It's a long way from the jam band environs of Boulder Colorado to the reggae capital of Kingston, Jamaica, but Mr Anonymous (AKA Jeep MacNichol) has made the physical and musical journey to create and record the ultimate chill-vibe party albums with his reggae music heroes. His first self-titled CD called 'Mr Anonymous' was released in 2005. The second 'Mr Anonymous 2' makes its debut on April 19th.
MacNichol cut his musical chops as the drummer for The Samples in the 1990's when the band was at its peak and building a large and loyal audience from its regular slot on the HORDE tour and its sold out national tours across the U.S. (featuring an unknown opening act named the Dave Matthews Band). Though The Samples fell more squarely into the jam band scene of Phish, Blues Travellers and Dave Matthews Band, MacNichol brought a strong ska and reggae sensibility to the band that can be heard throughout their music.
After leaving The Samples in 1997, MacNichol recorded two solo records and toured the U.S. four times. His second solo record included Michael Rose of Black Uhuru on two tracks and this gave him the inspiration for his latest project. MacNichol tracked the first 'Mr Anonymous' album during a ten-week period in 2003 that involved three separate trips to Jamaica. Teaming up with music legends Sly and Robbie, Bounty Killer, Black Uhuru's Michael Rose and Dave Wakeling from The Beat, he created a unique blend of reggae, trip-hop and dub. He's now followed the first CD up with volume number two which fits nicely into the footsteps of its predecessor. It's an eclectic and creative endeavor that fuses reggae, dancehall, dub, hip-hop and electronica in unique and surprising ways.
Of particular interest to fans of The Beat, will be MacNichol's separate musical collaborations with Dave Wakeling, Ranking Roger and Ranking Jr. Indeed, the song 'Good Vibe' from the first recording sounds like a long-lost, unrecorded classic from The Beat with Wakeling and Michael Rose (from Black Uhuru taking Roger's role) riding an understated guitar and cowbell groove.
Here is video of 'Good Vibe' from the first Mr Anonymous LP:
MacNichol was kind enough to conduct an interview with me about his love of reggae and ska, the genesis of the Mr Anonymous project and whose a better toaster: Ranking Roger or his son Ranking Jr.?
What are you earliest memories related to reggae and ska music? What was the first ska or reggae record you ever bought?
I have a really specific answer to this question. My earliest memory of reggae music was watching Peter Tosh appear on Saturday Night Live with Mick Jagger performing the song "Walk And Don't Look Back". At the time, I was in 7th grade and really had never played a drumset...only bongos which I loved. I remember setting my Craig Cassette player next to the t.v. and taping the song. And then setting up a trashcan drumset in my room to try to play that beat.
Then the following summer, I went on a trip to Canada with my older cousin who brought a boombox and a bunch of reggae cassettes including Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Bob Marley, etc...and I was HOOKED. I grew up in Toledo Ohio, and the music that I grooved on up to that point was all of the funk coming out of Detroit, Cleveland, and Dayton...bands like Zapp, Lakeside, Stevie Wonder, The Gap band, S.O.S Band, The Barkays, etc. When I got back from the trip, the first "Reggae" album I bought was "Rastaman Vibration" by Bob Marley. I used to STUDY every track on that album. For me the sound of the music was and is very visual, like elements in the jungle, and it really sunk deeply in my soul.
Were you a fan of the 2-Tone bands from the UK? Did they have an influence on your approach to playing the drums or your songwriting?
Yes I was a fan of the 2-Tone bands from the UK. I would have to say The English Beat was at the top of the list because of their reggae influence. The Beat's drummer Everett Moreton was a huge influence on my drumming because his style was and is utterly unique...like a mix of reggae meets punk energy. There is not another drummer on the planet who had that "Beat" groove with the 4 on the floor kick and sidestick hits...It is HIS signature style!!! AND musically and vocally the sound of Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger with their signature styles. There are NO other singers on the planet who sound like either one of them, both individually or together. For me the English Beat sound was a jungle meets punk meets carnival island vibe, all wrapped in one. The songs all had a great sense of pop and melody but were well disguised with punk intensity and energy.
The Samples had a reggae vibe on many of their songs. Was that a direct result of your interest in reggae music?
