Big breakthroughs in the world of rock 'n' roll traditionally come through touring, a catchy radio single, and media hype—or a combination of all three. But somebody forgot to explain this to the members of Bedouin Soundclash. Based in Kingston, Ontario, the band became national treasures after their single "When the Night Feels My Song" was highlighted on a Zellers commercial. The light, jaunty, reggae-flavoured song was featured in a six-week campaign for summer clothes and ended up vaulting the three-piece band from college campus radio to the Top 40 almost overnight.
"A lot of bands will talk about how difficult it is [to get started in the business], and we can't say that at all," singer and guitarist Jay Malinowski told What Magazine. "Things happen to us all the time without us really doing anything."
It's funny how attitudes can change. Not that long ago, this sort of blatant commercial use of a band's music was frowned upon as crass behavior of the worst kind, a complete debasement of the art form. When the Clash licensed the rights to "Should I Stay or Should I Go" to Levi's to sell jeans a decade after the group split up, they tarnished their reputation in the transaction. But the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan pulled off similar licensing deals with no problems. Now, Iggy Pop, Moby, and Jet build commercial licensing into their musical promo budgets with nary a mention of the word "sellout."
"That commercial really helped us break to a way larger audience in Canada," Malinowski told Angel Pacienza of the Montreal Gazette. "The music hasn't changed, but we were given an opportunity to get it out to a lot of people who wouldn't necessarily hear our music. Most kids have no faith in record labels anymore anyway. You're basically putting it out through a corporation regardless—how you get it out is immaterial."
Song Became a Radio Staple
Now the band is a fixture on the top level of Canada's live-gig circuit, while their big hit track was included on MuchMusic's traditional annual compilation Big Shiny Tunes. And with good reason: in 2005, "When the Night Feels My Song" received more airplay than any other song on Canadian radio.
Some critics have tried to label Bedouin Soundclash as just another "jam band" in the grand tradition of Phish or the Grateful Dead. But philosophically, all three band members prefer to align themselves with punk rock and the do-it-yourself independent spirit. All the same, none is afraid to embrace success, and their recent good fortune has given them the last laugh on the many doubters they encountered over the years.
"We find it very gratifying to be on the radio and on MuchMusic, because we were told we'd never get airplay doing what we're doing," Malinowski told Bartley Kives of the Winnipeg Free Press. "I have no problem with the mainstream. In fact I like it—I don't want our music to just be some esoteric thing that only people in some 'scene' can get."
The roots of Bedouin Soundclash go back to late 2000 when drummer Eon Sinclair, a Kingston native, moved into residence at the city's Queen's University. There, he hooked up with bassist Pat Pengelly, from Pickering, Ontario, and Malinowski, a singer-guitarist from Vancouver. As the three began playing together, they found that they shared a mutual love for the heavy reggae of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Toots and the Maytals, as well as sounds ranging from punk to soul. Their informal jam sessions soon became a regular occurrence.
"It was artists from the U.K., like the Clash, the Specials and the Police who took reggae and twisted it," Malinowski told Greg Burliuk of the Kingston Whig-Standard. "From a songwriting perspective, I loved the emotional quality and simplicity and rawness of that music. Someone like Joe Strummer [the Clash] was able to make simple things that are extremely powerful. And reggae always seemed to be involved with important songwriters like him."
In recognition of their influences, the three named themselves Bedouin Soundclash after Israeli artist-producer Badawi's 1996 release which, itself, was a tribute to the poet Bedouin tribes of North Africa. It was not an act of plagiarism, but a celebration of the music that had brought them to this point. On the road to becoming Bedouin Soundclash, the dance vibes of Asian Dub Foundation and Roni Size exerted just as much influence as the ska sounds of the English Beat and the avante-garde dub-rock of Public Image Ltd.
A "Reggae Fusion" Sound
None of the band members has managed to label the sort of music they began playing, and this has made it extremely difficult for critics to pigeonhole them, something that has been both a blessing and a curse. "Jay once called it reggae-street punk-soul-world music, and that sums it up," Pengelly told Ian Elliott of the Kingston Whig Standard. "We're not a straight-up reggae band at all. We're reggae-fusion. We take reggae and fuse it to all other musical influences."
Initially, despite their obvious personal and musical connections, none of the trio was prepared to think about making the band a permanent entity. But once they began moving away from doing cover versions of other people's material to playing their own music, they found that, by accident more than by design, they'd become exactly that. "We didn't set out to make a band," Sinclair told T'cha Dunlevy of the Vancouver Province. "We just started playing music and experimenting with stuff we knew, a lot of which was based in reggae. It was the foundation…. But the idea was to change it, not to stick to the traditional, but to fuse it with as many different things as made sense."
