"What would happen if the Beach Boys had the Wailers as their backing band instead of the Wrecking Crew? What if David Bowie spent the summer of 1975 in Kingston, Jamaica, with King Tubby instead of Philadelphia? Michael Jackson meets Scratch Perry?" That’s the premise from Nate Bridges for Black Market Dub, which remixes pop music, punk rock, even TV soundtracks into dub reggae tracks. After falling in love with his Bowie and Clash EPs a while back, we had to know more—so we asked the man behind the boards.
Andrew Womack: How did all this start? What made you think, OK, this could be a thing?
Nate Bridges: Black Market actually started as a master's thesis project during my time at Berklee Valencia in Spain, about five years ago. I was in the Music Technology & Innovation program with a heavy focus on audio and recording, and many of my fellow classmates were doing really progressive, forward-thinking projects having to do with virtual reality or 3D projection mapping and things like that. I decided that I needed to do something a bit more grounded and based in my skillset as an engineer, and there is no better music on Earth that showcases recording engineers than dub.
Andrew: Why is that?
Nate: Dub is the first truly electronic music, and by extension it places the focus on the recording engineer because they’re the one who changes the track from a regular reggae song into a dub track. Notice that when you buy dub albums you are buying records by King Tubby, Lee Perry, Scientist, etc., even though the bands on those albums might be the Upsetters, Roots Radics, or even the Wailers. The band is providing the canvas for these engineers to paint on, and you’d be hard pressed to find any other genre from the 20th century that took that route.
Even with dub being as fun and unique as it is, I still knew I needed more of a hook to keep people’s attention for my master’s thesis project, so I decided to take a stab at remixing David Bowie. I played a live performance of the entire Bowie in Dub album for all of my professors and classmates, and from that moment on I knew I needed to keep going with it. Everyone loved it.
Andrew: Why Bowie?
Nate: I wanted to choose an eclectic artist who people were already used to dancing to. There are some bands or musicians who would be a bigger shock to the system than others, and I try to avoid them. For example, I think Johnny Cash or Nirvana would sound stupid if given the Black Market treatment. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but that doesn’t mean that it should be done. I think artists who don't already have one foot in soul or funk will not lend themselves to a reggae remix. Those genres all have a shared DNA that makes them compatible with dub. The reason that [Bowie] works and [Cash] fails is because of the difference in diversity between their catalogs. It’s hard to imagine Johnny Cash outside of Sun Studios with an acoustic guitar, but we all routinely imagine David Bowie in outer space. The same goes for their music. We are primed for different musical experiences based on the artist.
Andrew: Take us inside your process. To start, how do you select a tune to do? How about the recording and mixing process?
Nate: I’m really careful about what I select. If I’m not fixated on an artist, or they were not a major part of the fabric of my history as a musician, I probably won’t do it. Even once I find an artist I’d like to remix, I have to contend with finding usable acapellas on the internet, which is easier said than done. But once I do select a song, I begin by locking the original recording to a tempo map as a reference, and then tempo-mapping out the solo vocal track as well. Then I select from a number of pre-recorded drum performances by the amazing drummer Horseman, based out of the UK. Horseman is one of the premier reggae drummers in the world, and he sells multitrack stems of reggae performances from his website that I use as the backbone to most of my remixes. Once I select one of his loops, I lock that drum part down to the same tempo grid as the vocals. At this point I basically have the “skeleton” of the track, and from there I can start overdubbing my own guitar, bass, keys, percussion, etc. I almost always mix as I go, which helps a ton with being able to turn this project around so quickly every month. Once I have a set mix for a track, I’ll then do a “Dub Pass” where I add in all my delay and reverb throws, or any automation. Once that is finished the track makes its way to my mastering template, and from that point I’m usually only a few days (or hours) from debuting the finished product on Bandcamp.
Andrew: It’s the sheer amount of detail and care you put into these tracks, though, that transports your tracks from novelty—or even parody—into the best kinds of remixes, which are those that stand on their own.
One of my favorite Bowie songs, in fact, is one you gave the Black Market treatment to, and that’s “Lady Stardust,” and there’s so much nuance you added to this one. This is when your stuff really blew me away, personally, because it’s not just dubbed-up. You added backing vocals and horns, and they work, just, wow, perfectly. Now I miss them when I listen to the Ziggy Stardust version. Do you pull in additional performers for those kinds of extra touches?
