s studio. I just started singing for Studio 1 and I was hanging out with Junior Demus at the time. Junior Demus goes “All right, we’re going to give D Brown a ride home” but they didn’t call him D Brown, his name was Georgy Porgy and that was what everyone called him, so he said “All right, we’re going to give Georgy a ride”, so I said “All right then”. When I saw Georgy it was Dennis Brown. He sat in the front seat with me. I was just a new singer and I said “Oh, I love your song called This Love of Mine, it’s my favourite D Brown song” and he told me to sing it. I said “Look man. I can’t sing in front of you! It’s not possible. I’m going to try but…”. He said “Go on Fyah, go on!” His nickname for me was Fyah. I tried to sing it and he tried to tell me which key it was in and everything and I didn’t know what he was saying! (laughs) He was staying at Roman Stewart’s house, so I had to give him a ride there. It was a good evening. It was a really great experience. He explained me how to write songs. It was real cool. And now every time I write a song I use his method, but it’s a secret one. There’s no way I would say it, it was between me and him and it really works. I’ve used it in every single song I’ve written since he told me, and it’s helped.
Finally, you seem to spend more of your time in Europe than here in the UK. Is this album going to change that?
You know something? I think you say that and you ask that because you notice. Some of the tracks you heard I think can really make noise in this circle. I’m confident that you’ll see more of me here, with this circle that likes a certain sound because we’ve done a few of them for that album. But you’re right, I spend like 75% of my time in Europe and it’s working for me and it works for many artists that are from here. I feel that my style and what I have to offer, it suits Europe a lot. Just like I said, there’s a few tracks on this new album that I think the massive in London will take to, I’m quite sure of it.
PHOTOS BY JASON MARTIN & EMMA-LOUISE