'You never quite know what you're going to hear in a Bonerama show': An interview with Mark Mullins
When you think of trombones generally you think marching band or big band jazz, right? I first heard Bonerama when they were performing with Woodenhead as the "Trombones from Hell" at Jazzfest in the late 90's. I was very intrigued to hear a trombone playing with a jazz-fusion rock band and totally rocking it. The next year they appeared as Bonerama with Woodenhead. A year or two later we saw promotions at Jazzfest for a night of Led Zeppelin performed by Bonerama. Trombones playing Led Zeppelin? That got my attention and we gathered a group of us to go check them out. We were blown away. Every song was totally in your face and done so well. Bonerama moved the trombone from the sideline to the front as the lead instrument.
With the release of their latest album, Hot Like Fire, I had a chance to to talk with Mark Mullins, co-founder of Bonerama along with Craig Klein, about how they came to be Bonerama.
Listen to the full interview below or keep scrolling to read the transcript.
Drea Stein: Good afternoon, Mark Mullins from Bonerama. How you doing today?
Mark Mullins: Good afternoon, Drea, I'm doing great. How are you?
DS: I am doing wonderful. It's great to have you back in town again. I've missed seeing you guys. I haven't been to New Orleans for a minute.
MM: You're probably in New Orleans, and we're in St. Louis or something like that or somewhere.
MM: No, we're looking forward to getting back. I always say it when I talk to you, and it's just true, St. Louis is a special spot for us because it's one of the first places that we started coming to when we decided we wanted to get outside of New Orleans and play some other places. We found a whole family and community of music lovers there, thanks in great part to you and KDHX that has lasted years and years and years. We're going on our 20th year now as a band and still always look forward to seeing the St. Louis stop on the way. Even if it's in the middle of December, fingers crossed, we won't have too much travel issues getting up there because we love just coming to see you guys.
DS: Yeah, it can be a challenge this time of year, I do agree. We will salt the roads if we have to, to get you up here... So, Bonerama has a brand new album out.
MM: We do. It only took four years to get it done. We're notorious for, I've said this before, we're notorious for the Peter Gabriel approach of making records where it just takes years and years. A lot of it's just--we travel a lot, and when we're home, we'll play a bit. The guys also play in other bands, but Bonerama's our main thing. It just takes some time to get these records out and finished. Once we record them, we wanna really make sure they sound strong and sound as good as we can, so we spend some time mixing them and just getting them right.
We're loving this one so much. It's our 7th record. It's called "Hot Like Fire" and it's our first record that we've put out with Basin Street Records here in New Orleans, which if you're familiar with a lot of different New Orleans' bands, like Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield, and so many others. He's got some really special stuff under the label so we were really excited that this could work out for this one to be on Basin Street. Mark Samuels is just a great guy, does a great job on what he does and so far it's been a real good relationship.
DS: Oh, yeah, because you've produced all your own albums up to this point, haven't you?
MM: Yeah, we really have. It's worked well for us because we kind of ... you own everything, you control everything, and you can just see more ... It's expensive to make these things, so it really makes a difference when people step up to the merch table to actually buy a record. I know these days, "You're a buying a record? What are you doing? Just stream it on something." It makes a difference for especially bands like us that are small, medium-size as bands that really rely on that to try to get back on the road because traveling is expensive.
DS: Oh yeah.
MM: We're not traveling very lavishly at all by any means. It can really be tough to make it all work on the spreadsheet. At the end of the day, kind of it has to someway. We're not getting rich off this, but we can just keep it from being upside down, and merch really helps with that. Up until now, we haven't really looked at releasing a record with anyone else. We really felt the time was right with Basin Street at this point to really help us get this out there a little bit further reach than we could on our own. He's got some great distribution people and he's already got a good radio push going on. All those things are very, very important. It's been working out great. We love Basin Street Records.
DS: Well, yeah, they handle a lot of great artists, and I have quite a few CDs that are Basin Street music. Anyway, you're coming to town Saturday night over at the Atomic Cowboy. You've been here, what, last spring sometime?
MM: I should know that off the top of my head. It doesn't seem like it was very long ago. This is our first time playing the Atomic Cowboy, which is apparently The Bootleg Room?