Nate: That song is easily one of my proudest productions. Up to that point I’d made several EPs but I knew that in order to grow my sound I had to bring in other people, because there is only so much I can do. Luckily a lot of my closest friends are incredible reggae musicians, and I got Joanne Highland of Pennyreel (another great reggae band featuring Brandon Niznik and Brian Wallace) to sing harmony all over the song. I told Joanne to treat the song as if Bowie were Bob Marley and she was singing backup for Marley and the Wailers. I wanted the song to have that same call and response feel, and Joanne completely nailed it. She has incredible intuition as a singer and a beautiful voice that sounds perfect with Bowie.
That song again features Niznik on Bass and Wallace on sax. Those two are always first to get the call because no one who better understands what I’m trying to do than they do.
I was contacted by Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison's manager, who wanted to tell me personally how much Jerry loved what I had done with my Remain in Dub EP. I was informed shortly after that Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth also heard it and enjoyed it as well. I cried that night! It was incredible.
Andrew: So what's your background with dub and reggae?
Nate: I grew up in California and all of my brothers were huge reggae fans, so I was listening to dub and reggae on the beach every weekend. They showed me Eek-A-Mouse, Wailing Souls, Barrington Levy, Gregory Issacs, Yellowman, Peter Tosh, Culture, and tons of other killer artists when I was a kid. Once I got into high school I started an internship at Rockwell Sounds, which was a local recording studio run by Brian Wallace at the time. He was actually our high school band teacher up to that point, before deciding to open a recording studio full time. At that point I met Brandon Niznik, played with the Progressors, and then went on to college. I kind of took a break while living in Boston, but once I got back to LA I was fully immersed back into the reggae scene there.
Andrew: What do you consider your greatest Black Market Dub remix so far?
Nate: That is a very tough question that might need a tough answer. It might just be recency bias, but I think “Young Americans” from my newest Bowie EP Thin White Dub has to be up there as one of my favorites. It’s one of the only tracks I listened to just for fun while I was making it, and it’s easily one of my all time favorite Bowie tunes. I honestly think it stands up to the original track because it grooves just as hard, in its own way. I made sure to not diminish any of the dance-ability of the original, and the contributions from Dub Robot and Wise Owl, on sax and bass respectively, are just incredible.
Andrew: Tell me about Dub Robot and Wise Owl.
Nate: Brian Wallace (aka Dub Robot) is a huge figure in the LA ska/rocksteady scene. He had played with Sublime on 40oz. to Freedom and tons of other incredible albums up to that point. I helped him start his current project/ongoing art installation, Dub Robot, which he has carried on for at least 15 years now. I could probably talk about the Dub Robot project for hours. When Wallace first approached me about it, it was while he was spray painting his late ‘80s Volvo silver and drilling scrap metal directly into the body of the car. I honestly thought he was having a nervous breakdown or something, but we literally turned that car into a time machine by the end of the day. He put speakers on the outside of the car that played strange space noises on a loop everywhere he went, and the car was just the beginning. He gave me and the others involved lab coats and we would drive around in his car doing “dub experiments” using a specialized, battery powered mixing rig that used a radio transmitter to broadcast our music onto dead radio stations. Since all the instruments we played were electronic and plugged directly into this special mix rig, we could use our own car stereos as sound systems when we performed live, and Wallace would dub everything out. We’d play on the sidewalk, or in parking garages, sometimes just under a bridge or on the side of the highway while cars drove by. It was the most punk rock project I’ve ever been a part of, I loved it.
Wallace has a magnetic personality, and I know countless reggae musicians who consider him a mentor and friend, chief among them being Brandon Niznik (aka Wise Owl). Once I got to Los Angeles after my time in Spain, I joined a reggae band called Horsemouth (named after a different reggae drummer), and lived with Brandon, who was the bandleader, for several years. That band featured Joanne Highland as well as several other musicians who were all connected through Wallace, and we’d play the pub scene doing reggae covers on the weekends. Brandon is another person who I am constantly learning from and collaborating with. He’s a brilliant musician, and Black Market would probably not be as good as it is if I hadn’t stolen all of his techniques while we lived together. Having both him and Wallace as resources and collaborators is a major reason for the success I’ve seen from Black Market.
