As one of the original, American Reggae bands, John Brown’s Body has matured into a sound that is uniquely JBB Reggae. Born as a band that worked hard to reflect traditional Roots Reggae through a modern lens, JBB now exists in a world described as Future Roots. The vocals are expansive and a trademarked piece of the JBB sound, the lyrics are socially conscious, and the musical influence is broad, tapping into deep musical roots from various soils, yet still with a heavy Reggae backbone that is second to none in the community of Reggae music. Add in the viciously heavy, low end drum/bass driven Dub breaks that JBB throws at the listener, and the JBB musical experience is unparalleled.
I’ve watched/heard JBB grow and change for over a decade, so it was exciting to have the opportunity to sit with Tommy Benedetti – drummer and founding member of JBB. I met with him at Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant and Tavern in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was night four of a regional run, and the band was in lockstep (as always) for the high energy performance that followed this interview.
Interview by Jeremy Sanchez
HGMN: We’re meeting here on the Outer Banks of North Carolina on night three of your three night run with Session Rockers as your opener (four night run for JBB, but just three with Session Rockers). How has your experience been touring with that family?
Tommy: Those guys are great. We’ve known those guys for a long time. Jahboo, the drummer, in particular, has been a longtime friend of mine and a supporter and friend of the band, since as long as I can remember, really. Definitely back in the early 2000’s, if not 2000 itself because we started coming down to Virginia Beach (Session Rockers’ home base); we played The Jewish Mother all the time. So we met Jahboo early on in our touring history. He’s always been a huge supporter and always been right there for us, and so we’re very close with him. I’m happy for him and the band. I know they just got their CD out this weekend as well, so it’s good man. It's family style, like you say. We’re happy to have them on board.
HGMN: Session Rockers released their 1st album two nights ago when they opened for you. What’s it like seeing a band taking that major step and being a support system for them?
Tommy: It is a great step to have that in your hands, you know, to have that physical product and your work. I know that they pushed really hard to get it ready so they could have it out for this weekend. I think they might have maybe rushed it a little bit more than they would normally just because they wanted to make sure they had it on sale for these shows, which is a perfectly acceptable situation. It’s great, you know, your first record – I certainly remember our first record, vaguely but (laughter) – it’s been a while, but hopefully for them it’s the first of many. I haven’t gotten a chance to pop it in yet, but they’ve been kind enough and hit us all up with copies, so when I get back to Boston I’ll give it a listen and check it out.
HGMN: I know a lot of the old JBB family was involved with production.
Tommy: I believe “Jocko” (Jason “Jocko” Randall) mixed a tune. I believe Craig Welch (Dubfader) who is the 10 Ft. (Ganja Plant) guy, I believe he mixed a tune, Matt Morano who did Kings and Queens for us, he did Spirits for us, I think he mixed a tune. There’s this singer, Craig Akira, from this band called The Pressure Cooker Band, in Boston; he’s a longtime brother of ours, and he sings on it as well. It’s a big connection with the JBB tree as well.
HGMN: On to your catalogue, Kings and Queens has been out for just over a year. How has the reception for this album been, as compared to prior albums?
Tommy: I feel that people really dig this record. It came out of the gates really nicely with #1 debuts on Billboard Reggae and stuff like that, so it came out really nicely, right off the top. There seems to be something in it for everybody, I think, this time. The Amplify record, we just went through a lot of stuff with the lineup and trying to see what kind of direction we were going to end up taking with Elliott fronting the band. So, I love that record; I think there’s fantastic stuff on Amplify. It’s not as much of a band performance record as Kings and Queens. It’s a little bit more chopped up.
HGMN: What do you mean by that?
Tommy: Studio wise… there’s a lot more editing that went down on that album, as opposed to the band just going in and playing together, which is what happened on Kings and Queens.
HGMN: You get that live feel.
