[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted with an eye towards including it in the new issue of RVA Magazine–which should be out very soon!–but due to space limitations, only about 100 words ended up making it into the print mag. The full conversation was way too interesting to leave it unpublished, so we’re presenting it to you now, in all its glory!]
The best place to meet up with No BS! Brass Band is on their home turf–Minimum Wage Studios, located deep in the heart of Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood, only blocks from the James River. I dropped by on one of the first warm spring afternoons of 2013–expecting cooler weather, I had brought a jacket, but ended up leaving it in the car. On my way into the building, a trio of shirtless 10 year old boys trooped past me, on their way back from the river. Regardless of the fact that they’d never seen me before, they greeted me immediately, and one held up an empty plastic juice bottle with what looked like a bunch of leaves and sticks thrown into the bottom of it. “We caught a frog,” the boy with the bottle said, and after a mystified moment of trying to spot the captured amphibian, it startled me with a sudden jump. “I expected it to be green,” I said, by way of explaining the fact that I hadn’t immediately spotted the brown frog. “That’s a different type of frog,” they said, then continued on their way home. I laughed and walked through Minimum Wage’s front gate.
For No BS! to make their home here, in an area that manages to give the feel of a small country town even as its situated at the geographic center of the city, makes a lot of sense. They’ve built up a solid connection to the local community over their time as a band, and the title of their brand new fifth LP, RVA All Day, just makes that fact even clearer. Basing their ten-piece lineup entirely on horns and percussion enables No BS! Brass Band to set up and play anywhere there’s a space for them to stand and a crowd for them to play for, and as a result, they’ve played to a wider spectrum of local audiences than I’d imagine any other local band can lay claim to. From Sunday afternoon street festivals to late-night punk rock clubs, they’re at home anywhere people like music, dancing, and fun.
Founded by trombonist Reggie Pace and drummer Lance Koehler, No BS! Brass Band has brought together members from all sorts of different local music scenes. Pace probably has the highest profile independently of the group right now, what with his membership in the touring version of Grammy-winning indie act Bon Iver–during their performance on the Colbert Report, he could be seen rocking a No BS! t-shirt. He’s also a member of local funk band Glows In The Dark, and previously played in Fight The Big Bull along with Matthew E. White, who is becoming an indie star in his own right these days.
But Pace is not the only heavy hitter in the No BS! lineup. The other eight members of the group (Taylor Barnett, Ben Court, Stefan Demetriadis, David Hood, Bryan Hooten, John Hulley, Sam Koff, and Marcus Tenney) include members of The Ernies, Fighting Gravity, Bio Ritmo, and UTV Chamber, among others. Demetriadis teaches music at a variety of local schools, Tenney and Hulley each lead jazz ensembles of their own, and Koehler (to bring it full circle) owns Minimum Wage Studios, where he records bands of all different styles and genres. With all of these excellent, hard-working players coming together, it’s no surprise that No BS! Brass Band have carved out quite a niche for themselves in the local scene. The variety of influences and backgrounds that they bring together when creating their music doesn’t hurt either. While No BS! has a foundation in the traditional second line jazz groups of Koehler’s native New Orleans, they are so much more than just a jazz band. Funk, punk, hip hop, indie rock, and so many more genres are thrown into the mix, resulting in a sound that isn’t much like anything else you can hear in today’s music scene–locally, nationally, or otherwise.
Anyone who hasn’t discovered this fact for themselves will have plenty of chances to do so in the upcoming months. RVA All Day hitting the streets of the River City this week, and No BS! will be playing two different shows this weekend to celebrate its release–first on Friday, May 17 at Balliceaux, and again the next night, Saturday, May 18, at The Camel. That’s in addition to the DVD they released earlier this year, Live At Montrose Studio, which will also be issued digitally as an audio recording in the near future. And then there’s yet another album coming this summer, which I only learned about in the process of conducting this interview. Fight Song: A Tribute To Charles Mingus was created in collaboration with the Mingus Awareness Project, a charity that raises money for research into ALS, the disease that killed Charles Mingus. That album will drop July 5. With all of these releases coming out in such a short period of time, and a heavy touring schedule planned for this summer, No BS! Brass Band is set to take their act beyond Richmond’s borders and show the world what they have to offer. But if there’s one thing that the title of their new LP makes clear, they’ll always call RVA home.
