“It’s all in our minds / Planted over time / Grew into a vine / That became intertwined” – from “All In Our Minds”
This lyric is the source of the title to Passafire’s fifth studio album, Vines. Though it wasn’t written with this intention, it was in retrospect that the band members – singer/guitarist Ted Bowne, drummer Nick Kubley, bassist/vocalist Will Kubley and keyboardist Mike DeGuzman – realized that it aptly described the current state of the band. Vines is a record that finds its makers at a creative peak, thanks in large part to the comfort of the current line-up, which has been solidified for a few years. They have grown up together, and over the years, as their individual stylistic preferences have changed, they’ve intertwined until the music becomes stronger like vines growing around each other. These four have become a super tight unit, which has led to a comfort level on stage and in the studio that Passafire has never achieved before.
Formed in 2003 in Savannah, GA, by Bowne and Nick Kubley, Passafire has built its strong reputation within the U.S. reggae scene through constant touring, along with a series of self-assured, largely self-produced records. In 2006, Will Kubley joined, replacing the band’s second bassist. Trained as a guitarist, Will switched to bass, bringing a fresh approach to the band’s reggae/rock hybrid, with equal parts one drop, frenetic slap bass and plenty of electronic treatments to come up with unique sounds. Of course, it helps the rhythm section rank among the tightest in the scene to have two brothers who grew up sharing a room now sharing the duties of drum & bass. DeGuzman came on board right before the recording of the band’s last release, 2011’s Start From Scratch, after catching the eye of the group while playing with The Expendables during their Winter Blackout Tour in 2010. He sat in for one tour then quickly became a key member of the quartet. While he played on Start From Scratch, much of the music was already written before he came on board to record it, so he feels like this record is the first to have his full involvement in the writing, arranging and developing of the songs.
Bowne and Nick Kubley attribute the band’s incessant touring schedule as a product of coming from Savannah. “While there is a music scene in Savannah with a number of good bands, it just doesn’t get the same support as other cities because of age restrictions at the shows,” Nick says. Bowne says, “Once we could hit the road, we started doing that, because it was just easier to build a following and learn the live performance ropes in other towns.”
While the roots of the band lie in Savannah, the group has split to live in different corners of the country; DeGuzman lives in Chicago, where he is from, while Will Kubley has moved to California. They overcome the distance by spending more than half of every year on the road together. (Touring life, along with the band’s drive to succeed, is captured neatly on the song “Go”: “Workin' hard every night for the right to be the kind of thing that everybody likes to see.”) It may seem strange to speak about a tight unit that lives this far apart, but that is just one of the many contradictions that seem to fire up this band rather than drag them down.
For example, a band that tours this much would normally be expected to road test songs and then hit the studio once they have an album’s worth of material. Passafire instead carves out time at home in songwriting sessions to work up completely new material for albums, which they later begin to work into the live setting. “We like to capture what we do live and show it in the songs,” DeGuzman explains. “The songs were written to show what we are capable of in the studio, while leaving room for further exploration in the live setting.”
Passafire has secured their place in the exploding U.S. reggae scene, yet musically they are often far apart from many of the bands in the community, with a growing emphasis on alternative rock and prog rock elements. Their lyrical content is often outside the norm as well, avoiding standard party themes, preferring to craft songs about love, the fight for good over evil, the relationship with man’s best friend, and, yes, even aliens in the propulsive “Souvenir.” And while at least half the band grew up enamored with long instrumental jams from bands like Umphrey’s McGee and Phish, it’s interesting to note the short, tightly structured songs on Vines, which eschew noodling and soloing for powerful yet understated efficiency.
The recording process for Vines was a bit different. Guitar and vocals were recorded at Bowne’s home studio over a three week period, after drums, keys and bass had been laid down at the legendary Sonic Ranch studio in El Paso, TX, where the band’s last two albums were recorded. “I was able to geek out at home,” says Bowne, “and try things that I might normally feel self-conscious about around other people. It was a very different experience from being on the clock in a room full of people listening to everything you play or sing.” Will Kubley benefitted especially from this process, as he sang lead on two songs (“Phony Imposter” and “Stowaway”). Bowne says, “I think his vocals sound more confident on these songs, which is a direct result of him being able to run his own session behind closed doors without any of the self-consciousness that exists when there are producers, engineers and other band members all secretly critiquing every single syllable of every lyric. Sure, we are performers and are used to performing in front of people, but making music is a private thing that, like art, is not finished until the artist himself approves of his own work.”
Once the recording was done, the band brought in Paul Leary (of the Butthole Surfers), who had produced their last record, as well as releases by scene mates Sublime, Pepper, and Slightly Stoopid, to do the final mixes. Former John Brown’s Body soundman Jocko Randall mastered the record, which was rather appropriate since all in the band credit JBB as one of the main groups that got them to form a band and work as hard as they have. It’s apropos after all these years, that Passafire is now on Easy Star Records, sharing the same label with their musical inspiration. In keeping with the DIY mode that dictates much of their work, Nick Kubley, who studied art in Savannah, drew the art for the album cover.
As for how their fans and peers will react to Vines as Passafire travels further into orbit away from the basic tropes and confines of the reggae scene? DeGuzman says, “This is our family, our friends, and our fan base, but I like to think they are growing with us.” Just a few more vines to intertwine and strengthen this complicated, beautiful foundation for Passafire.