A local band branching out from the roots of reggae: An interview with The Iscariots

Authored By Madison Baldwin

The Iscariots call Chattanooga home. They are self-proclaimed specialists in booty-shaking, electro-pop reggae.

It seems that “reggae” has become a blanket term most commonly associated with artists like Bob Marley & The Wailers or Sublime. The formation of several subgenres within reggae-ska, roots, rocksteady, dub, dancehall and fusion-is part of the reason that reggae’s popularity has spread far from its Jamaican home-so far that the reggae scene in Chattanooga does, in fact, exist. 

The Iscariots are a four-piece outfit made up of drummer Ivan Garcia, vocalist and guitarist Jesse “Ganja James” Jungkurth, bassist A.J. Lajas and Brett Nolan on keyboard.

The band released their first record, “Act of Treason,” July 11at a JJ’s Bohemia show after their Nightfall performance. 

They’re loud and proud and a little rough around the edges, but most of all they are insanely talented. The Iscariots are musicians attempting to localize and individualize reggae, and they’re beginning to succeed.

I sat down with Jungkurth and Lajas to talk about the band, musical experimentation and the Chattanooga music scene.

On their band name

Jesse Jungkurth: It came to me in a dream, a fantastic dream. Iscariot is the last name of Judas, the 13th disciple of Jesus Christ. Judas Iscariot. He’s the one that gave the kiss of death and betrayed Jesus. The cool thing is that most people don’t know that, but it sounds cool, and when they find out, they think we’re smart. So it works all around.

On their favorite venue

JJ: JJ’s Bohemia is the coolest place in town. It’s like home. It’s a dump, it’s a hole in the wall, and it’s awesome. You go and see a show there, and you are forced to be elbow to elbow with people. You don’t know who the hell they are, but by the end of it, you’re all drinking and partying and you meet everyone in there-because you have to. You’re singing, someone bumps the microphone, you lose a tooth, and you keep going. Because it’s awesome! It goes beyond the shows that you play there; it’s the history of the place. 

Adrian Lajas: There’s not one TV on the wall. There’s nothing to do at JJ’s except smoke, drink and watch the band. It’s very intimate. When you’re performing there, you just feed off the crowd’s energy.

On building a fanbase

JJ: We’re doing it backward, in which most bands play and play and play and play and write songs as they’re playing bars. And we’re like, “F*%# that.” Because when you’re playing a show and you don’t have a CD to sell, everybody’s like, “Oh, you’re so good! Can I buy some merch or something?” and you’re like, “Oh no, we don’t have anything, but like us on Facebook.” F*%# that. We’re gonna come out, put something badass out, and then we’re gonna just have it so that when we go play somewhere and people want it, it’s there. The model that we’re trying to go for is to put out kick-ass records, play good shows, and let the following build itself.

On getting started

AL: I was playing in a rock band at the time, Jesse was doing the country thing, and we got stuck doing this pool party. The only drummer we could get was Ivan, and the only keyboard player we could get was Brett. So we get up there, and we’re like, “What are we gonna play?” We all knew reggae songs, so we played reggae the whole party. It was so easy, and everyone loved it.

On being “borderline” reggae artists

JJ: The thing about reggae is that when you first listen to it, you don’t get it. And then you smoke weed. And then you sit back and chill, and something in your brain just clicks and you’re like, “I f%*#@*& love this [email protected]^.” The music that makes me feel like home is reggae. A lot of people would consider what we do not reggae. It’s borderline. It’s us having played reggae for so long, loving it, and then deciding to do it our own way and not emulating Bob Marley. When we recorded, Ivan had been listening to Daft Punk nonstop. We get in there to record, and he’s not playing reggae drums. He’s playing dance, and it’s just part of our sound. We’re not reggae purists.

AL: I grew up playing salsa music. When I listen to reggae, I don’t listen to a lot of new reggae. I listen to old Jamaican reggae, because that’s how I play and that’s what I like. We learned a long time ago that you can’t try and fit any one person into someone else’s box and succeed. I let them be themselves as musicians.

On multitasking

JJ: Brett, our keyboard player, works with 423PK, the online streaming local music radio station. He can’t be here because he’s in a hole somewhere in Soddy-Daisy pulling levers and twisting knobs. Have you heard of Machines Are People Too? Ivan is their drummer, as well as Big Smo’s drummer. We all have other bands that we play with.

On recording

JJ: “Cecilia” actually wasn’t supposed to be on the album. That song is about my experience as a foster parent. The baby was taken away from us the day before we went to record. That song was written as we were setting up.

AL: It was supposed to be sound check. Jesse was like, “Oh, I have these lyrics I was working on; what do you guys think?” The first take was perfect.  

On the future

JJ: World domination. And another record. We’ve already got half the new record written. It’s better than our last album because now we sit down and we write a song together.

Madison Baldwin is a 20-something writer and Nooga.com contributor, covering local lifestyle and occasionally music. Send questions, comments or stories to [email protected]