Interview with Sebastian Sturm
04/20/2015 by Valentin Zill
With four studio albums on the shelves already, German roots reggae kingpins Sebastian Sturm & Exile Airline were up to something new. They flew to Jamaica to record The Kingston Session, an album with new versions of some of Sebastian Sturm’s best songs, together with their friends Sam Clayton Jr. (who has worked with Steel Pulse and Toots & The Maytals, among others) and Stephen Stewart, the producer working at the Harry J Studio. Reggaeville’s Valentin Zill called Sebastian to talk about his experiences back ah yard and the successful crowd funding campaign that allowed him to release The Kingston Session.
You haven't been to Jamaica for the first time. At least not you and Christian, right?
Exactly. I had spent a week there with Chris for the mixing of A Grand Day Out. So we had been to Harry J already to check it out. So on some evenings, when the work was done and we could finally relax, we said, yo, this is a must for the entire band. We have to get the whole crew down there. While I still doubted that that was actually possible, Christian pulled some strings and talked a lot with Sam Clayton and Stephen Stewart and made it possible. Awesome.
In the end it worked thanks to funding from Goethe Institut and Bezirksregierung NRW?
Yes. It was necessary to cover the flights. Flying six people down there would have exceeded our budget. But since we already had had the support of Musikinitiative for A Grand Day Out, Chris had the experience... Everything was possible. The Goethe Institut got on board then.
The experience in applying for promotional funds was there already.
Exactly, that was the point (laughs). Sometimes it's amazing. You just have to know a few doors and knock on them and see what's possible.
It seems to be impossible to do it any other way for German artists, unless you're Gentleman or Seeed.
For such projects, definitely. The ones where you don't go on tour afterwards and earn a lot of cash to cover your expenses ultimately. An adventure abroad and still bring some money back home, how should that work without financial aid? What we earn would be barely enough to cover the flights. But it was way up on our agenda to turn this into a reality. We just had a booking request from the USA that almost worked out–although we would have had to bear much personal risk. It didn't feel like Jamaica for me.
For Jamaica, all of us would have been up to risk more. For the United States, it was too much thrill in the end. It would have been a nice opportunity nevertheless. I don't know if I'd ever travel to the US in my life, or cross the pond. But Jamaica is very tempting of course (laughs).
I'm sure I'd asked you that one the last time already, but how did it feel to walk into Harry J's and even record an album there this time?
More than a year has passed since we went there now. All this time together with the entire band–we spent ten days there, including the return flight–it was totally awesome. To see how we master that experience together. To pull together. I realized that the band really needed this adventure. We hadn't played much in France that year. After the release of A Grand Day Out, much more live music should have happened. In any case, it was highly necessary to embark on this adventure together, far away from all those standard concerts in Germany, Switzerland, and wherever else we played. It was really awesome.
We arrived in Montego Bay, and from there on things evolved rapidly. The next day was our first in studio, the day after that the second session. It was only after that that Jamaica started for us. The first two days, all we ever thought about was Harry J. Which was a bit of a downer. I'd have preferred to travel through Jamaica for the first ten days. Which we did after the studio sessions.
We checked out the island a bit and caught the vibes. It was a bit unfortunate that we didn't go to the studio only after this trip. We would have been accustomed to Jamaica to some extent already and definitely would have played much, much cooler (laughs). But that's how things went. We disembarked from the airplane, went into the studio, and recorded The Kingston Session in two days. After that, we started our sightseeing tour, the parties and everything.
So you basically went to the studio by plane.
Yeah. Chris and I knew it already, but the others' reactions were foreseeable. It's simply an awesome studio. We posted a few pictures already. It is huge and special, the room sounds nice. Once more a huge big up to Stephen Stewart and Samuel Clayton, who made it possible. Shortly after us, Harrison Stafford as Professor... What was the name again of his last project?
Natty Fly Again, with Pablo Moses et cetera.
Yeah. After us, Harrison Stafford took over the studio. I met Roy Ashanti there, Pablo Moses one more time, and I saw Sticky Thompson recording the rattle, very impressive (laughs). This is not meant to be a joke!
Sure, I hadn't taken it for one.
