Soul Rebels Brass Band
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Wendy Williamson Auditorium, UAA
Tickets: $20 advance, $25 door, free for UAA students uaatix.com
By David Hulen
Anchorage Daily News / adn.com
It’s been a good year for the Soul Rebels. With a well-received new album and non-stop touring that includes some of the biggest music festivals in the United States and Europe (they played the main stage at Bonnaroo last Friday), the band has never had a bigger audience.
They began as a traditional New Orleans brass band, playing classic tunes in a city where brass bands still fill an important role in local culture and community. They’ve evolved over the past two decades to incorporate jazz, pop, funk, R&B, soul, hip-hop – and, lately, metal (really - more on that below). As co-founder and bass drummer Derrick Moss explained in a phone interview earlier this week, the idea all along has been not to stand still.
You’ve been doing this a long time, but it looks like the band is hitting a new level and you’re now reaching a bigger audience than ever. Where does it feel like you’re at career-wise?
What we aspired to be from the beginning was a mainline act on the main stages and playing at major festivals all over the world. Not just a local band or a band that plays at the front gate of the festivals for people coming in to see the real acts. I remember feeling that for years in the early days. So it’s great for (co-founder and snare drummer) Lumar (LeBlanc) and I to be where we are now. A lot of the younger guys in the band didn’t experience that so they don’t know how that feels... It’s a great thing for us.
Tell me about the band’s music and how it evolved.
We started off as a traditional brass band (Dejean’s Young Olympia Brass Band). We wanted, after playing a couple years and going to Europe every summer and doing all traditional music, we were young guys, like freshly out of college. And so once we mastered doing the traditional stuff…we started slipping in some of our own ideas. And the first thing, which was really simple, but major, was changing the beat of it a little – going from that old traditional beat (to) playing a more funky beat, something more of a dance beat. The same traditional song, like Louis Armstrong, but instead of the old, kind of two-step or slow-drag beat or jazzy kind of laid-back feel, we gave it a more upbeat feel and a little edge on the tempo and with a little side-to-side step or movement from the band, and we noticed the crowds began to dance more and get more into it. Once we noticed that was happening, we kept it pointed in that direction. Then we started changing the horn parts and adding a little more funky riffs. And then we realized, you know what: How about if we played some of these pop tunes, some old classic pop tunes?
Do you remember what the first non-traditional tune was you played like that?
It was probably some Earth, Wind & Fire. … See, we all come from university and high school bands, marching bands. We were used to making people get up on their feet and yelling and shouting and dancing. We were used to performing, putting on a show. Not just playing music but putting on a show. So it became all about that – let’s put on a show for these people. Some James Brown stuff. We started incorporating some of that into our Young Olympia shows and it got to the point where we had to make a decision. Are we going to be a traditional band? A lot of brass bands were playing traditional. There was the Dirty Dozen doing something a little funkier, a little more hip, and Rebirth (Brass Band) was doing more second-line street funk. We didn’t want to try to be any of those people. We incorporated what we learned in college and university bands and playing any song that was on the radio or any style of music. We learned how to compose music for horns. That’s where we learned how to do that, high school and college,
What kind of venues were you playing as you started doing that?
We had to hustle to get a gig anywhere. We’d play anywhere – in a barroom or a club or on the street corner, at your house, in your backyard, anywhere.
How did people respond?
It took us a while. Like any area that’s being done differently, people feared. Like ‘Wait a minute, what you doing? That’s not the way we do it.’ So we went through this, and people really hated on us. And we got it mainly from the other bands, the other brass bands and the musicians that were in brass bands. But other musicians that were in, like, pop and funk and soul, like the Nevilles and the Meters and people like that, they respected what we did. “Wow, these cats are playing some funky stuff – with horns, not electric guitars.” But to a guy who plays horn in a brass band, we were doing something that they didn’t do. I know in their hearts they knew it was good, because it sounded good and a lot of people liked it outside of the musicians. “Hey, what are y’all doing? You’re messing up the tradition,” they’d say. We’d say “No were not. We know tradition and we do tradition. We’re just trying to do something that pleases us and brings something new to the table that other people are not doing.”
At some point in there hip-hop comes along…
It just naturally progressed to that. Once we learned how to do the pop stuff really good, like the Michael Jackson type stuff and old school pop artists, mainstream guys, Rick James, Gap Band, Earth, Wind & Fire … we had that and people loved it, we had to keep progressing and changing over time. I don’t know when rap turned into hip-hop but for some reason its all called hip-hop now. We grew up with that. We were in college, Lumar and I, during that era. Now it’s just natural. You just take it all in and we use it in our music, too. We’re doing a little bit of everything.
Was it a big move to start incorporating rap and hip-hop into brass band music?
Kind of yes and kind of no. It wasn’t hard naturally to progress in that direction because that’s what was going on at the time. But we had some guys in the band, Young Olympia Band, who were all raised in the traditional aspects of brass bands and it was hard for them to let go of everything they knew and start transitioning to a more pop, R&B, funk, hip-hop type deal. It was hard for them. So we got stuck in that transitional period where half the band wanted to still do traditional and the other half wanted to do pop and funk. So we would start off all our shows doing traditional, we’d do the first half traditional, then in the second half transition over to the blues and then the pop and then the funk and then soul or hip-hop.
How did audiences respond to that?
They liked it. They liked the direction we were going in. But just like the band, there were some people who were old school and wanted to hear the traditional. We had to win them over or kindly accept them going over to hear other bands that played that. We had to keep moving forward for our future.
