From NO BS! to Sufjan Stevens – RVA musician John Hulley looks to Brunswick and beyond

by | Sep 20, 2016 | MUSIC

I try and think back to the first time I met John Hulley. Spry, full of energy, and able to command a room with a glare from his over 6-foot vantage point – he’s also one hell of a brass player and is conquering the indie-music world one tour at a time.

I try and think back to the first time I met John Hulley. Spry, full of energy, and able to command a room with a glare from his over 6-foot vantage point – he’s also one hell of a brass player and is conquering the indie-music world one tour at a time.

So the first time I probably met or saw Hulley was at Balliceaux. This awkward looking dude whose instrument was almost as tall as he was. Blasting out notes in line with RVA favorites No BS! Brass Band.

Other times I’ve seen the performer in a more reserved setting – leading his more personal but equally impressive solo project Brunswick – another brass ensemble that often aims for a more traditional jazz sound.

Then there’s the Hulley I see on social media; on stage with indie-wunderkind Sufjan Stevens along side NO BS! Brass leader Reggie Pace and other RVA cats.

The versions of Hulley I’ve seen vary, but his talent, dedication, and friendliness are constant.

So when I finally get him alone, we’re sitting on my back porch – I’d just thrown my back out so I’m calming my nerves with a few homemade mint juleps and begging Hulley to tell me where he gets his energy and talent from.

Turns out his musical background started way-way back in the 5th grade where he first started on trombone growing up in a NOVA suburb.

“I was always fine at it, until freshmen year of high school,” he said, sipping his drink carefully as to not get too hammered before a Broadberry set later in the evening.

It was at that point in high school where he had to join both marching band and concert band – he preferred the latter and hated the former, so he bailed on both and switched to guitar. He stopped playing trombone for the most part and ended up playing a lot more guitar. He said this led to what many young brass players do, starting a ska band.

He stuck with guitar through high school and ended up at VCU’s music program for classical guitar. It was his freshman year in RVA when his eyes were reopened to the potential associated with his old friend the trombone.

He caught a Fight the Big Bull show at Cous Cous – he was snuck in despite being a 21 and up show.

“It’s only a minimal guitar, bass drums and all horns,” Hulley said about the legendary RVA band Fight the Big Bull. It was also one of the first times he saw Reggie Pace who would soon become a kind of friend and mentor. “He did a crazy solo on ‘Lady in my life’… and I’d never heard a solo on trombone like that.”

From there he joined the VCU pep band so he could get back in to the trombone groove. He also had some help from VCU professors who let him sit in on trombone classes despite his guitar-focused major.

“I never took it seriously in high school,” he said. “The VCU pep band really gave me a chance to sharpen my teeth. You get to play real loud, until you get tired, and it doesn’t matter if you suck.”

You can see Hulley killing it back in 2011 around the 3:25 mark in the video below:

He did that for four years. And it was in VCU Pep band where he claims a lot of inspiration – mainly because of all the brass solos the organization allowed.

“There’s a lot of brass playing that’s being a jock,” he said. “How loud can you play and how long can you play for.”

Before long, stuck with a post-grad case of ‘what the fuck do I do now,’ he managed to worm his way into NO BS! Brass band sets.

“I’d graduated for about 3-4 months and sure enough Reggie Pace got the call for the Bon Iver stuff, and Reggie Chapman went to grad school… which has been awesome for him, but then NO BS! was down two trombone players,” he said. “So I made the shortlist call.”

Pace said it was Hulley’s stage presence that helped him stand out.

“We needed a guy who could have a vibe on stage,” said the No BS! frontman. “He was taking solos on people’s shoulders and stuff.”

While Pace left for bigger things, Hulley stayed on and charmed his way through NO BS! and nurtured more relationships. NO BS! also helped the musician hone his broader jazz skills.

This led to an increased interest in the development of Brunswick. The project started as a writing exercise alongside local trumpet player Nick Skinner. They both wanted to do some kind of big band project so they started writing and composing songs together.

“I’m of the belief that no one is going to put me in a good band, so if I wanted a good band I’m gonna need to make a band with good people,” Hulley said. He admitted, at that point, he wasn’t big on the local jazz scene, mainly because he wasn’t a jazz major or a well known trombone talent. But he had his mind set and he knew if he “wanted to be in a cool band, I knew I’d have to put it together.”

He stayed committed to the big band format and continued to use Fight the Big Bull as a model.
“It’s the amp of Duke Ellington,” he said.

The two created a few arrangements with parts for as many as 10 members. The writing process wasn’t easy for the novice composers. He said a number of rehearsals were wasted realizing what they had written didn’t really pan out when performed as a group.

