Natty Nation has been a staple of the Madison reggae music scene since 1995. Unlike classical reggae artists, the band is influenced by rock and hip hop in addition to reggae and dub. Their musical style has been known to evolve over time but never stray too far from the all-original roots-rock-reggae format. The band has been described as Steel Pulse meets Jimi Hendrix. Their messages are positive and often spiritual or political in nature. However, their later albums have shifted away from Rastafari and moved more toward Eastern philosophy.
Over the past 22 years, Natty has played countless festivals such as SXSW, Summerfest and Freakfest, won numerous awards including 27 Madison Area Music Awards (MAMAS), and toured the U.S. and parts of the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. Not to mention, they have released six studio albums and six live albums.
In this interview, we head to the studio to speak with Aaron Konkol, keyboardist and backup singer for Natty, about their latest release, Divine Spark, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Magazine reggae chart. We also hear about how he wound up joining the band and what it was like touring overseas. Finally, Aaron tells us about some of his most memorable shows with some of reggae and dub’s pioneers.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
J: Are you from Madison originally?
A: I was born in Sheboygan, then I moved to Illinois when I was two, and then I moved to Madison when I was eight.
J: When did you enter the Madison music scene?
A: When I was 18, and in college, we started a band called, The Spontaneous Throwdown. It was a funky, jazzy jam band. We were just playing at parties and stuff. Then we got an opportunity to play Tuesday nights at Ken’s Bar. They had what was called dead tape night. We played there every Tuesday for about a year. We even wrote a song called “Tuesday at Ken’s”. So yeah, I guess that would have been 2000 when I officially started playing paying gigs.
J: When and where did you start playing keys?
A: I’ve been playing since I was three. My sister who is five years older than me had been taking lessons. She was eight at the time, and I had shown a lot of interest in doing it. I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged that. We did the Suzuki method, which really helped with ear training. I would get the music and plunk through it and figure it out, but I would already know how it was supposed to sound. Once I got the mechanics of it, I would just get rid of the music and memorize really easily, but later in life that became a problem because it was harder to just sight-read.
When I went to UW I went through a whole bunch of different majors, African American studies, social work, psychology, a few other things, but I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do. At the time, I was enjoying playing with my band, The Spontaneous Throwdown, so I thought I would try music. I was already taking a couple music classes with Joan Wildman, and she immediately accepted me. We decided to do a jazz studies degree. A couple weeks after that, she let me know she was retiring and there wouldn’t be a jazz piano professor anymore. That summer I got the offer to play with Natty Nation and haven’t gone back to school since.
J: You mentioned that you became a part of Natty Nation in 2002, but when did they first form?
A: 1995. The first album came out in ’96.
J: How many of the original members are in the band?
A: Just the lead singer, Jah Boogie.
J: Who is currently in the band?
A: Chris Di Bernardo on drums, Nick Czarnecki on guitar, [Aaron Konkol on keys and Jah Boogie on vocals] right now that four piece, like the one in the “Vibrate” video that you saw that we recorded down here, that’s the band right now.
J: Awesome! So beside Natty Nation, what other bands have you been in?
J: How is it different playing with Natty Nation versus some of the other groups? Did your role change from band to band?
A: With dumate it wasn’t that different. When dumate started it was just Natty Nation plus Laduma, so my role carried over, as did everybody’s. We just added a rapper. With Know Boundaries, it was kind of the same thing, but I was coming in as the new guy. It was just a different dynamic, different people, personalities. Things change in every scenario. Then in Star Persons, I really didn’t write that much at all. It was mainly based on recorded material that we recreated live, but I helped a lot with orchestrating that and turning it into something that was living and breathing on its own. You were there!
J: With Natty Nation you have done some big tours. Who are some of the people that you’ve played with? What were some of your most memorable shows?
A: It’s really amazing. It’s like you’re in the middle of a rain forest, just this really nice amphitheater. Toots was credited with coining the term “reggae”. He was still just as good of a performer. He knocks it out of the park every time, especially that time. I don’t know how old he is, probably in his 70’s, but he’s loaded with energy. His voice sounds exactly the same as it did back in the day. Then backing up Lee Scratch Perry was probably the other super memorable one, who along with King Tubby, invented Dub.
A: Yes, I was there for none of those. *laughs* Unfortunately.
J: Oh OK. Those were before your time.
A: Yeah, but we opened up for Steel Pulse, one of my favorite reggae bands from that era, late 70’s early 80’s.
J: You also played at a military base right?
A: A bunch of military bases.
J: Tell us about that experience.
A: The first time was in 2008, right after we dropped Reincarnation. We almost immediately got the call from Armed Forces Entertainment, which is the non-profit arm of the entertainment arm of the military. Unlike the USO, those people get paid. Armed Forces Entertainment is all volunteer. You get a small premium per day. We got the offer to fly into Kazakhstan and then go play at this base in Kyrgyzstan. From there, we dropped off about 180 troops in Afghanistan. We were riding with these 18, 19 year old kids with M-16’s. Everything they had on their body was all they were going to have for the next 18 months of active duty. We were grown men looking at them like, so you’re really going to do this huh? They were like, yeah. Some people were super jovial and messing around, some were tripping hard! That was heavy. There was a reporter from CNN on the plane with us as well, a giant C-17 that tanks could fit in. There were about 150 people on that giant thing. We were sitting on the ground in a bunch of bucket seats. I found out after the fact that when we were flying out of Afghanistan we took some shots. I was glad I didn’t know that at the time. *laughs* Then we dropped down in Kuwait, and I forget the order after that, but we hit United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Djibouti and then back to Kyrgyzstan. So we got back from the first one and a year later we got asked to go back, but instead we went to Japan, the Marshall Islands and Guam. On that tour we didn’t have to bring our own PA, so it was way less stressful. The first tour, people hadn’t seen entertainment in so long. I think the shortest autograph signing was like half an hour. In Qatar everybody on the base was lined up to get an autograph. There were like 4000 people on the base!
