Interview with Selwyn Brown - by telephone on Feb. 16, 2005. (C) Copyright Maka Iki -Used by Permission.
MAKA IKI: So Selwyn, the last time I interviewed you guys I talked to David just before you guys came out
here to do a show at the beginning of 2000, so that means it's been a long time since Steel Pulse visited Hawaii, unless you guys managed to sneak past me and do a show while I was off the island or something!
SELWYN: That sounds about right to me, you know what I'm saying? Cause I'm trying to recall if we've
been there in the last couple of years, and I don't think we have.
MAKA: Okay, so this will be nice! How do you guys feel like
your live show has changed since 2000?
SELWYN: Let me see now… well, obviously we've got new songs from this new album, African Holocaust, so we're
integrating those into the sets.
Lineup-wise, personnel-wise, we've got two new backing vocalists now, by the names of Melanie Lynch and Marea
Wilson, out of New York and Jamaica respectively. That's the only additions, and also it's a possibility that the last time we came, Grizzly might have been with us, but in recent years Grizzly hasn't been
working with Steel Pulse because he's got a heart problem at the moment.
As a matter of fact, you're probably aware that he had a stroke last September, because we put that on the website
to let people know.
But about 5 or 6 years ago, he was diagnosed with a heart problem. I think he had a mild heart attack at the time. So since then, he's basically not been able to fly anywhere because obviously that would put more pressure on him.
So his instructions from his doctor are that he can fly if he wants to, but he'd have to fly at his own risk, so
he hasn't flown since then at all. And last September he had that bad stroke where he couldn't move or talk, but now, thankfully, with some speech therapy and some medication, he's talking quite well, he's got
all of his physical reflexes back, but he just needs to take it a bit easier on himself.
MAKA: So I was saying… For those out there listening right now, I'm talking to Selwyn Brown from Steel
Pulse, who are of course coming here to play at the Waikiki Shell on Wednesday, February 23rd, and we were just talking about Grizzly, the original drummer from Steel Pulse…
And um… so, Selwyn, what I wanted to say… Steel Pulse is really on a roll right now: people are saying African
Holocaust is the best album you guys have put out in 20 years, your live shows are better than they've been in recent memory, when I saw you guys last year in California I'd say you guys had more energy on stage
than I've seen you have since I first started seeing Steel Pulse back in 1988, and I just wanted to ask you, what would you say, from your perspective, has really happened a couple years ago that inspired this sort
of Steel Pulse Rennaissance that we're seeing right now?
SELWYN: Okay, well actually we've spent the last few years recording this album, because we actually started
recording this album at the end of 2001, just after the whole 9-11 tragedy, and we finished mastering it last year, in June 2004.
So, in between that time now, even though we were recording the album, we were still touring. So we'd be in
the studio for the most part of the time, and then we would take a break and tour in the U.S. or the Caribbean or Europe, and then we'd go back and carry on working on the album, as opposed to working on the album
in one whole block. So that's one of the reasons why the album took such a long time.
Also, when we started this album, we actually sent for a producer from Jamaica because any time Steel Pulse is
looking at doing an album, we always like to have someone else there as another ear to take the burden of listening away from us so we can concentrate on just creating.
So what happened was, unfortunately, this producer came over, and he was messing around
in the studio, slowing the whole project up, so we parted ways after him being in England for like 3 or 4 months, and we had to make a decision at that point either to bring in another producer to take over the project or just produce it ourselves, knowing it's gonna take a longer time.
So we decided to just produce it ourselves, in conjunction with a good friend of ours in Birmingham by the name of
Michael Henry who's got his own recording studio and label in Birmingham as well. So that was a big help.
Apart from recording, like I said, we've been touring a lot.
We've been to Africa a few times; we went to Ivory Coast, to Senegal, to Ghana also. We've been hoping to go back there, and we're also trying to complete a DVD as well…
MAKA: Oh, right! How's that coming along—that DVD?
SELWYN: It's coming along okay.
It's taken longer than we would have hoped, but we're trying to make it like a semi-documentary DVD, including touring footage from as far back as 1999, when we were in Africa.
We're also trying to include interviews that we made ourselves with various reggae artists, and these artists are
giving their opinions on Steel Pulse over the years, and we're trying to include these in the DVD to make it more contemporary and more interesting.
So do you agree with me that sort of just within the last two years that you guys seem to have really been getting even more energized, though, as far as your live shows and stuff, than you were even before, or is that just something that some of us fans are noticing and that you haven't really noticed much of a change?
SELWYN: Okay, okay!
Well, you're probably right, but truly people have always alluded to us that the shows have had energy. What people have been saying to us more recently is that they can't believe that at the ages that we are that we're still putting out this energy, and people are asking us what's our secret.
