Jellowstone. It’s not a national park located in Wyoming; nor is it the fictional home of Yogi Bear. Instead, it’s a house on a quiet street in the near West End, which appears totally unassuming from the outside. However, within these walls lies an extremely productive sound factory. The brainchild of multi-instrumentalist and producer Devonne Harris, Jellowstone Studio is not only the house he shares with his bandmates in Butcher Brown; it‘s also recently become the nerve center for a local label of the same name, founded by Harris in collaboration with No BS! Brass Band leader Reggie Pace. Still less than a year old, Jellowstone has released five albums featuring over a dozen local artists–and they show no signs of slowing down.
“It was something I’d been thinking about doing forever,” Pace says of the label. Indeed, he and Harris have a shared musical history dating back to a time long before Jellowstone existed. “When I met Devonne, he was in high school,” says Pace, a fact Harris confirms. “I had to get permission from my mom to stay out past curfew,” Harris says, laughing. “[I’d] go play these gigs and come back at 2 in the morning. Then go to school at like 6:30.” Even at this time in his life, Harris was a seasoned musician, having started playing drums when he was just a baby. “When I was three years old, my mom got me one of those kiddie drumsets,” he relates. He went through multiple toy kits before graduating to a real drum set.
Before long, Harris started learning keyboards as well. “My mom took me to church when I was eight years old, and after the service all the musicians were there jamming,” he explains. “That was the first time I had heard an organ as a kid, and I still remember. Just the sound of it, the whole soul sound; because I heard it all over the records that my mom had in the house growing up. I was like, ‘So that’s what makes that noise!'”
He also spent his teenage years putting together his studio setup. “I was buying gear as I was growing up,” he explains. “Once I came to VCU, it was really therapeutic for me to come back home on weekends and just record.” Harris met fellow drummer Corey Fonville at a VCU Jazz Day event when both were still in high school. The two stayed in touch while Fonville was attending college at the University Of The Pacific’s Brubeck Institute. “Back when MySpace was popular, he had a killin’ music page,” Fonville says. “I discovered all his music, and I was always infatuated with it… And I was like, ‘Hopefully one day we can create some music together.’” Harris is somewhat embarrassed by this praise. “Most of the stuff that [Corey] was showing to people was recorded at my mom’s house,” he says. “They were like, ‘I haven’t heard anything that sounds like this!’ And I was like, ‘I just wish I had better gear.'”
Regardless of Harris’s self-effacement, his early sonic explorations paved the way for everything that’s followed. And from the beginning, he was seeking a particular sound. “My dad was a record DJ, so there were just different records in my house all the time,” he explains. “The whole hiss and pop sound–I grew up with that as a foundation of what music was. So if I hear something clean, it doesn’t really speak to me.” This crate-digging appeal vibed well with hip hop, though as a child he had a hard time tracking the genre down. “I would go hang out with my cousins, and they’d play the music videos. My mom wouldn’t let me watch all of that,” he explains, laughing. “I remember seeing the Lil Kim ‘Crush On You’ video for the first time. I was like, ‘Yo, my mom won’t let me listen to this? This is fresh!'”
When he discovered the work of RVA beatmaker Ohbliv, it all fell into place. “I was recording 30 second tracks, putting them on my computer, and looping it,” he explains. “I heard Ohbliv–some of his drum hits were on, some were off, but it still had the whole swagger. Once I heard that, I’m [thinking] man, I need to figure out something.” The eventual result was his beatmaking alter ego, DJ Harrison, whose Stashboxx was the first single-artist release on Jellowstone Records. While its funky instrumental grooves certainly show the influence of Ohbliv, as well as legendary hip hop producers like J Dilla, Madlib, and MF Doom, what sets Stashboxx apart is the small print underneath the credits: “No samples were used on this record.”
“That’s the whole trip I was getting accustomed to,” Harris explains. “Making the loop sound as much like a sample as possible, whether it’s the instruments I’m playing, or the sound palette I’m recording to.” The result has the same warm, soulful groove that many hip hop beats display, but put together from scratch by one person.
