Interview with Aston Barrett, Jr. (of The Wailers) – Part 1
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Not many people can claim to be the scion of reggae royalty quite like Aston Barrett, Jr. Aston’s father, bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, and his uncle, drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett, played with Bob Marley on so many of reggae’s greatest tunes — as the backbone of The Wailers. Furthermore, Aston’s grandfather Joe Higgs is known as the “Father of Reggae” for his mentorship of the original Wailers and many other Jamaican vocal groups, in addition to his own standout career.
ASTON BARRETT, JR.: “IT’S REALLY IN THE BLOOD, AND THE FEEL” (THE INTERVIEW, PART 1)
Emerging from this famous bloodline, it’s unsurprising Aston is a versatile, extremely talented musician; he’s also the bandleader of The Wailers — having taken over the role from his famous father several years ago — an iconic band nominated for Best Reggae Album at the 2021 Grammy Awards for their new album, “One World.”
Recently I interviewed Aston — via Zoom — about many subjects of interest to reggae fans. What follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. Due to its length, the interview has been divided into segments — this is Part 1.
Aston, I want to begin first by thanking you for taking the time to do the interview. Second, I want to say “big up” for your Grammy nomination, together with The Wailers, for your new album, “One World”; that’s a huge thing so I want to [congratulate] you.
Thank you, man. Appreciate it.
Now because of the pandemic I understand the awards show has been pushed back a few months – true?
Yes, that’s what I heard.
The awards show [is of course] held in Los Angeles; last year around this time I interviewed your friend Julian Marley when he was nominated. I think they’re talking about they’re going to do [the awards show] in a few months, but to be honest, given how things are going with the pandemic — you know here in Los Angeles, where I am, it’s terrible right now — I think it’s optimistic that they’re gonna have it in a few months; unless they do it virtually, I don’t know how they’re gonna do it. But they might –
That’s what I heard. If they don’t do it physically, they’ll do it virtually.
Would you have come to Los Angeles during normal times for the Grammy awards?
Yeah, yeah, I would have been there.
Are you bummed out and does it make it bittersweet – the fact that [The Wailers] have been nominated [for a Grammy] during this weird time [when] you can’t properly celebrate the nomination like you normally would?
Well, yeah, you know, it’s funny, whatever [the] Wailers represent, it always come with a price. There’s always something that is never normal. (Laughing)
Have you been to the Grammy award show before?
Nah, I’ve never been to one.
I ask because I know that you – in doing some research to interview you – I learned you had actually gotten a Grammy “certificate” I guess they call it, for co-producing a song with Damian Marley, “The Struggle Discontinues.” And you know that album, of course, was a Grammy-winning album for Best Reggae Album; I believe in 2017. And that song, “The Struggle Discontinues,” that’s probably one of my favorite songs on that super-wicked album. So I wanted to say “wow,” I can’t believe you had a big hand in making that song and I wanted to ask you, I know it’s [a few years ago], but that’s not that long ago – when someone is a producer or co-producer of a song that can mean a lot of different things. Can you describe a bit the work you did co-producing that excellent song on Damian Marley’s album? What was involved in co-producing that?
