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Interview: Notis

Interview: Notis

Interview: Notis

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"We've always been a band whether we are on stage or offstage"

Sampler

Wayne “Unga Barunga” Thompson and Jason Welsh - the drum and bass duo now known as Notis - are waiting in the tiny lobby of the Comfort Hotel in Finchley, North London. They've only had a few hours’ sleep since their show backing Jesse Royal in Camden the night before. It's 11am and they've missed breakfast: the stale smell of English fried food hangs unappetisingly in the air. But they are smiling as we conduct an improvised stand up interview (there are three of us and just two unoccupied chairs).

Notis

Unga and Jason are the surviving core of Notice Productions – the unit behind successful rhythms such as Gallis, Heart and Soul, Intransit and Digital Love. The production company had its own roots in Further Notice – a seven piece group forged at Jamaica’s famous Edna Manley college, alongside now internationally acclaimed bands including C Sharp, Raging Fyah and Pentateuch.

But the story starts earlier than Edna Manley. Unga and Notice keyboardist Lamar “Riff Raff” Brown met as kids in the Seventh Day Adventist church in Montego Bay. “We used to go church six days a week” says the slightly built, soft spoken Unga. “That is where the whole music started for us”. Like the legendary Augustus Pablo, Riff Raff was something of a church musical prodigy “Riff actually played the French horn before the keyboards. He would practise in church. When the people were singing in different keys - when they’d go between notes - he would find the key for fun.”

Church inspired us to help create what we're creating now

Unga gravitated to the drums – even though they were frowned on in church. “I was singing in an a cappella group, my brother was playing the drums and I liked what was going on. It was a rough time getting a play but I finally got a chance so I continued and went to Edna.”

“My church don’t really deal with drums still” he laughs “but church inspired us to help create what we’re creating now.”

Jason, every inch the archetypal bassie with his imposing height and deep deliberate voice, grew up further East in Port Maria, St Mary. Like Unga and Riff he took a while to settle on his chosen instrument. “In high school I used to play percussion. I heard a friend from church play the bass and said “I didn’t know the bass could play like that”. He said Maurice Gordon taught him at Edna Manley and I said “That’s where I need to be.””

Jason started college in 2002. Unga arrived in 2003. That year Unga, Jason and Riff formed the kernel of Notis with guitarist Andrae “Wang” Carter. As all reggae media knows with hindsight, Edna was a hotbed for upcoming bands. “C Sharp was the big band, then you had Centre Stage and Further Notice came after that” Unga recalls. “Then, after Further Notice was Raging Fyah and Pentateuch.”

The scene was promiscuous. Both C Sharp’s Chevaughn Clayton and Raging Fyah’s Kumar Bent sang in Further Notice before moving on to their respective outfits. And everyone studied under the great Ibo Cooper from Third World. “The real reggae ambassador” is how Jason describes him, “He showed us the ropes based on reggae pop and touring”. Cooper is reputed to have given Further Notice their moniker – in response to the group not having a name he jokily dubbed them “until Further Notice”. “He gave us a more practical side” says Unga “because the school is more based on the classical and theoretical side. But he, having had that road experience with bands, would groom us to think about how we would approach shows and create to get a certain reaction from the crowd.”

Post-graduation, the other ensembles mentioned would concentrate on the then untapped market for live music. Further Notice, whose members were quickly absorbed into various individual commitments including work with Damian and Stephen Marley, took the more conventional route of becoming a production unit.

“After we left school we lived together and were playing for different artists. I met Serani from DASECA and I was bringing Chevaughn and Omar Ras Penco to him to record. So he said “Unga, you should do your thing and build your own riddims”. He gave me some software and I said “All right, Further Notice is the band. Notice is the production. Let’s go.””

We were separated and finding ourselves as youths and friends - every man branching off, going on our own

Following an initial attempt at a Nyabinghi rhythm, their first success was with the up-tempo dancehall Gallis backing in 2007. But Notice were also interested in reggae and crafted a series of widely received one drop pieces – culminating in 2011’s slick and poignant Heart and Soul. It became the base for Come Over (Missing You) the lead single on Busy Signal’s sea-changing Reggae Music Again album, which signposted the globally trumpeted “reggae revival” that Notice’s fellow bands were kick-starting on the live front.

Unga is cagey when asked about this period, because the members’ many musical activities outside Notice were causing a strain. “Actually that one came at a crucial time” he says of the making of Heart and Soul “when we were separated and finding ourselves as youths and friends - every man branching off, going on our own.”

