Rare are the times that you encounter a band who can make two genuinely brilliant records in as many years, and The Aggrolites are one of those bands; having cooked up an intoxicating mix of 60s reggae, ska and soul on their 2006 self-titled debut album and this year’s ‘Reggae Hit L.A.’. Oh, and they’re a great live band, too.
Alex Gosman caught up with guitarist Brian Dixon shortly after a storming show at London’s Camden Dingwalls. This was one of the last interviews the band did before the tragic passing of bassist David Fuentes, our thoughts at Crossfire go out to his family and friends.
Hi Brian! How’s the tour going?
It’s been great so far! We have three more shows left in the UK – Exeter, Swindon and then we’re playing at a scooter rally in Woolacombe on Saturday. It’ll be our first UK scooter rally, and we know that they’re bigger here than anywhere else in the world, so we’re really excited about that!
The last time you toured the UK was when you supported Madness back in December – how did that tour go for you?
It was incredible! It’s interesting, though, because everybody told us, before the tour, that nobody can open for Madness in the UK – nobody. Apparently they’ve had problems for years, because any band that tries to open for them just gets booed off the stage. But we had a great response – especially at Wembley Arena, where the crowd really got into it. When we finished playing that night, the soundmen for Madness came backstage and said that no band that had previously opened for Madness had managed to get the crowd singing along like we did; even the people in the balcony at the back were getting into it! So yeah, it was amazing.
Is there any particular story as to why you chose the name ‘The Aggrolites’?
Definitely – we take it from old-school 60s UK reggae. For the original English skinheads of the time, ‘Aggro’ was a slang term – short for aggravation, a tough guy, badass, that kinda thing. And because those skinheads made reggae so popular, Jamaican producers started using the term in their names; for example, one of Bunny Lee’s session bands was called The Aggrovators.
I didn’t know how long our band was going to be around, so I wanted to make up a name that, when you do a search for it on the internet, only that name comes up. We tried ‘Aggrolites’ and that worked perfectly – and anyone that’s into reggae would see that name, and automatically make the musical connection. So it’s kind of a marketing tool in that respect!
And how about the term ‘dirty reggae’, which you use to describe your music? Is that ‘dirty’ as in ‘grass roots’?
Pretty much, yeah – most people refer to it as ’69-’71 reggae, or skinhead reggae. But we didn’t want to give people the wrong impression – because we grew up on American soul and funk from the 60s, which has a very raw, dirty sound. What we did was to take the Jamaican reggae, and try to make it sound more raw, soulful and dirty.
You’ve previously described your recent ‘Reggae Hit L.A.’ album as a tribute to your hometown’s thriving reggae scene; has that scene always been as healthy as it is today?
No – actually, it’s almost the opposite. Reggae was never popular in the United States – it’s been very popular and well-known in the UK for years, but in the States, nobody really knows any reggae apart from Bob Marley. And don’t get me wrong, Bob Marley’s great, but there’s so much more out there.
So in Los Angeles, we had a very difficult time breaking through; we were popular everywhere else in the world, but not in our own hometown! So this new album, ‘Reggae Hit L.A.‘, is our response to that situation – we’re effectively saying to our hometown: “Hey, you guys have to check this out – this is the real deal.”. It’s like, this is reggae hitting L.A. for the first time – and it’s very exciting for us, because it’s taking off really well now, the response has been phenomenal. For the first time, we’re bigger at home than anywhere else, and every time we tour, there are more people coming to see us.
How did you come to sign to Hellcat Records?
Well, the short story is that Tim [Armstrong, Rancid singer/guitarist and Hellcat boss] was a big fan of ours…basically, three of the guys in the Aggrolites previously played in a band called the Rhythm Doctors – an instrumental band – and Tim happened to see us play, and immediately he wanted to sign us to Hellcat. But at the time, Hellcat had just signed a bunch of other bands, and couldn’t take us on just then.
So, after the Rhythm Doctors broke up, we started the Aggrolites, recorded our first album in late 2005 – and I literally took a couple of copies, walked into the Hellcat headquarters, and handed them over. Two days later, they called me back and said that Tim had listened to the record and wanted to sign us – he thought it was great. So, just after our self-titled album was released on Hellcat, Tim asked us to record an album with him, which turned out to be his solo album, ‘A Poet’s Life‘; we were his backing band for that record.
You guys spend a hell of a lot of time on tour – what would you say your best and worst touring experiences have been, so far?
The best one would have to be the Madness UK tour last December – that really was a dream come true for us. Playing sold-out arenas…it was unbelievable to see so many people singing along every night, and especially in London.
The bad part happened late last year, when we did a six and a half week tour in Europe, with only one day off! Literally, I was so exhausted by the final show of the tour, that I had to sit down onstage, because I was just too tired to stand up! So we decided that we won’t be doing that again, not that many shows in such a short time!
What are your plans for the near future, after this tour ends?
Well, after we finish these UK dates, we go back home for about six weeks, before coming back for a three week tour of mainland Europe. Then we return home for a while, to record a new album – three albums in three years! We’re keeping it all going, and we’ll definitely come back to the UK next year.
‘Reggae Hit L.A.‘ is out now on Hellcat Records. Check www.aggroreggae.com for more info.