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10 Ft. Ganja Plant set to headline Ithaca Reggae Fest

10 Ft. Ganja Plant
Kyra Jean Photography
10 Ft. Ganja Plant

The fourth Ithaca Reggae Fest will take place at Stewart Park this weekend, bringing several local, regional, and Brooklyn-based bands to the southern shore of Cayuga Lake.

Headlining Saturday’s lineup is 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, the rarely seen reggae-dub band that will be making its Ithaca debut. Formed more than 20 years ago by then-members of John Brown’s Body, the group has put out nearly a dozen albums, yet has only played a handful of live shows during its career.

Co-founding member Nate Silas Richardson, a veteran of various musical projects – John Brown’s Body, Sim Redmond Band, Samite, to name a few – recently sat down to talk about the somewhat mysterious history of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, its songwriting process, and how much the group is looking forward to its Ithaca Reggae Fest closing set, which will be mixed by the legendary Jamaican producer Scientist.

Q: How many gigs have you played over the years?

Nate Silas Richardson: We've played a handful of really great gigs over 20 years. When we first got started, we probably played like three or four gigs in New York City and Boston. Basically, just those two markets, we would play, like, once every couple of years, for the first few years, and it was kind of just novelty, random things that came up” opening slots for friends’ bands and random stuff like that. And I don't have my dates straight at all, so just take it all with a grain of salt.

I think it was sometime around 2012 that we decided to try to book a show. I forget even what the inspiration was, but we booked the Middle East downstairs in Boston and sold it out really quickly. It was super epic, it was jam-packed, and the excitement was extreme. Because, you know, at that point, we had made eight or so records and people just love the music. I think the music we play really translates to people. We are doing it because we love it. And we're doing it for the enjoyment and the joy of the music.

Q: But you’ve never played in Ithaca before?

NSR: No. Like I said, we've only played like a couple of festivals randomly around the East Coast. We've never played out west. We played New York City a handful of times, and Boston more than any place. We played in Boston on New Year’s Eve 2017 to a full house at the House of Blues with JBB, right before they went on hiatus, and Stick Figure, and that was our best show to date, in my opinion. It was super short, 45-50 minutes long, and it was just super high energy.

Besides that, there’s been a couple of little clubs in Western Massachusetts and Burlington, Vermont. This is a very still a very young band when it comes to stage experience – as a live band, it’s still pretty raw, actually.

Q: What was the origin of the band?

NSR: There’s a concept behind 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, which is trading competence for possibility. We didn't know this is what we were doing. And I didn't even know it until Dr. Bill (Thomas, the Ithaca-based geriatrician and author with whom Richardson has frequently worked) noticed when I was telling him about it.

I told him the story of how we started and he said, ‘Well, did you know this is what you were doing?’ And I said no. But the idea was that we were swapping instruments. So Chris (Welter), who was our trumpet player in John Brown’s Body, played keyboards. Craig (Welsch), who was our sound guy, played drums, and Kevin (Kinsella), who was the lead singer and rhythm guitar player, played bass. I was the keyboard player of the band, so for 10 Ft. I swapped over to lead guitar.

And the interesting thing was that I'm much more of a guitar player than a keyboard player. So while Craig was learning how to play the drums, Kevin was kind of floundering on the bass, and Chris was looking for the chords on the keyboard – you can hear on the early 10 Ft. recordings; it’s like he knows what he wants to play, but you can hear him like adjusting to get there – that was all very rough. But my guitar playing was pretty polished. And I think in some ways I carried it and kind of I sold it.

Actually, I was telling Craig our drummer about how I wanted to modify the beginning of one of my songs, and I played him a recording of a Burning Spear record and as a reference. And when I heard it, I was reminded that how rough that stuff is, how out of tune the guitars are. I think that's part of also what the aesthetic of 10 Ft. is. There's a rawness to it, a lack of polish, and a kind of childlike joy. You know, there's like a Zen mind, a beginner's mind thing going on with it.

Q: How did 10 Ft. Ganja Plant and John Brown’s Body complement each other at the time?

NSR: We all lived in Boston, and we were touring a lot, but we would have a week off or even just a few days off. Craig was interested in getting some new recordings going and trying some techniques. And he was interested in playing the drums. And he just said, ‘Let's make some music.’ And we all just wanted to make music. And, like I said, we were doing it for the fun of it, for the joy of it. There was no like, ‘Let's make an album.’ It was just, ‘Let's have some fun.’

And the music we were all so driven by inspired by was that old rootsy Jamaican stuff. There’s something about music and especially for me that kind of music that makes you want to try to do it. You hear Eddie Van Halen doing finger tapping. You're like, ‘how does that work? Let me try it.” It was the same with the reggae and the Jamaican music. I heard the dub effects, or I heard a certain kind of guitar style or feeling, and I wanted to try to recreate it myself and put my own spin on it.

So it started off with just whoever was available, both around from the band and not from the band. We had a whole bunch of guys that were just kicking around that happen to be in the place.