Jason and Unga didn’t play on Heart and Soul – leaving anchoring duties to Unga’s “teacher” Kirk Bennett and Protoje bassman Danny Bassie. “That riddim was made just for Jah Cure for a song that he did for us but we were remaking it. So we started the skeleton and went to the studio and Danny was there and Kirk. I said “Yow, Kirk, just play this way”. I have to bless them up.”

Notis

The departure of Riff Raff to go solo was the end of Notice as we know it but Unga stresses the split is amicable. “Listen, Riff Raff and I go way back. We are coming from high school and church. As you know Riff Raff is the musical director for Stephen Marley so it was basically our time schedules were all over the place. Most of the time he was in Miami and we were in Jamaica. But we still a family, man. Still a family.”

Even so, it was necessary to change the brand from Notice to Notis. “It’s really based on some legal matters and how the whole company started. We didn’t really know about starting anything, we were just doing music. But after a while you get to understand you need to structure a thing and have whatever documentation in place.”

Was someone else using the name Notice? “No, it was everyone.” He laughs “But now we get a better understanding of who we are and where we’re going and what is our purpose - everyone knows. So it’s not like anybody is forcing anybody to be apart or telling anyone to leave it’s just everybody finds their natural place where they are supposed to be in life.”

Everybody finds their natural place where they are supposed to be

Now Jason and Unga have come full circle because they are touring as a band again. The decision to branch out from production began at their former singer Chevaughn Clayton’s solo album launch in February. “The launch was really just doing what we always wanted to do from a long time. And still doing it with Chevaughn who we started with, so it’s still a cycle of life where we have to learn and grow and continue to do what we do and do it better and more professional and try to reach a wider audience. We’ve been getting comments and responses from persons saying “You guys should really step out” and “This dubwise duo drum and bass it can go somewhere so put some time and present the whole thing to them”.”

The previous night with Jesse Royal Notis were performing as a trio with UK producer Jazzwad making authentic guitar sounds through his keyboard. It was unusual to hear a guitar-less reggae set. “Jazzwad has a sampler and I have one too so I was playing some of those samples while I was drumming. We’re creating, man. Trust me man, it’s still in the making process. It’s going to be awesome.”

In an age where costs need to be kept down the three piece could be the future. “It’s a duo man” is Unga’s reply “But we are always going to have a keyboard player – whether it be Riff, whether it be Chevaughn but the core – Unga and Welsh - we will be there.”

And Notis have not stopped producing. In May they dropped old school dancehall sounding single Diamond Sox with stuttering singer-chanter Iba Mahr. An ode to the 80s Jamaican fashion for Argyle golfing socks it has been well timed enough to beget a recent remix with Tarrus Riley. “It was just natural chemistry” smiles Jason, of its creation “We had the beat and we were in the studio at Big Yard voicing a different song. We said to Iba Mahr “Hear this” and Unga had on his Diamond socks and his Clarks and Iba was there vibing and he said “Inna mi diamond sox and me Wallabee Clarks”. He just went in and laid it down right there in 20 minutes.”

It's just one family from Jamaica. We love the vibe from yard

A new track with Jesse Royal, Gimme Lickle Herbs is out soon. And the duo’s next rhythm juggling, is being mixed by Further Notice’s in-house engineer Greg Morris. It’s titled Steppaz and will feature Bushman, Chezidek, Morgan Heritage, Dre Island, Kabaka Pyramid and Jesse. “It’s straight four” says Jason. “In a hardcore dance roots vibes” Unga chimes.

As the interview draws to an end, Jesse Royal has come downstairs rubbing his eyes and the minibus is outside – waiting for us all to pile in. Touring with Jesse as a package with UK dub genius Mad Professor has been fun. “It’s just one family from Jamaica and it’s just love,” Jason enthuses “We love the vibe from yard and we just click and come out and do the tour. Jesse’s easy to work with and he loves the drum and bass vibe which makes it even easier, so he’s comfortable playing with us now.”

We are the chosen ones who actually are here to help shape the music

There’s a whole family of musicians from different generations all coming together. Do they feel part of something bigger than themselves in the music? Unga answers “We are the generation and we are the chosen ones who actually are here to help shape the music and the direction where it goes so we all have to know ourselves and do what we are here to do and fulfil our purpose. Doing it with Jesse Royal – what more can you ask for?”

They began as a band and veered into production just as the live thing started to rise. Now they are a band again in time to reap the rewards. Notis seem to follow their own path but it works. Unga laughs “Yeah it’s a good time to be a band now. It’s trending! But we’ve always been a band whether we are on stage or offstage.”

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