BIG MOUNTAIN: REGGAE ROCKERS CLIMBING NEW MUSICAL HEIGHTS
By Paul Freeman [February 2016 Interview]
Big Mountain went on a long hiatus, nearly 10 years. And it paid off. The band has returned, revitalized.
Their current sets include favorites, such as “Baby I Love Your Way,” as well as new material from the recently released “Perfect Summer” album. It’s their first album in 11 years. It’s primarily originals, but there are a couple of covers, including a shiny, reggae version of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun.”
But this time, it’s not all reggae. “We really kind of made a departure. It’s a completely distinct new phase of Big Mountain,” founding member Joaquin “Quino” McWhinney says. “We made a concerted effort to bring something different to the scene. We really wanted to be different from everything else that was going on in reggae. We wanted to evolve. We’re not getting out of reggae. But we’re kind of tired of being pegged as a reggae band.
“And we really leaned on Americana influences. We spent a lot of time developing more of a bluesy sort of foundation, giving it a little bit of a country twang, older, but not necessarily roots reggae, kind of like country reggae, like Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh, stuff like that. We were trying to put an American reggae album together. I don’t think anyone’s really been able to do that, one that has a real American blues-rock sound to it.”
One song, “Vision,” in collaboration with the Australian Rise of the Morning Star band, deals with struggle for independence in Papua New Guinea. But the new album doesn’t focus on overt political messages.
“We’re spending a little bit more time being more metaphoric with our lyrics. We’re still very politically conscious, but that’s just not the priority right now. Back in the day, it was important. It’s a different time. When this band started, the Cold War was still going on. That was just 10 years after Vietnam, the Black Power movement, the Chicano movement. Now people need to be communicated to politically in a different way. These kids have kind of heard it all.”
Big Mountain has always had a global perspective. “We’re from San Diego. You grow up next to an international border, especially the one we grew up next to, and you can’t help but we affected, one way or another. We lean towards the plight of immigrants and people being displaced and supported causes related to that. We had a song called ‘Bordertown’ in our 1994 album.
“We’re still very aware, but with this first new album I really wanted to put out something that would really be our best bet here in the U.S. It’s what we think is going to work.”
McWhinney says that, in a lot of ways, this is a band that’s coming into its own. “The first time around for Big Mountain, it was such a heavy time in reggae. We were the only U.S. reggae band that had any success. We were touring with English reggae bands back then. We were opening, and sometimes closing, for our heroes.
“Now we’re just doing our own thing. Back in the day, we were trying to do everything we could to not sound American, trying our best to sound Jamaican or English-sounding reggae. Now we’re proud of the elements that are around us in our own homeland and we want to figure out how to immerse them more into our music. And we’re kind of moving on. It’s not a whole reggae album. It’s got some other influences going on. We’re starting to embark into broader horizons.”
“The English bands gave us a really good idea of how to approach this country. Roots reggae, it took a while for it to get a foothold here. For a long time, people didn’t understand it. So English was a little bit of a bridge for American audiences. And they helped us out a lot.”
Big Mountain enjoyed a Southern California smash with a song called “Touch My Light” in 1993. That drew the attention of Ron Fair, soundtrack producer for the Winona Ryder/Ben Stiller film “Reality Bites.” He had decided that the movie needed a reggae version of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way.”
“He went out looking for the guys to make that happen and we were one of the bands that he had make a demo,” McWhinney recalls. “At the time, we had a song called ‘Touch My Light.’ It was bangin’ really hard in California. It did really well west of the Mississippi. It was like number five, all year, in 1992, in L.A. So you couldn’t escape the song. It was off of our first album, ‘Wake Up’ [on Quality Records].And that’s why the producer brought us in. And ‘Baby I Love Your Way’ ended up having a lot of the elements of ‘Touch My Light.’”
Upon its inclusion in the soundtrack, Big Mountain’s version of “Baby I Love Your Way” became a huge hit across America and internationally.
But success wasn’t all cheery for Big Mountain. “You start to understand the complexities of this business. We really did try to have our heart in the right place. We really did take reggae seriously and all that was involved with that music. In some ways, ‘Baby I Love Your Way’ sidetracked us a little bit. It made it hard for a lot of people to take us seriously after that. We had some new challenges to cross.
