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Higher Calling

[whitespace] Dub Congress
Dub and Dubber: Santa Cruz's homegrown Dub Congress (from left Dan Shafer, Aaron Sonnenshine, Josh Colman, Nathan Martisius and Ehrin Poklen) should give up a good dose of socially conscious, reggae-inspired tunes at its Friday night Catalyst show.

Dub Congress rises up from the underground

By Neal Rogers

OUTSIDE THE PACIFIC Ave. show there's parked an old gray van, ordinary except for the word "DUB" duct-taped over a cracked rear window. The buzz in the air is distinctively Friday night. An anxious line of people waits to get inside the club as the sound of reggae music spills onto the street. It makes no difference what venue it is, when Dub Congress is in session, the van is always there, bringing a music and style to downtown Santa Cruz that can be described with one word--roots.

Inside, a mixed crowd moves to the music. Surfers, dreads, Slugs and underage groupies blend into a sea of heads, floating along with the rhythm. Fronting the five-man band are singer Nathan Martisius and guitarist Ehrin Poklen, both Soquel High grad (Class of '91), both sporting T-shirts and baggies, looking every bit as comfortable onstage as they would be skating the parking lot outside or surfing the left at 26th Avenue.

As the next song begins--"Yesterday I took a ride over there on the East-siiide"--the Dub groupies cheer and sing along, confirming the group's local status with the proclamation that "All the conscious people livin' right here in SC!"

Like many Dub Congress songs, "Positive Trip" represents a Santa Cruz perspective as seen through the unwavering eyes of Martisius, the primary songwriter and stage presence for the band.

As the Congress finds its groove and the enthusiastic crowd follows, the power of the moment builds until Martisius clenches his microphone and, with a far-off look in his glazed eyes, somberly declares "Red eyes shall I fly to the sky till the day that I die," and suddenly this upbeat song takes a forceful turn. The singer's face turns red and the veins in his neck throb as he unloads-- "We're sick and tired of hearing about this wicked environment/Why don't we give the youth some encouragement. ..."

Protesting offenses such as violence, racism and apathy with a positive message and an infectious beat, Dub Congress shouldn't be mistaken for a typical surf town white reggae band. The DCers don't play cheesy love songs or half-assed cover tunes, and they're not Rastas. What they are is an all-original roots reggae band influenced by a wide range of socially conscious music. Call it reggae with an edge.

More Smart Than Sublime

PEOPLE COMPARE us to Sublime all the time," Martisius laughs, and for good reason. While both bands share a passion for good herb, DC doesn't sound like Sublime-- it doesn't have a DJ or use samples--and Dub's lyrics are smarter and more conscious. Still, it's a safe bet that had he not died, Sublime's Brad Newell would have been a Dub Congress fan.

"I listened to the Dead Kennedys alot in high school," Martisius discloses. "More for the message than the music ... . I couldn't believe what Jello Biafra would write about and get away with saying. Political punk that was always speaking the truth."

Drummer Aaron Sonnenshine (answers to "Sunshine") got his start as a short-lived but original founding member of Eastside punk heroes Fury 66. "They booted me," he explains, "because I smoked herb and listened to reggae."

So he hooked up with Martisius and Poklen, who were beginning their own project, and started collaborating, practicing and playing parties with them when not working or studying on his own.

"Dub Congress," Martisius smiles, "is a college- educated band. You can tell 'em that." With the additions of Stanford grad student Dan Shafer on keyboards and Josh Colman on bass, the boys rounded out and added depth to their sound.

Bandmembers give each other a hard time most of the time, the product of spending countless hours rehearsing and recording. "Sunshine could get more girls," Poklen jabs, "if only he would just change his shirt after gigs."

"Nate and I met in traveling school when were 13," Poklen says. "I turned him onto reggae, camping out on his front lawn listening to Burning Spear. We've been more or less 'best friends' ever since." However they seem more like brothers, arguing about who gets to take the skateboard as they part ways.

"There's definitely a range of personalities in this band," Shafer explains. "And with that comes a range of possibilities and ideas."

Playing With Fire

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN the endpoints of that range Martisius. Very much the quintessential artist, he comes across simultaneously as focused and distant, and looking into his eyes doesn't make him any more clear. He claims to compose new songs everyday. When asked to explain his lyric "All unite or fall to the conflagration," he explains. "It means fire."

"Yeah, 'fire'," Poklen jokes. "It's a Nate word. Just like there are Nate chords."

Nate Matrices' reply? "My chords have names, I just don't always know what they are."

On stage with guitar in hand, Martisius is reminiscent of a young Sting in his early Police days. He's relaxed and intense, possessing the confidence that comes from having a tight band behind him. His voice, young, powerful, full of potential.

When asked about Martisus, Shafer chooses his words carefully. "Nate's a visionary in his own way," he says. "Sometimes he gets that far-off look in his eye ... and sees something out there that the rest of us don't or can't see."

Besides his role as the "Speaker of the House" for Dub Congress, Martisus is a hard-working carpenter, a man who spends his sunny three-day weekends laying tile to support his family. He and his wife Christy have been married seven years, and have two young sons, Dylan and Isaiah, the latter the namesake of a track on Dub Congress' new record.

Dub Congress' debut CD, released last December, was produced by the band with soundman Andrew Seidel and distributed on its own independent record label, Large Scale Records. The self-titled disc is remarkable both for its production quality and in the depth of the 10 songs the band chose to record. While "Positive Trip" and "Praises High" may be popular favorites, the buried treasure of the disc is found on the closing track "Thinkin'," a call for unified and conscious resistance against the various forms of indoctrination that surround us daily.

"All over the world, this nation terrorized," Martisus sings. "You people are so deaf you can't hear their cries/Don't recognize this government has been telling you lies/Better get a grip real quick and open your eyes." As the song ends, he unloads a freestyle rap and rhyme about the opiate of today's America--"Terrorism in the television/Filling your mind with garbage and warped perception/I said the television, the television, can't you feel it wiping away your true opinion?"

What is most impressive about this finale is that it was improvised while in the studio. "That whole section was completely off the top of his head," Shafer says. "I couldn't believe it. Everyone in the studio was floored."

Colman agrees. "I think it's the best part of the record."

This next year holds promise for the band. After playing various clubs in town, the Dub Congress landed a spot in the coveted Friday-night rotation at the Catalyst. A short summer tour of the Southwest is in the works, and the guys have already written enough material for another record.

Backstage, conversation about DC's CD leads to discussion about a follow-up record. Maybe it should be more dub, or all new material, or maybe a live album. Soon the dressing room is filled with opinions. Under the conversation, Martisus quietly says, "However the next album is, we'll all have our say and we'll all agree."

Very diplomatic. Just like in Congress.


Dub Congress plays with Hidden Kulcha Friday (9:30pm) at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., SC. Tickets cost $7/$5. For more info, call 408/423-1338.

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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