On Tuesday, April 9th, legendary roots reggae band Steel Pulse, from Birmingham, England, made a stop in Seattle at the Showbox Market while on their current tour. I had the last minute opportunity to sit down with David Hinds, lead singer and founding member of the band, which formed back in 1975, and talk about the new record, what it's like to tour after all these years, and their new partnership with the non-profit record label Rootfire. Steel Pulse will be releasing Mass Manipulation, their first studio album in 15 years, on May 17th followed by another tour. Since the end of last year, they've revealed two singles from that forthcoming release that they've been testing on audiences in live sets across the country.
KEXP: How does it feel to be back on tour and with new material?
David Hinds: Mixed feelings. Kind of scary in a sense that not having an album out in such a long time, I'm apprehensive in the way the general public is going to take the music. I don't want to hear, well, "after all those years, is that it?" But, we managed to do a couple of songs that will be featured on the album and it's been getting good favoritism.
They are incredible. I love the two new singles that have dropped. "Cry Cry Blood" is really good and I understand that you spent several years and various locations recording that song?
So, is that part of your typical creative process or why was this different?
Because, we didn't have our own studio to work out of. We had a building so many years ago which was not for sale and we had to vacate it, during that time we had to keep touring, we had no record label, so it was all about generating finance to record the album ourselves. And then it became a rehearsal problem as well, where the band was all over the place, some live in Jamaica, some live in California, some live in New York, we ourselves live in England and parts of the Caribbean. So every time we had a chance to do a series of dates, we managed to get some rehearsals in at that time and record while everybody was to get together at that time, because the airfares would have been astronomical trying to say, hey let's try to get together strictly for rehearsal every five minutes, would've been ridiculous, so that's one of the reasons why the album took that length of time.
How do you want listeners to feel when they listen to the new album?
I want listeners to realize that there's more to listening to the album, actually participating in the subject matter, is what the album's trying to portray. There's so many issues that have come over the past, last two terms of Barack Obama for example, and this new term, there's so many issues. I mean if you think about it, the album was recorded over that span, and during those two different administrations there's been mayhem. And then you've got Brexit that got kicked in, across Europe. The whole thing that's taking us by storm right now, whether we like it or not, is racism. I mean look at the churches that got burnt down only a few days ago in Louisiana. Whoever done that I have no idea. But let's say it was internally done, it's still trying to perpetuate racism, because the end result of everything else is just racism. So, we'd like to know that the general public, after hearing the album, doesn't just listen, but participates in putting right all the ailments that the planet has been perpetuated with in the past ten years.
Do you think people should try to ignore news in the media as it relates to politics, for the sake of our sanity, or do you feel like we need to be more concerned than that?
I think it's the same reason why it's gotten to where it's gotten to, no one was paying attention over the years. I mean, we've aired our views for the longest time in our music, our music has always had that kind of sentiment towards it, and no one's paying attention. We're a small band when it compares to Rihanna, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars, so they're getting all the accolades, but what we're saying is ringing a lot more true, truer than what these guys, that are getting all the accolades are about, and it's all about nobody taking what's been going on seriously, until it comes to this, you see what I'm saying. And so, it's time to really be more active when it comes to our destination, where we really want to go as people, and where we really want to go as mankind.
Can you talk about your partnership with the non-profit label Rootfire, and why that's important to you?
That's a very good question because, major record labels have definitely failed us. The first couple of labels we've had, especially the very first label we had — I don't want to say any curse words on the radio station but, they didn't do us any favors, and all that did when it came to acts like ourselves, especially the reggae genre, was all about maximizing the sales for the benefit of the labels and where the returns were. Meager is an understatement as far as the kind of monies that came back in comparison to what was sold. And you find out we're parting with publishing rights, we're parting with copyrights, we're parting with all kinds of things when it comes to those deals back in yesteryear. So we made a vow not to join any major labels anyway — to me they were all one big ripoff. I'm so happy a lot have folded over the years because of the age of the internet, where people are just doing things themselves when it comes to promotion, comes to doing their own digital downloading, selling their CD's there, after they've pressed them up themselves, at concerts, things like that.
So, that's where we're at right now. Rootfire comes along with an idea where they're saying, look, we're going to give you money that needs to be recouped. We understand that, because that's all we've been doing with these other guys, but once it's been recouped they're still taking percentages, Rootfire don't want to know about that, they just want to know they get their recoupment, and want to know that they've given us an extra leg up when it comes to climbing the ladder, and that suited me fine, the whole thing and [they're] a nice set of guys, and they're willing to participate in guaranteeing that whatever's been given to us, comes back to them. I don't feel any kind of pressure, it's all been encouragement, encouragement, encouragement, all the way, while the other labels, after certain things, they don't want to interfere with your creativity because they've given you an advance, they want it to sound like someone else, they want to take lyrics off the album, what you've written, for the rest of the world to understand that don't speak English, and all of these little, hands behind your back, kind of, lead weight on your legs, and throw you into the deep end all of the time. The kind of deal that we've set with Rootfire doesn't come with all those attributes.
Are there any artists you're excited to work with?
I've got a thing about working with certain artists. Most of the artists I've wanted to work with, they're all dead. I'd really like to know if I could do something with someone like Lenny Kravitz. I've met him, nice guy. He's got a particular energy that I do like, that he has on stage.
One particular person I wanted to work with, but it didn't happen because he was on the verge of retiring, but he might pop back up in the immediate future, depends, you know how it goes with these old timers, Steve Winwood. We both come from the same neck of the woods — Handsworth, Birmingham, England — and we actually covered a track of his called "Higher Love" and we wanted him on it, but by the time we got to him, he was already winding himself down. For the sake that we came from the same territory, walked the same streets, I want to record with him, so to speak.
