Before taking his chance to jam with The Wailers in 1996, Elan Atias was a reggae loving L.A. musician of no particular repute, still even to set foot on a stage. A few days afterwards, he found himself appointed the new lead singer of a band that – if you take into account their Bob Marley days – has sold in excess of 250 million records, and was formed a decade before Atias was even born. Pressure enough, you’d think, but throw in the unavoidable stigma of being -Bob’s replacement’, as well as Atias’ mixed North African and European heritage (he has a pale complexion, and on taking the job, in the days before Sean Paul and co, became one of the first mainstream -white’ reggae artists) and the singer must have spent the first heady weeks alternating between pinching himself and hiding under a rock.
Somehow, though, he came through and the singer State finds on the other end of the phone is a confident and charismatic man; a man with an evident passion for what he does, who politely thanks us for our questions and answers them with substantial thought and insight, simultaneously bouncing his young baby on his knee throughout. Atias knows life has been kind to him, and he has every intention of being kind and courteous in return. No doubt he’s sick of being asked about Mr. Marley, but we couldn’t resist. ‘I’m not trying to be Bob’ Elan’s quick to point out, ‘I’m just trying to keep the message going. I’m just another member of the band. The most intimidating thing to start with wasn’t -replacing Bob’; it was making sure I had all the lyrics. I wasn’t scared of the crowds, though The Wailers was the first band I ever sang with. But every fan knew word for word all the songs and the first shows we did together I did entirely from my memories of the records as a kid. We didn’t rehearse or even sound check together until after the first eight shows’.
Elan is actually one of several singers who’ve fronted The Wailers over the years, but having held the post for thirteen years now, he’s the longest standing since Marley. The Wailers’ message, according to Atias, is stronger than ever: ‘It’s all about one love, one aim, one destiny. Today there are more wars, more atrocities, more problems, than ever before. I think the music means more today than it did when it was first made. We started an organization called -I Went Hungry’, with the UN World Food Organization, after we realized that at every show we had so much food backstage, and there’s only so much room on the bus. We were wasting 80% of it every night, and thousands of people are dying of hunger every day. Every six seconds a child dies. So we started telling the promoters to take the money allocated to our rider and give it to the world food program. We persuaded some other artists, comedians, and actors with the same privilege as us to give up their riders as well. It’s been a year and a half, and we’ve saved 600,000 kids. I speak to the audience in the encore about it, and we sell these red wristbands, like the Live Strong ones. In Europe it would be for one Euro. We post up on the website how much money we raise at each show. It goes back to what -Wailers’ means: to cry out. This band was a voice to so many people, and this kind of thing is what I think it’s all about. The message is what made this band bigger than any one individual.’
As part of their -peace and love’ leanings, The Wailer’s have become well known for breaking down geographical boundaries to play in countries most artists wouldn’t even consider. Recent tours have taken them to India, Morocco, UAE and Brazil. Atias clearly loves the mystique of it: ‘These people don’t know the words or understand them, but they make the sound, phonetically, and you can see that they’re feeling it. On this tour we’re gong straight from Ireland to Abu Dhabi; from a place where drinking is a way of life to a place where you get put in jail for drinking publically. I’d really like to go to China, especially with their politics.’
Despite the loving international outlook, things haven’t always been plain sailing for the singer. When he first stepped out, for example, crowds struggled to take to a non-black front man. ‘Back when I started, there was no other white reggae artist. Well I’m not really white; I have a bit of everything in me. I’m like a world mutt. But back then, there was no Manu Diao, or Sean Paul – well he wasn’t famous anyway – and people’s jaws would drop. They’d think I was lip-synching, I could see the audience talking about it for the first 30 minutes of the show. And afterwards, they’d come up and be like -man, you had us for 20, 30 minutes, we thought you were faking’, you know. People would really say that. It’s faded over the years, but once there was a really negative reaction. I saw a commotion at the side of the stage at one gig, and after the show security told me that these two women had been talking a lot of sh*t early on. But by the end of the show, they were won over. Actually, Bob had so many kids, people often think I’m one of them. That’s kind of funny.’
