It's a sad truth that nearly all American bands who draw upon Jamaican music are either (a) clueless ska groups what is this, the fifth wave now? or (b) chronically stoned trustafarians eternally recycling the same tired Bob Marley riffs.
The Aggrolites are neither: With sharp, organ-driven arrangements and a singer with the skills to sound like Otis Redding, their sound is a vibrant take on the reggae style that emerged from Kingston's ghettos in the late '60s and early '70s.
In 2005, the Los Angeles five-piece signed to Hellcat, the label begun by Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong. (The Aggrolites are also the band on Armstrong's 2007 solo album, A Poet's Life.) Two albums later, the group's still preaching the gospel of early reggae.
Jesse Wagner, the band's vocalist and lead guitarist, remembers spending his formative years listening to his dad's collection of old soul albums.
"I was the only kid in junior high school that was listening to my dad's vinyl rather than modern-day CDs," he says. "Everybody would come over to my house and they're like, 'What do you got records for?'"
Wagner's musical tastes soon expanded: "I wanted to hear newer music with horns because at the age of 12 or 13 I thought that what makes soul music is the horns, about which I was totally wrong. So my older sister's boyfriend told me about a music called ska."
An L.A. band called Hepcat (whose bassist, David Fuentes, was briefly in the Aggrolites before his death in late 2007) was, for Wagner, "the major gateway that got me into the real thing."
The Aggrolites formed in 2002 when members of two L.A. bands, the Rhythm Doctors and the Vessels, got together to back a live performance by Derrick Morgan, the veteran ska artist best known for the rude-boy anthem, "Tougher than Tough."
That led to gigs backing other Jamaican icons, most notably Morgan's arch-rival, Prince Buster, the original "Judge Dread" who was lionized by the Specials and other leaders of Britain's 2 Tone ska revival. Prince Buster is said to have expressed amazement afterward that a young American band could play his music "just as good as the day it was recorded."
The Aggrolites' best originals, songs like "Mister Misery" and "Free Time," are undeniably catchy, infused with an energy that recalls Toots & the Maytals' leaner years which, Wagner confirms, were very much on his mind during the songs' creation. They also do a mean cover of the old skinhead reggae song "Banana," which earned them the honor of an appearance last year on the Nickolodeon kids' series, Yo Gabba Gabba. ("We toured with this band called the Aquabats, whose lead singer went on to create the show," explains Wagner.)
Having just finished up a tour as support act for Flogging Molly, the Aggrolites continue to find themselves working to win over perplexed audiences.
"We get the deer in the headlights look all the time," says Wagner. "It seems like a lot of people think of reggae as Bob Marley's Legend album and that's about it. We want to be the gateway for those people. You know, if they like the Aggrolites, maybe they'll search out more reggae. Because there's thousands of artists that they could be listening to."