Junior Marvin: Spreading Jah Message

It's been thirty-one years since a group of ambitious teenagers named Peter Macintosh, Bunny Livingston, and Robert Nesta Marley founded the singing group, the Wailing Wailers. Remarkably, in 1994, after three decades of titanic changes, the group's musical descendants are still a central force in Reggae music.

With the release of Jah Message, the Wailers Band's third studio effort, the group finds itself reasserting its deep Reggae roots and confirming in no uncertain terms that its power is as strong as ever.

I spoke with Wailers' guitarist and frontman Junior Marvin this past May as the band was finishing its U.S. tour.

Bring me up to date on what the Wailers Band is doing these days. What have you been up to in the past year...

We worked on a song we put together for the Feed the Children project with a lot of Reggae artists on it...Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Dennis Brown, Snow. And that's due to come out sometime this summer. And we also worked on a new album which is called Jah Message which is coming out on the twenty-fourth of this month in Europe and we're hoping to get a release in the States by the end of July or August.

What label's it on over there?

It's on a new label called SPV out of Germany. We're gonna do an eight week tour of Europe starting on the second of June. At the end of that tour we hope to come back to the States and do a promotional tour for this album.

What else can you tell me about the new album?

Well, basically, it's a message album. There's a lot of Wailers 'Legend' type sounds. Titles like "Jah Love," "Wrong Tree," "Rastaman Sound." It's a very rootsy type album. We have a few guests on there like Cat Coore from Third World, and Sly Dunbar. Original Wailer Tyrone Downie is on the album. Keyboard player Martin Batista, who worked with us on I.D. and Majestic Warriors.

Tyrone toured with you in the Wailers Band for a while, right?

Yea. He was with the Wailers from like mid-70's, around '75. He's been with the Wailers a long time. He toured with Ziggy for a while. Then he took a break from touring and did a lot of session work in Jamaica. He worked on the last album with us.

Is Al (Anderson) still involved with the band?

Well, he is. We've got a big tour planned next year for Bob's fiftieth Birthday anniversary with all the original members including Al. At the moment I believe he's doing work with Bass Culture in Germany.

What else about the album should people know?

Like I said, it's very rootsy. It's got one acoustic song on it. We had some co-writing with Desmond Smith who worked with Bob on the Uprising and Survival albums. Family Man wrote a couple songs on the album, I wrote a few. We have an outside writer from California who wrote a song called "Where is Love." So we're looking forward to getting maybe three or four singles out of this album when it does come out in the States. I think it'll do better than the other two albums. Although one of them got nominated for a Grammy, it didn't get a lot of airplay and promotion.

Majestic Warriors did pretty good on the college market, but with the record industry as it is, you have to have a lot of promotion for people to even know that you have an album out, but we were happy with the album.

Is it difficult to present new material to an audience, because people want to hear all Bob's old songs?

It's not hard, because we were part of developing those songs in the beginning. You don't feel alienated to it. I enjoy all those songs still, I think they're great songs. We have new songs that we're writing all the time. As long as people love those songs, there's nothing wrong in giving them what they want.

Was there any commercial pressure when you recorded the new album?

We're not under any pressure, because we're not committed to any label who says 'you have to do this, or you have to have an album ready in two weeks.' We more or less do it when we have the inspiration. When we get together, we go into it and say, 'okay we have about forty songs, we only need ten.' We try to break it down, (to get) everyone's favorite. We try to get a concept and get the songs that suit the concept.

What's the process like when this band writes songs. What do each of you bring?

Well it can be sometimes just a bassline or sometimes just some words. Whenever we rehearse, we get a chance to jam a little bit, and somebody will say 'let's try this progression,' and we'll have maybe half a song and we'll come back and have some more words. It'll grow, you grow with it, give it a couple of months just playing and eventually you find an arrangement that everyone likes. Sometimes they come instantly, and sometimes they take a couple of years. There's a song on the new album that I wrote about fourteen years ago. So there's no guarantee when it'll come out, but normally it'll come out at a time when you feel it the most.

Do you find it difficult to remember a song for that long or do you put it down on tape and keep it?

I don't really find it hard to remember, but I try to keep most of them on tape so you have a rough idea of where you started. How it ends up is another thing. Most of us have home studios, most people make their own demos, bring the cassette to rehearsal, and we listen and pick out one or two that we like and try it. No one gets offended if the song isn't done, cause maybe it's not the time for that song. Just the ones that you feel have that immanent kind of feeling. 'Okay, this one feels like we should really do it now.'

Go back, if you would, to the time around Bob's death. What was that time like?

