What is the secret to good reggae? Not just a band of people up onstage hitting a mildly exotic rhythm accented by that familiar rhythm guitar "chank," but really good, fundamentally solid reggae music?
The first key to the process might be the idea of space in the music. If we take Lift Up Sessions, the new EP by Charleston ska/rocksteady/reggae quintet Well Charged, as an example, you can hear a lot of space in the grooves. On songs like the opening track "Family Tree" and "Nearest Greene" the insistent rhythmic pulse is sometimes as naked as a heartbeat, with tasteful guitar and keyboard lines circling around but never overwhelming the beat. Even the vocals, by singer Megg Howe and guitarist Andy Link, are low-key, letting the rhythms speak for themselves.
If space is one key, perhaps experience is another. Bassist Vasily Punsalan and drummer John Picard have been playing together for more than a decade, even though Well Charged has only been together for a couple of years.
"It's a huge part of our sound," Link says of the rhythm section's experience level. "Those guys are the ones who hold it down, and we're very fortunate to have a bassist and a drummer who know each other that well."
The final piece of the puzzle involves experience, as well, but that experience is behind the boards. To capture the passion and seeming ease of good reggae in the studio, it has to be recorded and mixed correctly.
The recording was done at Lift-Up recording studio (hence the EP title) in Wilmington, N.C. with Carl Blackmon, keyboardist for the Wilmington rock-reggae band Signal Fire doing the engineering. And the EP was mixed by another reggae-friendly ace, Agent Jay Nugent of the Slackers, who added in some massive dub-style echo to some of the tracks.
"Those two guys have been playing reggae forever, and we were really happy with the way the EP turned out," Link says. "We went up to Wilmington and spent a weekend tracking live and then did a few overdubs in Charleston."
Link says that recording the bulk of Lift Up Sessions live was crucial.
"You have to record it that way to really capture the groove," he says. "You really want the whole band playing together, especially the bass and drums. It's important to have those players locked in where they can see each other, and you can really feel the pocket develop on the spot. And Carl knows all of the right techniques: mic placement, drum tone, bass tone, everything. He was definitely a crucial part of the recording process."
Well Charged came together in 2016 as a combination of veterans and relative newcomers to reggae music. In fact, when it comes to specific genres, Link considers himself more of a fan of second- and third-generation ska than reggae.
"I grew up listening to bands like Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones," he says. "There was so much energy and happiness that came along with that music, and that always resonated with me. It made me want to dig deeper, so I started learning about second-wave bands like the Specials and Selector and kept going further and further back into traditional ska and rocksteady music, which is what I listen to nowadays."
Link says that Well Charged is just as happy to lay on some effects onstage as they are in the studio, strengthening the connection between the band's stage work and their studio work.
"Onstage, especially with reggae, things are more energetic," he says, "but we do live dubbing of certain tracks where we'll drop out the rhythm section and just have guitar and keyboards. There's a real sense of dynamics going on."