BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
The six members who make up reggae rock royalty Iration are doing their part to make sure we all enjoy an endless summer with the release of their fourth full-length album, Hotting Up, and the impending launch of the record’s accompanying tour. The Sunny Santa Barbara, CA-based beach boys – who unlike the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Beach Boys, are generally less inclined to write about 409 engines and far more likely to pen tunes about 4:20 – released the digital version of Hotting Up on August 28 and will make the physical edition available on October 9. Meanwhile, the band’s 26-stop Hotting Up Tour will get underway on October 8 in Nashville and wind down on November 14 in Los Angeles.
Frontman and lead guitarist Micah Pueschel is excited to have fans hear both the sonic similarities as well as the aural augmentation to the group’s signature reggae sound heard on Hotting Up. “It’s gonna be just a bigger sound overall,” he says of the new album, while adding, “It’s us, but I think it’s just us kinda bigger and better.” As for hitting the road and getting back on stage, the Hawaii native notes, “I think what’s cool about Iration fans is that they’re not just reggae fans. Their fans of music, and we pride ourselves on not just being a reggae band. We pride ourselves on being just a good band.” With Hotting Up, Iration once again proves it is much, much more than just a good band, but instead an outstanding band that works hard while at the same time having lots of fun, fun, fun.
Micah, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. Iration’s fourth full-length album, Hotting Up, is set to hit stores on October 9, and it’s your first new record since 2013’s Automatic. What sonic similarities and differences can longtime fans expect to hear on this new nine song set?
Well, sonically it’s gonna be much bigger. We really, really focused a lot on the drum tones and tightening up the production. So, it’s gonna be tighter, it’s gonna have a bigger drum sound, and just a bigger sound overall. But as far as the ingredients go, it’s pretty much what we do, which is kind of a blend of reggae, rock, pop, catchy melodies, guitars, drum and bass, synthesizers; you know, that kind of thing. It’s us, but I think it’s just us kinda bigger and better.
You mentioned the drum sound a couple of times, and more on that in just a little bit because I do want to bring up the drums again later in our conversation. You guys assembled a top shelf team of collaborators to lend a hand on this record, including a producer/cowriter, mixer and engineer who between them have worked with a wide spectrum of artists, from Lupe Fiasco to Fleetwood Mac, R. Kelly to The Killers and Imagine Dragons to Chris Isaak. Introduce us to the other guys that helped shape the sound of this new record.
Well first of all, the producer is a guy named David Manzoor. He kinda comes from the hip-hop world, and R&B and that realm of music. The last record we did we were kinda going in a different direction and this one we kinda felt like he could really help us get where we were going. The engineer on the record was a guy named Will Brierre, who has engineered The Killers, Chris Isaak, Imagine Dragons and a lot of different artists. The mix engineer was Mark Needham, who’s done Fleetwood Mac, Imagine Dragons, The Killers; he’s the guy who’s mixed a lot of these gigantic rock records. He had his hands on the final product and we’re really, really happy with the way that it turned out. It was just a really cool experience working with them.
Not a bad lineup to have on the team. So let’s dive into the sound of this record a little deeper. The record opens with the first single “Reelin’.” I wanna quote a lyric here: “I can’t waste another day of my life without hearing your name.” It sounds to me like someone’s smitten (laughs).
(Laughs) Well, I think in general, we definitely personify a lot of issues through love and through relationships in that way. Yeah, the song “Reelin’,” the meaning of the song is about that. It’s about the feeling of missing [someone] and not wanting to waste time with someone or something. A lot of this record is in the title, Hotting Up, which is about the first meeting with somebody, or the first few encounters with somebody that you’re kind of getting together with, and that feeling of things are starting to, I guess, heat up and speed up, and those feelings of what that’s all about.
That rush of love, huh?
Yes, exactly. Yeah.
“Lost and Found” is another one that I really enjoy. It sounds like a love letter to the place where you grew up. Am I right about that?
That’s right, yeah. I like to do that. I’ve done some other songs that were kinda in the similar vein. Like we did a song called “Dream” on the Time Bomb album that is kind of a similar type of thing. This one has a little bit more of different tone, I should say, maybe a slightly sadder tone to it. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, but I really love that song. It really brings me back to a time of our childhood, and I really wanted it to strike that chord with people of remembering your more innocent days.
For those who aren’t familiar and don’t know, tell us where you were born and raised.
We were born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, so a lot of our growing up was at the beach and in these valleys and places where you had this feeling of being in a different world almost. Those are the memories that I have and those are the memories that I draw on for songs like that. I just come back to that feeling of being able to escape into a different world.
