interview by RJ Cubarrubia
Arlington, VA’s reggae outfit SOJA (Soldiers Of Jah Army) are one of the busiest bands I know; in the past three years, I’ve seen SOJA three times and had at least two more opportunities. Their constant touring has even taken them to South America and Europe, where they’ve developed quite a following (especially in... Brazil?). SOJA’s 2008 was filled with tour dates, the Stars and Stripes EP, and the announcement of an upcoming album, making it a tough act to follow. Before they played the 2009 Reggae Consciousness festival, February 5th, at King Cat Theater, I met with frontman Jacob Hemphill. Laid-back and friendly, with the sense of irie in his eyes, he talked about the upcoming year (including a new album), the progression of their music and reggae as a whole, and an incident involving them and a plunger. Sort of.
RJ: Last year was a huge year for SOJA, you know, constant touring, the release of Stars and Stripes, you announced a new album, how is this year going to live up to that?
Jacob: This is the year the album actually comes out. We just released a live DVD of us in Hawaii and right before that, we put out a compilation CD with a bunch of other artists that we kind of produced.
So you’ve been ridiculously active already?
Yeah yeah, releasing tons of stuff.
Awesome. One thing I’ve noticed about SOJA is that I’ve seen you in the past two years like three times and that’s more than any other band I’ve seen in the past couple years. How do you keep up that constant touring schedule? Is it any different because you’re a reggae band? Do you treat touring and releasing music and promotions a little differently because you’re a reggae band?
I think we enjoy it a lot because we feel like we’re kind of making a difference. It’s the same reason we got into reggae, that, you know, we feel like it’s a different kind of music because it’s got this whole purpose and you got to kind of live up to it and help to change the things you’re talking about. So we dig that, and that probably keeps us wanting to tour a lot, but also we just love playing music; it’s fun, it’s all I really want to do anyways, so we get to do it out here.
And have a blast doing it.
Yeah. Like I’m excited to play tonight, I’m excited to play tomorrow, the day after...
That’s pretty rad you keep up that motivation with all those tour dates. Any stress? You guys are a reggae band so I imagine you guys are way closer than usual.
We don’t really stress out, man. Everybody just tells jokes all the time. We try not to, you know, when you’re part of a team, you can’t do anything to bring the team down. Like, if one guy is doing something to bring everyone down everybody else down it screws everybody over. So I think everybody just tries to keep it chill, just keep it real chill. That’s how you do it, man. That’s how we do it.
Definitely. To the uninformed, I feel reggae often times is a genre people recognize, hey, you know, Bob Marley, but then just say whatever because they feel like they know it. But they never explore it, and they never see the growth in reggae music. For you guys, I noticed a huge growth from Get Wiser to Stars and Stripes. You added winds, you had way more keyboards, you had a little more vocal melody, what brought about that progression?
I don’t know. For me, personally, exposure to new types of music, listening to old stuff that was an influence before that we forgot about or something, everyone kind of pulled out their old Metallica albums back out, but I think, songwriting-wise, it’s just that things change, man. Everything is completely changing. Like, the new album, I’ve heard it, I’ve heard all the songs on it, and I know what it’s going to be, and it’s funny because I’ll do interviews and I’ll be like, “Dammit!” because we’re talking about something I did like a year ago, you know? And now I’ve already done our new thing and I’m trying to think about to how I felt when we finished Stars and Stripes.
We haven’t even heard the new stuff you’re going to put out and you’re already on new stuff already?!
[laughter] Yeah, but Stars and Stripes was Stars and Stripes, man, and the politics at the time were what they were and the politics now are what they are now.
It’s definitely cool to see that progression. Because I feel reggae is often an over-looked genre, what do you feel about reggae’s progression and reggae’s change?
I think anybody has the opportunity to make something new in reggae music, but I think sometimes, to the average listener, they listen to it and it all sounds the same; guys tend to adopt each other’s styles and say, maybe what’s a reggae catchphrase, like you know, you say it and everybody kind of says the same things. I think it’s easy to group it all together but then again, there’s all these artists that are breaking all new ground with all this new stuff. I think the more that gets promoted, the better off it’s going to be because you know, if I play reggae for my Dad... if I play rock for my Dad, even if he doesn’t like it, he’ll still be like, “Ok, this is this band and this is this band.” But if I play him some dancehall or something, all the stuff sounds exactly the same.
What about roots reggae?
Oh, he knows roots reggae! But I play him stuff these days... But regardless, when I write music, I try to write it for all generations, all walks of life.
You said earlier that reggae is a genre of music that has this special message, which is something that I don’t know if you can say about any other genre. How do you guys approach that message and what do you guys think you do differently?
For us, we’re not into telling people what they should believe, we’re just kind of bringing stuff up that we feel if you bring up, then you’re going to have to come to a conclusion on it yourself, you know? I’ve tried to make it as general as possible and I try to make it not specific to any type of person. That’s what Bob Marley did, man, he made songs for everybody and I think that’s the key to reggae and to getting it back to the level where it was when he was alive. It’s got to be for everybody and he really made it for everybody.
I know you guys are really into unity as an idea but you guys are from D.C. and the Northern Virginia area; do you guys ever feel any pride? I know reggae kind of seems like a grassroots type of movement with a lot of small local community support.
Yeah, D.C. and Virginia has a lot of rock and a lot of hip-hop: Timbaland, Missy [Elliott], Clipse, the Neptunes and we’ve had awesome punk like Bad Brains so there’s definitely pride. But it’s cool for us because nobody there talks about reggae.
So there’s a kind of funny story of how I became a fan of SOJA. I go to the University of Virginia and for years you played an annual philanthropy event for my fraternity. A couple years back there was an incident with Mambo Sauce [SOJA’s 2007 tourmates] with a plunger. Any words on that?
[laughter] I don’t remember the plunger! What happened with the plunger?
Apparently someone from Mambo Sauce got smacked with a plunger? I wasn’t there but I hear someone from SOJA told us that was the last time you’d play for us?
What?! I don’t remember that. I don’t remember any plunger! I remember the event; it was a cool party. I still got the shirt. I had a lot of fun playing that.
Yeah, I can’t imagine you guys of all people worked up about anything. [laughter] Well, thanks for your time, man. I really appreciate it.
For sure, good to meet you. Take it easy.
SOJA wraps up its tour on April 25 in Boston. Their latest release, Stars and Stripes EP, is available now; no release date has been set for the upcoming album. For more information on SOJA, visit their Myspace page.