In the life of Joel Pace, juggling multiple endeavors seems to be the norm. By day, he’s a mild-mannered professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. By night, he can be found with his band, Irie Sol.
Pace (pronounced PA-CHAY) is an interesting person. He received his doctorate in English from the University of Oxford, and currently lives in St. Paul. Never to be seen without his trademark fedora, blond ponytail and matching snappy attire, Pace is that person you always see at social gatherings; he is truly the Wallflower of St. Paul. But that’s as far as most people get. If you were to look deeper, you’d find a person who is much more than meets the eye.
Irie Sol’s latest EP album, “Dred Scott Fitzgerald – A Novella,” draws from both his lit and music worlds. Asked about how F. Scott Fitzgerald fits in with Dred Scott, he says, “Because F. Scott Fitzgerald was born here — and then because of Dred Scott, who came through Minnesota and was at Fort Snelling; and we thought of the triple pun of Fitzgerald, Dred Scott, and dreadlocks, which is what we are creating — a kind of a reggae version of Fitzgerald.”
Recently, we sat down for lunch at Selby Avenue’s Cheeky Monkey Deli in the heart of the St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Pace and his band had recently released “Dred Scott,” for which Joel was the executive producer. An edited version of our conversation follows.
MinnPost: How does it feel after recording this album?
Joel Pace: It’s a beautiful feeling. It was a whole year that went into the album, producing it, getting it mixed. It feels like a dream come true, to be honest.
MP: Is this your first time doing an album in a studio?
JP: Technically, this is the third release by Irie Sol. Our first was recorded in Nashville back in 2008, and was 15 songs. Our second was recorded back in 2011 at Cannon Falls’ Pachyderm studio, and that album was a total of seven songs and was released on vinyl only. This also was the same studio where Nirvana recorded “In-Utero.”
MP: But this album [Dred Scott] you recorded at April Base Studios and Pine Hollow Audio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
JP: Yes. It’s our first EP, so technically our first real album.
MP: I know you have a big lineup, eight in total.
JP: Yep, that’s exactly right. There are eight of us that would be considered main, but then there are eight alternates.
MP: So you’re a collective of 16?
JP: Well, a lot of them are professional musicians, so we have subs when they might be at a gig somewhere else. Of that, most of them are horn players, because they tend to be the busiest, and we have to have a horn section. Of the three vocalists — Lars [Nelson], Junior [Chris Williams] and I — we’re always at every show.
MP: Was this your first time being executive producer? How did that feel?
JP: Yep, it was my first time. Yet I’ve always been skeptical of my own musical ability, so to step into that role took a lot for me, because there are a lot of people in the band who have a much better “blueprint” sense of how music theoretically functions, and some have a much better understanding of how music records as an art form and functions. I just thought I wanted to lend some creative levity to people in both of those worlds, so really it was mostly just me harvesting talent.
MP: So what was the strain on you, being that you were both part of the band and the executive producer?
JP: It was tough. I like to wear hats, and I was wearing more hats [He laughs.]. I can only wear one hat at a time.
MP: I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without a hat on.
JP: [Still laughing.] Yeah. I found myself wearing two hats at once. That was tricky, and it took somewhat of a creative toll on me. [At] our first session at Justin Vernon’s studio [April Base], I was [doing] executive production and expediting people’s time in and out of the booth. Then after that session was done, I went back into the booth with another producer named Evan Middlesworth, We were able to do a couple of sessions together where I could stack my vocals and work out some of my own ideas.
MP: You also did the mixing in Minneapolis. Was that out of necessity?
JP: It was out of necessity. Greg Reierson is amazing, and he does a lot of the mastering for Prince. Luckily he’s a local guy willing to work with small local guys like us. He said he had some free time, and we leapt at the opportunity to work with him. He also had a shaping role in our sound. Everyone we’ve worked with in the past has had a shaping role in our sound. But Greg pushed me to have a more organic sound in many instances —to have a less polished, radio sound.
MP: Do you mean he didn’t want your music to sound overly produced?
JP: I mean, instead of refined, perfectly smooth oatmeal, he liked the lumps and the unbroken sections of brown sugar and raisins … the lumpiness of it worked out.
MP: Well, you’re a fusion band. Your sound has a bit of blues, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and, of course, reggae in it. So when you were recording, was a lot of it arranged or was it more of a jam session? Traditionally, bands such as this tend to play together more organically, whatever comes out is what it is. Was this the case with Dred Scott?
JP: Yes. There were parts of tunes that started out as jam sessions, just capturing some rhythms and feels that we wanted, but others were like how our guitarist [Gregory Manning] started playing a tune from across the room (during recording) which he had first played at a show in Paris. He played the whole thing back for us from his phone and from that, we incorporated it into “Bernice Dreds Her Hair” [track 1/chapter 4]; because part of that song takes place in Paris [laughing]. It’s almost a patchwork-like quilt genesis. Different sections of musical fabric coming from preexisting people and getting stitched together.
MP: How much of your feedback got factored in? Take, for example, the first track, “Dancehall Daisy.”
