Interview with Marcus Urani - Rising Tide vs. Pixel Prison
11/16/2023 by Gardy Stein
Life is a journey. Its ups and downs, wins and losses, meetings and partings make it a constant challenge to manoeuvre, but if this challenge is met with optimism and curiosity, if we manage to see the open doors in every situation, even in the tough ones, the outcome will be positive.
Rising Tide is a fine example for such a mindset. After the surprising break-up of Groundation in 2015, with all the difficulties such a separation entails, the band members decided to continue the journey started in 1998, and thus Marcus Urani, Ryan Newman, Paul Spina, Kim Pommell and Sherida Sharpe re-formed under a new name. Inviting other musicians to the project, 2016 saw the release of their debut album Rising Tide, and while it has become a bit quiet around them recently, the energies kept bubbling under the surface. This September will see the release of their new album Pixel Prison, a collaborative effort that brings to our attention not only the fabulous musicians involved, but also the voices of Mike Love and Clinton Fearon.
Reggaeville has contacted Marcus Urani in his forest home in California to ask how that connection came about and, next to exciting stories of musical creation, we were told about biology, sociology and musicology as well. Jump aboard!
Since you released the debut album Rising Tide in 2016, how did the band develop? What happened during the last seven years?
In the beginning, we just wanted to get stuff out there. Groundation was coming to an end, so we were like, "What are we going to do?" We got together with the girls to start writing, it was great to put something out right away. We had just made A Miracle a year or two before that, and I had a studio, I had all the gear at my house, so I was like "Come on everybody, let's do this!" At first, we were just going to do an album with Kim Pommell, backing her. We had some Jamaican musicians coming in, drummer Unga Barunga and Monty on guitar, and we produced some of the music that was on that first album, that was such a cool session! We did a bunch of songs but only included some of them on Rising Tide, and then we ended up getting back to the studio with Paul, our drummer with Groundation and many other bands, and Yotam Silverstein on guitar, he is from Israel but lives in New York. That was such a great experience! Some of those extra tracks we recorded from both these sessions are on the new album. I always record extra, you know, I mean, you fly people in, you have everybody in the house, I have a studio, it's me recording, I'm the engineer… I would stay up late and write more little grooves and things we can improvise on, so I had a bunch of tracks laying around, and listening to some of them, we were like "Wow ,why did we never use that, that's great!"
In that time, we did a few tours in Europe too. In retrospect, we probably should have waited, let the music get out there, let people get to know Rising Tide… They knew us as Groundation, but it's basically still the same band, it's all of us minus Harrison. Around 2017/18, we weren't sure what we were going to do, which direction we would take, so we kind of held back a little, we didn't do much. Then I started working with Mike Love, he called me up saying "Hey, I want to record with you on organ and Jim Fox!", that's our engineer in DC who did many of our albums, in Prairie Sun Studio next to the city I lived back then in Sonoma County. So, Mike called me up, and I was like "OK, you know, I have some tracks I've been wanting to do, what do you think about putting some vocals on?" And he was like "For sure, are you kidding me, I would love to!" That's how everything kind of started.
He did one song, I think it was Together, it was on the EP we released last year, and I was like, "Oh wow, that came out great!" and he was like "Send me more!" So I stared sending him files, as I said I recorded a lot of riddims, and he ended up doing five tracks. We put four on the EP, and then I had a few for the girls, we had songs for them that we created, so this album started coming together like that. Our sessions with Mike were really fun, his album will be coming out this year too, and so we just started putting the album together. The girls are in Jamaica and we are out here in California, so it's been a bit hard to get them out here… that's why we've been doing some shows instrumentally. I play all the vocal parts on organ, that's been really great actually, it's been fun to get into that instead of just backing a singer. We spent so much of our lives shaping our parts around a really dense atmosphere, I mean we had nine people in Groundation, a lot of things happening, and you had to kind of stay in your lane and be careful not to step on other people's parts, not to play too much, so it's been really great to do it instrumentally, it was just four of us, so there was a lot of space. But we are looking forward to get the girls back out here, we are talking about how we could do some tours with them… I mean, when Covid happened, of course we didn't do anything, but we were getting going, so when everything clears up we'll start doing those shows. We also talk with our European management about how we can get back over there, we're ready! It's been so long now, I just want to play! (laughs)
Are there any new members now that you didn't have back then? How many are you in total?
