MIDNIGHT RAVER interviews Yoni Gal, director of Dreadtown: The Story of Steel Pulse
The long-awaited documentary film about legendary reggae act Steel Pulse may see a 2016 release says director Yoni Gal, who together with Oscar® nominated producer Mike Lerner, has spent the past several years of his life unearthing hours of unseen archive material from friends, family and fans of the popular UK reggae act. The film, titled ‘Dreadtown,’ is a feature documentary that tells the story of the Birmingham bomb squad, who emerged from the racial turbulence of 1970s Britain to become one of the world’s most loved and timeless reggae bands. The film is narrated by acclaimed Hollywood actor and social activist Danny Glover and features interviews with the likes of Rita Marley, Matt Groening (creator, The Simpsons),Lennox Lewis (World Heavyweight Boxing Champion), Snoop Lion, Alpha Blondy (United Nations Ambassador of Peace), Burning Spear, UB40, John Lydon (Sex Pistols), Chad Smith(Red Hot Chili Peppers), Damian Marley, Ziggy Marley, Chris Blackwell (founder, Island Records), Linton Kwesi Johnson, C. Thomas Howell (actor), Aswad, Billy Idol, The Specials,Michael Franti, Jason Mraz, Gwen Stefani and many more.
MIDNIGHT RAVER has been instrumental in helping unearth archival material for the film. We recently sat down with Yoni Gal to discuss the film.
MR: So this documentary film about Steel Pulse has been in production for some years now. Talk about how the project originally came together.
YG: “Yeah, you could say it’s been going on for quite some time! It all started when we made a music video with the band called ‘Door of No Return’. That was back in 2007. We didn’t have a huge budget at all but we were fairly ambitious with it anyway… We shot half of the video in Senegal – at the actual house on Gorée Island where they used to hold slaves. It was a real collaboration between the band and us, and I think everyone really enjoyed the process. That’s when I realized no one had yet put the band’s story down in some sort of definitive way, and it just seemed like a massive opportunity to tell a really powerful story.”
MR: When were you first exposed to Steel Pulse? Talk about being a fan of Steel Pulse, what their music has meant to you.
YG: “Wow, I was probably about five or six years old! My older brothers used to have the “Smash Hits” album all through my childhood and they played it a lot. I fell in love with songs like ‘Not King James Version’ and ‘Rollerskates’. So I was really young. Reggae music, and especially their music, has always meant a lot to me. I always gravitated towards music that contained information. I loved the fact that their songs were always mentioning specific people and places – I would always get intrigued about who these people might be, and where these places might be. This was during the early 90’s so information wasn’t as easy to find as it is today.”
MR: Your company, Driftwood Pictures, what other productions have you guys worked on?
YG: “We created Driftwood Pictures as a place for us to work on the projects that had that sort of roots or social, cultural angle to them. That’s really where my passion is, and we emerged really by working mainly on reggae music videos in the Caribbean. We worked with a bunch of really great artists and now, for the last few years, we’ve just been focusing on trying to get this film ready, so the future’s quite open right now.”
MR: With 50 years of archival material, I imagine this documentary has been a huge lift for you guys. How do you even get started? What was the first thing you did after the agreement was made to move forward with the film?
YG: “Yeah, it’s been quite a challenge! Apart from the fact that we’ve been doing this independently, without any label support, it’s the sheer size and scale of the story that has been one of the reasons that it’s taken so long to get together. This film evolved, initially, in quite an unconventional way, and so it’s hard to pinpoint those moments. But the first thing I remember doing was just trying to get to grips with the ins and outs of the band’s entire history – all the events, characters and people that have come and gone from this story – it took quite a while to fully get my head around the magnitude of the band’s existence and the events of the last 40 years. Once I’d done enough research, we went and did extended interviews with David and Selwyn, to try and get a basic mapping of the story and to see where the most interesting aspects were. From there, it evolved and grew, as we started to discover the real underlying themes to what their music has always really been about. “
MR: The fact that this band tours more than any other act in reggae must make it all the more difficult to piece everything together as I’m sure you need to consult with the band on just about every aspect of the production.
