Things were different back in ’96. Grunge had just died and pop was in full swing; the top selling song of the year was the Macarena, believe it or not. This year would also be the year that Jared “Dirty J” Watson and Dustin “Duddy B” Bushnell met at a party and began a friendship based in many ways on a shared love of reggae music. The two began writing reggae tracks, and after pairing with a trio of killer musicians, the group released their 2008 debut Any Port in a Storm as The Dirty Heads. The group would go on to change the face of the reggae scene for good.
Stories like these don’t happen too often, and we at No Country wanted to get a chance to explore it more both for ourselves and our readers. Perhaps this then is why, just a few hours before the October 23rd show at Exit/In, we sat down with Jared to discuss life, influences, and everything in between.
NO COUNTRY FOR NEW NASHVILLE: So you guys have two studio albums out now, and you have a new acoustic full length set to drop on the 29th, if I recall correctly. Are you guys doing anything special for this release?
JARED WATSON: This whole tour is based around the fact that we did an acoustic album, so we wanted to do acoustic shows, which have been going to over really well. After playing with a full band for like 8 years and then getting to do this for a week, it’s like “fuck drums and loud music.” It’s been so chill and so vibey and mellow and fun. Our typical live show is so high energy; we like it to be a big party and high energy, but this is a really nice change. We wanted to do something different and expose ourselves, and this did that and helped us get back to our roots a little bit.
NO COUNTRY: A lot of times when fully fleshed acts try and do acoustic albums, it feels empty or like something is missing, but having listened to the two tracks from the acoustic album up on YouTube, this doesn’t seem to be the case for you guys. Did you purposely try and create full sounding music or did it just happen that way?
JW: We started as an acoustic act. The way we write our songs is we actually finish the bulk of the songs on an acoustic before we even bring it to the studio. It’s a big part of our sound, that acoustic guitar and percussion tone. So having that backbone is maybe why ours doesn’t sound quite as weird. A lot of bands write differently; they might start with crazy production techniques or drum tracks, but since most of our stuff starts out acoustic, it’s probably going to sound good as an acoustic track.
NO COUNTRY: Will you guys be pursuing this acoustic direction after this album?
JW: Actually probably not, I think we’re going to go 100% opposite. We’ll probably get a lot more production, but keep the acoustic guitar and main instruments. However, we want to have a hip hop style production and influence to the tracks. So it will probably turn out to be a juxtapose of very organic, chill reggae sounds with hip hop beats behind it.
NO COUNTRY: That cross of genres brings to mind some of the guests you had on your previous albums, many of which are not typically associated with the reggae genre. Are you planning anything like that for the acoustic album?
JW: We want to but we aren’t really sure who would be down yet. We usually just brainstorm who would be cool on a track and ask them, and usually they say yes. The thing is that we don’t know who we want to ask yet, but the thing is that typically the song picks the person. Alternatively, if we become friends with somebody at a show or festival, we’ll sit down and write a song with them. There are some people we’re trying to get in, but I don’t want to give away who it is yet in case that doesn’t happen.
NO COUNTRY: Part of the reason I personally like you guys music and that I believe it has been successful is that you seem to blend several genres together. This is especially evident in the selection of guests you guys bring on. Is this fusion of genres something you guys try and do that on purpose or is it just an extension of the way you write?
JW: I think you’re correct in saying that it’s an extension of how we write and who we are personally. When it comes to listening to music and other avenues in personal lives like food or clothing, we try to be very open minded and try new things. So when we write music, we take that attitude and try to make something unique. The thing is there are so many people doing one thing so well that we don’t even want to mess with their monopoly. Like we couldn’t try and go be a two piece with a guitarist and a drummer, cause guess what: The White Stripes and The Black Keys already got that locked down. No body is looking for that anymore. There’s so many people doing so much stuff that I don’t want to touch, but instead inspires me to take small pieces from all these influences and do our own thing with them. Since the beginning that’s what we’ve always done.
The one thing we do try to avoid is being “too mash up-y”, as that can be confusing for bands. We don’t want to be those guys that are like “oh we’re a reggae band with hip hop influences that also plays punk but we have ska horn players and a violinist that we sometimes use.” That’s just too much; we’re trying to compress that into something that’s just the Dirty Heads’ sound. I think we’re getting close to that too, though I wouldn’t say we’re a reggae band. We’re probably an alternative band with reggae influences.
NO COUNTRY: It’s interesting you touched on that concept of carving your own niche, which can often be done through fusion. Both in your music and in the music industry as a whole, do you think this is necessary for new artists to be successful nowadays?
JW: You have to do what you’re doing really well, and you have to put a twist on that. I don’t think that necessarily needs to be bringing in other genres, but the way you do your music just has to be unique. Nowadays, in the digital era, there’s just so much stuff; there’s so many people and so many bands that it makes a lot of groups seem very cookie-cutterish. You really have to be doing something right or something really, really wrong to get attention.
NO COUNTRY: Not to diss the Nashville music scene, but a lot of times it does seem that the Nashville music scene has a lot of those cookie cutter bands, especially when it comes to the folk and alt country acts around here. How would bands get around that?
