eggae can be a tough sell to a Midwestern audience that’s been spoon-fed mainstream musical oatmeal long enough to forget what organic texture and rhythm feels like. The Cliftones have experienced this difficulty, not to mention a certain resistance to the genre, for the entirety of their six-year existence.
“We strangely can win over people that say they really don’t like Reggae,” drummer Tim Hensley says from the control room of the Cincinnati band’s home studio, New Fidelity Sound Productions.
Lead vocalist Diedrich Jones interrupts to finish the often-heard compliment: “ ‘… But I like you guys.’ ”
“We hear that all the time,” says guitarist Kevin Muro. “ ‘I’m not really big on Reggae, but you guys don’t sound like Reggae.’ I don’t know how to respond to that. ‘Thanks?’ ”
There’s a case to be made that in emulating some of the most enduring giants in Reggae, The Cliftones have created something both instantly familiar and all their own. On stage and on their first full-length album, the recently released Enemies Scatter, the band has fashioned an evocative and compelling blend of wide-ranging influences within and beyond Reggae, amped up with The Cliftones’ own incendiary brand of showmanship.
“I’m doing my best to sound like those other things and it just doesn’t,” Hensley says. “It’s coming out the way it is.”
“I’m trying to parrot Ernest Ranglin as much as humanly possible,” adds guitarist/New Fidelity co-owner Chris Madine. “That pick-line shit and the staccato thing, but I’m trying to create my own.
“None of us is trying, it’s just happening,” he continues. “My parents didn’t have Reggae records, so everything works its way in. You get everybody in the band together and we’ve got hundreds of influences and they’re all over the place.”
By way of explanation, Jones — whose aunt recorded Pop tracks in the ’60s and whose uncle is local cult music hero Nelson Slater — runs through his phone’s playlist, which is the definition of eclectic. “Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, Guided By Voices, of course, then Bruce Springsteen, Earth Wind & Fire, Nick Lowe, Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim. I’m proud of my list, man,” he says. “I just like good songwriters. Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and I like Townes Van Zandt and whoever. Bob Marley isn’t even the first Reggae I heard.”
While The Cliftones don’t rely on a formulaic approach in crafting their vision of Reggae, the octet — Jones, Madine, Muro, Hensley, trombonist Markus Sherman, trumpeter Aaron Boyle, percussionist Alonzo Leggette and new bassist Brent Olds, with occasional help from hornmen Chap Sowash (ex-Pinstripes) and Justin Croucher — is clearly doing something consistently right, as evidenced by the six Cincinnati Entertainment Awards adorning their walls. The band won its first CEA for Reggae/World Band after its first year together, and the group has topped the category every year since; this year, the members added a Best Live Band CEA to the wall of fame.
“That was cool because that puts us in with the whole scene instead of just the small Reggae community,” Madine says.
“We want to get Best Album,” Jones says with a smile.
With the January release of Enemies Scatter, that’s now a distinct possibility. Until recently, The Cliftones had released singles (and an EP) through iTunes and other online music sources, but with the band signing to Rebel Sound Records, the group finally has a physical CD and the kind of distribution that is earning them radio airplay across the country and around the world.
“The response has been really good,” Madine says. “It went to No. 10 on the iTunes Reggae chart and it’s getting played in Belgium.”
“The record guy sends me a playlist (featuring radio plays) every couple of days where somebody’s added it,” Jones says.
Oddly enough, The Cliftones have been sitting on Enemies Scatter for more than a year and a half. After working with several producers and engineers on mixes, including Jim Fox (Culture, Yellowman), the band weighed its opportunities carefully until Jones decided to contact old friend Marcus Benjamin to see if he could offer some assistance. He liked the album and hooked the band up with Rebel Sound Records head Zack Reed, who signed the band and released Enemies Scatter in January.“It’s kind of old to us,” Madine says of the album with a laugh. “We were just trying to make it so it wasn’t just released in Cincinnati and then nothing ever happened with it. It’s been sitting on my hard drive for over a year.”
“I refused to have a local CD release party and sell 15 discs and then carry the other 485 around for the rest of our lives,” Hensley says. “I’ve done that before.”
There is a measure of melancholy to The Cliftones’ debut release as well. Longtime local producer/DJ Bill Wendt, better known as DJ Prophecy, who did extensive work on Enemies Scatter, passed away last month in California after a long illness.
“Prophecy was in town and sort of co-produced and mixed the majority of the tunes,” Madine says. “Some of the stuff on the album is kind of grimy, and that’s his style.”
“I knew him from here. We both went to Princeton High School,” Jones says. “He never struck me as a music person growing up, but he got hooked up out West somehow. He did Glitch Mob, which was blowing up, and Bassnectar, who’s huge. We were his last album. It’s crazy.”
At the moment, The Cliftones are dealing with their own internal health issues. Trombonist Sherman’s broken femur healed improperly and required additional surgery and another 12 weeks of recovery. Until that’s resolved, The Cliftones will continue to monitor the success of Enemies Scatter, plan for upcoming shows at the Woodward Theater and at the Bud Light Reggae Festival in Maine and philosophize about their place in the music universe.
“You better be pretty damn passionate about your shit these days, kids,” Jones says. “You ain’t gonna make jack shit, so you better have good shirts.”
“In a way, it’s better for the art,” Hensley notes of the increased economic difficulties for musicians in the streaming music age. “It weeds out anyone that was really in it for the money. The only people that are left are the ones that really fucking care.”
THE CLIFTONES play Friday at the Woodward Theater with Jess Lamb, Moira and more. Tickets/more info: woodwardtheater.com.