Exclusive Video Interview with Aaron Konkol of Natty Nation

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Natty Nation has been a staple of the Madison reggae music scene since 1995. Unlike classical reggae artists, the band is influenced by rock and hip hop in addition to reggae and dub. Their musical style has been known to evolve over time but never stray too far from the all-original roots-rock-reggae format. The band has been described as Steel Pulse meets Jimi Hendrix. Their messages are positive and often spiritual or political in nature. However, their later albums have shifted away from Rastafari and moved more toward Eastern philosophy.   

Over the past 22 years, Natty has played countless festivals such as SXSW, Summerfest and Freakfest, won numerous awards including 27 Madison Area Music Awards (MAMAS), and toured the U.S. and parts of the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. Not to mention, they have released six studio albums and six live albums.

In this interview, we head to the studio to speak with Aaron Konkol, keyboardist and backup singer for Natty, about their latest release, Divine Spark, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Magazine reggae chart. We also hear about how he wound up joining the band and what it was like touring overseas. Finally, Aaron tells us about some of his most memorable shows with some of reggae and dub’s pioneers.

Stream the video or audio now or continue reading!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

J: Are you from Madison originally?

A: I was born in Sheboygan, then I moved to Illinois when I was two, and then I moved to Madison when I was eight.

J: When did you enter the Madison music scene?

A: When I was 18, and in college, we started a band called, The Spontaneous Throwdown. It was a funky, jazzy jam band. We were just playing at parties and stuff. Then we got an opportunity to play Tuesday nights at Ken’s Bar. They had what was called dead tape night. We played there every Tuesday for about a year. We even wrote a song called “Tuesday at Ken’s”. So yeah, I guess that would have been 2000 when I officially started playing paying gigs.

J: When and where did you start playing keys?

A: I’ve been playing since I was three. My sister who is five years older than me had been taking lessons. She was eight at the time, and I had shown a lot of interest in doing it. I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged that. We did the Suzuki method, which really helped with ear training. I would get the music and plunk through it and figure it out, but I would already know how it was supposed to sound. Once I got the mechanics of it, I would just get rid of the music and memorize really easily, but later in life that became a problem because it was harder to just sight-read.

When I went to UW I went through a whole bunch of different majors, African American studies, social work, psychology, a few other things, but I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do. At the time, I was enjoying playing with my band, The Spontaneous Throwdown, so I thought I would try music. I was already taking a couple music classes with Joan Wildman, and she immediately accepted me. We decided to do a jazz studies degree. A couple weeks after that, she let me know she was retiring and there wouldn’t be a jazz piano professor anymore. That summer I got the offer to play with Natty Nation and haven’t gone back to school since.

J: You mentioned that you became a part of Natty Nation in 2002, but when did they first form?

A: 1995. The first album came out in ’96.

J: How many of the original members are in the band?

A: Just the lead singer, Jah Boogie.

J: Who is currently in the band?

A: Chris Di Bernardo on drums, Nick Czarnecki on guitar, [Aaron Konkol on keys and Jah Boogie on vocals] right now that four piece, like the one in the “Vibrate” video that you saw that we recorded down here, that’s the band right now.     

J: Awesome! So beside Natty Nation, what other bands have you been in?

A: I was one of the founding members of dumate. I joined Know Boundaries with Boogie in 2006, then Star Persons after that, and finally Megan Bobo and the Lux.

J: How is it different playing with Natty Nation versus some of the other groups? Did your role change from band to band?

A: With dumate it wasn’t that different. When dumate started it was just Natty Nation plus Laduma, so my role carried over, as did everybody’s. We just added a rapper. With Know Boundaries, it was kind of the same thing, but I was coming in as the new guy. It was just a different dynamic, different people, personalities. Things change in every scenario. Then in Star Persons, I really didn’t write that much at all. It was mainly based on recorded material that we recreated live, but I helped a lot with orchestrating that and turning it into something that was living and breathing on its own. You were there!

*we laugh*

J: With Natty Nation you have done some big tours. Who are some of the people that you’ve played with? What were some of your most memorable shows?

A: Opening for Toots Hibbert, Toots and the Maytals at the Minneapolis Zoo. That was awesome. Have you ever been to those shows there?

J: No.

A: It’s really amazing. It’s like you’re in the middle of a rain forest, just this really nice amphitheater. Toots was credited with coining the term “reggae”. He was still just as good of a performer. He knocks it out of the park every time, especially that time. I don’t know how old he is, probably in his 70’s, but he’s loaded with energy. His voice sounds exactly the same as it did back in the day. Then backing up Lee Scratch Perry was probably the other super memorable one, who along with King Tubby, invented Dub.