DS: Yes. The Bootleg. Yeah.
MM: If I got that right? We usually play Broadway Oyster Bar, John, everybody over there, that's like a second home for us, too, over at the Broadway Oyster Bar. This one, they just for whatever reason, I'm not even sure why, it happens with the agent and whatever routing and what shows are available, it got us in here. I've heard wonderful things about it. I looked at the calendar and thought it was great. Looking forward to the Atomic Cowboy on a Saturday night.
DS: Yeah. Well, actually, it's a friend of mine's birthday. So she's moving her birthday party to your show that night.
MM: Wonderful. We'll touch up our happy birthday version for her.
DS: Do a face melt for her, yeah...This was a short little trip. I guess you're hitting the road right before the holiday season?
MM: Yeah. We're going to start up at Benton Harbor on the 14th, Michigan. We'll get the road salted before we come back down. We're going to-
DS: Well, you'll be sliding south.
MM: ... Benton Harbor, Michigan, on the 14th, and then Chicago. It's actually Evanston, Space is the room, on Friday the 15th. Then you guys, then we're heading right back home on Sunday. It's a quick little jaunt up there, but we just wanted to get back up to the Midwest one last time before the year's over.
DS: Yeah. You guys stay pretty busy even when you're not on the road as Bonerama, because I know you play in a gazillion other things, band, and incarnations. You just recently sat in with a Last Waltz tribute down there, didn't you?
MM: We did. We had the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. All the musicians down here do a lot of things because they help musicians so much with healthcare down here. There's always benefits for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. This was one of them put on by the Joy Theater and the New Orleans Suspects. kind of like just the revolving cast of characters from New Orleans recreating the songs from the Last Waltz. It was really wonderful. They even did it right... the night after Thanksgiving here in New Orleans at the Joy. It was just great. I went in and did one song. Did horns for it last year with the Bonerama horns, but this year I had something else, a previous engagement already booked that night, so I couldn't make the whole night. I went and did the one song and then zipped over Tipitina's to play the other engagement I mentioned, which was Ivan Neville. He had a Neville's family band. Really, really cool stuff. I mean, you could feel the history coming off the walls, off the stage when they crank those songs.
DS: Oh my goodness, yes.
MM: It was really, really exciting. The Bonerama is definitely the main thing for everybody these days. Especially with the new record out and trying to get back to all these places as often as we can. Midwest...just got back from the Northeast. We'll be going to Florida right after the beginning of the year, we're going down there. Sunny Key West, Boca, and where else, St. Petersburg. So, we try to stay moving. When we're not, we do stay pretty busy here locally with either Bonerama or different things.
DS: I see Craig (Klein) posting all the time on Facebook with all the different things he's involved with. He was just in Europe with one of his projects, wasn't he?
MM: He was in Europe with the Jazz Vipers. He plays down there regularly, downtown on Frenchman Street with them. It's such a great band. Actually, the guitarist, Molly Reeves, did the artwork for Hot Like Fire. She's in the Jazz Vipers.
DS: Really? I love the artwork.
MM: She's responsible for ... The artwork is fantastic. It's this beautiful.... If you haven't seen it, it's like a beautiful skull, psychedelic looking skull thing with all these New Orleans references kind of painted into it. Including the trombone, of course, since it's a Bonerama record. She did a killer, killer job. But, they did--they just got back from Europe with the Vipers. It's hard to schedule stuff when things like that happen because I got stuff, too, that comes up. Matt (Perrine) gets certain things that comes up. We just have to do our best to do it and make sure we carve out quality Bonerama time. That's why we come up there in December. We don't care what time of year it is, what season it is, we'll make a point to get up there. So, December 16th, it's Atomic Cowboy. I'm looking forward to seeing y'all.
DS: We're looking forward to having you. I wanted to ask a little bit about who writes the music? How do you get to your music?
MM: You know...one thing I like about this record is that this was a little bit more balanced with three ... We've got three songwriters in the band. In the past, it's been a little bit out of balance, if you will, but this one was really cool because Matt Perrine has got a bunch of songs on it. Matt's a killer songwriter. He knows how to write for personalities and people. He knows strengths and how to make the most out of all that.
