There’s something in the air at Tuff Gong Studios, and it’s not just what the engineer’s smoking. There are awards everywhere, from a Grammy in the control room to the certificate outside proclaiming Bob Marley’s place in the High Times Cannabis Hall of Fame, but more than all that there’s just something special about standing in the room where deathless songs like ‘Could You Be Loved’, ‘Buffalo Soldier’ and ‘Redemption Song’ were recorded.
Located at 220 Marcus Garvey Drive in Kingston, Marley’s former studio is a cottage industry, home to one of Jamaica’s biggest live recording rooms, a vinyl pressing plant and even a run-down record shop. For the next couple of days, it’s also home to Brighton four-piece The Magic Gang, who’ve been flown out to record here by Converse Rubber Tracks.
The band – guitarists Kris Smith and Jack Kaye, bassist Gus Taylor and drummer Paeris Giles – quickly make themselves at home, but they’re clearly appreciative of the sun-kissed opportunity they’ve been gifted.
“When we first sent our music to Converse Rubber Tracks we said we wanted to record at Tuff Gong because the thought of coming here was just unimaginable,” says Jack. “We didn’t expect to ever be able to come to Jamaica and work in such an amazing place. We chose it as a pipe dream – and then obviously it worked out, which is incredible.”
“It’s the place we would least expect to come as a band,” adds Gus. “I’d love to come back to Jamaica for a holiday, but I can’t imagine that we’d tour here. It’s half-way across the world, and such a different vibe. We could have gone to record in America or Abbey Road but it wouldn’t have been the same.”
Everyone at Tuff Gong seems to have a story to tell, not least Chow, the studio’s main engineer. He first met Bob Marley in London in 1975, and the singer was so impressed by the Malaysian’s technical know-how that he invited him to move to Kingston to help him build a studio, first at his house at 56 Hope Road and then here, at the former site of Federal Studios. Chow has been living here ever since. He kicks back and watches ‘Titanic’ in a side room while The Magic Gang record, but he’s always on hand with a spotlight and a screwdriver to fix any equipment that goes haywire – and to remind the band of what hallowed ground they’re treading.
“He said about the Fender twin amp that Jack was using: ‘I think Bob played through this, it’s been here since then’,” says Paeris. “That’s just amazing. Chow is a living legend.”
The band have barely got their instruments set up when a couple more living legends walk through the door. Converse Rubber Tracks have invited Sly & Robbie, the most famous rhythm section in reggae history, to help produce their session. Given that the pair have previously worked with everyone from Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh to Bob Dylan and Chaka Demus & Pliers, they’re not bad people to have behind the mixing desk. “Don’t worry,” mutters Kris after their superfluous introduction. “We know who you are.”
There’s clearly a few starstruck nerves at first, but before long Robbie is sat behind the mixing desk singing along with the band’s three-part harmonies and Sly is humming their basslines.
“When they first walked in I literally didn’t know what to say,” admits Kris later. “I was thinking: ‘That looks like Sly Dunbar… that is Sly Dunbar… and there’s Robbie.’ I couldn’t really say anything. I was speechless. This has been the most surreal experience of my life.”
Sly & Robbie may have the easy-going air of men who’ve been playing reggae for 40 years but some estimates say they’ve recorded or played on over 200,000 tracks. You don’t build up a library like that without a fierce work ethic beneath the laidback disposition. “They worked us hard,” says Kris. “One of us was flat during a group vocal and Robbie came in and stood next to us while we were singing. He rooted out the culprit.”
“It was terrifying,” laughs Jack “But I’m sure that experience is going to better us.”
Robbie takes a hands-on approach with the band, and knows instinctively how to coax the best performances out of them. At one point, after listening to Kris record a guitar part, he simply instructs him to play it again as if he’s playing a gig. The performance is instantly improved.
“It was just business as usual,” says Kris. “They were cracking on with it in the same way that we were. I get the impression that they were able to tell that we’re sincere and hard-working. Jamaica’s a very musical country, and everyone’s very passionate about it. I think that if you come across in your truest way that’s always well received, regardless of where you come from or what you’re doing.”
While the two tracks that The Magic Gang record here – ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Wanna Get To Know Ya’ – are intricate indie pop songs, a long way from reggae, there’s a musical affinity that Sly & Robbie pick up on. Sly tells Gus that his bassline reminds him of a Motown tune, and asks him why the band chose Tuff Gong. “I think you made the right choice anyway,” he laughs. This studio holds a lot of memories for him too – it was in this room that he first recorded as a drummer, back when it was called Federal Studios. “When I was 14, this is where I made my first recording on The Upsetters’ ‘Night Doctor’,” he says. “It’s a special place to cut a record.”
“I love the way Sly and Robbie work,” Gus says later. “They pick up on things that we wouldn’t necessarily pick up on. They’re not meticulous in the sense of musical perfection, but they’re meticulous in terms of the vibe of the song, and the performance. Rather than making a sonically perfect piece of music, it’s totally about the feel of the song. The songs we’ve recorded with them do sound like they were recorded at Tuff Gong. You can just hear it within the drums. On ‘Wanna Get To Know Ya’ we used proper room mics and it just sounds like that room.”
Outside of the studio, the band soak up the Jamaican atmosphere. Kris roots out classic reggae seven inches at Rockers International, one of the few record shops still standing on the famed Orange Street, and Paeris goes to check out the Weddy Weddy Wednesday party at Stone Love, one of the original Jamaican soundsystems that’s been running since 1972. The resident MC calls it the “University of dancehall, an institute of higher learning.” The same could go for the whole island. No matter which back street you turn in Kingston there always seems to be music coming from somewhere, as if you’ve been cast in a remake of ‘The Harder They Come’ and all the music is diegetic. As a country it has resisted the cultural homogenisation that’s spread across so much of the globe: Jamaica remains unmistakeably Jamaican.
“I was expecting it to be much more Westernised, more into celebrity culture and materialism,” says Gus as the band prepare to fly back to Britain with their freshly cut recordings in tow. “It’s still totally how you imagine it was 20 years ago. Everyone’s still doing their thing, and no-one’s compromised their way of doing things.”
“I’ve never met so many characters in so little time,” adds Jack. “The thing I found most overwhelming was how welcoming everyone was. We’re this new band that no-one had obviously seen or heard of before, just coming in and working in their space, but they made us feel totally welcome.”
Better than any souvenir they could bring home from their time in Jamaica is the knowledge that they’ve got two fresh tunes, indelibly stamped with that Tuff Gong air, and that they’ve made a couple of new fans in high places in Sly & Robbie. Back in the control room, Robbie cracked a wide grin at the idea of giving them any advice. “They’ve just got to keep doing what they’re doing and do everything with attitude,” he said. “They’re on the right track. They’re making magic music.”