Totally, the more people I speak to, the more people I find that dislike the category. What is a jam band beyond Phish and The Dead?
Exactly. People are at a loss of description when they say "jam."
I know that your first album, Tribal Derivations, was considered a concept album. Do you consider your follow-up album to have concepts or has it just taken the form of the band?
Now it's more a thing. We did the first album because we were paid to do it. Miles Copeland wanted to put out some music that Zoe would approve of dancing to. This was the concept. It was what she wanted to hear. That sort of meant a mix of beats and world music, like hip-hop beats, and that's where I came into the picture. Where David came into the picture was with the world music.
What's the recording process like? Do you brainstorm inside or outside the studio?
The way that it works is we all sort of come up with sketches and discuss them. A lot of times what I do is come up with a beat and say this is what I'm thinking. The guys will look for accordion or trumpet or clarinet to put with it. We will write the parts and have our friends come in and perform these parts and we will cut that all up and make it into something more focused and then we will add whatever instruments that we play over that.
You are going to release your fourth album, Contraption Vol.2, in three years. You must constantly be writing.
Yeah, because of the electronic music side of us we have to keep up with all these DJs and producers that continually put out remixes and remasters. It's not your standard rock format anymore. Plus with our live show, whether it's a DJ set or we are actually performing it, our audience needs to be constantly invigorated. We always come up with new stuff to help that out.
Does Zoe play instruments in the recording process?
She plays some percussion stuff but she is more of an arranger and producer. She is really good at simplifying things because David and me are music geeks -- and so is she -- but since she is predominantly a dancer, she knows how people are going to move. She brings that into the equation.
I saw you guys at The Independent in San Francisco and it was incredible. It's amazing how, even with the visuals aside, your music inherently evokes a visual. Do you think having dancers and costumes, more than just Zoe, enhance the music? Or is something completely separate?
I think it all enhances everything. I think the reason we do things is that we have a lot of friends that are strictly into electronic music, and we have a lot of friends who are strictly into live music and other friends who are obsessed with dance and performance art, so we want to include all of them especially when we play in The Bay Area. All the people that recorded on the album live here so we want to include them in the show.
Do the various other dancers tour with you or are they specific to the city that you are in?
We don't generally bring other people on tour. It's just the three of us. Sometimes if there is someone in a city that Zoe really loves to perform with, she will bring them in. Maybe they will arrange something before hand or just perform to the song. By the same token we seek out musicians that we know from touring previously and have them sit in with us.
I have to tell you on a side note, one of my good friends teaches an after school arts program for preschoolers and fifth graders, and whenever she plays Beats Antique the kids can't stop dancing!
Nice! Can she record that? We definitely need something like that.
Of course. Now, when you perform oversees, do you get a different response than when you play nationally?
We actually haven't played too much oversees. David and I went over to England and performed two shows over there and it was pretty much the same thing. Whenever we go somewhere new for the first time, it's predominately belly dancers that show up and bring their friends because Zoe is so well known throughout the world for belly dancing. That is our main audience at first. Then it sort of expands from there. As of late, we are concentrating on the U.S. because we still haven't played in a lot of places. Our response has been really good and we are working off of that. That way when we do go oversees we have more money behind us, so we are not worried. Generally, it kind of depends. What you can see is that different festivals that we play cater to different sorts of music and also different crowds. We've done 10 shows with Les Claypool. Opening up for him is different then opening up for Bassnectar or some other electronic artist. Conversely, on the Les Claypool shows, we turn towards the live music and the solos. We will bring the dance down a bit, only do two dances pieces instead of four just because the people there are there to see the music but we want to show them different things. I played drums for 27 years and I need to play something and do something other than hitting buttons -- even though I love doing that. We have to play instruments because we do play them. I've been touring around the world with a couple different groups and one of the main inspirations for me was going to The Guca Brass Band Festival in Serbia. I went there with Extra Action Marching Band. It's basically the home of Balkan brass music, which is a huge influence on us. What they do is a bunch of traditional bands play all day long and at night there is a big dance party. So the DJs over there are playing a lot of brass music but the beats weren't that interesting with a bunch of crazy brass over it. In American it's the opposite -- crazy beats with simple melodies on top of it. I kind of wanted to incorporate both -- intense brass stuff with intense beats. Make everyone happy. We also do a lot of combining of music. We will see that two cultures don't get along or appreciate each other's music so we will put them together because they go together musically so well. We try to break down borders within electronic and live acts, as well as culturally.
There is such a trend of world music coming from Western countries. When this music is played in the country it originated in, is there a positive or negative response?
I think in my experience, especially that festival I was talking about, we were concerned with what they would think of a bunch of Americans coming over to their country and their festival and playing amongst them. What are they going to think of our brass band style? We are totally chaotic and weird and they loved it. They freaked out. I think that unlike America, people around the world just love music. They are so much more advanced with how they think about what they like. They like it if they like. If you are performing to the best of your abilities, they are going to love it. They are going to be exposed to something new and I think that is more exciting to them than keeping their tradition alive. Of course that is important to them, but I think a lot of musicians like the way we mix it up and keep it fresh. All of the world is trying to embrace electronic and hip-hop music coming out of England and America, so they totally understand that this is something that is going to happen. If you do it well, you do it well. You don't have to be concerned with where you are from.
