As I rounded the corner to meet up with some members of No BS! Brass at Minimum Wage, an Oregon Hill music studio, I was greeted by Reggie Pace coming out of a small white bus parked on the curb. He ushered me towards a modest two-story building I had seen many times but never taken the time to consider. Opening a gate, he lead me down a side yard lined with sound equipment of various eras, mounted cattywampus on the fence and framed by Christmas lights winding in nonsensical circles. He led me through a doorway into a vestibule piled floor to ceiling with snare drums of varying colors and sizes centered around a curving staircase ascending into the unknown above. Reggie quickly climbed the stairs, and I was alone.
Walking through a soundproofed door, I found myself in a dingy yet impressive studio with no windows or natural light to speak of. Turning, I saw four other members of No BS! Brass sitting on stools in a far corner next to a vocal booth; a 12 pack of White Claw hard seltzer stood center stage. I introduced myself to Sam Reed, Bryan Hooten, Sam Koff, and David Hood — faces and names that I had seen and heard but never had the opportunity to meet formally.
Speaking briefly with them about where they came from and what brought them to Richmond, a common theme emerged: Virginia Commonwealth University. For the members who didn’t come from Richmond, it was almost universally VCU’s music department that brought them here. They told me all the usual stories, about studying with folks like Ella Fitzgerald alum Tony Garcia, renowned arranger and composer Doug Richards, world-class trumpet player Rex Richardson, saxophonist Al Regni, and other names that floored me almost as much as the amiability of their company.
A towering institution in the Richmond music scene, No BS! Brass was founded in 2006 by Pace and drummer/Minimum Wage owner Lance Koehler as an outlet to perform in a New Orleans-style brass band, but with original compositions. Their music is defined by pull-no-punches power with a notable lack of any kind of “chill.” When they do bring it down, it is to simultaneously challenge listeners to pay attention even as the ensemble dares them not to. Enormous diatonic brass compositions slowly collapse into atonal arrhythmic trumpet solos that extend for what seems like an eternity yet are impossible to look away from. The next thing you know, the band has completely switched gears and are suddenly in the middle of a rap verse or a towering vocal line — seamlessly transitioning from one pillar of their sound to another.
No BS! Brass collaborated with Hourglass Sessions, performing their song “Vibrate Higher,” from their new album, Undying, released in June of 2022. Watch that session below, then read on for our interview with No BS! Brass.
I sat down to talk to a few members of No BS! Brass to hear about their songwriting process, their take on the Richmond music scene, releasing physical music in a streaming-dominated market, and the idea of local fame vs. international fame.
Note: Lightly edited for clarity and ease of conversation. Edited for length.
A lot of the younger artists love the Richmond scene. However, some that I’ve spoken to recently are concerned that it’s dominated by these larger cover bands full of older cats who have been around the block a few times. As one of the most successful original bands still basing itself out of Richmond, what are your thoughts on that?
Reggie Pace: What do we think of the old cats, or the people asking the question? [Room laughs]
David Hood: Am I an old cat?
Sam Reed: I do think that there’s room for younger artists, and I don’t think it’s dominating the scene. I feel like there’s a little bit more room for original music and newer artists in Richmond than there is for the cover band scene.
RP: In every city, the most visible version of live music is cover bands. That’s just how music works. Unless you are a serious music fan, the most live music you ever see, period, is at functions, and functions have cover bands and things of that nature. I think there’s always been space for original music, but original music does not have a built-in fanbase that cover bands already have. There’s a familiarity there that, as a band that is only doing original material, you have to put yourself out there in places that are not looking for someone to play “Piano Man.” That’s kinda just yelling at the clouds in a way, you know what I mean? These cool young bands don’t want to play at Maggiano’s.
SR: It’s two different things, I think.
RP: Yeah, they’re two different things. But… the smallness that you speak of, I think, does tie that together, because a lot of us have played in those types of situations, and spent a lot of time trying to make original stuff, our own artistic expressions. The people who are making original music, I don’t think they are at odds. I don’t think it’s the same pile of money. It’s pulling out of two different funds. That’s kind of like saying that you’re competing with the Flying Squirrels or something. Baseball is dominating the Richmond landscape! What are these young musicians gonna do?
