(originally published in Star News, additional Q&A after article)
March 1, 2018
By Brian Tucker
Big Mean Sound Machine formed in 2009, a music collective aiming to bring together all styles – Latin and Jazz to funk and Afrobeat to make music for the body and the mind. Boasting a big touring band (nine musicians and a lot of horns) attendees can expect a lively show that feels timeless and plenty of colorful cool music made for dancing.
The band performs at The Whiskey in downtown Wilmington on March 2nd.
The last time Big Mean Sound Machine played The Whiskey it was their first, as a nine member band on the venue’s small stage. This time they’re an eight-piece, and drummer Andrew Klein says they’ll all fit, come hell or high water.
“We toured with eleven briefly, ten for a while, nine for a while after that,” Klein said while traveling to headline the Virginia Key Grassroots Festival in Miami. “For the past six months or so we’ve consistently been an eight piece band. It’s nice to not be on top of each other in the van.”
Formed in 2009 in Ithaca, New York, the instrumental group blends Afrobeat, Caribbean, Latin America, and North American music genres to make music well-suited for the body, mind, and soul. It’s music, and a band, at home at a jam band festival, small club, outdoors venue, or a large hall (heads up Brooklyn Arts and Greenfield Lake Amphitheater). Touring behind 2017’s stellar Runnin’ for the Ghost, it’s an album the result of years performing, growing, and creating together. With jobs outside of touring, all related to music (session work, music gear, lessons, teaching classes to preschoolers), the band plays over a hundred shows a year and they all live a few hours apart.
“We rarely ever rehearse, less than half a dozen times a year typically. We may have a rehearsal before a recording session or we may not. We mostly get the band together to work.”
Their method clearly works. Across four full-length albums (plus side projects) their sound has grown consistently, from the noir-ish, Tommy Guerrero-like debut of 2010’s The Big Mean EP to the Miami flavored new release.
“Our last two albums, Contraband and Runnin’ for the Ghost, were crafted by writing and introducing a lot of material, performing it live over many, many shows, and then capturing it live in a single room recording session. A few synths and more percussion overdubs were added but for the most part, those two albums capture the essence of a Big Mean performance. Well, almost…”
It’s a dynamic, full throttled record. Start to finish, it’s tempered with many flavors – electronic flourishes, synth, plenty of horn playing, even hints of New Orleans on the track “Triple Bacon.”
“Each of our albums sounds different, both as our music has evolved as well as our recording gear, techniques and production. Runnin’ for the Ghost…a lot of that music was inspired by more touring we had done, including traveling to Miami and getting involved in the local scene down there. It’s a transient, cosmopolitan scene with players and ideas coming from all over the world to share ideas and inspiration, particularly from the southeast U.S., the Caribbean, and Central and South America. We’re grateful to have gleaned so much from these cultural exchanges.”
The result is material brimming with electricity and free flowing, colorful playing and whose sound exudes feeling free and being alive. Or, maybe it’s simpler – its great music that makes someone want to dance.
“I know that people’s experiences vary, but generally I too experience a feeling of freedom from our music. For me, playing this music is about discipline, and through that, letting go. Letting go of ego, of the desire to express every musical idea I have in a given moment. I feel that my best playing happens when I give it the least amount of thought, and so in a sense, that is a freeing experience for me. It’s a work in progress to get my playing to that point 100% of the time, and I’m not sure if that’s even possible. But it’s not stopping me from trying.”
Below is more with the band’s drummer Andrew Klein.
What’s the toughest sacrifice you’ve made, or one common among members, to be a professional working band?
Klein: When it comes to what sacrifices people have to make to be an artist in any capacity, the list isn’t short. Those sacrifices can also change over time, as our lives develop. For me personally, the significant sacrifices of playing in a band that plays over a hundred shows a year are having to spend lots of time away from my girlfriend and not earning enough money from only playing music. Not to mention trying to find time to do laundry, clean my apartment, go to the gym, shop, cook, eat, sleep, etc. We all have other work to supplement our touring income though, and mostly within the music industry.