But there was one early arrangement that really landed well – a version of Daft Punk’s “Something About Us.”

“I’m a huge Daft Punk fan and I really loved the Discovery album and I thought that tune was so melodic,” he said. And with almost a quarter million views on Youtube, he’s found an audience for his brand of big band tunes.

Finally, what would become Brunswick started to take shape and he booked their first show at The Camel under the name “John Hulley’s Large Ensemble” – yeah, they didn’t have a name yet.

It took an interview with the VCU School Paper, The Commonwealth Times, to solidify the new name Brunswick after the CT reporter put him on the spot for a band name and he kind of blurted it out.

He said the name came from his hometown of Brunswick, Maine, and it has nothing to do with the beloved stew.

“I thought it was a unique-enough band name while also being a name that notates it as my band without calling it John Hulley and the… guys,” he told me laughing. “I call it Brunswick to put a level of ownership on it, but not rub it in everyone’s face and make them think they can’t or don’t contribute.”

Things evolved with help from another friend, Steven Cunningham, who helped arrange and compose some tracks, though Cunningham has since left Richmond for grad school.

As you can imagine, maintaining a lineup for a 10+ piece band is a challenge. Hulley has worked with a steady stream of VCU jazz majors in what he calls an “ebb and flow of people.”

“People move, some people don’t have time for it in their schedule,” he said.

By this point, Pace had been back in town for some time and was leading Hulley in NO BS! and playing under Hulley’s lead in Brunswick. The two had become close friends when Pace got the call to go back to a national show, Eaux Claires Fest in Eaux Claires, WI.

Eaux Claires encourages collaboration among the festival’s performers and that led to Hulley and Pace being invited to perform on stage after stage with bands like Blind boys of Alabama, Frances and The Lights, Grandma Sparrow, Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.

That Sufjan Stevens set would turn out to be a career defining moment.

“Everyone was just sort of meeting and high-fiving back stage,” Hulley said. “And someone asked what we were doing and if we were free during the Sufjan set.”

Hulley was already a huge fan of Stevens and jumped at the chance. They ended up playing “Chicago” and “Come on! feel the Illinois!” (seen below)

Pace had been approached about playing with Stevens in the past, but timing hadn’t worked out. But this time things fell into place and he invited Hulley to come along. They did some rehearsals in New York, and ended up with 10 dates booked.

While Pace was more experienced with big festival stages, Hulley was less so – and, sure enough, the first gig they had lined up was at the massive Coachella festival.

“It was interesting, it was cool,” Hulley said of the show in the California desert. “The organizers see everyone as equals ’cause you get 45 minutes and then you get the fuck off the stage. They don’t care who you are. There’s a stigma around it, but all the audience was a bunch of kids trying to see a bunch of music. And it’s really hot.”

Hulley at Red Rocks Amphitheater with Sufjan Stevens via Lauren Serpa Photographs

The tour continued with shows around the country, like Red Rocks in CO (seen above) and even one in Northern Virginia at Wolftrap.

And when that tour ended, NO BS! was back on tour, this time crossing the Atlantic with shows all over Europe. Needless to say, it’s been a busy summer for Hulley – but all the while he’s kept Brunswick close to his heart.

And the project hasn’t been easy… or profitable. Hulley admitted the folks he gets to play with him realize its a labor of love.

“Right now, nobody’s making too much (if any) of their rent check from Brunswick, so you’ve got to have reasonable expectations of what you ask,” he said. “It can’t be a slave ship, but you’ve got to make people feel like they care about it… if they feel like you don’t care about it, if you’re too dismissive, then they feel like ‘why should I even come to rehearsal’”

Luckily for Hulley, and the more than a dozen people who call him band leader, he’s got a magnanimous personality that lends himself to being a reasonable leader.

“People are always talking about stuff they want to do and he just did it… and that’s the only way that happens,” Pace said, describing Hulley as a ‘go-getter.’ “There is no ‘I don’t have time for it’…”

And Hulley continues to… ‘go and get it.’ He’s currently working towards getting into Montross Studios with Avers’ Adrian Olsen to record Brunswick’s debut record.

“How can you show somebody who wants to book you when you’re out of town when all you’ve got is a Youtube video from four years ago,” he said.

He’s working with a completely written set of material, and he’s already got plans for a follow up – but until then, you’ll see Hulley in one of his many roles around town with NO BS! Brass or Brunswick, Or his DJ nights with Pace as “You Done Did It” under the names PACE and DJ Count Dakkula.

The next Brunswick show is Friday, 10/7, at the VMFA as part of their monthly First Friday’s event.

Keep up with Brunswick on facebook here.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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