Released 25 years ago this October, the seminal debut from Mick Jones’ post-Clash outfit Big Audio Dynamite is set to be reissued tomorrow in an expanded, rarities-packed 2CD package — and to mark the occasion, Slicing Up Eyeballs recently spoke to drummer Greg Roberts about B.A.D.’s origins, the recording of This Is Big Audio Dynamite and his current group, Dreadzone.
Overseen by co-founders Jones and Don Letts, the This is Big Audio Dynamite: Legacy Edition features a remastered version of the groundbreaking album — which melded hip-hop, rock and film samples with its hit singles “The Bottom Line,” “E=MC²” and “Medicine Show” — plus a second disc featuring a dozen 12-inch remixes, dub mixes and other B-sides, five of which are previously unreleased — including the Letts-sung album outtake “Electric Vandal” (see tracklist and details here).
Roberts played in the original incarnation of B.A.D. with Jones, Letts, keyboardist Dan Donovan and drummer Leo ‘E. Zee Kill’ Williams from 1985 through 1989’s Megatop Phoenix, before that incarnation of the band dissolved — only to have Jones debut a new Big Audio Dynamite II lineup with 1991’s smash The Globe.
Although Roberts didn’t address the possibility of a reunion in this interview, the day after it was conducted, Billboard quoted Letts as saying he had broached the idea with Jones while working on the reissue: “I could lie to you and say, ‘Not in a million years,’ but… if Mick wasn’t tied up with Gorillaz it might happen this year. (Jones) has looked at me and said, ‘Maybe next year,’ but who knows.”
Read our interview with B.A.D.’s Greg Roberts after the jump…
SLICING UP EYEBALLS: Has this new reissue of ‘This is Big Audio Dynamite’ led you to go back and listen to what you guys did 25 years ago, maybe revisit the album itself?
GREG ROBERTS: I guess it has, yeah. There’s a history to be proud of, obviously. Listening to it again, it does still sound very fresh, and in the context of today’s music, looking back, we were kind of groundbreaking in as far as we were using all those samples and not getting clearance on them. Obviously, it’s completely different these days. You have to go and speak to everybody.
It’s a great album and I think it was a great band. It a was a good leaning curve for me. To join the band as a musician, and just as a drummer, really, it was kind of like what I learned from that band when I finally left, when B.A.D. broke up, I was able to go off and do my own stuff. It was a good education being in B.A.D. — a great bunch of people to work with.
EYEBALLS: How did you get involved with those guys?
ROBERTS: It was kind of a classic way of finding a ban. Mick put an advert in the Melody Maker — which was a renowned music paper at the time that sadly doesn’t exit anymore — and I had actually put an advert in the same week looking for like-minded musicians. I was kind of at a turning point in my life, and just wanted people to play with. I’d just come back form South America, I was looking for a new project to get involved with when I saw that ad. I auditioned and kept coming back, two or three times, they weren’t sure who they were going to take on. And I got the job. At the time. Mick said it was probably because I looked like Richard Gere and knew how to play funky beats.
I think what stood me good was that I sort of come from a funk and disco and that kind of a groove-based background, rather than being a young punk. I’d been to South America, I’d played in reggae bands, I came from quite an organic kind of root in relation to the groove. My audition was just about sitting on the groove, really, just playing the beat. I locked in with Leo the bass player — who I still work with today, 25 years later. We just had our 25th anniversary last year playing together as a rhythm section. At the time, he was the one who said, “Me think he’s good.” I slotted in really kind of good and I looked the part as well.
EYEBALLS: Did you realize what you were getting into in, in terms of the use of technology and drum machines and the sampling?
ROBERTS: I didn’t know at first. It was such early days, but when I knew I had the job, Mick sort of thrust the drum machine — it was a Linn 1, really, which was one of the first ever drum machines — and said, “Work that out. See what you can do with that.” I don’t think he was really sure what we wanted to do, whether we wanted to have all drum machines or live. The mix was both, especially when we played live. When I first started playing, I thought I’d have to play sort of in and out of the beat, sort of fills over the top. But it soon became apparent that you just sort of locked in with the groove. It sounds like two drummers, really, and I’ve been using the technology ever since. Obviously these days we’ve got laptops, and over the years, I’ve used hard drives and sequencers.