On a sunny afternoon in April, I met up with Lance Koehler and Reggie Pace at Minimum Wage Studios to discuss the new record, as well as their unique lineup and history. But the conversation began with a topic I could never have predicted…
Lance: We went to see Cirque Du Soleil last night.
Reggie: Oh, was that trippy?
Lance: It was awesome.
Reggie: That music’s so weird.
Lance: [laughs] But they’re all playing it live, man! It’s the shit!
I didn’t know it was live music.
Lance: Because the tones they’re using are sort of glossy and cheesy sounding, it sounds like it would be a sync track, and I’m sure they do play to sequencers, but the majority of the shit’s live. They have a whole live band back there. And they’re kicking ass.
Reggie: Yeah, when I saw them the drummer and the violin player were incredible.
Cirque Du Soleil. Crazy. OK. I’m curious about the nature of your band’s lineup. I know you’ve got a lot of people in the group and it sometimes seems like it fluctuates pretty frequently. Is it typically the same guys day in and day out these days?
Reggie: It’s usually about the same. I would say everybody in Richmond would notice, because it’s been like six years. And you’d say, “That looks very different from how it did two years ago.”
But so it’s not the kind of thing where different people can make different times, so there are some people who are in and out a lot?
Lance: That’s one thing we tried really hard, to make this band a band and not like a jazz gig, you know? There’s a core lineup that’s been the same. There are six of us that have been in since the first record, and we’re on our fifth now. But due to people’s lives, you know, some people gotta jet.
Right on. Tell me about the new record. What can we expect from it?
Lance: Dance classics. [laughs]
Reggie: This record has a bit more vocals on it than the other ones have had in the past. Shorter, more song-formy songs, maybe? A bit of a tighter package per each song.
Still group vocals?
Reggie: Group vocals, and some individual vocals. Some hip hop stuff, some real singing stuff. Fun stuff. We had some of our friends come in and do some loud group vocals on “RVA All Day,” yells and stuff. I think this one feels really alive.
Did you record it with everybody playing at once?
Reggie: Oh, yeah. Every time. I would say 99% of the way they sound on record is how we sound live.
Cool. Any unusual covers this time?
Reggie: Do we have covers on this one?
Lance: Just one. We finally recorded and put out “Thriller.” So it’s not gonna be too new to people in town that have seen us play it for five years, but it’ll be the first time it’s been recorded. And there’s a marching band that plays on it, which kinda throws it over the top.
So how many people does that make, total, playing on that song?
Lance: There were nine of them, and there’s ten of us so… basically 20 people on it.
Reggie: Yeah, there’s a drum line, and they’re all high school students that do a drum line on their own.
From what school?
Reggie: Varina High School.
Lance: Yeah, Varina Hit Squad is what they call themselves. I think “Thriller,” I mean, nobody’s ever heard a version of “Thriller” like that. It’s gonna blow people’s minds.
Reggie: [laughs] I hope so.
Lance: I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I just mean that, whether they like it or not, it’s gonna blow their minds. [laughs]
Reggie: They’ll be like, “Why did they do that?” [laughs]
Lance: We should tell you something about Nick Kuszyk, who did the artwork for RVA All Day. That’s the first picture he’s ever done away from the robots [that are the usual subjects of his work], and he’s declared it priceless, and his best work yet. [laughs]
[Lance hands me a copy of the album; I start commenting on the cover]
This textured stuff on the CD cover [raised concentric circles] is really neat, too.
Lance: Yeah, it’s actually glow in the dark ink.
[Looking at band photo on inner sleeve] Is that here in the studio?
Lance: It’s here and in the meatwagon, our bus. It’s two pictures merged.
Reggie: That would be the dream of the future.
Both: The studio in the wagon.