DS: That's neat!
MM: He does that with the songs, but he brings it to the band. It's a real cool gift. He's got a bunch of songs on here. He plays sousaphone and electric bass if you're not familiar with Matt. It's great to have Matt back in the band because couple of years ago he kind of took a leave of absence. He's been with us since day one. He said, "I need to stay a little closer to home. Focus on some things. Family." We're like, "No problem, man." I was so happy when he said, "I'm ready to come back." I'm like, "Yeah!" Matt adds a whole new dynamic to the band when he's with us. Then Craig Kline, of course, the founder ...
DS: Your partner in crime from day one.
MM: Yeah, this was all Craig's idea after he saw a band in the arch with multiple trombones playing Latin music. He's like, "Oh, man, we are going to do the New Orleans version of this." He approached me, that was 20 years ago, and we haven't stopped. He brings in compositions and arrangements and stuff as well. I do some myself. So with all three of us, we're all kind of coming from different backgrounds. We have different flavors that we like, different sounds that we like. And that's why I'm excited about this record because it's really more balanced. It sounds more of a cohesive band. Even though it's three different songwriters, it really works to compliment each other in a good way I think.
DS: Oh, yeah. I agree. There's diversity, but there's a flow to it.
MM: That's right.
DS: At least to my ears. That's how I hear it. Yes, I don't necessarily like if you have a band where there's only one songwriter, everything kind of is their influence. It's nice because I know you people as individuals, not just as a band. I know you personally. I can see everybody's personality in what they bring to the band in terms of the music
MM: That's the strength and the beauty of being in a band instead of a solo project. Because you tap on all of that stuff and it's cool. It's still a cohesive group, but you're not quite sure where it might be going next. That's how we like to keep it.
DS: Once again we're talking with with Mark Mullins from Bonerama and we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us this afternoon, too.
MM: Of course!
DS: So it was Craig that came with the idea to do a trombone-driven band?
MM: Yeah, it was. We were in New York City a lot back when we playing with Harry Connick Jr's band in the '90s. This was just a night off; I guess we had ... someone might have given him a heads up to go check out this multiple trombone group, but I wasn't with him. I was probably off drinking somewhere or something. I don't know, just goofing off, but Craig's out there chasing down music. I don't know the name of the group, but I must believe it was The Village Gate. He was just blown away by this multiple trombones upfront just killing this Latin music. He instantly realized this could work in New Orleans with a New Orleans theme of some kind. And at that time, this is when Trombone Shorty was still short. He was still a really young dude. He hadn't become a household name and I guess, before Big Sam put his band together. All I'm saying is, at the time, the trombone was kind of a back seat instrument. It was always the first one to get cut on gigs on Bourbon Street when they would go from three horns upfront, trumpet, clarinet, and trombone. If it was to go down to two horns upfront, the trombone player is going to be the one that gets cuts. No questions, because I've seen it, I saw it, I lived it. We were sort of the butt of all jokes as well. At that time, I was just like, "We just got no respect," it seemed like. Then in a big way, this was sort of a mission to put the trombone upfront. Let's just not be afraid of it. Let's show you that it can be a really dynamic instrument that can cover a lot of different things. A lot of different styles. A lot of different ways, range. He put it all together with three of us up front. It's so much fun to write for the band.
DS: Oh, my goodness! Yeah.
MM: I like to bring in the arrangements of rock songs. Like the Zeppelin stuff, I love arranging that stuff for our band with sousaphone and three trombones, guitar, and drums. When people hear, to me, we're just playing these songs that we love, but the vehicle is the trombone to deliver them on. So when people it that way, it seems to light people up in a pretty cool way. That's really fun because, for us, it's just good music. We love to bring that in and spit it out through the trombone and see what's sticks out with crowd.
DS: Well, I think the first time i saw you as a musician play that I was conscious, was in 96, 97, at Jazz Fest. It was Woodenhead with the Trombones From Hell. Then next year it was Woodenhead with I think the Bonerama Horns. I don't remember what year it was that you did your first gig -- Tips in the French Quarter. You did A Whole Night of Led Zeppelin. We drag all our friends there and we just all just looking at each other going, "I can't believe I'm hearing this on a trombone and it sounds so fab!" We were all just like, "Who are these guys!?"
