(Brett Wilson is the founder of Roots of Creation. Jon Phillips is the producer of Grateful Dub.)

Brett: I started the band in high school just for fun. Then I went to Franklin Pierce College, which is now Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, and we were just a party band having a good time. And it was just founded on the principles that I loved from the scene that actually Jon (Phillips) and the band he was working with had created, which was like the SoCal, kind of, reggae rock, ska scene. Bands like Operation Ivy or some heavier bands like Rage Against the Machine, kind of have a punky political–antipolitical revolutionary message that kind of matches with, you know, Bob Marley’s message, but was more of a Californiacentric way of blending styles. And the great example is the band Sublime, this reggae rock sound that I liked that was almost like the Police or The Clash, stuff like that, this melting pot of styles. 

But I was from the Northeast, and the northeast jam scene was huge at this point (early 2000s). I’m 38, so I grew up with all these smaller niche bands in the Northeast. Strange Folk and Phish and Moon Boot Lover and the bands from these little festivals that sprung up from the Phish and the Grateful Dead scene. So I grew up going to see David Grisman and RatDog and all these offshoots of the Dead and learning how to play guitar, not just from the punky and the harder edge and the reggae rock stuff from SoCal, but from listening to Dead and jam music bootlegs on old Maxell cassette tapes and stuff. I was really into tape trading‚—you know, send out ten cassette tapes and give them the extra copies. 

And as a guitarist I was interested in the nuances of telling a story with the guitar solo and how sometimes the improvisational bands crashed and burned and sometimes they created greatness. That also mixed in with what I was into at the time, which was smoking weed and skateboard culture and the west coast scene that I was into, along with a lot of other types of things so  in my brain, I was like, I want to start a band that’s a reggae rock sound, but has the echoes of jam band music—you take a journey with the song and it’s guitarbased. We left college in 2004. We put out a studio album just to put it out and be a band. Moved in together, because—actually, I was interning at a studio washing the bathrooms and making coffee and the lady tells me what you got to do is if you really want to make it, you got to be like Grateful Dead and move in a house together, take all the money that you made, pay for all the expenses and live together and get a van and just go on the road. So I listened to her and that that’s kind of what we did. We lived in Peterbrough, New Hampshire and played ever shitty little bar possible and took all the money and put it towards living, essentially.  

Jon: I am also from the east coast, but my family moved out west in ’76 to Northern California in the Bay Area. And they early on exposed me to music, the Allman Brothers and Willy Nelson and Crosby, Stills & Nash, but I hadn’t really heard about the Grateful Dead from them. Then I got to Northern Cal and was growing up pretty close to where the Dead originated. I ended up going to high school in Atherton, a high school called Menlo High School, that, incidentally, Bob Weir went to and got kicked out of. 

 My friends introduced me to the Dead at Frost Amphitheater and gave me mushrooms in ’86 and I was hooked for life. The bus came by and I got on. I got ingrained with Grateful Dead straight from then and lived in the Bay Area until ’91 and saw Dead shows pretty religiously through that whole time period. Moved to Los Angeles to go to college at UCLA and take a stab at getting into the music business. I had family in the music business that exposed me to live concert business and management. My uncle used to promote shows at the Frost Amphitheater when he was in college and then got bigger in the entertainment business in LA and music business and started managing Rod Stewart in the ‘80s and kind of helped resuscitate Rod’s career. 

So I started working for him when I was in college and he had a label called Gasoline Alley and that was a coventure with MCA Records and they told me ‘find us some bands.’  One of the interns handed me a tape from the band Sublime called 40 Ounces to Freedom and another one called Jah Will Pay the Bills, and this was ’93, and the band had put out a couple of their own records. The album itself or the tape had versions of Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” and “Scarlet Begonias” amongst other things. If you have ever heard Sublime’s recording of “Scarlet Begonias,” it has a really funny kind of like  it’s got a James Brown back beat sample which was uncleared originally and it’s got a rap that Bradley does, it talks about being on the road with the Dead, selling heroin, nitrous, drugs, opium, PCP and now I hear the police coming after me. It’s a famous thing in the Sublime kind of lingo. 