YG: “Yes,definitely. What’s really impressive with Steel Pulse, aside from the fact that they started 40 years ago, is that they’ve never taken a break. Absolutely no hiatus at any time, it’s been solid, from the word go, this band has relentlessly brought their music and message to millions, day after day, year after year. It would have been impossible to get to grips with this, if it hadn’t been for the co-operation and support of the band. Especially David Hinds, who seems to have a razor-sharp memory. Honestly, you can ask him about something he did 25 years ago, and he’ll tell you the day, the time, the name of the hotel he was at, and what color his jumper was when he did it. It’s really, seriously impressive! He’s so astute and thanks to his amazing memory, we’ve been able to track down so many people from their past and re-link with them – we’ve been able to include people in this film who lost touch with the band as far back as the 70’s, but David remembered their names, and I was able to go find them and now there they are, in the film recollecting amazing stories and memories about the band.”
MR: When I spoke with David last year about the film he was very excited about the direction you guys were taking. He was frustrated though about the fact that it has been difficult to get people involved and to get access to some of the archives. For example, he talked about Stevie Wonder and how close they were at one point and now it seems you can’t get access to him?
YG: “Yeah, it’s been really, really tough. So much of the archive was totally lost or forgotten, and it’s been a slow, but rewarding process to find most of it, sometimes piece-by-piece, photo by photo etc. But some of the stuff we’ve found is just priceless and we’re really looking forward to being able to share it with everyone. We’ll keep the search open right until the last minute though, so if you know of any Pulse archives from the last 40 years that we might not have yet, please get in touch! We’ll be really happy to hear from you. And yes, some people have also been very hard to lock down. Stevie Wonder jammed on-stage with Steel Pulse back in the day, and he featured on one of their albums in the ‘90’s. So it would have been great to get his comments and spin on that experience, but so far no luck. We’ll keep trying. But we’ve done pretty well! There’s a lot of really great, fascinating people and celebrities that will feature in this film. Steel Pulse has some of the most unlikely fans and the film will definitely demonstrate how far-reaching their appeal has been.”
MR: I think that people tend to take Steel Pulse for granted almost as if they are immortal…as if they will always be around, touring and putting out a studio album every ten years in perpetuity. I have to imagine that at some point this ride is going to end…or at least transform. I see that David has stepped back from the mic on a bunch of recent dates. Is he transitioning his son to take the helm?
YG: “I think that’s a question for David. All I can say is, from having spent so much of my time with him in the last eight years or so, is that he’s one of the hardest working, most dedicated people I’ve ever met. So I don’t think he’ll be stopping anytime soon. I know he still has plenty of relevant things to say and share with the world, and I’m sure he’ll keep doing that as long as he’s physically able. He puts every ounce of energy and heart into his performances, so I’m sure that must be exhausting, but he’s on a mission to chant down Babylon through music, and I can’t imagine anything stopping him anytime soon! “
MR: I don’t think David gets the credit he deserves as a songwriter and lyricist. I don’t know if there is any other living reggae artist who is quite as talented as David. To me he is one of the most influential civil rights leaders of our time…a guy whose message has reached hundreds of millions all over the world. What are your thoughts on this?
YG: “It’s my hope that the film really gets that idea across to audiences. His motivations and intentions behind his music are so real and powerful. And I’ve been truly stunned to interview so many people who can attest to what you’ve said – people who’s lives have been truly changed and affected by David’s words. He’s been really influential in a lot of ways, to a lot of people – the social justice he stands for has given strength to countless people, and on a musical basis, his songs have inspired so many bands, singers, even musical movements.”
MR: There have been so many landmark moments for this band. How do you get it all in one film without it being a 6-hour ordeal?
YG: “It’s certainly a challenge, and we’re in the process of editing still, but we’ve found the right balance. We’ve got an amazingly gifted editor, Rory Gordon, who’s been able to find the real thread of the story and I promise it won’t be 6 hours long!”
MR: Why do you think it is important to make this film about this band?
YG: “I think their story is so hugely relevant to the world we live in today. There’s so much that we, the new generation, can learn from their story and it can give us some information and power to keep changing things today. The things that the previous generation achieved on our behalf are quite incredible when you really start to look at it. All the fights and suffering they went through to give us a slightly more tolerant and accepting world today. But if you look at the news today, it’s quite scary but we’re starting to fall back into the attitudes that the likes of Steel Pulse were fighting against back in the day. The previous generation had so much conscious music and art, and it’s up to us now to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Their story taught me about how important our role is, right here, right now. And I know it’s going to connect with a lot of other people too.”
