Gary Hunt is a very quiet guy. The first couple of times that I met him were in jam sessions, and I don't believe that he said a single word during those encounters. Until this interview, it's quite possible that Gary and I had never exchanged more than a couple of sentences over the past couple of years since we met. When I booked the interview with him, I asked him to schedule two hours on his calendar so we had plenty of time to talk. He replied, "I've never talked to anyone that long."
I believe him. Dry-humored and stone-faced, he cracked a smile only after an hour into our conversation, although it's hard to tell at first whether it's due to him being brusque or humble -- or maybe a bit of both. Gary's memory seemed to often fail him conveniently when asked about his personal accomplishments, yet he could recite longs lists of who played with who on records cut 40 years ago.
A multi-instrumentalist fluent in a number of Americana styles (as well as the gypsy jazz scene we both participate in), Gary Hunt has become one of the most valuable sidemen in the region. He's played guitar, mandolin, fiddle or dobro with Swing DeVille, Rockhouse Ramblers, The Grovers, Tim O'Brien, The Palominos, Hot Club Caravan, The Poor Mountaineers, Colonel Ford, Son Volt and Jay Farrar, with whom he'll be performing on October 1 at the Delmar Hall as part of the Jay Farrar Trio. As Gary was about to start the tour, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and learn more about the life of this storied sideman who, from just outside the spotlight, has contributed so diversely to so many bands.
VT: So what instruments do that you play, I've seen credits for you on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and a dobro.
GH: I play steel...
VT: Pedal steel?
GH: Nah, I used to play pedal but I have just a straight double-eight string steel.
VT: Is that what they call a lap steel?
GH: No, this one has legs, so you don't play it on your lap. It's actually what a steel guitar was before guys put pedals on them. Buddy Emmons and those guys put pedals on them. It doesn't have any levers at all. So in order to get the twangy sound, you have to pull behind the bar to get the twang, that's how I do it. So I can get the sound like a pedal steel.
VT: You've played at Stovall's often.
G: I play Stovall's all the time. For the last 25 years. I've played with Colonel Ford, I've played with Rockhouse there, I played with The Grovers there, and I've played with the Rock Creek Country Boys there. I first started playing there in about '89 or '90.
VT: Well, that place, that's the real deal as far as we have here in St. Louis.
GH: No, it's the last of the Honky Tonks.
VT: It's like walking into a movie set.
GH: I tell people that all the time, I've said, "You have to go, because the chandeliers are wagon wheels with lanterns on them."
VT: I think I've figured out that on May 31st everybody changes from black hats to white hats, and then after Labor Day they go right back to wearing the black ones again.
GH: Well, you're supposed to wear your straw then, but most people don't. That's the change-off, straw from felt.
VT: I didn't know there were official fashion rules.
GH: You should have seen it in the '80s and early '90s, it was pretty rough -- I mean there was no fighting, but it wasn't as nice. The bathrooms were rough, everything was rough. You know, it is what it is. Everybody liked it anyway.
VT: So in addition to all the Americana genres you're known for, you've played rock as well...
GH: I've played blues and rock, yes. And I've played with Jay [Farrar] who I guess you could call alt-country or country rock. I mean, they say Uncle Tupelo was kind of the inventor of alt-country. That's what they say.... I don't say that, but that's what a lot of people say. I mean the "No Depression" magazine was titled after the Uncle Tupelo album, so it's kind of what started that movement in the early '90s, late '80s. So we did some Son Volt tours when the "Honky Tonk" record came out in 2013, and then the majority of our performances were duos -- then this last fall and going into this year we're doing a 20th anniversary of Trace, which was the first Son Volt album, as the Jay Farrar Trio. The steel player that played on the original records, Eric Heywood, is touring with us. He's really something.
VT: So you've played in a lot of bands, Swing DeVille, Rockhouse Ramblers, The Grovers, Tim O'Brien, The Palominos, Hot Club Caravan, The Poor Mountaineers, Colonel Ford, Son Volt...
