Interview with Alex Norman of illScarlett

If you’re at all familiar with the reggae rock scene, you’ve definitely heard of illScarlett. Originally from Canada, the band continues to make waves in the US, Europe, and Japan. With four studio albums under their belt and having had their fair share of ups and downs with record labels, the four-piece are now taking the independent route. Following Warped Tour, illScarlett plans on hitting the studio to finish up their new record with producer David Kahne, known for his work with Sublime, Paul McCartney, and Taking Back Sunday, among many others.

On a day off from Warped Tour, vocalist Alex Norman had a chat with Rock Edition to discuss the tour and how the band’s forthcoming album is coming along.

You have the day off today, right?

Yeah, we have the day off today. We have to get some stuff fixed on our bus. We blew a tire and the power steering is gone.

That sucks. Do you guys have a bus driver?

We do, it’s awesome. It’s our first Warped Tour on a bus.


We’re very happy with that.

How has Warped Tour been this year?

It’s great. It’s been really hot and a lot of hard work, but the shows have been great. The last few especially have been awesome. We’re on the Skull Candy stage, which is like the eclectic alternative stage, with reggae bands, punk bands, a dubstep DJ — it’s awesome.

There’s already a few videos of your shows up on YouTube. It looks like you’ve brought out a nice mix of songs.

Yeah, we’re playing a couple songs from each album. We’re also playing one or two brand new tracks. We’re getting ready to record a new album in the fall after Warped Tour.

Cool. Before we start talking about the upcoming album, can you tell us the story about how illScarlett became acquainted with the man who created Warped Tour, Kevin Lyman?

That was in 2004 in Toronto, where we’re from. We set up our gear in front of the line for one of the shows and started playing and promoting ourselves. Kevin Lyman got word that there was a band playing and came to see us. Coincidentally, he was doing a big barbecue that night in Toronto and said he needed a band to play. He asked us if we wanted to play, and we did. He also told us that the next year he would give us a week on Warped Tour. Then we did two weeks the year after that. We haven’t been on it since 2008, but we’re back and doing the whole thing now, which is awesome.

That’s great. I remember a few years ago that Swav [Piorkowski] said during an interview that touring the West Coast for the first time was the scariest thing ever. How have your experiences been in the US and California since?

We love California; we made two records there. It feels very much like Mississauga — where I’m from — which may sound weird, but I’ve grown up in the suburbs my whole life. I feel very much at home there. I love it.

Speaking of California, the band will be heading to California later this year to work with David Kahne, correct?

Oh no, he’s in New York City, so we’ll be going there for this one.

Oh. I thought he still lived in San Francisco.

He was in San Francisco, but he moved to New York.

He recently produced the band’s cover of the 50s song “Love is Strange.” Have you guys worked on anything else with him yet?

Yeah. He recorded three tracks of ours; two of them were covers and one was an original track. It was sort of a tryout to see if he’d like to make a record with us. As far as I understand, he liked working with us, and we liked working with him. We’ve been wanting to work with him since our first record. It was always scheduling conflicts that didn’t allow it to happen until now. He’s going to sneak us in for a few weeks to bang out a record. We’re super excited.

Are the songs already written and demoed?

Yeah, we have the songs written for the new album, but we still work on them on our days off and during downtime — we’ll keep writing up until our very last day in the studio. In our experience, it’s usually that last song right before you have to record it that becomes the best one.

Who’s the engineer in the band? I assume you all share a small recording rig.

Swav, our drummer, does a lot of the engineering here. He just has a little Pro Tools rig. It’s not like we do extensive sessions or anything in the back lounge, it’s just for ideas and stuff.

Having worked with quite a few producers in the past, what are some things that you guys look for in a producer?

