Addison Groove Project: Ready to Hit It Hard
It’s a cold, rainy night down on Houston Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, so rainy that the air itself is supersaturated and everything it touches drips with moisture. There is nothing you can do to keep from getting wet. Regardless, a line of people huddles next to the building and the wire fence for the parking lot next door, ducking under umbrellas or peering out from beneath the soaked hoods of raincoats. It’s well after midnight, and the crowd from early show is trickling out of the Mercury Lounge. It’s the late show, however, that draws an impressive crowd, especially considering the conditions- and Merc isn’t exactly in the center of it all either.
Addison Groove Project, the Boston based funk ensemble, has come down for a late night set, and people have come to join in the fun. AGP has, of course, been on the scene for a number of years, but are most familiar to the hip cats in the Northeast. A horn-powered sextet, they’ve distinguished themselves from other new groovers by dishing out complicated, but fluid arrangements, many vocal tunes, and a sound that owes something more to James Brown than Grant Green (their cover of Windjammer not withstanding). But recently there has been a change in the band’s sound, something subtle but still palpable. It’s a new deepness of groove, a more relaxed, hazier vibe- that feeling well into a set, when you look up and say, "Oh yeah, we’re in it now!" Perhaps the development is best considered in terms of the tune Neo Geo, which was a staple of sets over the summer. An almost frightening driving bass line carries the song, a canvas over which dramatic organ riffs and other keyboard effects are laid. Horn segments perforate the number, sometimes only as accents, sometimes as ornate structures that complement the drums. The meat of the song is a lengthy muddle in the keyboard puddle. The concept is coherent, but the song is about its development rather than hitting the sweet spot right away. It is music played in the long form. There is something inherently appealing about this kind of approach, and it seems that many people agree. At this year’s Berkfest, AGP laid down a set of serious music, with help from Mister Rourke, on Sunday afternoon on the Sundeck Stage, a set of music that has since earned a spot as one of the best offerings of the entire weekend. Anyone who stayed at the Main Stage for SKB’s set, couldn’t help but notice that most of the crowd was across the way.
I spoke with both Brendan McGinn, who handles guitar, trumpet and vocal duties, and Rob Marscher, who spends his time bent over any number of keyboards, about the growth of the band, their latest album Allophone, and the future of Addison Groove Project.
Dan Alford: For those who don’t know, where does Addison Groove Project come from?
Brendan: The short and sweet of it is we’re six guys, five of whom attended high school together, and the sixth, Rob, had actually graduated high school the town over from us. We met at a high school battle of the bands, which we actually ended up winning. His band came in second, so he jumped ship and joined our band. And that’s how it began. As kids, we knew each other from playing in high school band together, sneaking around town, smuggling beers, stuff like that. We decided to stick with it through college because it felt like we had something going, and we’re sure glad we did, because it keeps getting better and better.
You’ve got the rhythm section, the four of us, and then you’ve got the horns, you know? The rhythm section are the ones that carry in all the equipment. The horns are off warming up. [laughs] The horn player exaltedness. Ben [Groppe, tenor] and Dave [Adams, alto] are conservatory-trained musicians, in jazz programs. They have very academic ways of looking at improvisation at least. I was a music major and a biology major, but I was never a performance major, so I’m kind of half way between them and John [Hall, bass] and Andrew [Keith, drums], who have had some instruction, but a lot of their playing comes from approaching it on a very individual level. And then there’s Rob, who is the classically-trained pianist who eight years ago heard John Medeski play for the first time and realized what you can do with an organ and a Rhodes and a Wurlitzer. So all of us are coming from different musical backgrounds, but besides the fact that all six of us are friends first and foremost, there is this kind of jazz/groove/funk thing that binds all of us. But at the same time, we all have these extremities that are very different from each other, and it’s kind of neat because the more comfortable we are letting these extremities show, the more complex and different directions the music can go in. Rob is bringing all these classical elements into our music, you know, writing all these fugues and stuff like that, and Andrew, John Bonham is one of his idols, all of a sudden brings a very hard, rock edge into some stuff. Ben is the tenor player to the core, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, bringing those kind of qualities into the band. Dave is the funk master. Myself, trumpet, guitar and singing, when we started out, they were all just things I was able to do. It just evolved like that.
DA: How did you keep the band together with everyone so spread out over the Northeast, some members in college, some not?
Rob: By the time I was a sophomore and everyone else was a freshman, except for John, our bass player, took a year off, Gamelan had picked us up doing booking. It was nowhere near now; now we’re playing every Friday and Saturday, if we can. We all went off to school, some people in college in upstate New York or Maine, and myself and Andrew were at Boston University, and Brendan went to Brown, in Providence. It was really tough because we didn’t get any time to rehearse at all, and creating new material was definitely not a group thing. People would write stuff, and if we ever got a chance to get together during school breaks, we would rehearse as much as we could to get new material together. Even now most of our rehearsal time is spent working on new stuff, rather than fine tuning anything. Fortunately, everyone in the band is working really hard during his own personal time. And it helps that everyone in the band is a really good writer.
