ENCINITAS — With a hint of purist pride, rhythm guitarist Peter Todd maintains that his band, the Cardiff Reefers, plays "authentic Jamaican reggae music"--and not the sanitized "white reggae" popularized by such groups as the Police and UB40.
"Those guys place more of an emphasis on rock and pop, while our emphasis is on reggae roots," he said. "It's very important for us to preserve the traditional Jamaican sound, because those natural harmonies and rhythms keep our music pure and not contrived."
Your initial reaction might be that Todd is just boasting.
For starters, there's not a Rastafarian in the bunch. And none of the Cardiff Reefers has even been to Jamaica. They've been too busy studying subjects like philosophy and music theory at UC San Diego to take time out for travel.
But once you see the band in action, you'll quickly find that Todd's prideful claim does, indeed, hold up.
Chris Ballard, 19, plays bubble riffs on his organ; Andrew Rosales, 24, pounds out three-drop and rub-a-dub-dub beats on his drums, and Gary Otake, 21, blows a tropical hurricane through his trumpet as though he's auditioning for the Wailers.
Todd, 21, slaps his guitar strings, skank-style, as if he's possessed with the spirit of the late Peter Tosh, while he and the band's two other vocalists, lead guitarist Matt Hale, 24, and bassist Robert Melendez, 21, harmonize as sweetly as Third World's celebrated vocal choir.
And on every song they play--from covers of obscure reggae classics like "Roll Call" to equally rootsy originals like "Ashes to Ashes"--the Cardiff Reefers deliver a sound as dense as the Caribbean night air and as fiery as good Jamaican rum.
"Because none of us is a Rastafarian, we don't really have true reggae roots," Matt Hale said. "So what we've had to do is learn these roots, use them as our base, and then add our own backgrounds in jazz, rock and folk.
"As a result, we sound authentic without actually being authentic. The most essential element of reggae is the groove, the heartbeat, and that's the basis of our entire sound.
"As much as we can be, we're purists."
Hale added that the Cardiff Reefers' "purist" approach toward reggae comes from the fact that two of the guys in the band, including him, are surfers--and surfers have traditionally gone for the "real thing."
"There's always been a certain style of music that surfers have listened to," he said. "There's a certain flow, a certain level of energy, found in surfing that you tend to find in our music as well.
"When everyone else was into the Beach Boys, we were into instrumental surf music. When everyone else was into new wave, we were into punk. And now that everyone else is into rock-reggae bands like the Police, we're into reggae-rock, which is an entirely different thing."
The Cardiff Reefers were formed two years ago when Robert Melendez, a UCSD music major, decided to put together his own band after several years as a sideman with local rock groups.
"A bunch of my musician friends came over to my garage and we just started jamming on reggae, because that was the music we all liked the best," Melendez said.
"And when we heard how good we sounded, we decided to stick with reggae even though we realized we'd have a lot better chance finding club gigs if we played Top 40."
Today, finding club gigs is the least of the Cardiff Reefers' worries. After a year of polishing their act at private parties, they cut a demonstration tape and, last spring, set out to conquer the local nightclub circuit.
"Right now, we're playing as much as we can, in the hopes that we'll soon be able to sign a record deal," Melendez said.