It's basically the same it was in 2017. It's me and Paul Spina and Ryan, our bass player, we've played together for many, many years, we had four or five different bands together through the years! It's great, we don't have to discuss, we know each other so well, I feel really grateful to have these guys in my life, as close friends, but also as musicians. We know each other so well, when we improvise and stuff, we know each other's inflections, we can feel like where we're going, so that's the core of Rising Tide. Cameron Peterson is a guitarist out of Santa Rosa that we used to play with, we brought him into Rising Tide in 2017, he came for a couple of tours in Europe with us, and we've been playing with him ever since, he's been a great addition. And then of course there's the girls! Kim Pommell and Sherida Sharpe, and Faith Waltson, who we added, and she did all the tours in Europe, so all the stuff we did it was with those three. We tried to add Mingo Lewis Jr. as much as possible, our percussion player, but that's kind of hard right now, so hopefully we can build up to where we can get all of us on stage.
How did you meet Mike Love?
We played Hawaii for many years, that was one of the first places to embrace us, way back in like 2003, that was our first offshore tour… it was so funny, we didn't have anything set up, we just got on a plane and got there like "I guess we should rent a van!" (laughs) But it was fun, thinking back now, and the Hawaiians they were so supportive… they loved the music, and we went there every year. Mike was out there, he would come with his friends when he was younger. In fact Sam, his old drummer, engineered one of our shows, and Mike helped him bring all the gear, so we met him a long time ago. By then he was still learning, becoming an artist, and we kind of influenced him and his trajectory in music. Then we did a tour in 2013, and he did his first tour on the mainland, he was with Paula Fuga and Sam back then, if you don't know Paula, she's a great singer from Hawaii. They opened for us on that tour, so we were together every day and that's where we really got to know each other, we really got to talk.
Was the album part of the plan when you started collaborating with Mike or did that develop while working on the EP?
The album was the whole plan from the beginning! I mean, I guess it features a lot of Mike because he did five of the songs, one of them is instrumental, so it's really only three songs with the girls, but the way the music all came together, I love how it came out. And there is also a song with Clinton Fearon, it's great, we'll definitely collaborate more, he's such a legend we all know, and he's a great musical powerhouse, but he's also such a positive person! He is on one of the tracks with Mike, too, he did some vocals on Medicine Man.
When did you decide to reach out to him for the project?
Just because I love his music! You know, we would see him on the road, I asked him when we played with him at a festival in the middle of France. Clinton was playing, we were playing, and we were on stage watching him, and when he was coming off we talked a bit, so I said "Hey, we are working on this new project and I would love to have you!", and he said "Yes, let me know, if I'm available I'll do it!" Because he gets asked a lot of course, so since that time I had him in my mind, and now the time was ripe.
The first track he does, Welcome To My World, is a perfect way to go into the album, a beautiful song really…
I love it! You know, the funny thing is I didn't tell him that it was the first song, I just sent him the track, and he says "Welcome, welcome, welcome to my world!" (laughs). It's the best way to start off the album, he says, "It's a musical ride, you will have a good time!", so the lyrics couldn't have been any more perfect for the beginning! I said to him afterwards, "I didn't tell you but you just magically said the most perfect thing!" He has those brilliant three-part harmony too, the way his voice is leading… Since now we've been playing instrumentally, I'm learning all the vocal parts on the organ, and the way he stacked his harmonies, they are just perfect on organ, it sounds really good, the melody, the way he structured the voicing, that's great. I look forward to definitely working with him in the future!
Did you in any way influence the lyrics that were written by Mike or Clinton?
No, I always try to stay really open! Even with the band, when I write stuff, I try not to write too much, I try to leave it more like a structure or outline to be filled. Everybody brings something to the table, their own experience, their own lives, and for me, that's what lifts music to another level, that's what grabs all of us. So, even if I write a lot of it and put the arrangement, when I listen back once everybody put their thing on it, I'm thrilled, it's so cool what they brought to that structure I made. I really try to be as vague as possible… I mean, you need the basics of it, like, here is the tempo, I might say I want it to be a back beat, or one drop, or steppas, I have those basic things, but beyond that, I try not to interfere, and definitely not for the vocals. I didn't want to give them any parameters or anything, who knows what they are going to talk about, what they are going to say? It's fun for me too! It gives them more freedom to be creative.
When did you decide to call the album Pixel Prison? Does this subject have a special importance for you?
It was about ten seconds after I heard the track… Mike sent me the songs, I put them all on the studio, I spent like 20 minutes getting a basic mix, and then I listened to it all, and I almost cried. I was just like "WOW!" It was so good! I would have never guessed that song… you know, we had that riddim for a minute, and when I wrote that, I was actually writing it for the girls. I wanted it to be uptempo, with a part in the middle, like a breakdown, thinking, 'Oh the girls could do a cool little vocal thing, a call-and-answer theme.' I was imagining all this stuff for the girls, and then Mike came in and in that breakdown, he wrote that awesome three sets of backgrounds (sings), and I just loved the writing and the performance. It was Paula Fuga and Keilana Mokulehua and DeAndre Brackensick, the people that work with him in Hawaii, they are all amazing artists in themselves, all of their voices, so… they did those three parts, three or four harmonies all happening at once, and I loved that breakdown. But I also loved his concept of the lyrics, it's very relevant, we all live in this Pixel Prison, but now with AI it's even more, it's about to get 10x that, right? So, I loved the concept, I love what he wrote and it made perfect sense to put out an album in this time what we are all living in, talking about that.
