Interview with Roberto Sanchez [PART II]
05/04/2014 by Angus Taylor
PART TWO: PROJECTS FOR 2014
In part two of this epic interview with Roberto Sanchez, recorded a few weeks ago, Angus Taylor asks him about his projects for this year, including albums with Earl Sixteen, Alpheus and his own solo work…
SOLO AND HARMONY SINGING
You recently collaborated with the French group Rockers Disciples for the album Blackboard Jungle Showcase Vol 2. It actually features you as a singer.
Yes! It’s a singing album. It’s been a long time since I completed a whole album, even though this one is a showcase with seven vocal tracks and the dubs, I think the last album I made completely by myself it was 2004 with Lone Ark and it was the Countryside set. It was ten years ago.
Why did you stop doing making albums of your own singing?
I’ve been doing many 45s for different producers and myself since 2004 but I was really into the work of developing a proper sound for the studio because it was the main source of my income. I was trying to put together some of the songs that have been made at home with the guitar and make a Lone Ark album but we never had the time to finish (laughs). Everyone was involved with different bands, and because of the age everyone was starting having children and more responsibilities at work too. That’s why!
Rockers Disciples, they’re very much a roots band. They make music that sounds like it comes from that same classic era.
I totally agree. In fact as a producer and sometime singer for other labels I’m used to receiving music from bands and I’m really into listening to anything new on YouTube or reggae shops, for buying and also for enjoying, experimenting and knowing what the rest of people are doing. When I received the rhythms from Blackboard Jungle to do the first song, I was really impressed by many of the sounds coming from that recording - especially the keyboards. It was a Rockers Disciples rhythm and it’s one of the songs on the album called Act True. The band is really tight, whether live or at the studio and the most important thing in Europe for people not Jamaican-born, is to really understand and know the point you want to reach and I’m sure they really know it. They know the style that they want to express and it was a joy to know them.
Hervé from Iroko Records released an old single that you recorded as part of a harmony trio.
It was a single coming on Iroko last year under the name of The Nortones , that’s the name of the trio that I’ve been singing with for 14 or 15 years for my band Lone Ark, also for Basque Dub Foundation (BDF), and some other projects. We have been backing artists live at the studio and in 2007 we recorded our own version of the rhythm to Jah Golden Pen by Sylford Walker. It was just another song but one day I gave it to Ras Abubakar from Zion Gate and Hervé from Iroko and they thought it could be a release and they finally did it. It was a great thing for me because some of those things coming from ourselves we don’t feel so confident maybe, and they found it good from the outside point of view – and it sold good as a single.
Why was the group called Nortones?
You know, like the Heptones and many other trios using the word ‘tone’ and ‘nor’ because of the north – tones from the north or something.
Let’s talk a bit about the new Alpheus album Good Prevails. One thing I said to Alpheus is that it seems like he’s more locked in with the rhythms this time. On the previous album it was like he was venturing into this territory and now he feels very comfortable.
Yes, I felt the same way. Even when voicing him. As you said, when we made From Creation he was, and I was too in terms of production, creating this new thing. We were just stepping into this new place, even though we are recreating old sounds it’s also a different vibe. We were trying to give more minor key, a little bit rootsy on my side and always soulful and rocksteady on his side. Overall the difference that I see is the confidence and really knowing where he could reach. I remember him singing all the songs from heart, but after some days when we recorded From Creation we were not sure, believe me! And now I can feel he has found his own style over these kind of rhythms and he’s playing like a child. He’s voicing the songs, not quick in terms of more or less time, but easy, just flowing. That’s something you can feel, I think.
It’s very interesting that you said about it being more minor key and roots because was a topic of discussion that I had in Greece about the definition of roots music. My friend in Greece, who is a disciple of Jah Shaka said that “If there are no Rasta lyrics, it’s not roots music”. But I was saying “Can you say Augustus Pablo is not roots music?”
Yes, without words.
Can you say that Don Drummond – Addis Ababa is not roots music?