"We had all grown up with [reggae], from different angles," Sinclair told Dunlevy. "My parents are from the Caribbean, so they were always playing reggae and soul in the house. Jay was into electro and punk, which I knew nothing about. He'd give me a Clash CD and I'd trade him Buju Banton."
They may have come together just for fun, but it wasn't long before the threesome decided to take their act onto local stages. They played their first gig at an on-campus coffee bar called Common Ground. "Eon had to drop off demo tapes three times before they would even return our calls," Pengelly told Elliott.
Bedouin Soundclash also entered a battle-of-the-bands contest in which they scored second place, returning for the next session to take first spot. After the win, band members kept playing. Doing shows on weekends and during vacations as they continued on through school, they built up a considerable following by word of mouth. Over the next two years, the band shared the stage with such legendary reggae bands as the Slackers, Burning Spear, and Vernon Buckley, and ska originators the Skatalites.
"You can't really get the band unless you've seen a live show," Malinowski told Vit Wagner of the Toronto Star. "The music is based in making people move and getting them out dancing. That's why people come out to our shows in the first place. We didn't have a record out for a really long time, but people would come out to the shows because of the way we played live."
Recorded Debut in One Day
The next logical step was to record some of their material. Full of enthusiasm, the trio entered the studio to record their debut album, Root Fire. "We recorded [Root Fire] in, like, a marathon day," Pengelly told Tara Campbell of The Gauntlet. "We spent a week before that just practising. We knew to, like the second, what we were going to do. We didn't have much money, so we had to utilize all our time in the studio."
For the Record …
Members include Jay Malinowski, vocals and guitar; Eon Sinclair, drums; Pat Pengelly, bass.
Began playing as recreational band while in residence at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, 2000; became favorites on Kingston's live circuit; released debut album, Root Fire, 2002; played extensively across Canada; released second album, Sound a Mosaic, 2004; signed distribution deal with U.S. label Sideonedummy, 2005; single "When the Night Feels My Song" was picked up by Zellers for use in TV commercial and became Canadawide hit, 2005; on strength of "When the Night Feels My Song," toured North America, United Kingdom and Europe; released third album, Street Gospels, 2006.
Awards: CASBY Award, Favorite New Single for "When the Night Feels My Song," 2005.
Addresses: Record company—The Union Label Group/Stomp Records, 78 Rachel St. E., Montreal, Quebec H2W 1C6, Canada. Website—Bedouin Soundclash Official Website: http://www.bedouinsoundclash.com.
Released on the Montreal label Stomp Records, Root Fire boosted the band's profile as they kept refining their unique reggae-soul-jazz-punk sound. By now, the band was playing regularly across Ontario and beginning to venture farther afield, finding audiences in places they'd only seen on maps. As new material began creeping into the band's sets, the buzz grew even stronger. Catching the band's opening act for the Slackers, Punknews.org noted: "Their new material was captivating, soulful, timeless sounding stuff. If they could pull off on record what they had demonstrated live they would have truly captured something special."
This, indeed, was the objective. By 2004, the band was ready to record its second disc, a collection that Malinowksi would refer to as the band's first "real album," something more than a glorified demo tape. This time, Bedouin Soundclash enlisted the help of musical veteran Darryl Jennifer, best known as the bassist of the Bad Brains, one of the first bands to recognize the potential of marrying hardcore thrash to reggae rhythms. Jennifer helped to sharpen the band's approach and forced them to focus on their songs' emotional content.
"In terms of musicianship, he'd really make us listen in a new way we weren't used to," Malinowski told Campbell. "When you play live, you don't have to listen that close, you can just kind of feel what you're doing. Sometimes it would be frustrating. I think, sometimes, doing the first take and capturing it raw is a great way, but it really taught me some patience. You learn that it has to be there before you can move on."
Jennifer succeeded in helping the band expose the essence of its music. Bedouin Soundclash does not like being compared to the ska bands of the late 1970s two-tone revival, but there's plenty of that vibe in the tracks "Nothing to Say" and "Rude Boys Don't Cry." Vernon Buckley shows up on a cover of the song "Money Worries," which was originally recorded by his band, the Maytones, while new wave guitar powers "Immigrant Workforce," and drum and bass techno sounds underlie "Living in Jungles." Add in Malinowski's surprisingly authentic vocals and Bedouin Soundclash delivered the real deal. Of course, the standout track was the single "When the Night Feels My Song," an acoustic number to which Jennifer's deft hand had added plenty of space and contrast.