Social media is great, there is a lot of good things about it, but also a lot of bad things. I study a lot of biology, and there are certain chemical processes our body goes through… There is a really great book called Dopamine Nation, it speaks about that we have one processing centre for the input that we get, whether it's food or alcohol or social media or even relationships. All those things that happen to us, the way we are driven to keep doing, it is all based on dopamine, we have one chemical that reacts to all of that. You have a bank, a dopamine account, and you choose how you spend it. If you go crazy and spend it on a few drinks every day or you smoke weed every day or you are addicted to sugar, every time you do one bit of that stuff, it takes a little dopamine away…
Really? And is it restituted, refilled?
Yes, but not within a certain period. So, the social media thing, it's great of course because we can all communicate, we all get closer, but it's also… you have to be very careful how much you take in. I feel like this work, Pixel Prison, it embodies that, it lets all of us think about it in a certain way. What he's saying is bringing awareness.
It does! I like the "downward spiral" metaphor he uses…
It's a little scary, there's a lot more suicides and stuff since social media, I think because of the picture it paints of peoples' lives being this perfect thing. It's not like something we have to stop, but I think we need to be aware of it, just like any drug. If you are doing 15 minutes of that, you are getting a lot of input first of all. And it takes you away from real life, it's depressing in the end. I think it's really important that we are at least aware of that. So, that was a big part of it, but of course I love that song, too. Those two things together, I knew right away when I listened to it, I knew that's the album!
Who created the album cover?
Tokio Aoyama is the artist, from Tokyo. He's amazing, I had seen some of his stuff, he's just a really great creative artist. He does a lot of psychedelic stuff which he didn't do that much on our album… He was very cool to work with us, he sent one thing, and I was giving him simple suggestions, and he came back with a work that was perfect, and I was like "That's exactly what I meant, thank you!" I sent him pictures of my instruments, like the big drum that's on the front there, and most of those he recreated in art. We've been playing music for so long that the artistic depiction of music, of the instruments themselves, I wanted that to be part of it. We told him about Pixel Prison of course, and that's represented too, there is this musical and natural world that is juxtaposed to this digital vault, that's how that came about. As soon as I saw it, I was like "Oh my God, thank you!" He is a really humble guy, an amazing artist.
It's a great cover indeed! Another inspiring part of the album is that some of the songs, they really flow into each other…
Yeah! I've always wanted to do that! Back when we did We Free Again, our fourth album, I was like, "Can we do a suite? Let's do a suite!" I had put that suite together for Cultural War, I spent a bunch of time intertwining each song to the next song and then having a transition to that, I've always wanted to do that. I love writing like that, so on this album, that came from Mike coming over to my house to record his vocals for Together. He had played a gig, he had travelled, and he came over like 11 at night and said "Let's do my lead vocals!" So, I set up a mic and we were doing it, he just killed it, he's such a talented artist. It's great to be in the room with him, hearing his voice, it's really powerful! When I was in there, right in front of him, I got taken aback by his power, he has such command over his voice, his technical prowess is amazing! So anyway, at the end of it, he went "Together… together… together" (fades). The first time he only did like two or three, but I said, "Wait, let's do that again, can you do like four or five of those, make it like a delay?" And then he sang more, and as he was doing it, I was imagining like 'Man, I want to take that one word, forget four, I want like 50 of those!' Take one word and dub it out, not just dub it, but have that going on and on. Of course I grew up on Pink Floyd, so it was my tribute to… I think it was Animals. I was busy, Covid happened, I moved, but I had in my head the whole time that I want to create a whole interlude after Together, and lead up to the next song…
Yes! Onward is an extremely interesting piece. I love it, there is so much to discover sonically!
Thank you! I was up here in the mountains, the guys were down south, so at first I thought there is going to be a lot of keyboards, just like "woing woing woing" (makes low-pitched noises), and when I started getting into it, I put the bottom keyboard part, it's setting the tempo. Well, actually Mike's "Together…" is setting the tempo, and then I started. I was learning some new rhythms, there is the classic 12/8 African rhythm, you know (claps in demonstration), and I was like, I don't want to do the classic ones, so I learned a bunch of new stuff. I mean, they must have like a billion variations on that 12/8 that we all know, so I learned like four or five, and I chose the one that I thought fits best. When I did that, I was like, "This is not going to be keyboard at all, this is going to be percussion!" Then I got my binghi drum out, I made it like a Nyabinghi 12/8 which I haven't heard a lot, I'm sure that they exist, but I was like, I never heard a 12/8, it's a rhythmic beat (demonstrates). It's African music, but a lot of popular artists have borrowed it, it's just a groove that's out there, it's great. It became like my Floyd tribute dub session electronic kind of vibe with that percussive Nyabinghi pulse. I think I recorded it all in one or two days, layering percussions and filling in specific things, and then after I was done with all that, I dubbed each, and at the end I just loved it. I knew all along that I wanted it to build into the next song, which is great because the girls come in with "Get up!" It's awesome, it builds up to that, it starts as if we are already in the middle of the song! With that transition it was perfect to build into that beginning of The Race. I was very happy how that came out, it was something I conceptualised for a few years.