MM: It's so much fun to do. Again, it's really just about picking the right songs. On the new record, we did something we really hadn't done before. I'm a Radiohead fan, on top of other things. I was just in the middle of the OK Computer record randomly, just revisiting it because it's just such a great album. Paranoid Android came on and I know it so well just from knowing that record inside out. It struck me one day recently ... a year or so ago, that, "Oh, no. This could transfer also really in a cool way I think to our band, to Bonerama. Three trombones, sousaphone."
So I did an arrangement on it and that's the only Rock cover that we have on our record now. It's so much fun to play. It's such a dynamic type of song, to begin with. We don't do a vocal treatment of it like Thom Yorke, but the trombone covers Yorke's vocal basically, and a lot of the other things that happen through the song get covered with multiple different people taking turns. Stepping up, taking turns. In the centerpiece of it, if you're familiar with that song, it goes to a real slow kind of a drawn-out section. We thought it would be cool to put a New Orleans Dirge treatment on that. It actually kind of ... is somewhat functional.
DS: It does.
MM: I'd love to hear if the guys ever heard it. The Radiohead folks if they ever heard it, what they would say. I know we had a tour manager from what I understand or what I was told that there was a tour manager from Radiohead's group that was at our CD release show. But I didn't get a chance to speak with him or anything. But whatever, it would just be kind of cool to see-
DS: See how their feeling is about that. Well, didn't you get to meet-
MM: Yeah, Robert Plant.
DS:... was is it ... yeah, Robert Plant.
MM:...heard our Ocean version, I know that. He seems to be enamored by it which was cool.
DS: Personal favorite being an old Deadhead that I am. I've seen you cover the other one which is quite, in my opinion, I'm not a musician, but musically, it looks like a challenging song from the Grateful Dead.
MM: Yeah, that's a fun one too. They are all so different and so much fun to play. That one, we go and do the Dark Star in the middle, and come back around to the Other One for the end, and It's just a nice little trip. Again, a very different song and you might hear it through the rest of the set. You never quite know what you're going to hear in a Bonerama show.
DS: Kind of like a Grateful Dead show.
MM: Yeah, we do a West L.A. Fadeaway also from time to time. We just keep using what's in our back pocket. Whenever time is right, or somebody requests something, we'll do our best to try to kind of slide it in there so to speak. I can't believe I said that.
DS: It was a great pun. Anyway, over the years, I've dragged people to your shows. I've personally said, "If you're not happy with the music you hear, I will personally reach in my pocket and give you your money back." I say, "I just believe that you will be that entertained." I've got a young man I worked with that I pulled up some YouTube videos and showed him. He's in his early 20s. He listens to a lot of Rap and Hip Hop but knew who Led Zeppelin is. So I say, "Okay, we've got to find a Led Zeppelin video of you guys." This kid was just about drooling. I mean, he was so blown away. I told him you were coming in and he goes, "When is it? I got to write this down. I got to go. I got to go and got to write my friends."
MM: Nice. Thank you.
DS: To me, it just feels so good because there's a 30-plus years age gap between him and I. Yet we can cross that with music and your music is the vehicle for that. I love that that happens. What I'm saying is that somebody that's listening to an entire genre of music, generally speaking, and I turned him onto your stuff, and he's like, "This is ..." It just totally opened up his mind. So thank you for doing what you do because-
MM: I'll always appreciate that.
DS:... it allows me to do that for other people.
MM: Music is the great unifier. When you walk into a show, you might not sure who you're going to be seeing, first of all. Who you are going to meet on the floor or in the crowd. People from all sort of different backgrounds that just love ... Music brings them all together. It could be political backgrounds; it could be ethnic backgrounds or whatever. It's just so cool to be on own our side of the stage and look out and see people of all kinds having fun. Our job is to make people happy and have a good time. I'd never take this for granted, every night I'm like, "We're the luckiest people in the world to be able to do this." We feel so fortunate. I kind of feel like especially after Katrina, we feel like the ambassadors for the city in some way too. Because everyone's always asking about the city, how it's doing. The city is doing terrific, but we couldn't do it without the outside help from everybody that stepped up.