GH: I also played in the Hell Band [aka the Mid-Missouri Hell Band]. I mean there's more but you don't need any more.
VT: How many of of those did you start?
GH: Start? The Colonel started from Rockhouse, but I didn't start that. The Grovers I started.
VT: There seems to be this strange family tree of these bands. It seems very convoluted 'cause you have like a couple of guys here and another couple of other guys here.
GH: A lot of it is the same guys with different guys, but then they played a little bit different kind of music. But yeah. The Palominos was western swing, but it had Justin [Branum] from Colonel and Swing DeVille. That's when Justin was just starting to play more ... When I met Justin he was just playing like fiddle tunes and jazz and I got him to start playing country and got him in a band, and then he played some bluegrass gigs with me, and then the western swing band. This [Hot Club Caravan] was with Sandy Weltman.
VT: Where are you from, originally?
VT: Did you grow up in the city or the county?
GH: We lived in Florissant till I was four, then we moved to Rock Hill. I lived in Rock Hill till I was 14, and we moved to Manchester/Ballwin. I've lived in Kirkwood since '85, but I didn't go to school here, I didn't grow up in Kirkwood. My wife is from the East and the homes were nice and kind of small towny. We got a line on a house that needed rehab and got it cheap and rehabbed it. It's an 1880 Victorian -- a beautiful house. I had to gut it, it was condemned.
VT: As a little bitty boy, what was the first thing you remember hearing musically?
GH: I don't know, probably Frank Sinatra records. My Dad was a big singer, Frank Sinatra singer, sang just like him...or sang along with him, I should at least put it that way. Swing and that kind of stuff...Dean Martin.
VT: So how did the twang get introduced into your life?
GH: Well, they made me play piano, my parents did, when I was five, so I took piano lessons for, I don't know how many years, 6 or 7 years? And then the Beatles kind of hit and so we got guitars. My grandpa was a drummer and a singer, went and bought my brothers and I some drums and guitars and a bass.
VT: Oh, you decided to make your own band then?
GH: Well, we had a brothers band. I have two brothers, it was a trio. But then we played with other bands. My older brother plays the drums. He's involved with the Blues Society and all that. He's been around...him and I played in the Hell Band together. He played with older guys, he was older than me, so I kinda got to play in some of those bands when I was pretty young. We played like parties when I was in sixth grade.
VT: Let's talk about famous musicians that you admire and/or have influenced you. I assume Bob Wills was a big influence?
GH: Yep. I remember when that "For The Last Time" record came out, it was probably in '73, '74. It's right before Wills died, and then I think [Merle] Haggard might have had something to do with that, but I think he was on a couple of tracks, and Johnny Gimble. It was all like a bunch of the old guys got back together, I think Wills was like in a wheelchair and didn't really play, but I think he was there. But it's a good record and then I obviously branched out into more of his material, but that was released right when I was 18 I guess, or something like that.
VT: Was that the first you had heard of him, or had you heard his older stuff first?
GH: That might have been the first I heard of him at that time. I mean, it was never on the radio, it was never anywhere. If you didn't know someone who knew what it was. It's like bluegrass, at that time if you didn't know what bluegrass was, you wouldn't know what it was, because it wasn't anywhere except maybe like I'd hit on it on like a folk radio show. It just wasn't. Not like today where with the internet and everything else, you can find anything.
VT: So is there a particular period of Wills work that you're most interested in?
GH: I don't mind the horn stuff, but I like the string stuff better. It's kind of interspersed throughout, but the singers are all good, Billy Jack Wills did some singing with him and, you know, the whole band is usually good. But the Tiny Moore mandolin stuff is good, the "Tiffany Transcriptions" I think it's called. I don't mind the horns, but I've always played the strings.
VT: You have two fiddles then?
GH: Sometimes we use two. In the bands I'm in right now, no there's not two. Swing DeVille used to have two, and then sometimes in the Palomino's Justin and I played fiddles, there was two. And on the "Honky Tonk," Jay's [Farrar/Son Volt] record we played two. There's twin fiddles on that.
