Singing With Your Hands: A Conversation with Jake Shimabukuro

By Brent Thompson

Jake Shimabukuro is a living example of how technology can propel an artist’s career in today’s music industry. The Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso found an international audience when – unbeknownst to him – his rendition of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was posted on Youtube in 2006 (the clip has received over 16 million views). During his career, Shimabukuro has collaborated with Jimmy Buffett, Lyle Lovett, Yo-Yo Ma, Jack Johnson and Bette Midler and many others while releasing a steady stream of solo albums. On August 31, Shimabukuro released The Greatest Day [Mailboat Records], a collection that finds original songs sitting alongside cover versions of “Time Of The Season,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Hallelujah” among others. On Sunday, September 16, he will perform at WorkPlay Theatre. Recently, Shimabukuro spoke with us by phone from his home in Honolulu.

Birmingham Stages: Jake, we are enjoying The Greatest Day. If you will, talk about the album’s body of material.

Jake Shimabukuro: There are six new original tunes and six cover tunes that I’ve never recorded before except for one of them – it’s an original called “Go For Broke.” We had re-recorded it because recently there was a movie called Go For Broke that was released in Hawaii about the Japanese-American soldiers who fought in the Second World War. That served as the theme song for the movie, so we re-recorded it and Jerry Douglas – one of my favorite musicians – makes an appearance on that so we decided to put it on the album.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve even as you take them into the studio to record them?

Shimabukuro: Yeah, definitely. They’re constantly evolving. It’s hard for me to listen to my own records because, by the time the album comes out, I already have so many new ideas that I always wish I could go back into the studio and re-record. It’s just never-ending – the songs evolve constantly. At some point, you’ve got to realize that, “OK, that was then” and it’s just a snapshot in time. Don’t get hung up on it – keep moving forward and you can use those ideas on the next project.

Birmingham Stages: When you’re recording cover songs, how do you place your own stamp on the material while retaining the original integrity of the song?

Shimabukuro: That’s a tough one. I always want to be respectful to the original, but at the same time I try to put my own spin on things. I try to be true to the melody as much as possible and really draw out the melody. But sometimes it’s hard, especially when it’s the ukulele or anytime you take a vocal tune and you try to quantify it as an instrumental. The human voice is so amazing that there’s all the subtle nuances that [make it] hard to do with a stringed instrument. I think a lot of times horn players or wind players have an easier time because they’re dealing with the breath and it’s that much closer to the human voice. With strings, you’re singing with your hands and your fingers so it’s a totally different approach. So, yeah, I struggle with that – really trying to bring out the melody. I like to do it where I’m singing the song in my head and that really helps me to be more vocal about it.

Birmingham Stages: In writing instrumental material, it must be nice to focus just on the music and not have to create lyrics for it.

Shimabukuro: Yeah, that’s true. In writing instrumental music –  especially when it’s your own piece – you can do whatever you want because it’s your own piece. But also that can be challenging because you can do whatever you want [laughs] and you can get carried away. The bottom line is you just want to be musical and you want to create something that will connect with people. I always lack a little bit of confidence when it comes to writing my own music, but it’s fun and I enjoy it.

Birmingham Stages: An artist once told me that an instrumental piece allows the listener to hear the song in his or her own way. In other words, it’s open to interpretation given there is no vocal story to guide the listener.

Shimabukuro: That’s totally true and I think, with instrumental music, sometimes you have to be very careful with how you title the piece because that can work two ways. You can lead the person or give them a hint, but then sometimes you give them a title and it kind of locks them into a certain feeling.

Birmingham Stages: Early in your career, you utilized Youtube as a platform to get exposure and grow your audience. Some artists love the current climate as there are so many ways to connect with listeners. Others say it’s a challenging time because the amount of content makes it difficult to separate yourself from the crowd. How do you view the current model?

