Future Rhythms: Taking it easy with Kevin Kinsella of John Browns Body
Reggae is the charity case of the American roots music family. Like an uncle by marriage or an adopted sibling, reggae operates on the margins of a roots resurgence celebration, at a safe distance from its precious family membersjazz, blues, and R & Bsearching for any hint of affection or acceptance. Searching
So imagine what’s it like to be a young musician committed to the legacy and prosperity of reggae, a music that gets no airtime, no big-billing, and no serious record deals. Now imagine being American (rather than Jamaican). Now imagine being white. You get the pictureit must be difficult . . . unless you’re extremely talented, hauntingly traditional, and upliftingly spiritual. That is, unless you’re the American reggae band John Brown’s Body.
Fronted by natty-headed vocalist/guitarist Kevin Kinsella, JBB (7 players in all) is the brightest present hope for the resurrection of roots reggae from the ashes of tradition. With brutal, cerebral lyrics and totally choice reggae rhythms (roots-rock reggae with brilliant flashes of rock-steady), the JBB sound is evolving at a dizzying pace. No longer content with the mantle of the past, JBB is working like a mad Rasta scientist to develop the next sound: “future rhythms.”
I recently caught up with JBB’s industrious front man (though he’d willingly share that title with friend and band-mate, Elliot Martin) before a show in Boston, MA. After ducking into a crusty Vietnamese restaurant and settling over a cup of tea, Kinsella spilled the family secrets.
MH- It’s cool that we get to talk before your show at Harper’s Ferry tonight.
KK- Yeah, it’s very fitting [Editor’s note: John Brown was an abolitionist best known for his raid of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859].
MH- How did you discover the name John Brown’s Body for your band?
KK- It was really just inspiration. Probably because I was reading a lot about John Brown at the time, in the summer of ’95, when we were just forming. John Brown is a sign of contradiction: to some he is a terrorist; to others he is a freedom fighter, which becomes more and more timely. There are always two sides to the story, ya know. John Brown was a white man who put his life on the line to rid this country of slavery. He thought it [slavery] was a great abhorrence to God and man. Not many white people at the time went as far as John Brown to end slavery.
MH- With the majority of your band being white, have you met uncommon challenges or been written off as a reggae band?
KK- Not really, because our sincerity and love for the music is so real, ya know, that when most people hear the first few measures of our music they know that it comes from a place of love, and knowledge, and respect.
MH- Respect for what?
KK- Respect for Africa. Respect for Jamaica and Jamaican music and culture. Respect for the musical tradition, which is reggae music. Respect for the Rasta tenets that are inherent in our music.
MH- Your lyrics, because they are so socially conscious and confrontationaldo you feel that you are challenging the listener?
KK- We’re not preaching or saying, “You must do it this way!” We’e trying to inspire meditation and reflection. All of my songs, when I write music, are personal observations and aspirationsjust personal “I” statements.
MH- Things that come from experience?
KK- Yeah, true experience, cultural experience. The reggae music is an “I” music, a Zion-I music, a personal music. It’s a testimony, a daily entry into the journal . . . a conversation with the universe.
I like to mediate and get inspiration from the Scripture, the Bible, ya know. For me, lyrically, that’s the well I draw from. Reggae music is just the Bible being sung . . . it’s the King David’s music . . . like the Psalms, from that tradition.
MH- How did you learn to accept that[Biblical] inspiration? Was it your upbringing?
KK- Church, ya know, church-going as a youth. And when I heard reggae music as a youth, particularly the prophet Bob Marley, then I was like, “Man! It’s love, and praise God, and singing about God . . . hey, it’s cool.” Bob Marley was so cool, ya know, that it made it [reggae] cool. And I said, “Ya know, I want to do that. I love God. I want to sing about God. I want to make a difference in people’s lives in a positive way.” I’ve never been in it for the vanity or fame . . . the MTV. Walking in this path it can be confusing, in the music “industry,” the “business”all of these words to me are oxymoronic. I don’t deal with music busy-ness. It’s my life, it’s my breath, ya know. This is reality-works, Jah-works to me. My calling is to be a musician, a servant, not to be elevated.