Tommy: Yeah, we really captured, I think, the vibe and the feel of the band where it is, or where it was. A record is only a snapshot of that given day, or two weeks, or whatever, however much it takes you to do it. I think the batch of tunes is as strong as anything we’ve put out. I think there’s a really nice variety. There’s some really nice love, kinda slow, one drop tunes. There’s a tune like “Invitation” which is 100% JBB. I don’t think you’re gonna hear anyone else playing a groove like that in the scene. And then there are the heavy hitters, as well; there’s “Plantation” which is a nice kind of a lilting, classic kind of Roots composition. So, I think people are happy with it, but more importantly I know the band’s happy with it. That’s the thing we can control. Beyond that, we just put out what we love, and we do what we love and what we think sounds great, and hopefully people dig.
HGMN: Can you pin down what your favorite show has been from this last year, and if you can do that, why? That might be a tough one.
Tommy: That is a tough one. There are so many. You know, the hometown shows, whether it’s Ithaca or Boston, are always special for a lot of reasons. We did do a show, not too long ago, in Toronto, like a month ago or a month and a half ago, with Easy Star. We did a run with those guys. We did Chicago, Madison, Cleveland, and Toronto, and we played the Opera House up in Toronto; it sold out. That was pretty crushing because we hadn’t been to Toronto for a while. So, that was pretty memorable to get up there and play in front of a huge crowd, and we just dropped the hammer on ‘em, and that was a great night. But, you know, we try to bring the experience to every show and try to make each one a good one.
HGMN: Is Canada’s reggae scene alive?
Tommy: Yeah, in Toronto there’s historically been a really heavy Jamaican population up there, from way back. I don’t know too much about bands from up there, but I know that Dubmatix, this guy Jessie who does a lot of producing, beats, and stuff like that, he lives up in Toronto, and he did our remix for “The Gold” off of Amplify. He’s very busy, and he tours a lot. He’s doing good things up there; I know that. So, yeah, Toronto’s a great city.
HGMN: The audience has a very different perspective than the band on stage. What’s needed in the equation to make for a memorable show, as a musician?
Tommy: A big part of it is the audience; we thrive on that. We’re a live band; that’s how we do our thing. That’s when the band really comes to life, and there’s nothing that can really match that. When you get that crowd and the band working in tandem… We can tell - we’ve been playing together so long. We know when everybody’s firing on all cylinders. Everybody’s looking at each other if you pop a fill, or if somebody does something you get those looks across the stage, and you know, you just feel the energy. You feel the excitement. The stage starts bouncing up and down. Gear starts fuckin’, moving back and forth. So, you can tell, man. But, I think we’re a pretty consistent live band, energy wise.
HGMN: What goes into song selection, from show to show?
Tommy: Not much, as far as our input. Elliott writes the set list every night. There are certain songs, after all these years; there are songs that we know work in different parts of the set. But, we try to keep it fresh and mix it up. We put instrumentals in there on a nightly basis, some dub tracks. Jay, our guitarist, has a couple tunes, originals that we’ve been throwing in. And we don’t draw from the entire JBB catalogue because of Kevin (Kevin Kinsella – founding singer of JBB); we don’t play Kevin songs. But, we go back to Spirits, which is a record that we put out in 2002, so we have a good catalogue to draw from; we try to keep it mixed up as much as possible. There are certain songs people want to hear and certain songs we love playing that work really well. So, it’s a mix.
HGMN: Do you have a favorite dub track to play?
Tommy: It comes in and out. I mean, there’s a tune that kinda went on hiatus, called “Majestic Dub,” off of the JBB in Dub record. It just started coming back into the set the last bunch of runs, and that’s been sounding pretty killer.
HGMN: How much room is left for improvisational elements during your dub breaks or dub tracks, or are you all, you know, sort of locked into a vibe where you know everybody’s going to hit this note or that note, or is it pretty well jam/improv based?