So originally, [Damian] called me when I was on tour, and he said he’d like to fly me out to L.A. because there’s just this one song where “he wants a Wailers’s vibe” to it. And I said, “Sure, no problem.” So I flew to L.A. for three days. It was him and Stephen Marley there. And [they] played the demo for me. So the original demo was mostly like a major key – you know the chord – [singing “The struggle continues then…”]. It was kinda like that the whole time, and then we did a version of it and the first version was good. Meanwhile, I was tuning the drums to do the next version the following day, [and Damian] came to me and said, “You know, I would like you to produce this song.” So when he said [that,] I said, “Sure, no problem.” So I took the CD into the hotel room, and I was [listening to it] in the hotel room the whole time. And then once I understand what the song was about — it says “the struggle discontinues,” but if you listen to the painting, it’s a struggle. So struggle — you don’t really hear any song that talks about struggle which is a major key, it’s a minor key. We wanted to “discontinue.” My father always [says you should] paint a picture when you play music. It’s like dissecting, you know? And that’s what we do with music. I dissected it, and listened to the words, and paint the picture on it. And there [were] no other musicians there, so I said, “What happened to the musicians?” And [Damian] said, “You’re the only musician.” So as you know, I’m into gear and I’m into equipment. And that studio had everything that I would want. So I recorded the drums through a Neve — a vintage Neve 1084 — but I didn’t use the EQ. Then I used the SSL J9000 EQ — so I didn’t use the pre-amp really on that. So it was a lot of experiments which was cool. We used a lot of microphones, did different [recording] techniques, and used all real instruments — [a] real grand piano, [and] a clavinet D6. And Stephen Marley brought his guitar, so I used his guitar to play the riddim.
All the people who are into gear, when they hear [and/or read] those acronyms and those numbers that you’re throwing out, they get super-excited, so I know that they’re going to be happy to hear [and/or read] all of that. And of course we’re talking about you co-producing that excellent song, “The Struggle Discontinues” on Damian Marley’s “Stony Hill” album from 2017. Now Aston, of course, one of the main reasons why I wanted to interview you – well there are many reasons. Because I do want to talk to you about your Grammy-nominated album for sure, “One World,” but before we get there I’d like to ask a few questions about your background and career so far — including, of course, your legendary, reggae-royalty family. And I think many people who watch or read this interview know that your father — and I’d be lying if I didn’t have a little bit of a hope in me that maybe when [I] turned on the screen [today] that [your dad, legendary bassist Aston] “Family Man” [Barrett] would be sitting right next to you. But it’s okay, because I know that he’s been in ill health. How’s your dad doing?
He’s good. You know, he was with me earlier and just left the house like an hour ago. Because I drove up to my studio here where my daughter lives.
But he’s doing good.
Well good. I’m glad to hear it. When you see him of course give him all the love and respect [from me]. Just to say about your father — because you and I know, but maybe not everyone knows, [but] most people in the world do know — that Aston “Family Man” Barrett is the legendary bass player who, along with his late brother, your uncle, legendary drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett, were the backbone of the original Wailers who backed Bob Marley on all of his biggest albums. And furthermore, since a lot of reggae fans know their history these days – more and more do, they probably do also know, but I want to be sure for the purposes of the interview to put it out there, that your grandfather was the late legendary singer Joe Higgs. [Higgs] was an early mentor to Bob Marley and the rest of the Wailers and was a legendary artist in his own right. Then I’ll go one step further and say that I know that, also, your grandmother, your mother’s mom, was part of singing “Simmer Down” and “Chances Are” with Bob Marley — I think her name [is] Sylvia Richards.
Yes, that’s correct. (Laughing)
I think she may have also had a hit song in ’76 called “Dearest.”
So the reggae historians should go back and check that out. So, [your family], these are just legendary figures in reggae music. Many people call Joe Higgs “the Father of Reggae.” And I want to ask first about Joe Higgs. Because he’s such an important figure in reggae history. I know that Joe Higgs passed away in 1999 after living in Los Angeles where I live for close to twenty years. Would you visit him in Los Angeles when you were younger?
Yes, I visited him one time. I think it was around 1998. Yeah the whole family came up and one of our cousins, Nikiki Bogle, she’s a lawyer, and [when] she graduated from her law school we all came up there. And then we spent some time with grandpa, like a week. And it was great. We spent a week with Marcia Higgs, which is my mother’s sister, so we call her [aunt] “Pinky,” you know? (Laughing). And grandpa lived next door. So I used to go next door if I wake up early in the morning — and he was always up in the morning. He was always telling me stories. He even trained me a little bit — I didn’t know what he was really doing; you know he would go like [singing a vocal scale]. Different things. He would talk to me like I was an adult. He saw something in me, you know? There’s even a video — I have a family video where I almost made the whole family miss their flight, and he had to go back inside for me (laughing). I found that video the other day. So, yeah, when I was younger I spent more time with him.
