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For Cory Eberhard, the liberation of playing reggae hasn't come solely from the music's messages of political activism and rebellion. The greater freedom, he says, has stemmed from a much more basic part of Eberhard's role as the drummer for Dubskin, the reggae outfit he started in Fort Collins three years ago with singer Jamal Skinner. It's an element that Eberhard has only recently been able to fully enjoy.
"We love playing live," Eberhard exclaims. "We record albums so that we can play live, rather than the other way around.
"I enjoy playing with humans," he continues. "Playing with the computer is cool, but it's very rigid and robotic. I like the environment of playing in a reggae band. It's been very liberating."
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Eberhard recently gave up his post as the drummer for Pretty Lights to focus his attention fully on Dubskin. The move has allowed him an unprecedented amount of creative concentration. "Basically, for the last three years, I've been doing both Dubskin and Pretty Lights," he explains. "Obviously, the Pretty Lights schedule got a lot busier, and I was on the road a bunch. I had to schedule Dubskin shows in the months in between and record albums in between, when I had time off.
"Now I have the time," he adds, with equal parts relief and conviction. "Now we're doing Dubskin full-time."
For the past two months, Dubskin has been finalizing plans for the coming year, a creative outline that includes a new album and a national tour. In between playing occasional local gigs, the group has been writing and rehearsing new material. The goal is to release a full-length release by the end of the year, Eberhard says, with a tour that he's hoping might stretch as far as Europe and South America.
"It's just a matter of time," Eberhard points out. "We've played these two albums enough, we feel like, especially around Colorado." He's referring to the group's freshman effort from 2006, Love in Spite Of, and 2009's No End in Time. Both were independently released, and both are available free on the band's website. "We probably won't do the free download thing anymore," he reveals. "We're going to shop the new album to managers and labels.... We're going to go full force and do a big push with it since I'm not held back by my schedule anymore."
Like Love in Spite Of, the upcoming album will be dubbed by Jason "Jocko" Randall from John Brown's Body. Just as the 2009 release showed growth and evolution from Love In Spite Of, Eberhard says the new record will show the band's progression during the past year. "We're excited to be in the studio," he says. "And we feel like we're recording our best album yet. The sound quality has been a lot better."
The stylistic differences between Eberhard's two musical roles couldn't be greater. In Pretty Lights, he backed up the beats Derek Smith created on a laptop and a Monome controller, material that relied heavily on '70s soul textures and hip-hop-inspired breakbeats. Dubskin's brand of reggae, meanwhile, is a musical homage to the roots of dub beat and a nod to contemporary giants of the genre.
For his part, Eberhard says he couldn't be happier with the shift. While he insists that his break with Pretty Lights was amicable, it's hard to miss the enthusiasm when he speaks about his newfound ability to devote full-time attention to Dubskin. "One," he notes, "I wasn't involved as much in the creative process, and two, there's not a lot of room to do much when you're playing with a computer. It can't look at you and change and know what you're doing the way you can when you're playing with five different humans."
In Dubskin, Eberhard lays down a driving, syncopated rhythmic backbone for Skinner's fiery lyrics and passionate intonations. Bassist Dean Curtis floats over Eberhard's rhythmic cues, offering jaunty and bright backup lines, while guitarist Phil Salvaggio's syncopated guitar riffs seem to take cues from reggae roots as well as the influence of contemporary jam bands. Keyboardist Jason Wieseler peppers his punchy major chords with a continuous stream of samples, lending the music a deeper sound and a fuller effect.
Dubskin's notable chops aren't surprising, considering that the act consists of music pros from the Fort Collins scene: Bassist Curtis was the head sound pro at the Aggie Theater, Salvaggio played the same role at Hodi's Half Note, and keyboardist Wieseler was a reggae DJ who played at clubs in the city before joining the band.
"It was kind of all industry/musicians that I just knew from playing in bands in Fort Collins for many years," Eberhard explains. "We just kind of handpicked people because of that."
The crew's experience playing a wide variety of music is evident in the sheer range of sounds they produce. While each bandmember boasts a passion for reggae, the musicians' upbringing in suburban Colorado and, in the case of Warner, Long Island, New York, has driven them to add native textures to their take on the style.
"Musically, seeing that we're not from Jamaica and we're all-American kids, we listen to a lot of different American types of music, a lot of different types of music in general," Eberhard admits. "Our own sound is definitely reggae and rootsy, but it has outside influences of anything from hip-hop to jam-band music. Each different member listens to different things."
Indeed. It's a blend that draws from Eberhard's own experiences in Pretty Lights, as well as Salvaggio's fondness for the extended solos in long-form jam band material. "The guitarist is a big fan of Phish," Eberhard notes, "and you can hear it in when we extend guitar solos live. We extend things longer than we do on the album. As far as drumbeats that are more dance-y than traditional reggae, that would come from me listening to some hip-hop and electronic music."
Even in terms of the band's reggae influences, the players draw from a wide range of influences. Like most American reggae fans, Eberhard took his first cues from Bob Marley — but his canvas of sounds has expanded since, from masters of dub reggae like Burning Spear and Israel Vibrations to contemporary artists like Midnite and Groundation.
"There are the old, traditional guys who were out in the '70s and '80s," he says. "Then there's a new school of people. We listen to all of it."
It's a mix that Eberhard says adds a unique quality to the band's brand of reggae, one he's hoping will appeal to both local fans and international followers of the genre. "We want to keep the Colorado shows fresh, so we're in the studio trying to write more songs. But hopefully, off of this next album, we'll tour Europe and South America.
"Reggae is so big worldwide," he concludes. "It's kind of like soccer: It's big everywhere but here."