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Published: 2005/10/13
by Shain Shapiro

Warmth through Funk: A Case Study of Moses Mayes

Winnipeg is a happening place, argues Grant Paley, DJ and frontman for the city’s up-and-coming funk-based septet, Moses Mayes. Known throughout the rest of Canada as Winterpeg,’ the mid-size city is seen as a haven for those with a penchant for cold and mosquitoes, not an ear for original, exciting urban groove. Yet Moses Mayes has become one of Canada’s top groove-funk acts, through constant touring, laborious musical reinvention and the knack for laying down a heavy, funkified groove. Since their inception in 2000, Paley and company has headlined every jazz, folk and electronic festival on the circuit, played with everyone from James Brown to Ivana Santilli and released two fine full lengths including 2004’s acclaimed instrumental trip, Needle to the Groove.

However, the road has been exceptionally bumpy for Moses Mayes. They have never had a full-time saxophone player and have seen an inordinate amount of line-up changes, profoundly limiting the collective’s growth at times, simply because they were busy training new members. In addition, touring exhaustion forced the group to announce a hiatus in 2002, which lasted a year. When the band returned to the circuit the following summer, their personnel had changed once more. However, Paley and founding member Nathan Ranier have managed to keep the sound constant and on track regardless of the personnel changes within the band. The long, cold Winnipeg winters birthed new songs and ample time to perfect them, and through tireless rebirth and commitment, 2005 has been Moses Mayes’ most successful year yet, seeing them venture down south to headline their inaugural US dates while enjoying heightened acclaim at home. With another new album in preparation as winter looms over Winnipeg, Paley sat down with to unravel Moses Mayes, the future and why his band took such an unorthodox road to get here.

Shain Shapiro: How was your first American experience?

Grant Paley: We played three shows in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. They went surprisingly well, considering we are unknown in the USA market. There were some great surprises, like a Canadian fan from Ottawa that brought about 40 people to our show in Seattle alone. I also met this really nice guy who saw us perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival last year in San Francisco. We hope to go back in 2006 as we are taking a small rest to write some music and get ready for another go with a new album. Expect some major tour announcements for next summer.

SS: How difficult is it to keep the sound consistent with the band’s roster in flux?

GP: It can be very difficult, because certainly our writing process changes when a full band is there for a writing session or if there is just three people. We have always had a rotating sax player, but Chuck Copanace (trumpet) has always been the man for the horn lines, so that stays consistent. Recently we’ve lost two long time members and yes, this will change some aspects of the music we play.

SS: When did that occur? Why do you think has the band consistently changed personnel over its career?

GP: Well, we’ve had a continuous change on the sax position for as long as this band has existed, we’ve never really had a permanent player in this department and we have been pretty comfortable with that since we started playing. Our newest sax player is Paul Metcalfe, who filled in after we had to fire our last guy on the summer tour he’s a amazing player and we’re really happy to have him on board. We lost our longtime percussionist Scott Senior to The Duhks during our year-long hiatus in 2002 and most recently our long time bass player Paul Farley has left the band to pursue other interests outside music.

Being part of such a large band is difficult to handle sometimes, and I think the music business in general can weigh people down. You make such huge sacrifices to be in a band like Moses Mayes with the type of touring, writing and money we make and it becomes the engulfing aspect of your life. You have to really love making music to do it.

However, the members of the band will always stay true to the nature and reputation of this band’s live performances. Our recorded music is where we see the biggest change coming and we’re all very excited about the prospects and ideas that have come out of the remaining long- time members of the band. And it’s also exciting to have some fresh blood to add to the mix; we’re all really looking forward to the music we’re currently working on.

SS: Have you gone out and been proactive about solidifying a permanent line-up?

GP: I think what we’ve learned over the past two years that you can continue on even when people you thought you couldn’t do something with leave I think if changes like this happened years ago we wouldn’t be able to shake it and keep moving with the people who still want to play. We’ve certainly grown up and realized that there are so many great players out there that can play with us, and also influence us in ways we never thought. Change is hard, but as long as you have a good core of people to keep plugging away at something that is very difficult, you all come out with something that was even better then it used to be.

SS: You have experienced some mainstream success.

GP: Really?

SS: Yeah. You have been featured heavily at the Montreal Jazz Fest, NXNE, CBC Radio etc

GP: The mainstream thing is hard thing to define. We’ve played showcases like CMW and NXNE, while CBC Radio and CBC Radio 3 has been a good supporter and the Jazz Festival Tour was huge exposure for us. Yet, MuchMusic has never knocked on our door (laughs). Listen, we know what kind of music we make; it is an underground style that may never reach the mainstream’s ears.

Still, you never know, we could just happen to make some track that does that for us. Our successes as an instrumental band amaze us everyday. Every day we hear from other bands that are signed and have videos, but they can’t tour due to financial constraints! That really leaves a bad taste in your mouth about how this industry can work sometimes. You sometimes wonder if entering the mainstream is even worth the time and effort to get there. Overall, any exposure is good exposure, but getting to the mainstream is not a goal of ours. Our goal is to just make the music we like to make and keep improving as players.

SS: Are you more creatively and musically happy post-hiatus? Was it the right decision to make?

GP: I think the year hiatus was exactly what we needed at that point in time. We were all young, still learning and still understanding each other and what you need to do to make things work both music and personality-wise. I think every band that becomes serious in what they do go through growing pains of dealing with the different problems and stresses that come to playing in a professional band. Now, the outlook is great. I think the music is getting better and I think we’ll be making heads turn even more as we keep plugging away making this work post- hiatus.

SS: Tell me about playing in Winnipeg. Why do you still keep it as a home? Isn’t it a tough, out-of-the-way market to base shop in?

GP: Winnipeg is an amazing city. While Montreal is being called the hotbed of the Canadian music scene, Winnipeg has been churning out bands for years. Playing here is the best. We love our fans here in Winnipeg, and without them we would have never made that first trek to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to start promoting our music outside our borders. Our Jazz Festival performance here falls on the same Sunday every year right in the heart of the old part of the city, and it happens outdoors with about 2500+ there to see us. Essentially, this is home. It embodies who we are and what we want to be. It’s a place where the support we need for our music and our lives thrives and carries us every day. It is not very hard to find some of the best players and musical minds this country has to offer in this city. And then in the winter, when it is -30, you have no choice but to sit tight and work on your music to get you to spring, all of which sounds like heaven to me.

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