“Of course, our relationship with the label [Giant Records] got sour, because all they wanted was other ‘Baby I Love Your Way’s. We had a different idea. I never had trouble singing a love song. I’m a Chicano, you know,” McWhinney says, laughing. “We love ballads. But it was also important for me to have a band that had some serious integrity.
“So after the ‘Baby I Love Your Way’ album ‘Unity,’ the relationship with the label really did go downhill. We ended up doing two more albums, but it was a struggle. And, of course, it coincided with the music industry falling apart. ‘Baby I Love Your Way’ came out in ’94. I think I bought my first CD burner in ’95. We didn’t know it at the time. We just thought, ‘the label doesn’t like us.’ Come to find out they were going through a lot more issues than we could even imagine. In a couple of years they were slashed in half and then a couple of years later they were slashed even more. So there was all kinds of turmoil going on they we weren’t aware of and we just got caught up in the whole analog-to-digital transition.
“After we left Warners, we went to a Japanese label and we were with them until about 2003. And I kind of got pooped out. I kind of lost my fire for a while. I needed a rest. So I went back to school, met my wife and I taught high school.
McWhinney taught high school for eight years, and then elementary and adult school for two. He found it fulfilling.
“I think it was really important for my development and my perspective, because I was always kind of boohooing that, ‘Oh, gosh, the record company, we got taken advantage of.’ And I really was having a tough time figuring out a way to maneuver all the political shit that was going on. I didn’t have training or the knowledge to be able to handle that whole situation. And once you teach high school, you’re pretty much afraid of nothing.
“Teaching is just so hard. There’s no downtime. It’s all day long, you’re just pounding it out. So now it’s like I’ve got roller skates on all day. I mean, I’m still working real hard in Big Mountain. One of the things I taught was multi-media. Nowadays you always need to be making videos or music or this or that, so I’m always in front of my computer, making something. So that’s cool.”
McWhinney has just turned 50. “When you’re young and success comes on so hard and so quick, and your impression of what was supposed to happen kind of gets derailed, you’ve just got too many things going on in your head. And it’s really hard for you to enjoy yourself. You’re scared. You’re intimidated. You’re insecure. You’ve got all sorts of psychological roadblocks, dead ends and hurdles. Once you live on this Earth for a while, you develop a thick skin. All the little shit just kind of gets slipped under the rug, man, and you focus on the big things.
“The stage is so much fun now. I enjoy every single gig. I enjoy every time I’m in the studio. It just seems like things are developing. It’s not as hard to write songs. It’s not as hard to please myself in the studio. I’m enjoying music. This band is really solid, really road-worthy. It’s so hard to find guys who can deal with the grind - the road, being on stage night after night. These guys can handle it. And we try to reinvent the show every night. We improvise. It’s important to me that our sets don’t sound the same. Back in the day, we were doing all these big tours with reggae bands and we’d get 15-to-45 minutes on stage. And we tried to squeeze every f—-king song we could into it. Two minutes and 30 seconds, boom! Two minutes and 30 seconds, boom! Two minutes and 30 seconds, boom! Ten songs into 45 minutes and they were perfect, flawless, pristine. That’s not where I’m at now. If you give me 45 minutes, I’d rather play six songs - couple guitar solos, drum solo and who knows what? Let’s just all stop playing and see what happens,” he says, laughing. “Having the confidence to do that, when you’re young, it’s really hard. You just don’t have the context to know where to take it sometimes.
“I’m enjoying having a band where we’re all real good reggae musicians, but we all play rock, we all play jazz. I’m really into Latin music, really into Brazilian music, bossa nova, samba. I’m Mexican. I’m Chicano. So I sing lots of traditional Mexican stuff. I grew up listening to my grandfather and my uncles play this music. It’s in my bones.
“So we’re having fun. We’re spreading out. Before it was like, we just had to sound reggae. We wanted to be so traditional, so roots, so authentic, so Jamaican. That’s just a part of being young. Now we’re integrating a lot of different influences into our music. “Sometimes you shortchange yourself. Maybe sometimes we don’t think our influences are exotic or exciting enough, just because we grew up with them. But we forget that, for other people, it’s exciting. We do Mexican polkas in our set and people just eat it up. We’re playing this roots reggae and all of a sudden, you’ve got this Mexican polka and you just feel like you want to dance and drink and have fun and jump on the table. Just because we’re a reggae band doesn’t mean we can’t bring in all these other influences that have touched us along the way.”
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