Bryan Hooten: There’s plenty of musicians who are playing in original music bands that also play in cover bands. And that’s something that I was gonna bring up; on some level, what you’re doing has to be economically viable. And so, if that’s original music, you got to figure out how to get people to come to it. That’s just as much a concern for original music as it is for cover bands.
RP: Right, and that’s the thing: cover bands don’t necessarily have to worry about it. Because they know that you’re gonna play all Michael McDonald and Peter Gabriel and people are gonna go, “Oh, I already know those songs.”
DH: The cover band scene might be kind of overflowing right now. It’s hard trying to start a new cover band. We’re in an interesting spot because of the pandemic. It’s kind of a reset, with clubs opening up and all that. With situations like that, I think you can always find opportunity; you just have to be clever.
RP: And make sure people know about your stuff. As an artist, the newest [thing], after the pandemic — you kinda have to start from the beginning with whatever you’re doing. You have to have music that people like, and present it to them. I don’t think it goes any further than that. You either present it to them at a house show — I’ve played a bajillion house shows — or you present it to them at a country club. You know? I’m still me if I have to do that. And guess what? I see those people. And guess what? They’ve been to the [No BS!] Brass Band show. “Oh, I’ve seen you at Gallery 5, I didn’t know you did this.”
There’s a certain amount of mingling that artists have to do if success is one of the goals. If you’re just doing your art, you can definitely find a path where you go, “I’m just gonna do the best art I can, and hopefully people find it.” That’s definitely one way, but an artist has to actively sell a show — even if it was a house show. People have unsuccessful house shows, by the way. “Ah my house shows are so popping, and the Broadberry wouldn’t let me play!” Naw, that’s not what happens. I have yet to see a band that was really killing it, where some sort of opportunity didn’t present itself, because people are looking at this part of the country right now. Specifically this city and Virginia. So I guess I’m a bit more optimistic. Make some music that you think is so awesome that you want to tell everybody about. I feel like that happens so much: “Oh I don’t want to play my parents my album, they’re gonna hate it.” Yo, if you’re scared of someone saying they’re gonna hate your album, then you might not be in the game at all.
SR: There’s so much support around music in Richmond. That’s why I think it’s a good place for a younger artist, a newer artist, an original artist. People will come out and support your shows. We have places like the Camel and the Broadberry, Brambly [Park], now Maymont, that are really supporting younger original artists.
RP: I usually have an opener for our shows. It’s usually a band that I have seen out somewhere in town. This next show, I think Lobby Boy is gonna open up. And I just saw them the other day when I was playing with Piranha Rama. I’m just out doing what I do, and I see a band and go, “Oh, they’re great.” That’s me doing my part. We’ve been doing that for 15 years.
BH: Having high school bands open for us.
RP: We’ve always done that. And I think that is a big thing — to get to the root of your question. It is the job of older artists to make sure that younger ones are getting some guidance, if they would like it. Because… they don’t necessarily want that shit.
RP: Young musician don’t necessarily want to hear nobody’s mouth about any of it. You can’t just swoop in and go, “Hey guys, I’m here to lay down some game for you!”
BH: Sam [Koff] is in a group: Pay Rent [Brass Band]. John [Hulley]’s not here but he runs it, and that was built out of a sense of opportunity in a pandemic time, doing covers.
Didn’t y’all do the Megaman thing [A show featuring the music from the Nintendo video game Mega Man III at the Camel last October]?
Sam Koff: Yeah, exactly! There’s an opportunity for people to play on patios in Scott’s Addition during brunch. That was the initial idea: we’re all friends, half of us live together, let’s go play and try to make enough money to pay our rent. And we’re doing that, so…
RP: In Scott’s Addition, I used to throw a lot more shows in town, before I had to do all the stuff I have to do. But occasionally I still do, so Ardent [Craft Ales] was throwing their anniversary party. I usually book that show, and it’s just Scott’s Addition in the middle of a Saturday. These are not necessarily music fans. This is like, two in the afternoon, and I have Pay Rent Brass, and I have Kelli Strawbridge Trio, Deau Eyes played, Night Idea played, and they played at two in the afternoon for people drinking beer. Oh and Pet Shop, a kind of southern rock band played, because I was trying to mix it up.