Speaking of The Race, we hear the vocals of Denver Feluké Smith, who has sadly passed away. When did you record him, it must have been a couple of years back?
Like I said, we had been doing tracks back in 2017, and every time the girls went to the studio, you know that's Jamaica, it's just an amazing amount of talent around, it's crazy. And all the people in the reggae scene know each other, so… the girls were good friends with Denver, with Feluké, and he went to the studio when the girls were recording several different things and they had him do those tracks back then, so I had a lot of stuff in the vault, as I said. We had met him on the road out there doing tours, he was playing with Jimmy Cliff at the time, and I remember we were at the back of the stage, actually it was in Germany at a big festival, and he was set up sideways. He was also singing background vocals as well as playing percussion, and I remember we could hear his voice so good, because where we were standing he was facing us, and it was so powerful! And I was like "We should get him some time!" and then, a little later, it happened. And he was a great guy too, a really positive spirit, it's so sad that he passed away, he fought that cancer for a long time… it was really fun to hang out with him and talk to him after the shows.
It's great to hear his voice carried on in a project like this!
Thank you, yes, and I think it's really great how it worked out. It's so sad that he passed, but it's awesome to release something new, so he's coming back to the world in 2023! And his voice is amazing, the way he sings on that piece…
The credits mention a whole lot of Jamaican musicians: Unga Barunga, Monty, Horsemouth, and some others. When and where did you work with them?
With Unga and Monty, I flew them out to California, we had our first session with them, and in the beginning, we were not sure if we were even going to do Rising Tide. We were going to do an album with Kim and some Jamaican artists she knew, so I flew them to my house and we recorded a bunch of tracks. When they went to bed, I would stay up all night writing more, just because I was like "They are here now, we'll record every second!" (laughs) I still have some more tracks from that session! We used some on the first album, some on the new one, and I might even have one or two left for a next one. So, they are there from that first session, and then Horsemouth, I had him record in a studio in Jamaica, he's doing percussions on the last song Work It Out, and it's a great one too! I don't know why we didn't put it on the first album… you know, songs have a way of all connecting, and that one didn't really fit in. I already had the songs that went together best for the first album, so this one I thought would be a great way to finish, after starting from Welcome To My World and you go through some different styles and instrumentals and by the time you get to the end, Work It Out feels like a really nice way to end it up.
I know this might be a tough question as creator of such an oeuvre, but do you have a favourite piece in terms of lyrics and / or music?
It is tough! (laughs) I like it all! Of course, Mr. President kind of takes it to the next level lyrically, and musically! Well, musically, I like them all, it's hard to say favourite because for me, I'm always looking at the macro, at the whole album. I want to go to different universes, I want to explore, I want to go around and not just stay in one place… I usually have a general idea in the beginning, and if they are a collection of songs like this, I look at them like "This specific groove, this could go into that…", so it's hard to decide on a favourite because I'm looking for a ride through each one, it's not just one song. Singles are great, but when I make an album, I always ask people "Please listen from front to back, because it's meant to listen to it that way, it's a journey!" It's our journey, and I really love how Pixel Prison came out! I love every song, to be honest, I also like The Rising Tide instrumental, that was really fun to play, when I wrote that I was like, "We need a ska kind of vibe!", I love how that came out. And Work It Out, I love the lyrics too… Going through every song, I will tell you I love it. (laughs) They are great! Clinton's Welcome To My World, wow, I cried when he sent me that tune…
Do you plan further collaborations with Mike and Clinton?
For sure! Mike is a good friend and another great human being. We'll definitely collaborate again, we'll always be making music together.
Will you have a release party for the album?
We need to! There will be, yes.
Anything you'd wish to add?
Like I said, we've been playing music together for a long time, me and Paul and Ryan, and the music on here, what you are hearing, is a long friendship and communication of people who have known each other for a long time. I am very proud of it and it's inspiring for me to know that there is so much more that we can do, we are definitely making a lot of more music, and much more quickly, we took a long break. So we are all ready to make a lot together, I already wrote some and we recorded a little and it comes really fast cause we've been playing together for so long, so I look forward to coming out with more albums, that's our path for sure!