Or many other social songs. For me the term roots is maybe a little bit different maybe because I’m not an English speaker, but when we started listening to reggae we knew what we liked and what sounded roots for us without even knowing the lyrics. We started learning music from the melodies and the feeling. So for me there’s a feeling about roots music because I think roots music developed and you’ve got many ways to look at it. It’s not only about specific roots in terms of race or talking about Africa, Rastafari, Ethiopia or whatever, I think it’s more of a bigger feeling, even though the lyrics talk about social problems or even the love of God in a different way.
What I was thinking is that it’s exactly this kind of roots rocksteady, this proto-roots that you’ve been doing on this album. Similar to Heptones – Crying Over You or maybe The Rulers – Let My People Go. This is surely a kind of roots music.
Yes, I totally agree with you. Roots music, that’s one of the good things about what we created, the artists at Lone Ark and the studio. It’s like bringing back those tempos with more roots feeling. In fact back in the day it was only a couple of producers that really captured that kind of thing. One of them was Phil Pratt. He made roots music, not just talking about God but with that roots feeling before many other people while keeping the rocksteady thing - it was late sixties and he was doing that. We’re bringing back that feeling but just transforming it a little bit and making it a little bit more current - just in certain aspects of production, effects, a little bit more variety, it’s beautiful. It’s something that we found and of course we think that we have to keep evolving, so the next album would be maybe a little bit different. But we really enjoyed doing, let’s call it the second part of From Creation. Believe me, for me it’s even better.
You’ve touched a little on my next question. I noticed on Good Prevails that there are still some Coxsone, some Phil Pratt rhythms and I think Winston Riley rhythms. Tell me about the split between the original rhythms that you wrote and the ones you decided to bring back.
Before the recording sessions Alpheus and me had a meeting to decide which rhythms to choose. Because Alpheus is a great selector – he knows himself and he knows the things he wants to voice. He went for some original, major key but really soulful – beautiful for the album. Then I chose some of the Phil Pratt and minor key things because it made it more my selection. And then, knowing him more and more each day because of the work we were doing it was quite easy to compose new rhythms. And having From Creation as a previous work gave us, when creating the rhythms, a guide – knowing which songs on the album were good and knowing the feeling and also playing a bit more securely. For Lone Ark that From Creation album was the first adventure in terms of ska and rocksteady. Even though we love it, it was the first time we played and recorded it too. But this time was different. I think we were more confident to play it and with more feeling.
Let’s move on from Alpheus to the new Earl Sixteen album Natty Farming.
Yes. We play often with him in Spain. He’s a really nice guy. Sixteen is one of those artists who kept the vibe from back in the days in Jamaica. At the same time he’s used to work and he has a sense of humour in the way he does things, but then when he goes in the recording session the consciousness and the pure beats and feelings that come through him, it’s amazing. He came for a concert and we did an album. It’s a special album.
The title track’s bassline sounds very like Leon Synmoie’s Take 5 rhythm – Barry Brown, Two House Department. Was that the kind of era you were going for?
No, but it’s really nice you said that! It’s funny because when we were recording the rhythms with Prince Jamo and Don Fe at the studio on some Channel One drums we were listening in my car to Cuss Cuss but not the Horace Andy version, the 9 minute discomix…
The Ranking Joe/Jah Screw cut.
Yeah, beautiful. We were listening to the bass line (imitates) duggu duggu du du du duggu du duggu du and we came into the session without talking and that song came when I was playing bass. It came to me without thinking. And when we finished the song and had a listen I said “Oh man I’m playing Cuss Cuss!” So we left it because it’s not exactly the same lick but it has the same vibe. And it’s nice that you recognized a different line on it. I’m noticing now it’s really true!
We talked about the Wackies sound you went for on the Milton Henry album and how you were moving more into the 80s. But on the Sixteen album there are definitely some 80s elements like Syndrums and those hard Roots Radics drum patterns as the 70s are turning to the 80s.