How he shakes the rattle. That were some really cool experiences, seeing how the Jamaicans record in that studio and how they work. Harrison with aplomb. That was a lot of fun. We visited Harry J's studio every day, usually in the morning after breakfast we checked Stephen. Everybody's there.
I also met Kiddus I again, by chance, just like the last time at a dub party. I forgot the party's name. In any case it was organized by Augustus Pablo's son, who runs a regular every Sunday somewhere in the hills. A whole lot of musicians where there. The cool thing was that I knew Kiddus. He presented me to Queen Ifrica. At some point, even Damian Marley showed up with his crew. It was a who-is-who party. But it was nice to attend.
If you compare the recording of The Kingston Session with your four previous albums, what went differently?
On the one hand, the songs were very old. We had played them 180 times, at the very least. So we didn't have this production ambiance, where you finalize songs and everything. It was really a first-take session, maybe we did a second take, but then... We had intended to record 15 songs. Nine made it onto the album now. Of course, if you do a session the entire day, not everything is gold. At that time we had no real intentions to release the stuff a year later. We were just there and wanted to use the opportunity to record. So basically we recorded our live set list, without having big plans of what to make of it. We didn't know how it would turn out.
But in the end it was an awesome experience to record such an album in two days. If you give it some slack, you can... One should know that that was a two-day session. If you take time to record an album, you get a chance to steamroll it and get rid of mistakes and all that Babylonian stuff you can do with a record. We didn't have that chance. We recorded the vocals the day after. We played all the instruments on the first day. Not one after the other, but I sang first and then we did the three backings on a mic or two in the back of the studio. That's how we did it.
So you guys recorded all the instruments together in the same room at the same time in one take?
Exactly. That was the whole point of the operation. It's awesome how much can be done with this band. In parts it's even groovier than A Grand Day Out. Personally I really like the result, since I didn't have headaches with it for six months straight listening to it. It's still fresh to me. I can still listen to it in the car.
A few songs on The Kingston Session sound much different from their respective original album versions. Did you jam at home and collect ideas, or did you take it to the studio directly to just see what would happen there? Or do these songs result from live versions?
For the most part, it's the latter. After four albums, you start to think–you want to play something new all the time, but that wouldn't please the fans from the onset. They really want to listen to This Change Is Nice again or whatever. Usually it's like that if you go to the merch after the show and talk to the fans. OK. You have two possibilities then: You can rehearse the old album version of Time again, but that means you won't enjoy it too much, since you played it till it was dead already. Or you come up with a new version with your new crew, one with a slightly different riddim, with a different groove. In a way that it's fun again to perform the song.
That happened with many older songs. Get Going was so far only available in an acoustic version, but we never played it that style live on stage, but always as kind of a No Woman, No Cry ballad with nice keyboard arrangements. A bit bigger than the acoustic version. It's always been tremendous fun live. Unfortunately you had to attend our shows to hear it in that style, so that was a track that had to be on it no matter what. This Change Is Nice for example, on a different riddim, I really loved that. It evokes Burning Spear a bit. Or Free Man, the cover that we've been performing live for years now. The solo part in it, the jazzy one, that one is naturally really free. It was always a high light of the live show when the keyboard solo or the percussions set in. It was cool to release it on an LP. I don't know whether Freddie McKay has listened to it already and likes it (laughs) if somebody rapes his song like that. I hope he likes it, too.
That's why only nine tracks made it onto the release, because the other ones of those 15 tracks were way too close to the album versions. So we skipped them. Releasing the same stuff twice is stupid. It's not worth it, there needs to be some change. Faith, too, was so far only available in an acoustic version, now we did the band version. In any case it's cool to do such stuff. Like there's three or four versions of every Bob Marley song. I love them all.
Those small changes during the live concerts, do they evolve during rehearsals or live on stage?
Both happens. Sure you plan to put an old song on the setlist for the next show. Because you haven't played it in like half a year, you play it briefly to get into it. That's when you realize that that old, rusty stuff doesn't work anymore, so you change the groove or come up with a different bass line. Until the fun is back and it feels fresh to us again. That is one thing. Reggae however is awesome to play, very often things are based on two, three chords. That gives you ample space to improvise and change things.