VT: That's a cool sound, distinctly Bob Wills too.
GH: Yeah...the Wills Sound.
VT: I read somewhere that Norman Blake influenced you, I don't know who that is?
GH: Norman Blake was kind of a real hillbilly guy from Tennessee. He played a bunch of instruments like mandolin and guitars and he always had old, he was one of the guys in the '60s that knew about old instruments. So he's like 75 or 80 now, I think. I guess he was hanging around Nashville and got in Johnny Cash's band. If you look at Johnny Cash videos from his TV show from Nashville, he's in the band. And then he was in John Hartford's Aereo-Plain Band. Then he started his solo career and his solo record came out, him and Tut Taylor [dobro] did a record, and from there he recorded a lot of great old-sounding songs.
VT: What was it about him that was such an influence on you?
GH: Well at that time he was the first real hot flatpick guitar player. It's like Clarence White and him were the two big ones, and Doc Watson, those are the big three from the '60s up till Tony Rice came around really. I think Blake also played on Dylan's Nashville record. He's on that -- and Charlie Daniels is on that. So he was involved in a lot. The John Hartford album was the first real "newgrass" record and then came Sam Bush after that.
VT: Was Blake more sessions, or was he an on the road guy?
GH: He probably did sessions in Nashville, but he toured with Hartford and then started touring on his own. I saw him a couple of times in the '70s and '80s. His songs are awesome. If you like folk kind of old-sounding songs that are new but sound old, he's the real deal. His guitar playing at that time was amazing because no one could do it except him and a couple of other guys. Now it's more common.
VT: Doc Watson we've talked about a lot, but was there any recording that really stood out?
GH: The record with his son, I think it's called "On Stage." It's on Vanguard. He tells little jokes between songs, and it's just a duo. It's really something. And it's great guitar playing. If you want to learn how to play rhythm to folk music songs, and play hot guitar solos, fingerstyle, flat pick style, it's all on there. It's a lesson in American guitar/ folk guitar.
VT: Would you say he's been the most proficient in that style?
GH: At that time he was. I mean, after Clarence White heard Doc Watson play, and then Clarence White became this whole thing. I don't know if you know who Clarence is, but he really took the Doc Watson flatpick style and made it his own. He was in The Byrds, he was in Kentucky Colonels, he was on "The Andy Griffith Show" when they were pretty young. But he was a big influence on like Tony Rice and all the guys after 'cause he played more syncopated and more, I don't know, just a more complex style. Blake and Doc played more like rolls and runs -- and good -- but Rice took it to something almost like swing jazz. I think he was influenced by Django [Reinhardt] 'cause he played stuff like "Sheik of Araby" besides country bluegrass songs.
VT: So speaking of Django, when did you first pick up gypsy jazz?
GH: In the early '80s we played some swing and some Django stuff, and then I kind of got out of it, got busy and was playing more country, and then got back into it, in and out of it, you know. And then finally I went ahead and got a Selmer copy, a French one made by DuPont, so I get the sound then.
VT: So how does somebody who listened to all of this twang go into Django?
GH: It's similar, I mean if you listen to like the Wills stuff you can tell they listened to Django. The Wills fiddle players, they listened to [Stephane] Grappelli and Joe Venuti. Guys like Jimmy Bryant who is a swing/jazz/country guitar player from the '50's, also played violin, he was a Django guy. Chet Atkins was a Django guy. All those guys listened to Django, because he was "the guy!" Because he played toward the guitar, his soloing was like guitar sounds, whereas Charlie Christian's was more a horn sound. He influenced a lot of other guys, but the Django sound is more guitar-ish, you know with the big runs and the glissando and all the fast strumming. They don't do that on horns, but Charlie Christian learned to play from Django records also, it's kind of all intertwined..
VT: How many guitars do you own?
