Dreadzone is back! Ten years ago Dreadzone's second album 'Second Light' catapulted the band straight to the top of the British charts. Their inspiring mix of reggae, folk and dance made Greg 'Dread' Roberts and his mates into instant trendsetters in the U.K. dance scene. The successor to 'Second Light', 'Biological Radio' failed to inspire the masses somewhat and a combination of internal conflicts and oversized egos meant the next chapter in the band's history would be a whole lot quieter. None the less the urge to do more and before all to do it again proved too strong to ignore any longer: there's the new and powerful album release of 'Once Upon A Time' and recently the band has reformed and is touring again. I had the privilege to see them at work this summer in their home base London:
Greg, first of all, that was a shattering great concert! I don't know how it was for you guys?
Greg Roberts: "It was really great! Yesterday we were at another festival and the sound wasn't too great. We've been having some great shows, but yesterday's one made us extra motivated today to give it our best, so we made sure the sound was right. There was a wicked vibe going around and everybody was ready. It was one of the best shows we did in a while."
I saw you last year at the Couleur Café festival in Belgium doing a sound system set. It's only been a little while since you've been playing with a live band again. How is that?
Greg Roberts: It's been about 3 or 4 years since we played with a live band. We did sound system and semi-live shows. It was a different way of doing it and it was nice to try it out and travel as a smaller group. You've got fewer things to worry about then and you might actually bring home some money for the kids. (laughs) You don't make a lot of money touring. We got a new album coming out in September called 'Once Upon A Time' so we thought we'd put the live band back together. I'm really pleased. You can see my smile!
What has evolved in Dreadzone? Give us a taste of what the new album holds?
Greg Roberts: "There's quite a lot of influence of the sound system; the way we deejay and play different records every week to see what makes the people dance. That kind of gives us a cutting edge. We've also got some new people working with us. Since the 'Sound' album in 2001 we've been working with Ben Balafonic and Mc Spee and Earl Sixteen is much more involved in this album. It's a much more vocal album, much more harmonies, much more lyrics and only about 3 instrumentals. It's also not as reliant on samples as our previous albums. We just sat down and wrote a lot of good tunes and tried different things that were influenced by our deejaying but which aren't necessarily aimed at the dance floor. That's not how an album works, that's for when you do a single. An album is for your Ipod, to listen to at home or in your car... And it's not to download for free! (laughs) So, it's not a dance floor album, but we're influenced by it. Deejaying keeps you young and fresh, I realized that once when I was driving back from a gig. When I play records, I don't like to stand still. I jump up and down and really get a wicked vibe going. I'm happy I can do both the live thing and the soundsystem now; it's like the best of both worlds."
On those first albums there are a lot of movie samples. Who is the movie buff in Dreadzone? Is that you as well?
Greg Roberts: "Oh yeah! I was in Big Audio Dynamite before and we always used to take interesting samples from movies. There's something about a movie; you sit there and think: "Wow, that's such a great atmosphere!", even if it's just a phone call, a laugh or a piece of dialogue. With the first two albums, ‘Second Light' in particular, it seemed to come together naturally. We found some old English films. What I really love are the movies of Powell & Pressberger. I don't know if you've ever heard of them? Martin Scorsese too... There's not so much of that on the new album. In the early days of Dreadzone, I just had a lot of time to sit around, watch films and of course get influenced by them, but as I got more and more involved with Dreadzone, things got busier and busier and I got less leisure time. If you really have to go and watch a movie to find a sample, it doesn't really work."
The 'Second Light' album featured Earl Sixteen for the first time. How did you guys hook up?
Greg Roberts: "We met through my publisher at the time. He worked for BMG and said: "I've got a singer for you!". Earl then came to the studio, we played him this track we had called 'Zion' and he just went: "You'll never get to Zion without Jah Love. You'll never reach the land that you've been dreaming of.". That just blew us away!"
Did you know of him before that?
Greg Roberts: "No, not really. I only heard about him through Leftfield. The thing about Earl Sixteen is that he's such a lovely guy and a good singer, so you can't really wish for anything else."
From the biography on the Dreadzone website (www.dreadzone.com, red.),I kind of gathered you guys were in a way responsible for discovering Melanie Blatt (ex-All Saints, red.).