J: Divine Spark is the latest Natty Nation album. What was the creation process like?
A: Some of the songs were really old. We had written them in 2003, right after Inatty in Jah Music had come out. They were recorded two weeks after I had joined the band. By that time, we had already started dumate, which premiered in 2004. We were making a whole bunch of music then. Some of it never got recorded until Divine Spark. “Suffice” I think was the only one. We released that as a single in 2010. But then the album Divine Spark didn’t come out until 2016. We had a whole bunch of ups and downs with personnel, recording waxing and waning, motivation, and you know, studio time and money and everything else, personal things in life. But then it kind of came together when I happened to meet Errol Brown, who is Bob Marley’s engineer.
I sent him the mix we had for “Meditation”, and he wrote back immediately. He said, “it sounds good, could use some Ska piano on it but yeah, let’s go.”
I was like really? Okay. I was like oh my god Errol Brown is totally down to work with us! So then he ended up mixing the whole album in the back of Revolutions’ tour bus. They were pretty popular at the time, more popular now. They had a tour bus for the crew and a tour bus for the band, so he took over the whole back of one of the buses and turned it into a mobile studio. He mixed the whole album there and on headphones. And then the plan was to do a final mixdown at a studio. It ended up taking him a lot longer because he is super particular about drum and bass, especially drums. He kind of revolutionized recording drums. He uses a mic on the rim of the snare. He was the first person to do that I think. With reggae there are a lot of issues with the drums, so he wanted to go through and replace them. He didn’t trust Drumagog or BFD, or any of those other programs to help with replacement, so he went through every single drum hit and found a version he had recorded. The final product sounded exactly like a drummer had played it.
J: I listened to the whole album and wow! The sound quality is amazing. I wasn’t actually expecting it to sound that good. We use a Sonos player at Murfie, so I was like, is the Sonos player making this sound better? You know how Beats by Dre make things sound better. Was that what was happening? Because this sounds really good!
A: I’m glad to hear that.
J: What format is Divine Spark available in?
A: We’ve got vinyl for the first time, and CD, and digital.
J: Digital everything, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play?
A: Yeah, Symphonic Distribution is awesome.
J: I’m not familiar with that. Is that similar to Tunecore or CD Baby?
J: How do you feel about physical media over digital?
A: I like the convenience of digital a lot, but what I really miss and what I am sad about for future generations is liner notes. When I was a kid, if I wanted to go buy some jazz records, I would have to go into the basement area of The Exclusive Company, where they were kept. I would have to ask the snobby clerk, hey, do you know where the Herbie Hancock is? They would bring you somewhere and say, “This is probably the one you want, Headhunters.”
So I had to push through that like I really wanted it. When I bought records, I’d take them home, put them on and listen to them front to back. I would read the liner notes and essays like oh, okay, this trumpet player on here is awesome. I need to go check him out and then go back. After awhile you’re asking the right questions and the guy behind the counter is like oh, this kid is cool. He knows what’s up. There was no CD burning. You had to buy this thing, and when you get it, there is a package. You didn’t have to read it, but it was there, and so if you cared, you’d be able to. That’s the saddest part to me about streaming. You have everything available to you at any moment so nothing is special. Before you had to go searching and searching to find a specific album. Trying to find Prince’s Black Album, that’s why it was a thing. It was impossible to find. Now you can get it wherever. Everything is available any time you want it.
J: How important is merchandise at your shows?
A: It’s super important. We’re making moves to go on longer tours out to the coast right now. We’re also working on Europe. I think when you’re on a longer tour merchandise can really help. The income is just immediate and it can help put money in the gas tank. I do all the design work for it. I do all the ordering as well, but I’m trying to delegate it to somebody else. *laughs* I didn’t start writing songs just to decide how many smalls to order of a certain design. We have a lot of merch and people like it a lot. So my thing is, you want to have quality merch. Of course, it’s going to cost you more. It costs us $13 for our cheapest shirt, but it’s a nice American Apparel shirt that people love, and therefore, they are going to wear it more often with your band name on it. More people are going to see it, and that is the main thing for me. CD’s are probably the best way to make money. Beyond the initial production cost of making an album, it costs you one or two bucks per CD. You sell em for 10 bucks for a 10, 12 song CD. That is an 80 percent mark-up. That is pretty good, but for a t-shirt that is 13 bucks, you can’t really charge more than 20 unless you’re a bigger name band.
J: Who shot the “Meditation” music video?
A: It was shot by Harvest Walker and Joe Ramos. Joe filmed a bunch of it in Boogie’s basement. That’s where we were rehearsing at the time. And then Harvest came and filmed a bunch at the Jam for Jam festival in 2015. He rented a $20,000 camera to take a bunch of slow motion shots. I think that added a lot to the video. He also did all the narrative parts with the girls having a bad day, and then meditating and doing yoga. It went through a bunch of incarnations because we initially started doing it in 2012, right around the time we started tracking for most of the album, and then the album kept getting pushed back. We needed to prioritize that immediately. Four years later, when the album came out, it was like oh, yeah, we might as well finish this thing and get it done. Joe Ramos then picked it up at that point and knocked it out. He did a few revisions with me and I was super happy with how it turned out. That was our first official music video.
J: Are you working on any other projects currently?
A: Yes, but they are top secret. The world will know soon.
J: Ok… Is it related to Natty Nation or something else?
A: That is also top secret. Everything is top secret about it. Don’t take that as it being yes, but also don’t take it as being no. *laughs* But yeah, there are lots of things in the works so stay tuned.
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