Lance: Yup. [laughs] Which actually [happens]! There’s a song on here called “Meatwagon” and we recorded half of the tune in the wagon. Half of what you hear on the record is us driving around and singing in the wagon. Then it kicks into the full band, which was in the studio. But literally, [from] when we recorded it to when we came into the studio and did it was all in the same hour. We went and drove around, then we came back and played the shit first take.
Well, the driving around counts as the warmup, right?
Lance: It did! We all knew the song really good by the end of that drive. [laughs]
So how did you record that?
Lance: A couple of stereo mikes in the wagon. It’s a shuttle bus, and we had em…
Reggie: …on poles, rattling around our heads, scarily, in there.
Lance: It actually sounds pretty dope, though.
Any other highlights of the album you want to tell us about?
Lance: Well, they’re all highlights.
Reggie: Yeah, love songs to the city. RVA All Day.
I guess this is because Reggie’s gotten a higher profile in recent years, playing with Bon Iver and stuff, but it seems like this record is getting attention from bigger outlets than usually cover you guys. I saw that SPIN premiered the “RVA All Day” video, which has gotta be huge. Do you feel like there’s a greater amount of hype behind this record than there have been with your previous work?
Reggie: Definitely. I would say that a lot of the stuff we’ve done over the last five years has kinda led up to this. Being able to play shows over and over again and kill it on a regular basis, saving up the resources that we needed to put our attention in certain places, to be able to play as much as we can. I feel like it was all leading up to this stuff. And I’m sure playing all over the world with Bon didn’t hurt, because whenever I was anywhere, I was wearing a Brass Band shirt. All I have is Brass Band shirts. [laughs] And I’d pass them out to whoever I meet. Making new friends always helps. I guess that’s what every band’s trying to do. Make new friends.
So do you have a lot of heavy touring planned behind this record?
Reggie: We’re gonna tour about as much as we’ve ever toured, this coming year. We’ve got a good East Coast run coming up in June, and stuff going through the middle of the country probably in late July. So yeah, we’re putting the old college try in right now for this.
So who’s the label releasing this record?
Reggie: There’s no label. DIY. It’s just us.
Have you done this before? Because I know the last record was released by Worthless Junk…
Lance: The vinyl portion was released by Worthless Junk. And on RVA All Day, Electric Cowbell will be releasing the vinyl portion, mainly as distribution. Not like a record contract style, you know?
Do you feel like it’s easier to get your work out there now that everything’s more mp3 based?
Reggie: Insanely easier. All you have to do is know about it, as opposed to before. I remember as a teenager, you had to have that music guru dude. There was that one guy in town that knew about all the new records before everybody else, and he was always just like, “Oh yeah, you heard of this?” And he’d blow your mind on a Saturday afternoon with some record you’d never heard of. So it’s not like that anymore. With blogs, and even facebook and stuff like that. It’s a lot easier to find stuff if you’re looking for it. I guess the key is to pique the interest of someone so they’ll look for it, to be the thing that someone wants to find out about.
I’m curious about how people from a variety of different backgrounds came together to form a brass band at this point in history. What inspired that, and how did you all find each other?
Lance: We kinda came together naturally, through the jazz scene, and through the studio here [Minimum Wage]. I met a lot of these cats by recording them in different bands, and then we’d play on different gigs together. I moved up here from New Orleans so I loved the brass band thing. And Pace and I hooked up, and were like, “Let’s start a brass band.” And Pace knew all the people to call.
Would you say it’s true that you’re bringing punk and hip hop and stuff like that into your sound?
Lance: Everything, yeah. Everybody’s influences and backgrounds have come into play.
Reggie: Yeah, totally. I guess it’s just like a lot of my friends played in rock bands, I’ve played in rock bands, all of us did. I guess these are the group of people who kept going with their horns. A lot of people just quit playing their horns after the 11th grade. If you were to count all of the people that played horns up to the 11th or 12th grade, you’re talking a million more horn players in the world. We all kind of just stuck with it, and I see it now as some kind of X-Men thing, or The Avengers. Like, Stefan’s doing a different thing over there. And Marcus is coming out of straight hard bop, he sounds like Freddie Hubbard. And Taylor has a very refined vibe. Bryan Hooten’s got the wild wooly Ornette Coleman trombone vibe going, and Lance’s drums are relentless, you know what I mean? It’s not like, “Let’s wait for something to happen,” which is very jazz. It’s more like, “Grr! We’re gonna make things happen!”
