Nereus Joseph started out in 1979 as part of the Coptic Roots Band. After spells with Fashion Records and Ruff Cut he now co-runs his own label Sirius Records. His new album Real Rebels Can’t Die is out now, so Angus Taylor met him and his partner Kenny Edgehill at the Sirius studio in Poplar to discuss the record and much more…
Explain a little about the title of your album, Real Rebels Can’t Die.
NEREUS: Real Rebels is about all those Rebels that came forth. Reggae music is a funny thing. We’re teaching people things too you know? When I started listening to reggae music it was like a newspaper. Things were happening in the Caribbean that we didn’t get to know of. So Real Rebels tells us of all the people that came before us. Bob Marley, Martin Luther King… Marcus Garvey! Those rebels that were determined to change things for the betterment of people.
Do you see yourself as one of those rebels?
NEREUS: Yes I suppose I do. Because some of the things I’m saying with my music nowadays… it’s kind of defying a few borders if you know what I’m saying? If you speak the truth you are a rebel anyway. If you comply and just go along with normal everyday things and how the system tell you you have to live you’re just like a sheep. I define myself as a rebel because there are certain things I don’t like to do and I choose to say something about it. So yes, I’m a kind of rebel.
Did you see Michael Jackson [who died the night before] as one of those rebels?
NEREUS: Hmmm… Not to me. He was a real good musician and in my early days I really loved his music. I still love his music. But he didn’t say anything controversial in the sense of within his music. He didn’t talk of the betterment for African people, the betterment for poor people. He talked about the world… (PAUSES) I suppose the way he felt about the world and the way the world was running makes him a kind of rebel. When I think about it, yes!
Give me a little of the background to this set up and how Sirius Records got started.
NEREUS: Well this set up and studio is a direct duplicate of Ruff Cut studio. We used to use Ruff Cut studio for my last album Hope Faith and Love for Ruff Cut Records. And we loved the sound by Ruff Cut so we did our best to keep that kind of sound because most of our early recordings were at Ruff Cut. So the recordings at Ruff Cut and the realisation that we could be more self sufficient, and the facilities Ruff Cut gave us to make us more self sufficient meant we felt we had to carry this on with our own studio.
Now you and Kenny share production and arrangement duties. Do you find it easy to share these responsibilities?
NEREUS: Yeah very easy. Easier than with any other company because this is our own company. It belongs to us. We can work when we want to work. We can think about our work way in advance before we start implementing things. Most other companies you work for, you tend to have to go with the flow that they’re running, you know what I’m saying? With this now we are able to make our own flow.
How do you like to write together?
NEREUS: (LAUGHS) Well it’s something we keep changing all the time! We don’t have no set way of jumping into things. As a matter of fact we try to take out that… how you call it?
NEREUS: We don’t like routine. We realised that years ago, that the bigger artists like Puff Daddy and those people, who have their own studios, they don’t care about what time it is and how long they’ve spent on something. They just do what they got to do. We’ve got our own studio so we use it just like that. We’re not going to rush out of here because it’s getting late or we’re feeling hungry – we’re gonna cook! (LAUGHS)
Make A Plan and Make A Stand are two of the strongest tracks. Self reliance and strength seem to feature in your writing.
NEREUS: Well it’s all about independence see? Being independent enough in this system because if you’re looking to do something for Africa that is the only way you can move forward, you know? Make A Plan for instance, it’s all about my father. My father left the Caribbean to come here to make a plan for me. Not stay here indefinitely but to go home eventually. Just making a sacrifice to be able to do that. But how good would it be if we didn’t have to do that. If we could do that in our own country. But that’s how it go you know? It’s all about being self reliant and your children after you becoming that self reliant and not having to start from the beginning again you get me?
Give me your thoughts about the overall sound of the new album in terms of the arrangements and heaviness, stuff like that.
NEREUS: Well the drums are digital but everything else is live. But then out of everything that’s on the album you’d say the drums were live. The drums are not played by a live drummer (except by the person who’s programming it in) but it does sound live. So it’s an album that’s been made to sound as live as possible and it is being played as live as possible. It’s not heavy in the sense that you’ve got some really heavy slow tunes that’s dropping like a ton of bricks but… (PAUSES)
It’s got the capacity to be heavy?