And you must have been fairly young when he passed away?
I was nine years old.
I read an interview you did with Angus Taylor for Reggaeville in August — just a couple of months ago — and Angus was asking you about the fact that, although most people associate you with being a bass player, like your dad Family Man, or drummer, like your uncle Carly, that you actually sing — and quite well, too, on this new Wailers album, “One World.” Especially on a sweet track called “Destiny,” which I’ll ask you about soon. But before we get there, when Angus was asking about this singing debut of yours on the new album, you said, quote: “Well my grandfather is Joe Higgs. Joe Higgs used to show me a few things when I was younger — when you’re a kid, you remember these small little things.” And you just started to answer the question I was going to ask [next], because I wanted to follow up on that and ask: What [are] some of the things you remember your grandfather, the “Father of Reggae,” [Joe Higgs] [saying] – I mean these are pearls to the ears. You just mentioned how he would, when you were around him, he would work on different vocal chords, and you were a young man and were around him, and he was treating you like an adult. Which I find to be very interesting. Because I know from reading about him that he was a stern guy when he was dealing with The Wailers, any trio, or any vocal groups in Jamaica.
I know that he was tough, but he had tough love to show them how to really sing. Do you remember any other things that stick out to you — and I know you were a young man but — is there anything else about your grandfather that you’d like to say?
He was super-musical and he loved his family. When he sees his family, it’s like his heart. And his heart was big. And I remember the last time I saw him, when I was in L.A. during that same time, we got into the taxi, and I said “Alright, bye Grandpa!” And he said, “Alright, alright, bye.” And that was the last time seeing him. But I just remember when I was there he was always humming; he was always musical. And he just had a presence around him that I could just never forget. And he seemed like he was just a normal person when he was just walking around.
Yeah man, very humble. The thing about it is I didn’t really understand who he really was until he passed. And when he passed and I went to the memorial in Jamaica, [and] I saw all these people — even some old, old prime ministers from back in the day, so many people came to pay respect. I knew who he was, but I didn’t know the impact [he had], and how deep it was. And even though you don’t see my father in the video, my father was there. My father was the one who helped to organize that whole memorial.
Thank you for telling me about that. Sadly, and not just sadly, but tragically, your uncle Carlton was murdered in April 1987 in Kingston; that was before you were even born?
Yes, because I was born in 1990.
Aston Barrett, Jr. and Writer Stephen Cooper on Zoom
I was reading my friend, you may have met him already, reggae historian Roger Steffens —
Of course I have his book on my shelf, one of the most seminal books about Bob Marley [called], “So Much Things To Say.” And I was reading somewhere else actually that your dad, if I ever saw your dad I would ask him to confirm this — whether this is true or not — but I read somewhere that your dad said the song “So Much Things to Say” is one of his favorite songs. Is that true? Do you know?
[It’s] one of my favorite songs, too. In Roger Steffens’s book, many things are said about Family Man, and about Carly Barrett. But I was thinking about how you’re so into gear and, you know, all the electronics, and all this stuff. And of course it makes so much sense that you are because, for example, Roger Steffens’s [book] mentions that there’s a book by John Masouri – he’s another guy who writes about reggae —
Yeah, that’s right. He wrote a book called “The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers.” And in that book he reported that your dad built his first upright bass out of a couple of pieces of wood. And he used a curtain rod for the string. And [further Masouri wrote] that your uncle — he created his first drum set out of empty paint and kerosene cans. And I was so amazed when I read that. Because then, later, in [Roger Steffens’s] book there’s a quote from Bunny Wailer; he’s talking about one of your dad’s early albums [with Bob]. And he’s talking about the way it sounded, and why it sounded the way it did. This is what Bunny said: “Family Man was kind of a genius when it came to taking old electrical things that you would automatically throw away. Family Man would take all these little things, put them together and get a sound or get something from it that maybe you couldn’t buy in a store. [Even the new equipment couldn’t get the sound that Family Man was able to get out of the sound.]” He said “[Family Man] was toning the bass so that it would come out clean without having to mix that much”; “you don’t have to put it through,” he said, a “heap of equalization.”