A Difficult Touring Schedule
The release of the group's second album, Sound a Mosaic, was strategically held back until all three band members had graduated from Queen's. The delay gave them an easy step up into their post-college career and allowed them to hit the ground running. The gruelling schedule that followed the album's release had the band playing up to 300 shows a year. By 2005, they had criss-crossed Canada six times.
But all the hard work paid off as "When the Night Feels My Song" topped the MuchMusic charts and scored a crossover hit from indie to rock to Top 40 to contemporary hit radio, where Bedouin Soundclash gave well-established bands such as Nickelback and Green Day a run for their money.
"We seem to be able to appeal to many different styles of listener," Sinclair told Mike Devlin of the Ottawa Citizen. "We can play ska shows with ska bands, or we can play with a pop-rock band, or something more dance-oriented. It's tough to classify it. It doesn't necessarily fit radio formats, so the only way that we can get the music out is to play."
The success of "When the Night Feels My Song" led to a distribution deal for Sound a Mosaic with Warner Bros. Records. The band also signed a U.S. deal with uber-cool label Sideonedummy. Evidence that the band was having an impact farther away from home came when Bedouin Soundclash headed to the United Kingdom. There, they appeared at the prestigious Reading and Leeds festivals, headlined a few shows of their own and enjoyed the backing of BBC Radio One, the most important national radio station in the U.K.
During a stop-off in Liverpool, the band also recorded a version of U2's "New Year's Day" with producers Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds and Steve Harris, best known for his work with U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Dave Matthews Band. The plan called for "New Year's Day," a favorite in live performance, to be used as the B-side to the band's next single, "Shelter."
Many people thought it odd when Bedouin Soundclash also signed up for that bastion of punk rock, the travelling festival that is the Vans Warped Tour. "I think we really stood out," Sinclair told Dunlevy. "Most of the bands were a lot heavier than what we were doing. A lot of people appreciated having us on tour. It was a change of pace and easier to listen to."
Recognized for Achievements
With commercial success came recognition. The CASBY Awards, organized by the influential Toronto radio station CFNY FM 102.1 (The Edge), are handed out on the basis of votes from Canadian rock music fans. In 2005, Bedouin Soundclash received three nominations, and "When the Night Feels My Song" beat out competition from Hot Hot Heat, Our Lady Peace, Sum 41 and Theory of a Deadman to take the award for Favorite new single.
Bedouin Soundclash faced a hectic schedule during 2005, yet managed to find the time to record their third album, Street Gospels. Once again, Jennifer was in the producer's chair. And one of the tracks, "Walls Fall Down," featured an appearance by Beastie Boys' collaborator Money Mark.
"We all come from strong families that instilled hard work ethics," Sinclair told Devlin. "We met at university. And to get to university, there's a whole culture around that—studying, learning how to focus and making the most of your time. When you got through the educational system, the more you put in hard work, the better the results. I think that translated really well into what we are doing."
In terms of its message and vibe, Street Gospels comes closest to what the band had hoped to achieve with their first album. Building on the positive vibe of "When the Night Hears My Song," Bedouin Soundclash is anxious to project a message of hope while reflecting not only their own backgrounds, but also the backgrounds of their fans.
When it comes right down to it, all three band members recognize that they are not in a standard reggae or ska band that makes music that sounds like it was actually recorded in the Caribbean. Instead, the band offers its own homegrown take on the genre, one that attacks the cynicism and sarcasm they are collectively tired of dealing with.
"We want to sound like a multicultural Canadian band and make it clear that we're being very honest with our experiences," Malinowski told Burliuk. "That's why I like 'Immigrant Workforce.' Most Canadians, or their parents or their grandparents, have had the experience of being an immigrant and having to move up through the social ranks. This is our homage to them."
Root Fire, Stomp Records, 2002.
Sound a Mosaic, Stomp Records/Warner Bros. Records, 2004.
Street Gospels, Stomp Records/Warner Bros. Records, 2006.
Associated Press, November 24, 2005.
Broadcast News, September 2, 2005.
Evening Mail, January 19, 2006; January 24, 2006.
The Guardian, September 30, 2005, p. 13; January 23, 2006.
Guelph Mercury, November 19, 2005, p. C1.
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Kingston Whig-Standard, January 13, 2005, p.19; February 16, 2005, p. P1; November 26, 2005, p. 8; January 19, 2006, p. D3.
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What Magazine, September 2002, p. 39.
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