The first time I interviewed Russ Randolph of BoomBox, the temperatures were sweltering, the sun was setting and he was setting up for a late night DJ set that he and bandmate Zion Rock Godchaux would later play. We were at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe, Ill., at the annual Summer Camp Music Festival.
More recently, I caught up with Randolph on the phone, he in Alabama, and me in Indianapolis, and the conversation was much more relaxed. I missed his first call and immediately phoned him back to begin our chat, hoping he was still available to talk. “Yep,” he said. “Just let me head back to the room. I was just taking care of the recycling.” Before the music talk started, we talked about the convenience of curbside recycling and together wondered how grown adults could live in today’s world and not know what or how to recycle.
Randolph remained laid-back as he talked about his band's latest album downriverelectric, released about a month after Summer Camp: “It’s been good. People... are getting it, which is good."
And enough people are "getting" the band to allow he and his bandmate Zion Rock, aka "Z," to stage successful tours. “It’s still amazing to me that every day, "Z" and I are able to pay our bills with the music we create and from being on the road.” As he paused, I thought about how local aspiring bands could probably relate. Randolph continued, “We’re having the time of our lives writing right now. Nothing is worse than when you should be having the time of your life but instead you’re struggling. We have to pay bills, keep a crew. It’s a very… amazing thing when you can get to that point where you’re not in struggle mode.”
A two-member band that epitomizes cross-cultural appeal, BoomBox plays a unique blend of psychedelic rock and electronica; think of a guitar-centric, slightly-relaxed Garganta or a less-spacey, more-groovy Papadosio.
Both Randolph and Godchaux are producers, DJ’s and multi-instrumentalists, and in a live setting, Randolph manipulates beats with Ableton software, a favorite program of EDM fans. Meanwhile, Godchaux adds a layer of live instrumentation with improvised guitar and vocals that speak loud and clear to jam band fanatics. The spontaneous nature of their style ensures that every BoomBox experience is a new adventure.
I asked Randolph how improvisation plays into his band's songwriting process. “Going into the studio for this album, we had a different kind of concept. We wanted to make a very organic-sounding record. We’re not like normal electronic artists. No glitch or anything like that; it seems like a lot of electronic guys are spiraling towards that. We wanted people to understand what and how we were feeling in the studio. It doesn’t happen methodically, block by block in there.” He paused, and then added, “It took us five years after the first album to put out another one. We don’t want to wait that long for the next one.”
Randolph and Godchaux are currently working on an EP, rather than a full-length album. I mentioned that artists are able to get music to listeners more quickly to listeners via the Internet, and often in small batches that wouldn't be commercially viable as physical products; i.e. mixtapes or EPs. “That’s true,” Randolph said, “but I still like the concept of a physical record. We’ll always make records, no matter what medium the music is primarily released through.”
I agreed and told Randolph I prefer physical CDs to digital music. Randolph was surprised when I said that I don’t own an iPod. “Why not?” he asked. I explained that physical products can give you an experience you can't get with a digital download, and cited The Black Keys’ 2010 release Brothers . “When you take it out of the case and put it in your player, it’s a plain black disc. But when you remove it after playing it, it’s peach-colored and there’s black lettering on it; they put a heat-responsive coating on the disc. You’d never know that with just digital tracks.”
“You know, that album was recorded just up the street from here,” Randolph said of Brothers, which was recorded in the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Al. “It’s good stuff… even though those guys really tore the place up in their interview with Rolling Stone.” Comments the duo made to the publication last December upset figures in the music industry and stirred a lot of controversy . Not surprisingly, Alabama natives such as Randolph took offense.
Returning to the topic of BoomBox's music, I asked Randolph about their songwriting process and where they look for inspiration. “Generally, we listen to old stuff. Old recordings. Really, really old stuff. Bob Marley demos. Jimi Hendrix demos from a hotel room with just a small recorder going. We listen to Townes Van Zandt and other singer-songwriters. We used to start with a beat and write melody around that, but more and more we’re writing with acoustic guitar and piano, really writing a traditional type of song. Then we take that and adapt it over into a beat or groove, building around that original song that we’ve written. It’s really about the design of a song and then wrapping the idea of dance track around that song.”
Randolph explained that a lot of BoomBox songs begin with an idea, which he and Godchaux then bounce back and forth between each other, adding something new or tweaking something slightly along the way. “Sometimes it’s a brief process, other times we’ll bounce the same idea for five years.” I ask how being in a band comprised of just two members affects this process.
“Most of the time it makes it a helluva lot easier to make decisions,” he replied. “We don’t have to round everybody up and be like, ‘Are you cool with this? Okay. Let’s move on.’ What I like better with only having two people is that it’s more… well, the end product is closer to what we have in our heads. When five people are involved it’s like a committee and they’re less likely to take a risk. With a group of people, the music gets distilled and the more people you have, the further the song is from the original vision. It’s not like that with just two people.”
BoomBox, B!tch Please, and Bad Dagger (the debut of Twin Cats bassist Cameron Reel’s side project) play The Vogue Thursday, February 10.