Reggae inna 70’s Rockers style, three-part harmony vocals
The Expanders began playing reggae music together in the summer of 2003, and today are one of the hardest working reggae bands in Southern California. They have come to be known for their vintage style of reggae, played in the tradition of classic 1970′s Jamaican groups like The Ethiopians, The Gladiators and The Mighty Diamonds. Their music is centered in three-part vocal harmonies and strong song writing, with lyrics that range from socially heavy to playful and upbeat.
The music on the self-titled “The Expanders” album (2011 Broken Complex) was recorded between 2006 and 2010. The band took the time to develop this recording with the goal that the music have an authentic vintage Jamaican sound. To achieve this type of recording, they enlisted the mixing skills of engineer Jay Bonner, original bass player for The Aggrollites, who now runs the JanDisc record label. The initial tracks were all laid down to analog tape at the famous Killion Studios, owned and operated by engineer Sergio Rios, himself an in-demand musician (most notably as guitarist for Orgone, The Lions, and Breakestra).
The Expanders recent touring activity includes a U.S. tour supporting Slightly Stoopid, a West Coast tour supporting Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, and a U.S. tour supporting Hawaii’s number one reggae group The Green. They have headlined shows in a dozen states including Hawaii and Florida. They have shared the stage with some of today’s most popular reggae acts, including Rebelution, Tribal Seeds, Ziggy Marley, Rootz Underground and Midnite. The Expanders have been featured three times at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Mendocino County, where their performances were praised in The Beat magazine for recreating “the old classic Kingston rocksteady sound to a T.” In May of 2014 The Expanders performed at the California Roots Festival in Monterey, Ca., which is the largest annual reggae festival in The United States.
In addition to performing their own original material and rare Jamaican scorchers, The Expanders have been the backing band of choice for legendary Jamaican singers such as Alton Ellis, The Maytones, The Ethiopians, The Wailing Souls, and many more.
In 2012, the band released a free album entitled “Old Time Something Come Back Again” as a thank you to their fans. It consists of 13 rare and classic Jamaican oldies performed by The Expanders.
Interview with vocalist-guitarist Devin Morrison
IRIE. The Expanders began playing reggae music together in the summer of 2003. How did you guys first meet?
Devon Morrison: We all met at different stages in life. John Butcher and I grew up four houses apart from each other, and I’ve known him my whole life. We started playing music together in high school, and actually came up with the name The Expanders in 1999 when I was in 11th grade. John’s brother played bass and Ben Malament who now plays in The California Honeydrops from Oakland was our drummer.
John and I met Chiquis in 2004 at The Knitting Factory in Hollywood. In those days Bluebeat Lounge was in full effect. Bluebeat was a weekly ska-reggae night thrown by Chris Murray that was for a long time the focal point of the LA scene. Chiquis played in Chris’s band “The Chris Murray Combo” (one of my favorite bands of all-time) as well as “Irie Beats,” “See Spot,” and some other groups that were at the forefront of LA reggae in the 1990s and 2000s. Anyway, The Expanders played at Bluebeat in 2004, caught Chiquis’ attention with our cover of The Gladiators’ tune “Jah Works,” and shortly after that we started hanging with him and talking about our mutual passion, old-school reggae music. It wasn’t long before he had joined the group, first as a third harmony singer, and eventually as our full-time bassist.
John Asher started playing with us around 2007, and officially joined the band in 2008. He and Chiquis had known each other for some time already, having played together in Irie Beats and Jah Faith’s band.
IRIE. Your sound truly embraces the Jamaican roots musics of the 70’s. Was that always the mission of The Expanders; to bring back that authentic rockers style? Who are some of your influences?
Devon Morrison: We are all old-school reggae nerds. Definitely, our intent from day one has been to play vintage-style reggae. The interesting thing is that it was never a conscious, articulated mission until much later in the game. In the late 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, when the band was forming, there really was no such thing as today’s rock-reggae scene. There were some bands out there for sure, but the massive scene as it exists today just did not exist. So it’s not like we were framing our sound against a back drop of rock-reggae bands; we just loved and constantly listened to Jamaican reggae from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, so that’s what we played.
We are influenced by the whole spectrum of Jamaican music. So many people played pivotal roles in creating this music. Some of our absolute favorite artists and biggest influences from the golden-era of Jamaican music are The Ethiopians, The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, and Burning Spear. Not to mention the studio-house bands like The Aggrovators, Sound Dimension and Roots Radics. I could go on for 20 pages about this so I’ll cap it there.
IRIE. You’ve released two albums to date; your self-titled ‘The Expanders’ album (2011) and ‘Old Time Something Come Back Again’ which you offered as a free release to your fans (including IRIE). The first album took over 5 years to make (2006-2010). Was that done intentionally? What did you learn from that experience?
Devon Morrison: The amount of time it took to make the first album was really a by-product of our collective situations in those years. Many of us played in different bands as well as The Expanders. I was a full-time college student. We didn’t have a full-time drummer until half-way through the making of the album. Also, I was developing as a song-writer, and many of the songs didn’t make the final cut, so it took some time to amass a solid album’s-worth of songs that we were happy with.
I think we learned a lot about how to be recording artists, and how to embrace the awesomeness that is recording in a studio. It is such a different animal from live performances or even rehearsals, and to our relief we’ve found over the years that we really enjoy being in the studio and can get a lot done when we buckle down.