Shimabukuro: I’m very grateful for social media and Youtube and the Internet because I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for those avenues. Youtube really started a touring career for me, so that was the catalyst for me. Otherwise, I would never get any kind of radio play. I think that a lot of artists are getting their starts on social media and I think it’s great. Even though there’s a lot out there, I still think if you have something that moves people and it’s great to have that platform to expose what you do. For me, I spend hours on Youtube sometimes just looking up new artists or checking out interviews. I’ve discovered so many new, incredible musicians through social media, so I’m grateful for that. It’s been truly inspiring and it’s just a great new format for the audience to connect with artists.

Birmingham Stages: You deserve a lot of the credit for it, but the ukulele is seeing a surge in popularity these days. For example, music retailers now prominently display ukuleles and ukulele songbooks.

Shimabukuro: Yeah, totally. The bottom line is I’m just a big fan of the ukulele, so when I see it in movies or commercials or just making its way into mainstream media, it’s totally exciting. For me growing up in Hawaii, the ukulele is such a big part of the culture. It’s like the steel guitar – the steel guitar is an indigenous Hawaiian instrument. It was invented in Hawaii and you hear it now so prominently in country music and different styles of music. Surfing was also invented in Hawaii, but now you travel around the world and see such a surfing culture and community evolving in so many different countries. I feel like the ukulele is the next thing that’s making its way out there and I think that’s fantastic.

Jake Shimabukuro will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Sunday, September 16. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $35 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

 

Common Vision: A Conversation with Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Saul Young

Local music lovers will remember Cruz Contreras from his days in Robinella and the CC String Band, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based outfit that performed in Birmingham on several occasions. These days, Contreras fronts The Black Lillies, a quartet that is set to release its new album, Stranger To Me, on September 28. On Thursday, September 13, The band – Contreras, Sam Quinn, Bowman Townsend and Dustin Schaefer – will perform at Moonlight on the Mountain. Recently, Contreras spoke with us by phone from his Knoxville home.

Birmingham Stages: Cruz, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of Stranger To Me. Are the songs newer compositions, older songs or a mixture of both?

Cruz Contreras: Certainly a combination, but I would say mainly it’s pretty fresh and new material. We just put out a single yesterday called “Earthquake” and that was probably the first one written – I wrote that probably two years ago. That was the impetus for, “Hey, we’ve got a new song and a new sound that’s going to focus on three-part harmony.” For every record, there’s a song that’s written that lets you know it’s time to make a record. Through the process of that, we were solidifying the lineup and we went from a six to five to four-piece group. We have three lead singers, three songwriters, four arrangers and every song on the new record has a different combination of writers. I try to avoid one formula – I like the idea of being open-minded and supporting each other.

Birmingham Stages: A steady flow of energy must permeate through your band with that amount of creative input.

Contreras: Yeah, and it takes a while to get to there because you’re dealing with big personalities and these are guys that could all front their own bands. It’s really cool to get to that point where you have that common vision and dedication.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs continue to evolve even as you’re in the studio recording them?

Contreras: Of course! The more you’re prepared, the more you have the luxury to edit and change and be spontaneous. If you  go in there just hoping for the best, you’re not going to get to that point. This record is the first Black Lillies record that is exclusively Black Lillies members. This is really us and we went in there and performed the songs live together. We sang at the same time – we didn’t sing lead and then add harmonies.

Birmingham Stages: The press material for Stranger To Me states that a tremendous amount of writing took place in preparation for recording the album. It seems that you already have enough stored material for several additional albums.

Contreras: We’ve talked about doing a five-song acoustic EP of our favorite five songs that didn’t make it or something like that. I’ve heard people say that one of the tunes that got cut is their favorite tune. The title track got cut! We have a song called “Stranger To Me” and it didn’t make it [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the current musical climate? Some artists say it’s a great time as you can do things on your own terms. Others say the current model makes it difficult to separate yourself among the crowd given anyone can record and distribute their own music.

Contreras: Yeah, good question. It’s the reality. I’m sure every industry deals with changing times and changing technology. The cool part is that information is available to everybody and everybody can get their message out there. We tour a lot – we’re not selling out giant theaters or amphitheaters, but we can go anywhere and we have a fan base and we have this really complex network of fans and friends and supporters. It’s why we’re able to make a record like this without a traditional record deal. If it bops along like it is, we have a career in music and we have a great life. This [new album] is a big step – it establishes the band and lineup and the next record may sound totally different and our fans understand that.