It’s totally different and I was just blown away by a band that liked all these things that I grew up with. Like Brett was saying, the synthesis of punk rock reggae, the fusion of ska and sampling like the Beastie Boys. It all made its what way into the record I got and that was Sublime’s 40 Ounces to Freedom and, of course, the Dead connection. Incidentally, that song was cleared by Ice Nine Publishing a week before Garcia passed away because the band first recorded it in ’92. They had no regard for sampling. I mean, they were sampling all kinds of things. They were just doing it for art. They didn’t clear anything. Once we got a little more serious, you learn that if you cover a song straight up, it’s just a cover; but if you change the lyrics, it’s call an interpolation or a change, a lyric fundamental lyric copyright, then you have to clear it. So this song has samples and the lyrical change, so the band started catching on a little bit and we were like, we got to get this legit. I signed them to MCA Gasoline Records as a young A & R guy in ’94 and I got that song cleared. One of my friends was friends with Eileen Law’s daughter and she helped us get the then unknown Sublime to Ice Nine and they cleared it, and then a week later Garcia had passed away. I always think, like, if it had been a week later, that song might not have seen the light of day, or maybe a cease and desist, because, you know, that’s when people kind of just, stuff starts happening.

My parents took me to Jamaica in ’76, so I got exposed to Bob (Marley) real early, and the punk rock growing up in Northern Cal as a kid, skate parks and stuff like that. Signed Sublime, they had another big record, the scene rose. Bradley passes away of a heroin overdose in ’96, and the band becomes an overnight sensation, and I’m kind of thrust into this world of, you know, what I call California lifestyle music like the Grateful Dead. The greatest California lifestyle band are really the, you know, Beach Boys, like I saw Sublime in that lineage of music. 

  And I started working with some other bands in the scene, mainly Slightly Stupid. They’re also taking the jam band mentality and Dead mentality and ethos. We were doing it ourselves, all kind of no record, making our own label, our own touring model, and started meeting fans on the road and people started sending me music and this and that, and one of the guys that started sending me music back in the day was Brett Wilson from Roots of Creation, and we had what I recognize was a similar affinity for Bradley Nowell and Sublime and Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. We finally met at a Stupid show in Boston at Banks Pavilion. Right, Brett? That was the first time we met. 

Brett: Either there or Hammerstein. I forget which one. 

Jon: So we met at a couple of shows and we got friendly and whatnot, and I started listening to Roots of Creation more, and Brett was also mixing an electronics balance of the music at a certain point and I just thought, you know, this is a cool guy. And we both you know, our love is, you know, in the same intersection for Jerry and Bradley and we just became really friendly and whatnot and Brett started playing some shows, the Stupid and started building his career with Roots and  

Brett: I think I really started popping off when me and you were jamming out in Costa Rica at Jungle Jam kind of late night. We were throwing around Dead tunes. 

Jon: Brett’s like a human jukebox, Dennis, and I’m a layman’s guitar player, but it’s just fun to play with him because he knows so many things. He can just bust out all these songs and of course the Dead’s a common ground, so Brett comes up with the idea to do Roots of Creation, a Grateful Dead cover album and we started really riffing on that. I was taken by the concept. I thought it was great and there was no one better in our scene or more of the guide to take the reins, so Brett brought me on as a consultant for the record and I was honored to be there while he was creating. I wasn’t there in person—he hired Errol Brown of Bob Marley’s engineer crew, one of the original Jamaican engineers, to come to his studio in New Hampshire and start engineering the bones of Grateful Dub. And Brett was sending me mixes and we talked about guests who were more prominent in the reggae scene and Cali reggae world. Brett did most of the work himself, and ended up getting Stephen Marley on it and Dan Kelly from Fortunate Youth. 

A video just came out on the version of “Casey Jones” that was shot, some in Relix’s studios and some out here at The Train Yard in Griffith Park, a really cool version of “Casey Jones.” We just riffed back and forth about ideas for the record, and Brett executed it with a grace and style that was just so impressive. I mean, that’s a timeless record for me. You know, I put that on my stereo and it’s just sonically and creatively it’s one of my more favorite Grateful Dead cover records. It’s not like anyone’s never done them before, but it’s just a really wellexecuted record and showcases the talent that Brett has. To me it’s organic simplified, the very essence of what brought us here in the first place. It’s that union of the Grateful Dead music in a reggae format. Although, I’ll say I don’t really feel like that record is a completely reggae album.  

Brett: The record came out in 2018. We did a crowd funding effort to make it happen and I took out some loans from the bank and just, you know, you know, made it totally independently. Errol was a huge part of that. Jon gave us all kinds of advice on the mixes— turn this up, turn that down, this really could use that, this really could use that. It was a really big collaborative process and it was pretty awesome to see how it came together, especially since the fans really made it happen with the crowd funding campaign. 

