Rhythms and Sounds: A Conversation with Roman Street

By Brent Thompson

Music can take listeners to faraway places and Noah and Josh Thompson are living proof. Growing up in Mobile, Ala., the brothers and guitarists took to the exotic sounds of Flamenco, Latin Jazz and Gypsy Jazz. These days, the Thompson brothers comprise the instrumental duo Roman Street (named for a street in the Alps). On Saturday, July 21, Roman Street will appear on the bill of the Eric Essix CD Release Concert at the Lyric Theatre. Recently, the Thompson brothers spoke with us by phone about speaking through your instrument and creating the latest Roman Street album, Bohemia.

Birmingham Stages: Noah and Josh, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about your writing process and how that process applied to the creation of Bohemia. Were the album’s songs newer compositions, older ones or a combination of both?

Noah Thompson: Josh and I both composed a little independently on this one, but most of the material was made for that album.

Josh Thompson: We work on each other’s songs, but I wrote the majority of mine – four or five of them – for the CD. I have a loop station at my house and every week or so I’ll go work on an idea. I’ll look back and find something I made two years ago that I forgot about and I’ll listen to it. There are one or two pieces on this CD where the ideas predate the CD by two or three years, so it’s a little bit of a mix of old and new stuff.

Birmingham Stages: Being from the Southern U.S., how did the two of you get turned on to World Music, Gypsy Jazz and Flamenco?

NT: There’s a story I like to tell because we get asked that question a lot. Josh and I grew up here and went to high school here and went to college in the South. Our parents are really musical and we had different types of music played around our house when we were younger. I just frankly was bored with learning the normal stuff that aspiring guitar players learn around here – Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Buffett and Dave Matthews. Not that it’s a knock on that music, but I always found the Spanish and European stuff so much more challenging and interesting. I never thought that I’d be playing it professionally – I just liked the way it sounded and the way it made me feel. The rubber hit the road when Josh and I met a guitar duo called Tonic Strings – they were here coming through the South and we heard it and fell in love with it and the rest is history.

Birmingham Stages: These days, people can easily find Jazz via satellite radio, Internet and iTunes. How do you feel about the state of Jazz in the era of these modern outlets?

NT: We don’t play a mainstream genre of music, especially in the American South. But I think the way people consume music has helped us. People keep coming to see Josh and I play because they like to see guitar players improvise and play onstage and we have a good time and jam. I think people have become more open-minded given the way people consume music these days.

Birmingham Stages: This may be an odd question, but is there a sense of relief in playing instrumental music? By that I mean having no pressure to tie lyrical content to your music.

JT: I think that Noah and I realized pretty early that vocals were not our forte [laughs]. We weren’t born with that gift. It was great to find out that you could still have a fulfilling career as an instrumental musician – there was a relief with that. The whole point is to make the instrument speak. That’s the highest praise you can get – people come see you and say, “You can really make that instrument talk.”

NT: [Writing lyrics] is challenging. I’ve tried to put some lyrics to our songs – that’s a completely different skill set that some people have. But, like Josh said, I love the fact that people dig instrumental music and enjoy it in a different way. With instrumental music, people can make of it what they want – you don’t have people telling you a story. We’re just giving them rhythms and sounds. The same song will make people feel chill or elated.

Live at the Lyric: Eric Essix CD Release Concert with special guest Roman Street takes place on Saturday, July 21. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $20 – $30 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.