GH: I don't know. I have a guitar for each style of music. Like I have a couple of Telecasters that I use with touring with Son Volt, and playing in country bands. And I have a Django guitar, and I have a bluegrass guitar, and I have archtop jazz guitars and a Stratocaster and dobros. I think I have like three fiddles and three or four mandolins, so I have tons of stuff.
VT: What kind of guitar do you use when you play blues? Do you go more electric?
GH: I have a Les Paul, it's all electric, Telecasters.
VT: So what is a Telecaster really?
GH: The first Fender guitar made was the Telecaster. It's basic -- you could unscrew the neck, and you could take it all apart and put parts from other ones in and put it back together -- all Fender were made like that. You could work on it. That's what the whole idea was. It's simple to build, it's not like a Gibson where it was a dovetail joint and had to be fitted, and if the neck broke you had to take it to the factory.
VT: And Fenders are still made that way?
GH: Yeah. Eric Clapton on the Derek and the Dominos record -- the guitar in that.... Clapton was in Nashville and he bought like five Stratocasters and he took the neck off of one, put it on the body of another one and came up with the body of that guitar. So the Telecaster is not only a kind of guitar but it's a style of playing. The Telecaster Style. You play with a pick and your fingers. It's called hybrid picking. Sometimes people use all three of 'em. So you can play like "bump-chink-bump" like Chet Atkins or you can do rolls like banjo, or you can do what's called chicken pickin' where you'd pop the strings: "pop-bock-bock!" So, it's a whole thing. Danny Gatton was a Tele guy -- and Clarence White. Marty Stuart plays Clarence's old Telecaster. James Burton was a Tele guy. It's a thing.
VT: So did you tour a lot when you were younger?
GH: I toured when I was younger -- and the Hell Band, we toured and played clubs in the Midwest and then I quit playing on the road, had kids, stayed home, played around town. Played a lot around town, different bands, and then I did some gigs with Tim O'Brien and then this Jay gig started in 2010.
VT: I recently saw a video, a "Live @ KDHX" performance and there you were playing with Laura Cantrell!
GH: That was me.
VT: How'd that happen? And does that happen all of the time?
GH: Mark Spencer plays with tours with her, I think it was in the fall, so they were probably playing at the Americana Festival in Nashville, and then I don't know if I got her the gig at Bottleworks, or Charles, or somehow, but Spencer asked, "Do you wanna play the gig?" and I said, "Okay." So then she came to my house with Mark and we ran through a bunch of songs, and then he said, "Oh, we're gonna play on the radio -- you wanna go play?" and I said, "Okay." I mean, I didn't know any of it! I have no idea what the songs were. She's really awesome. I had met her in New York a couple times when Laura and Mark opened for Jay and when we played at City Winery or somewhere up there. Something similar happened with Carl Sonny Leyland who plays all over the world -- I mean he's good. He's not like as popular as she is, but it doesn't happen very often. Most people have a touring band. I mean I've backed up like Roy Head, which you probably don't know who he is, but he was a '60s white soul singer. And I've backed up Merle Haggard's ex-wife, Leona Williams. A couple of times I played with her. I can't think of her name, she lives in Missouri now. And I also backed up Hank Thompson, another Country Music Hall of Famer. He's from Oklahoma.
VT: Do you teach guitar at all?
GH: No, I don't have time to teach. I taught myself, it's hard for me to teach beginners. My kids friends wanted lessons, and I'm like, "No!"
VT: So I asked Paul Davis his first impression of you, and he says you're a very chromatic player, and that he wasn't expecting you to be as modern in your playing. He was amazed that you were able to play modern jazz and chromatically over Django's style and that it worked.
GH: That was my plan. When I first met him, he asked, "What kind of Django do you play? Thirties or modern?" And I go, "Huh? I just play." I mean, I've listened to it for so long. And I'm into learning some of the solos and I did it, but it's not like that's the only way I play. I try not to just play like that.
