Little prepares you for a chat with Lee "Scratch" Perry. Now 80, the eccentric godfather of dub - an agitator and aggregate of Jamaican roots reggae and all that that implies (productions for the Clash, Bob Marley, and more) - doesn't talk in circles. The Upsetter, performing Tuesday at World Cafe Live, speaks in waves and cloud formations, religious- and comic-theme riddles with an oddly rhythmic cadence and a thick Jamaican patois.
Perry also huffs and laughs mischievously at the end of every phrase, as though he's in on some cosmic joke that fill the songs from his new album, Must Be Free (released on Pottstown's MVD Entertainment label), and interludes from Visions of Paradise, the just-released documentary of his strange and storied life.
"You know Lee," his tour manager, band member, and onetime Philadelphia musician John Emch says from a gig in Austin, Texas. "He's incredible and progressive; always wants the newest stuff to go with the traditions." Emch points out that Perry's new band features computer sequencers and aged percussionists from his Black Ark Studio, a Kingston sound haven that Perry legendarily burned to the ground in 1978 - with his tape reels and paraphernalia inside - because of the bad spirits he felt through its walls. That event is captured on "Black Ark Vampires," Perry's new single and video.
For his part, Perry is full of heavenly and earthly bliss and good cheer, especially after a particularly good gig. "It was fantastic," he says. "The people looked for good vibes, good feelings, and they heard it all. They wanted a cure and I cured them. They wanted righteousness and I made them whole. It was my nation. Righteousness must reign and righteousness must rule. God is perfect, God is pure, God is sure, God must reign and God must rule - and He did."
Perry is certain God and music - "one and the same" - are why he continues performing at his advanced age and what got the man known as the Upsetter started in the first place. Finding his way to instrumentation, to sound boards, to creating dub, period, was all but a ruse for Perry to get close to God, in his estimation. "God has used me as an instrument. God went to my mother and made it rain and sent her the Holy Spirit for me to know dub - the Holy Dove, have you ever heard a bird coo?" Perry asks before he demonstrates. "Akoo. Akoo. Akoo. Make Holy Dub. Akoo."
Of the new album, Perry mentions the inspiration of ganja, fish ("I am a Pisces"), and cornbread ("the unicorn and life itself comes from the corn and the bread"), especially on new songs such as "House of Sin" and "Black Ark Vampires."
Perry is explicit in his belief that God let him know that the evil spirit was running rampant in his studio and that the producer had a holy duty to rid himself of the bad vibes. "It burned. Now I am free again. I have never regretted that moment. I would not have ever been free."
Perry has since lived in Switzerland, necessary to rid himself of "distortion" to his brain and the "deconstruction" all around him. "No wicked spirits. I have to stay away from vampires."
He's made working with computers an almost spiritual enterprise. "The computer is like my brother. I put my brain in the computer. A to Zed - I believe in that. I blow ganja into the computer. Why not?"
Perry tried to stay away from the ganja that has been a staple of his life since growing up in Negril at the foot of the King Stone. At 70, Perry put down the weed for a time, relying on a band filled with musicians who "smoke no cigarette or cigar, eat no flesh or do anything bad like handle dead meat, fish, or liver."
Ask him if he still bans marijuana from his daily regimen and he laughs. "That did not last long, no. The spirit was missing. The message was missing. I do without nicotine and cigars. Ganja I smoke. It's holy magic."