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Jah Works: Baltimore’s Bomb Squad

I recently spoke with brothers Kevin and Brian Gorman of Baltimore-based reggae outfit Jah Works. If you’re not familiar with this amazing roots crew, check out my recent article and interview with the group at World-A-Reggae.

http://www.worldareggae.com/reggaeyard/jah-works-baltimore-bomb-squad-ready-to-break/

So how did Jah Works originally come together?

(KG) “Myself, bass player Mike Hamilton, and lead singer Scott Paynter went to college together at Loyola in Bmore. We met freshman year (myself and Mike were random roommates) and by sophomore year bought guitars to learn how to play. Scott had already been in bands in HS, and was the most naturally gifted musician in the band, so we began learning stuff from him. Scott also was the one who brought the reggae influence, having been the youngest of 5 brothers, who brought him up on it. Our junior year, the 3 of us went to Belgium for the year and brought our axes with us. After a year of constant playing (among other things), we returned our senior year and started the band with another Loyola alum Eric Vincent. Once college was over, we continued to play/live in Baltimore and met Natty Roc from the local scene.”

With a group that’s been together as long as you guys, line-up changes are going to happen. Talk a little bit about the line-up changes and what you’re looking like right now.

(KG) “Being in a band is a marriage of sorts, not without it’s trials and tribulations. That being said, Jah Works currently boasts 5 original members (Kevin-guitars, Brian-Keys, Mike-bass, Roc-vocals/sax, Scott-vocals) which is saying something for a band that has been around 18 years. Our most fluxuating position over the years has been drums(6 different drummers), but that being said, Jon Pang is our longest standing drummer at 9 years , and when he needs relief, gets some from Amby Connor who has been a long time friend and drummer for JW for many years. Scotty took a 5 year hiatus from the band, but just recently rejoined. Long time member Eric Vincent and JW parted ways this spring.”

(BG) “The future of JW is an open book right now. Long story short, the band found itself on the precipice of the 2012 summer season without a lead singer. The band reached out to former original lead singer, Scott Paynter. Scott is a tremendous talent and someone the band has always had an endless well of creativity with. It was an obvious solution, though he was only available for a portion of the summer’s shows. We also reached out to our good friend Luke Mysko (lead singer of Can’t Hang). Luke is also a phenomenal singer and someone we’ve worked with in the past. So, between the two of them sub-ing on lead vocals and other shows with Roc singing alone, the summer’s calendar was salvaged. We’ve also had the pleasure of working with Amby Connor sub-ing for Pang on drums (Pang’s wife will soon be delivering their 4th child). He’s also a good friend, someone we’ve known for many years and a sick drummer. The band feels so grateful to have the support of all these people, people we call family, and we are truly blessed. The lines between who’s in the band and who’s not have really blurred. Where it goes from here, no one knows for sure, but we’re ALL having a blast and there’s been a real resurgence in the JW spirit.”

What are your thoughts on the surge in American reggae acts right now?

(KG) “It’s remarkable. Reggae is arguably as big as it’s ever been stateside, and that’s in large part due to the US based reggae based bands. Reggae, intrinsically Jamaican music, has always had a huge influence on musicians in the US, and all over the world.”

(BG) “Truthfully, it’s a little bitter sweet. We’d be lying if we said that we weren’t a little disappointed that JW never reached the level of success that others are experiencing now. While I think the band could have gone further, perhaps we peaked before the surge? Either way, we also made some tactical errors along the way. Other than that, it’s great to see American reggae playing such a big part in the World of reggae. It’s also really good to see our friends in SOJA and John Brown’s Body getting the success they deserve.”

Who are some of the acts that you’ve toured with or opened for?

(KG) “Pretty much everyone in the reggae world, we’ve shared the stage with at one time or another. (Marley clan, UB40, Buju Banton, Morgan Heritage, B.Spear, Gentleman, Is Vibe, Culture, Toots, Capleton, Beenie Man ….list goes on). Non reggae openers include Ben Harper, Pharrell w/ N.E.R.D., Soul Asylum, Live, etc).”

SOJA made the big leap to international recognition with tones of fans in South America. I have my thoughts on why they are so appealing to an international audience. Why do you think Jah Works has not yet made that leap?

(KG) “SOJA have MADE all there opportunities and when those opportunities presented themselves, they made the most of them. The great sound they have is a given and a prerequisite for success. They also have outstanding management that works solely and tirelessly to open doors for them. This is also a prerequisite for success in this day and age. Clive Davis isn’t strolling into local dives looking for the next gem. You have to make yourself impossible to ignore, and SOJA has done that on all levels. I’ll also note that as happy as I am for them and there success, I’m equally impressed with how humble and real they’ve stayed as people. Good bunch of guys.