VT: Paul also said that your "an encyclopedia of music." He said that you'll look over at him when you're playing and that he can tell that you're thinking, "Hey, you want to play Django's solo together?" But that the thing is he'll only know the first chorus of the solo, but you'll know all of the choruses.
GH: Ah, I know some of 'em, but Paul's on it. He's obsessed with it still. Man, I was like that, probably ten years ago or so, where it was all Django. It was all I wanted to learn, but I was still playing in other stuff too, I still had to play country music, but I was focusing on Django. My violin playing just went to hell. I was focused on that style and now I'm not so much anymore.
VT: Was there somebody else that broke your concentration?
GH: Well, I started playing and touring with Jay, and it's a whole different way of looking at music. I mean, I play a lot of gigs where I have to be a backup, you know, where you're kind of just making the song sound like they want it to sound or sound like a songwriter when you're backing up their voice and phrasing, so it's not all about the guitar. It's about the sound. It's a whole 'nother way of playing music when you back up people. A lot of respected people tell me that I back Jay up as good as anyone ever has, so I must be doing it right.
VT: So, how is it when you're the singer?
GH: When I'm the singer it's more like free-for-all gigs. The band's I'm in we have systems where like you take turns doing the backup. Like on the first verse the steel guy'll do the backup for the singer, then on another chorus another guy backs it up, and then you flip back and forth, so it's like a cycle. In the bands I'm in everybody has played together long enough and knows the way it's done. But that's what you do, it makes the song flow from one guy to the next where it doesn't always sound the same. So it's not everybody playing at the same time, so it takes a long time to be able to realize what's going on. A lot of guys, the young guys, they just want to play all the time. But you have to know your stuff. You can't improvise all of the time. With bluegrass songs, if you don't know the songs, you can't play 'em. It's like any song. It might sound simple, but there are subtle changes. You have to know 'em. I mean, I've had people say "Oh country, I can play country," and then you get 'em on a country gig and they can't play country. But then a lot of people think, "Ah, it's just country," because they've heard one or two songs by Hank Williams, you know? But even if they're all a basically simple structure and follow patterns, some are more complicated. It's like any kind of jazz, you have to know it. If you want to play jazz you gotta know the songs, you have to know the tools to play. To play country, you gotta have the tools to play country.
Hailing from Bath, England, the quartet the Heavy experienced a curious kind of ubiquity early in its career when the song "How You Like Me Now" was used in countless movie trailers and commercials. It introduced the band and its forceful style that used the language and verve of classic soul to make arena-sized rock songs. The band's latest, Hurt & the Merciless was released this year and features some lush string and horn arrangements -- some courtesy of Daptone Records impresario Bosco Mann -- alongside full-bodied, mod-inspired hooks. Singer Kelvin Swaby and bassist Spencer Page had a chance to sit down with KDHX before the band's Saturday afternoon slot on the LouFest Forest Park Stage.
Christian Schaeffer: I wanted to ask about the new record, Hurt & the Merciless. It's your first record in four years, and that seems to be the longest gap between records for you guys.
Kelvin Swaby: We were still touring during that time, we just weren't touring here. We had a song that was used in a commercial in Japan for Pepsi, so we kind of concentrated our efforts there for a little while. It wasn't just a four-year sabbatical.
Spencer Page: And recording took longer than anticipated to finish the album as well.
KS. When you go into a record, the way we really, really wanted to go about it this time was that we had some ideas but we wanted to go in and really rehearse as a band. That's what took the time -- to actually find the sweet spot where you can base the rest of the record around it. For me, it came when were recording "Miss California," which was towards the end, four or five months down the line.
SP: It was hard to know when it was done for a lot of it. We spent maybe too much time overthinking it. It has turned out well, but it could have turned out quicker.
CS: It seems like it can be hard to know when to cut it, when done is done.
SP: And there were some late additions as well -- songs that weren't even in existence toward the beginning. Then you're starting a new song you didn't even know about. Ultimately, I think it was worth the wait.