Birmingham Stages: Today’s climate seems favorable to a band like yours in that genre lines are blurring more than ever. For example, the “Americana” term encompasses a multitude of styles and sounds.

Contreras: I love it and I think it’s the future. People come up with genres so they can sell and market – there’s no other reason. But everybody at their fingertips carries a little machine that can play any song in existence at any second. You can’t just put out a record every two to three years and expect to be relevant. Really hot artists are putting out something everyday, even if it’s a photo or a statement. To me, music is music and I like the diversity of it.

Moonlight Presents: The Black Lillies at WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, September 13. Advance tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $15 and $18 day of the show. For more information, visit www.workplay.com.

Listening Station: Boz Scaggs Revisits the Blues

By Brent Thompson

No one can deliver a pop gem or a smooth dance groove like Boz Scaggs, but – just like Eric Clapton – he always returns to his love of the blues. Since releasing the blues-laden Come On Home in 1997, Scaggs has delved deeper into the genre that has always held has fascination. On the heels of the Steve Jordan-produced albums Memphis and A Fool to Care comes Boz’s latest, Out Of The Blues [Concord Records]. The nine-track collection mixes original material with songs by Jimmy Reed and longtime Scaggs cohort Jack Walroth. One unlikely cover that Scaggs makes his own is Neil Young’s “On The Beach.” Always holding the respect of other musicians, Scaggs surrounds himself with crack players including Doyle Bramhall II, Ray Parker, Jr., Charlie Sexton and Willie Weeks – among others – on the recording. If you’re only association with Boz is “Lowdown” and “Jojo,” then Out Of The Blues may not be your bag. But if you want to hear a seasoned artist playing timeless music, then this is the album for you.

Road Trip! Moon River Music Festival comes to Chattanooga September 8-9

By Brent Thompson

Moon River Music Festival – hosted by Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors – returns to Coolidge Park in Chattanooga, Tenn. on September 8-9. The weekend event features a stellar lineup that includes The Avett Brothers, The Head And The Heart, Margo Price and East Tennessee favorites The Dirty Guv’nahs. For event schedule, travel information and complete details, visit www.moonriverfestival.com

 

 

As Good as the Last Gig: A Conversation with Chris Robinson

By Brent Thompson

©Jay Blakesberg

Nearly 30 years ago, The Black Crowes – fronted by vocalist Chris Robinson – put the rock & roll world on notice with its Southern-fried Stones sound. These days, at 51 years old, Robinson – now fronting the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) – remains as musically ambitious as ever. Formed in 2011, the CRB – Robinson, Neal Casal, Adam MacDougall, Jeff Hill and Tony Leone – has released a steady stream of studio and live recordings. Stylistically, the quintet finds frontman Robinson trading in his swaggering rock style for jam-based California psychedelia. On Saturday, September 8, the CRB will perform at Avondale Brewing Co. Recently, Robinson spoke with us by phone from his adopted home of Marin County, Calif.

Birmingham Stages: Chris, thanks for your time. Are you home right now?

Chris Robinson: You could call it that [laughs]. I’m moving  – you know how that goes. I have three shows this weekend – two with my Marin country band and a CRB festival in Yosemite. It’s kind of a hectic weekend, but they seem to all be hectic weekends these days.

Birmingham Stages: You’re able to juggle a lot of projects. You produce other artists, you toured with [side project] As The Crow Flies recently, and you front the CRB. There doesn’t seem to be much blank space on your calendar.

Robinson: The CRB is one thing – we’re still building this band and we’re still setting up our little fortune teller booth and getting out the crystal ball and hoping somebody will sit down [laughs]. But it’s good, man. I love music and in this day and age where – juxtaposed against popular opinion – I think people say, “Rock & roll? There’s no such thing,” but I’m pretty busy and everyone I know plays guitars and we write songs.

