In November last year Pama International achieved the honour of supporting the reformed Specials and garnered a new following with their upbeat brand of reggae pop. They are returning to these shores for Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast at the end of April so State recently caught up with the main man and driving force behind the band; the amiable Sean Flowerdew. Ambitious to say the least, his aim is to ‘leave a legacy of a hundred albums’…..
In terms of ska music, you have quite a history don’t you?
I started back when I was a kid really, started at school, playing with just mates. Then we did a ska band called The Loafers back in the sort of mid-80s and released our first records in 88/89. I started working with John Bradbury, who was the drummer with The Specials, who produced The Loafers second album. From that myself and The Loafers singer, Finny, led on to do Special Beat in the -90s with members from the Specials and members from the Beat. That kind of trailed out in early -92. And from then I just really started recording my own music.
You were approached by Trojan Records, the first artist in 30 years to be signed to the label.
Yeah, apparently so. 30 years was the number I was quoted. But you know, hard to keep up with those things, really. There have been quite a few owners of Trojan. But certainly we were the first new band in a long, long time.
A great honour….
Yeah, you know, I was honoured to be on Trojan and to record with some of their biggest artists. But a gentleman called John Reed came’”and asked what Pama were doing and he’d known us for a few years and was looking at pushing the Trojan back catalogue really into newer areas. The original idea was for us to compile our own Trojan selection, which they were doing a lot of at the time with people like Andy Smith from Portishead. It kind of struck me that it had all been done and it had all been out and unless we were allowed access to the vaults, which Trojan didn’t really have, I didn’t really see the point.
I went back to John with my idea of why don’t we get these fantastic artists and do new music, because a lot of them weren’t doing new songs. They just trade off past glories or just aren’t working. That’s criminal, really. So the idea was to try and live up to’”in some little way’”what they did back in the day and try and make it relative today. It was a lot of fun doing it, a lot of sort of digging back through a lot of their records and seeing what keys worked and what lyrics worked ‘” the general vibe of them. It was a really good experience.
Pama International are currently a five piece (including Lynval Goulding of the Specials themselves) having stripped down from up to eight. Is that a conscious decision? Are you replacing people or do you just think it sounds better?
I’ve worked with brass players from the start of Pama International. We did one festival where we didn’t have them plus my keyboard broke, so I actually got to watch the band from offstage as a four-piece and they were brilliant. There were, of course, financial reasons; touring with eight people isn’t always the easiest. We went on tour supporting The Specials and the Levellers last year and you’re losing a lot of money with eight people on the road. So, it was kind of a bit of financial, but also, you know, the band blew me away with just the four of them. It was a new challenge after working with brass players for years, but it seems to be working, so this year we will keep touring right through as the five piece.
How do you see the state of reggae at the moment?
It’s very healthy, although it think it’s quite fractured as a scene. There’s not too much cohesion in it but worldwide, there’s a huge, huge reggae market -great festivals every summer all over the continent with a couple of new festivals that have cropped up in recent years, specifically for reggae in the UK. There are a lot of great albums coming out from new artists. I’m not too up on the modern stuff, on the dancehall stuff’”I’ve kind of switched off to but no, it’s very healthy times. I think the last three’”probably longer even, maybe four’”years have been really good for reggae. It’s crossed over to a lot more scenes, like a lot of the folk festivals ‘” Cambridge Folk Festival have had Toots and the Maytals on, they’ve had Jimmy Cliff on. There’s definitely more interest now, from a lot of the bigger festivals, in reggae than there was previously.
Is there anyone specific that you would like to record with that you haven’t approached?
Mavis Staples would be amazing. On the reggae side, there are still loads: Marcia Griffiths’”fantastic voice, Burning Spear would be amazing, he’s still got a great voice. And mainly Prince Jammy, he’s my favourite dub engineer. He’s now King Jammy and was one of King Tubby’s protÃ©gÃ©s. For years I used to listen to King Tubby and some tracks I would love and other tracks not so much and it’s only recently that I’ve discovered that it was this guy who was doing the more off the wall stuff. He ushered in the digital age to Jamaica as well. So he went from being this mad analogue dub engineer to engineering with Black Uhuru. I’d love to get him to do a Pama album but get him to do it back in the 70s vibe, you know what he was doing when he was mixing at King Tubby. That’s the hard bit.
You’re not afraid of seeming backwards or being quite progressive, as you’ve mentioned there. CDs may well be a dying brand, but you’re moving with technology – is that fair to say? As this year you’ll be offering the album online for the purchase of a live gig ticket.
Yeah, I think you’ve got to work directly with the fan base. The way that music’s sold now has changed totally. CD sales are certainly dwindling. So the idea is to work direct with the fan base so on the Mad Professor / Pama tour in October, we’ll be giving a download of the album free with every ticket. We’ll also work in some way for people who want the CD or want the vinyl instead where they can buy that instead, for only slightly more than the ticket price. People can buy the LP basically at wholesale prices so, as a band, we’re not making any more or any less. My aim is to try to get the music out there, and if people can get that for a good deal and come and see the show as well, you know, then that works for us.
Any unfulfilled ambitions, with regard to music?
To make a hundred albums….
Make a hundred albums?
I would love to leave a legacy of a hundred albums.
And how short are you at the moment, dare we ask?
I’m on number two! No, I think I’m on number seven maybe, six? seven? Of just Pama stuff’”I’ve made a couple of other albums. I want to make a hundred of mine’”albums I’ve written, or produced. You know, like Pama. I’d love to make a hundred of my own albums. Miles [Davis] could do it, couldn’t he? Maybe that’s what I need to do’”become a jazz player. The output seems to go up a bit.
Pama International play the Black Box in Belfast on April 29th.