Surf reggae band Cali Conscious, out of Huntington Beach, has just dropped its sophomore album, Avocado. Like the songs of the band’s first record, High Times (2012), Avocado’s songs welcome listeners to assume a happy, relaxed, and loving attitude towards life. On the recordings, the band sounds great, the production is tight, and the simple messages of the catchy songs are very feelgood (e.g. “Spend your day / With the people that you love / Spend your day / With the people that lift you up / Spend your day / With the ocean waves / Spend your day / With a smile on your face” from the title song, “Avocado”). While fans of the music might imagine that Justin Ratowsky, the band’s lead lyricist and songwriter, might spend his days in a hazy dreamworld, Ratowsky is the consumate businessman. While the distinct vibe of the laid-back California surfer does distinguish his journey, which has included numerous environmental initiatives, Ratowsky has a strong handle on the requirements of growing one’s own brand. On the occasion of the album’s release, the Weekly caught up with him to talk about the surf reggae community and his journey with Cali Conscious.
OC WEEKLY [Scott Feinblatt]: Apart from bands I’ve known about, like The Wheeland Bros., I’m just starting to get the idea that there’s an entire surf reggae community. How big is the community of surf reggae musicians?
Justin Ratowsky: It’s like the biggest underground community in Southern California probably. You know, it’s not mainstream. There’s not a lot of songs on the radio, I’m pretty sure, but I think with the Wheeland Brothers, especially in Orange County, there’s a good little group of bands. But then spanning all of California, Northern California has a bunch of bands, San Diego has a bunch of bands, Santa Barbara has a bunch of surf reggae rock bands for sure…I would say there’s probably hundreds of thousands of people that like this music…There’s definitely a small niche [of musicians in the] community and we all definitely vibe and play shows together and try to get each other on each other’s shows, and the fan base, I think, kind of is fans of all of the bands. So like Wheeland Brothers, for example, we played a show at SeaLegs [at the Beach, in Huntington Beach], had 1,100 people out to SeaLegs this summer where we did a show together. And so, I think we play similar venues and that the fans are crossed between the bands.
What’s the origin story of Cali Conscious?
I wrote some songs up in college, and when I moved home from college in Santa Barbara, I met Dig [Gbye] our percussion player through my friend Dillon, who I’m actually at his studio right now. So, Dillon was my original lead guitar player, and Dillon’s friend was taking a class at OCC and Dig was a professor there, but he also played bass in a rock band and they played the OC Fair and Dillon went, and he met Dig, then he told Dig to come check us out, when we played at Sandy’s [in Huntington Beach], at the pier. So I [had gotten] a gig right after college playing Sandy’s twice a week, under Duke’s, at the pier. So we did that for three years; now it’s kind of our home base…When I moved home I [first] played solo, and then we started Cali Conscious. Then organically it’s just grown to how many musicians [there] are now [eight, including Ratowsky].
Mike [Belk], the Sax Player and Daniel [Tello, lead guitarist] were in another band called the Originalites and they broke up about two years ago. Mike had recorded on our first album, High Times. He’s been jamming with us on and off for about eight years, but Daniel and Mike joined the band probably about a year and a half, two years ago. [Then] when they split up, they started jamming with us. Then like Jason [Sandoval], our trumpet player, we met him through a friend of a friend that we met on Craigslist. So we had a Craigslist friend come and play keys on one of the songs. He introduced us to a sax player…So it was just kind of random. And then Brad [Zell], who’s the Bass player, he works for QSC, which is a speaker company that we’re sponsored by. I met Brad [when] I went surfing one day with a friend who worked at QSC, and he brought Brad. So we met out in the water, and I told him that we were looking for a bass player and we’d love to try out their speakers. Then we became a sponsored artist by them, and he started jamming with us. So that was pretty organic. I just met him out in the water, and then Ryan [Kordich], our keyboard player, he jams in another band called Eureka Roots. We’ve done a bunch of shows together, and he’ll come in and record a whole album with us and he’ll play shows every now and then with us. Aaron [Casanova], the drummer, was friends with our sound guy and we met him, just like friends of friends, through one of the studios that we jammed at.
Beyond writing and performing, to what extent are you involved in the recording, promotion, and distribution of your music?
I run everything. We distribute everything through the circuit online, and I have done all the research and I do all the marketing. I built the website. I do the social media. I get us blog posts and interviews like this one. I definitely am the network [guy], where I’ll go out and talk to the bands. We’re trying to get some collaborations on some songs for the next album, where we’re going to feature a couple of bigger artists, and in terms of like the recording process, I would say that I was the producer of the album. We had a couple of engineers that we worked with, [but] I’d say I’m the producer; I was in all the sessions.
Very cool. Apart from checking out your album and following you guys on social media, where can folks look to see you performing?
We’re going to play at SeaLegs at the Beach on April 7th. We’re playing at the Rasta Paw Festival, headlining, in San Diego May 17th, and then we’re playing Lucidity Festival April 14th in Santa Barbara.