How do you describe dub versions of reggae music to someone who’s either never listened or (even tougher) has listened but doesn’t understand it? I recently gave it my best shot in a review of Dub Is A Weapon’s new Vaporized album:
“Think of the art of creating a dub mix of a given song as deconstructing and then reconstructing an already-recorded piece of music. The players may all still be there, but now they’re sonically reshaped. A front-and-center melodic theme is now a ghost that passes effortlessly through the piece, while a countermelody that was almost invisible in its original form washes over everything. Bass lines become the skin rather than the pulse; drums become voices for a moment, only to disappear and then return as bone. The song is the universe and the engineer is the Great Spirit; reality is reshaped by the faders.”
If that even begins to do the deed definition-wise, then swell. But how do you describe Dub Is A Weapon’s live-on-the-spot dub music? Well, you could take the explanation above and replace the faders with real, live human beings; fade-outs, blend-ins, and re-shapes are a function of fingertips, toes, breath, and a collective creative mind. Last night’s performance of a given tune is not going to be the same as tonight’s; and what was happening 30 seconds ago may never happen quite the same way again. (Or maybe it will.)
And ringmaster for it all is Dave Hahn, who rose to his own challenge of putting together a live dub band a decade ago. From backing reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry on stage to the release of Vaporized, it’s fair to say that Hahn and company have made it work in grand style. And they’re far from done.
Our interview with Hahn took place live from the sidewalks of New York City via cell phone. Only seconds into the conversation there was a sudden explosion of sirens, horns, and roaring engines as a pack of emergency vehicles raced by.
The cacophony faded; then there was a heartbeat of silence.
“You okay?” I asked, not sure if we were still connected.
“Wow,” answered Hahn, rather dreamily. “I should’ve sampled that.” And then he laughed.
Ladies and gentlemen; boys and girls; children of all ages: we present Dave Hahn – a true dubmaster.
BR: Let’s start with talking about the path that led you to the world of dub. First of all, what got you started as a guitar player?
DH: Well, I got really fixated on Hendrix as a young kid. My dad had the original Woodstock album – it was a triple LP, right? It was the one that had all the people who performed there. Listening to Jimi on that really got me into wanting to play the guitar. In fact, I still use that kind of tone in the band.
BR: And what were you listening to for reggae as a lad?
DH: Actually, The Police.
BR: Really? I wasn’t expecting that. (laughter)
DH: Yeah – you can tell that they were heavily influenced by reggae if you listen to them in a deep way.
The first groups that I played with when I moved to New York were part of the ska scene in the late 90s, which really was a fusion of a few different things, with deference toward Jamaican music. Some of the bands I played with were into the Bosstones or No Doubt kind of sound – a little bit more punk rocky with the upbeat ska guitar riff. It had the Jamaican foundation.
BR: How about your first exposure to dub?
DH: I was playing in bands with a lot of older musicians at that point. We’d be driving in the band van and somebody would pop on a cassette of really trippy, say, King Tubby stuff – with all the echo and reverb drenched on it – and I’m like, “What is this?” (laughs) That’s when I started to seek out that kind of music. And that’s when I first got the idea: “Having a band that could do this would be really cool!”
BR: Ah – the scene of so many musical discoveries: the road trip in the band van. (laughter)
DH: Exactly! But, yeah, that’s where my interest in that sort of music came from. In 1999 I moved into a loft in Brooklyn and set up a music studio there. That’s where the idea of the group really began. At first, I did some experimental recordings; it was in 2001 that we really began the “band project,” so to speak. I was playing a lot with Antibalas at the time and there were a couple of good friends of mine from that band who I recruited, along with some people that I knew from the ska world. I started off just recording an album’s worth of material – it wasn’t as if we were going to be a band, per se, but then one of the guys who played on it said, “You ought to take this live, you know?” That’s when we began to work on creating the sound of what we’d done in the studio on stage … and I believe the first show was in November of 2001.
BR: Who of the current lineup was in that original band?
DH: Ben Rogerson, who’s now playing bass, was originally on guitar. I went to high school with Ben; he’s one of my oldest friends. When I was putting together the recording project in the loft, I borrowed people I knew from the scene but also wanted to get my friends involved. Ben also loaned me some recording equipment that helped get things off the ground.
Larry McDonald, who plays percussion in Dub Is A Weapon, was part of the original line-up, too. Larry’s my main partner in Dub, basically.