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The Rocksteady Seven: A sneak peak of Friends and Enemies, and an interview with David Hillyard

Earlier in the year, I sent a message to someone in booking/managing/wrangling at the Slackers camp to conduct an interview with all or part of the band. I'm a fan. That's no secret to any of you folks who read my ramblings and listen to my show, and getting to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) in regards to this music I love is gift enough, but getting to involve the band that started it all for me and continues to keep me hooked? Amazing. I was told yes, sure. Send over some questions.

Unfortunately, I had no idea who would be answering these questions. Being that there are such diverse talents and personalities in this band, there was no way I could do anything but send several generic questions over and pray I would not be judged for how boring they probably were. It was David Hillyard, Slackers saxophonist and scene legend that got back to me. He did the best anyone could with my impersonal, generic, and probably boring inquiries, and I am forever thankful to him for that. I have since then been hoping to redeem myself.

Fast forward to last week, and I had a message from the amazing Mr. Hillyard in my inbox with some info on the new Rocksteady Seven album. The album, Friends and Enemies, is due out December 4th on Whatevski Records and was recorded over the course of a day at Seaside Studios in Brooklyn. No over-dubs. It maintains the same raw, true flavor we have come to expect. I was happy to debut the track "Evil" on my show this past week, and not surprisingly fielded rave reviews from my listeners in the days that followed. I am beyond excited to get my hands on the full album after its release in a few short weeks. You can bet you will be hearing a lot more of it from me.

When I first heard the Rocksteady Seven's first album Playtime, I was immediately addicted. It remains one of the most played albums in my home, in my car, and in my headphones while tapping away mundane duties at work. Diverse and raw with a ska-jazz-blues-groove straight through, it's similar enough track to track to maintain interest, but different enough that you never get bored. Far from it. Everything I heard after that held the same truths, and I really don't put together a show without something from the Rocksteady Seven every week. On what I have heard so far of Friends and Enemies, I can give you my word that you will not be disappointed.

Dave Hillyard was nice enough to let me pick his brain a bit (in a much more direct and specific fashion than in my previous interview, thank goodness...) about his work, his influences, and what keeps him moving along as one of the most well talented and well respected musicians in the modern ska scene to this day.

So first and foremost, what was it that inspired you to pick up a saxophone in this first place?

Hillard: I heard Saxa from the Beat. It was his saxophone tone that made me want to play. He started what became an obsession.

What have been some of the most prominent musical influences for you throughout your career thus far?

Hillyard: I started out listening to 2 Tone era ska and then I got into the older music. I got into the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals, Heptones, Justin Hines, Count Ossie....lots and lots of Jamaican music. I was friends with a studio one distributor in San Diego where I grew up and I would go over to his house and listen to and buy tons of records.
The Skatalites turned me onto jazz and instrumental music in general. I started listening to American jazz artists like John Coltrane, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Thelonius Monk, Miles much music. I listen to jazz from the 1920s up until the present all the time.
I also got really into Soul, RnB and Blues. The Impressions, the Temptations, Lee Allen, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Redding, Charlie Whitehead, Lee Dorsey, Allen Touissaint...there is just so much music there.
So in a funny way I grew up on English and Jamaican musicians and then they introduced me to American artists and for that matter, a whole wide world of music.
Ska music got me into Latin and Brazilian music.
More recently I’ve been listening to lots of music from different parts of Africa like Getachew Mekurya, Alemeyehu Eschete, Fela Kuti, and Ignaze Da Souza.
I've also been fortunate enough to be around some great musicians in person. Besides all the guys my age I played with in bands, there are older guys like Larry McDonald who is a big mentor to me. Glen Adams was a big mentor to me. I was lucky enough to hang out with Tommy and Roland several times. They taught me stuff about saxophone and gave me exercises to practice. Roy Campbell, the trumpet player, was also a big influence on me in terms of how to improvise.