I mean, there isn't really any secret, but one thing I could say is that, since 1990 or 1991, when we recorded the
Victims album, well, throughout the 80's, we were in a bit of a dilemma whereby we were trying to record this music that was true to the concept of Steel Pulse.
We wanted to stay true to our roots and true to our beliefs, which is basically conscious music trying to
enlighten the people as to the real deal as far as what's happening politically across the world, and culturally, and things like that.
Now, what we found in the 1980's is that some of the record companies were trying to influence us to be a bit more
commercial, and this is obviously for them to sell records in the mainstream. But the problem that we came across is that a lot of the major labels didn't understand the music that we were making.
You see what I'm saying?
So, the thing is that we were putting out albums which we were satisfied with, but even Steel Pulse fans were
saying, "Why make these commercial tracks if the record company isn't going to push them anyway?"
So what happened with the Victims album is that we finished actually recording the album with tracks like "Taxi
Driver", "Victims", "We Can Do It". Then we presented it to the record company who turned to us and said that they couldn't hear anything on the album that was commercially viable.
So we said to them, "Well, what about tracks like 'Grab A Girlfriend' and 'We Can Do It' and 'Taxi Driver'?"
They said they didn't see those tracks as commercially viable. So, they then said to us they were not gonna put the album out unless we agreed to go back in the studios with some commercial or pop producers to do two more tracks, and then they were gonna put the album out and put those tracks as singles.
So, to cut a long story short, we went back in the studio with Stephen Bray, who has produced Madonna and other
people. We did this track called "Out of My System", with Stevie Wonder on harmonica, and we also wrote a track called "Soul of My Soul" (produced by Family Stand), and had Phonso Martin, one of Steel Pulse original
members singing. So then the record company heard these two tracks, decided to put out "Soul of My Soul" as a single, and Phonso left the band. So that put us in a bit of a dilemma again.
So after that experience, we made a conscious decision that on any further Steel Pulse albums, we're gonna record
the songs in a way that is true to the Steel Pulse spirit.
And now African Holocaust is a kind of a full circle for us. In other words, between that time, as you know, we recorded the Vex album and the Rage
and Fury album. All these were attempts for us to get back to our original way of making music, and now we've come full circle with African Holocaust.
MAKA: Do you feel yourself, personally, that African Holocaust finally gets you to where you were trying to go when you were doing Vex and Rage and Fury,
or do you feel, looking back, that Vex and Rage and Fury were already there?
SELWYN: I think, um… definitely African Holocaust, out of the three albums since Victims, is
the most true to the Steel Pulse concept I would say. Because I would say that the majority, if not all the songs, have got a strong cultural or political message.
MAKA: True. But also musically, right?
SELWYN: Yes, musically as well.
MAKA: I mean, because cultural messages is something, and I heard in one interview that David did, he said
that in making this new album… in making African Holocaust… you guys in Steel Pulse took some time to kind of search your souls and go back and think a little bit about what were your foundation influences,
and kind of uh…
SELWYN: Yes. Definitely.
Because also, like you say, musically as well, we decided to do all these tracks with live drums, apart from the actual "African Holocaust" title track which was actually the last song that we decided to record.
MAKA: You know what's interesting about that track "African Holocaust" is, well first of all, it's the first
time we've heard you doing lead vocals in a while, but also in addition to that, there's also a whole verse of that song that's written into the liner notes as part of the lyrics of the song, but it didn't come out
in the final recording of the song, and I'm wondering if that was deliberate that you kept that part of the song out or what that was all about…
Okay, that's a good question. What happened is, me and David wrote that whole section there. (singing) "When it comes to the system, We're still the victims, of isms and schisms…" and David
actually wanted me to perform that anyway.
He came back to me and said, "Selwyn, have you got any lyrics of your own that you would like to put there?" and
that's how we came up with the second verse where I'm singing about what we went through with slavery and stuff like that.
After that we got in touch with Tiken Jah Fakoly, and we put in his section rather than the lyrics listed in the liner notes. Cause when we heard what Tiken Jah came up with, we decided to put his part in that section, put my verse further back, and leave out the first lyrics but still write them out in the notes on the album because they're still relevant to the song and the concept of the album.
MAKA: Okay, thanks for explaining that! (Selwyn laughs). So you're saying that's like the last track
you recorded for the album. I was just curious, if it took so long to record the album, which of the tracks are the oldest, and which ones were recorded toward the end of the project?