Tommy: It’s a balance because it’s not fully improv.; we’re not going up there and being a jamband, by any means. There are arrangements, and there are sections. It is composed music, obviously, but within that, once again, it speaks to the amount of time we’ve been playing together. We have really good communication skills, when it comes to music. So, sections may last longer, stuff like that. Somebody’s going on a solo, and there’s a cue to the next section; the musicians will all communicate when that’s going to happen, and it may be a certain amount of time one night and then double the time the next night, depending on the soloist. There are elements that change, night to night. But, everybody in this band has a really good ear, which comes in handy when you’re playing with an eight piece band. There’s a lot going on up there. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of sound, a lot of notes, and so you’ve gotta be on your toes.
HGMN: Going back a little bit, the JBB I first encountered over a decade ago was more so focused on a true Roots Reggae style, with the still-present Dub side of the sound. JBB’s current sound has been called Future Roots. Would you explain the different musical DNAs that have been injected for this Future Roots sound, as compared to traditional Roots?
Tommy: We love it all, first of all. I still listen to Burning Spear and Culture, as well as I want to hear what Stephen Marley’s doing. What you were talking about, the band initially was really inspired by more like the Black Ark stuff, the Lee Perry – Black Ark recordings/productions. A lot of the vocal trio groups, Meditations, Culture… that was Kevin’s main influence, was stuff like that – the classic Jamaican, compositional style, like Toots, and the Rock Steady stuff, Ken Boothe. Elliott comes from a different angle, as far as his inspiration, while loving that stuff, as well. We were able to change the focus to a lot of the 80’s UK stuff, like Dennis Bovell, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Steele Pulse, Black Slate – ASWAD was a huge band that really has a major influence on the band; stuff like that is coming out lately, more. It has a lot of horn charts. The grooves, rhythms, and parts tend to be a little bit more involved – a little bit more creative with the grooves and rhythms, and harmonically there’s a little bit more to it. That UK stuff really speaks to us; it just has this richness in it. Not that the stuff from the island doesn’t, of course. But, for us, we’ve crafted our own sound out of this, I think. We’re not saying that we sound like ASWAD, or that we want to, by any means.
HGMN: I’d say that there’s no band that sounds like John Brown’s Body.
Tommy: I think it’s pretty safe to say that, and that’s a good thing. But, there are a lot of influences in the band; we listen to a ton of music. We don’t just listen to reggae; we wouldn’t sound like we sound, if that was the case.
HGMN: Who are your heaviest Dub influences?
Tommy: Myself, I’m a junkie, but Roots Raddics, The Scientist-Roots Raddics Productions, that band, to me, with Style Scott on the drums and Flabba Holt on the bass, that’s my style of Dub. You know, that’s my style of playing; I love it. It’s very militant and tight, but it’s so deep; the grooves are so deep. Obviously, Sly and Robbie is huge for us, for me. All the classic productions, Dennis Bovell is another guy I just mentioned; he’s a UK dude. He’s the bass player, musical director for Linton Kwesi Johnson, and he’s just a master mind. If you look up any of Dennis’s albums that he did under his name, or other productions that he’s done, they’re phenomenal –sonically, the bass playing, the arrangements, and the musicianship is just off the grid stuff. The King Tubby stuff, of course, is mind blowing. There’s so much out there; everybody’s got their own little take on it. We still find stuff today that’s inspiring, from all those cats, even though it was done 40 years ago.
HGMN: What about current “Scratch” Perry? He’s one of the guys still putting out, you know… it’s been three or four years, I think, since his last album. Do you still stick with what he’s doing?
Tommy: I’m not really too familiar with what he’s doing lately.
HGMN: He has so much.
Tommy: He puts out so much stuff that I haven’t really been able to keep track. We have done shows with him, in the past. And, he’s a mad man, you know? A bona fide mad man (laughter), but his Black Ark work is untouchable. I know some of the stuff that he did with Mad Professor, that’s maybe not super recent but more recent than the Black Ark stuff that I really like. But, yeah, he’s the man, of course.
HGMN: How has the creative and studio process changed over the years for you all? Or, has it changed?