If your goal is to be rich and famous, then this is probably the wrong time. But I think if you have a lot of creative energy and you have a voice for expression, then give me a big slice of now. It’s a great time if you have some imagination. I’m not being flippant and I’m glad to have the history I have and that anyone would be interested in hearing me sing or what I’m writing. That being the case, I feel I’m here to make music – it’s what makes me happy and I understand it and it brings me solace and I feel peace in the universe. As you know, we live in a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety and that permeates our daily thing. So, for me music is a great exercise to stay in the present and tune out some of that negative stuff.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists say that they miss the traditional model that included marketing departments and other artists tell me they prefer the current climate that allows them more freedom to navigate their careers. How do you view the current musical climate?

Robinson: I dig it. Marketing department? Those are just square business dudes and they would be selling Volvos or toaster ovens. I knew that when that shit was happening. I’ve always had this artist’s “Us versus Them” counter-culture mentality. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, that was the way it was working and that was my life. We signed a shitty record deal but, luckily, we had a sound that people were interested in. I know people are obsessed with fame and fortune, but wasn’t the guy in Ugly Kid Joe famous for a minute, too? I just picked some band from the ’90s. But that’s indicative of where I come from through art and expression.

I’ve made life very difficult for me and those around me because I don’t really care about money the same way people do. My motivation really is about the work and you’re only as good as the last gig you did or the song you’re writing. I’m ambitious – success is cool, it’s just that I’m not going to ever change anything about what I want to do or how I do it to make everybody else more money. I have a vision – I don’t know if my parents dropped me on my head – but it seems like most of my heroes all tend to be people that have to do it their own way and I believe in forging your own path.

Birmingham Stages: Your publicist says that there is a new CRB album set to be released next year.

Robinson: Yeah, it’s called Servant of the Sun. We’ll probably be done with the mixing by next week. We went to our favorite fishing hole in Unicorn, Calif. and to our favorite studio – the Brotherhood Arts Laboratory – and I think we’ve come up with another psychedelic goodie bag.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? Do you tend to write more at home or on the road?

Robinson: A little of both. The last record probably more at home, but this record definitely on the road. For whatever reason every year’s a little bit different. This year, it’s seemed like I wrote the majority of the material and I wanted to make a record where every song could be played live. We’ve never really made any records in the summer, so it’s a little more uptempo and up-vibe. I’m super happy with it; I think it’s very dynamic and a little bit different. There’s no acoustic instruments at all – no piano, organ or acoustic guitars. It’s all electric and very danceable. Yeah, I’m very excited.

Birmingham Stages: Your band has been known for a collaborative writing and recording process. Is that still the case?

Robinson: Yeah, pretty much. It’s kind of hard to pin down, but I wrote all the lyrics. If someone has an idea, then the best idea wins always. We’re very open that way.

Birmingham Stages: How do songs stay fresh and relevant to you after you’ve played them for 20 years or more?

Robinson: It’s funny because just doing As The Crow Flies this year and getting back to The Black Crowes catalog and not playing those songs in so many years gave them an inherent freshness. Those songs are part of people’s lives and I’m a singer. I’ve never taken vocal lessons and I’ve got to feel it but that feeling isn’t hard to muster. Once you get up there in front of people – it’s a work ethic type of thing in a sense. Even though I’ve had my moments of lead singer-isms, I’m always acknowledging that people have spent their money. That same crackle I feel when I walk onstage is the same feeling I had in the summer of 1985 when I got onstage at a little punk rock club in Chattanooga.

Birmingham Stages: Though you live in California now, you know that Southern music lovers will always consider you their own.

Robinson: I love the South. Even as a child, I never pictured myself staying in the South. I knew my life was out there, but I definitely see the world through Southern lenses. I’m from Atlanta and I’m proud to be from a place where black people had a voice and a little more power than other Southern places. It was a progressive place and the music part of being Southern is really important to me. And I love barbecue, so I can’t help it.

Emporium Presents: An Evening with Chris Robinson Brotherhood at Avondale Brewing Co. on Saturday, September 8. Advance tickets to the 7 p.m. show are $25 and can be purchased at www.avondalebrewing.com.

