Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Interview with Smiley and the Underclass!

Smiley and The Underclass
From right to left: Smiley, James Shepard, Jay Hirano, Ryan Windross (who
just recently left the band; Derek Daley has taken over on bass).
(Interview by Steve Shafer)

We recently reviewed Smiley and the Underclass' incendiary debut album "Rebels Out There" and wanted to learn more about the band that created it. Fortunately, singer Smiley and lead guitarist James Shephard were kind enough to take the time to answer our questions (James via email; Smiley by recording his answers in an mp3 file). Read on to find out what drives them to write political songs (and not love songs); how Vin Gordon came to play on a few of their tracks; and which ska/reggae records they'd risk life and limb to save if their house were on fire...

The Duff Guide to Ska: Which bands/albums influenced Smiley and the Underclass’ sound (and how would you describe your music)?"

Smiley: "I can only speak for me, but I listened to a lot of Clash records when I was writing the early songs. I know James loves blues. We all quite like Nirvana, I suppose. Just because he did a lot with not that many lyrics and just the sound is raw and intense. Love Iggy Pop and old reggae. Tons and tons of dub--Scientist, King Tubby, Keith Hudson, anything tough. We want to make something that sounds new. We want to make something that sounds chaotic and of the time.

I don't know how we describe our music. Some people called it a skabilly. I think that might have even been you guys. Punky reggae is the most obvious thing, but we're definitely not a reggae band because we haven't got any keys or horns, for one thing. And we're not really a punk band because I don't know if you can be a punk band in 2017. Maybe it's more punk to be a cruise ship singer, at this point."

James Shephard: "I know Smiley loves classic reggae like me and also The Clash were a big influence for him. I listen to loads of stuff from all genres but blues, jazz, and reggae are probably most obvious. It's the little things though--maybe people won't spot a Sonny Sharrock or English folk influence, but it's all in there!"

DGTS: "When I first heard “It’s All England,” I thought it was primarily about embracing multiculturalism (which it is, in a way, right?), but after a read of lyrics, it seems to be more about being disenfranchised in one’s own country and insisting that you belong, no matter what your race, class, religion, etc. Is that a fair interpretation? What inspired you to write this song from this perspective?

Smiley: "'It's All England' is to my mind saying, yeah, it doesn't really matter where you come from, as long as you're peaceful and kind--then you're welcome in my society anyway. See, at the time of writing it that was sort of, at least it seemed to be maybe just in a metropolitan bubble or whatever they call it, that seemed to be the way society was going. Now, looking back at it, and it's only been well, not long at all since the first EP came out and only about five years, six years since I wrote the song. Yeah, the country's changed man, changed a lot. It is easy to feel disenfranchised in this country, like when you go outside of the cities and you go to any seaside town, be it Hastings, Eastbourne, you know, you see the same old shit. You see one street where there's a couple of shops left and the rest is, I dunno, modern decay shopping centres and potholes of dirty water in it.

It's weird how we are all disenfranchised in one way or another, that they're able to--and by 'they' I mean the sort of neo-right wing agitators like Farage--how they're able to use that disenfranchisement against one group, when it is all of us who are struggling in this tide.

I don't really know what inspired me to write 'England' because it came out mostly as a freestyle when I was busking on Camden High Street, before the band actually formed. I remember doing "Night Nurse" by Gregory Isaacs, which is a pretty standard late night busking interpretation and it's A minor in G, so it's easy and it just morphed into the chorus. I can't remember if I wrote the verses afterwards, I probably did. So, yeah, 'I don't know' is the answer to the question."

James: "Those are Smiley's lyrics, but I see it as a celebration of where we're from without the superstitious belief in this "England" we've been sold."

DGTS: What were you listening to/reading/watching while writing and recording “Rebels Out There”?

Smiley: "During the album recording, I think I was probably listening to what I normally listen to, which is old reggae. I'm a big freak for reggae vinyl especially the Wackie's label. So, if any keen readers want to send me some Wackie's vinyl, you know you know where to go. I don't really remember what I was reading, probably something lame like a Joe Strummer biography to get me in the mood."

James: "I was reading George Clinton's autobiography and listening to Dezarie, Midnite, and a lot of artists from the Virgin Islands, as well as Robert Glasper, Julian Lage and some other recent jazz stuff. And loads more, we're always listening!"

DGTS: Many of Smiley and the Underclass’ songs urge the listener to take action to better the environment, society, how we treat each other and ourselves. Clearly you believe that music can change people's attitudes and behaviors. Can you name/recommend several records (from any genre and any period) that you believe have had this kind of impact?

