Interview by: A.K. Benninghofen
Original Article posted @ ashevillestages.com
Aston Barrett Jr. is reggae royalty. The son of legendary Bob Marley and the Wailers bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, nephew of drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett, and grandson of Joe Higgs (often referred to as the Father of Reggae), Aston Jr. is a multi-talented musician and now an exceptional bandleader as well, whose efforts resulted in The Wailers’ One World earning a 2021 Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album.
In anticipation of The Wailers’ show at The Orange Peel on Wednesday, May 25, Asheville Stages spoke with Aston Jr. about the band’s legacy, his thirst for knowledge, and a calling to spread the message of peace and love through music.
A: Congratulations to you and the band on One World! It doesn’t seem you were slowed down much by the pandemic.
Aston Barrett Jr.: The first few weeks were kinda rough. I had the band members calling and I didn’t have an answer for them. Everything is harder when you don’t have an answer for your band members. But we were all in the same boat. We never stopped speaking with promoters and stuff. One World was created before the pandemic. We just kept postponing, and postponing some more, until things opened back up — which took 18 months!
But there were pros and cons to it. I got to spend more time with my daughter, got to see her growing. She’s eight. And I got to spend more time with my father, the legend. It was a chance for me to see life a little bit different, because the last time I was home for that long, I was in high school.
AKB: You started touring then?
ABJ: Yeah, mon. My father came to my high school graduation and two days later — boom! I’m on a plane. I did college online, touring with my father. Berklee School of Music.
AKB: Some people in your position would’ve skipped college.
ABJ: Yeah, but the music industry — I wanted to know, instead of always asking. I have lawyers but I want to be an educated client. They work for you and they’re also there to guide you and give you options. But if you don’t know anything, then eventually it seems like you’re working for them. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m always lost. I wanted to ask valid questions and get valid responses, so I did Music Entrepreneur, how to create my own business. I learned a lot in that class.
Funniest thing about it — the last course was about Island Records and Chris Blackwell, and you already know how that went. [laughs] Passed that class with an A+! [laughs] We did the Zoom with the teacher and all the students, and I was telling them about my father, working with Island Records and Bob Marley, and they’re like, “Why didn’t you tell us?!”
AKB: They didn’t know who you were before then?
ABJ: They didn’t know. I mean, some people probably figured it out, but they weren’t sure. Since it was the final exam, I was like, “Yep!” If it wasn’t about Island Records, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. I didn’t finish because my daughter was born. She’s eight, gonna be nine now, so I want to go back. But now I’m running the band, so it’s a little difficult.
AKB: Was there ever a time that you considered anything other than being a Wailer, or being a musician even? You were so young when you started.
ABJ: There are other musicians in the family, but I’m the one that took on my father’s work. Ever since I was young, I always knew this was who I was, so I didn’t have a bunch of other stuff in my head. The only thing was I wanted to have an education in the music business so I didn’t make the same mistakes that a lot of them made — mistakes my father made, even though he made the “Album of the Century” [Exodus, according to Time in 1999.] Those songs are still helping people now. I want to do that.
AKB: You said One World was already created before COVID, which surprised me, because it sounded like a response to the pandemic. It felt like something we really needed at that time when it came out [in August 2020].
ABJ: That’s the power of Wailers music: We can see the future before it happens. Bob Marley and The Wailers songs, they all have meaning. I live by “Wake Up and Live.” Some might live by “One Love.” Some might live by “Three Little Birds.” The song that I choose, the first verse says, “Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you ridin’ through the ruts, don’t you complicate your mind.” If you complicate your mind, you’ll miss the signs, so I just don’t complicate my mind, like Bob Marley said. And it’s been working for me. [laughs]
AKB: Do you have any kinds of rituals or practices you use to stay in that “uncomplicated” zone?
ABJ: Yeah, yeah, mon. I run on a treadmill, then I do meditation. I haven’t done yoga in a long time, but I’m definitely a firm believer in yoga. Yoga helped me a lot. It’s funny. I used to do this workout called Insanity back in the day. I thought it was the hardest workout until I did yoga. Yoga is much harder. Staying in one position for so long — I thought it would drive me crazy, but the after-effect is really good. You let go of a lot of stuck energies, stuck emotions. We all become enlightened in different ways.
But you have to understand: I believe in God, I have my Bible, I read my Bible. Sometimes I get signs and I know that something is happening. Then I look at the news and see that I was right. Like that shooting that just happened in Buffalo. We were just in Buffalo, and we went into that same store to buy a birthday cake for one of our background singers. Wailers — it always happens. You know when they had that bombing in England years ago? We were three blocks away from it. You see, Wailers always go into danger zones, but we’re always protected by the Most High because the music that we play is so powerful.
My father and Bob were almost assassinated in 1976. One of the parties played their music without their permission, and then the people in the other party were like, “Boom!” The whole world is yin and yang, always two sides to a story — or many sides to a story. We’re doing what we do to spread more love so things like that don’t happen. We’re doing our part, you know? If you believe in the Bible, you know it’s about how many people did you help? How many people did you help physically and spiritually? Say somebody comes to a show thinking about committing suicide — and we save them with the music.
AKB: How do Christianity and Rastafari overlap for you?
ABJ: Nobody there judges. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not judge.” But most of these religions are still judging people. Don’t use the Bible to justify yourself. Rasta was never forced on me for my dad, and Christianity was never forced on me from my mom. So we were able to choose for ourselves. And I like the Rasta way of living. When you force things on people, when you say, “You’re going to go to hell,” you’re actually doing more harm than bringing people to God.