MH- Being a music of spirituality, love and consciousness, do you think your music is hampered by the themes of materialism and globalization that permeate today?
KK- Well, it’s a small voice crying in the wilderness, it’s a minority because it’s not going to find a place on commercial radio. People don’t want to hear that. They won’t allow it. It’s tough; it makes me think that the true purpose of music is really not in recorded music. When you see the god or goddess in a musician it’s when they’re performing their music, ya know, when you’re in that moment, in that presence. God is a living God. You can’t capture it. It’s only right here, right now (snaps his fingers), and in that moment is past, present and future. But God is of the living. Something that is recorded, it happened. I’m thankful to have my Bob Marley albums and old Sun Recording records because you can feel the magic, but I often find the most magic moments for me are jamming in my kitchen, when you have a few friends over, drinking some wineand the live shows. So the whole record business . . . it’s questionable.
MH- And you’ve never been tempted to create a more mainstream music?
KK- Whatever the design of the universeIf God calls us to speak to the nations, then we’ll speak. Most important is just to live good in your community and be a good community member, a good family member. That’s what the tenets of our music are about. That’s what our band is about . . . a family.
MH- How do you create such an authentic dub style with the players in the band coming from so many different musical backgrounds?
KK- More and more as we get older, and the line-up changes less, those that are meant to be in the band have done their homework. They have a deep knowledge, reverence for roots reggae music. Reggae music is the intermediary step between Africa (the root of all music) and America, and somehow Jamaica is the Rosetta stone, the connection to African music. So if you come to this band with a knowledge of South African blues, or white Appalachian blues, you can a find a place to plug into this band. Reggae music is a universal music.
MH- Is that what you’re all about then? That roots style?
KK- Well, we’ve done that, ya know. I think All Time, Among Them, and This Day have completed the trilogy, in a sense, of establishing ourselves. But it’s never been a museum piece bandwe’re not trying to live a day that’s been lived. So, we’ve done the past, we’ve done the present, and we’re looking to the future rhythms.
MH- And you’re releasing a new album soonWhere does this place the new record?
KK- Future rhythms, believe me. A whole new genre of music, that’s where we’re going.
MH- Tell me a little more about it.
KK- It’s heavy bass and drum music. If you study Jamaican music of today, the dancehall music, some is just drums . . . they’ve even taken out the bass. That’s what they’re saying. It’s such a profound statement, the starkness of it, because they know that the chanting will go on even if it just gets down to a bass drumthump, thump [pause], thump, thump [pause]ya know? It began with the drum and it’s gonna end with the drum. So all that I can tell you is that it’s heavy on the drums, heavy on the bass, taking out the rhythm guitar (a-skanka, a-skanka, a-skanka) that is so associated with reggae music. We’re moving away from that [skankin’] because some people can immediately label youthey want to own you.
MH- Will you release the record on your own label, I-Town?
KK- Well, that’s the plan. There’s been speculation of a larger company coming in, but we’ll see. We created the label to give us longevity, so I hope to fortify that.
MH- You guys pretty much make your living on the road, right?
KK- Yeah, we’re a traveling a band. Touring, recording music and selling records is our living, for the majority of us. Some of us still keep side jobs: teaching music, physical labor, whatnot.
MH- How did you become such a spiritually centered person?
KK- Well, being on the road, ya know. When your traveling a with a band and playing music it is a very spiritual existence because it brings forth the line of all great mystics. We’re all just pilgrims, travelers. We’re just traveling here for a little while, all of us, and you meet so much resistancehunger, fatigue, breakdown of vehicles, amps breakingthat you really have to develop a great patience. If you’re running the race for fame and vanity, those people fall by the wayside very quickly. But if you’re in it for life, you’ve got to pace yourself, control your temper. So, to make it last you must center yourself. It’s a blessing to be able to go across the country and meet so many great people.
MH- Any other specific plans for the band in the months to come?
KK- I think the future of the band is to keep doing what we’re doing and make a living at it so that we can do it for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, in that process, it will be a gradual building of appreciative fans and friends of the band, and enjoying the music. It’s been a fun story so far.