Absolutely. As far as drumming, my biggest influences were Stewart Copeland and Carleton Barrett (The Wailers) so anything I laid down was going to have a taste of that vibe for sure. The keyboardest (Al Laughlin) was also a huge contributor to the reggae element in The Samples. I would say I grooved off of his playing more than anything because he played keyboard like a percussionist and rocked the bubble. He had a sense of what NOT to play as much as what TO play, and his style was very percussive and visual which inspired me to augment those flavors.
What gave you the original inspiration to record the first Mr Anonymous CD? Did you already have connections in Jamaica? What were the first sessions like? Was it mostly improvised on the spot?
Well the first Mr. Anonymous album really FELL together in a lot of ways. I didn't really pre-plan the concept at the beginning like "here are a bunch of tunes that I'm going to take to Jamaica and get singers to perform on". It initially started out as another "Jeep" album. I had already recorded two heavier "Space Pop" albums after I left The Samples and toured the punk rock circuit under the name Jeep, and this was going to be a third Jeep album. But creatively, the songs I was writing for the album were more acoustic and melody oriented as well as the grooves more 'Dancehall' oriented. I had collaborated with Michael Rose from Black Uhuru on my previous Jeep album called "Cool And Easy", and I thought it would be fun to do another track with him. Also at the same time(I know this is confusing), I had just gotten off tour from the Jeep "Cool And Easy" tour and had done some shows with Dave Wakeling. I gave him a copy of "Cool And Easy" which he really liked and expressed that he would like to make some music together.....so....I put 2 and 2 together and made the song "Good Vibe" where Michael Rose sings the verse and Dave Wakeling sings the chorus.
From that point everything started to fall into place...Michael put me in touch with Cutty Ranks...Cutty put me in touch with Sly&Robbie...and everything snowballed from there. People started showing up at the studios down there and just introducing themselves and wanting to hear the tracks I had. The concept that I did stick with was capturing pure improv and free-form expression on the mic. When I was in Jamaica, most every singer hadn't heard the track beforehand and just freestyled whatever came to mind. For me that has been the MOST important aspect of the the "Mr. Anonymous" sound because I am a huge believer in capturing the essence of a first take(in the studio). I feel like the purest energy comes from rawness and improv. I think people in general can think and plan the "life" out of situations, and as an artist the first inspiration is always the best, even if it's rough or sloppy...it's real!!! I know there are plenty of musicians and bands like Metallica who will do 100 takes of one song to get the best one, and I honestly don't get it...it's cool that it works for them but just not my vibe....I like roughness and mistakes and slop because that's what life is...not perfection.
You are following in the footsteps of other artists (Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, The Clash) who looked to Jamaica and reggae for musical inspiration. How were you received in Jamaica?
I have been received really well in Jamaica, at least with the musicians and engineers in the studio. I think the thing musicians latch onto is that I'm not coming down with a bunch of "reggae" or "dancehall" grooves. They like the fact that I have a different sound with my songs and it is refreshing for them. I enjoy taking the skills that the Jamaican singers and DJ's have and throwing them into a different context...especially in a melodic sense because for me the melody is everything. There is always going to be somebody who lays down a FATTER groove or BIGGER bass...but the beauty in the melody of a song is what sticks with me, and the singers I have worked with seem to groove on that same vibe.
The dancehall beats and electronic vibe on the Mr Anonymous CDs is pretty far removed from where you started with The Samples. What has the reaction of hardcore Samples fans been to this project?
I have no idea really. I've heard from old fans who seem to dig what I'm doing, but I really don't know. I don't really keep up on the past I guess as far as old fans and new. The Samples was a great experience for me and a huge part of who I am today...but I really live my life in the moment and enjoy the experiences of today. I also try to stay true to myself first and foremost in terms of the music that I make. At the end of the day, I am the one who has to walk away saying "that track is slamming" regardless of fans liking it or not. Sometimes I feel like artists fall into the trap of trying to please their audience or make the next "hit". My vibe on art in general is that it is a snapshot of a time and sound in life, and it has to ultimately be "real" expression coming from me. If a million people like a song or just one person likes a song, it is still all good!
As a drummer, what's it been like to come out from behind the drum kit to sing, play guitar, bass and produce?
