If there’s one thing you should know about the Glendale group Black Bottom Lighters, it’s that a lot of musicians play in the band — seven by last count — something that easily accounts for their growing crossover appeal and distinct sound. On one song, they can be singing about pot smoking, and then on another, about the diversity of a woman’s sexual partners.
“It’s really weird because he’ll [lead vocalist Ryan Stillwell] write something I don’t want to write about or that I’m not feeling, but once I get it, it’s a done song,” guitarist Taide “T” Pineda says.
BBL is a reggae band by strict definition. Still, that only counts one of the band’s several genres that infuse their sound. Sublime and Slightly Stoopid are their shared, more overt influences. Even to a casual observer, contradictory musical elements, like hip hop to latin flairs, strategically pop up throughout their music.
Although all they have out at the moment is a seven song EP and a single from their new untitled album, the band packs several influences under their three word moniker. Just in one song, “Be Kind, Rewind,” there’s something for everybody.
The group plays this song and others during their weekly Wednesday set at Copper Blues Live in downtown Phoenix. Sitting on an elevated stage that overlooks the bar, they play a mix of songs from the EP, the new album and old reggae standards. Tonight, they perform “Stir It Up” by Bob Marley and the Wailers.
“Are you guys having fun out there tonight?” vocalist Ryan Stillwell asks before a song. “There’s no other reason for you to be in a bar on a Wednesday night, unless you’re feeling good.”
Stillwell starts the song off with some hip hop colloquials: “Here we go, back into Maricopa / we keep on coming with the fresh material / we ain’t no gangsters but we’re from the west side…” In unison, the guitarist interjects some luscious finger work on the guitar in between the reggae song structure.
As with any working band, they all have bucket lists, which they appear driven to work through. This could explain how far they’ve come in four short years, and it helps that they all share a “why not?” attitude.
It started with them going cold into various bars, including Copper Blues Live where they persuaded managers to let them play. More recently finished with them opening for Wiz Khalifa, Flogging Molly, and 30 Seconds to Mars, a set that resulted in an encounter with Jared Leto.
At this particular set, they’re short a few members: drummer Ryan “McPhatty” McPhatter, keyboardist Kelyn Weaver and their DJ, Rushdi “Rush” Shakeel.
Present tonight is lead vocalist Ryan “Stilly” Stillwell, bassist Jose Aquino, guitarist Taide Pineda and last, but not least, guitar virtuoso Phillip Keiser, who is responsible for all the latin interludes.
A lack of some of the instrumentation gives space for a more lean version of the band that spotlights the written material and guitar work.
Fittingly, Black Bottom Lighters started as an acoustic group and it shows through in the reggae origins and arrangements that feel one step removed from alternative rock.
Before their formation, they already knew each other through school and other friends. Despite this, they assembled when Stillwell posted a listing seeking bandmates on Craigslist, which they see as serendipitous.
Their first release, a self-titled EP full of cohesive single-quality songs, was released in December 2012, yet when the band mentions this disc and the time it was recorded, it’s referenced more as a learning period. Now with their first full length album to be released in the near future, it’s a product they place on a pedestal.
“The best thing to say is that the EP represented Black Bottom Lighters right when it started at the very, very beginning, but our first album actually displays all of us,” bassist Jose Aquino says.
If there is any elephant in the room, it’s that the Lighters’ humor serves them well, even when their lyrics bury the lead with subjects about marijuana — after all they are a Reggae band. The name of the band itself is an inside joke for its recreational users which has been recognized in the most unusual of places, according to Pineda.
“You gotta push the limits, and to do that, you need to push boundaries with emotions,” Stillwell says.
Yet, despite the levity in their music, and the fruits of their hard work, they continue to set a high bar for the music they produce together.
“After so much time working together, we’re finally at a point where we can really express ourselves through all of our parts,” Stillwell says. “There was a time where I was frustrated with what I was writing or what we were coming out with. Not because it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t exactly how I was feeling it, and working with these guys for so long I feel like we have a lot more tools to fully express ourselves.”