"It's a big world out there," says Harrison Stafford, the vocalist/guitarist of roots-reggae outfit Groundation. Stafford should know: Already this year the nine-member group has toured South America and Europe and headlined Tel Aviv's Open Air Festival in July. But it's not all jet-set vacation for Stafford and company. "We call ourselves road warriors," he says. "It takes all of our energy and all of our energy to sustain."
Formed in 1998 by Stafford, keyboardist Marcus Urani and bassist Ryan Newman, the Northern California-based band's messages of social justice, its reggae dancability and its heady jazz influences quickly found a fan base in Europe (in fact, last year's Grey Eagle stop was part of Groundation's first-ever Eastern U.S. tour). "Europeans have caught on to everything we do," explains Stafford. The band's albums — latest effort Here I Am, a dub and psychedelia-tinged collection, is no exception — were released in Europe prior to the U.S. drop dates even though the band records on its own U.S.-based label. Popularity pays off: In Europe, "It's a double-decker tour bus with a 16-bunk sleeper upstairs," Stafford notes.
In South America, travel arrangements are less cushy: It's "the hardest touring anyone will ever do," Stafford says. Because of the size of the countries, the band must fly between concerts (imagine the constant jet lag), and shows often start as late as 2 or 3 a.m. Touring North America is, thankfully, less punishing, but the band is still building its fan base. Nine members and a road crew board a full-size RV and haul their gear in a trailer.
"We bring our own Hammond B-3 organ because we have a particular sound we want to get," says Stafford. That's a heavy and finicky piece of vintage equipment to haul cross-country but, at the end of the day, it's all worth it. Groundation's mission is to create community, no matter how far-flung, among the change-affecting citizens of the earth. "Our main point of going around the world is to say, 'Remember each other … do all you can because the time is now,'" the musician says.
Though Stafford doesn't consider his band a political one ("We come with love and support"), the stance within the music is one of looking for solutions to injustices. "Lawmaker, heartbreaker / You dealing in the darkness and think it light / Hotstepper, stargazer / We rally for food and not to fight," Stafford sings on "By All Means."
Despite the recent election of Barack Obama, "The concerns of the socially- onscious remain that same," Stafford says. "It's people who can do what they can today for a better tomorrow. For a lot of these people, it's Groundation's music that's bringing them through. People are concerned and we can voice that in the music."
But as much as Groundation has a global reach, the band is distinctly homegrown. First, there's their indie label Young Tree Records, founded just a year after the band's inception. Though Groundation has a sub-licensing deal with a French label, they decided early on to (as Stafford puts it) "keep the music in our own yard."
"Producers tell you what to do, like you're trying to sell soap or something," the musician opines. And its not like Groundation needs to be schooled in reggae — not only do the band's members extensively study all types of music, Stafford (whose father was a jazz pianist) actually taught the first course on the history of reggae music at Sonoma State University.
And, though the band has grown and matured over the past decade (most recent additions include Jamaican singers Kim Pommel and Stephanie Wallace and drummer Te Kanana "Rufus" Haereiti) they've stayed true both to their sound and their willingness to let that sound develop. "Each album has an overall statement about life," says Stafford of the band's eight records. "With each album you learn. We try to constantly evolve."
He adds, "You can't do what we do — tour nine months out of the year — and then come back and play the same thing."
what: Conscious roots reggae
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, Sept. 13 (9 p.m., $12 advance, $15 day of show. www.thegreyeagle.com)