The Process, from left, Bill Heffelfinger, David Asher, Garrick Owen and Gabe Gonzalez, celebrates the band's 20th anniversary Saturday, Jan. 15, at the Vassar Bar, 122 E. Huron in Vassar.
A rather spirited night followed The Process — David Asher, Garrick Owen, Bill Heffelfinger and Gabe Gonzalez — as the members headed for the Vassar club where they’ll celebrate 20 years of rocking reggae next weekend and give fans a taste of what’s to come.
“This is Pigman’s hometown,” said Asher, the band’s lead singer, as he pulled up a chair in the dimly lit stage room. “This is where it all began.”
OK, not exactly the Vassar Bar — playing there is a first for the self-proclaimed Rock Reggae Madmen. Opening for them Jan. 15 are Neighborhood Muscle and Thick as Thieves.
“It’s so much fun to have you in,” said Jerry Warner, who, with his wife, Karen, owns the bar.
“We never thought you’d say yes,” Asher said, laughing.
“We’re more agreeable than we look,” Karen Warner said.
The Process has raised a few eyebrows through the years, and not just for the novelty of finding a pocket of reggae in this rural Tuscola County village. There’s Pigman, of course, the towering pink porker that serves as the band’s mascot of sorts, along with the skull and the dreadlocks and Heffelfinger’s Kabuki makeup.
From the start, Process stage shows were performance art, from dramatic entrances to sweeping light shows. And its music, fueled by Asher’s lyrics, engaged the mind, introducing concepts that took it beyond the concert halls to festivals at the now legendary Rainbow Farm, where a stand-off with police left its founders dead in 2001.
It has been a long journey with more than a few twists and turns, but nearly a dozen albums later, The Process looks ahead to a new round of opportunity, one that could take it to Europe in coming months.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this,” Asher said of the collaboration that began with a Brazilian publicist named Micki and grew to include Skip McDonald, Ghetto Priest, Adrian Sherwood and Congo Natty.
“It’s a great cast of characters, coming from different directions, and with the help of the Internet, it all came together in the real world. Ghetto Priest is a visionary artist, and he’s got this R&B side, beautiful ballads. Adrian is amazing. They would send three or four tracks from Great Britain, and we’d do our tracks, working with Bernard Terry and with G Pierce before he had that terrible fire in his studio.”
Europe’s “Godfather of Techno” David Harrow worked on the mix, and — God willing, Asher said — the seven-song extended play “The Lion of Judah Hath Prevailed” will come out this year.
“We should be over in England,” bassist Heffelfinger said. “As soon as some have their passports,” Asher added. “We’re getting along, even without the support of a label. We’ve done it ourselves.”
Seth Payton will sit in Jan. 15. “He’s our unofficial fifth member,” Asher said. “He’s always there with whatever’s needed.”
Former drummer Sam Metropolous is expected to stop by, too, though Arik Aneszko, who was the first to play the skins, lives in Chicago now and might not be able to come around.
As for the core of the group, “I’ve known Bill since high school,” Asher said, “and Garrick lived right around the corner.”
“But he was seven years older than I was,” said Owen, who first took up guitar when he was 13 after seeing one in a store window while shopping with his grandma in Sarnia. “She didn’t buy it for me, but I did get one shortly after that. David came around to see my sister, but then he heard me play and we started working on a band together.”
The Process started as a cover band, back in the 1980s, playing Iggy Pop, Cream, a little Rolling Stones; that influence is still there, particularly in the album “Pop O.D.: The Songs of Iggy Pop.”
“Then we finally decided to go original with our reggae,” Asher said. From the beginning, with “Mystery Babylon,” there was an undercurrent of social reform, anchored in the Rastafari movement. More a way of life than a religion, the Jamaican-born ideology embraces the Christian trilogy while standing up for truth, rights, justice and equality. Reggae artists are often the movement’s most visible spokesmen, and its support of marijuana use, as in The Process’ “Jah Made the Herb,” its lightning rod of sorts.
Gonzalez, whose credits include performing with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, brought still another element to The Process.
“He livens the show up, and changes the vibe from show to show,” Asher said.
“I’m really rock, but I like to change it up,” said Gonzalez, who lives near Detroit. “I’ll evaluate the record, but might throw in a dance hall beat when we’re live.”
“It’s like Bad Brains, that same type of energy,” Owen said.
“He continues to amaze us,” Asher added.
And The Process continues to gather accolades, if not mainstream success. They’ve appeared in everything from High Times to Guitar World, Modern Drummer and The Beat. Heffelfinger, who works with high school bands in Vassar and Grand Blanc, was also profiled in Gothic Beauty for the Goth field routine that took the Bad Axe school band to the state finals when he was its director.
Band members have four corporate endorsements, Asher said, and the band has won numerous honors, including two prestigious Detroit Music Awards and ASCAP nods for 11 years running.
“That brass ring has been so very close,” Heffelfinger said.
They’ve collected memories, too, such as the time, driving home at 2 in the morning, their straight-stick Horizon hit a patch of ice and spun out, taking them within inches of plunging into a deep ditch full of ice-cold water.
“That was maybe 10 years ago, during a snowstorm where the drifts were 4 feet high,” Asher said.
Then there were the concerts, playing Detroit’s Renaissance Center, the Rainbow Farm festival “that was just like Woodstock,” Heffelfinger said, along with showcases in New York City and Los Angeles. Check out the album “Live in Los Angeles,” along with the compilation “Detroit Music Awards 2003 Nominees” to relive the moments. Others sure to surface in Jan. 15’s musical retrospective come from “Craven Dog,” “Blood + Bones” and “Weapons of Mass Percussion,” Asher said, along with “Rasta Soldier.”
The band is reissuing back copies of the early albums, “but when we’re live, there’s an energy level that transcends anything we’ve recorded,” he said. “The power that comes when we’re together raises and elevates the music.
“The live shows are our specialty,” Owen agreed.
Looking back on it all, “we’re not rich but we’re richer in a different way,” Asher said. “We’re smart enough to know that God’s wiser than some people give him credit for, and that this has allowed us to do things on our own terms, the way we wanted to do it.”
They’ve seen a lot of bands come and go in those 20 years, Asher said, and they’ve spread out on their own as well, Asher working as a DJ on occasion and Gonzalez preparing for the release of his own solo projects.
But the best, they promised, is yet to come.
“We’re more polished now; we’re more professional,” Asher said. “You’ll see a real progression at the anniversary show. We know a little more of what we want now, and we have the focus. It’s by the grace of God we’ve been going this long; we’ve taken a lot of unexpected journeys along the way, but it’s brought us to where we are today.”
• What: The Process 20th Anniversary Show
• When: 9 p.m. Jan. 15
• Where: Vassar Bar, 122 Huron, Vassar
• Admission: $5