Greg Roberts: "I wouldn't say we discovered her. A very old friend of mine, a French guy called Luc Vergier, who also ended up producing the 'Sound' album, introduced us to Alan McGee who was a friend of Melanie Blatt's father. She came down, still a very sweet girl, only seventeen at the time and sang some stuff for us, just some harmonies and vocal bits. When we had a hit with 'Little Britain' she phoned us up and said: "I should have stayed with you guys! You're doing really well!" and next thing we knew she was all over the place with All Saints. She's got a great voice and there's something really special about her. She's very nice-looking as well of course, but she's got a very nice voice. It's not too soulful and not to European, but somewhere nicely in between. Lovely lips as well! (laughs)"
With a band like Dreadzone there's a whole creative process involved. What's your favorite thing, creating new sounds in the studio or partying on stage?
Greg Roberts: "I've been asked this question so many times and I just have to say that it's just split between both of them. You can't differentiate. There's that immediate buzz you get when you play live. The best part of the studio is that moment when you've created that first seed for an idea. You go home, it is still fresh in your head and you think: "Yeah, that's great!" or "I'm really really pleased with that." Performing is quite different. I was talking to the drummer of a band called The Bass yesterday. They don't actually make albums or record their music, but just go on stage and improvise. They just go on and let things happen. I thought that was a very interesting way of doing things, because that way, you can really have that direct performance. It's quite extreme though. In Dreadzone we got more structure going on, but still every performance is different. I think in these days of declining record sales, live gigs have become more and more important."
You finished off the concert tonight with 'Little Britain'. We're about a week after the terrible terrorist attacks in London now. Was that a symbolic ending?
Greg Roberts: "Not really. 'Little Britain' is about a multicultural Britain though. It's interesting that you draw that link, but it was written in a more idealistic frame of mind stating: "This is little Britain and we can all live together!". As time goes on more and more reality sinks in and you realize that life just isn't that simple. There is a lot of hostility and division out there. 'Little Britain' does portray a positive vision though. The bombings did sicken me and sickened everybody I know. It's something that shouldn't happen. It is religion and it shows again how bad religion can be for people. Spirituality is good though. 'Little Britain' was on 'Second Light' which is a very spiritual album. It was about finding peace within you through music. Ancient cross, Zion star, eastern ways and praise to Jah, all the different aspects of belief were there tied into one. When things get too much like: "This is our way and this is the way it should be!" or "This is our struggle and we're all united for our course!", that's just bullshit and it winds me up!"
Dreadzone wouldn't be the Dreadzone it is today without the vocal talents of Mc Spee and of course Earl 16. We also tracked them down after the concert:
Spee, I'm going to open with the same thing I said to Greg earlier: "Great concert!"
Mc Spee: "Thank you very much!"
Great to see Dreadzone with a live band again. How is that for you?
Mc Spee: "It's heaven! For someone like me, a funk master, a crowd is just the best there is. I've put my stamp on this band now, everybody knows who I am. Today was just outstanding. You were there so you must have seen how wicked it was!"
I saw you for the first time last year, when Dreadzone did the sound system set at Couleur Café.
Mc Spee: "Yeah right, at the 15th anniversary edition!"
Exactly. Where did you come from before Dreadzone?
Mc Spee: "I was in a band called Terminalhead for about seven years, in another outfit called Middle Row and before that there was The Lords Of Rap. So, I'm what you could call a veteran. Twenty years in the making! (laughs)"
Sixteen you are of course a well known name among reggae fans, but how did you hook up with bands like Leftfield and Dreadzone?
Earl Sixteen: "I came to England in 1987. My "baby mother" knew Mad Professor, she introduced me to him, I voiced a couple of tunes and eventually started work on an album ('Babylon Walls', red.). One day, a guy called Paul Daley phoned Mad Professor because he wanted to find out who the singer was of a Greensleeves tune called 'Trial And Crosses' that he wanted to use for a remix. That song was mine of course. When Professor called me to ask if it would be alright to do the remix, I said: "No man, I can't give him permission to remix the song, let me sing the song for him again!". He then said: "Yeah, but we don't have any money!", but that was no problem for me. When I went into the studio another guy called Neil (Barnes, red.) was there with Paul too and they of course ended up forming Leftfield. The song was released under the title 'Release The Pressure', but was really an old Jamaican tune of which I changed the lyrics a bit. The song of course got to lead a life of its own, going from the underground scene to single of the year in the United Kingdom. Some time after that I did a record called 'Holding Back The Years', which I also tried to sell at a record company called Fat Shadows. A guy called Mike, who worked there, told me he was working with a group called Big Audio Dynamite that might be interested in a singer like me. He gave me Greg's (Roberts, red.) number. When I called him he told me he was not working with actual singers at that stage, but just dubbing and mixing. But around 1994 I got a call from Mike again saying that Greg, who had now formed Dreadzone, was looking for me to voice a tune called 'Zion Youth'. That ended up being the first single from Dreadzone's 'Second Light' album. They were under contract at Virgin Records at that time, so when the song took off, right away they asked us to do a video, which was something I had never done before! At about the same time we did a video for 'Release The Pressure' with Leftfield. So all of a sudden I had two videos playing on MTV, two songs in the top 20, it was crazy!"
