Local connoisseurs, junkies for a taste of sweet reggae traditionalism, have been wise to the ways of the quintet called the Aggrolites for going on five years now.
They have watched its subtle, steady rise from in-demand West Coast house band for a parade of touring pioneers (ska fave Prince Buster, reggae great Derrick Morgan, Culture’s Joseph Hill) to being a credible act on its own terms, cutting albums so uncannily crafted from old-school fundamentals that casual ears might mistake them for lost gems from the dawn of the `70s.
Why it is, then, that you have not heard of the Aggrolites probably has something to do with the manner in which the Aggrolites emerged.
Were you to have noticed the group’s self-titled second disc sitting in the Best Buy rack sometime last year, you might easily have mistaken it for just another slab of spirit-of-‘77 retro-punk. True, the name - “aggro” from British slang for aggravation, “lites” from the Skatalites - might have been a tip-off that some kinda riddim influenced whatever sounds were inside. (The sketch of a lion was another hint.) But the picture on the back - of five mean-looking dudes, all in black, a baseball bat resting on the shoulder of the one in the center, frontman Jesse Wagner - well, that didn’t exactly scream reggae.
Wagner has mixed reactions to that packaging now. “We didn’t want to do it,” he first says in between bites of a Hawaiian burger and sips of a Jamaican red ale at the Yard House in Irvine. “I don’t know if that was a mistake or not.”
Yet he quickly adds there was a purpose behind it. “We always get called a ska band. Everybody says that - evvverybody. We were trying to separate ourselves from that.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but you look like tough thugs.”
“Well, we were trying to bring the tough back into reggae. Jamaican music is tough, hands down, tough as hell. Reggae music has always been tough. Ska music has always been tough. `When did the candy-ass ever get put into these things? Why did ska turn into skip-around-in-porkpie-hats pop?’ That’s what we were trying to get across there.”
I picked up a completely different signal. And because retro-punk bands aren’t at the top of my list of possible juicy finds - not nearly as high as potentially great reggae bands, anyway - I judged a disc by its cover and didn’t play “The Aggrolites,” which came out at the very start of 2006, until this past May, after I saw the Aggrolites in an impressive set with latter-day punk icon Tim Armstrong of Rancid.
Armstrong was superb that afternoon, bolstered by one authentic-sounding Jamaican groove after another, each pushing him toward a hopeful soulfulness he’s unable to explore as deeply with other projects. But the Aggrolites were the real revelation as they unveiled material that soon surfaced as Armstrong’s first proper solo album. The joyful “Tim Armstrong” is clearly every bit as much the work and design of the Aggrolites, who quickly cut the record with their new boss (the group is signed to Armstrong’s Hellcat Records) two days before the two-week sessions that formed “The Aggrolites” began.
“We did his stuff first,” Wagner recalls, “and we were like, `Man, we’re gonna run out of material’ - `cause we always record on the spur of the moment. We don’t really pre-write songs. We just find a rhythm and see what comes.” Most Aggrolites jams, in fact, tend to bubble up out of Roger Rivas’ keyboard riffs, spill into the liquid bottom laid down by bassist J Bonner and drummer Kory “Kingston” Horn, then given extra syncopation by Brian Dixon’s and Wagner’s guitars.
That as-is process, however, makes the Aggrolites’ highly enjoyable third album, “Reggae Hit L.A.,” all the more remarkable. It’s certainly evident, across 15 tracks that at times are no more than becalming instrumental grooves, what the approach was: “Hit record, let’s go.” It’s a testament to the band’s chemistry, then, that so often its process yields insinuating, fully realized songs - the uplifting “Reconcile,” the honeyed fun of “Faster Bullet” and “Free Time,” the James Brown-infused title anthem, the enchanting “Let’s Pack Our Bags,” all featuring Wagner in hearty voice.
So many of them sound as though they could have been leftovers from 1972’s “The Harder They Come” soundtrack. It’s a traditionalist trait the Aggrolites share with Hepcat, the Slackers, Westbound Train and very few other American-bred reggae and ska outfits: the ability to recreate the past without sounding like slaves to it - or, worse, exploiting it for commercial gain, the dreary fate of so much of Orange County-bred Third Wave ska-punk.
Wagner, whose wife, Christina, brought him to O.C., bristles at the idea that the Aggrolites are preservationists or revivalists, though. “I mean, I do agree with that, to some degree. The Rhythm Doctors” - his previous band, and entrance into the reggae scene - “they were that sort of band. We were trying to be the Upsetters. We’d outright mimic that.
“The Aggrolites, yeah, we do sound old-school, and we do have this certain organ style the Dynamites used, and I’m clearly inspired by certain heroes. But we call it `dirty reggae’ for a reason. We’re never gonna play to a T like the Jamaicans do. We’re damn good at playing reggae, but to me we’re still watered-down compared to the real deal.
“I’d rather think of us as a gateway for a typical American who only knows the Bob Marley `Legend’ album. Just like Hepcat and the Specials and the Clash were for me. They weren’t the real deal either, but they were a gateway to get me to it.”
The story of Wagner’s formative years shares some similarities with that of a local rock legend, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness. Just as Ness often speaks of growing up one of few true punks at high school, so did Wagner, now 27, perpetually feel alone and out-of-place amongst the baby alt-rockers of the early `90s.
“I was always the oddball - the kid in junior high who was listening to his dad’s James Brown records while the other kids were into Pearl Jam. That’s why it was so strange to finally move to Orange County. It was rare that you’d see a kid at my school with a Misfits T-shirt. Out here, it was like, `Whooaah!’ I tripped out. There were maybe three or four punks at my school. The kids that were into reggae and ska? Two - me and this girl.”
As it was for many, Third Wave was a gateway for Wagner to discover the dawn of the `80s 2-Tone era, the heyday of the Specials and the English Beat, as well as the better English punk bands (the Clash, Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers) whose music was informed by - and occasionally actually was – reggae. That in turn led Wagner back further still - to Marley and Peter Tosh and Burning Spear, yes, but more importantly to the less overtly Rastafarian - yet equally crucial - figures of Studio 1 Records, like Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis.
For as supremely steeped in the past as the Aggrolites are, however, they still find themselves time and again playing to audiences of Hot Topic kids and narrow-minded punk fans. The group deserves a starring role at a Bob Marley Days festival, a slot that could help it break out like Matisyahu has recently. (At the very least, it does well headlining clubs like House of Blues in Anaheim.)
Instead, the Aggrolites find themselves facing sometimes hostile crowds by touring as opener for their friends in the Irish punk outfit Dropkick Murphys.
“The last couple of years I’ve discoered that a lot of kids are the same way I was,” Wagner says, optimistic that a broader audience exists for the Aggrolites, one that will come as the bubblepunk generation gets older. “They’ve opened their minds up lately to something that they aren’t told is cool.
“But we still run up against tough crowds all the time, people flippin’ us off or booin’ us because they instantly thought we were some dorky ska band. They’ll chant `Let’s go Murphys!’ between our songs. Meanwhile, every night of the week Dropkick Murphys are on the side of the stage watching us.
“I would say to those kids, `That’s OK. Some day you’re gonna read a punk rock book and you’re gonna find out that it’s OK to listen to reggae. Joe Strummer listened to reggae. Your idols in Dropkick Murphys listen to reggae. You’ll figure it out someday.’”