You've also done a lot of festivals in the states. Has that made your audience more diverse than when you do shows independently?
Yes. For sure. We laugh about our audience. Our audience is, as far as electronic music goes, the most diverse I have ever seen. Like I said before, it's a combination of dancers, which tend to be older, and then also kids from 18 to 25 who are looking for the coolest thing. So many kids these days really love electronic music, way more than we could ever fathom, but they also appreciate live music. Having the combination is really key. Anybody I know who has done that tends to have a broader audience.
A lot of festivals now are having a Burlesque stage -- We don't necessarily delve into the burlesque world because we have all been doing it for so long. We were really looking to do something different with this music. Though I appreciate the burlesque scene, I think it is kind of stuck. It needs to be shaken up. Yard Dogs Road Show was definitely shaking it up for a long time. I feel like that helped keep that scene alive. Now there are a bunch of bands doing that. It's pretty cool but I think there is something else next. We are trying to fuse worlds to create something new as far as how the music influences the dance and vice versa. Zoe doesn't just belly dance, she does a bunch of different things that are anything from protesting while wearing gas masks to anything getting away from the image of the hot girl. You put a gas mask on a hot girl and she makes a statement just as much as taking a seductive piece and showing a girl with fans gives an elegance to the erogenous. Zoe is particular with what she wants to portray to people. She wants to keep her strict belly dance world. Belly dancers aren't supposed to be sexy. That is not what they portray. It is more a class. There is a fine line for Zoe in terms of what she wants to portray and she is aware of what she is doing.
Belly dancing is so wrought with tradition and ritual, you don't want to be the modern person to ridicule the sacred.
I know you collaborate a lot with Lynx and Janover, but who else would you ideally like to collaborate with?
We are actually really looking forward to expanding on that. There are so many artists out there that are totally amazing and we're trying and looking through everyone else's eyes and seeing what makes sense and what doesn't make any sense in going that route, too. We're really excited about getting to produce other people's music -- anything from hip-hop artists to Top 40 pop music. I think our influences in all genres could change a lot. We don't just do hip-hop or pop music or world music, we definitely shake it up and make whatever we are doing sound the best to us. To say what artists we want is too limiting. We want to work with everyone. We are addicted to this stuff. We believe in it. We are old enough and mature enough in all these different genres that we are able to understand the tradition of whatever they are doing and also be able to expand on it with something they never would have thought of. I've been working more with Lynx because her vocal styles are awesome. She is really an amazing woman. She is young, she beat boxes, and she's got an amazing presence. We are looking to use vocals as instruments.We are inspired by Bobby McFerrin who does crazy things with his voice and we want to work with artists to get them out of their box and try new things. On our next album we have a traditional song from Eastern European roots which is sung by a very respected singer in that world and we are cutting it up and treating it more like an instrument.
I never thought I would hear the name Bobby McFerrin during this interview!
He does a lot of really cool stuff. I just saw a video where he was using the crowd as an instrument. We want to do stuff like that. We want to interact with the audience. We want to create different sounds. With electronic music and computer music in general, you can do pretty much anything you want. You are not limited to bass, drums guitar, keys, and voice. You have so many sounds and an accepting ear. Now that there are all these sounds available, people want to hear the latest. They don't care what genre. Just use it and bring it in.
You're Oakland based and I want to know your favorite local hangouts in San Francisco or across the Bay?
My studio. I swear to God, I just got home and I haven't been able to even leave yet. I like to go get coffee at Ritual on Valencia and walk around. But I'm pretty much a homebody. I like to be in my studio and work everyday. Being in the East Bay just means I have no distractions. I live in an artists warehouse called The Vulcan and there are plenty of artists around here. I keep it home-style. We are so busy out there then anything at home is good time. A sunny Sunday at Dolores Park is always welcomed. I don't drink or do drugs so there isn't much to do.
You guys are actually passionate about what you do. You can't ask for anymore than that.
That's the most important thing. I learned a long time ago that there is a huge difference between an artist who looks at their work as a way of life or someone who just infuses their work with the life of going out. I don't waste my time. I like to be proud of work. To me that means busting my ass. If I'm not busting my ass, I am probably not that happy. We have so many opportunities on the road to experience life in a different setting. On the road we have our studio with us. That is the beauty of portable music. I can open up my laptop anywhere in the world and make a track that I am inspired to make there. We pay our musicians and treat them with the respect we would want to be treated with. It works well. Our bass player is Tom Wait's bass player and our accordion player is Joanna Newsom's accordion player. We have really talented folks and friends that are willing to work for a modest price. And they are all friends--just as much camaraderie as it is passion for music. I'm old enough that I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have a really good time. I get to play drums. I get to make beats. I get to orchestrate masterpieces of sonic love. What do you love? Let's do it.