JW: Well that’s Nashville for you [laughs]. I actually used to be terrified of New York, LA, and Nashville. Actually I still am pretty scared of Nashville; I just want to play my show and chill a bit then leave [laughs]. But it’s crazy, when we played New York it was crazy. I guess music is universal and you can’t rely on cliches, which is why I’m excited to see what Nashville brings tonight. [laughs]
But seriously, it’s hard to tell a band how to do that. It’s definitely something you have to figure out who to do on your own. I would also recommend keeping an open mind and really trying to listen to yourself. I’m actually going to tell a story during the show tonight about one of the first songs we ever wrote, “Antelope”. People still love that song; it’s a definite fan favorite, but the song doesn’t have a chorus. So when we got with these producers years ago when we were like 18, they straight up told us we couldn’t have a song without a chorus. We tried to argue that it was music and we should do what seemed right, but they insisted there was a formula to songs that we would be better off following. The song just didn’t feel right with a chorus though. So last year we were working with them again, and they came up to us and were like “you guys, you know what we should do for this song? There’s this new thing going around now that everyone’s doing; it’s called an anti-chorus.” It was pretty frustrating that they shot us down when we tried to do that but now that it’s cool it’s what they want us to do. So if you’re a band starting out, and you’re doing something that you think is really cool and feels right, do it. Don’t listen to the people telling you what to do. If it really is cool, it’s what’s going to set you apart. Any band that’s huge right now probably faced a time when someone told them to change, but instead they just kept on going. Eventually, they made it. Stick to your guns.
NO COUNTRY: Do you think now that anyone can go out and buy Pro Tools and mic for $200, that pressure to be something you don’t want to be is going to be lowered?
JW: I hope not [laughs]. I think good music is good music, and just because it’s so easy now to do it in GarageBand or any of those other programs, it still comes down to talent. On one hand I think it’s cool that people who aren’t that musically talented or don’t want to commit as much can now go out there and mess around, but at the end of the day, the people who grind and really have a vision they pursue will be the most successful. I don’t think technology is going to change that.
NO COUNTRY: The sound that you guys plugged away and got could often be described as “sunny.” Is there any particular way you guys achieve that sound, besides just throwing major chords in there?
JW: I really like that people hear that beach-y sound in our music. That’s our goal: we want to make feel good music. At the beginning we were very scared of getting pigeon-holed as a summer time band, but now we embrace it. That’s who we are, that’s what we like, that’s what we’re about, and that’s the kind of music we listen to. But just to put some skanks in a song could make it sunny and reggae, but there’s more to it. It’s really a lot about what’s not going on, and it’s a lot about the bass and swing of the song. You gotta get that groove.
Part of it too is that we listened to a ton of reggae, and still do. That’s actual why I was first drawn to reggae; it was sunny. I would get home from school, sit in my backyard with my friends, and smoke weed and listen to reggae records all day. It wasn’t because we wanted to be cool or Rastafarian. We didn’t get into the religion, since it doesn’t make sense for a white dudes really [laughs]. It wasn’t about being some white dude with dreads that always sings about smoking weed. There’s plenty of people that do that well but it just wasn’t us. What we loved was the positivity of the music and the feeling it gave us. I think that’s reggae music: that energy and message behind the music.
NO COUNTRY: A lot of fans have noticed that while some Dirty Heads’ songs mention marijuana, you don’t push the drug culture nearly as strongly as many other bands. Is that due to your focus on the positivity of reggae?
JW: It’s a conscious effort; we just don’t want our music to be all about that. We want it to be something more than that. The thing is talking about weed really works, which is why guys like Cypress Hill, Stoopid, and the Kottonmouth Kings have had as successful of careers as they have. The thing is, some of our fans don’t smoke weed, and that’s just not what our music is about. Yes, it’s a part of our personal lives, so we’re going to talk about it when it comes up, but we don’t come into this trying to be the next stoner band. Everyone else has got that on lock.
NO COUNTRY: A lot of other similar acts such as Sublime really embrace the entire psychedelic culture too. You guys definitely have elements of that but it isn’t nearly as strong. Are similar reasons behind this choice as well?
JW: I mean we definitely personally get into that kind of stuff, so it makes its way into our music, but again it’s not who we are. We don’t want to be about that 100%, but we do like that it’s underlying and not forced. We don’t want to preach or push anything on any one.
NO COUNTRY: Is there anybody you guys have wanted to collaborate with but haven’t gotten the chance to yet?
JW: Yeah there’s a ton [laughs]. Duddy really wants to try and get a track with Willie Nelson, which would be so rad. Willie Nelson is one of the coolest guys on the face of the planet. We also heard that Kenny Chesney has been playing our music before some of his shows, so we’re trying to get something together with him. I’ve also always wanted to do something with Gwen Stefani; seeing her do stuff with Sublime was so cool and it’s been a dream of mine for awhile to work with her. Pearl Jam would pretty awesome. Like if we could get Eddy Vedder on a reggae track, that would be so rad.
We also would love to get something pretty obscure, like somebody from a different country. We really want to get someone on a track that people see and are like “who the hell is that?” Then maybe they go and look that person up. It also exposes us to different genres and music scenes. We like doing things that don’t fit at all.
NO COUNTRY: Bringing someone in from a different country exposes them to the American music scene but also would expose the Dirty Heads to an international music scene. Is that what you’re trying to do with the non-US dates of your upcoming tour?
JW: We have a solid fan base in Brazil and South America, but minimal internet hits from Europe. That’s why we’re getting over there; no one knows who we are. We’re going to do the same thing there that we did in the States by just touring a bunch and getting our name out there. We want to be an international act that gets our message to as many people as possible.
NO COUNTRY: So besides the acoustic album and the rest of this tour, what other plans do the Dirty Heads have coming up?
JW: After the tour, we’ll take some time off for the holidays. Then, we’ll be in Guam and Hawaii to do some Christmas and New Years Eve shows, but after that we’ll just be going home and recording through January and February. We’ll be dong a full length that should come out sometime next year.