Years of recording, collaboration and a relentless gigging schedule has crowned Friendly Fire Band a reggae institution in Birmingham. Appropriately but not intentionally meeting on Bob Marley’s Birthday, Voodoo writer Johnny Kowalski meets guitarist and producer Robin Giorno to discuss their new single Run Away, Rasta politics, impoverished musicians and the state of reggae music.
When did Friendly Fire Band form?
“Friendly Fire started a little bit after Jam Jah started, so about 2002 – 2003. The first Friendly Fire Band gig was in 2005 – 2006, this was when we first got the musicians together. The first release was in 2006 on vinyl. Before that I put out a few mashups, the Friendly Rasta thing, just trying to make some links in the industry. The first gig was with Paradox.”
Paradox was a female MC wasn’t she?
“Yeah she doesn’t do much anymore but she used to be massive in the area. So good, she was wicked. It’s important for people to like her to be on the scene and inspire people, for anyone, but especially women in particular. She was a great role model woman.”
Do you think talent leaks out of the scene due to lack of financial support?
“Yeah, I think Paradox is a really good example of that. I’ve seen it happen with quite a lot of people. Everybody tells you your music is good but nobody gives you any money! At the end of the day you have to survive. It’s also the reason that the music industry goes hand in hand with a lot of illegal industries because the music itself doesn’t make that much money. It’s like the music is just a catalyst to sell drinks.”
Art isn’t really a good way to get rich but the artists at least deserve something. In the time that you’ve been working have you seen the money side of things change?
“In terms of selling records it’s a lot harder. There’s loads of other sources of revenue nowadays that are easily tapped into like youtube and spotify – anything online. If someone uses your music they’ll know and send you money, even if it’s a ridiculously small fraction of pennies. It’s a different model now.”
You’ve had some pretty interesting guest MCs over the years haven’t you?
“When we did the Hare and Hounds once a month we would often have a guest. These included Dawn Penn, Tippa Irie, Susan Cadogan, YT, Peter Spence – loads man! That was really nice. It wasn’t the best scheme to make money but as a reggae fan having these people around was loads of fun. As a musician you want just want to live that life. You want to go out, listen to loads of amazing music and meet the people who inspired you when you were little. It’s nice to apart of the scene more than anything.”
Are you still releasing stuff on vinyl?
“Yeah the last release was the Legalise Riddim seven-inch in the summer of 2013. We’re planning to release more vinyl this year focusing on the rootsier, dubbier kind of stuff as that’s what really sells on physical format. There’s the whole retro thing now too, people are dressing like its the fucking fifties! It means vinyl is coming back which is cool. There’s a massive resurgence in all the classic albums being reissued and all these people now have turntables in their houses – you can’t sell a record to someone who doesn’t have a turntable. For a long time we were trying to sell vinyl to people that hadn’t even seen a record in twenty years.”
What do you think of the state of reggae music?
“There does seem to be a bit of revival at the moment, you’ve got people like Chronic and Protege bringing back the conscious sound which is similiar to what happened with people like Sizla and Capleton in the nineties. There’ll always be a Rasta influence but at the same time you’ve got the dancehall stuff which is heavily influenced by pop and hip hop. It’s kind of like those two things are fighting…”
“The thing is that reggae is so massive now that you run the risk of alienating some of your audience if you’re too locked on Selassie. It’s a faith thing and religion always separates people. I respect Rastas for their dedication though I don’t practice it myself. What I enjoy about it is the message – bigging up individuals and saying you’re all actually kings and queens no matter how dire your situation may be. This keep-your-chin-up vibe is essential and I really enjoy playing to people and basically giving them the message that everything is alright, everyone’s special.”
What about the reggae scene in the UK?
“The problem in Birmingham and in England generally is that there isn’t enough unity. You’ve got the Jamaican traditional style crew, you’ve got students, and the white European festival goers who’re into mixing reggae with dubstep and the eight-bit stuff that’s coming back, but that’s not huge on the traditional Jamaican scene. Then there’s the UK dub thing which is also different – you get more of a mix of generations there though traditionally those nights are more male focused, militant and orthodox. They’re not the kind of nights you’d bring your girlfriend to – I’ve had mates get chucked out for snogging! With our live events we’re trying to bring all these different sides together, that’s the mission for 2015.
You’ve been making reggae for about fifteen years. Any chance of getting bored soon?
“I do have my doubts from time to time. I think ‘why don’t I get a proper job or start a business that’s actually profitable!’ But I still really enjoy it – every little thing, every little song, every little meeting is a step forward. It’s just nice, you know?”
Tell us about the new Single – Run Away.
“It was originally programmed by our vocalist Lionart but we’ve done a full band version to give it a new lease of life. It’s got a very ‘end-of-days’ theme to the lyrics. It’s also quite slow which means there’s potential for loads of different remixes to be done. So this is just the first installment, really. We’re also finishing off a compilation CD with a few different artists and lots of new tunes. So look out for that.”
You can listen and download the new Friendly Fire band track, Run Away, here.
You can see Friendly Fire Band at the following 2015 events:
March 10 @ PST, Digbeth, Birmingham with Raphael And The Easy Skankers.
March 19 @ PST, Digbeth, Birmingham with Lion D.
April 24-27 @ United Nations of Dub Weekender.
August TBC @ Boomtown Fair.