Yeah you’re completely right and that was exactly the idea when recording the rhythms. Because the structure of the rhythms was built from those drums by Style Scott which have that ’81 feeling. I’m not going to say ’82 because it’s the ’81 feeling. The rolls, the Syndrums – it’s that year. We tried to use the piano and everything the same way and also when mixing I tried to use the same kinds of effects. You know, I’m starting to move away from just recreating. I’m really trying to find my own sound. But this time it was totally a tribute to Channel One. Starting with those drums and having Earl, it was time to pay tribute to our teachers in many things in music. Sly & Robbie as musicians but also the Hookim Brothers way of developing the studio, the producers and engineers there. This album is mostly going back to ’81.
We’ll come back to what you said about moving away from recreating but I wanted to ask about the lyrical concept of the album. Earl sings about very natural and organic things, there is the cover art by Syl Cunningham with lots of fresh produce and of course your studio is in a very rural area.
That’s true. That’s one more thing I like about Earl. We never spoke about it especially but I love these kinds of lyrics. When he sang Natty Farming I was more than happy because he was singing the things I have been singing in my songs. “Going back to the countryside” he said that twice on the song and I was almost crying, believe me, because for me it’s important. These songs about working the land – it’s something I believe in. So when I heard it I knew it was going to be the title track. It’s beautiful that Earl made it happen like that. It was nothing planned so maybe the vibes or whatever and it was like that.
One song on there, Universal Love, is a cover of Tender by the rock band Blur. How did that happen?
Yeah. It was strange because from the first time we recorded it we were saying “Wow that sounds like something” but we never tried to make it specially in that way.
The funny thing is that Damon Albarn from Blur really likes reggae and used Junior Dan as the bassie for the first Gorillaz album.
Yeah! Maybe Earl was listening to it and it came into his head. Firstly we thought it was something coming from a film and finally we found it to be as you said.
MOVING AWAY FROM THE PAST TO HIS OWN SOUND
Now let’s talk about what you mentioned earlier about how you’re moving away from recreating the classic sounds of Jamaican music and developing your own sound. So what are you working on now and how can we hear this transformation?
I’m still investigating. I was always looking to learn from the original sounds of the studios in Jamaica but I think it’s time to develop something more personal. I think all my records might sound a little like Channel One or other studios but always with a personal thing on it and it’s time to develop it a little bit more. Always keeping the standard and always going back to certain sounds but it’s time for some of the projects to develop. When I say something new it’s not something modern but more personal in the way it will be mixed and certain things.
So that you can have your own sound and people can say “that’s the Roberto Sanchez sound”.
Yeah. I would like to reach that. I think some of the things are starting to be recognisable but I’ve really got to develop something. It takes time and a lot of work. It’s not something that comes easily. Overall, when it’s about composing, recording, mixing it, there are a lot of things to develop to make it happen. I think that is one of the next challenges.
What can we expect out of your studio in the future?
I’m just building rhythms. We have different doors to knock now and we are in, let’s say, negotiation with different artists. Maybe it’s more about vibes and knowing each other and finding a way to make it happen. But we are in that process. I bought a new reel to reel one inch tape recorder and that’s one of the reasons I want to spend some time just building rhythms and just trying to build that sound and get something different.
Are you any closer to working with Prince Alla?
It’s not one of the doors I am knocking now but I really want to. All Greenwich Farm singers have got a special vibrato that makes me mad! Believe me! I don’t know how to explain it. Whether Rod Taylor, Phillip Fraser, Earl Zero, all of them. I love them and Prince Alla is one of the best.
How about doing some more work with Phillip Fraser? I’m sure he’d appreciate the call.
I did one thing with him when a friend in Spain went to Jamaica to voice some artists and I made a rhythm with him together. A version of Kiddus I Graduation in Zion. We recorded Phillip then and I am also trying to link him back and find the time. It’s his vibrato and his voice is still good so I think it’s about time that we linked him. But definitely Prince Alla would be the one singer I would really like to work with and all words I have heard about him from other producers have been good in all terms.
➜ READ PART I HERE