Harris’s time at VCU led him to meet quite a few other musicians. Guitarist Keith Askey and bassist Andrew Randazzo were two members of the loose-knit crew, and ended up becoming Harris’s roommates when he moved out of his mother’s house into a house on Georgia Ave. in Randolph. It was during their time at this house that Butcher Brown first came together. The initial lineup featured Harris on keyboards, Askey on guitar, Fonville–who’d graduated from the Brubeck Institute and returned to Virginia–on drums, and a bass player named Chris Smith. “It started as this production thing,” says Fonville. “At first, we’d just record at the house. Then one day, we decided to be a band, take it a little more serious.”
The Georgia Avenue house was certainly usable as a space for recording and rehearsing, but the first word that comes to mind for Harris, Askey, and Randazzo when describing their previous residence is “cramped.” “We had everything in the living room, including all the mixers and recording gear,” says Harris. “We would be recording, and I’d be in this little corner,” Fonville chimes in. Clearly, a better space was needed.
This was when the group located the house that became Jellowstone Studios, which constituted an immediate improvement on their previous digs. “This house sounds so much better than the old house,” says Randazzo. “The carpet and the low ceilings and the wood floors–it just caters to our sound.” Plus, admits Fonville, “It would have been impossible to do half the stuff we’re doing here at that old house.”
About a year after the crew moved into Jellowstone, Chris Smith moved to California. Randazzo was the natural option to take over the bass position for Butcher Brown. He joined just in time to play on the band’s debut album, All Purpose Music, released by Jellowstone in October. Butcher Brown focused on making the album a complete musical statement, solidifying the sound they’d created on their inital EPs. “If you go back and listen to that stuff, there wasn’t really much structure to the songs,” Fonville says. “All Purpose Music is more of a concept. You can tell we took a little more time with that.”
As for the concept in question, Fonville says, “It’s pulling from a lot of influences that I grew up on, from my parents’ collection. A lot of fusion stuff, rock stuff, R&B, those influences.” Indeed, All Purpose Music does hark back to the funky, groovy days of the 70s, from the cover painting by local artist Eliza Childress to the wah-wah guitars and syncopated beats of instrumental tunes like “Forest Green” and “Powhatan.” No BS! Brass Band’s Marcus Tenney plays tenor sax on many of the album’s tracks, and Reggie Pace plays percussion on almost all of them.
Pace’s assocation with Devonne Harris had continued throughout the days when Harris was attending VCU and forming Butcher Brown. Several years ago, spurred by Pace’s desire to be in a band with both Harris and former No BS! Brass Band trombonist Reggie Chapman, the three began playing together under the name Trio Of Justice. “Chapman was learning tuba, and I had this idea in which I wanted to stretch how things felt,” Pace says. “Free jazz [pushes] the boundaries of what people would call music or song form. My idea was, why don’t we take something people do recognize, and stretch how it was perceived?”
Trio Of Justice’s debut album, Pookie’s March, was released by Jellowstone in October, and is the most jazz-based album on the label thus far. However, Pace sees the project as pulling from many other sources besides jazz. “I was thinking about it closer to punk rock,” he says. “Let’s get experimental, but how Bad Brains would do it. So we’ll do phrases that can’t be counted out, they’re just elastic. And there are times when you just go batshit crazy.” Indeed, songs like “All Bets Are Off” might start from a complex brass rhythm, but what makes listening to Trio Of Justice so much fun is waiting for them to start slipping off the rails–only to right themselves at the last second and swing back into a perfect jazz groove.
So how’d all this talent and creativity get focused into becoming a record label? By all accounts, that was Reggie Pace’s doing. “Every band I’ve ever been a part of creatively was releasing stuff and having actual output,” Pace says. “I just wanted to make a network that came together.” Butcher Brown, No BS! Brass Band, DJ Harrison, and Trio Of Justice were all well underway, and several other projects involving Pace and Harris, either separately together, were starting to take off. “We were coming up with different projects and said, ‘Well, let’s just do ’em all,'” says Pace. “The idea was, ‘Let’s be in-house [production] for the label’–like a new-school version of Motown.”
Pace had previously played in Fight The Big Bull with Matthew E. White, and he admits that seeing White’s success with Spacebomb helped galvanize his intentions. “Matt’s self-starter attitude inspired me,” says Pace. “Our labels’ mission statements are very different, but the idea that somebody I knew could do that–I knew it was a lot of work and he had help, but that was inspiring.” Pace felt that the creative environment around Jellowstone would be a plentiful wellspring for material that the label could release.
