Fortunate Youth is one of the hardest working bands in reggae, a statement that almost comes off as an oxymoron for a genre often demonized as a gathering point for apathetic weed smokers. Stigma aside, the group combines local band fervor with big city ambition, spending the last six years in an almost constant state of touring all around the U.S., and managing to record six albums along the way. Their newest LP — the sativa-infused Don’t Think Twice, released on May 5, 2015 — is reggae with a biting rock feel and an aura of endearing, pragmatic positivity that makes it a fitting soundtrack for the Southern California coast.
The six-piece Cali roots outfit formed when Travi Bongo, now percussionist for Fortunate Youth, saw vocalist Dan Kelly performing at an open mike in Hermosa Beach. Together they joined Bongo’s friends’ band Rudeboy Roots, which lasted until the fateful day when their entire rhythm section, minus Bongo, quit. In an interview with The Pier, Kelly remarked, “Us three were having the time of our life and did not want to stop and moved on without the brothers and changed our name to Fortunate Youth. Little Corey, Jered’s brother was in a band called Irie State of Mind and we all joined forces at our manager’s birthday party in my back yard.” Fortunate Youth’s unofficial first show was an impromptu conga jam that very night, and the reverie hasn’t stopped since.
Singer Dan Kelley, drummer Jordan Rosenthal and guitarist/bassist Greg Gelb sat down with The Bottom Line before their recent show at Soho in downtown Santa Barbara to talk about recording, life on the road and their own musical origins.
TBL: What music do you guys listen to on the tour bus?
Dan: I listen to everything you could put in a bowl, and stir it around. Y’know, we sleep more than you can imagine. On tour, there’s not just one day; all of them just combine into one day, so y’know most the time, Jordan likes animal sounds, the sound of animals, is that right? [Laughs]
Jordan: [Laughs] I started out listening to Beach Boys [Pet Sounds] one car drive from Crater Lake, but a lot of the guys love classics, so like Motown, Oldies, Van Morrison, Temptations, everyone’s a fan of Fat Freddy’s Drop, the Skids are good friends of ours, they’re from England.
Dan: I’m listening to them right now. We’re also listening to the Steppas, they’re from Hawaii. So yeah, a lot of really great bands to check out that we listen to.
TBL: Yeah, that sounds like a wide variety. Have you had a chance to play with any of your heroes?
Dan: Glad you asked that, we have, personally I have. We love the Green. That little fam from New Zealand, Katchafire, we love those guys and growing up we were like, “Whoa, this is so cool!” and then you play with them and you’re like … “Whoa, this is so cool!” and then you play with them more and it’s like, “Wow, we’re smoking weed! This is cool!” [Laughs]
Y’know, the experiences you have just hanging out, moments like that. Then you start to have those moments with SOJA and everyone else, and you’re like, “Man!” y’know? Who’s next on my list of dreams?
Jordan: Dan’s right, it’s getting really exciting. The more we play, the more the band gets known, the more we end up just bumping into and hanging out with these people, who we’ve been fans of for a long time, and they’re calling us by our name and it’s a big surprise. We’re hanging out after shows, and Dan’s always getting into a lot of fun trouble with different lead singers from all around. Collie Buddz was just around, we were hanging out, and it was just cool. It was a pleasure.
At this point Greg Gelb walked in and we were introduced.
TBL: What do you play?
Greg: Guitar and bass. We switch.
Dan: Everyone else besides me and Jordan switches. Travi Bongo, well he plays bongos, but also bass, keys, guitar.
Jordan: Everyone switches it up on stage.
Dan: Everyone just goes everywhere. It’s a big, ADD extravaganza. Every song someone’s moving, someone’s changing an instrument, throwing things at Jordan, lighting things on fire.
TBL: Lighting things on fire?
Dan: The last two things were just a joke [laughs], to see if you were paying attention, y’know?
TBL: The Flaming Lips actually used to do that before they were big, like they’d light their drums on fire, just crazy stage antics.
Jordan: We played Bonnaroo with the Flaming Lips actually, a few years ago.
TBL: Nice, did you get to meet them?
Dan: Yeah got to hang out and drink at this one bar, it was fun. Who else was cool, Edward Sharpe was cool.