Tommy: I think it’s gotten better. It’s a different beast, being in the studio. As far as the creative process, Elliott writes all the lyrics and a lion’s share of the music. He has his way that he likes to present the music to us, which is, he makes pretty detailed demos and really gets it sounding pretty phat; his demos sound really nice, and we’re able to really hear how he wants the tune to sound.
HGMN: Does he play most instruments?
Tommy: No, he doesn’t play the instruments. He has samples of my drums, my drum sounds and then he’ll get musicians around Ithaca to help him out and stuff like that. He doesn’t play an instrument, so to speak, but he can hack out notes, and bass, and keyboard, and then obviously the vocals. He puts it together pretty meticulously and makes really great sounding demos, and then we take it from there. The horn section adds a lot, and then me and Nate pick apart the groove and decide what’s gonna work, what’s not gonna work, and then it sounds like JBB when we pick up the sticks, plug in the bass – there’s the sound. But as far as the recording, we’re getting better. When you do studio stuff, you just get better and better. Kings and Queens was the easiest, I think, session we’ve had, like stress free session we’ve had, yet. That’s a big thing; a studio can be a tightly wound place some times.
HGMN: Paying for studio time and all of that?
Tommy: Yeah, with a lot of guys especially, too. You know, we’ve got eight guys, and the horns are trying to craft parts on the spot. Everything’s under the microscope and you start to get into your own head sometimes. It can definitely fuck you up sometimes, but we’ve gotten better at it. We all do tons of work and sessions, and we all play all the time outside of JBB, so we’re always trying to get better as studio players and musicians, as well, so that carries over.
HGMN: Side bands… How many JBB members are in side groups, and would you care to mention the bands and maybe speak on their sound?
Tommy: Everybody (laughter), really. Everybody is super busy, and it’s great. That’s part of the thing that keeps the band vibrant and keeps us doing what we do. We’re not banging our heads against the all. We’re not out when we don’t want to be out. We do enjoy getting together and playing music together, very much. We’ve found a schedule that works really nice for us, and we’re still able to do a lot of dates all across the country, in different spots, and everybody’s very busy, man. I play in a band in Boston, called Dub Apocalypse, that’s really busy in New England. Nate plays in a lot of bands, plays in a band, The Nth Power, that he put together with some other guys. Drew, our tenor sax player, plays with this band called The Super Powers. Sam, our trumpet player, has a bunch of really cool brass horn bands in Boston. Elliott has Black Castle. Jay, our guitarist, is with Tour De Force Sound System, out of Brooklyn. J.P., our keyboardist, is putting out, in a couple months, a solo record that a bunch of us, myself and Nate played on; Alan Evans from Soulive plays on half of it, and I play drums on the other half of it. So, everybody’s busy. Everybody’s always hustling and playing music. We’re thankful for that.
HGMN: How do these side groups impact your recording and touring process?
Tommy: It gets to be a little much, sometimes. It’s hard because you try to prioritize; there has to be some sort of priority level for JBB. We’re the band that’s getting the offers with the agents. A lot of the stuff that I just mentioned operates, for the most part, on a regional or local kinda level, so if I have gigs I can get out of them with Dub Apocalypse, I can get a sub; it’s easy to manage. It’s a little challenging at times, but what isn’t? We’re dealing with eight guys and countless other projects, and people are trying to work and keep the work flowing. So, we’ve probably taken a couple of years off of our manager’s life in the process (laughter), but you know, that’s what he gets paid for, so I don’t feel too bad.
HGMN: Do you have a process to prep yourself mentally for the switch from one band to another?
Tommy: No. For me, personally, I don’t know about the other guys, but personally it’s in the same family musically, what Dub Apocalypse does. It’s more improv based and more expansive. It’s a smaller unit, but it’s definitely heavy drum and bass. It’s more experimental, but it’s still a heavy drum and bass and a Reggae, Dub-based group. And it’s all family. Those guys I play with in that group, we’ve all known each other and we’ve been playing with each other for 15 years, similar to a lot of the cats in JBB, so it’s like second nature, at this point, thankfully.