Andrew: I love the remix of “Young Americans,” and was really anticipating what you were going to do with the vocal break at “break down and cry”—it didn’t disappoint!
Nate: Yes, that moment alone was almost worth the entire endeavor! I really love that song, and again it would probably be at the top of my list for favorite remixes, but I could easily include my remixes for “Clampdown” by the Clash, “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, the Twin Peaks theme song, and tons of other Bowie remixes. After over 120 tracks it gets harder and harder to pick just a few tracks that people should check out.
Andrew: “Modern Love” is just perfect. Almost felt like it had been written to be remixed like this. You mention “Clampdown,” which I love as well. What’s your approach to adding dub to the Clash? Some tracks, certainly the Twin Peaks theme, start much further away from this place, but the Clash was already making—or frequently making—this music. So how does that different when you’re working with the Clash’s music?
Nate: Thank you, “Modern Love” is another one that had absolutely crucial contributions from Niznik and Wallace.
The Clash are interesting because, like you said, they were already dabbling in dub and reggae. This makes working with their music easier in some ways and harder in others. For instance, like I mentioned before, bands and musicians that already play these kinds of styles lend themselves to my remix treatment better than others. But at the same time, without completely replacing most of the instrumentation, the dub treatment alone is not enough to transform these songs in the way people may be expecting from Black Market. I think Complete Clash, my second Clash EP, is great but suffers from this. Some of the songs are complete reinventions, while others are just the Clash playing with me adding dub effects because the Clash were already playing all the reggae parts! It’s cool, and it sort of works, but I don’t think I’ll ever do anything like that again. I expect my next Clash EP will be a complete reimagination instead of just reworking the songs as they are.
Andrew: Have any tunes not worked out?
Nate: Definitely. I could have done a much better job early on by culling some of the tracks I wasn’t in love with. There are quite a few early Beach Boys tracks that I did that I can’t listen to, and even a number of Bowie tunes on that first EP that I can’t understand how I wasn’t torn to shreds for. I used to just try and get out as many songs on an EP as possible, but now I’m much more focused on making every song as high quality as I can. The “London Calling” remix from the first Clash EP I did is hard for me to listen to, there are so many things I’d do differently now. Part of my ethos with this project from the very beginning was that I had to put a month-long time limit on myself. I had to release what I had, warts and all, every month, because constructive criticism would help me grow creatively and technically. There would be clear landmarks of improvement I could always reference, and I quickly found that releasing something flawed felt a thousand times better than tinkering with something for months or years until it was perfect. I could have toiled away for the last five years trying to make the next Dub Side of the Moon, but instead I’ve made 25 imperfect EPs that a lot of people really love. I’ll take the latter route every time.
Andrew: Something I’ve found with your remixes is that—back in the days when we used to have people over—I’d put on one of your tracks for guests, and everyone would instantly respond to it like, now this is good. Not like, oh, this is funny or even laugh, but just start bobbing their heads and respond so positively to this really inventive, thoughtful take on this already amazing song. Invariably, people want to look at the rest of your catalog, and then that’s what we’re listening to for a while. It’s not like this high concept that wears thin two tracks in. It works, and it works on everyone I’ve played it for.
Nate: I try really hard to create remixes that can stand alongside the artist’s original work, while understanding how impossible that actually is. This music deserves my utmost attention and care, and to give it anything less would be pointless and borderline disrespectful. My dream for this project is not to be famous or even super popular, I just want acknowledgement from these original artists. That to me is better than anything. I have to thank you personally Andrew, for the post you did on my music from last year. Not only did I receive a ton of attention from that, but due to all that attention I was actually contacted by the manager of Jerry Harrison (guitarist for Talking Heads) who wanted to tell me personally how much Jerry loved what I had done with my Talking Heads remix EP Remain in Dub. I was informed shortly after that Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth also heard it and enjoyed it as well. I cried that night! It was incredible. A good friend of mine once told me “Every song you release is like a lottery ticket. You never know what will happen once your music is out in the world.” It’s fun to watch these songs have lives of their own.
You can hear the full Black Market Dub catalog at Bandcamp. If you like what you hear, consider donating to Nate and fuel more remixes.