Jordan: The Floozies were a fun band back there. The String Cheese Incident. It’s cool because it’s a multi-genre festival, and all these different bands get to mingle who wouldn’t meet or play together otherwise.
TBL: Yeah, seriously. And this has just started happening to you in the past few years right? Like you guys started out in 2009, releasing albums steadily up until now. When did it start to really precipitate into this thing where you’re playing with all these famous people, playing all these big shows?
Dan: I think it was about a year after we began, we were jumping around the country so much people started checking out our EP, listening to us on Pandora. So we were kinda new in the scene, and all these things started propelling us, Fortunate Youth, forward. And Fortunate Youth is a bunch of guys, aged 25-35, who have been just non-stop touring for six years. This past year we’ve only done 112 shows, one album, 60,000 miles, nine festivals. Good times.
TBL: How do you find time to record music in between and write songs?
Dan: That album was recorded during sound checks of that previous year, so it is hard to find time.
Greg: Yeah, like he said, when we’re on the road sound check is a time that we’re all together, and playing instruments, as well as acoustic stuff. For the most part we try to do whatever practice we can, when we can.
Dan: It takes about three to four weeks to record, and there are eight to ten hour days back to back, five or six days a week until it’s done. When it’s done we relax for a minute, listen to whole game plan, we hit the country with all the advertising and face time, put it out there in the videos, it’s just a whole plan put into motion. Pretty cute, it’s a pretty cute plan. [Laughs] Press the button, buh-boom. Whole ‘nother album.
TBL: And is this all in one studio?
Dan: Fortunately, we’ve had a good run with 17th Street over in Costa Mesa.
Greg: It’s where Sublime was recording, Dirty Heads too.
Dan: They’ve been in the scene for quite a while. We wanted Fortunate Youth to sound in between the heres and theres, the little sounds y’know, thinking who sums up our sound in the South Bay SoCal scene. We’re able to create a good relationship with those guys, a big family.
TBL: [To Dan] What made you want to leave Mississippi to come to come to California?
Dan: There’s more opportunity here than there is over there. No matter your dream or your passion may be, whether you want to be a chef, a lead singer, you could do it in California. People don’t have very open minds there. I needed to go somewhere with an open mind, an open field, a lot of opportunity to find out who I was, I just needed a different America.
TBL: And you started out playing blues right? Or were at least influenced by it?
Dan: You grow up hearing a lot of blues, so you’re already prone to it, prone to country, jazz in the festivals going on, which are the biggest and best in the country, y’know? Then you take yourself and move, and find out about Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, grunge and all these things just clash, and the clash is where you find yourself.
TBL: How did you all end up choosing reggae?
Dan: I was a numbers guy, I was in business, and for me reggae was like a mixture of country, pop, Latin, even gospel, all these great genres I grew up around, but none of them brought together the light and dark of peoples’ days like reggae does. Reggae had more meaning, and it needed more love. Bob Marley could only do as much as he could. It was a new awakening.
Jordan: My older brother was into punk rock, and punk rock, ska music and reggae music are all intertwined into one. We had CDs laying around and he chose more old school punk rock, so I chose more new school punk rock, ska and reggae, and it kinda worked itself out. I’ve been playing ska and reggae since I was 13. Ska actually came before reggae in musical history, so the evolution of ska is reggae, so it again it kind of worked itself out. Also, my Dad played drums, and so did his dad before him, all the way up to my great-grandfather. Everyone in my family plays an instrument, except for my mom, but she’s a huge music buff.
Greg: I listened to reggae going into middle school, getting into all the different genres these guys were talking about. Then I started playing music with Corey, and Jered around high school, that’s when we were getting into reggae, and that’s what we’ve been playing for the past ten years.
TBL: What’s the message behind the name of your newest album, Don’t Think Twice?
Greg: Don’t think twice about living, we’ve got one life to live. There’s a lot of different ways to look at it. I think it’s a cool concept because it applies to a lot of different people, a lot of different scenarios.
Dan: It applies to everything. Don’t think twice, we all end up at the same place. If you look at the back of the album, two roads come back into each other. Y’know, no matter what you think, it’s all gonna be … alright.