J: Ziggy, Stephen, Damien Marley?

A: Yes, I was there for none of those. *laughs* Unfortunately.

J: Oh OK. Those were before your time.

A: Yeah, but we opened up for Steel Pulse, one of my favorite reggae bands from that era, late 70’s early 80’s.

J: You also played at a military base right?

A: A bunch of military bases.

J: Tell us about that experience.

A: The first time was in 2008, right after we dropped Reincarnation. We almost immediately got the call from Armed Forces Entertainment, which is the non-profit arm of the entertainment arm of the military. Unlike the USO, those people get paid. Armed Forces Entertainment is all volunteer. You get a small premium per day. We got the offer to fly into Kazakhstan and then go play at this base in Kyrgyzstan. From there, we dropped off about 180 troops in Afghanistan. We were riding with these 18, 19 year old kids with M-16’s. Everything they had on their body was all they were going to have for the next 18 months of active duty. We were grown men looking at them like, so you’re really going to do this huh? They were like, yeah. Some people were super jovial and messing around, some were tripping hard! That was heavy. There was a reporter from CNN on the plane with us as well, a giant C-17 that tanks could fit in. There were about 150 people on that giant thing. We were sitting on the ground in a bunch of bucket seats. I found out after the fact that when we were flying out of Afghanistan we took some shots. I was glad I didn’t know that at the time. *laughs* Then we dropped down in Kuwait, and I forget the order after that, but we hit United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Djibouti and then back to Kyrgyzstan. So we got back from the first one and a year later we got asked to go back, but instead we went to Japan, the Marshall Islands and Guam. On that tour we didn’t have to bring our own PA, so it was way less stressful. The first tour, people hadn’t seen entertainment in so long. I think the shortest autograph signing was like half an hour. In Qatar everybody on the base was lined up to get an autograph. There were like 4000 people on the base!

J: Divine Spark is the latest Natty Nation album. What was the creation process like?

A:  Some of the songs were really old. We had written them in 2003, right after Inatty in Jah Music had come out. They were recorded two weeks after I had joined the band. By that time, we had already started dumate, which premiered in 2004. We were making a whole bunch of music then. Some of it never got recorded until Divine Spark. “Suffice” I think was the only one. We released that as a single in 2010. But then the album Divine Spark didn’t come out until 2016. We had a whole bunch of ups and downs with personnel, recording waxing and waning, motivation, and you know, studio time and money and everything else, personal things in life. But then it kind of came together when I happened to meet Errol Brown, who is Bob Marley’s engineer.

I sent him the mix we had for “Meditation”, and he wrote back immediately. He said, “it sounds good, could use some Ska piano on it but yeah, let’s go.”

I was like really? Okay. I was like oh my god Errol Brown is totally down to work with us!  So then he ended up mixing the whole album in the back of Revolutions’ tour bus. They were pretty popular at the time, more popular now. They had a tour bus for the crew and a tour bus for the band, so he took over the whole back of one of the buses and turned it into a mobile studio. He mixed the whole album there and on headphones. And then the plan was to do a final mixdown at a studio. It ended up taking him a lot longer because he is super particular about drum and bass, especially drums. He kind of revolutionized recording drums. He uses a mic on the rim of the snare. He was the first person to do that I think. With reggae there are a lot of issues with the drums, so he wanted to go through and replace them. He didn’t trust Drumagog or BFD, or any of those other programs to help with replacement, so he went through every single drum hit and found a version he had recorded. The final product sounded exactly like a drummer had played it.

J: I listened to the whole album and wow! The sound quality is amazing. I wasn’t actually expecting it to sound that good. We use a Sonos player at Murfie, so I was like, is the Sonos player making this sound better? You know how Beats by Dre make things sound better. Was that what was happening? Because this sounds really good!

*we laugh*

A: I’m glad to hear that.

J: What format is Divine Spark available in?

A: We’ve got vinyl for the first time, and CD, and digital.

J: Digital everything, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play?

A: Yeah, Symphonic Distribution is awesome.

J: I’m not familiar with that. Is that similar to Tunecore or CD Baby?

A: Yeah.

J: How do you feel about physical media over digital?

