The Expanders
The Expanders
Photo by Josue Rivas

The Expanders' Brand of Classic Reggae Is Built on Harmony

The Expanders take pains to duplicate the sounds of classic Jamaican music using old tube guitar amps, vintage organs, and Leslie speakers, but there's some irony in doing so, according to rhythm guitarist/vocalist Devin Morrison. Speaking with New Times from the band's tour van, he explains that pioneering '60s and '70s groups such as the Wailers Band and the Ethiopians never really stuck to one sound. Rather, they constantly innovated.

"Once they moved on from ska to rocksteady to reggae to dub to dancehall, they never really went back to any of them," he says. "They didn't worry about trying to do it again. They were on to the next thing."

The Expanders just dropped a new single, "Blood Morning," and are set to play the Wynwood Yard March 25. The five-member group from Los Angeles formed in 1999, but it wasn't until five or six years ago that fans and critics began considering the bandmates "vintage reggae revivalists." As the reggae-rock genre (think bands like Sublime and Slightly Stoopid) has grown and evolved since the '90s, the Expanders have largely remained the same.

"It started becoming strange to people that we were playing old-school reggae music, which is what we always did," Morrison says.

Though they grew up separately, all of the guys in the band began listening to early Jamaican music when they were young. At 15 years old, Morrison was drawn in by the revolutionary lyrics, infectious grooves, and organic instrumentation. Indeed, early reggae didn't use much in the way of synthesized sounds, instead favoring drums, bass, and organs, plus thick and sticky-sounding rhythm guitar. Morrison says his style of playing guitar is basically like using it as a percussion instrument.

"I always compare it to the sound of when you're walking around with gum on the bottom of your shoe," he says.

Also in line with classic reggae, the Expanders incorporate lots of close, multiple-part vocal harmonies. "When we started the band, none of us were really singers," Morrison says. "No one one was clearly the frontrunner to be the lead singer, but we figured that our voices are OK and that if we learn to sing harmonies, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. We can create this blend that sounds nicer, at least to our ears, than one of us singing by ourselves.

"And it's also just fun," he continues. "There's something about the vibration created when you sing a harmony to someone singing a melody... It's a unique experience to come in together and create a chord with each other's voices."

Morrison emphasizes that the Expanders are not a nostalgia act. Though they stick to the sounds of early reggae, they find ways to make it their own — and keep it relevant.

"We're trying to get as close to that sound as we can but also put our own spin on it," he says. "The most important thing is that we like what we're hearing, not so much that we're duplicating exactly something that was done 40 years ago."

The Expanders. With Sensamotion and Dubbest. 7 p.m. Sunday, March 25, at the Wynwood Yard, 56 NW 29th St., Miami; 305-351-0366; thewynwoodyard.com. Admission is free.

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