Make The Music You Love: A Conversation with Olivia Evans

By Carey Hereford

Olivia Evans is a 15-year-old sophomore at Mountain Brook High school in Birmingham, Alabama. She is the daughter of
country music star Sara Evans and has been raised in the shadow of the country music scene. Now, as her voice has developed, she is ready to focus on her own music career. Olivia has honed her skills as the lead vocals for several high school bands, but following this interview she is going out on her own as a solo artist. Recently, she spoke with us about living a life surrounded with music, Beyoncé and staying true to herself.

Birmingham Stages: Growing up in a musical household, how did that help shape your view on music now?

Olivia Evans: It was not much of a household because growing up I spent most of my time before school started on a tour bus. A majority of my childhood I was on tour with my mom. The members of her band were like a family to me. This was very good for me because I getting to experience what my potential career was going to be like at a young age.

Birmingham Stages: Have you worked with any teachers for music that have had an influence on you?

Evans: I have had three piano teachers, the first one had the biggest influence on me because he taught me all of the basics which has helped me excel to being a better piano player. But I am now taking from my elementary school music teacher.

Birmingham Stages: Knowing you have spent time in Nashville and Los Angeles, how do the music scenes there compare to the scene in Birmingham?

Evans: Having lived in Nashville until the age of five, I was constantly around live music. My mom liked going to listen to different kinds of live music some nights in downtown Nashville. Nashville has a far larger variety of music, as well as being the home of country music in America. Los Angeles has a larger variety than Nashville because of the larger amount of people. In one place you might have bluegrass, and in another there might be a rapper.

Birmingham Stages: How do you put passion into a song you have performed over and over and over?

Evans: When songs are played live I like to almost feel what the audience is feeling. Give the audience what they give to you. If the audience seems bored that probably means more effort needs to be given. But when comes to the actual song, I like to change little things about to make unique so the song is not completely the same every time.

Birmingham Stages: What artist or artists have had the biggest influence on you as a singer?

Evans: My mom has had a very large influence on me as a singer because I do not think I would be a singer without her. Although, in her opinion, she does not think her mother’s voice and her voice sound alike at all. But one other artist, Beyoncé, because I spend hours and hours on things that Beyoncé can just get instantly and that is something that I really wish I could do. But, some other artists that I like to listen to and have influenced me as a singer are Tracy Chapman and Alison Krauss.

Birmingham Stages: Do you write some of your own pieces of music? If so, how does that process usually work for you?

Evans: Yes, I do. The process usually starts with an experience and then the lyrics come almost instantly and I type them into my notes on my phone as quickly as I can. My lyrics as a whole need to mature before I start recording them, but the process as a whole is not very long.

Birmingham Stages: Have you had any other collaboration with musicians? If so, who?

Evans: I was a member of (local band) Riverbend early on, but ended up leaving after about 6 months. I am currently in the band Rug Monkey. I have recorded and performed with my mom at times. I have done several duets with friends as well as done a gig at a wedding rehearsal with my brother.

Birmingham Stages: How do you see your career going going forward?

Evans: I see myself being homeschooled by eleventh grade so I can have more time to travel and record. My brother will hopefully be moving Nashville and I would like to move to Nashville or Los Angeles at some point. I am not against college, but if I were to go I definitely go to a music college like Belmont or Berklee. But my mom did not go to college and neither is my brother, so not going to college for music is not uncommon in my family.

Birmingham Stages: What genre of music do you see yourself pursuing?

Evans: I do not like country music at all or see myself in a singing country music for a living. One of the reasons for this is because I do not think females are taken very seriously. I feel like women are seen as objects and are not as popular because they do not sing about beer, jeans, and trucks. I am completely open to any other types of music.

Advice: To never shut yourself off from any type of music. This does not mean you have to love it. Also do not try too hard to be successful, make the music you love do not just make music for the fame. Make the music so it makes you feel accomplished, proud and satisfied.