NEREUS: Yes. It’s like this: if you’re listening at home it’s not heavy but if you go to a dance, not because of the volume but because of the way the sound penetrates, it’s heavy. But I would say it light like feather but still heavy like lead! (LAUGHS)
Why didn’t either of you do the final mix?
NEREUS: Well the great Bubblers [Carlton Ogilvie] has been mixing for us from time! Mixing is a very intricate thing you know? We did some mixes ourselves and they were cool but we know the potential of Bubblers. Even at Ruff Cut he would go to his own [place to do the mix]. It’s so funny because Ruff Cut have a studio and Bubblers has the exact duplicate in his house. So we said, “hang on a minute, there must be something in this format.” That’s how we come to have the same duplicate. I’m not ashamed to say that! Good sound is good sound. Bubblers is a genius at mixing so I wouldn’t hesitate to let him mix everything for me if I can help it.
And your sister contributed some backing vocals?
NEREUS: Yeah my sister Leola. Me and her have been singing since we were kids. And her lifestyle is being a family person so years ago made the decision not to be upfront in everything whereas I evolved heavily into music. So the part that she really likes in music, we were able to continue that part. And thank God for that too because she’s a really good backing vocalist. It’s great to have your family amongst you when you’re doing things.
Which songs are your favourites to play on stage?
NEREUS: To tell you the truth, when it comes to favourites on the album I am completely lost. Today, Send A Message is my favourite, I’d listen to it all day long. Tomorrow, it’s something else. When you’ve got an album it takes a good while for the whole album to sink in. I know it’s my album and I’ve been singing all these tracks but it’s not until it’s finished that you sit back and you listen to it. You don’t really listen to it until you see somebody else listening to it and then you’re thinking, “hang on a minute. What is it they really like about this track?” And it brings back memories to when you were making the track you know? When it first released I thought, “Ok I’m putting out the album now” because I was thinking like a production team. “Because we’ve got other albums to put out we’ll put out this album now and let’s think and work on the next project”. Then I just stop a minute and say, “Whoa! This album’s good. This album’s OK.” Even if I say that myself! (LAUGHS)
You both play different instruments on the record. How many instruments can you play?
NEREUS: I play drums so I do a lot of sequencing on the drum machine. Kenny does some sequencing too. We play keyboards and from keyboards we can get things like bass sounds and different sounds like that.
NEREUS: So it’s mostly keyboards and drums. But I play bass guitar - I don’t gig and play bass guitar – but enough to know what’s going on to make a recording. Obviously when you make a recording you’ve got more time. Knowledge of music is a very important factor to us here. Otherwise you’d just have a series of sequences.
Is there any instrument you struggle with?
NEREUS: I cannot play any wind instruments at all! (LAUGHS) None! I took home a trombone because I run a music workshop for young people. And there were a few instruments so I decided I’m going to take home this trombone and give it a real good blast. And all I could get was like “Pfffffffff” - wind! And my son just picked it up and started blowing it. He wasn’t playing it in key but he got the sound out of it. So I thought, “ok, wind instruments are not for me at all!”
How do you keep your voice in good shape?
NEREUS: Good question. Right now I’m nursing a slight little sore throat so I have to lay off the smoking a bit! As years go by you always try a different remedy that’s going to help get rid of a sore throat because it’s a nightmare when you got a sore throat quickly and you’ve got to go and do a show. With voicing it’s not such a big deal because I can ring the engineer and say, “Kenny I got a sore throat”, but you can’t really ring however many people are coming to the show and say, “guys come back tomorrow when the throat’s better!” You know what I’m saying? So through the years [I’ve used] honey and lemon, a touch of brandy, there’s been all different kind of remedies recommended to me like Aloe Vera. And they all work but they all need time to work.
You sometimes hear singers say they use cayenne pepper. I don’t know if it works!
NEREUS: Yeah I heard that one today! When I heard it I thought, “don’t be silly, cayenne pepper! Don’t be ridiculous! You’re talking to someone that knows every single remedy!” But I’m gonna check it out.