[It's probably worth noting here that most, if not all, New Orleans brass now incorporate hip-hop and pop into their music. -dh]
Is your music still evolving?
Yes always. That’s why were still here. Lumar and I are the only two left from that original band and we had to evolve. We evolved with time and music and with culture. And that’s why were still here now. I plan on continuing to evolve with time, ‘cause I plan on doing this the rest of my life.
There’s this quote (originally by a writer in the Village Voice) I keep seeing as I read about you guys: “The Soul Rebels are the missing link between Louis Armstrongand Public Enemy.” Do you think that’s an accurate description of what you’re about?
It was at the time. That was made maybe eight years ago.
Is there a better way to say it now?
Actually … (laughing) you just put this on my mind. Now I’m going to stand here and evolve that comment. The Soul Rebels are the missing link between brass horns and metal. We opened up the 30th anniversary shows for Metallica every night in San Francisco.
I was going to ask you about that…
It was pretty awesome.
How’d that come about?
We played live on the Jools Holland show in London, the biggest music show in all of the UK. I think he has like 1.3 million viewers every night. There are five bands on each show and we were one of the five bands and one of the other bands that night was Metallica. It blew my mind. I was like, ‘Are we really on the same show with Metallica?’ We just did our thing, you know? We did our thing and those guys loved us. They’re alongside of us during the performance and they're, like, tapping thier feet and pumping their fists and rocking their long hair and stuff. It was cool, man. So after the show we were out waiting on our transport and the guys are coming out one at a time and when I talked with Lars, the drummer, I was like, ‘Man, it’s honor to play with you guys.’ And he was like, “Man you guys are great.” And he said, “We should do something together.” And long story short, one month later, we were opening up their 30th anniversary concerts (four shows in December at the Fillmore Auditorium.) Every night was a different crowd, every night was different guest artists, big time rock and roll superstars. ... But the Soul Rebels played every night and opened the show for these guys. So now we’re doing their first-time Orion festival coming up in a couple weeks in New Jersey. We’re playing both days of that.
Are you playing Metallica songs in your shows now?
Yes indeed. When we opened up for them, we had to play all Metallica songs for their 30-year anniversary shows and now that we’ve learned those songs we incorporate them into our shows. It depends where we are. If it’s anywhere where they look like they’re rockers or metal heads, we're going to play some “Sandman” that night.
What was the band trying to accomplish on your new album? ( “Unlock Your Mind” on Rounder Records)
It’s a continuation of our very first album. Total separation of thinking like a brass band. I didn’t say not being a brass band, but it’s a different state of mind. We think more like a pop or funk band that has a message. And the message comes from the lyrics. We learned that to totally connect with an audience, you have to speak to them. You have to say something to them so they can understand what you really want them to know. Instrumentally you’ve got to hope that they get it. But when you speak and say words to them, we can tell ‘em exactly what we want ‘em to know and make sure that they get it. That was a great eye-opener for us when we realized that. It’s been a part of who we are and it will be from now on.
One of the things that’s struck me listening to the album is that it’s brass band music, good time music, but it’s aware of the world and real life out there, it’s aware of the tough stuff out there. (The album features a signature tune, “Let Your Mind Be Free,” which advises, “Free your mind with education / Help to build a better nation / Stop killing for recreation / Let your mind be free.”)
Exactly. From day one, it’s been a part of what we are. The thing is, there are so many bands out there that are saying something but not really saying anything at all, you know what I mean? They’re talking about a whole lot of nothing.
Talking loud and saying nothing…
Yeah. Talking loud and saying nothing. Talking about what I got, what kind of car I’m riding in, my rims, my bling bling and all that, stuff that really doesn’t matter. I’m not saying I don’t like nice things, its great. But in order to have nice things, you need to have a career so you can have a job to pay for whatever you want in life. That’s where we are. We’re talking about what’s real. If you have the right heart, the right soul, the right drive with the right education, you can accomplish anything you want in life. That’s what we want people to know. And have fun doing it, you know? We have fun. But I want people to understand; you have to be responsible when you’re having fun too. That’s our message – something positive and uplifting that people can build on and aspire to be better people in life.
You all come out of high school marching bands and college bands…
Right. … All of us have been to college and most of us have degrees. I like to say we’re the most educated brass band in the world.
The music you play is really made for moving around – like physically moving around. How do you manage that when you’re playing in an auditorium with seats?
We play a song called “Get Up.” We tell ‘em: Get up, stand up in front of your seat and if there’s room in front of you, get in it and dance. If that’s not enough, come down on the floor from upstairs or wherever you are and come dance. We don’t care if you’re standing in your seat. We want you to get up.
When you’re traveling, do you get a lot of questions about New Orleans? You know, how’s New Orleans doing (seven years after Katrina)?
What do you tell them?
We tell them that New Orleans is doing much better than it was. A lot of things are back the way it was. Some things are better than it was. And then there’s the part where we live that’s not all the way back. There are still parts outside of the inner city and (outside) the tourist part of town and Bourbon Street and the French Quarter that still have houses untouched after being washed up by the storm, you know? Properties overgrown and falling apart. So yeah, but you don’t see that because that’s not good for tourism, you know?
Ever been to Alaska?
No I haven’t!
Anything you’re looking forward to about this trip?
Yes. I’m looking forward to seeing some beautiful terrain, great open land with good air to breathe, maybe some wild animals out that’s not being shot at. And on a beautiful campus.
David Hulen is the ADN's state/local news editor. Email him: email@example.com