Rebelution: Heat of the Moment
Rebelution’s Eric Rachmany is hustling to answer the phone. It’s 11 a.m. on a Wednesday in Phoenix, but the singer and guitarist for the Southern California reggae-rock quartet is expecting this call in the afternoon. His band is already two weeks into their Good Vibes Summer Tour and, so far, things have gone more smoothly than expected—give or take Rachmany’s cell ringing an hour earlier than anticipated. (Arizona ignoring daylight saving time is the culprit.)
Just a few weeks earlier, Rachmany wasn’t even in the continental United States; instead, he was in the U.S. territory of Guam with his wife and their newborn son. Now, he’s prepping his twice-a-month program, Cali Roots Radio, for SiriusXM’s The Spectrum channel, before jumping over to a press interview. Then, he’s off to soundcheck for tonight’s show at the 5,000-seat Arizona Federal Theatre, which is about to sell out. After such an eventful year—during which Rachmany welcomed his first baby and released Rebelution’s latest record, In the Moment—a minor tweak in his schedule now feels inconsequential. As the album’s title says, it’s the moment that matters.
Like most musicians and their fans, COVID kept the members of Rebelution home indefinitely. It was an unexpected change of pace. Originally formed in 2004 by five University of California, Santa Barbara grads—frontman Rachmany, guitarist and singer Matt Velasquez, bassist Marley D. Williams, drummer Wesley Finley and keyboardist Rory Carey—the Isla Vista, Calif.-bred outfit has always made constant gigging a fundamental priority. In fact, life on the road quickly proved to be too much for Velasquez, who cited the rigors of touring as his reason for leaving the group in 2007 following Rebelution’s self-produced debut LP, Courage to Grow.
The now-quartet was a perpetual fixture on the circuit, regularly turning in over 200 dates a year. Yet, Rachmany and his bandmates embraced the hectic lifestyle, forming their own 87 Music record label and pumping out five studio sets in nine years, including 2017’s Grammy-nominated Falling Into Place.
Each record, beginning with 2009’s Bright Side of Life, claimed the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Reggae Albums chart and prompted a seemingly endless string of national and international dates. Just as likely to appear at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza as they were Reggae Rise Up, Rebelution’s festival appearances broadened an already eclectic fanbase and kept demand high for their own headlining shows. By the end of a tour supporting 2018’s Free Rein—after a decade-and-a-half of persistent grinding—Rachmany says, “We all needed a little bit of a break.”
In Guam’s southwestern corner, approximately 6,000 miles from California, sits the tiny, remote coastal village of Umatac. It also happens to be Rachmany’s wife’s hometown and, according to the musician, all 800 residents are somehow related to his spouse.
Between his wife’s pregnancy and the global pandemic, Rachmany ended up staying on the island for eight months, allowing him plenty of time to both reflect and write some new material. Free of any deadlines, Rachmany eased into island time, surrounded by a loving family awaiting the arrival of his new baby. He set up shop in a little room in his adopted home, which sat just a couple of steps away from the ocean. He brought his ukulele to the beach, spending parts of each day in the balmy Pacific.
“I grew up in San Francisco,” Rachmany says. “So, going from the city to an island was a big change for me. It was an amazing experience and a blessing to have a place to lay low and write.”
Rachmany heard reggae blaring from homes all around the village. Admitting that he felt “the community’s arms of love around him,” he thought long and hard about his own life and impending fatherhood. There may not have been any pressure to write for a new Rebelution record, but there was plenty of inspiration.
“There’s a lot of roots reggae on this new album: a lot of island-sounding songs; a lot of ‘lover’s rock.’ That came from my experience living in Guam. You can really hear the influence,” Rachmany adds.
The rest of Rebelution remained back in the States while Rachmany was in Guam. In a makeshift home studio, Rachmany digitally recorded his ideas, using just a single microphone and an input channel for his guitar. Eventually he had assembled enough basic tracks for the majority of the 15-song collection, but he also wanted contributions from Marley, Finley and Carey.
“With the remaining few months we had until we had to submit the album, the other guys became quarterbacks on a few songs,” Rachmany says. “When you have been in a band as long as we have, it was cool to mix it up and to try different things.”
Collectively, they sent their raw files to Kyle Ahern, Rebelution’s touring guitarist. Ahern had previously mixed versions of Rebelution’s early repertoire for the group’s 2020 release, The Dub Collection. This time, Rachmany asked him to serve as In the Moment’s de facto engineer and producer, challenging him to sculpt the band’s skeletal material into a series of muscular performances.
“We wanted the songs to be able to be translated live,” Rachmany says. “We didn’t want the album to sound too digital—we didn’t want it to be something we couldn’t recreate live with our own instruments. To me, it still sounds like a ‘live’ album, which is good.”
A more concerted group effort, notwithstanding, the album’s focal point is still clearly Rachmany. His lyrics lay bare a conspicuous sense of permanence; he’s quite mindful of his audience growing by (a very important) one. Case in point: the two versions (full-band and acoustic) of “To Be Younger,” a track directly inspired by this unique collision of community, isolation and fatherhood.
“This band, we used to be super-young adults touring the country, without a lot of responsibilities,” Rachmany says. “[‘To Be Younger’] is a recognition of where I am. It’s recognition that I’m not a kid anymore.”