HGMN: I’m a dreamer and hope that reggae’s living legends –bands like The Congos, Burning Spear, Israel Vibration, producers/performers like Lee “Scratch” Perry – will continue to tour. But I’m also a realist because I see these men on stage less and less. So, how do you see the reggae culture progressing as these crews pass from the stage and leave us with mostly US-based and various Virgin Island reggae bands?
Tommy: That’s a tough question. I mean, when JBB was first starting to tour, there was no American reggae scene like there is today to plug yourself into. We would go out and tour with Burning Spear, Culture, Israel Vibration, Jimmy Cliff – we would play festivals, we would go and play the Sierra Nevada, and Johnny Clarke would be playing. This was 2000, so at this point we’re talking 14-15 years ago.
HGMN: I was seeing all these bands at the same time. Every year, they’d come through.
Tommy: Right, the fact that Burning Spear, I remember specifically when Spear, I don’t know if he’s officially done touring, but he was out for a while – and you could see Spear a couple times a year, and that was huge for me. Being in the presence of Winston Rodney, you need to do it as a human being (laughter). So, yeah, they’re few and far between now, the classic acts, and unfortunately it’s not gonna get – I don’t think it’s gonna change because these guys are getting older, and we’ve been lucky enough to share the stage and back a bunch of them as well. Justin Hines, we put out a record with Justin. We’ve backed The Meditiations, Leonard Dillon (now deceased singer/songwriter of The Ethiopians), and so we’ve been lucky. But, the US reggae scene is its own beast right now, for what it is; I don’t really have much to say about it.
HGMN: Do you think it matters that reggae has escaped Jamaica?
Tommy: No, no, no. Reggae is a universal thing. Music is universal. I don’t put any geographic barriers on any sort of music. If you’re doing it, and you’re inspired, and you’re sincere, and you’re doing it for the right reasons, then have at it, man. Music doesn’t really belong to anybody. It’s there for the inspiration, for everybody. I was raised on Slayer, Megadeath, and AC/DC, and here I am almost 20 years into a career playing in one of the first national-touring American reggae acts. If you think about it, it’s hard to make sense of (laughter), but at one point I just followed where the inspiration was taking me, and I met the right people and people that I thought could do this justice – we could play this music really well, and we could learn together, and grow together, and make our own thing out of it. That’s what brought me where I am, personally, today.
HGMN: What new bands are you listening to?
Tommy: In the reggae scene?
Tommy: I’m a junky for everything Chino (of Deftones) does, so I love his new band, Crosses. It’s awesome; I love everything that guy does. I’ve seen Deftones a bunch of times. So, that’s probably one of the most recent ones that I can think of. I’ve been listening to a lot of different stuff. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bela Bartok, classical stuff. A lot of John Coltrane and stuff like that, so I don’t really listen and discover too much new music. There are a couple guys in the band that do discover new music more often than myself. Our tenor player, Drew, he always turns me on to new stuff, like new electronica or hip-hop stuff, or ambient stuff; he’s got really good taste on some of the new stuff that’s coming out. I guess as far as current stuff, Crosses would be one of the new things I’ve been checking; I think it’s pretty kick ass.
HGMN: I’ve seen JBB with various members through the years, and I’ve loved them all. My question is, do you have any advice to bands that come across necessary changes during their careers?
