Passafire’s Ted Bowne says he has nothing but respect for his peers in reggae, but there’s one figure in the modern game he doesn’t like—Snoop Lion, formerly Snoop Dogg.
“I thought the transformation was well-intended, but if someone starts coming around your house and wearing your clothes and talking like you, it is weird,” Bowne said in a recent phone interview with C-VILLE Weekly. “The guy is an imposter.”
Bowne said the best way to show respect to the reggae community is not to mimic it entirely, but to harness its influence, and give it your own voice. To that end, Passafire delivers a decidedly rock-infused version of the genre, and Bowne never sings in a patois.
“We know Snoop’s voice,” he said. “We know he is acting.”
Produced by Charlottesville-based progressive reggae label Easy Star Records, Passafire will bring its 311-like sound to The Southern Café and Music Hall on January 12. Bowne promises a show that will draw on a range of influences, from jam bands to alt-country, and feature several songs from Passafire’s new album, Vines, which the band has yet to break out on the road.
Vines is the best example of what Passafire has become over the years, transforming from a primarily reggae outfit with a rock streak into a rock band that draws heavily on reggae sounds.
“It just comes with our desire to rock out. That is the best way to put it,” Bowne said. “When you drop a distorted chord and the drummer’s hitting the cymbal really hard, it’s an undeniably amazing feeling.”
Bowne said Easy Star Records has played no small part in allowing Passafire’s sound to develop as it has over the years. When he and Nick Kubley met while studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design, they knew they wanted to get a band together, but exactly what direction it would go was anyone’s guess.
Bowne was into reggae but also had some experience playing in a Rage Against the Machine cover band, and he loved hip-hop, jazz, and funk. Kubley was more into the jam bands he was listening to in the Midwest before heading off to college.
As the group brought together its melting pot of influences, reggae emerged as the unifying theme. They looked to bands like the Easy Star All Stars, and current label-mate John Brown’s Body, for a roadmap of how to make it as a modern U.S.-based reggae act.
“They solidified the whole scene, or at least showed reggae can live on in a new futuristic way,” Bowne said. “That whole tribe of musicians came together to make a unified East Coast reggae scene that was different. It wasn’t the same as the Sublime/Pepper/Slightly Stoopid scene.”
None of which is to say Passafire doesn’t have its own unique niche among the Easy Star lineup. Easy Star co-founder Lem Oppenheimer said the label focuses on “progressive” bands, and none of them have the exact same spin on the genre.
Bowne said Passafire keeps its rock-reggae angle fresh by focusing on song composition and how the music is actually made. He is obsessed with pedals and prides himself, and his bandmates, on their ability to come up with new, outside-the-box combinations of effects and transitions that “make you actually think a little bit.”
“It is more about being eccentric with the music, paying attention to the musicality, and being aware of making choices with the music that aren’t normal,” Bowne said. “We get turned off by stuff that is very repetitive.”
Kubley’s brother Will and multi-instrumentalist Mike DeGuzman round out Passafire. DeGuzman has only been onboard for the past two albums, but Bowne said he lends the band an ability to go in new directions and helps get the audience involved during live shows by breaking out different instruments as the night moves along.
“When the crowd is all unified, that is a successful show,” Bowne said.
To some, the emotive quality of rock ‘n’ roll might seem to run contrary to the easygoing, “it’s all irie” vibe of roots reggae. But for Bowne, staying true to the traditions of the genre and the Jamaican artists that came before Passafire is as important as moving reggae forward. He said he first visited the birthplace of reggae when he was 12, and traded some clothes he no longer wanted for a couple of tapes (Bob Marley and a few others) while walking along the beach.
“Those tapes really got worn out,” Bowne said. “They were really what turned me on to reggae in general.”
Bowne recently had the opportunity to return to Jamaica in a more official capacity. He was invited to Tuff Gong studios to produce a record for Anguilla-based reggae band British Dependency.
“I got to meet a few local legends who came in and did cameos, and I got to learn the actual stories behind the music,” he said. “It reinforced my deep love and appreciation for reggae. I respect it so much, I don’t want to mess with it.”