Let’s talk about the Haile Selassie quotations on the album sleeve. “one must beware of uncertainty, weakness or conflicting emotions” what does this mean to you?
NEREUS: I see myself as someone doing the works of The Father. The works of His Majesty. So to be able to do these works these are instructions given to I and I.
KENNY: It’s about surety.
NEREUS: Be sure of what you’re doing. Be sure of your faith. Be sure and be strong in what you’re doing because everything we do is giving us strength. To other people we are trying to deliver a message. A conscious message. So we have to be sure of what we’re doing.
And do you ever have moments of self doubt?
Everybody does. Everybody does. But those moments are the ones that give you the strength. If you’re doubting yourself, you’re really asking if you’re going to be able to do this as it is supposed to be done. So this self doubt enables you to do it as well as you can do it. Which is really the key. It’s not about doing it above your capacity because we have only one capacity. But it’s to be able to do it as well as you can do it yourself. You know I’m not the greatest singer in the world? I’m not the best singer in the world. But I know there is more potential in me, even what I’m doing now, that still has room to grow. So I try to grow as much as I can. Not to be the same as or better than. If I happen to be better than somebody than that’s just a product of me, being sometimes uncertain, and then thinking about what it is I really want to do. Consciously.
He also talks about monarchies and republics. Do you think Britain should have a monarchy?
NEREUS: It’s hard to even answer that. I was born in St Lucia. I live in Britain now. I have a British passport. Everything about me is British, to the fact that my kids live here and my kids are British. But I’m a Caribbean African. I’m an African man who was carried beyond to the Caribbean. So my thoughts are not of England if you see what I’m saying? It’s strange. It’s not a disrespect to England but I’m really concentrating on Africa. I’m trying to find African history. So some of the British history I learned at school is starting to become really hazy in my mind! (LAUGHS) So… I don’t know…
KENNY: Like His Majesty said it wouldn’t make any difference to the people if it’s a monarchy or democracy. It’s really just another version of the same thing. (LAUGHS)
OK, let’s talk about some of the collaborations on your album. How did you link up with veteran deejay Dennis Alcapone?
NEREUS: Well I know Dennis from my teens you know? I first started with Coptic Roots Band then I moved to Fashion Records. But when I was with Coptic Roots we did some demos. Dennis was local to me. He was an artist. I didn’t actually know him but, as I was trying to step into the music, I felt it was important to let this man hear what I’m doing you know? I knew he wasn’t a record company or someone who could say, “we’re gonna give you a record deal” but he had an opinion, and that really mattered to me. So I found myself where he was one evening, and I spoke to him and he was kind enough to listen to my stuff. And he gave me a good boost. A really big boost. So we’ve known each other throughout the years and I thought it would be great for us to this collaboration. What he gave us on the tune is exactly what he wanted because the tune is a rockers tune and we always said it would be good to get somebody like Dennis for the old times vibe you know what I’m saying? And you know that U Roy kind of screaming style? Me and Kenny both thought that it would be great to get that. And when he first came into the studio he just went “Waaaaoooooooo!” [imitates U Roy style] and me and Kenny looked at each other and went “great! This is it!” so we just eased back and let him do his thing.
And the poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah?
NEREUS: Again, brethrens from years back! We used to do a lot of gigs with my band before I even made music. Before Benjamin Zephaniah even recorded I think we used to do gigs. We run a facility for people as a drop in centre, we worked in collaboration and got fundraising together. He was instrumental in helping us do a lot of that kind of work. So for a lot of the fundraisings we did gigs side by side, he did his poetry with my band, and then we grew from that. I think there’s footage somewhere of me playing drums for Benjamin at a rehearsal somewhere. But we’ve been really good mates for years and I’m talking about from my teens. So I’m doing an album again with some great collaborations… Benjy! Called him and he said “Oh… yeah!” Straightaway!