So I was just amazed [by] this. And the last thing [I want to] mention that Bunny Wailer said [as quoted in Roger Steffens’s book, “So Much Things to Say”]: “Carly Barrett was good at toning his drums ‘cause Carly was coming from playing pans and tin cans. So he worked to get the sound that suit the ear with that… kind of stuff.” And he said, “[Carly Barrett] was the first man I saw that when he hit [his drums], it was finished, the sound didn’t go nowhere.” The sound would die when he hit the drum. And [Bunny Wailer said, Carly] “was the first man I see put things in front of the drum and paste it down, like pad it so that when he hit [the drum] …the sound didn’t go nowhere. He was the first man who used to take off the front of the drum.” And when I read this, it meant so much to me because it was just like a year ago when I was hanging around, I was in the studio with another legend, he’s a good friend of mine named Scientist [also known as Hopeton Brown].
Scientist is just — he’s a wizard. And I saw him — it was gonna be a session where Sly and Robbie came, so I got to see them playing live in the studio in L.A. [in 2019], and it was the first time I saw somebody take the front of the drum off. And put all this kind of padding. And Scientist was doing all this stuff to make sure that you could hear the drums [purely]. Like Bunny was describing [about what] Carly used to do with [his] drums. So I just brought all that up — I was talking for so long —
It’s great. I love it.
I wanted to say it because it’s so amazing to me, and clearly you have so much of that in your blood, because when I hear you talk about the gear, immediately I think about this history from reggae, and think this is obviously the result of all that.
Yes. Yeah man, my father was the one who guided me. You see, he’s like my Mr. Miyagi. Like grandpa was strict, my father was very strict too. I learned the music so I can teach it. But you don’t want to teach it to the wrong people because the next thing you know, you’ll have people in the band, they’ll come in and they learn it, and [the] next thing they might have a misunderstanding, and then they leave — and they leave with the sound.
Wow. I didn’t think about that.
Yeah, those are the things why we kinda keep it a certain way. It’s like a secret, but it’s not really a secret, because it’s really in the blood and the feel. It’s in the bloodline.
In plenty of interviews you’ve talked about how it’s been very important for you to maintain The Wailers’s sound. So let me start there. This is a two-part question. First, with the Wailers’s sound: How do you describe, Aston, as the bandleader in 2021 for the Wailers — a historic band — how do you describe the Wailers’s sound in 2021?
I would describe it as an evolution of the same feel. Because we have to keep moving forward, but the respect of it has to stay. Because you see, what it really is to describe it in a real formal [way]: There’s a frequency and a vibration scientifically proven which made [the] “Album of the Century,” [“Exodus”]. And that feel and that vibration is what we keep. So anything that we do, we keep that vibration. And it’s funny because I was saying this the other day, that after Bob passed the Wailers went kind of pop. Because Junior Marvin to me is one of the best guitar players — he has a great energy and a great vibe. I respect him very highly. But you know, Bob Marley was not a normal person. Bob Marley is just —
Chosen. Mystical. Chosen. It’s like when Bob Marley talked, you want to listen. But if someone talked and say the same thing, it might not have the same impact on you.
That is the same feel that we carry in the music and I was lucky enough to have that sound. How did I get it? The only thing I can say is: the Most High.
I was chosen to do this work. I used to run away from it as I used to say, because The Wailers came with a lot of baggage. And, you know, because I have the ability to do my own thing.
