In New York City, there is something special going down. A group of some of the world’s best ska musicians have assembled to craft some of the most intricate, tight, and memorable jams the genre has heard in years. Leading this group is Rich Graiko. Rich is the founding member of the Brooklyn Attractors, an outfit that would have even the most jaded of ska fans salivating. The band’s resume reads like a who’s who of ska featuring members of Westbound Train, Stubborn All-Stars, the Rocksteady 7, Toasters, and MORE! The Brooklyn Attractors are on the cusp of releasing their first live record on Rare Breed Records titled Live In NYC. ReadJunk caught up with Rich to ask him about the band, the new record, the NYC scene, and the beauty of Jamaican musicians’ philosophy.
You have played in Westbound Train, Void Union, and other bands in the past, what kind of outlet do the Brooklyn Attractors provide you from a creative standpoint?
Each of those groups fulfills a different aspect of my musical deal. Westbound gives me an opportunity to play in and lead a horn section in a really musically tight touring group, playing in front of bigger crowds, with bigger bands, get recording advances, and everything that comes with a band that’s operating on that level. The VU was a side project with some of the Westbound guys and sort of fulfilled the opposite side of that for us. We go out and play high energy trad-Ska in tiny punk rock clubs across Europe. We rent a cheap van, stay in hostels and rock parties.
When I decided to take some time off from touring to raise my son and live in NY full-time, I wanted to create a project where I could do some of the things that the economics of playing in a touring band wouldn’t allow. I had always wanted to play more of the down-tempo instrumental Jamaican Jazz; Tommy McCook, Sound Dimension, Roland Alphonso’s rocksteady and Reggae phases, etc. I wanted to borrow the idea from American Jazz that it doesn’t always have to be about a super high energy show, but more about improvising and communicating within the group on stage, and just letting the groove breathe…perhaps even for a little bit too long…haha… I had been craving a huge horn section and bigger group with rotating guests, and it’s really hard to sustain a touring outfit with those things for very long.
You also personally spent some time with the Skatalites, what was it like playing for the originators? What sorts of things did you learn from them?
I have had the great fortune to play with the Skatalites a handful of times over the years. Thankfully the great Kevin Batchelor has been a mentor to me and always made sure to bring me up to sit in when we would play shows with them. I was also happy to pinch-hit for him a bit on the last Skatalites record! Man, those guys are so deep and so serious about the music. It almost feels like being around monks or something. Granted monks who are smoking lots of weed and drinking johnny red in the motel parking lot at 11 am, haha…but that’s all part of it for those guys, they are the real deal.
I’ve learned so much playing with and around Ska royalty over the years, but one of the things that sticks out to me is the fearlessness that they have. There are no wrong notes for those guys. Coming up in American music school can instill a sense of carefulness that can be limiting in my opinion. It’s easy to get caught up in intonation paranoia, and the safety of familiar ideas, and things that “work”… such heady stuff…the Jamaicans just go for it, and it’s pure energy, and they’re not worrying about anything other than what is going through their head in that moment. They just shut their left-brain off and play. There is something really pure and inspirational in that for me.
As the founding member of the Brooklyn Attractors, how did you go about assembling this Justice League of players?
Man, I think the universe was smiling on me, haha… After Westbound finished recording “Come and Get It”, I stayed in touch with Dave Hillyard. He had produced the record and I was assistant engineering so we had a lot of time to hang. One day we were on the subway heading to the studio and he mumbled something about wishing how Rolph [the Rocksteady 7 trumpet player] hadn’t moved out of town. I was just settling into NY at the time, still bouncing back and forth from Boston, and was just about to make the move full-time, so I told him that I would be really into playing if he was looking for a replacement. After that I just fell into this amazing circle of NY Reggae and Ska musicians. Dave sort of became a mentor to me after that as well so he didn’t hold it against me when I asked most of the Rocksteady 7 rhythm section if they would be down to play some gigs with me as a leader. I honestly thought it was a shot in the dark but every one of those guys said yes. That gave me some momentum and the ideal platform to experiment with some of the ideas I had been working on. Honestly, it would be hard to miss with that band, everyone is so good. We made the first record with those guys plus a bunch of friends I’ve made while touring over the years, and from there it just became easier and easier to attract great players.
It’s been stated that the band was created to pay homage to 1960s Jamaican and American music. What are the major musical elements that you want shine through?
I like to think our music and general vibe reflects the music of the 60’s and early 70’s. I can almost commit to saying that I’ve loved everything I’ve ever heard from that time period…in any genre. I’m sure there is something out there that I wouldn’t dig, but I haven’t heard it yet. I especially love what was going on with the Blue-Note, Soul-Jazz, scene…hence all the hat-tipping that is present in our cover art. That whole scene was just slick and groovy, and the perfect complement to the raw, shoot -em up at high-noon western style rawness of what was happening in Jamaica at the time.
The band is about to release a new live record. Where did you record and what is the story behind the release?