A: I like the convenience of digital a lot, but what I really miss and what I am sad about for future generations is liner notes. When I was a kid, if I wanted to go buy some jazz records, I would have to go into the basement area of The Exclusive Company, where they were kept. I would have to ask the snobby clerk, hey, do you know where the Herbie Hancock is? They would bring you somewhere and say, “This is probably the one you want, Headhunters.”

So I had to push through that like I really wanted it. When I bought records, I’d take them home, put them on and listen to them front to back. I would read the liner notes and essays like oh, okay, this trumpet player on here is awesome. I need to go check him out and then go back. After awhile you’re asking the right questions and the guy behind the counter is like oh, this kid is cool. He knows what’s up. There was no CD burning. You had to buy this thing, and when you get it, there is a package. You didn’t have to read it, but it was there, and so if you cared, you’d be able to. That’s the saddest part to me about streaming. You have everything available to you at any moment so nothing is special. Before you had to go searching and searching to find a specific album. Trying to find Prince’s Black Album, that’s why it was a thing. It was impossible to find. Now you can get it wherever. Everything is available any time you want it.

J: How important is merchandise at your shows?

A: It’s super important. We’re making moves to go on longer tours out to the coast right now. We’re also working on Europe. I think when you’re on a longer tour merchandise can really help. The income is just immediate and it can help put money in the gas tank. I do all the design work for it. I do all the ordering as well, but I’m trying to delegate it to somebody else. *laughs* I didn’t start writing songs just to decide how many smalls to order of a certain design. We have a lot of merch and people like it a lot. So my thing is, you want to have quality merch. Of course, it’s going to cost you more. It costs us $13 for our cheapest shirt, but it’s a nice American Apparel shirt that people love, and therefore, they are going to wear it more often with your band name on it. More people are going to see it, and that is the main thing for me. CD’s are probably the best way to make money. Beyond the initial production cost of making an album, it costs you one or two bucks per CD. You sell em for 10 bucks for a 10, 12 song CD. That is an 80 percent mark-up. That is pretty good, but for a t-shirt that is 13 bucks, you can’t really charge more than 20 unless you’re a bigger name band.

J: Who shot the “Meditation” music video?

A: It was shot by Harvest Walker and Joe Ramos. Joe filmed a bunch of it in Boogie’s basement. That’s where we were rehearsing at the time. And then Harvest came and filmed a bunch at the Jam for Jam festival in 2015. He rented a $20,000 camera to take a bunch of slow motion shots. I think that added a lot to the video. He also did all the narrative parts with the girls having a bad day, and then meditating and doing yoga. It went through a bunch of incarnations because we initially started doing it in 2012, right around the time we started tracking for most of the album, and then the album kept getting pushed back. We needed to prioritize that immediately. Four years later, when the album came out, it was like oh, yeah, we might as well finish this thing and get it done. Joe Ramos then picked it up at that point and knocked it out. He did a few revisions with me and I was super happy with how it turned out. That was our first official music video.

J: Are you working on any other projects currently?

A: Yes, but they are top secret. The world will know soon.

J: Ok… Is it related to Natty Nation or something else?

A: That is also top secret. Everything is top secret about it. Don’t take that as it being yes, but also don’t take it as being no. *laughs* But yeah, there are lots of things in the works so stay tuned.

What did you think of this interview? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Want to hear more music from Natty Nation? Check out the Murfie shop for previous releases. Want to purchase merch or the latest album, Divine Spark, from Natty Nation? Check out their Bandcamp.

Stay tuned for more interviews like this one!

Album Review: “A Miracle” by Groundation

A Miracle Groundation

In the opening lines of “Riddim Hold Dem,” the first track of Groundation‘s 11th studio album A Miracle, frontman Harrison Stafford sings:

“Without woman, what would man be?”

This question marks the beginning of an album centered around exploring and cherishing the role of women in life. Something I always loved about Groundation, a jazzy roots reggae band hailing from Northern California, is their inclusion of female vocalists in their recorded and live productions. Over the years, vocalists Kim Pommell and Sherida Sharpe have emerged as powerful forces in the band, and they play a strong part in this album. “They’re not backup singers by any stretch of the imagination,” said Harrison in a recent interview we had on my radio show. “Groundation is about a balance of sound—everybody really taking part, sharing the spotlight…this is a part of our one-ness.”

Joining forces with Groundation on this album are two mighty, mighty queens of reggae: Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt. Marcia and Judy, along with Rita Marley, were the I Threes—the original backing trio of Bob Marley & the Wailers in their heyday. Marcia’s gorgeous, etheral voice is considered one of the best in reggae music, and she is featured on track two, “Defender of Beauty.” Judy is featured on track six—the title track—”A Miracle,” sounding enticingly bluesy and soulful, combining perfectly with the jazzy piano and brass which set Groundation apart from other roots reggae bands.