Many are called and few are chosen. Bob Marley had that thing that made people want to listen to him. Someone else could say the exact same words but it wouldn’t be the same. When Bob speaks, you want to listen. Even when he was making jokes, you wanted to listen because he had that vibe, that energy. The people who push things down on you, they’re the ones who are actually struggling. Peace, love and unity. Get closer to the Almighty. Wailers music brings you closer to the Almighty.
AKB: Let’s talk about that. You play so many different instruments.
ABJ: Bass guitar was my first and my real instrument. But the reason I learned all of these instruments is because I knew I had to preserve The Wailers sound. I had to learn them all in order to understand the frequency, and so I could teach it. A lot of people in this band, most of them here, are either students or bloodline of Wailers. It’s a sound that’s passed down.
There are other bands out there called The Wailers. “The Legendary Wailers” and “The Original Wailers.” Some are people who used to work with Bob and work with my dad, but they’re just using the name. If my dad was like most people, he would have sued them and he would have won. But he’s not like that, he’s too humble. He’s like, “It’s not right, but maybe they need the money to feed their family, so I’m going to just leave them alone.”
People who saw Bob come to our shows and say it’s still the same Wailers sound, with a little different flavor. You can hear it. That’s just to show you how dominant my father and Carlton Barrett were to the Wailers. And they’re brothers, so that makes it even more dominant. Blood.
So, I was playing drums for my uncle because my father was the bass player, until he retired. Then his student Owen [“Dreadie”] Reid came in and played bass. I still played drums because I couldn’t find a drummer that was close enough or could get a visa at the time. We had to get that sound, and my uncle’s sound was missing for years after he passed. The drum and the bass is reggae. If the drum and the bass aren’t right, then any other instruments won’t be right. It’s in my DNA.
AKB: You’ve been singing on a few tracks lately. Are you going to be singing some more for us?
ABJ: Yeah, mon. I’m singing “Destiny.” Originally, I did it with Emily Estefan — Gloria and Emilio’s daughter. She’s one of my best friends. I’m close with the whole family. Emilio is producing the next album. On the album I sing three songs: “Destiny,” “What a Shame,” and “Good Times.”
“What a Shame” — that’s a funny story. None of the singers wanted to sing it. It talks about something that probably made them a little uncomfortable. “What a shame, what a shame. So little time, so many woman.” It’s kind of true, though. I sang it because I don’t have a lot of women, so it was fine for me to sing it. But basically, the song just reminds me of my dad. You know, my father has a lot of children, but he’s a family man and he takes care of his kids. He’s a very, very nice person. A very humble person. First time I toured with my dad, I saw him walking in his short pants and his slippers to greet fans. He showed me, and my mom showed me, too, how to respect women, how to respect yourself.
AKB: So he really is “Family Man.”
ABJ: Yeah, it’s crazy. My father always told me, “Listen, Aston, this is the power of Wailers music. You’re chosen from when you were born. I knew you were chosen. You do what you have to do.” He said, “Have an open mind and listen to Emilio. Because Bob and myself, we wanted Quincy Jones, but we couldn’t get Quincy Jones to produce for us, and now you have someone who is a Quincy Jones. Everyone will have an opinion, but I’m your father. This is what I tell you to do and the Bible says you must obey your father.”
AKB: That must have been a little scary — a lot to live up to. Were you ever afraid that you couldn’t do it?
ABJ: Musically, no. I was not afraid, musically. I was more afraid about dealing with some of the people. With some of the original members, it was very difficult. I look up to them and call them “uncle,” but then I’m running the band. They all have their opinions, and their opinions weren’t bad, but it wasn’t relevant to what I’ve learned about the music business. Their view of the music business was old school. It got to the point where I was like, “I love you guys, but you’re either here or you’re not. Because my father was the one who was keeping this thing going when Bob passed and a lot of you guys left.” And when I took it over, I brought most all of them back. It was rough because, you know, everyone is a star.
AKB: And you’re just a kid.
ABJ: Yeah! And now they’re looking at me and they can’t believe that I’m running it this good. That’s because I have a good team. Good management, good lawyers, good people — you need them all. You need all of these things to run the business the proper way so that you can spread the music the right way. You don’t want to be ignorant. Bob Marley had his business together. That’s why his music could reach the people. His team who were working with him also believed he needed to reach the people. They believed in his music and believed in what he was doing.
Now, I don’t have any original members. When we go to Europe, I get Tyrone Downie, the original keyboard player who made all those nice melodies. I think he’s going to start touring with us in the U.S. now. Sometimes we get [guitarist] Donald Kensey; he comes in and out with us. But he and my dad are tired. I want to get my dad back out on the road soon. He doesn’t want to play, but he wants to just be on the road, get some of that vibe. He definitely misses it.
AKB: When should we expect the new album?
ABJ: This is a 20-week tour. [laughs] We’ve started, and we’ve got some new songs. Every song that we write is about something that we went through, so we’re not just writing songs just to write songs. We have a standard to live up to. That’s why you can feel it. “One World, One Prayer.” That’s about everyone in the world, every race, every religion. As long as your religion is about positivity [laughs] and coming together. This music is so important.
AKB: Sounds like it’s your calling. I like that you talk about it that way.
ABJ: Really and truly, when my father was going to retire, I didn’t want to do it. Because it’s too much work. I said, “I’m a musician. I can play with anyone.” You know, I used to play with Lauryn Hill, and I played with Julian Marley. But then I realized I wasn’t built for working for other people. I’m built for running things. Some people are leaders. Chosen. When I work for other people, I just do my work and I don’t complain. My father always told me, “Never mess with your food.” Complainers going to complain. Stay focused. Always good to listen to the elders, mon. I was one of those kids that loved to be around elders because I learned so much. And I love knowledge.
AKB: You had a lot of people to soak it up from.
ABJ: Yeah, mon. Yeah, mon.