CS: There feels like a little bit more of a Philly Soul feel to this record, with more strings and richness. Can you talk about some influences that maybe weren't there on earlier record, stuff you were listening to or playing with in the studio?
SP: I don't know if there were that many different influences necessarily, it's just that our capability to do it became easier.
KS: We've always kind of lived within our limitations and produced music within our limitations. This record felt like, "Hey, we can actually get a string section in here; let's get a big horn section." I'm really, really happy with the brass. But having those little intricate arrangements -- Toby [McLaren, arranger] was really helpful. It felt more like a live record, so that was the idea.
CS: Playing a big midday festival slot like this, where people might know a few of your big songs, how is this different playing a club show?
SP: [To Swaby] It's harder work for you, isn't it? Kelv is the main interactive point.
KS: It's slightly harder, but a festival is a festival. People don't just come for one artist. They might have a few that they like, but they don't just come for those few artists. They want a whole experience.
SP: In America as well I think people are more open to embracing stuff they haven't heard before -- a song they haven't heard or a band in general. American festivals have always been good to us.
KS: Any festival situation that we go into -- I love that; I love when people don't know us. Because then by the end of, it's "Oh, it's those guys," after they've been throwing themselves around for four or five songs.
CS: You have to win them over a little harder than someone who bought a ticket to a Heavy show.
KS: Of course. [To Page] You know what it was like last night in Detroit -- Detroit was just crazy. Dedicated shows are incredible, but it's brilliant to bring your music to people who might not have heard of you. They'll then say, "I saw this incredible band, and I have to get their CD or download it, or whatever."
One of the best finds of the first day of LouFest was rock 'n' roll quartet, Quaker City Night Hawks, a four-piece patchwork of all things 1973 and Texas justice. The Fort Worth based band made easy work of a late day shift at LouFest, drawing most of the crowd to the BMI stage and keeping them entranced up through the final jam. Comprised of bassist Pat Adams, drummer Aaron Haynes and guitarists Sam Anderson and David Matsler, QCNH set the tone for the rest of the festival, especially Saturday's Kentucky-born headliner Chris Stapleton. As we've seen some great music coming from Texas the past few years, QCNH have had a slight advantage being in Fort Worth, away from the hustle and bustle of Austin. Adams cites that distance as one reason they've been able to work and build an audience so easily: "Austin is very cutthroat, but Fort Worth is awesome -- it's kind of like an incubator scene, and because it's not Austin you can actually get your shit together and hone your craft."
Since forming nearly a decade ago, the group has released four albums, their newest as early as last spring. In true blue-collar fashion, they've worked hard and fast to get where they are. "We were a band for six weeks before we cut our first record," Anderson says. "It was really rushed because we had to complete it in five days, so it was very difficult, but this last record, we had plenty of time to try shit out and get a feel for what we wanted to do."
Trying shit out never sounded so good. The new record, El Astronauta, is a doozy. Laden with devilish riffs and lyrics to match, it sounds like the lone-star love child of ZZ Top and Creedence Clearwater Revival. "It felt like the first time we've ever felt like ourselves," says Anderson. Matsler agrees, "I feel like it's the most fully realized album we've put out so far." The band takes it's inspiration from all things west Texas and Matsler says that's all by design. "I'm interested by a lot of old school, 70s country, blues players like Freddie King -- there's a great culture of rock 'n' roll and Texas blues where we come from."
That inspiration and long nights brought forth the sci-fi/acid-blues and Southern rock arrangements on El Astronauta, which is sure to be on a host of 'Best Of 2016' lists by the end of the year. But inspiration is not without it's drawbacks, and Adams says it took some time to get the new album finally on the shelves due to the production schedule, "We had El Astronauta in the can for the past year before it was mixed mastered and ready to be released." Still, he's optimistic about the process going forward: "We hope to keep up a steady pace of music. We're lucky in this band to have two guys that write songs constantly."