A Miracle is a solid continuation of Groundation’s other recorded works. You can expect the previously-mentioned jazzy keys and saxophone, and the heavy, heavy basslines that make you want to fall to the floor. Their live show is a must-see. It’s good for your soul!

Along with the woman-centric theme, Groundation covers familiar ground with their lyrics—the state of the world, a call for liberation, trust in Jah, and the power of music. Within the woman-centric theme itself lies the curveball—because very rarely, if at all, had Groundation sung about romantic love. But in this case, as you will hear on the last track “Cupid’s Arrow,” it’s far from wishy-washy. It’s about real respect and equality. “Respect me, do the right….oh love me absolutely, and you and I shall prosper.”

Track four, “Gone A Cemetery,” has made the list of my favorite Groundation songs. It’s about a freedom fighter who met a cruel end. I don’t know if it’s about a specific person—if it is, I’m curious to know. Besides the lyrics, the melody is great.

Groundation is an internationally-acclaimed band, and their message is spiritual and universal. I strongly recommend picking up this album, plus more from the Groundation discography, and anything created or produced by Harrison Stafford—someone who works tirelessly to preserve reggae history and spread positive music to the masses.

From the inner liner notes of A Miracle: “This album is livicated to the beautiful female spirit: The powerful empress who manifests creation.”

Big up Groundation!



Kayla Liederbach
@djkaylakush

Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.


Best of the Best: Bob Marley & the Wailers

Bob Marley & the Wailers, like many other bands, have evolved dramatically throughout their career—and they constantly churned out records, whether it was as The Wailing Wailers, The Wailers, or (most famously) Bob Marley & the Wailers.

Their albums give a snapshot of the changing lineup and production of the band, from the early ska years at Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s studio in 1965, to the band’s oftentimes most revered years working with the genius (and eccentric) producer Lee “Scratch” Perry in the early seventies, to the departure of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, and the addition of Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths, the I Threes, as backing vocalists. Today, the group tours as The Wailers band, with Aston “Family Man” Barrett as bassist and the only remaining member from the band’s earlier years.

Bob Marley & the Wailers have some incredible reggae albums, and a “Top 5” list is certainly debatable. Let me just say it took me quite a while to narrow these down, and I’m still feeling guilty about leaving some out. And no, Legend is not on this list—and if you think it should be, then get outta here! What do you think about these?


 5. Exodus (1977)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Exodus

Exodus is simply an incredible album from start to finish. Even the first song “Natural Mystic” begins quietly, and grows louder on just a pulsating groove. When full volume is reached, the groove is met with a bongo roll, and Marley starts his prophetic lyrics with “There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air.” The first half of the album focuses on a huge and often-debated Rastafarian idea of leaving Jamaica and returning to the African homeland. Jamaica was in turbulent political times in 1977, and the band recently survived its own turbulence as well—an attempted assassination of Bob, Rita and other members in 1976, and a lineup change before that (Tosh and Wailer departing in 1974 for solo careers, and the I Threes and Wailers backing band arriving in their place). Exodus also brought the world-famous song “One Love/People Get Ready” to the masses, virally spreading a message of universal love and unity to people all over the planet. This album was recorded in both London and Jamaica and was originally released via the popular Island record label, bringing the band much success.

Album highlights: “Natural Mystic,” “Jamming,” “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Three Little Birds,” “Exodus” 

4. Kaya (1978)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Kaya

Interestingly, many songs on Kaya were recorded alongside tracks from Exodus the previous year at Island Studios in London. The main topics on this album are less political and more easygoing—themes of romance, nice weather, and herb or “Kaya” are prevalent. On the easygoing side of things, the song “Easy Skanking” is one of my all-time favorites—it has a nice, relaxed vibe, and it reminds us to “take it eeeeasy.” On the love side of things, the song “Is This Love” simply recognizes the growing feeling of caring for another, and it’s without a doubt one of Marley’s most popular tunes.

Album highlights: “Easy Skanking,” “Is This Love,” “Sun Is Shining,” “Time Will Tell”

3. Live at the Roxy (Recorded: 1976, Released: 2003)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Live at the Roxy

That’s right, I chose a live album as #3—and don’t knock it ’til you’ve heard it! Live music has a magical, raw energy. This album genuinely captures that energy from one of the band’s prime years and keeps it alive for listeners today. Live at the Roxy is guaranteed to give you some shivers when you feel what I just described.

