Twenty years since the debut of their fresh, innovative reggae reinterpretations of classic albums, Easy Star All-Stars are back with their newest release. Yes, it’s been 20 years since this collective, led by the gifted producer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Goldwasser, released their debut record Dub Side of the Moon, their own take on the Pink Floyd classic Dark Side of the Moon. They return in 2023 with their newest album Ziggy Stardub, a reimagined take on David Bowie’s legendary record The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, set for release on April 21st via Easy Star Records.
To preview the album, the All-Stars have released their own version of “Starman,” which features guest vocals from the legendary reggae star Maxi Priest. They made sure to put their own spin on the song, making good use of reggae drum patterns and vocal styles, as they reinterpret Bowie’s hit as a new piece of danceable reggae fusion.
Priest is far from the only big-name guest star on Ziggy Stardub, as the album also features appearances from Macy Gray, Fishbone, Vernon Reid of Living Colour, Alex Lifeson of Rush, Steel Pulse, The Skints, Mortimer, and more. The album is versatile, and proficient, featuring wondrous vocal harmonies and a standout rhythm section; so basically everything you would expect from an Easy Star All-Stars release.
Today we speak with Goldwasser himself to discuss his creative process, the making of Ziggy Stardub, the music industry, and a lot about touring and playing live.
What is the story behind the Easy Star All-Stars name?
Michael Goldwasser: “When I was putting together the house band for our label, Easy Star Records, we thought that it would be smart to have the name of the label in the band name for branding reasons. And since the band was (and is!) a revolving cast of the best reggae musicians in the New York City area, we came up with Easy Star All-Stars. Little did we know that we’d set ourselves up for many, many people mangling the name of the band; we get called Easy Dub All-Stars, East Star All-Stars, Easy All-Stars. It’s ironic that our name isn’t ‘easy’ to remember for some…”
How would you describe your creative process?
“An exercise in patience. When coming up with the arrangements for these reggae re-inventions of classic albums I need to allow myself the time to experiment to come up with the right parts. I can’t put a rush on finding what will work the best. I listen to the source material for weeks, months even, before starting to write the arrangements so that I really know the songs. And every time I listen I think of new ideas.”
Who are your biggest influences?
“Bands like Third World, Steel Pulse, and Aswad, who could play reggae but were strongly influenced by other styles and always put on an amazing stage show. I can safely say that experiencing Third World live in concert when I was 15 set me on the path toward my current career. And getting to meet them and work with them was such a thrill for me.
“Cat Coore of Third World actually commented on a social media post about the new project and was very complimentary. I’m too modest to quote his exact words but it kind of blew my mind. Full circle…”
Tell us about Ziggy Stardub: what was your experience of making it? What went on behind the scenes? Any notable moments that stand out?
“The making of Ziggy Stardub was interesting in that we had to factor in the COVID-19 situation into the sessions, making sure that everyone was masked, testing negative, and comfortable with congregating in a studio for so many hours (we recorded the basic tracks in March of 2021). But now, I really only think about that aspect of the process when I see video footage from those sessions.
“One thing that really stood out to me was first hearing Maxi Priest sing his song, ‘Starman.’ It sounded just like I had imagined it would, Maxi Priest singing David Bowie. I actually got goosebumps!”
Who would you most like to collaborate with?
“Stevie Wonder, maybe the most important artist of the last 50-plus years. And he also played a part in my reggae development, having written for and produced my Third World album. Sometimes I listen to Stevie and I’m in awe of his genius.”
If you could change anything about the music industry what would it be?
“That’s easy; for music creators to get paid more fairly for their work! It’s kind of nuts that music is so important to almost everyone’s lives, but the people who make it are often an afterthought, or not thought of at all. We’ve come to a place in our society where the average person wants and expects music to be free. The top people in the music industry are still as wealthy as ever, but with streaming, many creators are making a smaller living than when they were able to sell music.
“The companies that are raking in the dough from streaming need to share more of the wealth with the artists, producers, songwriters, and musicians.”
What do you like most about playing music?
“The connection. The connection between the musicians creating sound together, and the connection between the musicians and the audience. Both of those things can reach a level of being spiritual for me – a real natural high.”
What’s the best show you’ve ever played?
“That’s really hard to say, there have been so many great ones. One of the most memorable Easy Star All-Stars shows was when we backed up the late, great Sugar Minott in NYC around 1999 or 2000, doing mostly songs from the beginning of his career, and I had to remind him of his own lyrics while we were performing. Playing those songs to a sweaty, packed house really reminded me of why I got into making music (that connection thing again).
“And another huge moment was when we first started touring to promote Dub Side of the Moon in 2003 and in our show in Charlottesville, Virginia, the whole crowd was jumping up and down so much that it felt like the entire stage and club were shaking.”
What’s your favourite city or venue to play in?
“Tel Aviv. I’ve got so many friends there and I’m assured of amazing, healthy food before and after we play. And Tel Aviv plays a part in the history of the Easy Star All-Stars because I spent the summer there as a kid and that’s when I became enamored of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album that I found in my aunt’s record collection. My sister and I listened to it almost every day and the material kind of got imprinted in my brain. Little did I know that many years later I would go on to re-imagine that album as Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band.”
Which do you enjoy the most: writing, recording, practicing, or playing live?
“I really love songwriting; creating something from nothing. I never know how a song will start, sometimes a lyric and melody will come to me from seemingly out of nowhere, or sometimes I just hit upon a chord progression and then the ideas just start flowing. And then once I feel like I’ve written something good, I enjoy the process of editing and trying to make it better. I also really love co-writing with one or more other people and bouncing ideas off of each other – so much good stuff comes out of collaboration.”
Who would you be most amazed to see front row at one of your shows?
“Sir Paul McCartney. We’ve been trying to get to him forever to give him a copy of our Sgt. Pepper’s tribute but to no avail. So it would be too funny if he was sitting there up front as we launched into one of his tunes!”
Do you ever get stage fright? What’s your solution for it?
“You know, I don’t get stage fright, even in front of huge audiences. And I have a theory as to why I don’t have that problem; the very first time I performed in front of an audience I completely screwed up. I was 15 and playing and singing in my summer camp talent show in front of all the girls that I had crushes on, plus a few hundred other people. I somehow started singing in the wrong key and I wasn’t able to get it right until halfway through the song.
“It was so embarrassing and needless to say, not great for my confidence. But I got through it, maintained my composure, didn’t run off the stage crying. So I’d like to think that I couldn’t possibly mess up more than that so there’s nothing to be scared of when stepping onto the stage.”
Do you have anything you’d like to tell any fans reading right now?
“Listen to music with open ears, an open mind, and an open heart, you never know what you might like. And that goes the same for listening to people.”