Carey Hereford is a sophomore at Mountain Brook High School in Birmingham, Alabama. He is self- taught in the guitar, mandolin and ukulele. Carey is passionate about all things music and does not discriminate against any style or form of music. Currently, he would tell you his favorite artists range from Muse to Jason Isbell. This piece is the first in a series of interviews with artists that Carey believes are making an impact on the current music scene and should be on all music aficionados’ radars.

Listening Station: New music from Lucero

By Brent Thompson

 

Lucero frontman Ben Nichols became a husband and father since Lucero recorded its last studio album, but he’s still in touch with his past and the South’s darker side. On the band’s new release Among The Ghosts [Thirty Tigers], Nichols and company address divorce, drowning, the devil and – hence the title – ghosts and haunting. Recorded with engineer/producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Drive-By Truckers), Among The Ghosts was recorded in the band’s hometown of Memphis at Sam Phillips Recording Service. Opting for a more streamlined approach than on previous releases, Lucero gives a fresh take on its sound, but with a familiarity that will appeal to its existing and diehard fan base.

Capture A Moment: A Conversation with Kendall Street Company

By Brent Thompson

Charlottesville, Va. has a rich musical history and Kendall Street Company is a band that has grown its fan base beyond the city’s fertile scene. Formed by two University of Virginia students in 2013, the sextet has garnered a following in the Mid-Atlantic states and now has its sights set on the Southeast. The band – Birmingham native Andrew King, Louis Smith, Brian Roy, Ryan Wood, Ben Laderberg and Jake Vanaman – is set to release its third full-length album, RemoteVision, this fall. On Saturday, August 25, Kendall Street Company will perform at WorkPlay. Kate and the Howlers will open the 8 p.m. show. Recently, we spoke with Kendall Street Company about writing, recording, modern technology and blurred genre lines.

Birmingham Stages: Are all of the band members University of Virginia students?

Andrew King: All of us went to UVa. but Jake, our saxophone player, and I are still there and doing our best to get out as soon as possible.

Birmingham Stages: How do you balance student life and touring life?

King: During the summer it’s not an issue – we hit it hard and this is all I do. During the year, we do the “weekend warrior” thing.

Birmingham Stages: We understand that the band is set to release a new album. What can you tell us about it?

King: It’s a three-part release. The first part comes out September 1, the second part comes out October 2 and the third part comes out November 3. They’re all very different  – they’re themed differently. It’s a haiku – five songs, seven songs and five songs. We’ve been doing this promotion thing where we post a haiku everyday on our Facebook page.

Birmingham Stages: The structured release schedule you just described is a great example of how artists can distribute music these days on their own terms. If you will, talk about how your band uses technology and current distribution methods to release material.

Brian Roy: We like to do it a little bit differently. This is our third record – we released our first one in 2016 and in 2017 we released Space For Days. We’d been writing throughout that process and we decided that we had songs that themed well together, but had a lot of different sounds. We were thinking that the modern landscape is different. You’re not limited to recording on physical media like vinyl which limits the amount of time you can put on a record, but also people have limited attention spans with the use of modern technology.

We thought that we would go and record these 17 songs together and would release it as a three-part album. So, it’s one album called RemoteVision and that title talks about each part of the record and it’s all tied together. It’s nice to be able to release it in those three parts and use modern technology so that people can listen to each part one-at-a-time.

Birmingham Stages: Staying on the topic of the modern musical climate, how do you separate yourselves from the crowd in a time where literally anyone can record, distribute and promote music?

Jake Vanaman: We’re just trying to be us, honestly. I think that has worked really well the last two years. We just bring our best A-game to every show and try to communicate well with the audience. We’re not playing any roles – that’s just who we are.

Roy: To add to that, we try to keep it really fun and we just want to be having fun onstage. We feel like if we’re having fun, then the audience will be having fun. We throw curveballs at each other onstage and we’re trying to follow each other. We all have a lot of influences and we try to listen to a lot of different music from all over the world and here in the States – different genres and new stuff that is coming out – and try to learn from that.

