Ted Sirota Interview
Ted Sirota is a Chicago-based drummer. His latest album, The Scientist Meets Ted Sirota’s Heavyweight Dub, is one of my favorite reggae/dub releases of 2014. The album was produced by legendary dub producer Scientist. Ted recently discussed his favorite drummers, how he got into reggae and dub, how Ted Sirota’s Heavyweight Dub came together and advice to musicians just starting out. For more info on Ted Sirota, check out http://www.tedsirota.com/music/
What was your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memories…Hmm…That’s tough. I would have to say what comes to mind most is spinning records on my Mickey Mouse turntable. That thing was so magical to me. The tone arm looked like Mickey Mouse’s arm and I just loved the the process of playing records on that. I remember wearing out Don McLean’s “American Pie” I have an older cousin who used to babysit for me and he claims he used to play me Bob Dylan, but my first strong memories have to do with the record player.
What got you interested in playing the drums?
It was sort of random. In 5th grade we were able to join band at school and choose an instrument. I was a very athletic kid and I think I was attracted to the physical nature of percussion. It looked like the most fun to me. That’s pretty much it. Percussion then started to grow on me over the course of time until I really identified with it.
Who are some of your favorite drummers and why?
I could list hundreds but I’ll try to narrow it down – Max Roach, Ed Blackwell, Alan Dawson, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, Pete La Roca, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones, Joe Hunt, Dannie Richmond, Vernell Fournier, Paul Motian, Tony Allen, Carlton Barrett, Lloyd Knibb, Sly Dunbar, Style Scott, Zigaboo Modeliste, Idris Muhammad Al Jackson Jr., Howard Grimes, Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, James Gadson, Milton Banana, Dom Um Romao, All because of their feel, soul, creativity, unpredictability, musicality and groove.
What do you enjoy most about the music scene in Chicago?
Chicago is a vast city. People from the coasts don’t understand how huge Chicago is. I’ve been here most of my life and have been a professional musician here for 22 years and I’m still meeting new cats every week. I like the open mindedness of the city. It’s not so overcrowded that you get pigeon holed into one thing. Musicians can get involved in a number of different scenes if they are so inclined. I feel like there is a soulfulness that is still important to Chicagoans. You can get intellectual here, but at some point you have to bring it back to the soul in order to keep the masses interested. I’ve noticed over the past 15 years or so that more and more younger musicians are choosing to move to Chicago rather than New York, so right now I think what I like best is that there is a continual influx of good young musicians coming to the city and keeping the scene vibrant. I also like the legacy here from people and bands like Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Von Freeman, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, etc. There’s a rich history of music in Chicago and I’m just trying to be a part of continuing that forward.
What first got you interested in reggae and dub?
I first got interested in Reggae in 1980. I was hearing ‘Buffalo Soldier’ on the radio around the time Bob Marley died. I wasn’t really aware of Reggae before then. I started hearing more and more Bob Marley and also the Police at the same time. I found out about Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer from listening to Bob. I heard about Steel Pulse because they were opening up for the Police on a show in the Chicago area. The Clash, The English Beat and The Specials also started turning my ears toward Jamaica. After I discovered Steel Pulse I found out about Black Uhuru and started digging them big time. Then it was Jimmy Cliff and the ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack, which lead to Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and all the groups on that record. Then from there – Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, and tons of the ‘Roots’ stuff. Then the dancehall stuff from the early-mid 80’s – Yellowman, Barrington Levy, Frankie Paul, Toyan, Josey Wales, Half Pint, Johnny Osbourne, Sugar Minott, Little John, Michael Palmer etc. etc. etc. I was hooked completely by that point. Mutabaruka’s record “Check It!” was always one of my favorites. I can’t tell you what it was about reggae that attracted me. I guess it was just something about the pace and the groove of the music, and the simplicity and space in the music that I related to.
I was pretty much unaware of dub back then. I was listening to it on the B side of records, but I didn’t think of it as a ‘style’ of music. To me it was just reggae with most of the lyrics stripped out and some delays, reverbs, and other effects added. It was just an extension of the groove to me – an extended remix. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that I really started listening with a purpose to King Tubby, Scratch Perry, Scientist, Augustus Pablo etc. The first actual dub record I owned was Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘LKJ in Dub’. Sometimes it’s hard to remember life without the Internet. Back then it was mostly just going to record stores and taking a chance on something that looked like it might be interesting. That’s pretty much how I discovered all this music and one thing lead to another. It wasn’t being played on the radio. I didn’t have any friends turning me on to the music. I felt like I was on a quest in some ways, and that can be addictive.
I kind of lost interest in reggae at the tail end of the Buju Banton era. During that time and afterwards most of the new music I heard coming out sounded like crap to me. That’s when I started looking back through the history of Jamaican music more and getting into the dub recordings more and more. That has continued up until today.
How did Ted Sirota’s Heavyweight Dub get started?
Heavyweight Dub got started because I felt like I was ready for a change of direction as a musician. I have a jazz band called Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls, which I’ve been leading since 1996. I’ve written some reggae-influenced tunes for that band that we’ve played over the years. Audiences always seemed to respond favorably to the music I wrote with different grooves like ska, reggae, afro-beat. To be honest, I was getting a little tired of the jazz ‘scene’ and playing gigs where you look out and by the expressions on the audiences’ faces you would think they were at the dentist’s office. Jazz audiences often look like they are being tortured and are in misery. I was also getting tired of audiences talking over the music all the time. I’m trying to absorb myself in the music and I have to hear somebody’s conversation at the table next to me about some inane bullshit, and they’re staring at their phones the whole time. I wanted to be involved with some music where people are expected to dance and have a good time. Also, this music is primarily played in different settings and venues. I don’t have to worry about being distracted by audiences because I can’t hear their conversations when I’m playing Reggae. The music is louder and I’m more separated from the audience.