So you’re talking a lot about art, and making the best art that you can. I want to hear about the writing process for a band like this. All these solo artists I’ve been talking to, and all these three-piece rock bands, the writing process is very personal, and they write when it comes to them. What is it like for a giant 12-piece brass band? Is it more academic than that?
RP: Generating art that comes from inside of you that’s true, but now you want it to translate into several people working together… with this particular group, you definitely have to have some craft involved. An understanding of having to communicate whatever your musical idea is to the group. Back in the day when I was writing everything, it was more like, “I have this thing, this whole song. I’m gonna give these four parts to the trombones, I’m gonna give these parts to the trumpet—the melody part. I’m gonna change it here, I’m gonna move the verse around here.” And that’s the craft you learn in music school. The structure of things is something that’s craft-based.
As we’ve expanded, we’ve got Bryan and a lot of other people writing; Bryan writes completely different. The song shows up pretty much done. We come through and go, “How about this?”
DH: It will SAY final version, but that’s…
BH: It’s kind of inevitable that it has to go through the band process of playing it to figure out how to make it what it should be.
RP: Because we aren’t robots, right? And no matter whatever sort of MIDI thing makes, it never sounds the way it is going to sound. And a piano — it’s the same thing. No matter how you play something on piano, when you move that to brass… it’s different. You have to change where the octaves are, and really get into the weeds. When we added Sam [Reed] to the band, when our homie Rob [Quallich, Trumpet] left town… Rob takes up a lot of space in that higher register. Powerful sound. I was like, “Okay, how do we flip that into something else?” So I asked Sam if she wanted to be in the band, and I was like, “Okay, how do we navigate this now?” Just figuring out ways to visualize how to make the song move, and have a structure and a vibe within itself, is something that I care about. Grooves from different parts of the world, grooves that are different tempos, different accent points. And then Bryan brings a completely different thing to the table.
BH: Yeah, I was gonna say that for me, the hinge point in our band creative process was the Mingus album [Fight Song: A Tribute To Charles Mingus]. Before then, we would spend a lot of time together coming up with the parts. Reggie would play for us what we needed to do; we kind of learned things by ear. That is a very creative process, but also very time-consuming. As we all know, as you get older and you have more responsibilities, you got to go to bed a little earlier. So when we did the Mingus album, there was more from the various arrangers of, “All right, I’m gonna write an arrangement and bring in the parts, and we’re gonna play those parts.”
And still, I’ll hand something to Dave [Hood], and he’ll be like, “Ah that doesn’t really work as well. Here’s how we could fix that and make it sound better.” Since then, it has been more the case that the composers will bring in an 80-90% finished thing, and then we’ll kind of work out some things about the form: “Hey that section, we should play again,” or “Eh, we don’t really need that part.” That’s how the process has kind of evolved. And for me personally, like Reggie said, all the creative part of it is the same as if I was just coming up with something for myself. Usually writing something down on paper is the very last step. I’m trying to wait until I have most of it worked out, and how it will go, or what things I want to just hand to Sam or Reggie to think about before I start putting ink on the page.
RP: It’s a part of it that you don’t want to overcook it, too. “I know something about this song is gonna change.” So you can’t fall in love with whatever, you know?
BH: You don’t know what it’s gonna be like until the band plays it.
I wanted to backtrack a little bit to a comment that Bryan made about financial viability, specifically in terms of releasing music. Almost every other artist I’ve spoken to is starting to release music on vinyl, and it seems to be the way a lot of people like to listen. But is streaming the future, or just a fad? Are physical copies the way to go?
RP: Well first, streaming is the present, and No BS! Brass has always released on vinyl. Almost all our albums can be found on vinyl. So, we’ve been doing that, even when it wasn’t cool. I think it’s kinda the wild west, man. Might as well try whatever the fuck.
BH: I do think that unless you are Drake or Taylor Swift, you’re not making a ton of money off of streaming. But people who might license your music for whatever it is — for a TV show, for a movie, for a commercial — can hear it. So there’s a tradeoff to getting your music to as many people as possible.
RP: Back in the day, they called it “exposure.”
SR: There is no better way to do it.