Louis Smith: One of the things that’s really unique about us is we are a band where everyone is kind of the leader at different points – the live show, songwriting, in the studio and decision-making. We all work together as a very cohesive unit. We disagree on some things, but we all respect each other’s opinions and I think that’s unique in this day and age. We’re trying to keep the idea of “band” alive and we try to portray that in our music and our social media outreach.

Vanaman: On RemoteVision, four people are writing lyrics to these songs. There’s a lot of input coming from everywhere in the band.

Birmingham Stages: With respect to songwriting, how do you approach the creative process?

Ben Laderberg: There are multiple methods. Sometimes we sit down and start jamming for a while and maybe nothing will happen. Other times, someone will being in this really cool theme and someone will pick up on it and we will turn that theme into a cohesive song. Most of the time, one person works on an idea and they’ll share it with one other person in the band to get their input. Eventually, it turns into a full song where everybody’s part develops naturally.

Birmingham Stages: Are the songs on RemoteVision newer compositions, older songs or a mixture of both?

Laderberg: There were a few songs we had fully worked out before even our last record was released to songs that were written a few weeks before to finish up the 17 [tracks].

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still continue to evolve while you are in the recording studio?

Roy: Definitely. We like to come into the studio with completed songs, but also an open mind. So, we’re open to things changing at the eleventh hour or to things being moved around. We like to come prepared – the studio isn’t inexpensive – but there’s an atmosphere in the studio and you want to capture that atmosphere in the music and the songs themselves. I think it’s part of what gives an album good cohesion. We try to capture a moment in the band, which is why we like releasing one [album] every year. We’re always writing new material and we want to be able to get in there and capture a moment. Songs evolve even after we release them. If you come to our live show, we’ll play songs from our older records and they might sound totally different. We switch it up to keep it fun for us and engaging for our audiences at the same time.

Birmingham Stages: How do songs stay fresh to you after you’ve performed them dozens of times?

Smith: Probably the best example is a song called “Cars” – it’s our biggest hit on Spotify. We haven’t gotten tired of playing it and one of the reasons is we’ll mix different songs into “Cars.” We start with the song “Jessica” by The Allman Brothers and we’ve tossed in [System of a Down ‘s] “Chop Suey!” and [Three Dog Night’s] “Joy To The World.” There’s a spot in the song that’s open to “What are we feeling tonight?” and it’s a surprise for us sometimes.

Birmingham Stages: It seems that now is a good time to be forging your career given that genre lines are blurred more than ever.

Roy: That’s exactly right. I’m the first one to say that [the term] “genre” is dead. We’ve talked about this as a band and not everyone totally agrees with that in every way, but what’s so great about the digital age in music is that we can listen to music that comes from Nigeria and Latin America and we have available access to those things. If you ever get bored with what you’re hearing on the radio, online you can get access to music from other places and that access is really valuable to keep what you’re learning fresh.

Birmingham Stages: Andrew, I know you’re looking forward to playing in front of your hometown crowd on August 25.

King: Absolutely! We just added Kate and the Howlers to the bill and I want to say that we’re really excited to be playing with them.

Kendall Street Company will perform at WorkPlay on Saturday, August 25. Kate and the Howlers will open the 8 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $10 – two tickets for $15 – and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

 

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy brings the swing to the Lyric

A conversation with drummer and founding member Kurt Sodergren

By Brent Thompson

An 80-year-old and an 8-year-old can equally enjoy a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy show – how many bands can make that claim? Formed 25 years ago in Southern California, the swing revivalists have performed more than 2,800 live shows – including appearances at the Hollywood Bowl, Lincoln Center and the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXIII – while releasing 11 albums and being prominently featured in the 1996 Vince Vaughn film Swingers. On Thursday, August 9, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will perform at the Lyric Theatre. Recently, drummer and founding member Kurt Sodergren spoke with us by phone about swing, the road and the unifying power of music.

Birmingham Stages: Kurt, thanks for your time. Where are you right now?

Kurt Sodergren: We are home. Summer’s not been as busy as normal. It’s been kind of nice because I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with family.