It has been AWESOME....not in the sense of being a "frontman" but more in a creative sense. I have always been a guitar and bass player even when I was in the Samples. It has been fun challenging myself when I was on the road as a singer and guitar player with the "Jeep" band, booking the tours on my own, coordinating press, musicians, rehearsals, etc...kind of like running my own mini label...I really enjoyed it...I guess I felt proud that I was able to pull it off.
As far as the Mr. Anonymous stuff, I am on top of the world, seriously!!! I couldn't feel more blessed than to be able to work with the amazing talents I have been able to link up with. It has been both humbling and empowering to just be in the scenarios I've created like sessions with Sly&Robbie and singers like Bounty Killer, Barrington Levy, and Ranking Roger.
Musically speaking, looking at the whole song as opposed to just the drum track has been great. There are some songs where the emphasis is on the rhythm track and some songs that lean more to the guitars to tell the story. I enjoy approaching each song as it's own album so to speak, kind of like a chef throwing in spices to make the best entree. I'll start with some rice and peas, add some Sky Juice (Black Uhuru percussionist) and a little Robbie Shakespeare, a tad bit of Bounty Killer, and some megaphone or robot voice to finish off the sauce...and the drum track as the final flavor...sometimes a thick slamming beat...sometimes a tasty percussive pulse...always as an augmentation on the song as a whole...but ultimately painting the overall picture. I guess my analogy would be that NOW I am like a painter having the full color spectrum as opposed to just one brush and one paint color to throw on canvas.
Tell me about the tracks you've recorded with Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger individually. How did they come about? As I was listening to the tracks it occurred to me that these songs gave a good sense what a 21st Century version of The Beat might have sounded like if the band stayed together.
Well of the tracks I did with Dave, I already mentioned the song "Good Vibe" in an earlier question. The other funny thing with that tune was that the melody I gave him to sing over the music reminded him of a Duran Duran track. The words "so many reasons why you wanna walk away" are in the exact same melodic riff as the verse in the song "Hungry Like The Wolf"...I'm not a Duran Duran fan but it was funny to have him call me out on it.
One of the other songs we did in that same session was over a different groove for Mr. Anonymous 1. I ended up using some of that session instead on a track on Mr. Anonymous 2 called "Rockin' She Rock" which also features a singer from Senegal named Boubacar Diabate. That track is the epitome of extreme on the new album and very movie soundtrackish. It is a combination of Electro meets Euro Dance and Robotic and very experimental as far as Mr.Anonymous tunes go. I really love the opening of the song with Dave's voice accapella on a beach in England. You can really hear the breaths and emotion in what he sings, and I felt like his voice needed to be showcased without any music...to me a cool cool vibe!
The Ranking Roger tracks were done in Birmingham England and were honestly one of the best experiences of my life. Roger picked me up at my hotel on the first day and took me all over the place. We went to a car shop where his friend's car was being fixed. Then we swung by his old rehearsal spot from the 80's where he shared jam spaces with Sex Pistols, The Clash. Then we went to his place and met his son Murphy (AKA Ranking Jr), then off to his friend Sylvia's in Mosely where we had eggs, coffee, and a couple spliffs...then off to a coffee shop and music store to get his hard drive fixed...then off to a dub record shop where we chilled and listened to all sorts of dub records...then homemade Indian food back at Sylvia's and more grooving and chilling to some dub tracks...basically the whole vibe on that first day was getting to know each other and sussing out each other's vibe.
The next day we did the tracking at Sylvia's under the same circumstances...Nescafe, great food, and spliffs...free flow...I stood out in the backyard while he laid down the vocals at her kitchen table, and I listened to him and the birds outside and watched the rain come in. It was a huge experience for me in so many ways, and honestly I feel like Roger and I are close close friends on every level. We are planning on writing more tunes for sure and both share amazing similarities in music taste and vibe. It was like playing with G.I. Joe's with an old buddy from 3rd grade.
