The year is 2002. Vocalist Jesse Wagner and organist Roger Rivas, each fresh out of their own bands, come together to form dirty reggae quintet the Aggrolites. With a sound that is equal parts Kingston and Motown, the band turns the heads of discerning music listeners everywhere, not to mention a slew of legends both old-school (Phyllis Dillon, Derrick Morgan) and newer (Tim Armstrong) who recruit them for collaborations. Over the next decade, the Los Angeles band tours hard and records constantly, releasing five full-lengths while spending close to 250 days a year on the road. For a time, it seemed like the Aggrolites were everywhere, and that’s because they truly were. (Their van’s odometer can prove it.)
Then, unexpectedly: Silence. The Aggrolites enter a prolonged hibernation following a particularly grueling tour for 2011’s Rugged Road, and suddenly, the scene was without its leading purveyors of dirty reggae.
“I guess it just comes down to getting burned out,” frontman Wagner recalls. “We lost motivation to record. We got to that point where we had to take care of our own personal lives. Everybody just needed time for themselves.”
Of course, you can’t keep a good band down. Even though the Aggrolites were technically on hiatus, it didn’t stop them from playing a handful of gigs each year, nor did it stop members from exploring other creative endeavors. (Rivas started his own recording studio and multiple new bands; Wagner began playing with Vic Ruggiero from the Slackers; bassist Jeff Roffredo formed a band called Wild Roses with former Dropkick Murphys guitarist Marc Orrell.) And with fan support still unwavering, the band reconvened in late 2015 to lay down three songs, “Aggro Reggae Party,” “Help Man” and “Western Taipan,” which reminded them that, hey, they’re still pretty damn good at this.
“I think we were so preoccupied with our lives at that time that we were just doing things out of force to keep the band alive,” Wagner says. “But luckily and thankfully we did, because we never gave up.”
That one-off recording session was the spark that eventually created REGGAE NOW!, the Aggrolites’ sixth full-length and first for new label Pirates Press Records. Written and recorded throughout 2018, the album finds Wagner and his bandmates—Rivas, Roffredo, drummer Alex McKenzie and new guitarist Ricky Chacon—reestablishing their signature sound, re-recording those three songs from 2015 as well as adding on 11 more originals that snap, crackle and pop just as much as your favorite Aggro songs from back in the day.
“We wanted to keep it real,” Wagner says. Even though we were proud of [2009 album] IV, we know we went outside the box a little on that one. This time around, we decided to keep it natural: Simple, two-chord reggae. It’s feel-good music. We know what people like out of us. Let’s just be us.”
While it took nearly a decade to get the Aggrolites back into a cohesive creative headspace, it took a fraction of the time to actually lay down music—the band knocked out all the basic rhythm tracks for REGGAE NOW! in one day in early 2018.
“We like to keep it old school and record organically, like the Funk Brothers of Motown or The Hippy Boys of 1960’s Jamaica,“ Wagner reveals. “There’s that whole atmosphere and energy—get in a room and let that energy flow. We felt like teenagers again in a garage band. That came out in this record.”
Wagner repeatedly emphasizes the band’s drive to create “feel-good music,” and the album is a testament to those good vibrations: “Love Me Tonight” is a gorgeous love song with silky smooth vocal harmonies; the funky “Jack Pot” could be the soundtrack to your next night out at the club or the walkout music for your next prize fight; “Why You Rat” will make you groove and laugh at the same time as Wagner clowns on a “ratboy” security guard who made his life difficult at his old apartment complex.
“Our lyrics have always been light-hearted and making people smile and dance, with that vintage retro feeling in mind,” he says. “That’s what the Aggrolites are about. The great thing about skinhead reggae is as beautiful as the music sounds, it’s also the most punch-you-in-the-face music ever, too.”
“Their tunes perfectly echo the human chemistry you can hear in those early Jamaican productions,” says British reggae icon Don Letts. “The band’s old-school analog sound totally captures the spirit of the music I grew up on.”
“The Aggrolites have stretched out, and gotten it even more right, at exactly the right time,” agrees Lynval Golding, vocalist/guitarist for Two-Tone legends the Specials. “This is the album.”
Functioning as free agents for the first time in nearly two decades, the Aggrolites created REGGAE NOW! without a deadline in mind. Once they felt like the album was complete, they didn’t have to look far for a partner: Bay Area label Pirates Press Records was at the top of their list.
“I’ve known [Pirates Press Records owner] Skippy since I was 17,” says Wagner. “Over the years, seeing how much he’s progressed and knowing what kind of respect everybody has for him… He’s one of those people we trusted to know what to do with the Aggrolite name and image.”
With REGGAE NOW! ready to drop, the Aggrolites will hit the road this summer for their first full U.S. tour in six years. Wagner says the band is excited to get back in the groove.
“We’re passionate about reggae, we’re passionate about our band, and I don’t think we’re ever gonna stop,” he concludes. “Everybody clicks right now. That’s why we’re calling it REGGAE NOW!—because this is us now.”
PRESS & PROMO
If this writer has one bone to pick with Lashley and Illuminator, it’s that the album is too damned short. From start to all-too-early finish, the melodies catch you pretty quickly. – Dying Scene
…sometimes an album is so good it grabs you, holds you spellbound and immobile until it is finished with you. And then you hit the play button again. You want to tell everyone about this album, so that you can talk about it with them, so you can see that experience play over their faces, but you are trapped. Lenny Lashley’s album, Illuminator, is one of these. – Big Wheel Magazine
…this album, this lonely and brilliant thing, the hard-won concord he’s able to anthemize, the desolation he balladates–he gives it his therapy, he trusts his zen assets, his songs, to a world/audience/void he knows isn’t going to fix much for him, but it’s still stabilizing to try–still a flexing of trust like what happens after finally seeing your parents as mortal, mistaken people, or watching a loved one move out, or standing by while a career demystifies without reward–it all comes back to you and things you can’t keep from admitting to yourself and finding a strength you can build with after that deconstruction. – Nine Bullets
On first listen those who hear “Hooligans” will recognize the song for precisely what it is: a classic indie rock anthem in the Replacements and Gaslight Anthem tradition but with a distinctly Bostonian flavor. – Hellbound