It was a little of what you would call stress nowadays. It was not really stressful, it was more like not knowing what would happen, how things would turn out. It was like, kind of unexpected as well, with his wishes of (our) carrying on. (We thought) 'let's stick with the positive energy, don't get too negative about it. These things happen.' We just kept playing, kept rehearsing a lot. We were asked to come and do special tribute shows. We didn't have any time off to think too deeply into it, we just kept on playing. Then we started doing tours pretty regular. The first big tour we did was the Reggae Sunsplash Tour of Europe, and then we did the Legend Tour with the I-threes and Ziggy and the whole Marley family. We continued doing shows all over the globe. A lot of people never got the chance to see Bob, but they figure, 'the Wailers are still here.'

It must have been hard when Carly passed away...

Yea, that was rough, because he was such an original. His style is really what made Reggae what it is today.

Yea, he and Family Man were the original drums and bass. There's Sly and Robbie, but they'll tell you...

Family Man taught Robbie, and they've done exceptionally well.

Tell me about some of your sessions. Obviously Alpha Blondy...

He came down to Jamaica and did a single with Family Man called "Cocody Rock" which did very well on the West coast of Africa. Then he wanted to do an album, and he came back and we did Jerusalem. We recorded all of it at Tuff Gong in Kingston. It was a very easy session, cause he (has) a very easy, laid back vibe. He respects Family Man a lot. Family Man co-produced the album. It was a big hit around Europe.

We also did an album, Hail H.I.M., with Burning Spear. That's one of my favorites.

Give me kind of a comparison of working on an album with Burning Spear to working on an album with Alpha or working on an album with Bob...

The difference was the vocal would carry in a certain direction. Alpha Blondy's got a very kind of bluesy type of thing and Burning Spear, he's bluesy, but he's very hypnotic and spiritual. It has that kind of Nyabinghi Rasta type vibe to it. And Bob's thing, it has a strong message and a very very strong, I don't know, it's like a spiritual thing, it really grabs you. He was very articulate and crafty with how things were done. There's a lot of energy put into Bob's things as well, a lot of time and energy. So you can actually hear the amount of work that went into it. There was a lot of thought, a lot of time and a lot of patience, a lot of hard work -- and you can feel it.

We never spent as much time on the Alpha Blondy album, but the time we did spend on it was very intense and everyone played as well as they could. Rather than trying to make it sound like Bob, we tried to make it sound like an Alpha sound. For example, a lot of the guitar work that I did on Hail H.I.M., Burning Spear, I never used those sounds on any other album. And a lot of the sounds I used on Alpha Blondy's album, I never used on Bob's albums. So each project got its own sound.
That's something that we've always done. We never try to give everyone the same sound, because then it becomes boring and monotonous and it's not as fresh. Whereas when you hear an Alpha Blondy track, you don't say 'this came from this Bob Marley track.'

You say Bob's albums took a lot of time. Was it a similar process every time, or did each session have its own mood...

Each had a different mood, because for example, Exodus and Kaya were finished up in England. It started off in Jamaica and went to Nassau in the Bahamas and then came to England. We did a lot of things in England. Uprising and Survival were done in Jamaica. Just the temperature (alone) was different. The whole vibe was different. Maybe we didn't eat as much in Jamaica as we did in England when it was cold. You have a different type of energy level. In Jamaica, we spent a lot of time in the studio. In England also, but it was a different time of the day. In England we'd be in the studio from maybe like six in the evening right through until as late as we could stay. In Jamaica, it was more like a twenty-four hour thing. We'd take it in shifts sometimes. We always spent a lot of time on the albums though, a lot of work.

What do you think is the best, or your best, or the band's best album?

I don't know if there's a best, because the way Bob approached things, it was like first and last. He went into it one-hundred and ten percent. I think my favorite is Exodus, cause it was the first one that I came in on. They were my favorite Reggae band, and when I met them, I thought, 'this isn't real.' Playing on Exodus was like a dream come true. It will always be the one that got me started with the Wailers. But I enjoyed all the albums and I really enjoyed working with Bob. He brought a lot out of me. He pushed really hard to make you get more disciplined, so you were more focused in what you were doing. In the beginning I thought 'this guy is tough to work with,' but after I picked up on what he was doing, I thought 'this guy knows what he's doing,' because he made you get the best out of yourself, or as good as you could at the time.

How did the opportunity to join the Wailers come about?

I was working with Steve Winwood of Traffic on his solo album, Arc Of The Diver, and he was working with Chris Blackwell also, and he (Blackwell) heard my guitar playing and thought it was Steve. He said, 'No, it's this guy down the road.' That's how I met Blackwell, and he told me right away he said, 'you'd be perfect for the Wailers,' and I thought, 'you must be kidding.' Then I met Bob and in a matter of an hour, I was in the band. We jammed together for like three songs and he said, 'If you want it, it's yours.' I was very honored to be given that opportunity.

That was in '76?

No, '77. February 14th.

I bet that was quite a day in your life.

Yea, changed it totally.

Copyright 1994, Carter Van Pelt

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