Over the past two years, Sunny Cheeba has honed a catalog of tunes that would establish the band as Lexington’s foremost voice of reggae and dub music. In turn, those songs would make up its self-titled debut album.
But the curiosity here is that this isn’t a new stylistic venture or even a new partnership for any of the musicians. Vocalist/keyboardist Jerrod Figgs, drummer Tim Welch, guitarist Wendell Rodgers and bassist Steve Cherry have been frequent performers on local stages for three decades, with a personal friendship that goes back even further. On top of that, all four were members of a previous Lexington reggae outfit called The Rudies, although Rodgers wasn’t part of that band’s final lineup.
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So even though the goal was to design new music, all of the components going into the project were familiar.
Take, for instance, the band’s namesake tune, an instrumental work that doubles as the title song to the album that Sunny Cheeba will celebrate the release of with a show Friday night at Best Friend Bar. It’s one of the more aggressive works on the record, with a driving guitar and percussive charge and a calliope-like keyboard lead capped by production that surrounds the resulting groove in luscious echo. As Figgs explained, the four players went for a new sound by embracing what they already knew.
“That was probably the first song we wrote together. We just wanted to see what we could do together in this particular lineup, even though we’ve all known each other forever. There’s the irony. It was like, ‘Well, you know what you’re going to do. You’ve been doing it for years.’”
The band is named for Japanese actor, singer and martial artist Sonny Chiba That might confuse hip-hop fans, because a member of the Bronx rap collective Camp Lo goes by the same alias.
“Jerrod likes the whole martial arts thing from the ’70s,” said Welch, whose trio Mick Moon’s Shock Theatre rounds out Friday night’s Best Friend Bar bill. “I’m a fan of that, too. So this just felt right. It rolled off the tongue well. Really, at this point in the game, if we can find something we all agree on as a name, then let’s go with it.
“But the band itself, whether it was The Rudies or Sunny Cheeba, has always been this melting pot of all these reggae styles: rock steady, dub, even the late ’70s English New Wave stuff played by The Specials and The Clash.”
The members, the music and the mission mirrored The Rudies, but there was a conscious decision to view Sunny Cheeba as a new band project.
“When the Rudies ended, Jerrod was pretty adamant about not doing any Rudies songs,” Welch said.
Said Figgs: “We’re coming from the ashes of The Rudies, for sure. We didn’t really change but one person, so you can look at this as a bit of a continuation. At the same time, it’s also new with a different group of songwriters. Just changing that one person will change the approach.”
Rodgers is that one person. Although he was an original Rudie, his interest in playing again with his former bandmates laid the groundwork for Sunny Cheeba. Figgs authored the lyrics, but Rodgers wound up writing much of the new music.
“Wendell has a great love of all reggae,” Welch said. “He’s really schooled in it, but he also does this incredible metallic guitar work that’s straight out of Iron Maiden, with all these harmonies and layers of guitar parts.”
The band plays locally about once a month, although its music has won some high-profile fans well outside of the Bluegrass. Among them is Toronto dub and reggae artist/producer Dubmatix, who has featured Sonny Cheeba’s music on an underground radio show that he hosts in Canada. In the end, though, the members’ love of dub is second only to the personal bond they have established through the years.
“Things most bands go through, we’ve already been through,” Figgs said. “So as far as egos and all that stuff, it’s all pushed way down. At this point, we’ve all done a lot of different things with a lot of different people and have experienced varying amounts of success. So for Sunny Cheeba, it’s just about writing this music and doing what we do.
“The best way to describe the band is that it is what we have always been about. As you get older, you really value that. I do, anyway. It’s a friendship thing. It’s a camaraderie thing. It’s about making this music and not sweating it.”