December 30th, 2011 | Interviews

L.A. reggae band the Aggrolites have been slogging it out Studio One style since the early 2000s, most recently releasing their Rugged Road on Boston label Young Cub. Hot in pursuit of the question of just how a man comes to play reggae in Southern California anyway, we called Jesse Wagner for a few minutes diagnosis. They’ll play New Year’s Eve at Alex’s in Long Beach. This interview by Ron Garmon.

Have you ever had a NYE you haven’t worked as a musician?
That’s funny because I was just talking about this last night. I think maybe there were one or two. Last year we played two. Let me think about this really quick. We’ve been a band for ten years. Actually, no, I don’t think there’s been a single year that The Aggrolites haven’t worked.
Musicologists love to trace the quizzical route of ska from Kingston to London to the South Bay. What is it about that sound that produced the Aggrolites?
I think it’s the same reason a lot of bands are produced by it. It’s a really interesting music to get into, the whole history of it coming from Kingston, Jamaica, a tiny little city on a tiny little island. What was going on with the music was tough. It’s the toughest music I’ve ever heard. It’s got a lot of soul to it. It grew up on American soul music. A lot of that old reggae was influenced by American soul. Then there’s the stuff they’re singing about. It’s still good music overall. It’s the history of it all too. It’s influenced all the way from gospel, a lot of punk rock groups, hiphop music today, and electronic music. There’s a lot to it. From the musicianship to the producing and engineering it’s just all around very interesting.
And the social message that goes with punk music, hip hop and reggae—they all tend to have the same social message. How has your sound changed from the old Give ‘Em the Boot era?
I don’t know, I’ve been in the band the whole time so it’s kind of hard to look at it as changing because we have changed with it, and it’s us. We’ve always played what we call dirty reggae from the get-go. I think maybe there’s a few albums where touched more on the soul side, and a few on the reggae side, but overall it’s still dirty reggae. I really don’t think we’ve changed too much.
Expound upon the difference between live and recorded Aggrolite music.
Oh, there is definitely a difference. Everybody that’s seen our live show compared to our albums says there is a night and day difference. Not in a good way or a bad way, but just totally different. When you listen to our album there are a lot of songs where you can kick back and chill out and have a barbeque, enjoy your time with it or throw it as background music for a party, or even drive your car and sing along to it. But when you go to an Aggrolites show it’s not very chill. Everybody’s dancing, we’re jumping around onstage, it’s very energetic, there’s a big party going on onstage.
How does your music go down with audiences on the Warped Tour?
Yeah, in certain cities in certain states it goes over really well, then other days it’s kind of whatever. But that’s what’s cool about the Warped tour, it’s an opportunity to catch other, random types of music where if the kid’s open minded enough to experience something new while going to see bands he knows about, that he loves, he’s in for a cool treat. Those who are going to the Warped tour expecting they’ll check out something new, see what’s out there, those are the ones we’d win over.
You guys funk pretty good for a reggae band. The Meters are an obvious influence as are soundtrack and regional funk of the Seventies.
Me and the organ player Roger [Rivas] were both raised on a lot of Seventies soul music. Tower of Power is a major influence of ours. War of course is a huge one, we’ve got a lot of War influence. It’s a lot of that East Bay Seventies power band sound. I’m surprised that we have not picked up a huge horn section because a lot of music we listen to has a strong horn influence. I think it comes from being a struggling musician and only being able to feed so many mouths while on the road. There’s a band out here in Los Angeles called Orgone—a big nine piece group—and those guys are doing it. I don’t know how they’re doing it but they’re doing it. I’ve done a couple of shows where I had the opportunity to sing for them. They are an amazing band and do a lot of that Seventies funk and power music.
When was the first time you played Alex’s?
The first time we played there is kind of a blur, because we play so many shows a year, but it had to be before 2005. We played with The Street Dogs, a band that’s good friends of ours, we played the Warped tour with them two separate years, 2008 and 2011. Alex’s Bar is for me personally a bar I go to when I’m around town. Alex is a good friend of ours—I’ve done some acoustic shows there myself. We played a gig there, I don’t know, three or four times in the past. We played a private party there for him, like at two o’clock in the morning for a private birthday party. We’ve been there before, it’s a good place, a good hang. He’s always got really cool things going on there, especially for the punk rock scene, they had The Swingin’ Utters there not too long ago. He’s always got really good punk bands. Alex has a nice resume, you know.
What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw at a NYE gig?
We see some crazy stuff. Tomorrow night we’re playing with Fishbone. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Fishbone, but I think the first year The Aggrolites were together, the first New Year’s we did, we opened up for them, at a place called Fais Do Do in Los Angeles. That was for me the first time we got to see Fishbone, and I’d say, well they are not really weird, but definitely a shocker and an eye opener. From the minute they jump on stage, it’s like a crazy party riot in your face. Angelo Moore is one hell of a front man.
When, if ever, are the Aggrolites gonna drop their version of Sandinista?
I think as soon as we get enough time in the studio—as opposed to being on tour constantly.