MR: David is a perfectionist. Anyone who has witnessed a Steel Pulse sound check can attest to how particular he is about every single element of the live performance. He says he learned this discipline touring with Marley in 1978. What is he like to work with on the film?
YG: “He certainly is a perfectionist… I really like how hands-on he gets with all aspects of what the band might be involved in. I saw it back in 2007 when we were shooting ‘Door of No Return’. He didn’t just turn up for his shoots and then disappear – he stuck around and really enjoyed seeing it all coming together. He was right there in the slave house with us, working out the all the props, talking to the actors, etc. I really dug that team spirit he showed, and his presence is always very motivating. His mind never stops working, and he barely ever sleeps – so you’ve got to try and keep up with him! I don’t know where he finds the strength and resolve to do all that he does everyday, but he’s quite an inspiration! He’s also a huge film fan, which has been cool to discover. We’ve spent hours talking about everything from The Getaway to Carlito’s Way to Malcolm X to Reservoir Dogs. It’s a good sign that we love the same sort of films.”
MR: What is your favorite Steel Pulse album? Song?
YG: “Haha, that’s a hard question, Mike! What’s your favorite? I guess it depends on the mood. Sometimes I love to listen to all the intricacies and incredible sounds and details on the ‘Tribute to the Martys’ album – it’s like a reggae concept album. I think it’s really one of the greatest albums of all time. But then, there’s those days where nothing beats putting on ‘True Democracy’ really loud and listening to those opening bars of the album in the song ‘Chant A Psalm’ and just enjoying some of the grooviest, most awesome reggae ever that was ever recorded. But there’s so many I’m missing. I love ‘Nyahbinghi Voyage’, ‘African Holocaust’ – there’s so many.”
MR: I’ve always wanted to ask David about dub. Steel Pulse never put out a dub album. They released several versions on vinyl and on album re-issues, but never a proper dub set. An album of Steel Pulse versions would absolutely kill! Why haven’t they done it?
YG: “I guess that’s a better question to ask David. When I asked him about it, he said he’s often been tempted to put out a dub album, but he wants it to be perfect – and so far, I don’t think he’s been fully satisfied with any of the attempts so far. But keep pushing him What I can tell you is that for a very limited time, on our crowdfunding site, you’ll be able to pick up a special Dreadtown USB key, packed with very rare Steel Pulse recordings and dubs spanning 40 years, 1975-2015! Check it out at our campaign at http://bit.ly/dreadtown”
MR: In my opinion, Steel Pulse is the best live reggae act in the world…Probably the best since Bob Marley. How do you capture that energy and communicate the intensity of their live shows on film?
YG: “Well, first of all, we’ve been lucky to discover so many performances and shows from throughout the last 40 years, starting with one of their very first performances back in 1975, as well as rehearsal tapes from when the band practiced in David’s father’s basement in Handsworth, right through to the rise in the punk years in 70’s London, on to the early 80’s in the States and right through to the stadium shows of the late 80’s and 90’s. It really paints such an incredible picture of this band growing up, evolving, becoming stronger, and understanding themselves and their message in new and creative ways all along the way. And we’ve been on the road with them in United States, the UK, the Caribbean, and last year we shot their homecoming gig in Handsworth Park, and seeing them back there, full circle, was an amazing symbol of how far the band have come. And I think we’ve captured some really unique footage of the band, which is quite unlike any other live reggae footage I’ve seen in recent times.”
MR: They’ve also been working on a new album for several years. Their last release was in 2005? What can you tell us about the album?
YG: “I’m sworn to secrecy on this one. All I can say is, it’s coming. I’m sure it’s gonna be worth the wait.”
MR: When are you hoping to have the film wrapped?
YG: “It’s been an uphill battle getting all the pieces together, and now we need to cover all the licensing costs, and various rights that we’ll need, to release the film itself. We didn’t want to cut any corners and it’s so important to tell the story in its entirety, so we’re really adamant to keep the very best recordings and footage we’ve discovered along the way. That’s why we’re now running a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. We’re reaching out to all the fans to help us cross the finish line and get the funds together to deliver this movie to the world. We are aiming for a global release, and fans are going to find some very cool perks and unique one-off experiences on the site. Check it out and please support us.”
MR: Thanks for taking the time to talk with MR…
YG: “Thanks for all your support, Mike. You’ve got an awesome website and thanks so much for taking an interest in our film. Remember to stay tuned to the Dreadtown Facebook, Twitter,Instagram etc, for updates on the status of the film.”