Would it be fair to say that now you are the "dread" in Dreadzone. There can't be any Dreadzone without Earl Sixteen?
Earl Sixteen: "No, that would not be fair. Dreadzone is a concept that evolved from Big Audio Dynamite, with guys like Leo Williams, Don Letts and Greg Roberts. I really have a lot of respect for what those guys did. I'm glad to be a part of it. I'm not as energetic as Spencer; Mc Spee really brings the energy and vibe into a live gig. It's a modern and futuristic sound, always looking for a new vibe, and I like that."
Spee, who would you say are your main influences as a singer and an mc?
Mc Spee: "Well, as a singer I did my apprenticeship in reggae, so people like Johnny Clarke, Earl 16 of course and you can't leave out Bob Marley. It's like rock ‘n roll you know. I'm just a little bad boy from Southeast London, so I listened to some rock ‘n roll in my days. If you listen to the three-part harmonies in reggae, you'll find that they are very similar to those of rock ‘n roll, so the transition to that was very easy. As an mc, it's all the old school hip hop really. I took what they had and made it my own."
Apart from your vocals, there's also a very physical side to Mc Spee when he's on stage. You seem like a rubber man sometimes. Where did you pick up those moves and is moving with the rhythm an important part of the show for you?
Mc Spee: "Well, I'm six foot six brother! I'm always going to be noticed and if I'm going to be seen anyway, I want it to be in the right way. I'm a cartoon character. If I can make a fool of myself on stage, it allows all people to dance; all the people that are usually too shy or who are afraid because they think they can't dance. It takes their inhibitions away when they can go like: "Hey, look at him go up there!". That's part of my job: entertaining. It doesn't matter if there are just six people or six thousand out there."
Dreadzone's music is definitely dance-oriented but in the more rootsy tunes there's still room for a message in the lyrics. Is that important?
Mc Spee: "You don't have to ram something down people's throats. You can be subtle. A song that is just a song is good enough. If you can make the people jump up and down that's great, but Dreadzone have prided themselves on spreading a message as well. It's just a spiritual message to make people search and think about themselves, make things right and get that step forward. It's about treating others like you want to be treated yourself."
Talk a little bit about the new album. According to Greg it's a lot more vocal then Dreadzone's previous albums, so that must mean you must be more present on it as well.
Earl Sixteen: "The new album has more of a street style. Before Dreadzone has always had more of a New Age image. I remember playing concerts, like at Glastonbury for example, where people all dressed up in strange clothes, would come almost to worship the music we played. Most of us have matured now; we all have families, so the sound has evolved to. It has become more mainstream. I think it's time for us to do that. It's an interesting album and already from the promos we sent out we're getting offers to play concerts around the globe."
You ended with 'Little Britain' tonight. We're just a couple of days after the bombings of 07/07 here in London. Was that song meant as a symbolic statement today?
Mc Spee: "It's one of Dreadzone's biggest tunes, but Earl Sixteen changed some lyrics today."
That's what I noticed yes.
Mc Spee: "I agreed with that. Just put your two fingers up, make the peace sign and don't let the terrorists get us down. If you looked down on the crowd here tonight, every race, every color, every nationality, every kind of sexuality and every age was there. They were all here, dancing and having fun in South London. The terrorists haven't won; it's as simple as that!"
To end of this interview, maybe a big shout-out for the fans in Belgium?
Mc Spee: "Listen up all you people, you've waited for something and if you wait long enough for something it will come! When we come to Belgium, we'll mash up the place. This is Mc Spee from Dreadzone saying: "One Love!""