The Slackers have demonstrated a notable staying power within the ska scene. You still make great music, and you still put on amazing live shows. What do you think is the reason behind that?

Hillyard: Well, I'm glad you think that. I'm not exactly sure what our secret is to our longevity, maybe its better that I don't figure it out. For myself, it’s that I love what I do. I try to work on my playing and make sure that I'm always improving myself in some way. I love playing gigs, travelling, seeing the world. So as long as I keep on enjoying doing that I think the shows will be ok.

The Question is up for re-release on vinyl, and I saw that you are playing the album in its entirety in Miami. What is it like to revisit songs you guys wrote and recorded so long ago? There are some that don’t really get played out all too often. Will you be taking some of those songs and throwing them into live show rotation for all the holiday tour shows? 
Hillyard: Well, there are only 4 songs that we definitely haven't been playing at all from the Question; Power, Motor City, the Mummy, and Do You Know. Considering that its an 18 song album that we put out 14 years ago, I think that's pretty amazing.
I mean the question has 'have the time' on it, so we play that all the time.
We try to rotate our songs around a fair amount. We don’t want people to come back 6 months later and see us doing the same show.
For me, its fun to play the old tunes and I appreciate the fact that people like the songs. Its a great feeling that someone likes your music.
On the other hand, I always like playing new tunes. I like recording new music. I like writing new tunes. It makes me feel like I'm alive.
So I guess its all about finding a balance between the old and the new.
I'm excited that we are going to get a chance to reissue the vinyl on Big Tunes. The original pressing was only for 250 copies and sold out a long time ago.

I got to see you with The Void Union in Stanhope earlier this year, and it was amazing. I read that you joined them on a few shows. Any plans to work with them again?
Hillyard: I have known a bunch of the Void Union guys as they came up playing with Westbound Train. Rich Graiko, their trumpet player, has also been playing with Rocksteady 7 in NYC for the last 4 years or so.
I have done some guest cameos on their recent albums. Took a solo here and there. Then we did a gig up in Boston a couple years back where me and Django were special guests with them. We followed that up with the recent tour.
It was fun for me because I could just focus on playing the music. I didn't have to deal with lodging or business or anything except for playing the music. So it was just a real fun joyful couple days for me.

How did the Rocksteady Seven initially come about?
Hillyard: I had a lot of tunes that weren't getting played with the Slackers and before that with Hepcat. I had been impressed with what Django had done with Stubborn All-Stars, so I wanted to try to do a band that was playing all my tunes. I had never done that before.
I met Larry McDonald at a Skatalites show in New York City. I heard what he was playing and had the realization of how I wanted the band to sound. Me and Larry talked a lot that night and I realized we were into a lot of the same music and had a lot of the same ideas about how you can mix jazz-reggae-ska-latin and other stuff together.

How was it working on the new album?
Hillyard: It was cool. I've made my last 2 albums at Seaside in Brooklyn. We record everything live with only minimal overdubs. On this most recent album, FRIENDS AND ENEMIES, there is only 1. Hehehehe.
I'm going for a direct raw sound. Its about capturing a moment.

I see you have dates set with them for Europe in the New Year. Are there any plans for US dates after that?
Hillyard: Well, the tough thing about Rocksteady 7 is that everyone in the band, including myself always has other commitments. So I'm always juggling musicians. Its really as much a musical concept as much as a band.
The commonality is me and Larry.
I got my NYC group with guys like Rich Graiko, Justin Rothberg, and Dan Jeselsohn.
Right now, I have my European touring group of Mr Tbone and guys from the Caroloregians and Moon Invaders. And I also have my west coast touring group of Clint Sobolik, Christian Vela, Jimmy Boom, and Kincaid Smith. 
My immediate plan is to tour with the European group in January. I'm gonna do some NYC dates in Febuary. Then hopefully do some West Coast dates in spring.
This is in between the Slackers touring schedule. So its a busy life!


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