I teach drum lessons several days a week and try to play other gigs when I can. I also buy and sell music gear, work some odd jobs here and there, and just generally try to live on a tight budget. Most of us have similar ventures going on in our time outside the band. Angelo our bass player, the other remaining co-founder along with me, just opened a recording studio in Ithaca, New York. Lucas, our percussionist, plays a ton of other gigs and recording sessions in addition to doing a fair amount of graphic design. Our trombone player Alicia teaches music classes to preschoolers. Eric our baritone sax player works for a music gear distributor. So we’re all trying to figure out how to make a living and keep doing what we love, and the sacrifices are challenging, but I still feel it’s the most worthwhile challenge I’ve ever faced.
It’s a dynamic sounding album, and makes me picture Miami and New Orleans, especially on “Triple Bacon.”). What influenced the album’s headspace?
I think with every album we’ve created, we’ve wanted to do something different. While there may be some similarities, each of our albums sounds different from the others, both as our music has evolved as well as our recording gear, techniques and production. On Runnin’ for the Ghost, I think a lot of the headspace was based around that we hadn’t released an album in several years and we had all this new music we wanted to record.
That said, a lot of that music was inspired by a lot more touring that we had done, including traveling to Miami and getting involved in the local scene down there. It’s a transient, cosmopolitan scene with players and ideas coming from all over the world to share ideas and inspiration, particularly from the southeast U.S., the Caribbean, and Central and South America. We’re grateful to have gleaned so much from these cultural exchanges and we look forward to continuing to exchange ideas with our global counterparts.
Is recording a process of a little rehearsal or pre-thinking for tracks, and then, ‘let’s let it happen’ when the tape rolls?
We have what has felt at times like a bit of a unique process in the studio, but I think that in this day and age of technology and DIY home studio production our process is a bit less unique but still unconventional. Our newer albums are much more composed. Despite feeling more “live” they are less experimental and more intentional than our earlier records.
I guess I should start at the beginning, I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself. In the past, on our first album in particular, Ouroboros, the whole album was recorded in layers piece-by-piece starting with drum loops. The forms were created in the studio, and that was also a process of writing new music as we were tracking. The drums were then re-recorded toward the end of the tracking period when nearly all the other layers were in.
The melodic parts were often results of experimenting in the studio, making things up on the fly, cutting snippets of great moments here and there and sculpting them together into songs. The band never performed a lot of that music before it was recorded, and some of it we’ve never played since, and some of it was never even been played as a full band, and likely never will be. It’s still incredible to me every time I hear that record.
The second album, Marauders, was recorded partially in that style and partially “half live” meaning some tracks have a live rhythm section but the horns and percussion were done later. Our last two albums, Contraband and Runnin’ for the Ghost were crafted by writing and introducing a lot of material, performing it live over many, many shows, and then capturing it live in a single room recording session.
A few synths and some more percussion overdubs were added but for the most part, those two albums capture the essence of a Big Mean performance. Well, almost… But we rarely ever rehearse; literally less than half a dozen times a year typically. We may have a rehearsal before a recording session or we may not. It depends on a few factors, not the least of which is time and availability. Many of us live several hours away from each other, so we mostly get the band together to work.
2010’s Big Mean EP, is smooth , like noir-soaked Tommy Guerrero. Did it set a template (or seed) for what you wanted the band to be?
Wow, you’ve really done your homework. I don’t think I’ve been asked about that project in a long time. The Big Mean EP was literally how the band was conceived. Before the band was “a band” we had this idea to get a bunch of talented musician friends in the same room with some recording gear and just track some ideas and see what happened.
I think we had wanted to get a band together after playing in another group for a few years that really lacked direction and wasn’t really going anywhere. Several founders of BMSM were part of that previous group. Anyway, what you heard are the results of that recording session. As you can tell, it’s quite different from where we’ve ended up.
You’re nearing a decade as a band. What you’ve done so far, has it exceeded your expectations?
