Russia might be making headlines right now for its controversial anti-gay laws, but what stands out about Jenny Hill's trip there in June is the curious swag its residents doled out.
"We did a festival in Russia," Hill, sax player for Easy Star All-Stars, says. "It was about 80 miles from Moscow in the forest. We hadn't been to Russia in about six years, so it was really cool to go there. The fans were interesting. They're not as animated as Europeans or Americans. They're more stoic. They gave us vodka with a little axe in the box as an icon of the vodka store. It was funny."
That would be a real metal tool, not a rubber replica, which one of the band's singers insisted on taking home, despite her bandmates' concerns that it could be confiscated on the plane.
Besides their strange jaunt overseas, the New York City band has laid low this summer without a new album to promote for the first time in years. They will, however, spend a few days this fall touring the west coast, including a stop in Whistler at the GLC Sept. 14. It turns out Canada has a pretty big appetite for reggae, even as the genre has waned in the U.S. and Europe in the last several years.
"I would say Canada is near the top because Canada tends to have people who like doing outdoor sports, like skiing and mountain climbing. Usually the music is more popular with outdoors people," Hill says.
The band has appealed to more than just reggae fans with their series of cover albums that put a new spin on old classics. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon became Dub Side of the Moon. Radiohead's OK Computer turned into Radiodread. Perhaps most risky of all, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was turned into Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band.
"We look for an album that's a concept album, nine times out of 10," Hill says. "And the lyrics mean something spiritually or politically."
That wasn't the case, though, for their most reason album, Thrillah, a take on Michael Jackson's Thriller, which celebrated its 30 anniversary last year.
"The guys at the (Easy Star Records) label grew up in New York in the '80s and they were really into Michael Jackson and it was the 30-year anniversary of the album," Hill says, explaining their latest release. "It's hard to come up with the original grooves sometimes. Michael Goldwasser (founding member) tends to come up with really good ideas for the reggae lines and keyboard parts. But for OK Computer I was like, 'How is this going to work?'"
Turns out, quite well. So well, in fact, that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke gave his stamp of approval. "We were kind of nervous about that," Hill says. "I think Thom Yorke is kind of picky, but (Pink Floyd's) Roger Waters is too. The Pink Floyd people said, 'We never comment positively or negatively about a cover.' But then Thom said (at a show) something like, 'You should go check out the Easy Star version of "Let Down." He gave it a positive spin, so that means a lot because it's hard to please a songwriter. If they like your reinterpretation, that's a huge compliment."
Even in this age of sampling, the band has always been careful of copyright rules. They pay royalties for all their covers. "If we're just doing the song with lyrics intact, we don't have to get permission," Hill says. "But for something like "Money" we add rapping, so we have to get permission for the song. I think where people get in trouble is if they take a sample and don't pay the guy who wrote it."
For their upcoming string of shows the band will play Dub Side of the Moon in its entirety to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. They'll also include a few originals and some hits from their other releases, Hill adds.
"I think Dub Side of the Moon is our most popular, internationally speaking," she says. "It was a groundbreaker. People were really into those songs... (The covers) kind of feel like our own by this point because the bass chords are different and chords are performed differently. I feel like we own it. I know we're doing other people's songs, but because it's our own interpretations it feels so personal."