There are so many highlights from this album, both obvious and subtle—and they go way beyond what can happen in a studio. One example of this is how the audience cheers with delight after recognizing the opening notes of “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block).” In the same song, Bob strings together and slurs his plea to the arresting officer in an entertaining and animated way.

Something else I love about this album: The wonderful I Threes and their backing vocals, especially on “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”. Their na na na, na na na na na’s act as a kind of a melodic baseline. And a lot of the songs on this album are extended well beyond their studio counterparts time-wise, letting the listener enjoy the special instrumental grooves, periods of drum and bass, and more. The super-slowed-down, crawling skank on this version of “Burnin’ and Lootin'” is something worth hearing as well. Disc two of this album contains the awesome song “Positive Vibration” and a medley containing the songs “Get Up, Stand Up,” “No More Trouble,” and “War.”

Album highlights: “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block),” “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” “Introduction + Trenchtown Rock,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Roots Rock Reggae”…basically every track on here. 

2. Soul Rebels (1970)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Soul Rebels

I’m taking it way back to the early years of the band here with Soul Rebels, recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and produced by none other than the highly acclaimed, slightly mad, Lee “Scratch” Perry. This album is more “simple-sounding” to me than the others. It has more of a basic instrumental setup, with less of a dubby sound than the later bass-heavy versions of songs emphasized. The reason I love this album so much is it captures most of the original band in their early form, before signing on to major labels. Bob’s youthful voice fittingly asks listeners to “Try Me” on track two. Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh lend their backing vocals throughout the album, and the trio sound wonderful singing together (Peter Tosh on the lower vocal range and Bunny Wailer on the higher side. Funny note: I used to think Bunny Wailer’s vocals were that of a female until I learned more about the band). Tosh sings main vocals on the songs “No Sympathy” and “400 Years,” showcasing his militant demeanor and knack for pointing out injustices. I also love the song “It’s Alright” a lot, it’s one of my favorites, actually—and when you first hear it, the exciting thing is you don’t know that it’s a reggae song right away. In fact, it could be considered a rockers jam.

Another thing worth noting: I never liked the cover art on this album. It has no connection to the subject matter whatsoever. Apparently, the band felt the same as I, and they weren’t consulted about it before the album was released.

Album highlights: “Try Me”, “It’s Alright”, “No Sympathy,” “400 Years” 

1. Burnin’ (1973)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Burnin'

And here it is, arguably the best Bob Marley & the Wailers album, Burnin’. Why is it #1, you ask? Well first of all, it contains an awesome version of “Duppy Conqueror,” a song that stands out to me for its melody and message.

“Yes me friend, me good friend / Dem set me free again… / The bars could not hold me / Force could not control me / They tried to keep me down / But Jah put I around…”

It’s the kind of song that empowers you to overcome oppression of any kind, whether it’s a prison cell in Kingston or any kind of government institution. Connection to and acknowledgement of a greater positive force will always help you overcome injustice, physically and mentally, whether you believe that force is Jah, the universe, or what-have-you.

More songs of empowerment are “Small Axe” (“If you are the big tree / We are the small axe / Ready to cut you down (well sharp) / To cut you down”) and “Get Up, Stand Up” (…stand up for your right!). With these examples, I mean to say that it’s the feeling of empowerment and hope, and the strength in unity, that makes this album so special, historically valuable, and important for future generations.

Album highlights: “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Small Axe,” “Duppy Conqueror,” “One Foundation”


To cover my @$$, here are my notable album mentions, each of them close to making the Top 5:

  • Uprising (1980): “Coming in from the Cold,” “Redemption Song,” “Work,” “Could You Be Loved”
  • Rastaman Vibration (1976): “Positive Vibration,” “Roots Rock Reggae,” “War”
  • Catch a Fire (1973): “No More Trouble,” “Stop That Train,” “Rock It Baby,” “Stir it Up”
  • The Best of the Wailers (1971): “Soul Shakedown Party,” “Soon Come,” “Cheer Up,” “Back Out,” “Do It Twice”
  • Natty Dread (1974): “No Woman, No Cry,” “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block),” “Talkin’ Blues,” “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”

If you agree or disagree with my Top 5 albums, let me know in the comments! And, of course, check out the Bob Marley & the Wailers discography on Murfie.


Kayla Liederbach
@djkaylakush

Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.