SELWYN: Okay, well, like I say, the title track was the one recorded last, but all the rest of the songs we
actually were working on all of them at the same time. So, what we'd do is…
for all the rest of the tracks on the album, we actually laid down drum tracks for all of them, and then we'd lay down bass tracks, build them up to a certain stage—all the tracks—and then stop and go back and add more to them piece by piece, but all the tracks were being worked on at the same time.
MAKA: So, some of the tracks you may have had preliminary recordings and then you re-recorded them over
again or something?
SELWYN: No, no, no!
What happened is that all the tracks, apart from "African Holocaust", we actually had like demos of these tracks when this producer came over from Jamaica. So we started working on tracks like, you know, "Door of No Return", "Darker Than Blue", "Uncle George", we actually started working on them one by one. Now, "Global Warning"… that actual track was written before the album. What happened with that one is that… um, have you heard of Julia Butterfly?
MAKA: Yeah, she was the one that was up in the tree, right?
SELWYN: That's right.
What happened there now is … before we actually started recording the album, her supporters had gotten in touch with us in England and told us what Julia was doing and the reason why she was doing this, and they knew that we as a band were in tune to issues like the environment.
Their idea was to finance an album of various artists recording songs all taking about the environment. So
they asked us if we would write a song to be included
on their compilation with the aim of raising funds to fight the multi-nationals and logging companies who were destroying the rain forests and thus the whole ecosystem.
So what happened is, we called it "Global Warning" with the intention of putting it on their compilation album,
but after a while now, that project just fizzled out, but we still had this song, or I should say, the sketch of this song. So when we decided to record this album African Holocaust, we included this
song because we thought it was very relevant for the album's concept, and also very relevant to what's happening now with the environment.
MAKA: Yes, yes!
Thank you for that! And that brings me to a thought I was always curious about. You know, sometimes when you're recording an album (and this is true for any band), there are some songs that you decide to leave off the album, and I'm wondering if any of the songs we've heard on recent Steel Pulse albums were actually written a long time ago but were just never put on to an album until now?
SELWYN: Well, actually, no, because most of the songs on the album are all original songs, but as you know,
"Uncle George"… that's a revamp of the original track that was on the Tribute to the Martyrs album.
MAKA: Right, and by the way, it's so different from the original in terms of the lyrics and the structure of
the song, I'm wondering if that is just how the song has ended up after playing it live for a few decades (you know, if it's just gone through an evolution of its own over the years) or if you guys actually re-wrote
and rearranged the song that way specifically for the new album?
SELWYN: Oh, yes we did!
We actually restructured the grooves and the melodies to suit the modern kind of vibe. But we put it on the album because we thought the message should be heard especially by the youths of the generation that's coming up now because a lot of these youths are not aware of people like George Jackson and what they went through and what the system put these people through back in that day.
And these things are still happening now! But the people that it's happening to now — they've got less of a
You see what I'm saying? I mean, you got people like Mumia Abu Jamal who's been locked up for 20-odd years on death row, and I still believe he's innocent. So songs like these can make people aware of what's happening. And also, hopefully, lend some kind of support to people like Mumia who are in jail and help sway the authorities to release him.
MAKA: You know, there was a "Reggae Free Mumia" album, and I was wondering why Steel Pulse wasn't on there.
Because that would seem like something you guys would want to contribute a song to. Do you know what that was all about?
SELWYN: No. What was it called?
MAKA: It was called "Reggae Free Mumia"…
SELWYN: Oh, yeah?
MAKA: …and it was a bunch of different reggae artists — some of them pretty well known — made an album to
raise funds to help the campaign to free him I guess …
SELWYN: Okay, because we weren't aware of that.
But like I say, we've always stayed close to his case as far as finding out what's happening to him, and there's various people out there who send us information to find out what's happening with people like Mumia over time …
MAKA: Well, do you think now that you've got this new album after you hadn't had a new album out for about
seven years, and when you guys started out you were putting out new albums in the beginning like once every year or every two years, do you think that now with the really positive reaction you've been getting to
this album that might cause you guys to feel inspired to record the next studio album sooner?
SELWYN: Yes, actually that is something that we've been thinking about.
Because, like you say, seven years is a long time. But we've built up a very loyal following, and even though we didn't have any new product out during that time, Steel Pulse fans genuinely still love our live performances.
This is something that we worked very hard on over the years. And people know that when they come to a Steel
Pulse show, they're not gonna just see some guys standing up playing the songs and that's it. Because we strive to make ourselves more interesting, exciting, visually as well as audio-wise, and we also strive
to put a certain drama and a theater into the show as well. That is one of the reasons why I think people will still come to the shows even if there's no new product out.
MAKA: Oh, I totally agree, and that's one reason why I think your live albums did so well in between your
But as far as us putting out albums more regularly, we are gonna try and do that in the future as well.
(Tape ends here)