Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Aaron Glaser, bass player and vocalist in the Washington D.C.-based reggae Beatles tribute Yellow Dubmarine, about the process of giving Beatles music an island flair, how purists have reacted to the concept and what they're playing lately.
CP: There are a lot of Beatles tributes out there, but what inspired you to take such an unusual approach to interpreting their music?
AG: It's kind of like "What didn't inspire us?" It came naturally. We tried it for fun, and it blossomed for many reasons. We just kept finding good things about the concept. We started with four guys in the band, and we found that having horns was a logical step, and we expanded our repertoire and added percussion. We've been having a blast with it because it's musically and emotionally fulfilling. It's these beautiful songs that connect the world, which we're seeing now that we're traveling. We're seeing people in the middle of a town I would never imagine myself being in, and The Beatles have touched them in the same way that they touched me. Just seeing how The Beatles united the world has been really special.
CP: How did you first meet each other?
AG: Through childhood. I've known the drummer since I was two. I've known the keyboard player since I was nine. The fourth member actually is the only member to have left the group. He had to move away, so we had to replace him, but I've known him since I was five. His name is Greg Wheltle.
We started playing music in middle school and high school. It was all sorts of different music. I've been in many different projects with these guys. I've been in an alt-rock group with them, a heavy metal group, another reggae group and of course school jazz band and symphonic band. A lot of different projects.
CP: How does Yellow Dubmarine stack up against those other projects you've been involved in?
AG: This is definitely our biggest project. None of us have ever been in a real touring band before Yellow Dubmarine. This is the biggest one. The Beatles music is a big part of it. The biggest part of it is that we're playing Beatles music and the second thing is that we're doing it an interesting and exciting way that's danceable, which is important. We've brought a new energy to the songs that people already love. We have agents and management, and our previous bands didn't have that.
CP: When did you first form Yellow Dubmarine?
AG: We started with the four members in the fall of 2007. We got management in the spring of 2010. That was when things first took off. We added the horns and percussion between 2008 and 2009.
CP: Where was the first show? How was it received?
AG: The first show we played was actually a special event we did. We put on a memorial concert for our friend who passed away as a celebration of her life. The four of us knew her and probably wouldn't have started the project if it weren't for her and the memorial concert. Before that point, we had just been informally jamming. When we performed at Christinapolooza on Dec. 26, 2007, it went over really well. We did "Let It Be" and "Strawberry Fields" and "Yellow Submarine" and "If I Fell" and they went over really well. The reason for that is because Beatles songs bring people together and the reggae groove makes it fun.
CP: Beatles fans can be exacting in their devotion to the band and the details of the music. How have they responded to such a radical reinterpretation?
AG: I'd say most people love our show. But then again, most people aren't Beatles purists. For the laymen, it's an easy shot. It's a go ahead good time with nothing to argue with. We've been tested by many a purist and passed, from most accounts I know of, because we do our arrangements out of love for the original version. We're inspired by the Beatles and aren't trying to do anything cheap. WE keep signature parts of the songs, including signature riffs and emotional sentiment.
CP: When you started working these songs up, which one did you begin with and why?
AG: "Strawberry Fields." It was fun. It just happened. We just thought it would be cool, and it was. We were sitting around in our drummer's house; he had a practice space in the basement. One of us said, "Wouldn't this be fun?" and we just bounced some ideas back and forth. We tried it - someone played the riff - and it just came naturally to us. We did it in one night, and we had more ideas as time passed. Our arrangement of "Strawberry Fields" has evolved drastically. We did "Strawberry Fields" that first night, and, I think, "IF I fell." They were songs we already enjoyed from playing them acoustically and singing harmonies.
CP: Your first album is of "Abbey Road." Why that album?
AG: A lot of reasons. It was a natural choice for us. We all agreed that we wanted to do it. A big part of the reason was that we thought the album would translate really well to a live show. It has a great flow to it with great songs in the beginning and medleys at the end that pick up steam. It's so iconic of The Beatles, and we were drawn to it. That line at the end, "The love you take is equal to the love you make," is just the cherry on top. It's a great ending to a concert. It gives you a great feeling to go home with.
CP: That album is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, album The Beatles ever made. What kind of pressure did that put on you going in to working on "Abbey Dub?"
AG: Honestly, maybe we were naïve, but we were excited for most of the process. We started feeling pressure about halfway through the sessions when it hit us how hard it was. I think it turned out well because we put good energy into it. We had a lot of truly talented musicians on board. It's our band, and we had a producer who was in The Bridge, and we had two extra horn players, so we had a four-piece horn section. That gave us a lot of confidence.
CP: Was the process of converting these songs to a reggae style smooth or did it take a lot of shoe horning?
AG: Yeah, it truly was natural. That's why we did it, because it was natural. We didn't want to force anything. No musician wants to force anything. It was relatively easy and natural.
CP: Was that surprising?
AG: I did expect that. I think it was my idea in the first place, but it was so long ago that we don't really remember. I never had any qualms about trying it. We were good friends who were just trying something together. You always challenge yourself playing music, and there are always hard parts, but in the end, you're just trying some ideas in the end.
CP: Are there elements of reggae intrinsically used in The Beatles music? Does their music share any common roots with reggae music?
AG: That's a great question. There are some Beatles songs that are reggae - "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" being the most obvious one - but most of their catalog is not reggae. It translates really well because a lot of it is based off Motown and blues. Reggae started as a cover genre, itself. In the early days, people in Jamaica were doing their own version of American hits, Motown hits The Beatles were inspired by. The Beatles and reggae have a common inspiration in Motown. We're huge into Motown yourself. Doing reggae covers of these Motown and rock songs is not new or foreign. That's really where the connection lies.
CP: How do you ensure the music remains recognizable while still allowing room for you to be creative?
AG: We stay true to the key elements of the song. We don't change the lyrics, we don't change melodies, and we don't change chords. We play with the groove, mostly, and somewhat with the structure of the songs.
CP: What's your favorite reinterpretation of a Beatles song?
AG: My favorite cover of ours would be "Hey Jude." We do a nice, up-tempo version of that. The crowd loves it, too. They also love the "Golden Slumbers" medley at the end of "Abbey Road" and "Get Back."
CP: You've mentioned "Abbey Road" a couple of times. During your shows, do you play the album in its entirety?
AG: We were doing all of "Abbey Road" for a long time - almost a year - but this past June, we debuted a new show that we're performing, which is The Beatles No. 1 Hits. Since then, we've been doing No. 1 hits, from "She Loves You" through "Let It Be."
CP: Why did you decide to do the new show? Were you tired of "Abbey Road" or did you just want to add in some new material to your sets?
AG: I wouldn't say we were tired of "Abbey Road" because I feel like it's our duty and also our pleasure to find something new in "Abbey Road" every time we play it. It hasn't gotten old, but we did want to do new music. I would gladly play "Abbey Road," but we wanted to expand the repertoire and bring something new to fans, for sure. There were 27 No. 1's. In re-imagining the songs, we get more of a perspective of what these songs are when they're stripped down. I know there are different versions of them, but we preserve the song in its rawest form, and then we'll take elements from the different versions to get ideas for horn parts and other musical ideas. Really, this experience has taught me to see a song, not as a recording of a song, but what the song is distilled down to its essence.