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Interview: Alpheus

Interview: Alpheus

Interview: Alpheus

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"This album is the best work I’ve done. If I don’t sing another note, I don’t mind"  

Sampler

When United Reggae last spoke to Neil “Alpheus” Martin he had released his second album 'Everything For A Reason' on Special Delivery Records. Since then he’s been in Spain working on his new third long-player 'From Creation'. Surprisingly (or not given that he cut his first album at the legendary Studio 1!) this record contains no reggae rhythms – only ska and rocksteady. Angus Taylor met Alpheus to discuss his change of direction and why he thinks his mentor Mr Dodd would be proud…

Alpheus

Tell me about your new album From Creation and your change of direction from singing on one drop rhythms to ska and rocksteady.

It’s produced by Roberto Sanchez of the A-Lone label in Santander, Spain. It’s basically about ska and rocksteady which is, I think, my best vein and where I should be singing – right there. Roberto Sanchez is so talented and knows how to create his own rocksteady as well as recreating the real great stuff so we went at that.

How did you link with Roberto?

I met him through Sergio Marigomez of Heartical Sound in France. He got me a gig in the Basque country and the band was Roberto’s. I was impressed in the rehearsal by the band and the studiousness and seriousness of Roberto. He gave me a ride back from the Basque country to Santander airport and we got talking. AlpheusHe said he knew some guys that play rocksteady with a nice pick guitar and he would make a rhythm and see if I liked it. And when he sent it I couldn’t believe it – I thought he’d got it from Studio 1! So he kept sending and I kept writing.

What were the vibes like recording in Santander?

It was all recorded in his little studio which is in between three farms. So we had to wait for all the chickens and that to stop making noise before we could turn the tape on! (laughs) It was lovely though, really beautiful. Travel there and you’ll love it. Roberto also mixed it and the musicians were his band Lone Ark Riddim Force. They just focussed on this for the last 18 months making sure everything was tight and feeling it right.

What was the difference between working with Sanchez and Special Delivery?

Good question. Special Delivery had these two rhythm kings Bim and Bost who in my estimation are the most talented reggae musicians of today’s era born in France. They were making the rhythms and I was helping them construct them. Like the Dis Ya Time rhythm, which was my idea do and make sure we recreated it well and made some good songs out of it. They were more dealing with the today beat – the one-drop, the current sounding relicks of Studio 1 and it was good. But when I heard the stuff from Robbie Sanchez there was a difference. They’re both talented but in their own place and his stuff was real retro sounding rocksteady where he’d got the sound so down pat that you can’t say no to the rhythms.

How does he get that sound?

He focuses on his music more than anything and can play about eight or nine instruments and he’s in it so deep. The ska basslines on the album are played by him on a very old standup bass to get the authentic sound. The horns he made sure were like fifty years old. The piano was a grand piano from his parents’ house. When it comes to all the other stuff like the paperwork he’s all over the place! (laughs) Because it’s not him – he’s a musician! Roberto’s quite a spiritual person so if he thinks you’re just making a song for the sake of it, he won’t be into it. So I had to explain what each song was about and why I was writing it, to put him in the mindset. It was the same as at Studio 1. I’ve always used the same format since they taught me to write.

I felt a lot of the one-drop stuff wasn’t long-lasting. I would go back to reggae but it’s got to be something brilliant that’s going to stand the test of time

It’s been three years since your last album Everything For A Reason but there was an even bigger gap between that album and the previous one Quality Time. Is that how you like to work or did circumstance get in the way?

I don’t think the right opportunity came after the Studio 1 album in 1999. The right opportunity didn’t come and I wasn’t putting myself in the way of the right opportunity. I wasn’t meeting the people who were really going to make something with me and I don’t think I was ready to make another album. I needed to learn more and go through more things to be able to write songs. I needed to experience more, learn how to sing better, so I still think the Special Delivery album came at the right time.

Everything for a reason...

(laughing) Everything happens for a reason man. Since the Studio 1 album I came back to Europe in 2001, I collaborated with Special Delivery and made some singles, went on some rhythms. Then I didn’t even sing for two years because sometimes your vibes get flat and I went through a lot of sadness. AlpheusI went through a lot of personal woes and sometimes they just kind of knock you. I only write songs about experiences that me or someone close to me has been through and in that time I was building life experience.

What have you gone through that has affected your music and development?

Number one is death. I had a son when I was living in America who was 18 months old and he died. The next week I found myself in Florida with a friend because I needed to go and vibe and that was when I started singing – right then. But the thing is, if Xavier hadn’t died I don’t think I would have ever sung. I would never have been to Florida and met Tony Brevett. So bad makes good and good makes bad. And that’s why everything happens for a reason – every single thing. That was a very low part of my life. Sometimes when I’m on stage or in the studio trying to find a note I think about the lowest part and it just comes out as soul. When misfortunes happen to good people you can turn bad into good.

Sometimes when I’m on stage or in the studio trying to find a note I think about the lowest part of my life and it just comes out as soul

Why did you decide to stop singing one-drop rhythms after Everything For A Reason came out?

