From the start of the third wave gaining recognition in the summer of 95'. Alex "Wizard" Solano (formerly of Skiptooth) and Alex Vargas (Mobtown) wanted to start a retro skinhead reggae, from the inspiration of the late 60's & early 70s' reggae. This up-tempo reggae was the chosen for Britian's skinhead cult.
Here's the long awaited interview with Alex "Wizard" Solano of The Empire All-Stars Alex Solano, (Hammond B3 organ, Piano, Bass, Guitar, Percussion player of Empire All- Stars:)
1. HOW DID THE GROUP BEGIN?
The group began at a time when traditional ska dominated rude boy and skinhead scene. Many groups played Traditional Ska, and I too was in a ska band before I went reggae. I was 16 in 1996 and my interest was focused on rock-steady and what is known as "skinhead-reggae" The reggae riddims had that fast drumming and rhythmic pulse that grasped my attention. So I began to manifest that in my music as well. My first composition was "Train Memorial". I originally recorded it on my Yamaha SY-77 sequencer. I hooked up with Bernie Garcia & went down to the Skeletones studio to 4- track the song, as a demo. And later got the appropriate musicians to do the studio work, that is how the Empire All Stars came about. Alex Vargas (from Mobtown) played the drums and I took care of the rest (bass, guitars, percussions, and keyboards). The track was successful and thus came out on Steady Beat's compilation Ska, Rock steady, Reggae The West Coast Chronicles Vol.1 That was the first track of Empire All Stars. After that we went back into the studio with the help of Bernie Garcia again, as producer and financial investor, as well as other musicians, again with Alex Vargas of (Mobtown) on drums Kip Wirtzfeld of (The Skeletones/ The Debonaires) on tenor sax & Steve Wilson of (Skiptooth) on tenor sax, Jason Schultz of (The Skeletones) on drums, Mark Cummings of (The Skeletones) on bass, Ryan Tomazin of (The Debonaires) on bass and also Mike Cazares of (Reggae Foundation Band) on guitar who made the recordings possible. The group pretty much remained a studio project and with the help of these musicians I was able to play my music and make it part of everyone else involved. My role was to do the song writing and somewhat be director of the band to make sure that everybody learned their parts. The last track that we recorded was "Journey" since then we have just been releasing the material with no studio work involved since then.
2. WHAT ARE THE MEMBERS?
Alex Vargas-drums & percussion (Mobtown)
Kip Wirtzfeld -tenor Sax (The Skeletones/ The Debonaires)
Steve Wilson -tenor Sax (Skiptooth)
Jason Schultz - drums (The Skeletones)
Mark Cummings- bass (The Skeletones)
Alex Solano -arranger/song writer- bass, guitar, hammond b3 w/ leslie, piano, percussion. (Skiptooth/ Reggae Foundation Band)
Ryan Tomazin- bass (The Debonaires)
Mike Carzares - guitar (Reggae foundation Band)
3. WHEN THE EMPIRE ALL-STARS BEGUN, ANY BAND PLAYED SKINHEAD REGGAE IN CALIFORNIA, WHY THIS STYLE OF MUSIC RATHER THAN SKA OR ROCK STEADY?
There were few successful bands that were able to pull it off. Dynamic Pressure was one of them. There may have been other local bands who covered old songs, but it was rare to have a band play that style. Most stuck to Ska or regular reggae. For some reason most ska drummers couldn't pull off the raw-ness of skinhead reggae. I admit that it is a distinct style, which, if you study the history of it, only lasted a few years before it evolved into something else. And for this reason I eagerly pursued into investing my time to record this style, because so many people liked it but no body was doing it.
4. WHICH SKINHEAD REGGAE BANDS HAVE HAD AN INFLUENCE ON YOU?
Well I can only mention the originators of the music, and is Lauren Aitken, The Upsetters, Hot Rod All-Stars, GG All-Stars, Prince Buster, Harry J-All Stars, King Stitt and countless others. Also many artists featured on the SKINHEAD JAMBOREE Cd as well as the SKINHEAD REVOLT cd. But for the most part, it was Jamaican reggae from Studio One, Treasure Isle, Lee Perry, and Prince Buster who had the most influence on me.
5. ARE THE EMPIRE ALL-STARS ONLY AN INSTRUMENTAL BAND?
Yes they are, it is mainly composed of musicians who can perform that early type of reggae style, but yet have an original sound.
6. SEVERAL MEMBERS OF EMPIRE ALL-STARS PLAY WITH OTHER BANDS. IT MUST BE DIFFICULT FOR THE REPETITIONS AND THE RECORDINGS?
Not really, since the members are studio musicians we respect the fact that each person may go their own way after a session, as long as they're there when the recording takes place and the instrumentation is in place. Well as the name goes Empire All-Stars was derived from these musicians living in the region called, 'Inland Empire', California, USA.
7. THE EMPIRE ALL-STARS DEFINE THEMSELVES AS A STUDIO BAND. IS THERE ANY FRUSTRATION FOR YOU AND FOR YOUR PUBLIC TOO? I'M SURE THEY WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU ON STAGE? IS IT A PLAN IN THE FUTURE?
To be honest, a few years have passed since the last recording and so many have moved onto other projects which have nothing to deal with the band, and the name of the band was pretty much titled for the reason that it was studio work. I would like to re-do some old songs that I wrote way back, but now focus more on a clean and tuff sound from the studio.