Smiley: "Yes, I do think music can change the world for good and for bad. I think you can see that going back probably to the dawn of man and music being used as sort of energizing opposing sides in battle. You can think of music like Fela Kuti's, which actually spawned and support social movements. You can think of smaller things, like influencing other people to write music. So, it's changing people's lives on a real grassroots level. Just changing one person's life at a time, maybe hearing a record and so you want to become a musician. And also if you check big movements these days, going back to the Occupy Movement I suppose to now, social media and any rising social movement sort of is accompanied by at least, you know, two or three--I hesitate to use the word hit song--but some kind of some kind of music video or something, which in turn spreads and goes viral. So, I guess in that way it can change the world. I don't know, but it has yet to form the utopia that we're all dreaming of, that we're singing about. I don't think music itself can change a person--only a person can do that. It can maybe unlock certain perspectives of certain ways of understanding that you hadn't thought of before. But so can a car accident. Yeah, it's a tough one. I don't know. I don't know is the honest answer.

Records that have maybe had that kind of impact on my life--Bob Dylan bringing it all back home because it made me think I could pick up a guitar. And a lot of the punk stuff as well. And, you know, going back again, as we always bloody do, to reggae music. The idea that people have so little in such trying circumstances can create something so beautiful and everlasting is testament to the power of music and its ability to impact people's lives in a very real sense, in a survival sense. And that's something that we have yet, I think, to grasp in this country. At least on a rock and roll, white boy level. Anything outside of fucking grime. "

James: "I feel music and any other art can influence us all in big and small ways. It can happen in obvious ways, but I think the high level creativity of people like Coltrane or The Beatles in the sixties might have affected people and their behaviour without them literally interpreting lyrics or trying to dress like the artists."

DGTS: Some bands shy away from taking political stances in their music for fear of alienating an audience. What drives you in the opposite direction? What compels Smiley and the Underclass to speak out about all of the injustice around us?

Smiley: "What compels us to speak out? Well, we're all weird looking, that's my theory. So, we don't write that many girls songs. Although, we've got some coming. Don't worry, I'm winking right now. I don't know. You know, we live in this fucked up time with this fucking mad, madman as president of the United States. We've got chaos at home and abroad, as they say. So, what else are you going to sing about? You know what else is going on. It's not the 90s, like Jay [Hirano, the band's drummer] says, you know. If we wanted to fuck, then we listen to Sam Cooke."

James: "If a child tells another child to stop pulling a cat's tail, is that political? Speaking only for myself, I have very little interest in politics."

DGTS: Some of this album was recorded at Mick Jones’ studio? How did this come about?

Smiley: "We met Mick Jones because Ladbroke Grove is a small place and it was Gary from the Rotten Hill Gang who introduced us. Yeah and he's a cool guy. Nice bloke. I fear we may have busted his guitar. Sorry, Mick!"

James: "Mick Jones showed an interest in helping us and naturally we felt very honoured. I hope we don't let him down!"

Likewise, Vin Gordon appears on at least one song on this album. How did you arrange this?
Vin Gordon

Smiley: "We met Vin just through good luck really. We met [Nick] Manasseh, first through Jay's car accident and he just happened to be in town for Notting Hill Carnival and Manasseh recommended we get a hold of him--and I think even fronted us an extra 50 quid, so we could book him. And, it was cool, man and they came in and his ring tone was the "Real Rock" riddim, which was hilarious. And, yeah, it was a great thrill to sit on the sofa in the recording studio and watch someone from Studio One times do his thing. So, he did "England" and he also did "Party Gone Wrong," which is something on our first EP, which has got a really nice tasty Manasseh dub, as well, for all you bass heads."

James: "Well, I know Vin Gordon from the London reggae scene, but Smiley made that link. I like how the song starts with a minor key anti-Elizabeth national anthem and later has a solo from probably the most prolific trombone player in reggae. Pretty hip don't you think?"

DGTS: If you could only save five of your ska/reggae albums from a fire in your home, which ones would they be (and why)?

Smiley: "That's a really difficult question and I've subsequently from reading this question gone and looked in my record cupboard and I have to ask does this include 45s? Does this include singles? For now, I'm going to say Harry Mudie Meets King Tubby's In Dub Conference, Volume OnePrince Buster's Fabulous Greatest Hits; The Light of Saba two-disc compilation they put out on Honest Jon's; and any of the Soul Jazz Studio One compilations. If you want to know my taste in 45s, we can do another interview, 'cause that can take up the whole thing."

James: "Don't know if it could only be five, but for the sake of discussion Praise Ye Jah by Sizzla by for the sublime flow, conviction, and energy that seemed to burst out of the young Miguel Collins. Very influential for me. Below the Bassline by Ernest Ranglin, because it's a great way to hear him and Monty Alexander on a laid back thing. Africa Unite by Bob Marley for the songs, arrangements, production, and vibe! Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear, same reasons as above, but more rootical! The Garnet Silk best of double CD on VP I think. One of my favourite singers ever--Dennis Brown's Words of Wisdom probably as well, but that's more than five."

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To hear more of Smiley and the Underclass' music, check out their videos for "Jump the Barrier" and "Machiavelli Blues."

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