Brendan: Well our rehearsal time is our sound checks basically. We have to take advantage of key times. It’s not as relaxed as you’d like rehearsals to be, but it’s the way it has to be. And basically it’s a matter of you’re practicing on your own; you’re showing people parts over the phone and whatnot. On the weekend you come together. It always ends up coming together. There’s a sense of urgency during the week to really stay on top of yourself. We’ll do stuff like lay down tracks on workstations, have cheesy little synth parts and burn them onto a CD and you can play them to someone. Or you can actually email computer files that have sheet music the wonders of technology. I imagine we’ll eventually be doing virtual rehearsals.
DA: You have done extensive summer tours the past few years. How does that affect the band?
Brendan: Gigging hard every day definitely makes a band better in so many ways. It tightens you up, it relaxes you, it allows you to explore new avenues in your songs. When you’re doing the weekend thing, you really have to dig to get to that level that you’re at when you’ve been playing for fourteen days straight or something like that. At the end of the summer, we scratch our heads and think, "God, I can’t wait until this can be our full time reality, this kind of touring schedule." We’ve seen what we can do in a summer and it makes you curious what we can do in a year.
We could have booked a West Coast tour this summer pretty easily, but it was just totally unrealistic for the time frames. It’s just keeping things in perspective. Our manager likes to describe it as everything is progress till the day that we’re finally full time. The pace that we’re moving at right now is preparing for that. We are playing gigs on the weekends and are very serious about the music. It basically occupies our hearts and souls. The level we’re at right now is nice; it’s nice knowing what we eventually will be doing. It’s nice to keep it fresh. When we finally hit it hard, we’ll have been doing this for five or six years, but haven’t done it to the extreme, intense level that we will be doing it.
Rob: It’s a huge difference. Before this summer tour, I found a recording that was from the middle of the 2001 summer tour, and I just got excited. I really just want to play every day. [laughs] After each summer tour, 2000, 2001 and 2002, each time we come off of it, I think we’re a much better band. The songs themselves develop too. I think this summer tour we started to get into a bit more improvisation. Those kind of aspects, not just playing the songs as they’re written, come out of playing every night. We come from more of a funk/fusion background, and there are so many instruments, with six people, it can be hard to coordinate everything. Plus you kind of have to worry about, what are the horns doing? [laughs]
Next summer we’re going to start touring nationally and not really look back. [laughs] Kind of hit it as hard as we can, because we’re dying to play. Just itching to play more often. Summer tours are great to get some exposure out there, but it’s kind of a tease because we go somewhere, we play in Atlanta, and people come out and say, "That was a great show. When can we see you again?" And we’re like, "I dunno, maybe year from now." [laughs] We have some experience with touring. We know what to expect; we know what we have to do, but we haven’t had a chance to really get out there. I almost feel like this summer will be like a first summer.
On the flip side of it, we’ve developed slowly, not gone out and tried to do anything that we weren’t ready to do. It’s gotten to a point where we headline shows in the North East before we go anywhere else. Also the internet has helped too. We get requests from all over the country to come out and play, but we tell them they just have to wait.
DA: That’s kind of a neat position to be in. I mean, I know you want to tour, but it’s nice to know your audience is already waiting.
Rob: Yeah, it is good. We’ll see what happens. I anticipate that the first time we go out to San Francisco or somewhere like that, that hopefully we’ll play in front a good sized crowd. It remains to be seen.
DA: Let’s talk about Allophone, which was released earlier this year.
Brendan: Well, we, on the whole, realized how little experience we had in the studio, and it made for somewhat of a stressful situation at first. In the end when we loosened up to it, it was like, "Let’s record as much as we can. Let’s put together a CD that is like a resume of Addison Groove Project, all the different styles and vibes that we encompass. Let’s put it on an album and make it sound as best as we can. We’re in this incredible studio, we’re not going to try to recreate the vibe or the energy of our live show." It just didn’t seem practical in the context of our time frame and what we were trying to do with Allophone.
Rob: We recorded at Fort Apache Studios in Boston, which is one of the better studios in Boston. A lot of bands have recorded there. The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones have recorded a lot of albums there. Radiohead mixed a couple albums there. It’s certainly well equipped. It’s part of my requirement that the studio has a Hammond, a Rhodes- quality, vintage keyboards. But we were just trying to have fun using as much stuff as we could without overusing anything, without taking away from the songs. The producer we had, Craig Welsh, he’s got a lot of great ideas. He’s trained in reggae; he’s done mixing for John Brown’s Body. He’s also done a lot of electronic and other types of the stuff that the band is all into. We were psyched to work with him, and a lot of the effects and production stuff came from him.