But the main reason is that I love the music and I was excited about digging deeper and deeper into the music and challenging myself musically – as a drummer, composer, and bandleader. There’s not a TON of bands out there doing this kind of thing and I felt it would give me some room to breath and present something that is somewhat unique. I never considered leading my own reggae band for various reasons, but I’ve always wanted to play reggae in a serious way, and not just Bob Marley covers for drunks with fake dreadlock wigs and ‘Irie Mon’ t-shirts. Since I started this band I’ve discovered SO much more Jamaican music that I was not familiar with before. I’ve been discovering the link between jazz & reggae more and more through the music of Tommy McCook, Cedric I’m Brooks, Ernest Ranglin, Jackie Mittoo, Dave Madden, Don Drummond etc. And so much of the music I’m discovering still sounds so fresh decades later. I want to be part of continuing the legacy of this great music and keeping it alive for people to hear in person. I want to do it in a way that pays tribute to the people that created this music but also put my own stamp on it and consider the times that we are living in today.
How did your collaboration with legendary dub producer the Scientist come together?
I was reading some Scientist interviews online and was listening to a lot of Scientist’s work. I really liked and respected the music that he helped produce, especially with Flabba Holt, Style Scott and Roots Radics. I followed a link to dubmusic.com and suspected that it was his website. I wrote an email saying that I was a fan, had started a Dub band in Chicago, and hoped to cross paths with him at some point. I didn’t hear back and forgot about the email, but a couple months later I got a call from Scientist and that’s when we started talking about collaborating on a record.
What have been the biggest challenges with the Heavyweight Dub project?
The biggest challenges with Heavyweight Dub have been 1) finding the right musicians to be a part of it. 2) The Kickstarter was a HUGE challenge and drained the hell out of me, but it was successful and allowed us to bring Scientist to Chicago to record and mix the record and to release it. 3) managing a 10 piece band and trying to get gigs where I can pay a band that size. With a band this size it’s nearly impossible to get a rehearsal where everybody is available. I finally feel really happy with the lineup of musicians I have at this point, but we have yet to have a rehearsal where everybody in the band was present at the same time. I had intended to form a smaller group, but my ears followed the music and I ended up with a big band. The advantage of that is I believe that we have achieved that ‘heavyweight’ sound – a rich, full sound that can’t be achieved otherwise. The disadvantage is it’s harder to manage, as I mentioned, and it’s also harder to get out on the road without losing money.
How do you approach the live shows with Heavyweight Dub differently from your work in the studio?
Live and studio are completely different with this music – like night and day. Dub is a genre that was created in the studio, so as a live band we are kind of coming at it from the opposite direction. In a studio setting you have much more control over everything as far as ‘dubbing’ the music is concerned. In the studio you have isolation of tracks, digital editing, unlimited channels and effects etc. On the live shows we have Anthony Abbinanti aka “King Tony” from the Drastics live mixing us. Anthony really knows this style of music deeply and is remarkable at what he does. He really turns us into a live Dub experience, rather than just a band tinkering with some effects and hinting at Dub. It’s a very difficult thing to do in a live setting and there is no instruction manual for making it happen. Since he can’t mute musicians in a live setting, the musicians are responsible for dropping in and out of the music and leaving space. It’s a very tricky and risky scenario musically. It’s almost like a game in some ways. Everybody really has to be listening to one another and making sure to leave space in the music. It’s easy to get excited in a live show and start playing more notes and rushing the tempos because of the energy of the crowd. We have to remain disciplined and we have to breathe and remain relaxed in order for the music to come out the right way. Everybody has to trust each other and really work as a unit. You can’t just go on ‘auto-pilot’.
What advice would you give to musicians just starting out?
My advice to musicians starting out would be to take advantage of the technology available to you today. Understand what people had to go through in the past to get their hands on a record, or transcribe a track, or slow down music so we could learn it better. We had to struggle and put tons of effort into this type of stuff, yet today it’s all instantly available to you at the touch of a finger. Take advantage of that!!! Don’t take it for granted. The tools that we have at our disposal these days just blows my mind. Understand the world around you, or try to. Don’t just make ‘art for art’s sake’. Try to inspire people and take inspiration from them and work that into your music. Make yourself vulnerable and take risks. Don’t play it safe all the time. Put your neck on the line musically and accept the consequences – good or bad. Practice a lot but play with other people as much as possible. You can’t learn to swim without getting in the pool. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Emulating other musicians can be good for learning music but eventually you must expose who YOU are through the music if you want to be considered an artist. Play as many styles of music you can and learn about other cultures and how that culture relates to their music. Finally, don’t expect to make a living as a musician – it’s getting harder and harder to do so, but keep striving for that if that’s something you want. There are people out there still making a good living in the music industry, but it takes hard work and luck. You might put in a lot of hard work but never get lucky, therefore you have to play music because you love to do it above all else, or else you’ll end up angry, resentful, and bitter.