To write a comprehensive and authentic account of the hip hop-dub hybrid beast that is the Dub Pistols, one would need a great deal of time, something to keep you awake for a few days and probably a good lawyer. Sadly I have none of these, but on a recent trip to see them play a festival in Barbados, I did grab a few hours with founding members Barry Ashworth and Jason O’Bryan, for a catch up on the band’s recent activity and some reminiscing about the good and bad of the early days.
To recap, the Pistols were formed in the late nineties when a club promoter and DJ, Barry, phoned up sound engineer Jason and asked him to help out on some tracks for an album which became ‘Point Blank’, the Pistols’ debut. Finding they had shared musical interests, Jason soon became the second core member of the band.
The Pistols scored a minor hit with the single ‘Cyclone’, but due to the backlash against the big beat scene – which, ironically, they were never really a part of anyway – the band found themselves searching for success outside of the UK. They found it in America, signing a million dollar deal with Geffen and touring the States. However, the release date for second album, ‘Six Million Ways to Live’, also happened to be the week of 9/11. The album’s apocalyptic themes and lyrics about soldiers and conflict proved way too close to the bone for Geffen, as Barry recalls: “Obviously, our record got shelved and everything went tits up, and I decided to come back to the UK. It seems like a weird thing – everyone knows that America’s the biggest market, but we still wanted respect at home. And by that time, the big beat backlash was over, so we managed to come back, with a much more song-based album.”
The big beat issue is one that has haunted the Pistols over the years. Although their music never particularly fitted the paradigm, they were guilty by association, sharing a record label – Concrete – with bands like Death in Vegas and Propellerheads. “We were just making records with beats in them”, says Barry. “The whole point of the Dub Pistols, from the name down to everything else, was that you couldn’t categorise it and it couldn’t be pigeonholed. But it’s still frustrating when you get people that label you as a big beat band, it’s like – for fuck’s sake! Haven’t you got anything else to write?”
“We weren’t really part of any scene”, agrees Jason. “We just happened to be around at the same time as all that. We weren’t trying to be anything, we were just trying to make music.”
As it happens, the Pistols have emerged as one of the few true survivors of the wider beats and breaks scene – a feat accomplished by a constant reinvention of their sound, such as on latest album ‘Rum & Coke’ (named after some of the antics that ensued on their first visit to Barbados), where the heavy breakbeats of ‘Point Blank’ have evolved into a blend of traditional songwriting and modern dub.
The album was – in a sense – a departure for the band. Although still brimming with beats and basslines, it is, as Jason puts it “more song-based – a bit more down-tempo” than previous releases. However, their fondness for using guest vocalists and MCs continued, with collaborators including hip hop innovator Rodney P (a regular Pistols’ cohort live, as well as in the studio), reggae legend Gregory Isaacs, electronica producer Justin Robertson, and Barbadian reggae singer Red Star Lion.
Add to this the array of people that contribute to their sound (including the more regular crew – John on guitars, Tom on trombone, and Darren on drums – whom Barry describes as “fantastic musicians”), and the Dub Pistols can occasionally seem like an ever-evolving musical collective. “It has had that feel for a while” says Jason. “With our vocalists, we kind of took a leaf out of Massive Attack’s book, the way they might have two different songs with two different vocalists but both will still sound like Massive Attack songs.”
Dub Pistols – Everyday Stranger (ft. TK and Ashley Slater)
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This varied line-up also adds an element to the band’s raucous live performances, which included a string of dates last year with none other than Terry Hall of The Specials. Hall recorded some tracks with the Pistols (including the single ‘Rapture’, and The Specials’ classic ‘Gangsters’) for third album ‘Speakers and Tweeters’, much to the delight of Jason and especially Barry, who cites The Specials as his biggest influence.
“Terry’s really good to work with and we did quite a few tracks together” he explains. “Then he started coming out and performing live with us, which was mind-blowing – being on the same stage as Terry Hall, doing ‘Gangsters’ and ‘Our Lips are Sealed’. I didn’t think life could get much better.”
These live shows also played an unexpected role in the recent, much-lauded reformation of The Specials, when, during a set with the Dub Pistols at Bestival, Hall was joined onstage by ex-bandmate Lynval Golding – the first time they had been seen together in 20 years. “That was a big highlight, seeing them together and talking to each other again” says Jason.
As for the future, the Pistols are soon to calm down their mammoth tour and go back in the studio to work on a new album. Jason mentions that they have several other Terry Hall collaborations waiting to be finished off, one of which – a hip hop-based track – will be included on the next record.
In the longer term, Barry and Jason tell me that a book is planned, recalling the many stories and setbacks that the Pistols seem to encounter wherever they go. Aptly titled ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’ Barry explains the idea behind it: “It really is the story of every single band, in that everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. We’re not unique, but I think we’re a little more unfortunate than most bands. Everything from the deals we’ve had to the timing of our records, to our soundman in Kuala Lumpur, who fell 20 feet off the stage onto concrete and broke his neck, halfway up a mountain – everywhere we go things just seem to go tits up!”
Jason adds a further example of the Dubs’ mishaps by recounting their first American gig: “We turned up at a rave in a big dustbowl on the outskirts of Los Angeles, with about 60,000 people there, and as we got there everyone started cheering. We set all the gear up and then realised we didn’t have any US power converters. So we had to pack the gear away and everyone started booing. So basically our first show in America was setting up the gear and packing it away again in front of 60,000 people!”
Many more stories (not fit for publication) are told to me over the week by Barry and Jason – both highly engaging and affable characters, with a tinge of mayhem bubbling under the surface. This makes them compelling company as does their appetite for… destruction seems too harsh a word for their easy-going natures, but debauchery certainly fits the bill. Anyone who thinks that bands have gotten boring could do a lot worse than spending some time with the Pistols.
On that note, it would be criminal not to at least mention the notorious partying. As sure as Spinal Tap will never secure a long-term drummer, the Dub Pistols will be the last ones standing after the carnage of the night before. After spending a week with them, I’m ready for a long lie down and some time off work, while they happily trundle off to Lille to carry on the hedonism and the gigging. All of which makes me wonder if the hedonism, lack of sleep and constant touring ever takes its toll, on both band relations and general sanity? Barry confirms that it does, but also – as I suspected – that he wouldn’t change a thing:
“I think it’s the same as any relationship. If you spend too much time together, you end up driving each other crazy. And because we like to drink and like to party, there’s a lot of comedowns and a lot of hangovers, and it does get really stressful at times. I’m still happy doing it, of course. You get to go and do what you want and travel round the world. And I don’t think any of us are employable outside music! It’s just what we do.”
Words by Tristan Parker
Photos by Nigel Crane