Tommy Benedetti: “Future Roots”

Tommy Benedetti is the drummer and co-founder of reggae band John Brown’s Body. The Boston-based group formed in 1995, and put on a great live show. Tommy recently wrote in to discuss bringing reggae to international crowds, wanting to tour with Radiohead, and the evolution of John Brown’s Body’s sound.

How did John Brown’s Body first come together?
JBB was formed around 1995-96. A few of us had performed together in a band called The Tribulations. That band broke up in 1995 and after a brief break the core of The Tribulations got back together to write and record some new music. Those sessions became the “All Time” record, and John Brown’s Body was born. We really weren’t intending on being a full on touring band at first, but when the record started making some waves, so we decided to start doing some shows. Things kinda went from there.

When did you start playing drums?
I started playing drums at age 13. I remember seeing old live Van Halen videos on MTV, which was new at the time, and Alex Van Halen had a huge kit, with gongs, and fire extinguishers, and he was killing it. That was it for me.

Do you remember the first reggae album you heard?
I was really lucky. When I got The Tribulations gig, I had just finished at Berklee College of Music in Boston and wasn’t very familiar with reggae. The Tribulations guys, on the other hand, had been listening to reggae and funk and Motown since high school. So they had very extensive collections of music and gave me a ton of stuff to listen to. A few in particular that I remember are Burning Spear-Live in Paris, The Gladiators-Proverbial Reggae, Linton Kwesi Johnson-Dread beat and Blood, along with more “known” artists like Sly and Robbie and The Wailers of course.

Who are some of your favorite reggae drummers and why?
Man, there are so many … Sly Dunbar and Mikey “boo” Richards are two of my favorites. Sly of course played on the real crucial Black Uhuru records in the 80’s and Mikey played on many of Lee Perry’s classic Black Ark sessions. Reggae drumming is deceivingly simple sounding. It’s about feel, subtlety, musicality… real intangibles… and it’s about supporting the song. Sly,in particular,is known for his tuff, militant approach to drumming, which i love. But i was also raised on John Bonham, Steve Gadd, Matt Chamberlain… real feel players. As far as current reggae, Squiddly Cole from Stephen Marley’s band is the man!

What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about reggae?
That you have to be from Jamaica to play reggae. Thanks to the influence of Bob Marley, reggae has influenced people in every corner of the planet. Some of my favorite reggae these days isn ’t coming from Jamaica… it’s Alborosie from Italy, Midnite from St. Croix, Gentleman from Germany…We just got back from New Zealand and there’s a great scene there with our brothers The Black Seeds leading the charge. Also that reggae is just beachtime and fruity drink music. Some of my favorite stuff is the heavy, conscious, minor key tunes. Oddly enough, some of the dark dub stuff makes me think of armageddon, not the beach!!!

Your album, “Amplify,” debuted at number one on Billboard’s reggae chart. What is it about your music that makes it have such a wide appeal?
Well we do pretty well, but we have not had “commercial” success. We are an independent band, on an independent label. But i do think in the last few years, our music and live show have gone through an evolution that has opened us up to a wider audience, which is great. JBB music is for everyone. Debuting at #1 was a notable milestone for us for sure. “Amplify” was our first record back after going through some significant personnel changes, so it showed us that people were still interested in what JBB was doing, which is very gratifying.

John Brown’s Body has been around since 1995. How has your sound evolved?
It has evolved significantly. We started off with a more classic roots approach to songwriting and arranging. After making three records, we were feeling the need to push ourselves musically and sonically. That resulted in the “Spirits All Around Us” record on Shanachie. That album featured three songs from Elliot, who up til then had sang mostly harmony, while Kevin Kinsella did the songwriting and lead singing. Elliot stepping forward was a turning point. Today we call our sound “future roots”. We embrace a more modern, more rounded approach to our sound. Throughout all these changes though, there is a common thread that I believe is unique to the JBB sound.

Do you follow a certain process when creating songs?
There are a couple of ways that our songs come to life. The most common is that Elliot will bring us a pretty detailed demo of what he has written. We then will tweak it a bit, maybe our horns will come up with a few new line ideas and we just jam it out. The other way is during soundcheck while warming up, sometimes we will stumble onto a cool idea, which is documented, and we expand on it from there.

Do you try songs out on the road before going into the studio?
Yes, for sure. A few songs along the way were put together in the studio … “So Aware” and “Make Your Move” off of “Amplify” come to mind… but mostly we take new tunes to the stage to flesh them out, because that is where we spend most our our time.

You tour a ton. Do you have a favorite memory from being onstage?
Honestly, with every tour comes new highlights, and I feel lucky to be able to say that after all these years. There have been too many highlights to mention, but here are a few … playing Red Rocks in Colorado, backing up Justin Hinds at the Grassroots festival in front of 5000 people, a late night headlining slot also at Grassroots performing to 8000 people, our first time in Hawaii, most recently… playing in London and Auckland, New Zealand…damn… I could go on…

You tour around the world. How does the audience abroad respond to your music?
Very well so far. We just got back from support slots in UK and New Zealand, which went amazingly well. In May, I think we’re heading back overseas for some headlining shows in France and Germany so we’ll see. www

John Brown’s Body has toured with a wide range of artists. What artists
would you love to tour with that you haven’t?
The Marley’s (Stephen and Damian), The Roots, Radiohead, Mute Math…to name a few.

You guys put on a very energetic live show. Do you have a method for creating setlists?
Elliot writes the setlist every night. He tries to mix it up a bit to keep it interesting, but over the years we’ve found certain tunes that work at certain times of the show so we just go with the flow.

What is your biggest piece of advice to up-and-coming reggae musicians?
Have big ears. Immerse yourself in the music … be yourself… when you find something that you love to do in life, and you give yourself to it, nothing can ever take that away.

For more info on John Brown’s Body, check out

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