IRIE. Your lyrics can range from socially conscious to upbeat and playful. How do you go about deciding on the topic of each song?
Devon Morrison: Song writing for me is like meditation. It’s a way to deal with and sort out all the conscious as well as sub-conscious thoughts, feelings, and anxieties that make us who we are. Thus, often the subject matter of a song is something that is not pre-determined, and only after writing a verse or a chorus does it become clear what the song is trying to say. It’s not always like that; sometimes myself or someone in the band comes with an idea for a song topic. But when the song takes on a life of its own in the writing process is when I enjoy it the most, and also when the best songs happen.
IRIE. As a comic book artist, I truly dig your album art. It reminds me of the cover concepts of Scientist. Was that the look you were going for? Who is the artists behind the art?
Devon Morrison: Exactly. We really wanted to replicate those Channel One LP covers like the Scientist albums. The artist was J Bonner, who also mixed the record. J is the original bass player from The Aggrolites who now works full-time with Tim Armstrong from Rancid as an animator for an internet cartoon (I think?). He designed the latest Rancid album cover. J also runs his own label and soundsystem called JanDisco that puts out some KILLER early-reggae stlye 7” singles under the name “The Black Emeralds”. Check it here!
IRIE. Tell us about your role as the backing band for some of Jamaica’s Legendary singers such as Alton Ellis, The Maytones, The Ethiopians and The Wailing Souls to name a few. How did this come about?
Devon Morrison: Those gigs were all hooked up by Junor Francis. Junor is a good good friend of the band who has been MCing shows in LA for decades. He is a promoter as well and has been bringing out legendary Jamaican artists to LA and California for a very long time. It was Junor who first hired us to back Alton Ellis in 2006, and subsequently hooked us up with gigs backing the artists you mentioned and many more. Those shows and rehearsals were all amazing, humbling learning experiences for us, and an opportunity to soak up some first-hand reggae knowledge from incredible people who helped create the music in the 60s and 70s. Those times were extra special for us because aside from being musicians trying to learn as much as we can, we are also passionate fans of reggae music. Just to hang out and talk with people like Leonard Dillon from our favorite group The Ethiopians was life changing for us, and we will forever be grateful for those opportunities.
IRIE. The Expanders have shared the stage with such reggae acts as Ziggy Marley, Rebelution, Roots Underground and Tribal Seeds. Are there any particular groups that you enjoy performing with? Are there bands that you haven’t performed with that you would like to?
Devon Morrison: This is the boring but completely honest answer; we have enjoyed performing with all those artists! Just to be a part of this scene and get to regularly perform with groups like the ones you mentioned as well as others we have toured with like Slightly Stoopid, Passafire, Fortunate Youth, The Green, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, New Kingston, The Movement, The Simpkin Project….we feel blessed beyond belief to be doing this for a living. We would LOVE to perform with Chronixx who is currently one of the biggest singers out of Jamaica. He’s gonna be at California Roots Festival in 2015 and trust me, you DON’T wan’t to miss him.
IRIE. IRIE had a chance to watch you perform at Cali Roots 2014. We even bumped into John Asher while looking for some Ethiopian food to feed ourselves. What are some of your favorite venues to play?
Devon Morrison: Cali Roots is a unique experience that kind of stands alone as a venue. Can’t ask for a better place to play. Aside from that, we love playing at The Fillmore in San Francisco, The Norva in Norfolk, VA, and Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, FL. Oh, and the Gas Monkey in Dallas, TX. Other places too that slip my mind at the moment.
IRIE. When you’re not playing or touring, who do you listen to?
Devon Morrison: We are all into different things. As mentioned, we are all old-school reggae music nerds. In addition, Chiquis is really into classic salsa and boogaloo. John Butcher and I are both fans of old country artists like George Jones, Merl Haggard, Bobby Bare and Roger Miller. Asher is into EVERYTHING. Both John Asher and I are HUGE fans of the modern reggae band Midnite from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I’ve listened to them everyday for about ten years now. We also all love old Cuban guaracha groups like Los Compadres and Trio La Rosa.
IRIE. Can you tell us about the Expanders Sound System?
Devon Morrison: I’ve been collecting original Jamaican vinyl for years. Chiquis and I used to DJ together once a week in LA. As the night wore on we would throw on the instrumental dub-sides of 7” records and freestlye on the mic. We did that for years, and still love to do it although our time is mostly given to The Expanders right now. But I still get out and DJ when I’m in town, most often alongside Roger Rivas (from The Aggrolites) at a great little bar in North Hollywood called Bar One. We actually have a DJ gig there tonight!
Expanders Sound System is most active now-a-days through the facebook page (facebook.com/expanderssound). We use it to post daily youtube clips of classic and rare reggae tunes. It’s a great place for people to go if they are interested in getting into vintage reggae but don’t know where to start or what artists to look for.
IRIE. Any chance of The Expanders performing in Jamaica?
Devon Morrison: We’ve talked about how to make this happen. All I can say now is that we would love to.
IRIE. What’s in store for The Expanders in 2015?
Devon Morrison: We have a new album coming out that we are SUPER excited about. We’ve been working hard on it for about two years, and can’t wait for people to hear it. Other than that, we are now working with Rootfire Management (who manage The Green, Giant Panda, The Movement, and The Black Seeds) and Madison House Booking. We are STOKED to be involved with these amazing companies, and we are working with them to plan some awesome tours for 2015. Stay tuned!!