Lance: Yeah, asses be shakin’ from the downbeat, you know?
Reggie: So I guess the goal is to try and make something with the pieces, as opposed to getting the pieces and trying to smush them into a thing. I think that happens a lot. Trying to smush it into a jazz hole, or even trying to smush it into a rock hole. A thing that sits in its own space is what anybody will remember.
So you’re more open to people bringing something in that’s not typical jazz.
Reggie: For sure. Prefer it, almost. I would say just using the tools you learn when you’re learning how to play jazz is the biggest part of our jazz thing. It’s less likely to be in our harmonies–well, our harmonies too. But definitely not the groove or anything like that. It’s definitely coming from a more people-oriented thing.
Lance: Yeah, it’s the people’s music. Whether you want to call it popular music, or what, you know, it’s like, it’s barroom music. It’s people’s music. I don’t think anybody in the band would consider what we do jazz, with the exception of the Mingus record that we’re about to release, which hasn’t hit yet.
Reggie: Probably not. I mean, it’s undeniable that…
Lance: …there’s elements…
Reggie: The elements, yeah. So if someone did, I could see why.
Lance: Yeah. There’s no reason not to call it jazz, but there’s no reason not to call it rock or R&B or funk, either.
So tell me about this Mingus record.
Reggie: In Chicago and in Richmond, there are charity events called the Mingus Awareness Project, which raises money for [research into] ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is what Charles Mingus died of. So I think two shows a year are put on raising money for that, and the Brass Band was asked to do one. The music the Brass Band came up with … I don’t know, it’s tapped into some thing that we were really close to without even knowing it. And those [songs] turned out so good that when I got back home from tour, I was like, “We’ve gotta make a couple more of those, and make that a thing.” Everyone thought it made so much sense, and I felt like the recording of that was the best-feeling recording we’d done, as far as how comfortable everyone was with what we were doing, and knowing exactly where we were coming from when we were laying it down. I think Charles Mingus’s music has affected all of us in a way that we weren’t even aware was so similar. It was really weird. It came together so fast. We were worried about it, like, “Learning this music’s gonna be hard,” and it was just like “Whoop!”
Lance: I think he’s got kind of the same approach to music, because he’s super into arrangement, and writing a tune. It’s all very intricate, and precise, and in-depth, but then when it comes to playing that tune live, he’s just like, “Fuck it, let’s go!” And it’s like a fire. And that’s kind of the approach we take with it. Like, OK, maybe you didn’t get everything right, but as long as the energy was straight, you know…
So, when you guys write your songs, I take it that they are pretty intricately arranged, not so much room for improv?
Reggie: We add the room for improv. They’re usually pretty arranged, and then we’re like, “OK, Where is the moment?” We give it a moment when shit just has to breathe. And then in rehearsal, after someone brings something and it’s totally cool, we think about it later, and how we feel as a group, and we’ll improvise something that’ll go into the song. Like, “Oh, now this is a thing that’s in the song.” And we’ll do that for a long time, and eventually, the recorded version of a song is like, a year of playing it, and changing it in little ways. And then it still gets changed some more after the recording has already come out!
Lance: [laughs] Yup.
Reggie: We still play ’em different now. We just try to keep things fresh for us. And fresh for the listeners, as well. We have a lot of people that come over and over again. So we’ve gotta keep it fresh for ’em. Do some new stuff.
Come see No BS! Brass Band at their two local release parties for RVA All Day this weekend. They’ll be at Balliceaux (203 N. Lombardy St) on Friday May 17 at 10 PM, and The Camel (1621 W. Broad St) on Saturday May 18 at 9 PM. Vinyl and CD copies of RVA All Day will be available for purchase at both shows. For more info, click here.