Brendan: There is an aspect of the dichotomy of the studio and the live performance that I kind of like.
DA: I know Soulive, whenever they hit the studio, they always try to do something different, because what’s the point of just doing the same thing?
Brendan: Right. It’s like buying the same album over and over again. Now that we’ve tasted blood, now that we’ve entered the studio, we’re definitely anxious to get back. Allophone is definitely not a definitive statement of what Addison Groove Project is. It’s like a resume.
DA: I think that’s really accurate. There is a great deal of texture on the album, ups and downs and puddles and just texture.
Brendan: It got to the end where we had all these reels of tape and we were thinking of a song, it was like, "Man, this is the hardest part of the whole endeavor." We knew going into it we could’ve put together ten tracks that could’ve all been in a jazz/funk/groove vibe, and laced them back to front and had a coherent theme, but we just felt like that would’ve been boring after a while. Here’s this golden opportunity we have, at this stage where we're still gaining exposure, we’re a young band and we’re still progressing out from our sphere of the Northeast. Why not take this opportunity to approach all these different styles, use different recording techniques, different vibes. It was a sick studio, a really sick engineer, and producer and stuff, so we really lucked out in that respect. [laughs]
DA: Brendan, two of your tunes on the album, Face to Face and Another Day, are very different from your other songs, stuff like Use Me or But Still
Brendan: The lyrics on those are both kind of inspired by post 9/11 experiences, just what I was seeing and what was on the news. It wasn’t a direct statement, crying out, but both songs kind of deal with, you know, stuff’s pretty fucked up right now. Now is the time; later, who knows what could be happening? Compassion, you should have it now, can’t wait any longer, and did it really take this event as a kind of wake up call for humanity to come together when all along it should’ve been happening?
Rob: Brendan ran out of girls to write about, had to start writing about issues. [laughs] Face to Face is kind of funny because Brendan had probably twice as many lyrics for that song and was trying to cram it all in.
Brendan: [laughs] That happened. Now I’m in love again, so we’ve got a bunch of new songs coming out. [laughs] There’s a bunch of new vocal songs coming out that we’ll be debuting shortly. It's easier to write when you’ve got a girl on your mind.
DA: Rob, one of your best tunes on the album is Marinate.
Rob: I wrote that on our summer tour 2000 that we did with Uncle Sammy. That particular song I wanted to be like Teen Town, a Jaco [Pastorious] tune that Uncle Sammy plays. In that song there’s a chord progression that keeps going down in a pattern, and I wanted to write something like that. I also wanted to write a song that had an odd time signature, and the ending is very Led Zeppelin/Mahavishnu Orchestra. I wanted to track it as something else on the album, the Skewer part.
DA: I also want to ask you about playing with Warren, Trey, Mike and everyone at the film festival.
Rob: I was there [Woodstock, NY] for the screening of Rising Low and they set up for a jam session at the party. Fortunately they had a keyboard there; they set up a Wurlitzer, and it didn’t look like there was a keyboard player there. I wasn’t sure about it because I didn’t know Matt Abts. I knew DJ Logic and I knew Fuzz, but I hadn’t met most of the other players. I met Mike once or twice. He came to see us and Dr. Didj, and Trey had had a copy of Wicked Live or one of the other albums. I don’t know if he remembered, but I at least felt comfortable going up and asking them if they wanted a keyboard player, which they did. [laughs] That was great. It was 40-45 minutes of improv. It changed keys a few times, and the people that were there were going nuts. Just to see Trey and Mike play together was pretty electrifying.
DA: Do you check out many of your peers in the jamband scene?
Rob: In Boston there are a lot of great, young musicians who have come out recently, probably most notably Soulive. Even though the Evans aren’t, Sam and Kraz are from Boston, and we got to open for Lettuce a few times early on. The whole Berklee/Wally’s scene, it’s great to have been part of that, and play with those guys. And Miracle Orchestra and The Slip I really like checking out all the bands in the jambands scene.
DA: Around here we’re always curious, do you have any musical suggestions that our readers might not be thinking of? Stuff that you really dig that we might be surprised at?
Brendan: Anything that DJ Premier produced. My friend just gave me this four disc 1983 to 2002, every Premier thing he could find, and it’s all I’ve been listening to recently.
Rob: I think that all the readers should check out The Flaming Lips. They’re albums are all spectacular. The albums are great and the song writing is amazing. I got turned on to them from Reed Mathis of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. They’re just one of those bands that I wouldn’t have necessarily gone out and bought their albums.
Addison Groove Project will be documenting their upcoming two-night stand at The Paradise in Boston on October 25 & 26 for a new live album, and New Year’s Eve plans are also in the offing. For more on the band, check out www.addisongroove.com.
Dan Alford wants to know, which side of the funk are you on?