I had some opportunities to make some albums and some singles with some really good people but I’d just had enough of it. I just feel I need to focus on where my voice suits best and make some longer lasting music that stands the test of time. So I was very fortunate to meet Roberto and we’ve just been working on these rhythms, going real deep, on this album you’re about to hear. I think it’s the best singing and the best work I’ve done. If I don’t make another album after this or sing another note, I don’t mind. I believe I have done the best I could do on this one.

It sounds like you’re dissatisfied with modern reggae.

Yeah, I’m not going to hide it. One, I think you get more from Alpheus on rocksteady and ska because there’s a feeling that comes out that I just love. And two, I just felt a lot of the one-drop stuff wasn’t long-lasting. They’re good, especially when they’re made by people like Bost and Bim, but people would play them for 6-9 weeks and that’s it. I would go back to reggae but it’s got to be something brilliant that’s going to stand the test of time.

Also rocksteady is a more appropriate place for love themes.

Yes, I’ve always tended towards relationship matters because they’re every day stories. When you go home to your girl after this you will have a story. A good one, a medium one, a bad one – it’s life and I just want to write about those things. And since going through these woes in the last eight or nine years I’ve been able to go deeper and write songs for uplifting the spirit. Topics like the title track of From Creation which is about how things should be from the start of time. Then there’s a song called Inside Out which is about how I really like this girl from the inside to out. She didn’t have to beautiful or wearing the latest clothes – I just like that person.

And, with all the economic hard times people have been going though they need some uplifting, timeless music.

It’s a good thing you asked that because I’ve only just thought that now. It is bad times innit and we need some upliftment here. I’m a very buzzy positive person and I’ve been writing uplifting songs just to counteract the feeling there.

You’ll find most artists when they come to England aren’t even thinking about music - you just come here because you’ve got family

I get tired of asking the same questions but you’re another British artist who does most of their work abroad. Do you think there is a problem with the UK reggae scene apart from the general economic crisis?

It was having a hard time in the England even before the credit crunch. It’s down to not having enough good media to project the music and keep it consistently flowing to the masses. A lot of the people that can determine the route of reggae in the UK aren’t doing their jobs. To make it go higher, to make sure it is retailed correctly. Why does every other music have a chance but not reggae? Because the media and the structure take care of it. AlpheusThey keep the people that like that music in the know. It’s sad because this is one of the homes of reggae. You’ll find most artists when they come to England aren’t even thinking about music – you just come here because you’ve got family. I only get serious about music when I cross the border.

Who are your favourite singers from the classic era – and have you ever met any of your heroes and heroines?

Definitely John Holt. We used to listen to him every Sunday. Alton Ellis who was like Studio 1’s Marvin Gaye – that’s how Mr Dodd saw him. Delroy Wilson: who I never really appreciated him until the last few years when I became more mature and understood tones and how much soul he had. And Marcia Griffiths who is just fantastic. I remember when I was making my Studio 1 album I was singing on the Smile rhythm and Johnny Osbourne walked in! I recognized him and my voice started going but he said, “No, it’s OK! Gwaan!”

I was singing on the Smile rhythm and Johnny Osbourne walked in! I recognized him and my voice started going but he said, "No, it’s OK! Gwaan!"

But while a lot of these rhythms on the album are familiar some of them are new.

All of the lyrics are written by me and about 50% of the rhythms are originals by Roberto Sanchez. The others are recreations of great producers, two from Phil Pratt and four from the king, Coxsone Dodd himself.

Is there any Duke Reid on the album? Is this a partisan thing because you apprenticed under Dodd?

(big laugh) I never realized that! Maybe I’m fighting a war against him! No, I’d do Duke Reid anytime. Duke Reid’s stuff is a lot cleaner. I have this thing with ska and rocksteady. You send me a ska or rocksteady rhythm and I’ll have the melody and a song within an hour. I love it!

Since you started at Studio 1, was your change of direction always on the cards?

Sometimes I think “Clement Dodd – why did he sign me?” What did he hear in me? I wasn’t a pro singer and I wasn’t trying to get a contract or anything. But he had such a good ear for tones and he must have thought, “Your voice fits on my stuff mate”. He put me there and yet I’m going somewhere else. Let me stay. I’m going back to ska and rocksteady. I wish he was around for me to bring him Roberto Sanchez to see how this man recreates his rhythms as well as his own. I think he’d be proud I haven’t sold myself and out and sang on any little thing. 

I wish Mr Dodd was around for me to bring him Roberto Sanchez to see how this man recreates his rhythms as well as his own. I think he’d be proud I haven’t sold myself and out and sang on any little thing

Just to recap on our last interview – have you learned to play an instrument yet?

(laughs) Arrrrrghh! In Spain two weeks ago, Roberto had a go at me! He said, “Look man, why don’t you learn an instrument? That way, you’ll hit your notes quicker and stack your harmonies faster!” He told me to learn the piano. He said don’t learn the guitar because my fingers are too big! I’m definitely going to do that. 

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Posted by antreas on 02.03.2011
Excelent interview. The album is very good incoporates many styles from Ska to Roots. Wonderful music, Alpheus indeed put his heart in it some of his perfomances are astonishing. I hope they will do a sequel.

Roberto is a very talented producer and both this and Earl Zero album are nice vintage reggae.

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