As for Jah Works, I’m certainly biased on this, but I don’t think it’s the quality of the music (performed live or on record) that’s held us from reaching higher levels. It’s been a combination of not having consistent, dedicated management, playing it too safe by playing cover songs and staying mostly local, as well as periods of internal discord that have held us back. Looking at the timeline of reggae’s rise in the US, maybe we peaked too early.

All that said, I’m still very proud of all we’ve accomplished in our long history, and will say that Jah Works has had positive influence on other bands in the area and been a band that others look up to b/c of both our sound and tenure in the industry. Even SOJA at one point early in their career looked at us to see how we did things, both from a musical and business perspective, and I’m sure noted what to do and what not to do. As they have improved their position in the industry in recent years, it’s been they who have been the example of what to do, and they who have lended a helping hand to us(and many others) in terms of opportunities and information. Everyone who has moved up the ladder, so to speak, has caught some breaks and caught a helping hand along the way.

The beauty for Jah Works is that the story isn’t over. The end is still yet to be written.”

(BG) “While the band has performed internationally, a lot of the performances were for Armed Forces tours or tours that the band booked themselves. The band, despite several attempts, never acquired the type of management/booking infrastructure to really test those waters. The JW sound (and reggae in general) is very universal, I like to think we would be successful overseas given the opportunity. If we can be successful with reggae on the east coast of the US, we can be successful anywhere.”

You guys got the chance to play overseas a few times. What was that like and how were you received?

(KG) “The overseas trips we’ve done have been some of the best experiences we’ve had in our history. Both for the opportunity to see places we haven’t seen and b/c of all the great people we’ve met. You really feel like you’re “making it” as a band when you’re getting paid to play music in exotic parts of the world.”

You guys are like the “Road Warriors” of east coast reggae, constant touring, festivals, and supporting slots. What’s the most frustrating aspect of constantly touring?

(KG) “Playing poorly attended shows is the most draining. On the contrary, when the crowd is live, it’s an energy that carries you forward.”

(BG) “Truthfully, the band doesn’t tour like we used to. Nowadays the difficulty lies in trying to coordinate playing several shows a week around day jobs and family/home lives. Back when we were touring more frequently and farther (back when we were living solely off the music), it was tough. We’d invest a lot of time and money into touring a particular circuit and if/when it started to pay off 6 months or a year down the line, it wouldn’t necessarily last. The club that you were packing closes down and you find yourself starting over. In short, the farther you go from home, the more expensive it is and the less money you make.”

Jah Works has had considerable success writing and marketing original music. How difficult is it to come with something new, unique, and pleasing to the fans?

(KG) “Coming up with new music has never been difficult for the band. What at times has been difficult (esp lately) is finding the time to get everyone together to work on music and record it. Lately, with families growing and responsibilities increasing, it’s been tough to make this necessary time consistently. Once the time is made, making music comes effortlessly most of the time, which is a gift we all share together.”

(BG) “One of the biggest difficulties I find with original music is that it’s hard to get in sync with your fans. The period we’re most excited about an original song or album is usually during the process of writing or recording it, but it takes months, sometimes years, before your fans really start to catch on to it. By that time, we’ve played the songs out hundreds of times and our excitement for it has waned. That being said, lately we’ve been dipping back into our catalog and both the band and our fans have been really feeling it…songs like “Crush” from 2001’s Bassmentality come to mind.”

You guys have a great live sound with amazing vocal work by Roc. Is this sound something you had to work to get, or did it just happen? (I’m not talking about how skilled you are as musicians, or your abilities to keep a riddim, but that nice, deep, clean, sharp live sound you have).

(KG) “I guess any band that has played together for any great length of time hits a point where it just locks effortlessly. I remember when we got our first really tight reggae drummer, and we realized how tight we could be as a band. I think we also realized that we don’t necessarily have any “virtuoso’s” in the band, so we always paid extra attention to playing very tightly, and to coming up with interesting arrangements to showcase that tightness, and I believe to a large degree, that’s become a trademark of our band.”

(BG) “Probably a little of both. From a vibe standpoint, we’ve always had something special. Perhaps it’s the right people with the right skill sets at the right positions. I think what we create together is more than the sum of it’s parts. But technically speaking, we’ve had to work at it. Trust me, we didn’t sound like this in 1994!”

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