There's even one song on the first record called ‘Why can't they tell us the good news?’ – when we were recording it, about halfway through you hear the keyboards drop out. And then the keyboards come back in. And it's played by a different person, a guy who just walked up the stairs and knocked on the door while we were in the middle of our take – he just walked in, sat down, and started jamming. So yeah, it wasn't an explicitly like John Brown's Body side project. But that was our crew.

10 Ft. Ganja Plant
Kyra Jean Photography
10 Ft. Ganja Plant

Q: So who came up with the band name?

NSR: It was probably Kevin, or maybe Chris or Craig, but it wasn’t me. I don't think I would have been smart enough to come up with that name. Someone once commented, ‘That's the dumbest band name ever.’ But I think it's a great band name – it does the things that a good band name should do, which is to give you a sense of what the music might sound like, and also be kind of a conversation starter.

Q: What’s the band’s creative process like?

NSR: The writing is all pretty spontaneous. Occasionally somebody will bring in an idea that they've been working on, but for the most part, we arrive on Saturday morning at the studio. Craig has it pretty well set up. And we spend the day seeing who's got an idea, and a lot of the times, we'll go around the circle – ‘Okay, now it's Nate's turn’ – and I'll present an idea. So a lot of the time, it's just fully spontaneous.

The forms are usually very simple – an A B, A, B, A B kind of thing, or just A, B, A. And we'll call the bridge – a lot of time, especially on the early recordings, you can hear Kevin yell ‘fire!’ and that means go to the bridge, and you can hear it bleeding into the drum mics. So yeah, a lot of it is pretty spontaneous. And usually, we record all the tracks on Saturday. And then on Sunday, we'll do horns, vocals, rough mixes, and then occasionally, there's overdubs. But for the most part, that's all on Sunday. And then a couple days later, Craig will start mixing it. If we were paying full price for a studio, it would be expensive, but Craig runs a studio in Boston and I run one here in Ithaca. So we just fit it in when we can, and it's very low budget.

Q: What comes first, the music or the lyrics?

NSR: Usually we write the lyrics to whatever rhythm comes up. This music isn't complex, and a lot of it is based on a vocabulary of chord progressions, like it's A minor to D minor. A lot of the time, if I write a song, somebody else might write a rhythm. And then I might notice, ‘Oh, this song goes over that.’ So they work together, like my chocolate and your peanut butter. And sometimes that's how things come together.

Q: Scientist is going to mix your set at Ithaca Reggae Fest. How did that come about?

NSR: Our normal first-call sound engineer, Josh Driscoll, got called for another big tour, and couldn’t get away for this one date in Ithaca. We thought about a couple of other people, but somewhere along the line, somebody got the idea to call Scientist. So we called him and he said yes; it came together extremely fast.

Q: Will you rehearse with him?

NSR: Traditionally, we have one rehearsal the night before every gig. He's flying in that night, and maybe he’ll come. But we’ve communicated with him extensively on what he needs in terms of the setup and everything. And he's told us to be prepared for a ‘rigorous soundcheck.’

He’s very much his own person. He's really smart, and he's really like a scientist in doing things his own way. We’ll probably have guitar amps, but he's not mic’ing the amps, which is unheard of. Like, I've never thought that a sound guy would ever say, ‘Just let me take a DI on your electric guitar. That's the sound I want.’ It's insane. But he wants the full range of electric guitars. What the guitar amp does is it takes away all those harsh highs and tames the lows and boosts all the mids. But he wants the full range. And the same with the keyboards, too.

He’s not going to mix the show like a dub record, which involves tons of pulling faders, muting, boosting, and extreme effects. I mean, he's gonna wet it up, and he's going to dub it, but it's not going to be a dub show. He's going to mix it like a band playing a live set.

Q: Will you playing stuff from throughout your career?

NSR: Yeah, it's a pretty good representation of our whole catalog, I think, something for everyone. The earlier records that we made were much rougher and raw and very unpolished sounding. And I think we've gotten a little bit more refined in the studio over the years.

But we've also made focused effects, like when we decided to make a rock steady record. Occasionally we do strictly instrumental records. We have three volumes called ‘10 Deadly Shots.’ The first one focused around the saxophone, the second around the keyboard – we got Roger Rivas from Aggrolites to guest on that – and the third around the guitar.

Q: You’ve released 11 albums so far. Any plans for more?

NSR: We have a couple ready to release, but it's questionable how to do it. The business model of music is so off-kilter right now. Like, do we put it out on TikTok? Like, what do you do with the music now?

Q: What's your favorite part about playing in 10 Ft. Ganja Plant?

NSR: Just the hilarity. We have a lot of fun. We have a family vibe. When we get together, it's so great to see the guys. We don't live near each other – we're coming from all over the place – so when we do come together, it's like family reunion time. That's the feeling and everyone just chills out and has fun. And we have a lot of laughs. That's my favorite part.

Read more about the Ithaca Reggae Fest here!

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, and its affiliates.