Arlington, VA seems like an unlikely place for a reggae band to prosper. And yet, that’s where SOJA
formed some 20 years. The band would emerge to become one of the most popular U.S.-based reggae acts.
a reggae scene there,” says guitarist Trevor Young, who spoke in a recent phone interview from his Baton Rouge home where he was “kicking it” prior to the launch of a tour that brings the band to House of Blues where it performs with New Kingston at 8 p.m. on Sunday. “[The other members] grew up in the area and would go to D.C. on their mopeds to drum circle reggae events. There’s diehard reggae fans and shows going on locally in the area all the time. There’s always touring groups coming through D.C., and all the hardcore reggae fans are at every single show. It was news to me too when I moved there.”
Shortly after Young joined the group, the band inked a deal with ATO Records, a label that Dave Matthews founded. The band’s popularity quickly went up a notch as a result.
“I think it was a great move because I think it started to fill in the gaps,” Young says of signing with ATO Records. “Anyone that tours the U.S. knows that there are little cities you go to between the big cities. Those can be hard draws. When you get major label help, it helps to fill in those gaps. You start to see newer faces at the shows.”
And yet as much as the group’s profile has risen with each album and tour, the band sought to return to its roots for its latest effort, last year’s Poetry in Motion
“We wanted to go back to the vibe we had when SOJA started,” Young says when asked about the band’s approach to the initial songwriting sessions. “Back then, we never booked rehearsal time or writing in the studio. We just went to the basement and worked on some songs and rocked out and wrote them together. We brought that mentality back into the recording process. For the first session, we did it in [singer] Jake [Hemphill’s] garage. It’s our way of trying to recapture that original basement vibe. The idea was to do it all together and not just send ideas via email. We wanted to do it as a band would while starting out.”
When it came time to finally record the album, the band holed up at Haunted Hollow, a studio in the Charlottesville countryside. “It was one of the best experiences ever,” Young says when asked about working at the facility. “It’s in the mountains. It’s very secluded. You can walk outside in the middle of the night and scream and no one will hear you. It let us focus on working on the record. We never had to leave. We could stay there for long periods of time. I stayed there for a month straight. It was an incredible experience at a very beautiful studio with some great gear.”
On the song “More,” the band addresses the issue of women’s rights and advocates “treating our daughters like our sons.”
“The title is about excess and whether you need more and more,” says Young, adding that the band wrote the song before the #MeToo movement launched. “It also goes into equality in certain ways and is about women’s rights and rights in general. I think #MeToo is something people wanted to say for a while and women have been afraid to say it. Now they’re empowering each other and it’s awesome and needed to happen.”
On “Fire in the Sky,” another album highlight, Hemphill practically raps his way through the song as he delivers the album’s most spirited vocal performance.
“It’s a unique song because it’s not super reggae,” says Young. “Our saxophone player ended up with this interesting new instrument. At the same time, we were all binge watching Stranger Things
, and Hellman [Escorcia] had this digital sax. We found a synth sound that sounded like the Stranger Things
theme. The song has this galactic message. It seems spacy and other worldly. The guitar came up toward the end of it after I came up with a cool riff. It’s a weird song but is a standout because it is different.”
The band was in France when Hemphill wrote “Sing to Me,” a song that comes off as a lullaby. “I think Jake was writing the song about me and my love for my guitar,” says Young. “We called it ‘The Guitar Song’ for a really long time. It was a song about my love for my guitar that Jake wrote about me. It turned out really unique. It almost has a country vibe. We did some voice memos in France and used old dobro and slide guitar on it. It came out different. It’s not the usual setup for drums either.”
For the live show, the band tries to bring some positivity to the room. With their spirited horn arrangements and uptempo melodies, Poetry in Motion
tunes such as “Moving Stones,”“I Can’t Stop Dreaming” and “Tried My Best” should help the band achieve that goal.
“People come out to a reggae show, and they want to leave smiling,” Young says. “We want them to leave happy. We don’t want to promote any negativity. If a fight breaks out, we’re the kind of band that stops the show. It goes with this brand of music. Most reggae bands would feel the same way. It’s not a heavy metal show though we have aspects of that at times. And people just really need a break from all the bad news.”
SOJA, New Kingston, 8 p.m. Sunday, March 11, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $25-$35, houseofblues.com.