Reggae-grunge sounds like the worst thing in the world, but Little Roy doesn't mope.
If I was going to get anyone to re-record a collection of Nirvana's best and most neurotic tracks, I'd probably get a Rastafarian guy who started singing rocksteady in the 1960s to do it. Oh wait, no I wouldn't, but maybe that's why I've been listening to Battle For Seattle so much.
Little Roy cut records with Studio One, Lloyd Daley, "Scratch" Perry and Prince Buster in the 1960s and 70s. I called him to ask him how he ended up singing songs originally written by a really unhappy guy from Seattle in 2011.
VICE: Hey, is that Little Roy?
Little Roy: Yes, yes. I've been expecting your call.
Where are you at the moment? Are you in London?
Yes, I'm in London. I'm at home at the moment. Yes. I live in Balham.
I don't know much about Balham. The record's great, though. Where did the idea come from?
It wasn't really my idea. It was the idea of Mike Pelanconi, otherwise known as Prince Fatty. We've been talking about it for a couple of years now. We went to Thailand together. He thought I was the artist with the right vibe to sing these songs. So that is how I ended up doing the work.
Were you a big Nirvana fan before you started recording this album?
No, not really, but I've heard some of his songs sporadically, you know? The melodies I was always catching, but I wouldn't stop to study what the song is saying.
He did grunt quite a lot.
Yes. At first I didn't really know what the songs were talking about, being that I'm not a rock fan. But as soon as I got them on paper I found them very interesting. A songwriter always writes things of his own experience. I found his lyrics to be really commanding. There are great songs, and I really enjoy singing them. I did them at Reading Festival and the reaction of the audience... these songs had them in a trance, you know? His songs have to be great to have that impact on people.
Did you not find some of the lyrics a bit mopey and sad?
It might be so. But when I sing those songs I see people are happy. So I wouldn't say really that they are mopey and sad songs. I wouldn't term them that way.
When I went to Reading when I was a kid, I had a Nirvana hoodie and on the back of it it said: "I hate myself and I want to die."
Okay. Maybe what he did was sad, but his songs to me, the way they come over be friendly. Like that song, what's it, "Grandma take me home," you know? That song is his experience from five or six years old.
When he was eating mashed potato.
Yes, and he wasn't pleased that his mother and father left him with his grandma, you know? You know... Yes.
I guess that song has a narrative, like a lot of rocksteady and reggae that I've heard. I always thought Sugar Minott would tell a good bedtime story. What do your reggae friends think of the record?
They honestly think it's great. They didn't expect it, it's so far above what I've been doing. This has taken me to a new audience, because I am a roots artist. That's what I've spent my career doing, writing great roots songs like "Tribal War", which has been sampled by Damien Marley and Nas, you know?
Yeah, I know, yeah.
Have an angry rock band like Nirvana ever covered your songs before?
No, not really, most of them have been reggae artists. Ten of my songs have been covered by other artists. Sometimes when people cover them, they don't respect me. They try to pretend that they wrote my songs themselves. But I never do that, and I could not do it to Nirvana even if I wanted to because they're international, also. So there's no way I can hide that fact.
Do you think you would have got on with Kurt Cobain if you'd met him?
Yes, I think we could get on. I got on with Bob Marley, so yeah.
Do you think Kurt Cobain is on the same level as Bob Marley?
They're both inspired artists. Sold a lot of records, and the world all over loved them, so they're on the same level.
What do you think about the way Kurt Cobain died?
It was sad, he took his life. I wonder what he could have been thinking about to do something like that. I don't wanna judge him in any shape or form, but something must have been going through his head, yah nuh, to do something like that. Sometimes, I would say, "the devil walk in," you know? And take over people's lives. The devil took him in not a positive direction. Sometimes the devil can just creep up on you.
Where do you think the devil in Kurt Cobain's life came from?
Maybe it was brewing since when he was a kid. I watched a documentary on him, and there were things, mainly from when he was a kid, when his parents separated. Some kids can really take that to heart. Sometimes people don't just let go from something, it journeys with them. Maybe he was haunted by that. Cos maybe he loved his parents. And he couldn't take not seeing them not together.
How do you go about fixing stuff like that?
Sometimes things happen and it just can't be mended.
Where did you record Battle For Seattle?
We did this recording in Brighton, at Prince Fatty's studio. We had Mafia from Mafia and Fluxy, Junior Marvin who used to play guitar with Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steven Wright, also a guitarist, Carlton Roberts, a keyboard player. And I don't want to leave out George Dekker from the Pioneers, he was a harmony singer for all the songs.
A good crew. You must have some funny stories from the recording sessions, right?
Nothing funny happened, because we tried to take the project serious. No joking around.
I see. What are you doing for the rest of the day?
I'm going to meet Junior Marvin at Seven Sisters, cause he's here for a week.
Is he visiting you?
No, his mother lives over that side, you know. His mother. So I'm gonna take some of the albums to him, so he can take them back to America to give them to people.
What sort of thing do you two guys get up to when you hang out?
I dunno, because I don't smoke any more, and he don't smoke, so we can't even burn a spliff together, you know? [laughs]
Do you drink? Could you have a beer?
We might have a soft drink together, yeah.
Alright man, well thanks for speaking to me. Tell Junior I said hi.
Yes, thank you. Bye.
Battle For Seattle is out now through Ark Records.