Adopting a marching band format, Jefferson Street Parade Band takes a wide variety of internationally influenced rhythms and sounds mobile. And they're incredibly fun live when you catch the group playing in march formation. Their raucous sound and colorful, rag-tag Salvation Army band costumes generate an instant street party.
But Jefferson Street Parade Band is no joke. The ensemble is composed of excellent musicians and their music excels both onstage and on disc. The group will hold a release party for their second LP Consultation With Tubby this Friday at Bloomington's Blockhouse, a new recording studio and performance space.
Here's a selection from a recent conversation with founder and drummer Ben Fowler.
NUVO: What inspired you to form a marching band?
Ben Fowler: The idea of the Jefferson Street Parade Band was formed in the Winter of 2008. It was several months after I'd finished going to IU for jazz drumming. It was also several months after a couple pretty awesome rock and roll tours I was part of with Kentucky Nightmare and The Delicious. The tours were great in the sense that it's awesome to travel the country and play music with your friends. But it can also be monotonous. There are a lot of late nights in smoky bars and you start to get the vibe that people in the room are more interested in buying another drink than hearing what your doing musically. Night after night that gets pretty old.
The idea behind the parade band grew from being tired of playing in bars, and also getting tired of playing in the four piece rock band set-up because I think that mode has grown predictable. I was also missing playing with horn players. I'd been playing with jazz quintets and things like that in college.
So during the Winter of 2008 I was waiting tables and it occurred to me that it would be really fun to put together a band with my friends, some horn players and drummers and get something together where by the arrival of Spring we'd be ready to play outdoors and march around the streets.
So that was the dream. I called up Sophie Faught who is an amazing tenor sax player that I played with in college. I ran the idea by her in a text message. She didn't respond the first day and I figured she probably thinks that's a real dumb idea. Then I saw her the next day and she said "yeah, let's see about this." We started making a list of who we would want to play and we started strapping together drums and cowbells for the drum-line. We got our start from there.
NUVO: On the first JSPB album, Juntos, the group is working in a broad range of musical styles. There are Latin American cumbias, West African tunes and Balkan gypsy sounds alongside the traditional New Orleans brass band motifs. Can you give us an idea of what your musical outlook is and why you've chosen to embrace such a wide repertoire with the group?
Fowler: When we started this band everyone was putting their heads together thinking about which songs we could cover. We were looking to whatever it was we were listening to. I was thinking, "Oh, we could play this Stereolab song. Or we could play this song from The Delicious," which was a band I'd been in.
On the first album there were five originals composed by the band and five cover songs. The cover songs are internationally derived. We played a cumbia from Colombia called "Cumbia de la Pendejita" by Juan Peña y Sus Muchachos. I was listening to a lot of Famoudou Konaté who is a djembe player from Guinea. I really wanted to play some of his music and there were a couple pieces he'd written that we learned early on.
My best answer to your question is that I get hooked on a rhythm or a melody and I want to cover it. I think there are two different ways to approach playing music from another part of the world. One is to immerse yourself in a specific musical genre or culture. For instance you could immerse yourself in the folk music of Cuba for the rest of your life and never get to the bottom of it. I think that's a beautiful way to interact with music and culture.
But to me, I thought, I'm a rock and roll kid from Indiana with a jazz education, and I feel the other approach is to amalgamate it all. Take something from this and something from that and try to do your own thing with it. In my own life that approach has been more inspiring. Much respect to people who do it the other way with a more ethnomusicological approach, but that's not my life.
NUVO: Tell us about JSPB's new LP Consultation With Tubby. Will the album continue to draw from the band's outward looking musical inspiration?
Fowler: Yes, we have a couple recordings of Famoudou Konaté tunes. Our bass player Matt Romy wrote an excellent arrangement of a Brazilian song called "Canto de Xangô" by Baden Powell. There are several originals on the new album. More composers within the band are beginning to show themselves. We've been playing since 2009 and the band seems to be coalescing more into its own sound.
The title of the album is taken from a song I wrote. At the time I wrote it I was listening to a lot of King Tubby who is the godfather of dub reggae. I think the title tells a story without giving away too much. And hopefully gives a nod to King Tubby himself for his masterful music.
NUVO: I know that JSPB often perform in unconventional spaces. Looking back on the years you've spent with the band any particular memories stand out?
Fowler: I remember a march we did for an event at the Bloomington Convention Center. We were marching our way into the building and suddenly in the middle of the song we're on an escalator. It's just hilarious to be concentrating on the form of the song, thinking about who's going to solo next, keeping up the tempo, and other musical concerns - then suddenly your riding up to the second floor of this building on an escalator. That was just a kick for me.
I think one of the most special gigs we ever had was during a tour we did last Summer. We played on a Friday night in New Orleans at a club called the Blue Nile. One of my drumming idols was there that night, a guy named Johnny Vidacovich who played in groups like Astral Project. I'd taken some lessons from him in the past. He walked in and that was a beautiful moment. Cyril Neville who was a percussionist with the Neville Brothers was in the audience that night too. We do a cover of a Thelonius Monk song called "Bemsha Swing" and I heard that Cyril commented to the bartender "who are these guys? I never heard a brass band do a Monk tune before." Those moments really hit you. It's powerful to be heard by the people you've been listening to.