Jah Mirikles and Afrikan Simba have recorded and appeared with you on many shows before. It’s like a crew of UK musicians who stick together…
NEREUS: Yes. These are our crew. These are the Sirius Records crew. We have albums by both artists. So during the course of recordings and collaborating with each other – because we all collaborate on each other’s stuff, Afrikan Simba would have helped to do stuff on my album and vice versa – we find that working as a crew and as a unit has big benefits. I think that sort of vibe came from the Fashion era because when I used to work at Fashion it was the same kind of vibe. Without consciously knowing it that’s the same type of thing that’s taking place.
Do you think the British reggae scene is in good heath?
NEREUS: Not as good as it could be. For a long time. I feel it’s picking up but then again I’ve just put a new album out and I’m feeling the vibes from that album. So I’m a little biased when I say it’s picking up. But it’s going to go through a process where it’s going to start from the beginning again you know? Because I can feel a fresh start for the music now. The producers are still here. They’re very good producers. It’s just that the industry’s taken a bad shake. The stigma of being a British artist doesn’t push you too far out of England. Whereas every other country that has a reggae artist – they are international artists. But if you’re a British reggae artist you’re not an international reggae artist, you’re a British reggae artist. And if you do the maths comparing the size of the island to even France or Europe, you can imagine the European reggae artists would have a bigger industry.
KENNY: There’s different reasons why things are not as good as they could be. Distribution is the thing right now because there’s major changes in the distribution chain in England over the last few years with [what happened to] Jetstar.
On the subject of Europe you did some shows with the Guinean, France based, artist Takana Zion in 2007. Are you going to collaborate on record?
NEREUS: That would be fantastic! That would be great. I was asked to appear in Nantes alongside Takana Zion. He was quite a fresh artist to me at the time but he blew me away. This African artist who was out of this world. Really out of this world. He works in Africa with a producer named Manjul and the production sounds really up there. So if you see him tell him from me I’d like to collaborate with his artist! Manjul if you’re reading this my brother, what’s happening? What’s going on? (LAUGHS)
Do you still keep links with St Lucia? And who are your favourite St Lucian reggae artists?
NEREUS: Oh definitely. I’m in St Lucia as much as I can be. As much as is permitted. Have you been? Fantastic. It’s absolute peace. Absolute tranquillity.
KENNY: In fact one of the first productions we did was for a St Lucian reggae artist Ricky D.
NEREUS: Oh right! Ricky D! He’s way on top of my list. And there was a band that I grew up on as a child that featured my uncle. The Merry Makers, a calypso band.
KENNY: Daddy Twan.
NEREUS: You have Daddy Twan. Daddy Twan is a very strong candidate right now. He released an album three years ago – very very strong candidate. You have Scrunta P and Daddy T who are related to Ricky D. You have Jah Mirikles who is residing in England now and who is just about to put out a real powerful LP. Nasio Fontaine who is a Dominican artist and he is a really great artist.
Who are your all time favourite singers?
NEREUS: My most favourite artist was Dennis Brown. Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor. And of late now, Luciano and Beres Hammond because they really carry an excellence in their production. More so Beres Hammond because the kind of productions Beres is going on with they’re really… (PAUSES) you know what I’m saying? And he’s commanding a big crowd when he performs which says a lot. So yeah Beres.
He’s been going for a long time of course.
NEREUS: Yeah! Up to date artists… Etana.
NEREUS: Midnite! They’re starting to grow on me those 12 o clock guys! (LAUGHS) It’s funny because when I started listening to Midnite I listened all at once and it just hit me all at once. You could tell the progress from their recordings up until present time and how it’s sounding much different and better. I’ll give them one thing, they are very self sufficient. They seem to be self reliant. They make sure they’re self reliant.
You’ve been around since the late 70s…
NEREUS: Hmmm… I came here in 1977. 77 was the two seven clash. I was not in music. It was about 1980.
KENNY: You started ‘79.
NEREUS: (LAUGHS) Yes… OK… You’re right!
Do you consider yourself a veteran?
Well you can’t be a veteran if you consider yourself a veteran! (LAUGHS) Other people have to consider you a veteran to become a veteran. I suppose [being] a veteran means, “How long you been doing this” and it feels like a while ago. So yes I suppose some people would class me as a veteran! But then again it just feels like yesterday! (LAUGHS)
Interview by Angus Taylor