Rootz Undergound, a Jamaican reggae outfit making waves in America, loves to say they’re big in France. But that’s not the guys tooting their own horns, it’s true. This Caribbean based band has a vast fan base over all over Europe and the Europeans love them back. This could be because of Rootz Underground’s sophisticated approach to the evolution of a band, building itself from the ground up to one that headlines festivals for a gang of sweaty youth, or because of its subtly message-heavy performances that, according to guitar player Charles Lazarus, are guaranteed to win you over.
Like most reggae artists, Rootz Underground is a band with a conscience. We caught up with Charles Lazarus while he was on holiday in Miami after the band’s July west coast tour, in anticipation of a soon return to the Sunshine State, and talked about trees and how Eastern Europeans are late musical bloomers.
Angel Baker: Do you think it’s easier for emerging bands to play in Europe vs. playing in the States and, if so, why?
Charles Lazarus: Our main market in Europe is France, though we play all over the world. But France, in my experience, is the best country when it comes to how they treat musicians. It’s literally [part of] the law [to take care of musicians]. That’s on the one side, and on the other side is the European youth. The messages that they are open to are a lot more conscious than the messages sometimes the majority of America is open to. However, the west coast is very conscious for America. A 17-year-old kid in LA is going to want to listen to some Dub Steb and he’s going to want to have some fun. The same aged kid in France cares about what’s going on in the government, like why are [peoples’] rights being taken away, and what’s going on in Africa. … If you go east to Eastern Europe, Poland for example, they’ve been closed off for some time so the whole punk rock revolution that reggae kind of fit into that happened in the 70s and 80s is just really happening for the youth over there, so reggae music is very big. The last reason is because the most important thing in music – I don’t care what anybody says – is radio. If the radio is not playing you, it’s going to be very hard to penetrate the mainstream. Reggae music plays on mainstream radio in Europe.
AB: The European countries are obviously so much older so I think that’s part of the reason why they have such a dedication to the arts. There’s more to preserve.
CL: It’s just culture really, yah, because everything comes back to maintaining culture, whether it’s painting, architecture. Jamaica’s terrible about that. You go down to the waterfront where the old city of Port Royal was and it’s totally destroyed. When you go to some places in France and Bastille, it’s all still there, perfect, and strong as ever. …But [on the other hand] America is responsible for pop music. Rock, hip hop, jazz blues, house, techno.
AB: Don’t forget country.
CL: Yes, and country, and every single one of those comes from black roots. Every one.
AB: Why we like about the Releaf Tour is the DIY feel and it has a great fan participation concept. Do you feel like the concept has been a success?
CL: It’s been the Releaf Tour for a year and a half or so. We wanted to plant trees everywhere that we played, so the band would plant a tree. It’s a real life symbol of our spiritual effect of when we perform. By planting a tree, it stays there. We started moving so fast, though, with the tours that we would get the promoters to do it on our behalf a lot of the time. Then once the promoters starting doing it, we thought, “Why not ask the fans to do it.” We started offering free tickets to shows if fans would plant trees. They started planting trees more and more – more than we could let in for free. Then it just took on a life of its own.
AB: Apart from the natural benefit of inspiring people to plant trees in your name, do you have a promotional purpose for the Releaf Tour?
CL: Initially we didn’t. But the more we talk about it, the more it works. [Laughs.] So inadvertently we started talking about it more. But the truth is the music and the trees don’t really have anything in common. I don’t really see how it would help the band. When you figure it out you can email me. It’s just a responsible thing to do [to plants trees].
AB: Tell us about your trip back to California for the Earthdance Festival on September 24.
CL: [That festival] is wicked. It’s got a whole electronic thing going on with [one other reggae band]. It’s got a strange lineup, everything from beat box to Ziggy Marley. It’s a strange, wide lineup. There’s a huge area for Dub Step. There’s hundreds of earth dance festivals on the same day on locations all around the world and they have synchronized mediation that they do. We played it last year. We were impressed. (Lazarus goes on to talk about how the band is perceived outside of Jamaica.) We are very lucky. We’re a band from Jamaica that happens to play reggae. That’s how we prefer it. Our music is obviously based in reggae but we experiment a lot electronically. I am a house DJ. The drummer plays in a jazz band. We look it as reggae being our common denominator. Drums and bass are all going to be rooted in reggae in the same way that house music can have a jazzy feeling, a dark feeling, a progressive feeling, and staying within the space [of house music]. That’s the same with reggae. That’s what we do with Rootz Underground and what we all do as musicians – experiment. It’s great because we get to play the reggae festivals but we also get to play the rock festivals, the jam band festivals, the techno-tribal shows, [and] the whole hippy thing. We get to do all of that.
AB: You’re known for your high-energy shows. Do you feel like you able to translate that in your records?
CL: Um, no. [Laughs.] It’s our Achilles heal actually. The way that we get around it is that we release a lot of live albums. Our studio recordings are a lot more subdued than our live show. You need to watch a show, man. You’ll be our guest of honor.
AB: Your lyrics are positive and you say you’re proud that you’ve got nothing a baby couldn’t listen to but a lot of the concept is more dense than children understand, like the “change” and “revolution.” Do you ever get exhausted about always playing music that lyrically is so heavy?
CL: In fairness, not every song is that way. We have a lot of fun songs as well. Stephen Newland, who does the majority of the writing, is a big classic rock fan and has a way of delivering his messages in a poetic way. So the message is sometimes heavy but it’s hidden. I like saying what we’re saying. The thing that the band can do, and this makes us happy, is that when we are put in front of an audience, we can win them every single time. In 11 years, I’ve never seen us not win over an audience.