“They’re your favorite band’s favorite band.”
“They’re definitely musicians’ musicians.”
“They” are the Savannah-based, reggae-influenced progressive rock powerhouse Passafire. And the high praise comes from Pepper lead singer and guitarist Kaleo Wassman and drummer Yesod Williams respectively, during a conversation filmed backstage at Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver.
For serious, hardworking and dedicated artists, it’s the ultimate reward: talented, road-veteran musicians, successful in their own right, heaping praise on your best efforts. It’s the craftsmanship in Passafire’s Ted Bowne, Adam Willis, and brothers Will and Nick Kubley, and the humility in their manner of handling such ego-boosting kudos that combined to impress Pepper’s Wassman, Williams and bassist Bret Bollinger.
Pepper had founded the independent LAW Records with plans to selectively recruit and nurture bands they actually experience, observe and are impressed by while out on the road - as opposed to sitting in some distant office, combing through piles of demos, rarely looking beyond the impressions of those first few seconds. “We’re out there every day, meeting and playing with new bands,” said Bollinger. “It’s not a guessing game. We get to meet them, watch them live... “and spot their work ethic,” Wassman interjected with emphasis.
Passafire, then in the process of developing its signature and infectious hybrid of roots reggae, progressive rock and experimental dub, crossed paths with Pepper several years after forming in 2003 while members Nick, Ted, and Adam were in school together at Savannah College of Art and Design. Virtuoso bassist Will Kubley, Nick’s younger brother, had joined the band in the summer of 2006. The Kubley brothers, from Plymouth, Indiana, had been playing together most of their lives. Bass, drums, brothers. Rhythm sections on a shared DNA wavelength don't come along often.
Long story short, Passafire was performing on a stage outside of a venue where Pepper was opening for 311 and a member of the Savannah band managed to slip to Pepper a copy of the band’s self-titled debut album, Passafire. Bollinger laughingly recalls that it languished as a coaster on the band bus for awhile (“you get a million demos”) until one day while between shows someone popped it into the CD player and on hearing those precious first few seconds, cranked up the volume. “They did the smartest thing,” Bollinger and Wassman said, finishing each other’s sentences in the way people do after spending hours, days, months on the road together. Passafire, they noted, had “put their best track as number one. All you up and comers, that’s the most important step. Give us your best, first thing.”
For Passafire, “best” was Barcelona. Penned by lead singer/guitarist Ted Bowne as a memoir of losing a prized guitar to confiscation by anti-busker police in the Spanish city, the song literally comes on like a freight train, launching with the sound of a passing locomotive and morphing into Bowne’s power chord set up for a reggae romp, punctuated by Willis’ organ, through the trials and tribulations of encountering foreign constabulary. It came roaring through the speakers aboard the Pepper bus, captivating Wassman, Bollinger and Williams. Seeing and hearing great potential, they reached out to offer Passafire the pure oxygen they had been seeking: an invitation to join the label. Within months, Pepper’s instincts were rewarded. Passafire’s sophomore album Submersible had been released on LAW and would be selected by iTunes Reggae as a Top Ten Best Reggae Album of 2007.
The CD, recorded at Long Island Studios in Lexington, Kentucky, evidenced the band’s developmental progress. “Smart music,” as Pepper’s Williams would later describe it, notable for the literary expressions of its lyrics -including Bowne’s eery encounter with an apparition (“Ghost Man”), while simultaneously pumping out an irresistible, body-rockin’ beat. The album is topped off with the Pink Floydesque Reverie, showcasing the musicianship of this foursome and amazing audiences with its faithful reproduction in live performance. No studio trickery here. This music really exists.
The depth and energies of Passafire soon captured the attention of Monterey International booking agency. In early 2008, keyboardist/band manager/promoter Adam Willis happily handed over booking tasks to Owens. Passafire began touring from New York’s Lion’s Den to Club Nokia in LA, working with a variety of major acts including The Wailers, Van Halen, Israel Vibrations, 311, Toots and the Maytals, Los Lonely Boys, Bares Hammond, John Brown’s Body, Matisyahu, the Aggrolites and Dub Trio.
“We put 100,000 miles on the first van, and 80,000 on the second,” said Bowne.
“We towed the first trailer until the wheel literally severed itself from the axle and rolled past us in a gas station parking lot.”
After two years and more than 300 shows, conceptualizing all the while, Passafire recently returned to the studio -this time the Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas, to record album number three, the band’s second on LAW. Self-described “total gear heads,” the band has built on the foundation of Passafire (their debut album) and Submersible an adventurous expansion, an ironic twist that reaches into previously unexplored sonic territories while taking full advantage of the warmth and accessibility of analog technologies. Horns appear on three tracks and throughout Bowne works out on a variety of classic guitars paired with vintage tube amps while Willis is off in keyboardist’s heaven, incorporating the venerable Hammond B3 as well as the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. The much anticipated new album, yet to be titled, is scheduled for release in late summer/early fall of 2009.
Even while managing the rigors of steady national touring, the band functions as an independent business, its members designing their own merchandise and working at building relationships and networks by keeping in touch with fans one-on-one via Facebook, Myspace, and the band’s website, Passafiretheband.com.
Passafire's tour schedule is booked solid through the end of June 2009, the forthcoming route once again a giant circle around the country.
The music is fresh, the band is energized and invigorated by the experience of creating it.