Birmingham Stages: A lot of artists I interview these days discuss adjusting their touring schedules to spend more time at home.

Sodergren: We actually just had a band meeting and talked about that very thing. Everyone wanted to do what we needed to do to make a living, but we didn’t want to go overboard and get burnt out. It really helped us a lot when we made that change.

Birmingham Stages: What first comes to mind when you reflect on 25 years of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy?

Sodergren: Where’d the time go? It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. It seemed like it happened so fast, but I guess it didn’t because we started touring in a van and probably drove to New York and back three times in that van – we still have it, actually. It seems like a blur right now, but we put a lot of time in to get to where we are and it was always a lot of fun. There was never a question about whether we wanted to continue to do it. Even now, there’s no end in sight that I can see.

Birmingham Stages: There has to be a satisfaction – and even some job security – to playing a timeless form of music.

Sodergren: Oh, for sure. There are whole generations of families that come out. There are people who brought their kids in utero and now the kids are 12 or 13. It’s an American art form, so it’s pretty great to be involved in it.

Birmingham Stages: When the band started, did you ever think that you would be responsible for starting a revival and that your band would turn future generations on to swing music?

Sodergren: That’s a lot of kudos and I don’t think we can accept all of them because there are other bands. We do think that what we’re doing is unique and the energy we bring to the stage is definitely one-of-a-kind. We were just doing it for the love of the music. It was Scott’s [Morris, guitarist and vocalist] idea  – we were playing heavy blues at the time in a trio and he said he wanted to change and start playing swing. It was a little confusing to me, but I was into the sound – it feels really good. It’s great to bring the music to people that don’t normally like to go out. That’s the way I grew up – going out to see music. It would be a shame if people stopped doing that, so if we can have any part of people still going out and having a great time – or if someone’s having a bad day, they come see us and it becomes a great day – we’re happy.

Birmingham Stages: To the point of having a great time, it’s nice to see a show that provides an escape from the world around us. Obviously, a lot of great music has been made using politics and world issues as platforms, but sometimes it just needs to be about fun.

Sodergren: I agree. To the point of politics, I think there are always things that can bring people together and music is one of them and food as well. No matter what someone’s opinions are about what’s going on in the world or who they support, I think that music is a place where we can all come together and agree. That’s really super important, especially now when people are so divided. That’s why we’re an apolitical band – we’ve played for a lot of different Presidents and were excited to do it.

Birmingham Stages: If I understand correctly, swing music is in your blood as your grandfather was a musician.

Sodergren: He got drafted two weeks shy of his 38th birthday into World War II and played sax, so I think that saved him. He spent most of it playing for soldiers on R&R and officers’ parties and so forth. He enjoyed it but he missed my dad and my grandma for a year. So, whenever I’m on the road for two weeks and get homesick I try to keep a little perspective [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: How do you view the current climate and model that exists for musicians?

Sodergen: When we first started, we did two music videos and they were pretty pricey. They got played on MTV and VH1. Now, we record our own for peanuts. Our latest video, “Why Me?,” is on Youtube. It has a lot of views and we did it ourselves in Andy’s [Rowley, saxophonist and vocalist] house. On the other side, there’s not a lot of money to be made selling records like there used to be – unless you’re Taylor Swift or someone like that – so our bread and butter is the live show. We bring merch with us and it definitely helps pay the bills. It’s a double-edged sword.

Birmingham Stages: As a drummer, are you out scouring music stores for new gear or do you basically stick with what you already have?

Sodergren: I used to really enjoy it. That’s one thing Scott and I did when we first met – we would go to music shops. There’s a local place here in town that had a lot of vintage gear and I was super into it. But I’ve got five kits now – I’ve pared it down a little bit. I have one I bring on the road and one in my rehearsal room and it’s exactly what I want, so I really don’t spend a lot of time now looking for new stuff; I have a lot of friends that do. I try to get into the drum room everyday to practice, but I don’t think much about the gear.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will perform at the Lyric Theatre on Thursday, August 9. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $27.50 – $42.50 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.