Melvin also was a giant part of this, because we started doing this festival in New Hampshire called Jerry Jam, which somehow went from the day that  the year after Jerry died. It was 50 people in a barn watching, you know, Dead videos and crying and partying and being sad about it to then the next year having a barn with a band doing Dead covers to now it’s like every year there is 5,000 people and it sells out and it’s a whole weekend of Dead inspired music in New Hampshire.   He’s been a really big live partner with us when we play at those festivals or other places. I got to jam with him which is a big thing for me just because how much I also listen to Jerry Garcia Band and love that soulful R&B sound including a couple of the songs on the record which a couple people have given me shit about. ‘That’s a Jerry Garcia band song!’ And I’m like, bro, what do you want me to call it? A reggae infused tribute to Jerry Garcia?  

Also, I want to thank rukind.com, because they do the best transcriptions. They saved me a lot of work. Every song, all the chords and they’re all right. You know. 

Dennis: So tell me about being a Dead Head.

Jon: What interested me in Skull and Roses being a Southern California thing and a community thing is that that does have the possibility to keep the scene alive at least, you know, in Southern California, being a destination, not that we were expecting a pandemic, but we were graced with an afterlife of Grateful Dead that I don’t think anyone expected. 

Dennis: I certainly didn’t. 

Jon: Fare Thee Well seemed like the end, you know, and for Bob to come back with Mayer and the boys and do what they’ve done, but now that’s like halted in its tracks, you know, and who the fuck knows. I was just talking to Matt Busch. No one’s got the crystal ball, nothing is forever, but the Skull and Roses concept really did appeal to me as like that sacred communal gathering possibility that could happen continuously over time with different bands and different styles celebrating the Grateful Dead and that lifestyle and culture.

Pandemic Update

All of our shows got cancelled within like 48 hours, and my first thought was that in the last two to three years before the pandemic I’d quote/unquote made it as a musician, meaning that between the band playing a hundred shows a year and myself playing 50 shows a year, I was able to cover my mortgage and my expenses and be a fulltime musician without any side hustles. So I had made it. And when I saw, you know, twothirds of that income vanish overnight, I was like, man, I guess I’ll get a parttime job. And then I’ll be able to play solo acoustic in bars and then, like in the next week all of those shows vanished. So I was like—well, I’m fucked. 

I applied for unemployment. I had to fight really hard to get that. And then, you know, I have two children, a threeyearold and an eightyearold, just fighting to survive for that. But the blessing was that I got to, you know, help my eightyearold with athome learning and spend a ton of time parenting with them, and had just negotiated equal custody with the children after a long personal battle that lasted the whole time of the pandemic as well. So it was really good for me to be able to spend that time with them. You know, previously, I had them half the time, because I was on the road half the time and on the road half the time. But I was gone quite a bit. So it was a nice, nice break to reconnect with family and help with the virtual learning and just kind of figure out, you know, where we wanted to be. 

  Luckily, we had recorded so much music and so many demos that we spent the whole time doing preproduction for Grateful Dub Volume Two, releasing songs. We did a Kickstarter that reached way past its goal recently to make a new album of original music. And, finally, you know, we were able to I was able to, you know, get assistance through the SBA (Small Business Administration) and different things to keep us afloat; but it took a lot of fighting. And the main thing that kept us afloat, really, was the fans tuning into live streams each week. I had a lot of fun with those and our fan base grew exponentially from the live streams. 

We actually got into the Pollstar top 30 of last year’s live streams worldwide because of how many we did and how many festivals we did. So that was really cool. And we started to focus on, you know, growing a fan base online and radio and publicity and our Roots of Creation family group and just trying to release new music every month. So we released quite a bit of new music; and at the same time we’ve been recording and all that stuff. The only thing that was very difficult for me was that it was a lot of remote working, because a lot of my guys are in different states and they had quarantine situations; and, you know, different people in different families were more susceptible to the virus. So that was a hurdle that through technology we were able to overcome it. So I’m extremely excited to rehearse with the band next week…

We started recording “Althea” the other day. We got a little demo going on about that. So we’re working on Grateful Dub Volume Two. So things are great. In the beginning I thought I was totally completely fucked. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was just like “the world’s over.” And we got heavily into online merchandise and the fans supported us with that, which made us able to not have the businesses go bankrupt. So I haven’t pulled a paycheck since March, since the pandemic. But what the band did is kept our record label and merchandise company and the band businesses afloat and thanks to that and the SBA we were able to survive. You know? 

I did some research and took some online courses about online communications to focus more on using the internet rather than a van and trailer to spread the music. Kind of tapped into more of the Dead community, which was extremely supportive of our live streams and wanting to get vinyl and welcoming them into our Roots family and them welcoming us—One guy told me “I saw 250 Dead shows, and your album is awesome!” And to have all these new people—I’m really excited to play live and have them experience the music live. I thought we were toast, and then we turned it from a negative into a positive and I’m really proud of our ability to do that as a band and as a kind of community.

Photographs by Josh Coffman