That’s a tough question, and I think there are multiple answers. In some ways, our accomplishments have exceeded my expectations and in other ways, they’re still being realized. I think ultimately, for my life to have meaning, I need to succeed in doing something I’m proud of. I don’t really know what that image of “success” looks like, but I’m very proud to have made a contribution to a series of high quality recordings with other high quality musicians, and I’m certain that our catalogue will outlive me. So that feels like an accomplishment.
Every now and then, somebody pays me a compliment or thanks me for playing a great show and doing what I do and it’s those small rewards that also remind me how important it is that we share this art with other people. That it is well-received also feels like an accomplishment. I don’t know what exactly I “expected” out of any of this wild pursuit of creativity, other than to hopefully not have to get a real job, and it’s been over five years since I’ve had a steady job working for somebody else, so in that way I guess it’s exceeded my expectations.
The Whiskey show last time, was the whole band on stage or did you play around the floor?
Our first play in a new market is always an interesting night for one reason or another. I believe there were nine of us last time. This time, we’re eight, and we will all fit on stage, come hell or high water.
Does the band typically tour as large outfit or as fewer members?
The thirteen-member myth is something that’s been perpetuated due to a very old press release that referred to thirteen or so musicians contributing various layers to our first album. We toured with eleven briefly, ten for a while, nine for a while after that, and for the past six months or so we’ve consistent been an eight piece band. It’s nice to not be literally on top of each other in the van.
As for our schedule, we are open for business all year round. Lately, we try to target certain regions at certain times of year to follow the nice weather. At the time of this interview, we’re on our way to Miami to headline the Virginia Key Grassroots Festival and play a few other shows around Florida. By the time you read this, we’ll be on a beach. Our show at The Whiskey is on our way heading back north.
What music choice you enjoy that might surprise those familiar with you?
We listen to a lot of different types of music, too many to even list here. Some of our fans might be surprised with our taste in music while others might not be surprised at all. We like a lot of roots reggae, funk, Afrobeat, highlife, hip hop, various styles of Latin music, jazz, Ethiojazz, rock and roll, and more. With so many personalities in the band and so many backgrounds musically and socially, our listening material is a very diverse mix.
Are playing big fests and clubs two different beasts, that the sets or energy adjust for them? I can see jam bands welcoming you.
Festival appearances and club dates are typically very different from one another from a logistical viewpoint, but we try to put on a great show no matter the venue. Part of being a professional is consistency, so we do our best to play a show to a dozen people as if it’s 1200 people, or 12,000.
The energy though is in large part up to the audience; we’ve played raging shows in tiny rooms to a few very enthusiastic people and sometimes that intimate connection is even more poignant than performing for an anonymous sea of people. We love big crowds though! We definitely fit into the jam band scene even though we’re not a jam band. Our music is different but groovy and danceable enough to appeal to most fans of live music, and even some folks who don’t go out to shows too often.
Your music is like the feeling of being free, being unencumbered. Playing shows and recording, does it feel like freedom to you?
Well, I know that some peoples’ experiences vary, and I can only speak for myself, but generally I too experience a feeling of freedom from our music. But for me it’s not always the most conventional sort of freedom in the traditional sense. For me, playing this music is about discipline, and through that, letting go. Letting go of ego, of the desire to express every musical idea I have in a given moment.
I feel that my best playing happens when I give it the least amount of thought, and so in a sense, that is a freeing experience for me. It’s a work in progress to get my playing to that point 100% of the time, and I’m not sure if that’s even possible. But it’s not stopping me from trying.
Are there projects in the future, collaborating with other artists or perhaps scoring a film project?
Yes, there are definitely upcoming projects. We’re writing a ton of new Big Mean music, we have an alter ego called Cha Cha & the Ndor band with a new album in progress, and we’ve got big plans for the next several years, including some possible collaborations.
Lastly, what’s a van favorite that everyone likes or agrees on to hear while travelling?
Lately, we’ve been really impressed with the debut album of world music supergroup Bokante; the record is called Strange Circles. The latest Antibalas record Where The Gods Are In Peace has been awesome too. Here Lies Man, an Antibalas side project’s debut self-titled album has been intriguing us also. It’s been described as sounding as if Black Sabbath played Afrobeat.