Tommy: When you’ve been around for as long as we have, it’s gonna happen, generally. It’s like anything in life – the older you get, man, a lot of shit starts going crazy on you. But, we’ve been incredibly lucky. To be able to have kept the consistency that we’ve kept through the stuff that we’ve gone through, it was a lot of work. It didn’t come easy, at times. If you believe, and your music is as important to you as our music is to me and to us, then you just do what you do; you forge through. You push ahead. And there’s a little bit of luck involved, too, finding the right people to fill those shoes. When we lost Scotty (Scott Palmer - deceased JBB bassist), I can probably count on one hand the amount of times in my career when I said after somebody had left the band, and I thought, “This is it, how are we going to absorb this loss?” And, somehow, the right person came along, through our channels and through the strength and the reputation of the band, I think as well. I don’t want to sell ourselves short. There’s a little bit of luck, but also, JBB is, I think, a very well respected entity. We may not be putting the most people in the seats, like other American reggae guys, but we don’t spoon feed our music to people. I think we’re a very respected band, and I put a lot in that. That makes me very happy to have the respect of our musical peers and our fans that have been amazing. We have incredible fans that have stuck with us, such as yourself, through a lot of changes and a lot of sonic adventures that we’ve taken to try to keep the music fresh. People, like yourself and so many other thousands of people, all over the place, really make a huge difference to us.
HGMN: Where haven’t you played that you dream of playing?
Tommy: I’d love to play in Eastern Europe. We’ve been to Europe, been to the UK.
HGMN: There’s a vibrant reggae scene there, right? Some of these legends I mentioned earlier play there, but you don’t see them here.
Tommy: Oh, yeah. Some of the guys from over here, like Groundation, or whatever, they go over there and they fuckin’ just crush.
HGMN: But, even The Congos – they’ll set up a tour in Europe and not in the US.
Tommy: Absolutely, I think when we were in Germany; we played a festival with The Skatalites and Max Romeo. Try and find Max Romeo in the United States; It’s not gonna happen. We played a festival over there; there must’ve been fuckin’ 40,000 people there, freaking out over Max Romeo. We were like, this is awesome! So, thankfully we’ve played in a lot of beautiful, amazing places. New Zealand was the most mind blowing place, by far, that we played – I think you’ll find a consensus across the entire band on that one. As far as places, I’d love to play music in Eastern Europe, especially listening to Bela Bartok, who’s from Hungary, so I’ve been kind of entrenched in that music and culture for a little bit. I would love to do that, but we’ll see.
HGMN: Where would you hope to see JBB go in the future, if you had the powers to create a definitive road map?
Tommy: I just want to see us continue to make music that we want to make and that people want to hear. There are certain things, like I was saying earlier, that you can control, and there are certain things you can’t. What we can control is making the most bad-ass music that we can make and stuff that we are gonna come out and get behind and want to travel to Seattle, travel to L.A., Orlando, Denver, and play this music for people, for the coming time. Right now we’re thinking about putting a dub version out of Kings and Queens, and then beyond that, who knows? The record release process for us is a pretty long one (laughter). We don’t put out records every two years, three years. Amplify came out in 2008. Re-Amplify, which is a remix album, came out in 2009. JBB in Dub came out in ’12, and Kings and Queens ’13, so it’s not like we’re not putting anything out – but as far as full length, studio. So, it’s a longer process for us. We’ll see. This album is still fresh; it still feels fresh – it’s a year old. So we’ve got some work to do, supporting this one. We’re still writing, and we’re happy to be doing what we do after all these years. We give thanks for that; we don’t take it for granted, and we try to convey that every night when we hit the stage.
All Time (1996)
Among Them (1999)
This Day (2000)
Spirits All Around Us (2002)
Justin Hinds & John Brown's Body - Live At Grassroots Festival (2002)
Pressure Points (2005)
JBB IN DUB (2012)
Kings And Queens (2013)
June 28 – Road Jam Fest – Stratford, CT
July 11 – The Beachcomber – Wellfleet, MA
July 12 – The Beachcomber – Wellfleet, MA
July 18 – Grassroots Festival – Trumansburg, NY
August 9 – Newport Waterfront Reggae Festival – Newport, RI
August 10 – Portland Reggae Festival – Portland, ME
August 20 – The Eldo – Crested Butte, CO
August 21 – Barkley Ballroom – Frisco, CO
August 22 – Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom – Denver, CO
August 24 – Schmiggity’s – Steamboat Springs, CO
August 26 – Gerald R. Ford Ampitheater – Vail, CO