The sampling thing, that came a bit later. The sampling thing is what opened my mind up to being able to compose music myself and contribute music to the band. By just having a sampler and being able to put something in, like going through your old tapes and finding clips, drum loops or interesting musical bits and weaving them into a track, it was an eye opener for me, and, like I say, a learning curve. It sticks to the kind of punk maxim of being able to pick up an instrument and doing it yourself.
EYEBALLS: While that kind of technology and sampling is pretty common now, it wasn’t at the time. How important was it for Mick to do something totally different from what he’d done with The Clash?
ROBERTS: When you look at Mick, he was the one who was always interested in the hip-hop stuff and the reggae stuff — well, they all were in a way. Reggae came form Paul Simonon’s background, as well. But Mick was the one always trying to do something new. That was one of the first things when we got together in the studio, he had this one-shot sampler with the idea of putting stuff through it. He was concocting up tracks himself on the eight-track where he would sample Clint Eastwood. On the early demos you can tell he was really excited by it. It was kind of like with all that technology there and the new members, there was a lot of creativity and spontaneity going on between us all.
EYEBALLS: With this reissue, do you feel having the second disc of 12-inches and dub mixes helps put the album into proper context?
ROBERTS: I’m kind of glad they’re seeing the light of day. When we were making the record, there was a lot of other stuff going on in between, really late at night in the studio. Mixes were going down. Obviously, the guy who was co-producing with us, called Groucho Smykle, had actually won a Grammy for doing Black Uhuru’s dub album, so there was a lot of interesting dubs and creativity going on. It does add an extra context to the album, especially with “Electric Vandal,” the one that didn’t make it.
EYEBALLS: Had you heard “Electric Vandal” since you recorded it?
ROBERTS: Um, no. You know, I’ve got so many tracks, and they’re all on cassette and they’ve all been put away because we don’t really use cassettes anymore. But I’ll look on YouTube. People have been leaking stuff on there that fans have somehow ended up with. Somebody sent me a link to stuff the other day, demos that I’d totally forgotten about from that period — just total raw demos. It was a very creative time.
EYEBALLS: You mentioned not getting clearance for the samples on the album. Obviously, what a lot of people probably remember about This is Big Audio Dynamite are the samples, those spaghetti westerns. Do you think you could make the same album again today — legally?
ROBERTS: I think it would be too hard, legally. It depends on who was doing it and who you got to approach these people. I make records now, I’ve got my own band, Dreadzone, that’s been going a few years, and we’ve got a new album coming out as well. We wanted to use dialogue from an English movie called “Sexy Beast.” There’s a track on there called “Gangster” and there’s five lines of dialogue form the movie. But it happens to be owned by Fox. We were cleaning things and they wanted $15,000 for these five lines of dialogue, so we had to take them off. That kind of answers your question, really. I don’t know, really, I think film dialogue is reverential, it’s kind of like a tribute. You don’t have to really use it, but it does make the track sound better and it also kind of spreads the word about the movie to other people. I think there should be a bit more freedom with dialogue, but obviously, it’s the same with all music these days. You have to respect people’s copyrights.
EYEBALLS: Listening to the new Dreadzone CD (‘Eye on the Horizon,’ out today in the U.K.), it’s clear that you’ve continued down the path you started on with B.A.D., mixing different genres and really using technology as a tool.
ROBERTS: I’m glad you picked up on that because I am very proud of my heritage with B.A.D. and I’m really grateful to Mick for taking me on and showing me a few things. I feel like we’re carrying on the good work that B.A.D. did. Obviously, when we started Dreadzone, Don Letts, he was there at the beginning, and he supplied some ideas. Leo obviously has been with the band all of the time. Dan Donovan was involved. The only person who wasn’t involved with Dreadzone was Mick. One day, you never know. Mick’s out there doing the Gorillaz at the moment.
EYEBALLS: Twenty five years later, what’s Big Audio Dynamite’s legacy?
ROBERTS: I think we were kind of at the cusp of things with technology meeting traditional rock, and experimenting with things. Something like B.A.D. was straddling the old school of rock and pitching new ideas with new technology and making it all work together. It’s very hard to define and it was hard for people doing the racking in the shops. … But the main thing is to have good songs, and that was certainly true for B.A.D.
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- ‘This Is Big Audio Dynamite’ reissue to include outtake ‘Electric Vandal’
- Mick Jones’ Carbon/Silicon gives away ‘Carbon Bubble’ as free download
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