DH: Before, when you were like, “Oh, I wanted to learn more about that band,” there was Myspace music, forever ago. And then, people don’t even really look at websites all that much. It’s all social media content, and Spotify has become one of those repositories. I’ll hear a group and I’ll go, “Oh, I want to check their music out.” Spotify is the first place I go to.
BH: You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Everyone’s used to streaming now, and listening to whatever they want for the cost of a CD per month. I don’t think you’re really gonna convince people to spend more money on music.
Do you think streaming has ruined our attention spans for music? Does digital music prioritize singles, as opposed to a physical record that you experience as a whole unit?
RP: I think they’re all singles now. That’s an interesting way of putting it, I didn’t think about it that way. But all your songs need to be a single, I guess. In a way, you see people just trying to release as much music as possible. Just putting it out there, and then someone clicks your name, and then maybe their phone will cycle through all your music. It’s tough to judge it, really. Other than the not-making-any-money part.
SR: I feel like singles have always helped. It’s much different now than it was then, but singles have always helped in selling full albums, and I think that they still do.
RP: If you think about the Thriller album, there’s still songs most people don’t know from it. It’s one of the biggest albums ever, and people know the singles.
BH: To your point, I do think there is something good and healing and positive about sitting and listening to an album, like sitting and watching a play from beginning to end. But I don’t think we can try to control the market so that people can only do that.
SR: There are people out there who still want their physical copies, and who love listening to an entire album.
DH: And when you’re talking about financial viability, there’s the merch aspect of it: vinyl, or t-shirts, or selling digital downloads with a poster. Whatever you wanna do, the artist stands to make more money that way. But I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive.
RP: I think everything is just merch now. You are yourself, and you make an album, or you sell t-shirts. If you think about it, all the biggest rappers have told everybody that they don’t wanna rap no more, and they started shoe companies, and clothing companies, or whatever else, you know?
BH: Then they can retire.
RP: Yeah, they’re doing something else. “Maybe I’ll make an album again. MAYBE.” So, I think vinyl, to Bryan’s point, is an experience: you pull it out the jacket, you set it down, you’re looking at it, and you do zone in for 40 minutes. I think that experience is something that people are thinking is cool. And collecting things, I don’t think is ever gonna go away. I think the idea of only collecting things on your phone is short-sighted. Not the other way around. If you’re going full meta, I think that’s cool too, but people just collect things. So I think there’s always gonna be a space for artists generating art. Even people who don’t necessarily listen to music will support a band or support their friends by buying a CD.
SR: I bought a CD from a guy yesterday. I was at Wawa, and he was just outside in his car with his kids, and he’s selling physical CDs. My son says to me, “Why would you waste your money?” I said, “This is this person’s art, whether I like it or not. He put the time and creativity in it to make his art, and that’s worth something to him. I support that.” And I think people will always support that.
RP: I bought a CD on Belvidere and Broad, and the dude just raps over the Blueprint album [Jay-Z, 2001]. His voice is louder, and he’s just rapping the whole time.
You all are quite a big act, with something like 30,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. This is an archaic term for the music industry, having only ever been a myth at best, but was there ever point where you felt like you all were “discovered,” or are you still waiting for your “big break?”
DH: I think that’s different for everyone, right?
RP: Well, when I was on tour with Bon Iver, people were looking at stuff that I was doing, and I know we got some looks because of that. I think Jimmy Fallon’s talked about our album.
DH: It was like, “Well I won’t put them on, but we like your music!”
RP: We got kinda like, “Oh they’re listening to it, maybe they’ll put us on Fallon!” They dangle the carrot in your face, you know. The Tiny Desk Concert! That was a big deal. That was our first video that got a million views. We have a couple that are close. I don’t really know. We are discovered in our world — brass players and anyone who follows anything close to brass bands. We are in that world for sure. But I guess we are still waiting to be discovered.
Don’t you also have an international audience?
RP: That’s true I forgot about that: Germany holds up down, France, the Netherlands…
BH: Brass bands are big in the European tradition.
RP: Yeah, they love us. Canada. Trombone players biked up to us when we were playing in Amsterdam going, “NO BS! BRASS!” South America too. There was a band in Ecuador, several bands in Mexico City, that were covering our songs. It was cool.