But to see that my father, and Carlton, and Bob made so much impact — and the Marley family, they are doing a fabulous job. They’re keeping their father’s legacy [going strong]. But for the Wailers’s legacy, where it comes to the musical part of it, that is the part where I wanted to make sure to [keep it] alive. Because they have to do what they have to do so they can stay relevant in their time, and to keep their father’s legacy [going].
I have so much respect for that. Because you’re such a talented guy. You remind me a lot of Julian Marley —
(Laughing) Yeah, Juju.
[Because] you play all these different instruments, you can produce, you can do many things – you didn’t have to, when your father got ill, and called you back to become the bandleader of The Wailers, you could have done many things. You could have said “No.” It’s a huge burden and responsibility, as you [said], to decide you’re going to take on The Wailers name, and be the bandleader. Respect. Respect for doing that.
Of course, man. It really comes you know, to get [a] likkle personal, remember my father has a lot of children.
Carlton Barrett also had kids. So the thing about it is… I didn’t really want to do it because it was to a point where, if I took over [The] Wailers, I don’t want to say everyone, but they would expect that I’m supposed to take care of them — all of them. Because my father [took] care of a lot of people, and when I took it over it’s just to take care of the music, so the music can fulfill the message to the people.
‘Cause it’s not for us alone. It’s for the people. So we can save lives. Because a guy came to me one time and said he almost committed suicide, and we saved him. So, you know, I have to give thanks definitely to my mother, Angela Barrett. And there’s this guy named Owen “Dreadie” Reid —
Yeah. He’s played with The Wailers for a long time.
Right. He was the one who guided me, and each time I said I was gonna give up, I can’t deal with this — even before my father got ill — I just didn’t want to deal with it because, you know, my father had some management that were just not really so smooth in certain things. They were smooth in other things, but not in my liking, so I started to work with Lauryn Hill. And I would usually tour with Julian Marley, too.
I’m a huge Lauryn Hill fan — I have a few questions for you about Lauryn Hill.
But when [my dad] called me, he said, “Son, I don’t have any soldiers around. You’re the only one that I have.” So I said, “Alright, I won’t let you down.”
There’s no way you [could have].
I’ve been there ever since.
Respect for that. Now before I [move] on to the next question, since we talked about your uncle’s sound on the drums and, you know, I know that you’ve said before that from talking to your father, and learning from your father, and from watching videos of your uncle, and lots of different things, you were able to learn Carly’s drum sound. Can you explain — you know you just talked a little bit about what The Wailers’s sound is — what is, how would you describe the distinctive sound of Carly Barrett’s drums?
It’s like, when you listen to Carly, you think of a plank. It’s just so solid. His one drop is so solid — and deep. It’s not basic, but it’s not treble. It has this frequency that — it’s like when — it’s very spiritual. It’s a godly music. When he play[ed] drums, it [was] like an angelic kind of feel.
And the thing about it, when him roll — ‘cause if you listen to, I have some drum tracks with him, and if you listen to his roll — it’s like, you know, when the bass [is] nice and it’s in your chest?
(Imitating drum roll) When he rolls it’s the same way. It’s like “wow.” And it’s so fire, man; so Carlton’s style is a mixture of, I would say, jazz, samba, and African.
Definitely the influence came from Cuba as well. And from jazz. And then when he joined [Lee] Scratch [Perry] you can start to hear more of the funk. Because they were definitely fans of James Brown and Jackson Five. But when I learned it, honestly, it’s my father. Because remember, there’s a saying [that] when you’re around someone, you become them. And you see my father, his music, and the way how he is, his personal — remember people’s personality is in their instrument. It’s like most guitarists, you notice most of the wickedest guitarists, they have an attitude?
When they play, it’s like wow. It’s like Junior Marvin and Al Anderson, they’re like the nicest people, but when they get into their guitar mood sometime they —
I’ll tell you what guitarist I’m about to ask you about — Earl “Chinna” Smith.
Have you played with him at all?