Of course, the kind of attention The Wailers attract is always going to come with a certain number of odd experiences. Atias is being sued for the use of his first name. ‘This Mexican woman also calls herself Elan, and she tried to sue me for copyright breach. It was a waste of time. I’ve known of her for years, but I never even thought of doing anything. She’s a blonde girl from Mexico, so there’s no conflict, it’s not like you’re going to get mixed up. She sings rock music. And I’ve actually been around longer than her. If anything, I could have sued her, but why would I need to do that? It cost a lot of money, and took a lot of time and energy, and she ended up losing. The court found that I had been using the name first. It was a lot of wasted energy for something so negative.’ For reggae singers, it seems, the worst thing about even a court case is the bad energy it throws up.
Atias and Aston -Familyman’ Barrett, The Wailers notorious Rastafarian bassist, have recently started their own record label, and have been pouring their hearts into the first record. ‘It’s a collaboration record’ Atias explains, ‘The idea is to get in lots of different artists from different genres, and have them sing on top of a Wailers-sounding track. Familyman has a tape of unreleased drum tracks from his late brother Carly, from the 70s, outtakes from the Exodus album, that kind of stuff. We digitized them, and used them as the cornerstone of the new material. So all the new tracks have Carly Barrett on them, Familyman adding new bass lines, Tyrone Downie on the keyboards, Earl -Wire’ Lindo on the organ, it’s all the guys who are still alive from the old albums. And one of the dead ones. It sounds like the old Wailers. But it’s taken so long, as we’ve been chasing after these artists, who have their own schedules and their own priorities. They’re A-list artists from all around the world. I can’t mention any names yet as we’re still finishing up the paperwork, but we’re hoping it will be out towards the end of the first quarter (of 2010). We have all the songs, and we’re mixing it and working on the paperwork. It’s amazing; there are country, pop, hip-hop, rock, soul and R&B artists, singer songwriters’¦ There’s no need to put things in categories, actually, it’s all music’¦’
On this particular tour, which comes to Ireland this week, The Wailers will be performing seminal album Exodus in full. ‘Time Magazine voted it album of the century, and -One Love’ was voted by the BBC as song of the century’, Atias explains, ‘so we thought, why not do it in its entirety, like it is on the record, and it’s been really great. We found it really worked live. In the beginning it was a bit weird, because -Exodus’ from the album was always one of our big finale songs, and now it comes in the middle of the set, like on the album. But the audience really respond to it.’ The Wailers often follow -Exodus’ with a selection of Atias’ own material, tracks that the audience often mistake for old Marley era B-sides. ‘It’s such a compliment’ he gushes, ‘I was inspired by The Wailers’.
It’s amazing, really, that a band that peaked in the 70s is still such a mammoth cultural force. Atias puts it down to their message: ‘The message of the band transcends everything else over the years. We’ve never been about any one member, there have been so many members in this band since its inception, we’re named after -to wail’, which is kind of the voice of the people. When I first started I was the same age as the majority of the audience. And now, ten years later, the audience is the same age and I got older. The majority of the audience is still 16-25, though there are people there aged 7-70. That is the difference between this band and other bands. Other bands that have been around for that long, like the Rolling Stones, for example, are playing largely to people the same age as they are. They play to 60 year olds. But our younger audiences are just finding out what life is about, what life is going to bring them, and what they’re going to choose. This music is that guide. It was a guide for me. I mean, I had no idea I was going to be the singer, but it was almost like a religion. It helped me find myself. It speaks through generations.’
You can’t help feeling that Atias still speaks as much as a fan of the band as a member. He’s not an outsider, not by any means, but he’s still in awe of the work those around him have produced, and extremely proud to contribute his own small part to an astonishing musical legacy. He’s not Bob’s replacement. He’s just here to spread peace, love and understanding through some sublime music, whilst standing alongside his childhood heroes, and save the lives of a whole lot of starving children along the way.
The Wailers play UCD, Dublin (tonight), Mandela Hall, Belfast (Tuesday), Olympia Theatre, Dublin (Wednesday) and Dolans, Limerick (Thursday).