That’s very cool. Now I’m fairly certain I already know the answer to this question, but I’ll let you confirm that. Is the Big Island still your favorite island?
Yeah, yeah of course, and its home. I still have my family there and a lot of my friends have moved back home, so it’s very much still special to me.
So what would be your second favorite island?
My second favorite would be Maui, just because my dad is from Maui, and out of all of the islands that’s where I spent the most time, growing up, second to the Big Island. I just think it’s a great place.
Tell me what kind of music you were hearing in your house when you were growing up. Did your folks have records playing? Was it the radio?
My mom, specifically, was a huge musical influence on me. She was a Beatle maniac in her heyday, so there was a lot of stuff like The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Hall & Oates, Dan Fogelberg, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac; just a lot of good, solid music from the 60s and 70s a lot of good contemporary 80s music. Being a kid, I just remember being in the car and listening to that kind of stuff, like, whatever new Clapton record was out or I remember Tears for Fears was in the tape deck for a long time (laughs), so stuff like that.
My friend John Easdale is the lead singer of Dramarama, and my good pal Mike Davis plays bass in Dramarama, so just last weekend I saw them in a package show with a bill that also included The Psychedelic Furs, A Flock of Seagulls…
…The Tubes, who absolutely killed it, and Bow Wow Wow, so it was a fun package, for sure.
So kind of staying in that realm, do you remember the first album you bought with your own money?
With my own money? Yeah, man, umm, I think it was something in the hip-hop realm. But the first stuff I remember hearing – this kinda, like sad to admit (laughs) – but I think I had Paula Abdul when I was about five or six or something like that. I was obsessed with Paula Abdul; I had a huge crush on her for like five years. But I think the first thing I bought with my own money was DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. It was a hip-hop album and it was called Homebase. I think I was like maybe 10 or 11 years old, or something like that.
What about the first reggae album?
The first reggae album, I think like everybody else, was Bob Marley’s Legend. I remember hearing that for the first time and we had to drive 45 minutes to get to our nearest record store where they had a big selection of music. So we’d drive all the way to Hilo, which is about an hour and 45 minutes, and we’d get a tape and listen to it on the way home and that was always like a fun experience. And it was Bob Marley Legend, yeah. Hearing those songs for the first time – I mean now everybody’s heard them a million times – but I still remember hearing them for the first time. A song like “Three Little Birds” or “Buffalo Soldier,” or something like that. I loved it and I was just a young kid. I had no idea about what the meaning of the songs were, but they were just such beautiful, melodic songs.
We could go on and on about the great Bob Marley, but I wanted to jump back real quickly. You mentioned your mom was a Beatles fan. I was two weeks shy of my sixth birthday when I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I’d never heard of them; like millions of others, we just watched The Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday, but looking back, that changed my life. So did you have the proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment? Was there a song or an album that made you say, I want to make music for the rest of my life?
Hmm, well, for me, I don’t think it was ever one moment. We’d been in the band and I was always musical in high school. I was in the choir and sang and did stuff like that. We started writing songs and I think after we released [2008’s] “Falling” and “Wait and See” and the Sample This EP and we started to see an amount of success I kind of felt like, OK, we thought we had something unique before this and that was kind of an affirmation like, that this could work. So it was probably somewhere around that record, and I mean we were just kind of doing it for fun before that. We thought we had something unique, but we didn’t know necessarily if it was going to become a career, per se.
And it has, certainly. Let me get back to the album, and you mentioned the drums sound at the top, and I said that I’d come back to it. Tell me if I’m off base here, Micah, but to me the drums at the top of the title track reminded me a bit of the drums that open U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
And by the way, that’s a very good thing. I mean I’m a huge U2 fan.
Yeah, yeah, I know. If you compare anything that we do to U2’s sound, then I’m totally cool with it.
So that’s my observation. Pure coincidence, or is it a sound you were sorta trying to get?
We weren’t necessarily trying to emulate their sound; it was more that we just wanted it to be as big and as full as we could get it. I mean we did spend a lot of money on it to get it there. We rented a vintage drum set with multiple vintage snares and we really, really focused on getting that sound, and I think we accomplished what we were out to get. After years and years of struggling with it, we decided to put a huge amount of effort into getting the right drum sound and let’s not settle for second best. So we did. And we’re at a point in our career where we’re able to do that, too. And it’s worth it.
You guys reference State St. which is the main drag in Santa Barbara; safe to say your adopted hometown.
How often does that city serve as inspiration for your songwriting?