DS: The music that you all put together heals.
MM: To say that it's a special place to be from. It's great to be able to spread that love around and bring it to different places like St. Louis.
DS: Well, it's our pleasure to host you. Like I said, we met a long time ago when I sent you an email and said, "Yeah, I play 12-minute songs."
MM: That's right.
DS: That's how we met. But to this day, I still remember the gentleman that called and said, "I had to pull over. I couldn't drive and listen to that at the same time." And I'm like, "Well, good."
MM: Y'all were one of the first stations to play that 12-minute Frankenstein on our first record there. We still bring that one back from time to time. That one kind of fell off the setlist for a couple of years. But we're doing it again; it's another fun one. That's just a fun ride. Transfers great to trombone. I think almost anything can transfer great to trombone. That's just how I think. I'm a little biased, but we try. We try, and the common denominator is that it's just music we like that we think is worth sharing. We're going to do it through the trombone as our voice. It's a trip of a ride.
DS: Your voice is strong. To this day, every time I hear any of your stuff, it's just kind of like, "Wow! Wow!" I'm just always just amazed at, for one, it's a trombone. I mean, that's just not an instrument--particularly, in your town, trombones are common, up here, they're rare. Horn instruments down there are very common. Up here, they're not nearly as common. It's just the trombone idea at first, and then you add in the type of music. Your originals stand on their own. The covers are what kind of sometimes hooked people in for the first time. But it's the original music that to me, is just like, "This was written to played on a trombone, not on a guitar."
DS: Not a piano. It's not an Allen Toussaint song. It was written to be played on a trombone, and it's just amazing. I just I'm always blown away and thoroughly enjoy it. So keep on doing it.
MM: Well, thank you. We're definitely going to try to keep everything going. Again, one great way to do it is just try to stay on the road as often as we can and come see you, folks because it's great. Now, St. Louis, you do have some trombone action. You got the Funky Butt guys up there, right?
DS: Oh yeah.
MM: It's so nice to see them come out to the show and hang out too. It's wonderful. There's this direct connection we feel with them. I always listen to what they do. A great bunch of guys and great band. I'm sure most of your listeners have seen them by now. I'm sure. But if you haven't, you go see the Funky Butt Brass Band. They are your hometown ambassadors for New Orleans music.
DS: Oh, absolutely. Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing you just to say "Hello" in person instead of on the phone. I'm looking forward to the show. I think the last time you might have been through town might have been when my husband and I were traveling because I don't believe I was there. I needed a dose of the bones. Got to get my bones shaken.
MM: Well, we're going to bring it. We're definitely, going to bring it. It's going to Saturday, December 16th in St. Louis there. At the Atomic Cowboy, the Bootleg. I believe it's a relatively early show when they say eight o'clock.
DS: I think you're correct on that last I heard.
MM: I don't know ... I don't mind the early show. When I was younger, maybe I did. I'm good with it now. Nice early show ... It's full day anyway with travel and stuff getting there. So they don't want to push it too late. I think some of our crowd likes the earlier shows. Some like in New Orleans, the Jazz Fest gets started at midnight, two o'clock. Some that start at 4:00. It's insane. So we would like to get to watch the show in St. Louis.
DS: We went one time to see a 3:00 A.M ... No, it was a 2:00 A.M show. At 4:30 we were still sitting outside then we gave up. Because they were still out loading the previous band at 4:30 in the morning. I'm like, "I just can't do this anymore." That's was after having been at Jazz Fest all day. I was like, "No."
MM: Oh, my God.
DS: Those were my younger days. I have little better sense now than trying to attempt that. Thanks so much for your time this afternoon. I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule. We'll see you soon.
MM: Thank you so much, Drea, and thanks for what you guys do at the station. It's never taken for granted, never goes unnoticed. Y'all really help get our music out to the people of St. Louis big time. So thank you.
DS: Well, thank you. We'll see you soon. Take care, Mark.
MM: Yeah, you're right. Bye-bye.
Drea Stein hosts The Other One on KDHX, Tuesdays 12-2 p.m. Bonerama plays The Bootleg at Atomic Cowboy on Saturday, December 16, 2017.