Since then, things have been happening quickly for Jellowstone. In June, they kicked off the label’s official operations with the release of the Jellowstone Booster Pack, a bargain-priced digital compilation featuring material from a dozen different Jellowstone-affiliated artists. The sampler promised exciting things to come from the label, but no one could have expected them to deliver so quickly. DJ Harrison’s Stashboxx dropped a month after the sampler, with Butcher Brown’s All Purpose Music and Trio Of Justice’s Pookie’s March following three months later.
Then, in November, Pace Cadets became the first of the new Jellowstone projects to release their own album with the arrival of VIRGINIAUPINYA. As is obvious from their name, this group is Reggie Pace’s creation. His goal was to make a hip hop record that was separate from the current state of the genre. “All the hip hop records coming out right now sound the same,” he laments.
For Pace Cadets, he got together with Marcus Tenney and Devonne Harris to make something different. “We pushed out all my favorite types of hip hop,” Pace says. “So it’s Beastie Boys-sounding, then there’s laid-back Slum Village-y stuff, and then there’s some acid-jazz.” Harris picks up the thread. “Sometimes it’ll be a preconceived track from a library that I have. Reggie will take notes of the ones he likes, and we’ll send that to Marcus,” he explains. “Then sometimes we’ll just record stuff here–I’ll play a drumbeat, or Reggie will play the MPC, or do some beatboxing, and we’ll just record overtop of that. It’s a really collaborative effort all around.”
Together, Pace considers these first five releases by Jellowstone to constitute “Season One.” “That’s us making a splash,” he says. “This is just the beginning. We just thought that was a big statement.” But make no mistake, the Jellowstone productivity rate will not slow down now that the first season is over. “We’ll probably do two or three seasons a year,” Pace says. “We’ll probably have another season of releases around spring , then maybe something else towards the fall. Because we have so many projects.”
One of the projects people can look forward to next spring is Kings, the vehicle for the creative energies of Kelli Strawbridge. Best known around town as the frontman for popular James Brown tribute act The Big Payback, Strawbridge has plenty of original musical ideas he wants to express, and he’s been getting together with Harris to lay them down on tape. A mutual level of respect and admiration clearly drives the collaborative relationship between the two. “Devonne is a mad genius scientist child prodigy,” says Strawbridge. “He can play every instrument except for horns, but he could probably even do that shit too.” When asked what it’s like to work with Strawbridge, Harris enthuses, “It’s amazing. It’s incredible.”
Kings intentionally harks back to an earlier time in the history of R&B. “Perfect (1985)” sounds like an outtake from 1999, but has an additional layer of bass fuzz that recalls the worn-out tape sounds of Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Both Strawbridge and Harris are united in their love for the results. “Fuck it, I’ll say it–it’s a classic record,” says Strawbridge. “We’re just trying to bring back the element of music that made everybody wanna get up and jam,” agrees Harris. Current plans have the Kings album kicking off Jellowstone Season Two, coming Spring 2015.
What else is planned for Jellowstone’s future? A lot. Harris mentions plans for an indie rock record as the next DJ Harrison project, as well as a solo album by Photosynthesizers singer Sam Reed. Pace references a planned album by Arizal, which he describes as “Scott Burton’s solo guitar pieces, and me and Devonne making the world around those.” He also hopes to reissue older albums by bands he’s part of that never got their due when they were first released, such as Glows In The Dark’s Research And Development EP and some older albums by No BS! Brass Band.
But what the Jellowstone crew really wants is for Richmond residents look at the label like any other local business. “We’re working like a startup,” Pace says. “We’ll always be doing shows in town, to grow it as part of the community. That’s the only way we can break the shackles of what’s happening economically, is that people be more involved in what they buy, and know where it came from.” Jellowstone comes from RVA, a town with a rich musical legacy–one that they are adding to with each new release they put out. Supporting your local community is always a plus, but it’s even easier to do when it involves music this good.
This article is taken from the Winter 2014/2015 print edition of RVA Magazine, out now! Look for copies available for free at your favorite local Richmond businesses. To read a digital version of the full issue, click here.