In a time when most either reject nostalgia or embrace it wholeheartedly, a Brooklyn dub tribute band dares us to present in the groove
Cultural nostalgia is either a necessary distraction from our grim present day or a numbing agent that immunizes our creativity, depending on who you ask.
For every ten self-interested ‘poptimists’ snapchatting their Space Jam karaoke session, there’s an art school dropout bemoaning toxic nostalgia and sleeping with a copy of Be Here Now under their pillow.
This paradigm is not absolute. We celebrate artists who evolve from wearing nostalgia on their sleeves to find their own voice, while we bemoan the true originals who submit to a making sanitized and safe work because it’s marketable.
But there’s also a middle ground on the nostalgia spectrum wherein some work exists in both spaces at the same time. Australian garage-prog-psych band King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard come to mind—wearing their schlocky influences on their sleeves, The Gizz careen past what you know about the genres they nod to, pummelling ears with their virtuosic, creatively original songwriting all the same. And thinking back on the first musicians of my generation to master the tightrope between substance and gimmickry, Brooklyn’s Jäh Division deserve their rightful due for being the rarest of the rare—a tribute act that can simultaneously make you wink and groove you to your core.
Now is a good time to get the obvious out of the way— Jäh Division are a band that plays dub reggae covers of Joy Division songs. When they released their first and long-only EP, Dub Will Tear Us Apart in 2004, the novelty of a reggae cover band had yet to become a bizarre trend. Bolstered by file-sharing sites and blog culture in the years since, though, Jäh Division proved that solid musicianship and sincere intentions can save any potential gimmick from the wastelands of disposable novelty. The band also unwittingly ushered in what would become a decade flush with dub tributes including, but not limited to: Radiodread, Dread Kennedys, Yellow Dubmarine and Purple Dub (a Prince tribute). So what if Dread Zeppelin went down first, in the ‘90s? Jäh Division made the dub tribute irie again.
That this project was borne out of early 2000’s Brooklyn, when DIY spaces still existed in Williamsburg and young conservatives were still too nervous to ride the J train, certainly helped the group tether their mythos to a time and place.
Jäh Division originally started as a “smoke and a joke” project between between roommates Brad Truax and Barry London but crystallized into a serious cult artifact with 2004 12-inch Dub Will Tear Us Apart while albums from their ‘main’ projects, Home and Dan Melchior’s Broke Revue, never saw proper releases. Living in the shadow of the Williamsburg bridge at free103point9—part small-range radio station, part show space and part loft—the roommates had the perfect space and scene to let this novelty blossom into something dank.
With London on synth organ/tape loops and Truax on bass, the pair recruited London’s Home bandmate Chris Millstein on drums and Oneida’s Kid Millions to play synth percussion. The quartet would also add a dude named Stony Tony on congas.
The group reunited at Bushwick’s Secret Project Robot on a frigid Saturday night this past January, where they transported a small, in-the-know crowd to somewhere warmer with an hour of arrestingly thick psych-dub wondrousness. London’s full-on in Oneida with Kid Millions, while Truax’s getting out there as Interpol’s touring bass player. Nonetheless, with no setlist written out and a big smile across their faces, Jäh Division seemed psyched to all be back together.
A day before the reunion, Ernest Jenning Record Co. released a reissue of the classic 12” with extra tracks, dubbed Dub Will Tear Us Apart…Again. It collects the original EP’s four Joy Division tributes—”Transmission Dub,” “Heart + Soul Dub,” “Dub Disorder” and “Dub Will Tear Us Apart”—alongside a new dub version of “Isolation,” great covers of Desmond Dekker’s “Fu Manchu” and Jackie Mittoo’s “Champion of the Arena”, along with two solid originals.
As they tore through these Joy Division tributes, covers, new tracks and what sounded like a New Order cover, it became clear that each member of Jäh Division harbors a deep, sincere love of the genre. Originals “Paramount Lobby” and “Sloppy Homework” also suggest a formidable band that’s simply too great not to be taken seriously, while “Sloppy Homework”’s psych-ragga freak-out also telegraphs how years with Oneida have infused in London and Kid Millions such a profound understanding of krautrock and drone music’s hypnotics that they effortlessly work in a dub context. While Kid Millions and Chris Millstein fed off of each other’s beats in syncopated bliss, London unleashed washes of sound through his keys that Truax met with his low-end, creating thick melodies that rose above the beat.
There’s something subversive about this project when one considers that, for all its beloved classics, Joy Division was a morose and ultimately tragic project. Though dub music lingers and takes its time, it’s also ultimately a joyous celebration of contentment with the self, offering those willing to let its tape loops and delays wash over them like a chance at aural transcendence—the ability to get lost and leave your physical state—if only for a few moments. Because of this, those willing to fully submit to these sounds are transported to a similar place that a free jazz aficionado might travel when lost in a skronking improvisation , or an ambient music fan in a meditative soundscape. It’s ecstatic music all the same.
Moreover, there’s nothing disingenuous or appropriative about these dudes remixing a Manchester band’s music in the dub style, because the tradition of remixing and reshaping music is crucial to dub’s DNA. Folding in songs from a group they all love is less an appropriative move and more a reclamation. Remember, the British unabashedly appropriated reggae music and ran with it. From The Clash’s “Police and Thieves” cover to Ian Dury & The Blockhead’s “Dance Little Rude Boy”, it’s a cross-cultural relationship that runs deep and strange with whiffs of colonization. 1962, the same year that Jamaica declared its independence, British reggae label Island Records was founded.
It can be argued that Jäh Division are doing the inverse with their Joy Division covers, bringing classic British songs inspired by reggae music back home, quite similar in practice to Jimmy Cliff covering The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” in 2012. That they do it with solid gear, expert musicianship a genuine understanding of craft only gives this project more legs. May more originals, and future music, emerge once the smoke clears.