Grab your sweetheart
The Scratch Outs play rocksteady reggae—with an American twist
There are probably few folks locally who know as much about Jamaican music as the members of the Scratch Outs, a Sacramento-based seven-piece—even if no one in the band is actually from the Caribbean island nation.
If you asked the band’s members, they’d probably explain that reggae is a broad term for Jamaican music that’s evolved over the last several decades, and that their band is mostly influenced by one period of reggae in the late ’60s. One that is quite different than the ’70s roots reggae sound made famous by Bob Marley.
“Most Jamaican people our age don’t really listen to the kind of music we play. If you ask a Jamaican what we play, they’ll say, ’Oh, you play oldies,’” guitarist Mike B. explains.
“There are two different kinds of reggae scenes,” he adds. “There’s the rude boy, short hair reggae scene, and there’s the dreadlock reggae scene.”
The Scratch Outs fit mostly into the short hair reggae scene, focusing on the rocksteady subgenre that dominated Jamaica for a short period in the late ’60s. The sound is upbeat and driven by vocal harmonies, and features mostly pop-oriented songwriting.
“[The Scratch Outs are] rocksteady,” says singer Shannan Robertson. “It’s love songs. It’s music that you want to go out and dance to. You want to grab your sweetheart and have a good night out.”
It’s not just one sound, however. The band also sprinkles in elements of just about every Jamaican subgenre, including ska, dancehall, skinhead reggae and a little bit of roots.
The group formed about five years ago with just Mike B. and vocalist Ras Matthew. The former had a long history with the music, having played in the local group Steady Ups between 1994 and 2002. Matthew, meanwhile, was recording dancehall songs—the ’80s-era sound that incorporates an electronic, hip-hop vibe.
Originally, the plan was to start a dancehall project, but one that used live instruments. Then Mike B. learned that Matthew could not only rap, but could also sing. This motivated him to instead build the band around the rocksteady sound, which often includes three-part harmonies. Currently Matthew, Robertson and keyboardist Minh Quan take the vocal duties, trading off on lead, but often singing together.
The band is rounded out by Kurt Gardenhire on drums, Jeremiah Keller on bass and Andrew Bauer on guitar. Now, even though the group’s members say they aren’t trying to be a 100 percent authentic rocksteady band, they do take up the tradition of playing versions of nonreggae songs that aren’t note-for-note covers.
“We’re not a cover band. We’ll take these classic rhythms and Shannan or Matt will write different lyrics for them. If they’re still [from] our own creativity, we’re not copying somebody else,” says Bauer.
Although the band’s roots are decidedly American, the members of the Scratch Outs take their adopted musical genre very seriously.
“We all do our homework. We all listen to the music. It’s not like a passing interest. I’ve got 20 years’ worth of records,” Mike B. says.
Still, he adds, it’s not all serious. “We’re more a party band,” he says. “People go and they drink a bit and they want to dance and have a good time.”