If the idea of white kids in San Francisco appropriating authentic Jamaican music makes you a little squeamish, you're not alone. But after spending a couple of hours with Extra Classic's Adrianne Verhoeven and Alex deLanda at their Inner Richmond apartment on a beautiful mid-September Sunday afternoon, it's clear that they haven't just done their homework; they're committed scholars of the genre. Over mimosas and an eclectic soundtrack that includes Roots Radics' At Channel One Kingston Jamaica, the conversation moves from musical inspirations — Scientist, Lloyd Barnes, Marcia Griffiths — to books — David Katz's Lee "Scratch" Perry biography People Funny Boy, and Stephen Davis and Peter Simon's Reggae Bloodlines.
"I think it's important to recognize that it is a black genre, and it's important for us to respect it for what it is," says deLanda. "We'd never sing about Jah. As far as white people being influenced by Jamaican music, here in the States it's less acceptable than in other places. In England, from the start, white people have been heavily influenced by Jamaican music. The Clash — "
"To take it further back, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones," adds Verhoeven.
"It's actually considered cool there," says deLanda."Whereas here, if you're not a Sublime kind of thing, like a SoCal surfer kind of thing, then it's like, 'Well, what is it? Where do you land? If you're a white reggae band, are you like a ska band?'"
The seeds for one of San Francisco's most curious new musical ventures were planted four years ago. DeLanda, a local songwriter and producer who's performed as Sunshine Rains, and worked with artists like Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and Papercuts, was playing rhythm guitar live with San Diego band the Donkeys. That tour stopped in Lawrence, Kan., where Verhoeven was still residing after the messy breakup of her emo-turned-classic-rock outfit the Anniversary. The two hit it off romantically and musically, and soon deLanda was enlisted to help bring to the stage Verhoeven's sample-heavy debut solo album, Smoke Rings, which was released under her nickname, Dri.
The Dri band toured in support of the album for a while, during which time deLanda bounced between San Francisco and Lawrence. The moody Smoke Rings contained a tinge of reggae thanks to a tweaked Scientist sample, but as Verhoeven and deLanda started writing new material together for what was going to be the next Dri record, they found themselves delving ever deeper into the sounds of Jamaica, exploring reggae, roots, dub, and rocksteady.
"In Lawrence I had a DJ night where I just DJed reggae, and Alex had been collecting records," says Verhoeven. "When we came together, it was something we were both interested in. We started really going back and digging and reading about how things were recorded, and that kind of aligned with the equipment that Alex had. So when we started writing songs, we were writing in this rhythmic style, and also putting a different twist on it, too."
As the Dri band unveiled some of these songs on tour, audiences saw an evolution taking place. Pretty soon it became obvious that Verhoeven and deLanda had created a new project.
"The first shows we played with Handsome Furs, Alex played bass, and we played samples on a laptop, and I sang," says Verhoeven. "Then the next summer, we're on tour again with Handsome Furs, and we have a live band, and we're playing five or six new songs. The first night Dan [Boeckner; Handsome Furs' frontman] was like, 'So, you guys are a reggae band now.' And it was like, 'Yeah, I guess we are.'"
The recording of Extra Classic's debut album, Your Light Like White Lightning, Your Light Like a Laser Beam — released last month on L.A.'s Manimal Vinyl — started in Lawrence and ended in San Francisco after the couple officially relocated to the city in the summer of 2009. An all-analog eight-track recording captured on vintage equipment, the album hits a deep groove with opener "Congo Rebel" and never lets up, creating a smoke-filled atmosphere that gives the traditional island sound a respectful modern twist. The players sound both locked in and completely loose, and Verhoeven's smooth, forceful voice adds mystery and passion.
"What we are going for is somewhat of a psychedelic version of the genre," says deLanda. "Our music is inspired by reggae and dub, and American soul music as well, in that reggae was inspired by American soul in a way. One thing that's cool about the genre is how many influences you hear within reggae itself. And so I think that influences us as well."
Verhoeven and deLanda plan to issue a dub edition of the album early next year on cassette via their own Nopal Records label, through which they released their first two limited-edition 7-inches. Nothing about Extra Classic is an afterthought, all the way down to the band's moniker.
"It's something that someone can pronounce anywhere," says deLanda. "If you're in China, people can say 'Extra Classic,' 'Michael Jackson,' 'Coca-Cola' — these universal things. We wanted it to be like that. That's how we'd like our music to be, too."
Before taking on the rest of the world, Extra Classic is celebrating the release of Your Light Like White Lightning, Your Light Like A Laser Beam on Oct. 26 at the Make-Out Room. Despite the importance of studio equipment in making the record, the group says it hasn't been difficult to present the songs live. (The current live lineup is a quintet.) As for the problem of getting everyone onboard with indie rockers putting a new spin on old-school reggae and dub, Verhoeven figures it's just a matter of time before they're allowed entry into skeptics' comfort zones.
"There is a place for what we're doing," she says. "The niche just has to be carved a little bit. We're carving it for ourselves."