With the album’s basics in hand, Rebelution extended invitations to several guests. Dancehall reggae singer Busy Signal agreed to grace the buoyant summer single, “All or Nothing,” while contemporary American R&B upstart Durand Jones lent his soul to “That Zone.” Jamaican artists Kabaka Pyramid and Keznamdi ended up pulling double duty, appearing on both the album and its accompanying Good Vibes tour.
“Obviously, I love the older stuff like Busy Signal, who’s been around a few decades, but I also try to keep track of the newer stuff coming from Jamaica,” Rachmany says. “Kabaka Pyramid and Keznamdi have been around a few years now and they really represent Jamaica well.”
Pyramid is part of a new class of dynamic Kingston performers—that also includes Chronixx, Protoje and Lika Iké—who have managed to return reggae to its socially conscious roots while still staying commercially viable. And they, too, are well aware of what’s happening in the Golden State.
“We’ve been observing these Cali bands, how they’ve grown within their space, how seriously they take their live show, their production, their merchandise, their marketing,” Pyramid says.
Over the course of their 17 years together, the members of Rebelution have gradually distinguished themselves from their Cali Reggae peers. Part of a sub-genre of Southern California bands that initially crossed over around the turn of the millennium, their scene emerged from the shadow of punk-slacker rockers Sublime and that trio’s chosen heirs to the surfer-stoner throne, Slightly Stoopid.
However, it is no secret that reggae was truly born in Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1960s, blending elements of mento, ska, rocksteady and the American R&B being transmitted by stateside radio in New Orleans. And the one-drop meter and Third World missives associated with its more prominent early ambassadors—Bob Marley and The Wailers, Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff—reflected the genre’s tropical island birthplace, like hypnotic waves breaking in syncopated rhythm.
Cali Reggae bands, such as Hawaiiantransplants Iration and Pepper, and regionally formed acts like Stick Figure and Dirty Heads, took root in the seaside cities of San Diego, Huntington Beach and Santa Barbara. They offered a louder, more aggressive and hybridized style of reggae that incorporated elements of hip-hop, altrock and even metal. (They also primarily found themselves playing for mostly young, white college audiences.) Their feel-high summer soundtracks largely traded hard looks at poverty and politics for stories about backyard BBQs and kind bud. And their social messages often felt more a bumper sticker on the VW than a rallying cry for the disenfranchised.
Rebelution was different enough, though, to stand out within the Cali crew. The band’s name, alone, sent up a signal flare, and their songs, while still fun, maintained a true message, quickly earning the respect of both the old and new guard of Jamaican reggae.
Still, Rachmany is insistent on highlighting the crucial differences between his band and its Jamaican brethren. “I don’t want people to think that Rebelution is solely what reggae music is. The reggae music from Jamaica, the reggae that talks about Rasta culture or Black liberation or African identity— those are all things that Rebelution does not talk about. And those are big parts of the history of reggae. So having a title like ‘Cali Reggae’ was really important to us— to differentiate and not offend.”
That’s why Pyramid agreed to guest on In the Moment and booked a slot on the Good Vibes tour. “Rebelution is one of those bands that puts in the work to stay true to the music,” Pyramid says. “As long as there is respect for the foundation, I feel like it’s a positive thing.”
Forty-five years ago, Peter Tosh, one of reggae’s most provocative and socially conscious voices, sang “Legalize It.” The pro-marijuana statement became an anthem decades ahead of a recent legislative surge in America that, at best, permits medicinal and recreational use of the maligned plant and, at worst, decriminalizes it. But even with dispensaries on dozens of street corners, Rebelution is compelled to pick up the cause in 2021 with “Adapt, Survive.”
“In California, it felt like cannabis was legal before it was even legal,” Rachmany says. “In my experience traveling across the nation and different parts of the world, there are a lot places that are still way behind. Message is everything. The more we can raise awareness, get people a part of this movement, normalize it—to me, that’s what ‘Adapt, Survive’ is symbolizing.”
Pyramid likens the band’s methods to another legend. “Rebelution is talking about revolution—about human rights, about getting together to do this. But the sonics of it sound happy. That’s something Bob Marley mastered.”
After Phoenix, Rebelution will traverse the U.S. for nearly two months. And while COVID protocols may have temporarily paused their famed backstage ping-pong matches, the shows and the onstage collaborations rage on.
“Every time I get onstage, it feels so incredible. Hearing the crowd sing the music again—I swear they’re louder than they have ever been,” Rachmany says. “It’s really important for them to have that outlet—as important as it is for me to perform.”
In December, Rebelution will hit the Mexican Riviera for two shows in the sand at Slightly Stoopid’s annual Closer to the Sun event, joining, among others, Stephen Marley, Iration, Cypress Hill and Pepper. It’s anyone’s guess what 2022 will look like for a music industry that’s still clawing its way back to life. Yet, for Rebelution, the COVID pandemic may have inadvertently ushered in a new creative process.
Rachmany anticipates continuing to write new songs ahead of the group’s planned recording sessions. He believes that utilizing remote recording options— avoiding big studios and empowering bandmates to track, mix and produce new material on their own—is a sustainable option. And, of course, he is hoping to remain on the road as much as possible. “If touring is allowed, we’re going to tour, whether we have an album out or not,” he says.
Yet, he’s careful not to look too far ahead. That’s also one of the past year’s lessons. “There’s a lot of distractions in life. And I want to enjoy everything for what it is,” Rachmany says. “Sometimes you need to take a moment and meditate on what’s happening in life at that present moment. The music is a reminder to myself to stay present and to be grateful for what I have.”