Anybody else, I've not really thought about it. I'd like to know if I could record with one or two other African acts like Teddy Afro, from Ethiopia, a well-known Ethiopian artist, for the sake that I've touched base with an east African country. Those are the immediate few I can bring to mind. I wouldn't mind doing a recording with Gwen Stefani if I had a chance, only because she was featured in this documentary we were supposed to be putting out and I had no idea Gwen was that favorable of the band. You look at these acts and their music is far removed from ours to an extent, and their statement is far removed from ours to an extent, and they turn around and say "I really like these guys", so I would like to make it happen, to do a one-off track at some point. So those are the people I can immediately bring to mind. Like I said, everybody else I would like to record with, they're all, dead.
How is it different touring now as opposed to a couple of decades ago?
I find it a lot harder, because I'm older. The war wounds are kickin' in now, where you know, certain injuries that you had when you were kids, they were alright when you were kids and they start flaring up now and you say, hey wait a minute! There was a time when we were doing as much as six shows a week — bam, bam, bam, bam, bam — and the seventh day would be gettin' to the next show. I ain't gonna kid myself, I can't do six shows in a week anymore. Three? I'll do three. I'll push it to four and if I push it to four, make sure there's a day off after that, and a half day off after that, because, it's taxing now. All that fun you had when you were google-eyed, when you're sort of in the city running around burning the candles at both ends, you're partying at night, you've got a show the next day and you're partying again, I can't hang like that now. So, that's the difference.
Any advice for the next generation?
The advice I'd give for the next generation is the advice I'd give, and have been giving for quite some time, when it comes to, if you want to be a musician for example, you can't beat originality. That rings true every time. When you've got something and you've made it your own, thank god the internet can give you that exposure where you're so different and people recognize that. Before, you were recognized according to how the labels conditioned you to be recognized. And as a result, your music was formatted in that way, your whole visual appearance was formatted in that way, as soon as you start looking not like the norm, not what they're familiar with, your music and yourself gets put into a category that they can't promote, and then before you know it, your put on a shelf or in a trash can somewhere. So with the youths, be humble and be an original. You can't beat those, it's something I've said, I've been saying it. We can go into the next three or four decades ahead of us where we're approaching the 2040's or 2050's as a year, and the sentiment and the whole ideology is the same, you can't beat originality. You think of all the musicians back in the day and even when it comes to the creative world of art and painters and all that stuff, many of them have died penny-less and after a while you look around and you see they were like geniuses, diamonds in the rough that no one paid attention to and all of the sudden. You know, you have your Mozarts that died penny-less, Van Gogh, died penny-less. And when you speak of art, you cannot speak of art and music without calling those guys' names. That's what I'm talking about, what they were doing was so original. So there you go, originality for all the youths out there, no matter what you embark on, no matter what you participate in, you've got to be original.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
Musically? Of course, Bob Marley, one of the biggest ones as far as his mood. As far as the educational standpoint, Gil Scott-Heron is at the top of the list. I was saying before, when I came to the United States, I was never the kind of guy that would run out and buy a James Brown album or a Curtis Mayfield album, although Curtis had his political attributes in all honesty, and Earth Wind & Fire, that was not my kind of thing. I sort of listened to the music, but for me to put my hand in my pocket and put a few pounds on the table, and say I want this album, those guys weren't what I would've went for. I liked Hendrix, there was another band as well that I liked growing up when I was in my college years, was a band called Climax Blues Band, and I tend to gravitate toward guitar players that really are punchy, how they play, like Leslie West from Mountain. You know the band called Mountain with Leslie West? Big chubby guy and when he plays the guitar man, you know. And Gary Moore, was he from what, Thin Lizzy? You know, guitar players. So I tend to gravitate towards [them] when it comes to that kind of instrumentation.
But when it comes to lyric writing, three guys that come to mind when it comes to I say, yeah, that's a lyric writer — four, because I discovered him very late, Bob Dylan, in all honesty. Because up until then, I never thought political music was coming out of America, and that's why I never put my hand in my pocket to buy anything from America so to speak, because I never saw America as a politically-orientated country when it comes to music. Every time they'd put something on the radio it's like "shake your butt, move your body, let's make love" and I didn't hear anything that sort of came with any creative juices that showed you what's going on politically in the world. But Bob Dylan came to mind, Gil Scott-Heron came to mind, Bob Marley came to mind, see what I'm sayin'? So those are the three main guys. Sting! He's a very good lyric writer as well, I've watched him grow as far as a lyricist in the earlier years. Don't know what he's doing now but you know, it's like a gunslinger in a western. One gunslinger knows another gunslinger when he see's one. That's how I feel when I see cats like that when it comes to lyric writing. It's not just a one off, this guy's got a perception on him when it comes to how they view the world and those guys are icons for me. Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Marley, and Sting. When it comes to writing lyrics, they're lyric writers, for me!
Where is home for Steel Pulse now?
Depends what you mean when you say "Steel Pulse." If you're referring to me, I'm all over the place. For many years I've had a domestic issue and I say, you know what, let me get out of England, so I got out of England, and I return to England when it comes to paying taxes and stuff like that, and seeing my family, but I high-tailed it out of England for quite a number of years now and I sort of knock around from pillar to post and coincide with tour dates. And I'll be touring the French Caribbean, the United States, I knock around places like New York and California, we did a lot of recording in California, so it became like a second place for me for quite some time, several months on end. Those are the main places. There's no place I'm fixated with saying, this is where I am, because of how, and as you know, the album was recorded on that kind of mode, we're almost everywhere. So if you want to call any places, I'd say between the French Caribbean, and the U.S. and now and again Jamaica, but not often, I'm all over the place.