Um, I think it serves a lot. That song in particular, “Hotting Up,” I think I wrote that song when it was still quite the cool season there, and so it was that image of State St. not in the middle of summer like it is now, when it’s 85 degrees. It’s kind of in that December, January, February range where it’s still kinda cold and overcast. Santa Barbara is a beautiful place, and we’re lucky to live here and I think that our whole sound and our vibe just merges with us being here and living here. Being in Southern California in general just kind of reinforces what we’re doing with our sound, and I think they’re kinda tied in together, whether we like it or not.
Let me ask you about another song, “Guns Out.” I think I can safely assume that that song is not meant to be taken literally, nor is it pro or anti-gun or any of that stuff. What I can say for sure is that it’s a great song, so what’s really going on in that song?
Well, yeah, it is not meant to be taken literally. It is a song about bringing the proverbial guns out. I think that it’s pretty self-explanatory regarding dealing with somebody that’s not afraid to ‘go there;’ to bring out the big guns and maybe take things to the next level as far as arguments or insults, or whatever the case may be. I wrote it on the acoustic guitar and it was very sweet sounding song with a less then sweet message behind it. And I don’t know if you heard, but there’s definitely an homage in the piano part to [Elton John’s] “Bennie and the Jets.”
Ah! I will have to check that out again to pick up on that. I think I can assume that standing onstage playing live is when you’re in nirvana. When and where did you guys play your first paid gig as Iration?
Our first paid gig as Iration was in Santa Barbara at The Velvet Jones, which is a little club in Santa Barbara (State St.). We were playing in (neighboring) Isla Vista for free at house parties when we decided to try and do a paid gig downtown. And it worked out really well.
Now as far as touring; is the traveling itself, or is it still a buzz to be on the road with your bandmates, having fun?
I would say it’s kind of a mixture of the two. I’ve always been a person that loves to travel; I travelled a lot in college…and I still do. I think that’s part of being a person that’s on the road as a touring musician is that you have to enjoy that kind of thing. You have to understand how to engage people of different societies and different cultures. But I think it’s tough to be away from home now because we all have significant others, we all have families and stuff like that, so it’s hard to be away now. Harder than when we were in our 20’s, where you could just jump on the bus – or I should say, jump in the van, back then – and go on an adventure. And now it’s kinda like, okay, I wanna go out there, I wanna do my job, I wanna play the music for the people, but I don’t necessarily want to be gone forever. That’s the hard thing about it. It gets harder, I think.
I can totally understand that. I certainly hear that in a lot of these conversations I have with bands. Micah, final question for you, and again thanks very much for your time today.
We’re speaking about being on the road; you guys are gearing up to kick off your 26-stop Hotting Up Tour. It kicks off October 8 in Nashville and it wraps on November 14 in Los Angeles. After all these years of touring, can you pinpoint a couple of common denominators amongst rabid Iration fans that you see everywhere from Kenosha to Kansas City?
(Laughs) Yeah, umm, I don’t think we’ve ever been to Kenosha yet (laughs). Um, I think what’s cool about Iration fans is that they’re not just reggae fans. Their fans of music, and we pride ourselves on not just being a reggae band. We pride ourselves on being just a good band. We wanna be a god band, we wanna make good songs, we don’t wanna make just good reggae songs; we wanna make really good songs in general. We really focus and pride ourselves on making songs that anybody from any place can listen to and understand and kind of synch up with. I think for the most part we’re starting to see that come together and it’s really cool being able to go anywhere, from Mobile, AL in the south, all the way up to Portland, ME, across to Seattle and in the Midwest, in Nebraska. That, I think, is just a testament to the work that we put in, and touring for years and engaging our fans and hopefully making good songs. And I think that’s what it’s all about.
You mentioned engaging fans; are you the kind of guy that likes to hang out with fans after the gig, or are you more like, you’re drained from the set and you need some alone time?
I’m probably more of a private person after the set, but I’m not gonna shove some guy out of my way or something (laughs). We have a lot of times where we play a smaller city or something where after the show you come out and there will be people waiting for you at the bus to sign something, and we do have a lot of meet-and-greets and stuff like that, so all of that is totally fine with me. And I do a lot of that kind of networking on social media. So a lot of my engagement with the fans is done through that. But when we’re on the road, for me, as soon as we’re done playing the show, I’m generally the kind of guy that goes back to the bus and has some water and really relaxes and chills down and try to get ready to get some sleep.
Cool. Well once again, the physical version of Hotting Up is out on October 9, and you can download it now. Micah, it’s been a pleasure, thank you and take care, man.
I appreciate it. Thank you. Have a good one.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Micah Pueschel of Iration, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.