JP: For that tune I had the idea to do Daisy, my dad would always sing that to me as a child. That song is from the 1890’s and it has the whole plot structure to Gatsby [The Great Gatsby]. It was almost as if Fitzgerald had heard this sung and wrote a whole novel about a guy that was too poor to afford to marry the love of his life. “He couldn’t afford a carriage” and I thought “That’s Gatsby!” Also, Daisy is a waltz, and waltzes are tricky to do in this day and age. So I thought, take the waltz and make it dance hall rhythm (with a) Jamaican (touch); which I then brought the idea to the band. Then, I allocated different verses to different people (in the band). I wanted them to bring their own feel to the lyrics. And they did.
MP: OK, since we are talking about the story behind the album, why the title? I only ask this because when I think the name “Dred Scott” I think of the famous court case. Where does F. Scott Fitzgerald fit in?
JP: In some sense its local history and our wanting to celebrate local history.
JP: Because F. Scott Fitzgerald was born here [St. Paul]; and then because of Dred Scott, who came through Minnesota and was at Fort Snelling; and we thought of the triple pun of Fitzgerald, Dred Scott, and dreadlocks, which is what we are creating — a kind of a reggae version of Fitzgerald. We thought, “why not fill in the missing parts, the ellipsis, the ‘dot, dot, dot’ of Fitzgerald’s novel and occupy some of those blank spaces.” The jazz scene in Harlem is clearly influencing [who was] walking around Harlem at the time: Marcus Garvey. He is kind of the forefather of the “Rasta” (Rastafarian) movement.
MP: So the purpose really behind everything was to fill in the gaps of “The Great Gatsby” with Fitzgerald’s inspiration(s). How about the album cover artwork — which is quite iconic. It’s simple, just the image of a male lion’s head, but the image is colored blue except for the eyes, which are a contrasting bright yellow. What gap does that fill?
JP: There’s this idea in Gatsby; thru the eyes of Dr. T.J Eckleberg are the eyes of god. Fitzgerald’s publisher, Scribner, sent him the cover and he actually wrote that cover into the novel. Also in similar fashion, the image is found in Rastafarian imagery. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, was looked upon as the Lion of Judah. Which kind of remixes the idea already in Gatsby.
MP: So what was the significance of recording this now? You were on sabbatical for a year; was this the reason for taking the time off? Or, were you approached to do to this project?
JP: That’s a good question. Music and literature have been at war within me for a lot of years, and they kind of came to a truce during the sabbatical, and (when) combined they are greater than the sum of their own parts. And that for me was very useful. And we were rehearsing in the Commodore (hotel), which got us thinking …
MP: And that just recently re-opened. So what you were saying was it was because of the opening of the bar, did the stars all align or were you approached to do a recording?
JP: You’re exactly right, we planned with the Fitzgerald in St. Paul to do the release (of the album) on Fitzgerald’s birthday a year out. It started on his birthday in 2014 (Sept. 24). We discussed the Commodore’s opening, and the album’s release on his next birthday. Luckily, it all panned out.
MP: And there was another connection there with the Fitzgerald, right?
JP: Yes, I guess one walks away with a bigger belief in destiny because one of the members of the board for the Fitzgerald also ended up working on the art design for the album.
MP: Really? Who was that?
JP: Susan Hopp. She runs the business end on the Fitzgerald board, but she also runs the design company 45degrees (45degrees.com), in Minneapolis and her husband, Karl Schweikart, ended up being the main designer. He’s also in a literary band called “The Melvilles.” Karl has also embedded hidden meaning into their album covers. It was just a perfect, happy accident that we ended up with this group.
The photographer [of the band], she had started coming to our shows and has been part of the family and part of the organization for a long time. Her name is Lisa Venticinque. And as fate would have it, she has an Italian father from Providence (Rhode Island).
MP: Another East Coast connection.
JP: (laughs) Junior moved from Providence (Rhode Island) to here. There are a lot of Minnesotans in the band; but a lot of us are also “displaced.” Junior is from Jamaica and Providence, couple of guys from Brazil. Me (also from Providence) we magnetized here because of our musical interest and perhaps feeling slightly out of place. That un-familiarization allowed us to take a familiar text like Gatsby and push it geographically.
MP: So you’d say the band is eclectic?
JP: Yep, and those different cultures and geographic locations, give our band that unique sound. Also, because Jamaican music and hip-hop are known for sampling other tunes and remixing them, why don’t we then do that with classic literature?
MP: Baz Luhrmann was on a similar trajectory. Did that play any factor in doing this album?
JP: It was a perfect storm really. Around the century mark, society tends to look back to the prior and examine itself through the lens of the century before. Things like “Boardwalk Empire” and Luhrmann’s film, and looking at the cultures that were marginalized — that was something we wanted to get at.
MP: So what’s next? Is there a future for more things like this? More literature-based concept albums?
JP: I think we’re going to ride this wave for now. We didn’t know that we were working in a genre of music called “Lit-Hop,” so we would like to experiment with a little more
MP: What about Keats?
JP: Keats would be wonderful … Keats and the Beats.
MP: All right, last question. If you could give advice to someone recording their first album, what would you tell them?
JP: That they are the future of where music goes because the music industry has crumbled, it’s all about independent artists and while monolith’s like Taylor Swift will always be there, there will always be a way to swiftly tailor your own custom garments musically. I would tell them as Justin Bernes told us: “Find the song inside of you, no matter how outlandish it may seem, and seek after the art that is in you; because in itself is sacred and price cannot be put upon artwork that is true to what you know.”
Justin Passaro is a Twin Cities freelance writer. “Dred Scott Fitzgerald-A Novella” is available on iTunes, Google Play ($4.99).