Typically, Anderson and Matsler write songs individually before bringing them to the table where they get reworked in night-owl fashion. "It's been a hallmark of this band from the start," Matsler says. "We didn't want to co-write, it's not comfortable -- I'd rather do it at my house with my pants off," he laughs.
All jokes aside, each band member brings a number of influences to the drawing board. As Haynes says, it's all about the song: "That's where we have the most common ground. It's the song that's the most important thing, that's what's going to come out in the melodic structure of the tune. We'll all get out of the way, put our egos aside for the song."
"Yeah, our egos are stupid," Anderson quips. And a band without egos is a band that knows how to rock. After LouFest, QCNH will hit a few dates on the East Coast before heading back home to play the Austin City Limits festival, work on another record, and play some more hometown shows. "Some of those nights are very special performances," Matsler says, "It's like a totally different show, because we're the most comfortable there. Forth Worth is home base for us." Without a doubt, the rest of us will be looking forward to the next time QCNH make their rounds through here.
Although the reference to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production has been overused and is basically trite at this point, there are some cases where it is the most honest and fitting description of what a band brings to the table. This is definitely the case with Karate Bikini. This is a band who is historically and undeniably rooted classic Beatles-esque pop structure, but from their first record to their fourth album they've continued to evolve. Based on the performances of both the older songs, as well as the new tracks from their upcoming album, Chimera, they've seemingly morphed into a much larger creature altogether. "The beauty about this record is that everybody has contributed something to this album in terms of material," states Tim McAvin, the band's bassist, lead vocalist, and main songwriter, "so that's kind of the deal with the band. That's why it's called Chimera. It's a mixture of influences sort of stitched together."
At LouFest this past weekend they managed to perform a set that perfectly translated this new group concept to the crowd. "My favorite thing we have going on is I will jump on vocals, Tim will jump on vocals, and we'll sing additional horn parts with what's going on," states drummer Danny Hommes, "and as it stacks it becomes a bigger thing." Karate Bikini pulls off a live set with the feel of a laid back Elvis Costello, the swagger of Bowie, and the multi-lead sing-along / sway-along feel of Modest Mouse. They start powerfully and never seem to falter, with so much confidence in each other that they're able to let everything fall apart on purpose as a means to push the limits of dynamic variation a little further -- only to put it all back together in an instant.
"One of the things that does hold all the different music together is kind of a simple but strong melody -- that and structure," says McAvin, "Even though we have so much freedom to play, the songs are still tightly structured pop songs." With this at the core, there's plenty of backbone to carry both the loud and the lilt that Karate Bikini has to offer. "It's probably the most creatively free environment in a band that I've ever been involved with. Anyone can throw an idea on the table and most of the time we just let it stick," states Hommes. This practice has provided a well-organized mesh of influences to come together and create a new sound. The band can play the blues and crank out the rock, all while gobs of pop oozes from its pores.
Both in through it's sound and through it's art (designed by local artist and KDHX DJ Cat Pick), Chimera is a Frankensteined menagerie that serves as a perfect metaphor for the band's latest effort which was born out of the willingness to listen and work together. "That's what the next record is," states McAvin, "It's different, a much more diverse album from what we've done in the past. The previous records have been fairly focused, Chimera has a lot going on in different ways." That's a tough feat to accomplish correctly. But Karate Bikini is not just making it work, they are seemingly thriving within this lack of limitation all in large part due to the sincere friendship and trust among mates. "I would say that more than any other band that I've been in -- this is a family band," states guitarist John Horton, "We've known each other for a long time. We all love each other, brothers and sisters."
With longtime bandleader Ben Jaffe at the helm, Preservation Hall Jazz Band made their first appearance at LouFest this weekend. Although they've performed several times at area venues in the past, including The Sheldon and Powell Symphony Hall, there's a special sound they've been adapting for the festival circuit. The seven-piece jazz band, comprised of several stellar players over the years, has been in full, New Orleans swing since the 1960s, when Jaffe's parents created the Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. Of the current lineup, 84-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel is the senior member and a seventh generation musician. The band's set offered a string of original, NOLA style tunes and ended with a tuba-centered medley of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Afterward, Jaffe, who plays bass and tuba, had a chance to sit down to talk about the festival sound and the band's purpose as a gateway to a world of jazz for a newer generation.
