Don’t call the Aggrolites’ music ska just because it doesn’t sound like Bob Marley
For a lot of people, Bob Marley is the embodiment of reggae. But the style existed a decade before the world knew who he was, and evolved quickly in its early years. L.A.’s Aggrolites, who formed in 2002, are influenced by the lesser-known, upbeat pop-reggae sound from the late ’60s, as opposed to the slowed-down, bass-heavy version from the ’70s.
“That’s roots reggae. We’re not that,” says lead singer/guitarist Jesse Wagner. “People hear us and they’re like, ‘this is more like soul or funk.’ People compare us to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones—‘oh you’re like ska,’ or ‘you’re like the Temptations.’ No, this is reggae.”
The term often used is “skinhead reggae,” a name that originated in England when working-class Brits were listening to reggae in the ’60s. But it’s more appropriate that the Aggrolites call themselves “dirty reggae”—the name of their first album—because it captures the rawness of both their retro and modern-day elements (Wagner’s gruff, raspy voice, for instance, sounds like something out of a punk band).
“We’re never going to play reggae like the Jamaicans. We’re not from that era. We’re influenced by it, but we could never call ourselves this straight-up band that plays reggae,” says Wagner. “We love the old ’69 reggae sound, how it would be scratchy and gritty and analog, a live-in-a-room kind of vibe. That little flaw that the guitar player played makes the song the best thing in the world, even though it’s a bad note. A lot of bands record one take at a time. We’re like, ‘no, let’s all get in a room and play live.’ Just dirty.”
Before the Aggrolites, Wagner played in the ’90s reggae band Rhythm Doctors, while other members were in the reggae band the Vessels. They played late ’60s reggae-style music, too—while just about every other band in SoCal was playing hyper-kinetic third-wave ska-punk. The Aggrolites formed after the band’s members were brought together for a recording session backing ska pioneer Derick Morgan. The album never got released, but the chemistry was there immediately.
“It was picking the best of the people we loved the most to put the Aggrolites together,” Wagner says. “We were trying to do for reggae what Hepcat did for ska: bring reggae back—like old-school reggae, the traditional style of reggae—to the masses.”
The group toured hard for eight years and released several albums. They developed a noteworthy following because of their work ethic, but also had a few breaks along the way, like signing with Hellcat Records in 2005, performing on Yo Gabba Gabba in 2007, and collaborating with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong on his first solo record, A Poet’s Life, that same year.
The days of being road warriors are over for the group, but they are still very much an active band.
“We’re not doing 250 days a year on the road anymore. Everybody needed a break to get back to sanity. We could if we wanted to, but we don’t want to. We want to slow things down for a bit,” Wagner says.
It’s also been four years since their last full length, and they aren’t in any rush to record their next one, though they still record and release new music. They just have a different mindset about it now.
“I don’t think it really means anything to put out a full-length album now. We tour and constantly put out new music, and that’s where we’re at. We don’t need to have a big campaign of a release of an album. We have three songs in the works right now,” Wagner says.
INFO: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $15/adv, $20/door. 479-1854.
’LITES COME UP L.A.’s Aggrolites play Moe’s Alley on Friday, Dec. 4.