The Idlers want to make one thing perfectly clear: They may play reggae, but they're not here to lecture.
"With entertainment and politics, it's a fine line," says the group's guitarist, Paul Schiralli-Earle (who boasts an uncanny ability to speak from St. John's, play with a baby and cook bok choy at the same time). "You have to figure out a way to make things political without being overly political. You don't have to be all 'Jah Rastafari,' and anyway, it would be completely inappropriate. None of us are Rastas."
Instead, the 11-piece group from Newfoundland presents an energetic hybrid of reggae fused with African percussion, saxes and trombones, soaring harmonies and dashes of ska---and they keep the social commentary confined to their lyrics. The Idlers' latest, Keep Out, opens with bursts of guitar, a surge of horns and lead singer/trumpet player Mark Wilson's simple words: "We cry when we see nations starving/We fight to stop the terror spreading." The song then builds to a cool, shuffling chorus of a single word: "War." It's a socially aware tune that you can drink, smoke and dance to---Edwin Starr would be proud.
Last January, when the band was seeking a producer, someone suggested Darryl Jenifer. The former bassist for hardcore punk heroes Bad Brains had worked on Bedouin Soundclash's breakthrough album Building a Mosaic and seemed a good fit. Schiralli-Earle says he got a fanboy thrill when Jenifer responded to his email.
"I had known Bad Brains from being a skateboarding punk kid," he says. "We sent him some demos and he loved it."
In March, 10 Idlers packed up and headed to Woodstock, NY, to meet Jenifer and engineer Phil Burnett (who won a Grammy for his work on Steely Dan's Two Against Nature) at Dreamland Studios---an old church Weezer and The B-52s had recorded in. Before the Idlers began recording, they learned something surprising about the men at the helm: the Steely Dan producer was once the sound man for Bad Brains.
"They had some kind of argument, and then they didn't talk or see each other for 10 years," Schiralli-Earle says. "This was the first project they'd worked together on in a decade. Now I think Phil's doing sound for them again on the road."
During the band's two-week stay, Jenifer took on the role of the elder saint, keeping the musicians organized while corralling their sound with maximum efficiency. Though he and Burnett joined the group every evening for meals, joints and beers, Schiralli-Earle says the producer also ran a tight ship to keep things efficient.
"We'd be standing in the control room listening to a groove, and sometimes he'd turn around and go, 'Can you just leave?'" he remembers. "It was intimidating. He wasn't hard to work with, but he was very diligent in his process. He has a huge part in how the new album sounds. He's just a stellar, upstanding dude."