As far as the sound of the tracks being the potential future of The English Beat if they had stayed together?...who knows...maybe? What I can say is that I have huge huge respect for both Roger and Dave when they were in the Beat as well as separate artists. I can also say that I have total respect for moving on from a creative relationship that possibly runs its course. I know I left The Samples for that reason alone. I was burnt on the music and wanted to try something new, and I strongly felt that if I had stayed for other reasons, I would have been cheating myself and the fans and the other band members. I have no idea about the ins and outs of the breakup of The Beat, and it's none of my business anyway. Both Roger and Dave are top of the top in talent. I have been blessed to work with each and plan to continue for sure!
How does Ranking Jr. rate next to his father Ranking Roger as a toaster/chatter?
Ranking Jr. has some serious SKILLS...He is like a modern day Ranking Roger with a sound representative of the past and the present. I can here his influences coming from modern artists from Jamaica akin to Beenie Man, etc. as opposed to his father's influences like Dillinger, etc. His toasting delivery can be like machine gun fire with pin point clarity...and his singing voice has the softness and smoothness of his father's, with uncannily similar inflections. Rating him against his father is like rating Mohammed Ali with Roy Jones Jr. in the boxing world....like the signature sound vs.the modern day version of the signature sound. Both are equally impressive in their own right and with a bloodline that rings true between both.
What was it like to have Sly and Robbie as a rhythm section on a song? What are they like to work with?
Sly and Robbie are awesome and very chill all the time. They were extremely personable and relaxed...very easy to chat and hang with....As a rhythm section, I only used them on one track on Mr. Anonymous 2. It was the song called "Breeze And River" that Ranking Roger ended up being the singer on. I tracked with them when they were out in Colorado on a tour a couple years ago. Before the session, we went to a grocery store to get wheat grass shots and juices for them. Sly and I chatted about the sounds he used on Black Uhuru's album "Sinsemilla", the syndrum parts he's famous for... Back at the studio, we laid down the groove in one take, and I played the guitar live with them which was great. At the beginning of the track, you can hear Sly doing the count off and telling Robbie that I am playing live which I decided to keep on the record. At the time I had no idea who was going to be the singer, but I had the music in my head, and I wanted a similar groove to Gregory Isaacs' song "Soon Forward". I also styled my guitar picking similar to the clavinet part on a song called "Big Brother" by Stevie Wonder. They were both really happy with the session and Sly was psyched on my drum kit which he used that day. He borrowed my hi hats that night for his show. They are both down to earth good friends for sure.
Any plans to perform any of these songs live or to tour?
Yes we are starting to perform live as we speak. Because of the nature of the albums with different singers on each track, we are presenting Mr. Anonymous as a live DUB show. In a sense it is like a DJ performance of a mixtape. My DJ and coproducer "21 Dread" basically lays down and dub's out the basic sessions on turntables and laptop. I play live drums and augment with some Robot vocal. It's been a great rebirth for me on the drums because playing live with a DJ requires a whole different approach. The HUGE backbeat and FAT BASS rhythms come from 21 dread...and my job as a drummer is to augment with polyrhthms and counter beats. Sonicly, I envision it simliarly to a drummer from Fela(Nigerian artist) or a jazz drummer like Art Blakey playing tribal beats and thinking almost symphonicly. I use sticks, brushes,mallets, and a lot of "staccato Ninja" stylings of psychadelic bossa nova meets Style Scott One drop grooves...so definitely a trippy groove show.
Here is the video of 'Bring The Youth' from the first Mr Anonymous LP:
Here is video for the first single 'Discotheque from Mr Anonymous 2:
Here is the track listing for the Mr Anonymous 2 CD
1. Cool Vibe – Mega Banton and Jeep
2. One Pretty Woman – Ranking Jr.
3. Pinchers Version – Pinchers
4. Be Honest – Brando
5. Blaze Dub – Mega Banton
6. Discotheque – Afrobot & Jeep
7. Chi Widdley Bup – Ranking Roger
8. Senegal To Jupiter – Boubacar Diabate & Afrobot
9. Breeze And River – Sly & Robbie and Ranking Roger
10. Rockin She Rock – Dave Wakeling & Boubacar Diabat
11. Chi Widdley Bup (”4 on the floor” Remix) – Ranking Roger
You can learn more about the Mr Anonymous project and purchase CD's and other merchandise at the Mr Anonymous web site . You can hear more tracks from both records at the Mr Anonymous MySpace site.