Written By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Rocky and the Pressers.
Every band goes about creating their first record in a different way. Some sloppily throw twelve songs together that seem like they would mesh well, others fine-tune their craft and work hard at making sure that their first offering is taken seriously. Rocky and the Pressers of the Bronx, NY chose the latter with their debut Dance at the Playhouse and ensuring that their brand of reggae wasn’t overlooked by the rest of the New York reggae/rocksteady community, of which there is a solid history.
The two spokesmen of the group, Eric Sullivan and Rocky Russo, respectively had their own ska backgrounds in Westchester County. The early to mid-’00s saw an incredible boom of ska and reggae-influenced bands in the suburbs of Westchester, Long Island and parts of New York City. Bands like Daly’s Gone Wrong, The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, and the Cleavagents were all local heroes but largely unknown everywhere else.
Suddenly ska became a part of your high school experience that you were supposed to regret, but for a bit during Eric and Rocky’s talk with BTR they could reminisce about the days where ska was it.
Sullivan said, “I did…I messed around with a couple of bands from over in the Dobbs Ferry area, we used to do shows at the Dobbs Ferry Community Center.”
“I had a brief fling with ska music,” adds Russo add., “It was short lived and rough.”
The hesitation to talk about their ska pasts probably came from the fact that they were “on record” talking about being in ska bands, as admitting such normally taint any hopes for instant stardom. Either way, it just becomes a thing you can laugh about when you’re older.
As amazing as the instrumentation is on Dance at the Playhouse, none of the band members came from classically trained backgrounds, obviously they all must have flexed their music muscles covering the Reel Big Fish cover of “Take On Me” in high school. Only one member even went to school to pursue anything music-related, production. However, it seemed to be unanimous that the members of Rocky and the Pressers were involved with the high school jazz and marching bands, the other stereotype of ska pasts.
The band started in 2009. They said that the band only really took off when they started to do the tracking to their recently released debut in Maine, back in 2011. The Pressers put out what Sullivan called “a remix here and a live track there” but nothing too substantial. He said, “We kept it very low-profile and we’re still keeping it pretty low-profile.” The reason for this? No publicist.
They also attributed Mark Zuckerberg to the reason that they’re not promoting their music with full steam ahead.
Sullivan said about this, “If you try to pump something through Facebook too much, they want you to pay extra to get you on more feeds. If so and so always types ‘Rocky and the Pressers this’ and ‘Rocky and the Pressers that’, then they [Facebook] actively squash it. That’s what our keyboardist was saying, I think he’s right.”
So, in terms of promoting their new album, BTR is getting the first “inside look” at Rocky and the Pressers. In uncovering the band’s reputation in the area for an hyper-focused, obsessive attention to their music, it was intriguing to hear the Pressers’ reminisce of the laissez-faire attitude that went into creating their debut.
Sullivan comments on their creative process, “The writing was pretty fun and pretty easy and didn’t take very long. A lot of the songs were pieces of songs that I had begun writing when I was a teenager eight years ago. Taking them and finding the stuff that I said, ’Oh, that’s not bad’ and then putting music to them, working together with Mario, Rocky and Seth was the fun part. Then doing the basic tracking was kind of an awesome time and also very challenging because we all played in one room so you have to get it right.”
Rocky on the other hand, is a bit more hands-on in terms of production value.
Russo said, “We maxed out the mixer for most songs which is 48 tracks: a lot of strings, horns…”
The record is 13 songs with 48 tracks each, which all adds up to a unique aura of effortless perfectionism.
About the band’s supposed dogged work ethic and focus, Sullivan said, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard about us. We totally work harder than a lot of band’s work. We hold a really high standard, we rehearse a lot, and the stuff is complicated and requires a lot of rehearsal.”
The band even has a screening process for members as they hand select each Presser, skipping the whole “putting up fliers” aspect of putting together a crew.
Somewhere in the mix of the 48 tracks are accompanying horn parts played by Daptone Records elites and members of BTR favorites Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings as well as Antibalas. They were what Sullivan called, “the cream of the crop,” and were made available to the Pressers through friends of friends.
Russo said about the studio players, “They understand that soulful, old-style that we’re going for in some of the arrangements as well as the tonalities and timbre.”
Though Dance at the Playhouse is technically reggae, the band’s harmonies help their sound encompass an impressive recipe of genres including American folk and soul.
Sullivan said about this willingness to expand the genre, “Well first of all, traditional reggae is harmonically based on vamps, like two chords for the verse and two chords for the chorus, two chords for the whole song. There’s also a lot of reggae that’s totally complicated. So I think with the songwriting, the chord changes and the content isn’t very purist.”
Russo adds, “The format and the rhythms are [traditional] but the harmonic structure and some of the song structure stuff is a little bit more ambitious.”
Another difference is their overall message, which for reggae has been traditionally revolutionary. Rocky’s is a little bit different. A group-approved email message touched on this unique approach: whole band:
“You have to remember that although popular reggae music – Marley especially – often has a political revolutionary aesthetic, there is also quite a lot of reggae that does not. A lot of bands have capitalized on that imagery of the reggae artist as a righteous political agitator and often it doesn’t come off as particularly genuine. Our lyrics sometimes contain critical commentary and social commentary but we try to stray a bit from some of the themes in reggae that are repeated to the point of banality, like smoking weed and citing political grievances. Reggae greats like Marley have already said that stuff better than we or anyone else following in their footsteps ever could.”
Quite possibly the first reggae band in existence to break away from the influence of marijuana, Rocky and the Pressers have made it clear that they have no need to preach about the “done to death” Rastafarian issues. They have their own, distinctly musical, agenda to push.
Enjoy tunes from Rocky and The Pressers on the latest edition of Discovery Corner on BTR!