8. HORROR FILMS; WESTERNS, HAVE AN INSPIRATION "SOURCE" FOR THE SKINHEAD REGGAE. IS IT TRUE FOR YOU AND YOUR TRACKS?
We did one track titled "A Fistfull of Reggae" which derived its name from a record called "A Fistfull of Dollars" By the Crystalites. "A Fistfull of Reggae" was a wicked track using the B-3 Hammond. But for the most part, the original skinhead music was inspired by Westerns because of the time it lived in and its historic context. Today there are no westerns and so it is a thing of the past.
9. HOW MANY TRACKS FOR EMPIRE ALL-STARS? ARE YOU PLANNING A LOT OF COVERS?
As of now we have recorded 8 tracks. We did cover one song, which was produced by legendary producer HARRY MOODIE. In fact, here’s the story. When I was 16 I had bought a single entitled ROME on the Moodisc Label. and so the B-side was the DUB. I made a keyboard composition to the DUB and so recorded it on cassette. I then mailed it to Florida to Harry Moodie and he liked the track. So what ended up happening was that I recorded the B-3 Hammond on ADATS and sent him the tracks, which he later put the original music to it and released a 7" single entitled RETURN TO ROME by ALEX "WIZARD" SOLANO.
That was probably one of the greatest accomplishments I made with reggae music. Later I had Jason Schultz the drummer from (The Skeletones) help me record the same song but with instrumentation done by the Empire All-Stars.
10. COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR FIRST ALBUM? IT'S TITLE? HOW MANY TRACKS? WHICH LABEL? WILL WE FIND AGAIN THE TITLES WHICH ALREADY ARE ON THE COMPILATION "PRIMO SONIC RHYTHMS VOL. 1"?
Well, the first album was never released because of a limited supply of tracks. As time went on, the Empire All-Stars were going their separate ways to be with other bands & conflicting schedules. So some of the tracks were given away to some labels for compilations. These include: Luis Correra of Steady Beat Recording label, 'The West Coast Chronicles Vol. 1 compilation (SBR110CD), Bernie Garcia of Rivercidal Syndicate Records label, Primo Sonic Rhythms Vol. 1 compilation (70010-2), JonSchuman of Boss Sounds Records label, Forward March compilation (BS001). Also a International German label Spirit of 69 Records 'Searching For The Young Soul Rebels Vol. 2'. runned by Florian Ennockl
11. WE CAN FIND ONE OF YOUR TITLES ON EACH COMPILATION "SEARCHING FOR THE YOUNG SOUL REBELS VOL.1 & 2", HOW THE GERMAN LABEL HAS CONTACTED YOU? HAVE THESE TWO INTERNATIONAL COMPILATIONS BEEN A POSITIVE THING FOR YOU?
Yes they have, although I was not pleased with the quality of the recording the band did. This was the track called A Fistful of Reggae on Searching for the Young Soul Rebels Vol. It was released on vinyl. If I could go back and change anything, it would be the studio mix. But for the most part, its great to have my music be outside the States. Also we released the final studio recording of Journey to the follow up compilation Searching for the Young Soul Rebels Vol. 2. We were very pleased on this track.
12. SINCE SEVERAL YEARS IN CALIFORNIA, BANDS WHO PLAY REGGAE MUSIC ARE MORE AND MORE NUMEROUS. FOR YOU, IT'S A NEW "TURNING POINT", FOR THE TRADITIONAL CALIFORNIA SCENE? ARE THERE REGGAE FESTIVALS IN CALIFORNIA? AND IN YOUR AREA?
I gotta say that I dropped off the scene somewhere in 1998 when I joined a Rasta Reggae Band called Reggae Foundation Band. I played the keyboards and did some song writing. There is still a Traditional Scene with a new generation and some new bands emerging form all parts of the US & beyond. Such bands are: The Debonaires, The Vessels, The Rhythm Doctors, Kingston 10, The Irie Beats, The Soul Steppers, Go Jimmy Go, The Cover Ups/ Twilites, and so forth. The reggae festivals that I do attend now-a-days are more modern artists with conscious vibes such as Lucciano, Sizzla, Turbulance, Buju Banton, and the like.
13. WHICH TRACKS WILL APPEAR ON THE COMPILATION "PRIMO SONIC RHYTHMS VOL. 2"?
For Vol. 2 there might be 2 tracks previously released on an East Coast compilation & also a German compilation. If not we might go back into the studio. It's really up to Bernie Garcia the producer.
14. HOW IS YOUR MUSIC IN THE L.A. SKINHEAD SCENE PERCIEVED? ARE THERE SOME SKINS IN YOUR BAND?
The Drummer and I were skins back when we began recording in 1996-97. As far as how L.A. skinhead scene is perceived as big as I left it. More & more Skins are starting to form their own bands. Some get tired of playing the Skinhead Reggae so they go a bit further to the Oi sound. Others just record some great tracks for others to check out.
15. YOUR PROJECTS IN THE FUTURE?
I gotta say that after many years I still have a love for reggae music. It may not have the same sound as it did when I first started but it does have the fundamental reggae elements. At the moment I work alot with building Reggae Riddims with MIDI and sequencing as well as some live instrumentation from the bass and guitars. As well, I have evolved from instrumentation to singing. So on my own music I find myself singing. I now work more with engineering and producing than song writing for a band. But if Bernie and I take the time, than I am pretty sure we could get some of the old musicians back in the studio for a RETURN OF THE ALL-STARS.
Thanks for the interview Connan.
Much respect to you & The Sound Of Ska (France)