Mentors and fans propel reggae jam band Dubbest on their first West Coast tour
By Bliss Bowen
Think of reggae, and the usual stream of consciousness does not flow toward the greater Boston area.
Nonetheless, the home of the Red Sox and dozens of National Historic Landmarks has been a supportive launching pad for Dubbest, a quintet of buddies striving to “break out” in the West after building up a fan base along the East Coast. They played the Pike Bar in Long Beach last week and will be plugging in at TRiP in Santa Monica this Sunday.
According to frontman/keyboardist Ryan Thaxter, both bars are smaller than places they regularly play around Boston but typical of venues on this tour, which was partly funded by an IndieGoGo campaign.
“In Colorado we played lots of smaller bars, 100 to 200 people, but it’s kind of perfect for us in that market,” he observes. “It’s easier to fill a small bar. [Laughs] Outside of Colorado and panhandle Florida, we haven’t left the East Coast much.”
Thaxter and bassist Sean Craffey, drummer Kyle Hancock, guitarist Andrew MacKenzie and guitarist Cory Mahoney have been tight since high school. They’ve been playing together since 2009 — initially as a hardcore punk band, until their musical horizons were blown wide upon hearing Augustus Pablo’s classic 1974 album “Ital Dub.” That set them on a path of exploration that led to the hybridized reggae on their recently released third album, “Light Flashes.”
“We all liked Bob Marley and more mainstream reggae,” Thaxter recalls while discussing “Ital Dub” and the band’s sonic evolution. “But I don’t think any of us had heard dub. To hear reggae songs where the drum and bass is in front and with lots of echoes — we had never heard anything so psychedelic or bizarre. We were all into experimental weird stuff, jazz and fusion, so dub was refreshing. It gave us more room to play. Reggae is more song-based; dub is more improvisational and there are many more textural options.”
Dubbest usually cover ’70s and ’80s reggae in their live sets, especially Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. They’re also big Phish fans, which means extended jams with long, danceable grooves.
“The way we improvise, they’re a huge inspiration,” Thaxter says, adding that he and his bandmates live-stream Phish shows in their 2001 Dodge Ram tour van.
But classic roots reggae is the most discernible influence warming “Light Flashes.” That may be due in part to Pablo’s seminal influence, but major credit goes to John Brown’s Body/10 Ft. Ganja Plant engineer Craig Welsch, who reached out to Dubbest after seeing them open for the Itals in Cambridge and listening to a CD they gave him.
“A little while later we did a single with him,” Thaxter says. “Once we’d done that we knew we had to do an album. He’s a genius. He knows how to shape a song and instrumentation, every detail.”
Aside from tweaking levels to boost the bass and give the recording a big, enveloping sound, Welsch also schooled the band in the virtues of simplification.
“Earlier in our career we were writing complicated songs with lots of sections, and we would change feel a lot,” Thaxter says. “When we recorded our single with Craig, he really helped us pick one groove, one good bass line, instead of jumping all around. By doing that you get a more meditative sound. When we wrote songs for ‘Light Flashes,’ we had that in mind. … Plus he knows what equipment to use. You could play a certain melody on guitar, and he would say, ‘Do this guitar through that amp, that will accentuate that melody the right way.’ It’s nice to have a technological mind looking at it from that perspective. He helped us quite a bit.”
The bottom-heavy sound of “Light Flashes” is counterbalanced by a lightness of spirit that contributes to the beachy, feel-good vibe of tracks like the romantic “One Thing” and “Leaving,” which is reprised at album’s end in Welsch’s dub track “Leave In Dub.” “Give In” and “By Design” fit with reggae’s tradition of message-oriented anthems.
“‘Giving in’s half the fight/ The suffering you face will only take you closer to the light’ — that’s the crux of the song for me,” Thaxter says. “Stuff’s going to be hard. You work morning to night, but it will only make you better because you push through those hardships.
“‘By Design’ is about looking at what’s happening in the world technologically … The modern world and all the computers and technology may seem chaotic, but behind it there is this force that we’re not in control of that’s pushing toward something positive. The universe is working itself out in a positive way, whether we know it or not.”
Dubbest plays at 10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9, at TRiP, 2101 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. Call (310) 396-9010 or visit dubbestmusic.com.