BH: Papaya Brass.
RP: Yeah, people show us love. There’s a little brass scene in Japan that shows us love too. It would be nice to be so-called “discovered” enough in a way to go see them all. To go see everybody that’s been holding us down all these years.
DH: We get contacted a lot by military bands, and schools — usually high schools, but also college groups — to get copies of our music. Those are just like these little worlds of music.
BH: Music school kids know who we are.
We’ll I’ve seen y’all play, I know your names, and people know who you are. You certainly have this in-the-scene notoriety. Do you desire the next level though?
RP: For sure. Anybody who would like to help out?
SR: Bring us to Vegas!
RP: I have dreams about a whole show that I could put on. I’ve been producing stuff during the pandemic, little videos. Eat With Pace is about to be the shit! So… yes. Anybody who would like to holler at us, we’re down. We have been an independent group grinding for years, so let’s go. Someone turn on the faucet for your boy. Let us mingle in those waters for a second and see how we like it.
SR: And in order to keep a band going for as long as No BS! has been going, you want to take different opportunities and go to different levels.
BH: The thing is that it’s not linear. Sometimes you’re doing it because it’s a different experience, sometimes you’re doing it because it’s a growth thing. All these different dimensions in which you’re growing and covering new ground
RP: The European tours were so sick that I’m definitely addicted to travel in that way in general. My whole thing coming out of high school was, “I’m gonna see the world! I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but it’s happening.” Music is how I got there, and I was like, “All right, I’m sticking with this music thing.” That’s really what I want. I want No BS! to head on to Tokyo, head back to Amsterdam, head on to Singapore; wherever they want us to play, we’ll be there.
DH: It’s awesome too, talking to some High School students, and we’re like, “Oh yeah, we went to Paris, and we went here…” And they’re like, “You went to all those places!” Yeah man, be a musician.
Well, in order to do that you need freedom. Do y’all keep day jobs, and do they give you the freedom you need to pursue this? Do they hold you back in any way?
RP: I mean, I’ve had a job, and not had a job, then had a job, and then not had that job, throughout my whole life. It doesn’t hold back what I want to do. Some days it holds you down, coming out of the pandemic it held me down. It’s kind of off to the side, in a way. Artists are all working on whatever they want to work on, and then sometimes we can get people together and work on a thing together. But then you run up into the money wall and you have to make some decisions. And then you just start making those decisions, like, “Hey guys, I got to go work for a little while, I’ll be back!” You know, or not! And that’s just life.
Honestly, there isn’t an occupation in which that isn’t the case; you always are looking for some sort of upward mobility in whatever you do. Unless you come out of college and get some sick gig immediately. Well then, bask in the glory of being better than us. Just keep moving forward, keep following whatever your passion is, and try to fund yourself the best you can. And funding people around you: funding your family, funding your friends, funding other artists, buying CDs at Wawa.
BH: I think on some level, you’re gonna keep growing and you’re still gonna keep doing that gig for the money. Or whatever version of that. Those things are still in your head.
RP: And that’s just life right there. And hustle! I think the artists’ life probably requires a little bit of hustle, and if you ain’t ready for that, then you probably ain’t gonna make it. The end. It requires thick skin. A lot of “No”s.
SR: I have always chosen music or art over a regular 9-5 situation. Not that everyone has to do that, because it works differently for everyone. But a lot of times, when I do go get a job, it comes to the point where I go, “Okay, am I gonna do this if this is gonna affect me being able to perform?” I will quit a job, but I’ve also gotten to a point in my life where my work outside of music is flexible for music. I work everything around it, because that’s something that I have to do.
SK: Every job I’ve ever had, I’ve had to give an ultimatum: I’m gonna have to quit this job, or you can still have me, but I need to get exactly the hours that I need. The good thing about being a musician is that there are a bunch of different ways: you can teach a little bit, you can arrange — all of these bands need to hire horn arrangers.
RP: It won’t even be that expensive, and your horns won’t be trash.
SK: And then there’s gigs, and there’s the cover bands. That helps a lot, and it all comes together and is in service, ultimately, of the art that we need to make.