You don't have to play the melodies the exact same way to recreate the song. As long as the singer sticks to his melodies and lyrics, it's still the same song. It often happens like this. This liberty of improvising we always grant us might stick to a recording of the show. Now if we listen to it and say, wow, what did you play there, that's totally awesome... More often than not it happens again the next time. Until it's worn off, too. Then we need something new.
You financed the release of The Kingston Session through crowd funding. Your aim of getting €8,000 was set pretty high, but you collected €2,500 more than that.
I had my doubts about putting my hands so deeply into other peoples' pockets (laughs). Fortunately, it worked out well. We ended up getting more than €10,000. I was very naive when I started this thing. Only when it was launched and the first fans where on board... First of all, you have to do all the advertising yourself. So everyone of us wrote e-mails to all their contacts. That's when I realized after a few days that I had reached out to all my contacts already.
So what do you do now? You can use your web site, hoping that it reaches a few fans in France. That's when I had the first doubts (laughs), so for the first time, the question emerged of what would happen if I don't reach that goal. Sure, the funders get their money back, but the setback of being on board for so long and not getting support... Are there still fans? It would have been a statement, like, boy, no one's interested in what you do anymore, your music bores everyone. I had a few sleepless nights with it. But it was clear soon that it would work out. After five, six days we already had the first 5,000€ in. That's when it began to be fun. I lost my fears.
But it was definitely a risk. A great experience though in the end. So now I know, OK, the fans are still behind me, still eager to hear my stories first and foremost, and want new music from me and are ready to pay more for that than just the price of an album. I was really surprised by many of them. There's still money there for music. Great. Valentin, write down: Thank you very much, huge thanks to everybody who supported us! It was awesome.
What was the biggest single amount you got?
Oh, I don't talk about that. No, seriously, I don't know. In any case someone booked an acoustic concert, I think that went for €1,000.
Well that really makes you a fan.
Sure! I think it's a group of people that came together to treat them to it. We still have to play these gigs now, but I'm really looking forward to it. That again is quite different. These smaller gigs, private ones, I don't play them anymore. Besides the huge festivals that are always thrilling, I love to play those small Rock'n'Roll shows in small clubs in front of few people, but I can't play them anymore in my home town for instance. Many people would have to miss it due to the capacity. In the wake of this crowd funding I can do it again. That is completely cool. There are two, three acoustic shows I'm really looking forward to.
Then we have all these people who bought a fan package–vinyl, CD, poster–but put a little extra on top of it. Kinda like, boy, you need it (laughs). Here you go, you're welcome. There were a few neat surprises in any case. A very cool story. I don't know if I can do that again, or how often you can do such a thing as an artist. But for this precise project, songs that are out there already basically, it was really fitting. We couldn't have shaken that out of our pockets, an album with different versions. It would not have been possible.
So your experiences with crowd funding were positive enough to at least consider this way of financing a record again the next time?
I'm not sure yet. For those fans that want to be kept up to date all the time, it's definitely a cool thing. They might well be up to it again next time. But you're really spamming people for quite some time in order to get the attention that leads to the cash. This acquisition only works when you're doing it diligently and regularly. Hello, it's me again, bla bla bla, I'd like to remind you to give me a few Euros. No idea.
Maybe in one or two years, for the album after the next one, or a different project. It has to be something special in any case. We should get the next classical album financed in collaboration with a label. Rootdown is faithful and will be on board. At the moment, I'm happy about all the promotion we got through The Kingston Session, this crowd funding, and the pre-release concert in Aachen. It was packed, without many posters hanging or local newspapers covering it. The people simply knew.
Now we start off again in France, playing some more shows than last year. It's getting better. We'll also play some festivals in the summer. I haven't posted those dates yet, but they'll come. Most of all I'm looking forward to the end of May, we'll be headed to Portugal then. We play a one-week tour through Portugal. Lisbon, Coimbra, Cascais, Lagos, I don't know if I'm pronouncing it right. That is the next thing I'm really excited for.
You already got a few fixed dates in France?
Ya, they'll be online soon. Don't ask me about the festivals' names, those French festival names... I've learned to pronounce them once, but forgot them. For the most part, I don't even know what they mean (laughs).
One Euro per financier of the crowd funding for The Kingston Session went to Alpha Boys School.