Well, we like David because he got very into the songs. We did really intensive pre-production. He would change up the drum beats a little bit, and he made us play in a way that wasn’t very comfortable for us. We were nervous after the first day, but once we started tracking we understood that he was trying to develop a pocket. He’s got such a fantastic ear. He tore the songs completely apart and then rebuilt them. No producer before — respectfully speaking — has ever done that to us with such detail. For me, as a singer, it’s actually fun to sing in a booth when he’s producing. He’ll go back to certain lines and have me sing them again if he thinks I should sing it with a little more attitude or less attitude. For example, I was singing one song around 10 o’clock at night, and then after we finished he wanted me to sing another song. I told him, “I don’t know, it’s like 1 o’clock in the morning. My voice is pretty smashed.” He said, “Just give it a shot and we’ll see what happens.” I was singing and my voice was cracking, but that’s what he wanted. He purposely made me wait until the end of the day so that my voice would get a little raspier. That’s why I love recording with David.

Are the ideas for the band’s songs typically built out of jam sessions?

Yeah. We all write in the band. We’ll usually start off with a guitar riff and then show it to everybody and jam it out. I’ll sing gobbledygook vocals in order to find a melody. Once we have a basic structure for the song, we’ll record it into Pro Tools, add some electronic drums just to have something, throw in some vocals, and start developing ideas. It usually just starts with a riff, though.

At this stage, is it easier for you to write songs and find the correct lyrics that fit the melodies?

When we were starting out, it was fun to write songs, but we weren’t very good at it. Our record ‘All Day with It’ did very well, but then ‘1Up!’ turned out to be a bit of a strange record for us because the label was really on us about renegotiating our deal to their benefit. They were saying things like, “If you don’t take this revision of the deal, we’re not going to work your next record. We’ll put it out if we have to, but don’t expect much from us.” It kind of sucked having that hang over our heads while writing the record. Now with this new record, we’re on our own again and it’s been a really fun writing experience. To have no corporate pressure is really a liberating feeling. I don’t regret signing to Sony, they were great when they were working for us. Plus, I wouldn’t have had that experience and seen the other side of the fence if we hadn’t. We feel very comfortable on the independent side. I think and I hope the songs on this new record will really show that we’re still writing songs for us and our fans.

I suppose it also kind of sucked having people at Sony — such as executives that maybe had very little knowledge when it came to songwriting and production — judge your music and have a large say in everything you do.

Yeah. There are definitely people that are music people and have produced records and have been in bands. David Kahne was an A&R guy. He actually signed Big L, the rapper. When I heard that, I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” But you do have these fucking people that can’t play two chords on a guitar and they think they can tell you what the next hit is going to be and how you should write your songs. That’s stupid and it bugs me. Eventually, all those major labels will be distribution companies because the record industry is taking a shit. The music industry is more alive than ever. Music is more popular now than it has been at any other time on the planet. People think it’s going to disappear because people are downloading music? Live bands won’t disappear — you can’t download a live band — not yet at least. I think you just need to write really good songs now. You can’t put out a record with two good songs and a bunch of filler anymore. The [major labels] are scared because they don’t know how to sign bands that can write more than two good songs.

The one thing that is also kind of sad about this new age of the single is that the art of an album is becoming extinct. No one really listens to albums anymore or has an entire album in a playlist on their iPod. There’s something special about listening to a full album: you go on a journey with it, which to me is special. It’s sad that the concept of an album is dying and going away.

Right. On the bright side, it looks like you guys have a new compilation disc that people can purchase at Warped Tour.

Yeah, we only have about 3,000 of them. It’s just sort of a best of album. It includes some live stuff, acoustic stuff, new stuff, and old stuff. It’s a really well-rounded $5 package of what we’ve been doing for the past few years.

And it comes in three different colors! Do you have any tentative song titles yet for the new tracks? And when can we expect the record to be released?

No, we haven’t gone that far. We have some songs that are more reggae rock and one song, which I really like, that’s like motown and doo-wop but with a reggae twist. The whole album is going to come out around February or March. Hopefully, it will be available throughout North America and Europe and Japan — everywhere.

Pick up illScarlett’s latest record, 1Up!.

For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their website.