We recorded it in a fairly new Jazz club in the neighborhood of Gowanus, in Brooklyn, called Shapeshifter Lab. The owner is Matt Garrison, the son of Jimmy Garrison, bassist for the legendary John Coltrane quartet.
I was living in Gowanus when they opened and had been wanting to work with them for a while. When it came time to book a record release show for Good Evil Alchemy, I figured I’d try it there. I had been wanting to have some great guests at the release show and, again with the universe aligning for us, everyone I asked happened to be available. In retrospect, it was quite a line up with Ticklah and Andy Bassford both being available to guest on it, not to mention Larry McDonald and the rest of the regular line up. I found out the club had recording capability and asked them to track it for us. Thankfully they were able to capture mostly all of it.
The recording is very crisp and the performances are super tight. Who recorded the live session and how did the band prepare for the night?
Thanks, the house engineer was responsible for setting up the tracking. Victor and I went down there a little early to help him get a game-plan together and set up a few specific mics I wanted to bring for the horns. We did all four horns on two tracks, ‘bone and trumpet on one and the two saxes on the other. I mixed it at my studio.
As far as preparation, I always like to get the horns together once before-hand to hang and run through the arrangements, and we did a full-band run through the week of the show. So, one-and a-half rehearsals, a luxury for us, haha.
The release has been described as a rare glance into the NYC Jamaican Jazz scene. What can you tell me about the scene, the players, and the space it occupies in the musical landscape?
Oh man, there are so many great reggae and early Ska musicians in town. A lot of guys with road-gigs in bigger groups live there and get together with smaller projects when they’re not on the road. I really started seeing this after joining the Rocksteady 7. It’s closed now but we used to play a little pizza spot in Brooklyn called Two Boots. The owners were big music lovers and always really willing to book our side projects. A lot of smaller groups were incubated in that spot including Kevin Batchelor’s Grand Concourse, The Huffers, Chronic Horns, and the Attractors. A bunch of others too. It gave us a place to try stuff out, and it was a great hang! Toward the end of that scene, Kevin and I put together Reggae In The Slope in Brooklyn. A friend of his owns a building with a dormant club in the basement that he lets us use to throw parties. Agent J from the Slackers has a party in Bushwick called the Swamp that is the same sort of thing. There are dozens of little sub-scenes and underground parties like this all over town, where Selectors are spinning and bands are playing on any given night. I guess the people who say that NY is dead didn’t get the invite, haha.
As a trumpeter, you have played in a lot of ska bands, what appeals to you about playing in the genre vs. others?
I studied jazz when I was a kid and ended up going to Berklee College of Music for a few semesters after high school. I had a group and used to play restaurants, cocktail gigs, weddings, and whatever else would pay some bills. I had always listened to Reggae but never really connected my love of listening with the thought of playing it until I found a cassette tape of the Skatalites’ Ska Voovee in a Salvation Army discount bin one day. It turned out to be the best dollar I ever spent. It completely melded two of my favorite styles together, Be-bop and Jamaican music. This record was full of raw, almost wicked Bop, over the nastiest two or three chord vamps. It was so raw and dirty (little did I know at the time how dirty some of their older records were) and ALL about the rhythm… it was just mind-blowing, and everything I had been looking for. I had already started to not jive with the stiffness of the mainstream jazz club vibe and the heady-ness of modern jazz. I was looking for something more raw, and accessible. Something where people were up dancing and drinking beers, really gathering, not sitting quietly with a martini and nibbling on a hummus platter… haha. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll go hang at a jazz club and really dig watching those cats, but for me, at the time, I wanted to bring the party and hit it in the clubs. It was just such an epiphany to me that such a perfect combination of styles could exist.
Being an educator and a veteran of the ska scene, do you ever mentor or produce up and coming groups?
Not as much as I would like. I have been raising my son Xavier since I slowed down my touring schedule and have had my hands full with that and maintaining the musical projects I have going at home. I do try to hire younger musicians though and give them opportunities like my mentors gave me. Not so much in the Attractors but more so in some of my other projects, The Rich Graiko Group and Void Union, etc.
I always get some Reggae, and other styles in when I teach, whether it be private lessons or my ensembles at school, especially if any of the kids have a particular interest. It took me a while to bridge the gap between what I like and what I play, I really try to establish that connection early in the students so they can have more time to figure out what their direction is going to look like.
Does the band plan to tour or is it something that can only happen in NYC?
Not right now. Unfortunately the economics of touring with a ten-piece instrumental group are stacked against us. I’m not saying it will never happen, but I’m not willing to ask my guys to travel for anything less than they deserve. We have all paid dues in that respect and are happy being a part of the NY scene. Unless someone comes knocking on my door with a big pile of tour support, people are just going to have to come to New York to catch a show.
Where can fans plan on seeing the band?
We play a few clubs around town somewhat regularly, Brooklyn Bowl, Port Royal (Reggae In the Slope), Dirck the Norseman… We are planning on playing a few shows with Westbound Train in support of the release this fall.