It somehow felt right. Such a crowd funding campaign is a big thing logistically, if you're just six people. You really have to come up with something to motivate the fans. In the context of this Jamaican thing it was cool to finance a project in Jamaica, or to at least contribute something. And the Alpha Boys School… I don't know how many of my heroes went there. When the idea emerged–again, it wasn't mine, most likely Chris came up with it. He had done some research there. I didn't even know that the school still exists. So we thought, OK, that's a cool thing. It's our thing to give something back.
Did you get to visit the school while you were in JA?
No. This brain storming about what we offer the fans came much later. Then we sent them a mail, and they responded quickly. They were really happy. Next time we are in Jamaica, we are ordered to visit them and see for ourselves (laughs). It was a sweet e-mail.
The Rootdown press release text to The Kingston Session mentiones that "Stephen Stewart and Sam Clayton showed you the history of Jamaica as well as today's life there". How do I have to imagine that?
Stephen had to be in his studio most of the time, but had a day or two to go out with us. Sure, when the studio thing was done, we had a few radio dates at Real Jamaican Radio, which was like the biggest Jamaican radio station. There were business dates like that every day. And at the very end of the trip a live show at the Red Bones Club in front of Jamaicans. That was the big challenge for us. Before that, we had a TV appearance at the Smile Jamaica breakfast show. We had to get up at six in the morning to set things up, and we performed in between of interviews. The show has an audience rate of 80% on the island.
Once we were out there, half of the island had seen it, and people recognized as in the streets. In Kingston, it was the half-Indonesian with the five white guys (laughs). Since we did everything together, we attracted attention. Like, ey, I saw you on television. That was pretty cool. And besides all of that, Sam Clayton drove us to every corner on the island from breakfast to dinner time. Unfortunately you can't see the entire island in ten days, but at least we managed to pass by everything. I had wished to spend a few days in the Blue Mountains, but there was little time to relax. It was a pretty exhausting, but very adventurous trip.
The show you played before you returned to Germany, was that your first ever in JA?
Yes. Unfortunately it was the only one. It was considered whether it was possible–Tony Rebel's festival took place at that time, the Rebel Salute. It didn't work out unfortunately, but we went nevertheless and enjoyed a Jamaican reggae festival. So we've been to Ocho Rios, too, on the northern shore.
But ultimately we spend most of the time in Kingston. Which I enjoyed a lot. Since there aren't that many tourists there, the Jamaicans themselves were easier towards tourist, was my impression. In Ocho Rios, where the tourists are, it was different, more exhausting. In Kingston you're basically left alone. We had only cool chats there. Even questions from their side, like what was going on in Europe and stuff. We had some cool conversations there.
How did the Yardie massive react to your performance?
Quite positively, I think. There were a lot of journalists there, and they wrote a cool article on it afterwards. Great performance somehow, I can't quote it now. I forgot the name of the newspaper...
Jamaica Observer or Gleaner?
It was the Observer, I think. I talked to the journalist, an old Jamaican who had been writing already when Bob Marley was still around. He was very enthusiastic in any case. They especially loved our cover versions, Free Man or the Twinkle Brothers. Tracks that aren't reggae super hits, but rather for insiders. Which band would play those tunes on the island? OK, the Twinkle Brothers, they still play.
But they're from UK.
Yeah, probably. Kiddus showed up. And we got to meet Mystic Revelation, Billy Mystic and the others. We had a cool session with them in their yard. They put a drum kit in the yard. We played music together for one day. Two of us went surfing before that. They joined us later. Everybody whom we had told about the show were there, even those of which we thought that they wouldn't be interested at all. I am totally happy (laughs). The challenge to perform in Jamaica, that was the most thrilling experience, alongside the TV appearance.
So you're not yet thinking about your next album?
Sure, we have to move forward. The direction it will take is not clear yet. I'm not sure about that yet myself. What we really enjoy as a band at the moment are acoustic concerts. Everything a bit scaled down. It's a musical challenge for us that we much enjoy.
Then I listen to a lot of soul reggae from the 70s these days and would love to go towards this older style, to maybe record some rocksteady tunes. We don't know yet. Ideas are there, but they yet have to take shape. Nevertheless, we have to start off again instantly. I hope that The Kingston Session will continue to amaze the fans for some time, but with songs that had been out already... We have to deliver new stuff soon.
That's gonna be in 2016 then, though?
I guess so!