- “To be honest,” says Jesse Wagner, “with this album, it was kind of like, ‘Let’s give the crowd what they want to hear.’”
If SATs are ever administered for reggae, Jesse Wagner will have no trouble scoring a perfect 1,600. Although the Southern California native grew up nearly 3,000 miles from Trench Town, he could easily spend hours talking about the most subtle nuances of Jamaican music, as well as the contributions of arcane artists whose names you’ve never heard. But while others may take pride in rattling off the minutiae of their favorite genre, Wagner practices what he preaches, and has been doing so since starting his band The Aggrolites back in 2002.
In those days, Wagner and his cohorts served as the West Coast pickup band of choice for a number of touring Jamaican legends. Among them was Prince Buster, whose signature songs “One Step Beyond,” “Too Hot” and “Enjoy Yourself” were covered by British ska revivalists like The Specials and Madness. The Aggrolites also backed Derrick Morgan, who made reggae history as the only artist to occupy the top seven slots on the Jamaican pop charts, all at the same time.
“It was really cool, because Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan had a big rivalry back in the ’60s,” says Wagner. “There’s a Prince Buster song called ‘Black Head Chinaman,’ and that’s actually talking mess towards Derrick Morgan because he went to work for [competing producer] Leslie Kong. And then Derrick Morgan has a song retaliating called “Blazing Fire,” which was like his comeback, where he’s talking shit back to Prince Buster. But they ended up becoming good friends. And we got to back both of them up, and to ask about the rivalry that went on between them. We just sat around with them, hearing them tell their personal stories about the old days.”
Despite the “Aggro” portion of their name, it’s tough to imagine Wagner’s band feuding with anyone. They’re an upbeat and affable bunch, qualities that are much in evidence on Reggae Now!, their first full-length album in nearly a decade. Lilting songs like “Love Me Tonight” evoke classic vocal harmony groups like the original Wailers (back before Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer jumped ship) and the Mighty Diamonds.
“That’s exactly what we were going for,” says Wagner. “The Heptones, the Mighty Diamonds, the Gaylads, who were this trio from the mid-’60s rocksteady era. And the lead vocal was definitely inspired by Bob Marley & The Wailers.”
The track “Shadow Walk,” meanwhile, finds co-founding keyboardist Roger Rivas laying down a Meters-style organ groove over what could pass for a vintage dub track.
“We were aiming for that Lee Perry & The Upsetters sound,” says Wagner, who has “Mr. Brown,” the title of a Perry-produced Wailers song, tattooed on his arm. “Our buddy Chris Brennan, who second-engineered the record, has all kinds of old dub gear, a lot of the same stuff that Lee Perry used. So we invited Chris to dub those out for us in Lee Perry fashion. He’s also begun playing rhythm guitar for us. He’s on the road with us right now.”
Although it’s been out for just three weeks, Reggae Now! is already racking up considerable praise. Alternative Press says it “defines everything great under the summer sun.” The band’s label, meanwhile, has sent out endorsements from Big Audio Dynamite’s Don Letts and The Specials’ Lynval Golding. “The Aggrolites,” says the latter, “have gotten it even more right, at exactly the right time.”
Wagner, not surprisingly, feels much the same way.
“On our last record IV, we were kind of going out of the box from what we usually do,” he says. “And with this one, we thought more about what we’ve been doing from the beginning. So we did those kind of sing-along anthems and those organ tunes, and we threw in some funky stuff and a couple of dub tracks, which we’ve never really done before, at least not as good as we did this time around. To be honest, with this album, it was kind of like, ‘Let’s give the crowd what they want to hear.’”