Hitting the Q Ball with Ian McHugh
The past twelve months has been a banner year for Ian McHugh and his band, the Bomb Squad. Following an appearance on the American Music Awards, The Bomb Squad have been catapulted from local Connecticut favorites to an international buzz band. While figuring out the inner workings of the music industry, McHugh tapped a big name producer, Jimmy Bralower, for Bomb Squad’s second release and are preparing to hit untapped market around the country. Below, McHugh discusses his recent studio sessions, vocal counterpart Jen Durkin, and why many fans know him as "Q."
MG- Bomb Squad II is a conscious departure from your group’s trademark soul-funk feel. Are you trying to bring a more rock edge’ into the Bomb Squad’s sound?
IM- When I started getting together with Jen [Durkin] to talk about our music and where we wanted the band to go, I was feeling a couple different things—-one being the soul, the funk, the R&B, and all that we touched upon on the first record. It was cool because we created a sound and a niche we could build from. But the other thing, which was even more prevalent, was both of our love for bands like Sabbath and Zeppelin—-bands who could rip. I think we always wanted to get into that, and when we sat down to start coming up with new material, we worked in that direction. On the first album, a lot of songs were built from jams and stuff we’d come up with for the live show. This time around, we sat and actually wrote material for a studio environment. We drove it in that direction because, naturally, I think that’s where we want to go as a band.
MG- Was bringing in producer Jimmy Bralower (Rolling Stones, Britney Spears) part of this new direction?
IM- We basically got the opportunity to work with Jimmy after the American Music Awards. Jimmy is a great producer and a great teacher. I want to be a producer. I think the fact that we connected is great. Naturally, working with him is great because he has so much experience to draw from. He has worked with everyone from Madonna to the Stones. But, track record aside, I think a good producer also has to work with a band the way it needs to be worked with. He knew how to do that with Bomb Squad. It’s kind of like a coach: you need to know how to react to each player individually, as well as the band or project as a whole to get the best performance out of the team. With us, he basically broke the tunes down to their most simple form: the chords and the lyrics. He’d sort of assessed where the songs were going. Then he got together with the rhythm section and focused on driving them where the tune wants to go. Then he’d add the horns and vocals back on top to add the Bomb Squad’-edge.
MG- Is there any specific coaching technique you’ve since applied to your own role as Bomb Squad’s bandleader?
IM- Just the way he reacted with everyone individually. He is all about catching a vibe. It was really cool— he has so much experience to draw from. Every so often he’d quote, you know, Mick Jagger. It was pretty inspiring. It definitely gave the recording sessions a real rock and roll feel.
MG- He never quoted Britney Spears, did he?
IM- No. No. [laughs] I think with Britney, he just did a beat track for one of her songs. But, he really knew how to work with Jen. He knew how to get each line to come across and mean something in a musical sense, as well as a lyrical one.
MG- How involved was Jen in Bomb Squad II’s songwriting process?
IM- When I write, I write with her in mind. For this album, I think she did the same for us. I wrote a handful of songs on my own and then I’d give her the track so she could see where I was going. She’d write the lyrics and melody from that. There are a handful of songs we wrote together as a whole unit. The entire band was in the room and we’d start with a general idea. Then we’d base our song off a certain riff or jam. "Come By Here" is one track we created as a group.
MG- Initially you planned on titling your new album Big Hot Money Spot. Why switch titles?
IM- Well, actually, Jen and I had been talking about the title Big Hot Money Spot for a while. Way back, when we put out Sophistafunk, she said, "I think the second album should be called Big Hot Money Spot." We sort of joked around with it for a while and I came up with the song "Big Hot Money Spot." We were going to call the entire album that, but our management was like, "why don’t we keep in something simple or almost self-title it". I said, let’s at least call it II,’ so people know there is another album out there.
MG- Do you think your appearance on the American Music Awards was more beneficial in terms of new fans or industry support?
IM- I think both. We played the American Music Awards in November of last year and the following three, four, five weeks we saw an influx of CD sales coming in off our website. We were getting orders placed from we’d never played and as far away as Korea and Australia. All of the sudden, we weren’t only a northeast bandwe were an international act. I think the exposure was phenomenal and we were able to build our industry leverage. Before that, we were totally self-made. Mike Raskin (tenor saxophone) and I were basically the managers. Now we have a manager who has been in the industry for thirty-years.
MG- Yet, despite an increased audience, you’ve stuck pretty close to the Northeast.
IM- The most important thing, really, was for us not to jump into anything. The month after the awards, we talked to everybody and said, "we need to get a management family in place or we are going to get lost in the shuffle." We made that our priority and waited six months before we started to shop our album to the labels. We said, "let’s get the new album out and then let’s break in the new markets." We have so many new fans on the mailing list after the American Music Awards, now we can actually e-mail them and say, "Hi, we are coming out to Minnesota."
MG- Bomb Squad’s lineup has been in a state of flux over the past few years. Are the musicians featured on Bomb Squad II part of a permanent configuration?
IM- When we released Sophistafunk, our lineup was ever changing. We had about sixty or seventy band members over the past couple of years. They’d come for a couple of weeks and then their girlfriends wouldn’t let them come down anymore or whatever. With the new album, though, we found a permanent lineup we want to go with. Eric Bolivar is such a fantastic drummer. A great drummer creates a sound’s backbone.
MG- Was it difficult getting Jen to commit full-time to Bomb Squad?
IM- For a while, we were up against a lot. She was touring with Bernie Worell and had her own solo project. But, once we brought the goods to the table, and she realized we were serious, it really took off. Once things got off the ground with the AMA’s, she was like "ok, let’s do it."
MG- Earlier you mentioned that you’d like to work as a producer. That seems a bit surprising given Bomb Squad’s live prowess.
IM- I love being in the studio. Some of the best times for me are in the studio. Creating something on your sofa, and being with it until it comes out of your car stereo, is what I love being a part of. As I said before, my roots are in rock—-I’d love to do a rock-album. I’d also love to do a hip-hop album. I have a little production studio in my room with a drum machine so I do a lot of dance and R&B tracks.
MG- Being a young bandleader, do you find it difficult organizing older musicians?
IM- Yes and no. I think it’s a matter of commanding respect. If you take them seriously, they will take you seriously. If you know where they are coming from and take them where they want to go, they will listen to you.
MG- Do you still feel fans compare Bomb Squad to Deep Banana Blackout?
IM- Deep Banana was a great band and I love Fuzz. He is a great guitarist and songwriter. But, I think, most people who compare us to what they were doing five years ago haven’t seen us yet. When you see us now, you realize we have a different flow and rhythm.
MG- Where would you like to see Bomb Squad play in the next year?
IM- We are planning on doing some Colorado dates. We’d also like to open for some larger acts. When you open, you plant seeds. There is a lot to be said for smart touring. I’d like to open for people like Karl Denson, but also Maroon 5, No Doubt, and Black Eyed Peas. Basically a mix of rock and funk acts.
MG- Where does the nickname "Q" stem from?
IM- I play a lot of pool. If you spent as much time in a pool hall as I did, you know that no one is called by their real name. My last name is McHugh, so I think "Q" was appropriate with the pool hall jargon. You start saying it onstage and so it goes.