BH: Even Dillard [Watt, Trombone], who is a full-time financial analyst or something, there were periods of time where we were traveling a lot, and he was somehow making it work. I don’t know how he was able to spend all that time not in the office, but he figured it out.
RP: I try not to get too bitter and salty, and it’s a gift to be able to generate money with your talents. Some people just got to go to that warehouse, get their life done, and compartmentalize work to being over here, and do their life. It’s a gift to be able to generate any sort of income or happiness from other people; people wanting you to work for them just for your talents. So I try to take that seriously, and keep that part of the forefront.
Let’s get even more abstract, why don’t we: When will you have succeeded? Have you succeeded? What does that mean to you?
RP: Succeeded in what? Life?
This. When will this have worked out?
RP: Well, this has worked out many times.
BH: You know, this is very abstract also, but you kind of have to do your work, and not be attached to what the outcome is. You’ve made it when your tune gets played and it sounds good, even if nobody’s there.
RP: It’s just a part of me. You think about the cartoon Dexter[‘s Laboratory], you ever seen that show? There’s a Dexter inside of me that just wants to get his work done, but he’s got school, and his sister’s in here, but he just wants to get his work done! You see all this stuff that he’s built, and you only go in and see him… his lab is already built, and people are bothering him. I think artists have a little bit of that side of them that’s just like, “Hey man, I got to get to my work. I’ve got some work that I need to do.” And it’s got nothing to do with finish lines. Like Wynton Marsalis, he talks about how there is no ending to practice.
DH: That’s something music school teaches you.
SR: I think it’s important, too, to ask yourself at the end of the day, “Did I succeed today?” That doesn’t mean that you are a millionaire now, but did you go your best in this day, in the moment, or in this song? If you did your best, then you succeeded.
BH: It’s an ebb and flow, and a continuum. Because some people go, “We need to be on a late night show!” and they’re fixated on that. Then what? I don’t know. We’ve had situations where we just do the thing, and then every now and then we look around and go—like when we did the Kid Rock cruise, we were like, “This is crazy! I don’t know if we made it, but this is crazy!”
RP: Or playing at a castle in France. We were like, “We’re in a castle… This is crazy.”
SR: This happen to musicians a lot, where you just look around at the rest of the band like, “Yo, what is this? This is cool!”
BH: Concepts like getting discovered and making it have at least 50% to do with people and things outside of your control. Those are great things to aspire to, but for most people that is not the reason they do it.
Tell me about the experience of making your Hourglass Session.
RP: I was way into it. I hollered at them on Instagram or something, and I was like, “Yo, I want to do one of these Hourglass Sessions, it looks kinda cool!” They asked what I wanted to do, and I told them I wanted to do this thing with projectors. They’re great to deal with, and we found that studio. The idea of going to space, being in the desert, all these things, and they were game for it. And then the production was top-notch. [Dillon Douglasson] was doing sound, and I was worried. I was like, “Alright, my man says he’s got it.” I’m not even gonna lie, I was worried. We had a lot of microphones up there, and we needed some way to hear Sam [Reed], because she was on a wireless.
We were doing staging, and she was on one part of the warehouse and walked to the other. We had done this one gig, this corporate gig where we were just furniture in Las Vegas, where they’re like, “We’re the such-and-such corporation and we’re having a great time!” And then a brass band comes out! We flew to Vegas, did that, flew home. So I always had an idea of a Las Vegas-esque stage show for this group. Because if we could all get wireless, then we could move and take up the space. I brought that up, and they were like, “Sure!” The camera followed Sam [Reed] to where the brass band is, and we’re on this wall, and then it follows Sam [Reed] to where the band was performing. The people on the wall kind of walked through here, and we kind of choreographed that, and then made a new scene, and we walked over here and the background changes, and then time for Taylor [Barnett]’s solo, and we’re headed to space. They really nailed it. It is a take for all the nerds out there: that is a take of music, and of filming. That is not a music video in a sense, that is a live performance. That needs to be said more about their stuff: this is happening for real.
No BS! Brass’s latest album, Undying, can found on most streaming platforms, and is available to purchase digitally on Bandcamp. There is also a vinyl version that was released at their Broadberry gig on Saturday, July 2. Look for it out in the world wherever you buy vinyl albums.