Stephen, Charles, welcome back to Belgium. You guys aren't strangers to VK.
Stephen Newland (guitar & vocals): "No, in fact on the last tour we did in Europe, a joint venture with Danakil from France, VK was the last stop on our itinerary. We're five years older now and once again we're back here, this time to kick off our tour."
Rootz Underground is part of the resurgence of band culture in Jamaica. Where did it all start for you guys?
Stephen Newland: "Basically we all know each other from when we were youths. We all loved music, one thing led to another and Rootz Underground was born."
For the longest time band culture virtually seemed to have disappeared from the island. Why do you think that is?
Stephen Newland: "Well, putting a band together and keeping it alive just takes a lot of effort. It's more expensive to tour, so you need the right contacts and resources. I think during that so called "dry spell", there were bands playing in Jamaica, but they were just not getting the right exposure to make it on an international level. It certainly wasn't for lack of talent in Jamaica. Reggae is slowly becoming a part of mainstream music now and I think that also offered bands like Pentateuch, Dubtonik Kru and ourselves the opportunity we needed."
For your debut album, 'Movement', you collaborated with Wayne Armond, guitarist and vocalist with Chalice. Were they the band that inspired the formation of Rootz Underground?
Stephen Newland: "Of course, but not just Chalice, all the big bands from back in the day: Third World, Zap Pow, Soul Syndicate… Still, I want to big up Wayne, Alla (Ervin 'Alla' Lloyd, keyboard & vocals, red.) and the whole Chalice family."
Charles Lazarus (guitar): "When we were just starting out, recording our first album, there were a lot of things we might have done, where Wayne stepped in and showed us a better way to do it. He really taught us a lot and the link is definitely still there."
As its name suggests, Rootz Underground is definitely a roots influenced band, but that's not the only influence in your music. Was that something you guys set out to do from the get-go or did it develop organically?
Stephen Newland: "Definitely the latter. We all have different tastes in music and were influenced by the things we heard on the radio growing up. Charles also performs as a deejay playing electronic music, so he brings those influences to the table and personally, I've always been fond of classic rock and traditional folk music. I'm a bit of a YouTube addict as well, which is like an inexhaustible treasure trove if you want to find music. We all like to cross borders and do our best not to be pigeonholed into one genre. For Rootz Underground creating music means going on a voyage of exploration."
Like many other Jamaican roots acts, Rootz Underground is quite popular in Europe and the US, but seems to have a hard time getting a foot on the ground in Jamaica itself.
Charles Lazarus: "In Jamaica music is still largely promoted by the various sound systems on the island and the kind of music we do often doesn't really fit their style and profile. That being said, with events like Dub Club and Dubwize Jamaica, things are slowly shifting in our direction. The foundation is there, but now we have to try and construct a sturdy house for ourselves."
Your new album is called 'Return Of The Righteous Vol. 1'. Simply a case of having recorded too many songs to fit on one disc?
Stephen Newland: "Exactly! (laughs) We'd recorded all these great songs and it simply seemed a waste to chuck them out simply because we couldn't all fit them unto one album."
Charles Lazarus: "Each album we do is like a snapshot of the band at a certain period in time, so you could say this was a period in our lives and in the existence of the band where a lot was happening at once. We could also have opted to make it a double album, but in the end you still want your audience to listen to your songs instead of hitting the skip button all time!"
This is also your first album that will only see the light in digital format.
Stephen Newland: "Well, the music business is changing, so we also have to adapt. It doesn't make much sense anymore to distribute an album in areas where you're not touring anyway. We might still have some physical copies printed to sell at our concerts. CD and vinyl should definitely be available for our next European tour."
Charles Lazarus: "We've noticed vinyl has made a resurgence, so to please vinyl lovers we're investing in a high quality heavy press with a nice deep groove."
What does the title of the album refer to?
Stephen Newland: "It stems from the belief things happen in cycles. There was an era in Jamaica when roots culture was very strong, but then came a time when the US influence on Jamaican culture became more dominant and the music became much more hip-hop and r&b influenced. Right now we're seeing that the youths in Jamaica are once again looking towards Rastafarianism and roots music for inspiration. That is what we are referring to with the title of the album; it's once again time for the righteous in society to re-emerge. Instead of focusing on materialism we need to return to our core values and roots music can be the vehicle to overcome divisions like race and religion."
Watching the video accompanying 'Return Of The Righteous', the eponymous first single of the new album, I could but wonder how you came up with that martial arts theme?
Charles Lazarus: "I don't know why, but Jamaicans just love a good kick-up! (laughs) No, on a serious note, we used that template as a metaphor to represent the fight between good and evil. The video tells the story of the promised one returning to fulfill prophecy and he and his guardians are besieged by the forces of evil. Whenever something positive is coming, there's often an equally strong negative force trying to stop it. The video was just a fun way to represent that continuous struggle."
Stephen Newland: "It was shot in Portland, which is our favorite place on the island."
For 'Kingston Town' you guys invited veteran singer Toots Hibbert and the song itself is a sort of revamp of the old folk classic 'House Of The Rising Sun' made famous by The Animals in the 1960s.
Stephen Newland: "That was really Scooby's (Paul 'Scooby' Smith, drums, red.) idea! We were at this studio full of vintage equipment in France and Scooby came up with the idea of revamping this classic tune. The original song is about New Orleans, but we adapted it so it talked of Kingston instead. Our manager, Mike Cacia, manages Toots as well, so that's how we got him involved."
What does the philosophy of Rastafari represent to the members of Rootz Underground?
Stephen Newland: "Even though it's not a religion, Rastafari means everything to us. Of course the whole Rasta livity has evolved through the years; the internet has opened up a whole world of information and communication, and books that used to be hard to get are now made widely available. We shouldn't forget that the pioneering Rastafarians often had to fear for their lives and were shunned and feared by regular society, just because of their dreadlocks. These days, people often just grow their locks as a fashion statement, so you see how things have evolved. It's no longer simply a Jamaican thing either and not even a pan-African one either; Rastafari is a worldwide phenomenon and everyone coming to a roots show will feel and share in that undeniable energy!"