Dreadzone drummer and founder Greg Dread talks to PopMatters about his group's new album Eye on the Horizon, the merits of all of his bandmates, and benefits and downsides of making music in the digital age.
Probably one of the hardest-working bands around, Dreadzone have been cutting records for nearly two decades now, forging a path as one of the more trusted names in dub-rock to emerge on British soil. After a number of experiments in club-land sonics (namely, the dub-trance of Biological Radio and Once Upon a Time’s rave-rock hip hop), the band turns their attention toward the call of radio and opt this time for what is as close to a pop record that the Dreads can make. Eye on the Horizon is an album aimed at both the head and the feet, and Greg Roberts (AKA Greg Dread - founder and drummer) talks about Dreadzone’s approach on their latest offering.
PopMatters: Upon hearing the new Dreadzone album, there is an obvious shift toward pop-oriented structures. That is to say, the album seems to feature more "songs", rather than "clubbers". More emphasis lies in the instrumentation, rather than experimentations in loops/backing tracks/breaks etc. I could almost say that the music belies elements of orchestral pop, without it being exactly "orchestral". Talk about the approach you took in making "pop" songs (if you at all agree with this assessment). What informed this new sense of direction and why at this point in your career, when you could have easily made a "pop" album earlier?
Greg Dread: Good question; it sounds like you have really understood this record. It is much more "pop" though in our own individual way with our rhythm and sound giving it an edge. The songs are our way of expressing the feeling from the last few years of losing people close to us, along with our desire to grow as songwriters. also we have gone beyond being a dance group with guest vocals, we have our own identity and voice and find it easier to channel those ideas after such a time. I don’t think we could have made a "pop" record before although Second Light had hooks that came naturally and people picked up on it. After all what is pop ... popular, reaching out a wider audience. We have a vibe we want to share with many people, and why not. ..this album is very much about expression through words and melody; a lot of dance-orientated groups throw vocal hooks on but miss out on a strong identity. I am kind of determined to make people recognise us for our tunes and not just as "dub dance festival band". There are only so many times that we can reinvent the dub-meets-dance blueprint. It's all about the song, for this album at least.
PM: It's very clear that the music of Dreadzone is created for the dancefloor -- but they are very much a live band. This means a sometime-very delicate balance between using DAT techniques/breaks/loops and a live set-up (at times re-writing electronic parts to accommodate certain sounds that cannot be produced live onstage). How does this process of integrating the organic elements into primarily electronic ones work? Is Dreadzone ruled by the machine or the guitar?
GR: We are a combination of machine and human, but the human is more to the fore (as opposed to four-to-the-floor) because our key weapon is myself and Leo as the rhythm section, 25 years going strong and as with BAD (Big Audio Dynamite) you get us more than programmed beats. The samples loops and keys run from a laptop, but you don’t notice the machine on stage. Ever since Mick Jones gave me a drum machine all those years ago, technology has been fully integrated with the rhythm section. It has become so blurred that you don’t hear the join anymore, people are dancing to the human groove. Dreadzone is ruled by the human feel but we owe a debt to machines to liberate the writer within. The main thing is that we are a totally live band.
PM: In the same vein as Massive Attack (who consider themselves very much a collective and not at all a band), Dreadzone has had a rotating number of members. One of the most defining elements (and voices) of Dreadzone in recent years has been that of MC Spee. Can you talk about his contribution to the band as a vocalist/writer/personality and what he has brought to the table?
GR: Spee has been with us for 10 years and Earl for 15, so we have a solid unit. Spee has incredible energy and stage presence as well as being my chief co songwriter. We have both lost our brothers and are both Gemini monkeys; there is a balance there that is so special and we feel a real honesty in what we do, we go out as a sound system together so there is a constant working partnership all year round in the studio and on the road. But we are definitely a band; always have been regardless of comings and goings. What Spee has brought is beyond compare
PM: Of course, to counterbalance MC Spee, there is Earl 16. His voice seems like the textural foundation provided for the other voices in the band (either vocally or by instrumentation) to work off of. Explain the interplay between these two vocalists, how they compliment each other aesthetically/artistically (especially on this new album).
GR: They have been working together in this band for so long that there is a natural symbiosis that is uncanny to observe. On one track on the new album, "Walk Tall", they both take the lead vocal in unison but strangely it sounds like one vocal, with each individual emerging at certain points. They know each other so well that the interplay is something that is unique. We are very lucky to have these two in the band. For years I have been telling people Earl is my favourite singer after Nat King Cole and I want people to know that; he should be a mainstream star not just a respected reggae vocalist. He has the voice of an angel.
PM: Not forgetting the guitarists, there is some pretty interesting guitar work happening on this album. Definitely more explorations in melody than just simple riffing or techniques in aural texture. How did their contribution to this new recording signal its new direction in sound?
GR: Chris Compton, who has done an amazing job of replacing my late brother Steve, has brought an incredible natural sense of melody to the guitar lines that I don’t think he even realised he had. Many a time he has picked out a riff that has sparked a development of a key hook and I love to have that in the band -- for instance on the track "For a Reason" he played a simple riff that I transposed to a string part that has that classic orchestral dread flavour. He has an abundance of hooks and was a key element in the album's song development
PM: Last but not least, we have you: the backbone of Dreadzone is most definitely the beats. As the drummer, your task is to come up with something fresh in rhythmic structure, since much of Dreadzone is rooted in club culture. Electronic music is a fast-developing genre (if you want to call it that), which demands constant reinvention. However, the machine depends on the brain behind it. You are a drummer, therefore your sense of rhythm (and its structure) comes from a very organic place. Describe the process/experience/experiments in the relationship between the man, his drumsticks and the drum machine.
GR: Oh gosh, I don’t know if it is such a complex issue. I start a tune, maybe with a sample, and as it starts to come together I hear the feel or beat in my head and it comes out naturally that way, or I may find a loop that suits it from an old record and I will adapt to it that way. On this record I used a lot of my live kit and then chopped it up but also I had a Roland pad drum kit to program full beats with so it was a lot more organic than before. The drums are important, but I have never been one to push the kit or hits loud and heavy like club mixes as I feel it should all blend together as a unit for an album. If anything, the emphasis is on the bass, the feminine of the two. The beats are simple and effective, and are the basis of the dread groove.
PM: You have a very loyal fan base (as one can clearly see from many of the YouTube clips). You are a band that started before the digital age served (or hindered) the music industry. Explain the benefits of the Internet (downloads, online media/exposure) and how that reflects in your fan base. What do you notice of your fan base today compared to 15 years ago?
GR: Well, the obvious difference is that you can instantly see who is logging on and showing interest, you can interact freely before or after shows, and the internet has given people the chance to reach out to a specific audience. Obviously the downside is the amount of freedom people have to just go and fetch whatever they want from us in the form of fileshare downloads, but I am optimistic that people still buy music if they really like it. There is a long task of slowly making people realise it is actually stealing and depriving artists of income, but all the extra exposure through the web may actually level that out; we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, websites like www.WhyMusicMatters.org have been set up to spread the word through the younger generations who have grown up expecting it all for free. Our fan base today consists of so many different ages that I can only guess that it's the longevity if the band has seen us into the different generations with the same level of appreciation. All we need now is to have this album spread the word and further the dread cause.