Yeah man. We did a tour in 2015, we brought a couple of the original members back, even Dennis Thompson, one of the great [sound] engineers, one of the originals too. He came back. So we did a tour with Dennis Thompson, Glen DaCosta from Zap-Pow and Wailers as well. And Tyrone Downie – that was the first time we brought Uncle Tyrone – he was the hardest [of the original] Wailers to get, oh my gosh we went through ups and downs trying to get him. But when we got him, it was amazing.
And then we had Chinna. That was my first time working with Chinna, and I can [see] why my father really rate Chinna Smith very highly. Because Chinna understand every frequency when it comes to the Wailers. He knows everything – he fills in the right gap [in the music]; when he plays, it’s like “wow.”
Aston I was really fortunate, actually I was more than fortunate, I was blessed to be in Kingston; I was in Kingston in March of last year – before the pandemic shut everything down; I actually made it home to the U.S. right before the borders shut down. And I was blessed to extensively interview Chinna — when I was there.
Wicked! Inna de yard.
And I was actually in his yard, and it was incredible because Tappa Zukie came by –
— it was amazing. And when I was interviewing Chinna, we were talking about how much of a shame it is that Jamaica doesn’t have a proper, well-funded reggae museum. Or a Hall of Fame. There’s the Bob Marley museum. There’s a Peter Tosh museum. There’s a museum of Jamaican [music] history, but it’s on a rather small scale. So we were talking about why is it — and [Chinna] had many reasons why it was that Jamaica doesn’t have that kind of museum to respect musicians like your father and your uncle in Kingston. And [Chinna] got very animated. I would say actually more than animated, Chinna was upset, [and] angry [that] the Jamaican government hasn’t awarded an Order of Distinction (or an “O.D.”) to members of the original Wailers — like your dad, and your uncle Carly. And I’ll never forget, Chinna pulled down a framed picture while I was talking to him in his yard, [if] you can imagine this last year in Kingston, a picture of your uncle Carlton — he pulled it down off of the wall — and he said, “You see this? This is the world’s greatest bloodclot drummer.” He went on to say, “Can you believe Family Man, Wire [Lindo], Tyrone [Downie] – none of these people get an O.D. or [other] honor! The world listened to them music.” [Chinna continued:] “Family Man, you understand, don’t get an O.D.!? And he said, “How can you don’t remember Family Man played all these fucking bass lines. I mean Miles Davis said that Family Man was the wickedest bass man him-a-ever a-go hear.” And Chinna said, “If you don’t honor Family Man, who you gonna honor!? Just think who Family Man is. Family Man is The Wailers!” Do you have any thoughts about that — about what’s up with the Jamaican government? If they’re awarding these honors every year — putting aside whether or not there should be a Reggae Hall of Fame or [other] museum in Kingston — how can the original Wailers not get these honors?
You know, maybe they haven’t done their research.
But all you would have to do is listen to Bob’s albums –
— [or] look at the liner notes because I know, as Chinna said, Bob Marley didn’t play the bass, and Bob Marley didn’t play the drums —
No man. No man. My father and Carlton deserve the highest of highest [honors considering] they made the “Album of the Century.” And put Jamaica in another category on the map. Before the pandemic they were planning to give them an award. From what I remember, Esther Anderson — I don’t know if you know her — she made a few calls, cause a couple of people dem were making awards and stuff. And she was just like Chinna, “How can we forget!?” And they were working on everything, but the whole pandemic kinda changed everything. So just to let you know: If you’d have interviewed me before the [pandemic began], I would by saying the same thing — what Chinna said. (Laughing)
I’m glad to hear you say that. I’m not sure that the reggae world is aware [there are some plans to honor members of the original Wailers properly]. [And] hopefully we’ll be hearing some news that the Jamaican government will do right, as Chinna said, by the [original members] of The Wailers and make sure, as you said, that they get the highest awards that they can give for cultural icons in Jamaica.
(Please check back soon for the next segment of this interview.)