KK: How long have you guys been doing the festival circuit now?
BJ: It's interesting. The first time I got the band into this environment was when we played Bonnaroo in 2006. That got us starting to penetrate some of these unorthodox festivals with jazz. Normally, they might present something esoteric, where Herbie Hancock might jam with Phish or something, but Bonnaroo was the first time we started getting in there and meeting people and becoming a part of this community. We're kind of like gypsies traveling the festival circuit.
KK: You guys have really gotten into it over the last few years. How have the crowds reacted?
BJ: You start seeing the same people, same bands, and we just hit the scene at a time when music was transitions from CDs to digital -- electronic music was starting to headline these things. I remember the first time I heard Skrillex at Austin City Limits, we were backstage and you could just sense that something was about to go down -- the energy was starting to move towards this one area, and we went up on the stage and looked out on the crowd and the energy was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I mean, I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers play when they were still a punk band and it was like that -- the energy was wild and the crowd was swaying and then this guy comes out and rips it up. Completely out of left field for me. And it was really cool that the promoters were putting us on the same bill with these artists and kids were getting to hear all of us at the same festival.
KK: Are there many jazz acts who get in on the festival scene or do you find that you guys are kind of loners out here?
BJ: We're probably one of the few who makes an effort to do it. A lot of bands maybe wait to get a call and it's very hard for them. We've made a real effort to discover our sound in a festival environment, that's something a lot of artists in jazz don't do because they're used to playing small clubs and concert halls and it's a completely different level of knowledge. Just because you're a great musician doesn't make you a great recording artist and vice versa. For me, it was important to learn how to record with headphones and tracking and to think about building on the Preservation Hall experience, but I realized early on you can't replicate that, so don't try to, or you're just gonna fail. That's what a lot of jazz bands try to do -- they try to replicate a concert hall experience in an amphitheater environment and that's not what you're there to do. You're there to throw sound out into the audience. It's taken us years to find how best to do that because you have to find the right engineer to work with acoustic instruments -- it's finding all the things that work with the band. None of us grew up performing with mics so that process of playing and having a balance on stage with a big audience, it's taken us time but I think we've finally found our stride.
KK: And that experience has really helped the band find a signature sound.
BJ: Right before we recorded That's It, we went on tour with My Morning Jacket and we decided that if we were going to play in this environment, we had to learn the language of monitors, production value, microphones, stage volumes -- night after night, we had that opportunity to practice that. Up until then, we would hit a festival and hope and pray. That touring experience gave us a lot of practice. But we're not trying to recreate that Preservation Hall sound of New Orleans jazz, which shouldn't be confused with modern forms. I think of what we're doing with our sound as part of New Orleans modern jazz, because we're all from jazz families. And when I think of modern, I'm not necessarily thinking Coltrane, I'm thinking of the next evolution of a tradition, so we're like the next evolution of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which in turn was the evolution of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, so we just keep moving it down the line.
KK: What do you think the next evolution looks like for the band after today?
BJ: I think you heard some of it today! It's definitely tuned into the way people experience music now, very tuned into dance music -- because New Orleans jazz is dance music. Dance music isn't new, it's been around a long time. So in some ways, dance music is our tradition.
KK: Are you surprised at the number of younger crowds who love your shows? What do you think they're getting from it?
BJ: I think we're introducing them to something really important. We're a portal into a whole genre of music. Several generations of music-lovers learned about Coltrane and bluegrass from Jerry Garcia for example -- he was the portal through which a lot of people entered this universe. If you tackle Preservation Hall and start digging, you're gonna uncover The Meters, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and eventually, the rhythmic root and soul of all of this is going to bring you back to West Africa. But everybody needs an entry point and that's what distinguishes the band to me -- I hope we're that portal for them.