Budos Bands Staten Island Soul
New York’s oft-forgotten borough of Staten Island isn’t exactly known for its live music scene, but that hasn’t stopped Budos Band from emerging as one of this summer’s hottest live acts. Since its members began jamming together over a decade ago, Budos Band has gradually settled on an easily danceable hybrid of American funk and African rhythms, not unlike their forefathers Antibalas. But, as documented on the group’s recent Daptone release, Budos Band II, while Antibalas rooted in Fela Kuti’s distinct style of afro-beat, Budos Band instead colors its tight funk with elements of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian jazz. Below, baritone saxophonist Jared Tankel discussed his band’s new album, playing with Sharon Jones and what it means to be “the quintessence of Staten Island Soul.”
MG- Can you start by giving readers a brief history of how the group came together and found its sound?
JT- The rhythm section all grew up in Staten Island and began playing together in different configurations almost ten years ago. At the time they were playing more straight up funk music. Then, about seven or so years ago, they started going into the city to see Antibalas and the Sugarman Three play and really started getting into the Afrobeat thing. But, at that point, it was still just a rhythm section. I actually moved to Brooklyn about five years ago. I really didn’t know anyone in the city, especially to play music with, but Martin Perna, who founded Antibalas, was doing an opening mic. in Fort Greene, Brooklyn at the time. So I went down there a few times and this one time the guys from Budos were there. They were like, “Hi man, we are looking for a horn section.” It was a good fit and we gradually gained a few more horns over the years.
At that point we were basically playing Afrobeat and, after about a year or so, we felt it was cool, but not really quite our thing. We didn’t really want to bring on a vocalist and the 10-15 minute instrumental thing was OK, but it was a little boring and wasn’t going enough places for us. So that is when we decided to change it up and try the tighter funk arrangement and soul stuff and that is what is on the album Budos Band II.
MG- What type of music did you play before discovering Afrobeat?
JT- I was going to school outside Philly [at Haverford College] and was playing some funk music, some ska music and some straight up rock music as well. So it was sort of all over the place.
There is still definitely an Afrobeat aspect to what we are doing now, but I would say that in terms of African influences, lately is has taken on the flavor of Ethiopian jazz. There is a huge series of records called the Ethiopiques series, which are these Ethiopian dudes in the 1970s trying to do their best James Brown impressions. It is pretty wild stuff. One of the guys who has gotten a lot of recognition recently is Mulatu Astatke. So that has been a really big influence on us, especially on this second album. In terms of African musical influences, it has lately been more Ethiopian stuff rather than Nigerian, Fela Kuti African styles. Although that does still play a big part of what we are doing, though we have kind of turned towards American funk and soul in terms of influences. I think that has really helped differentiate us from Antibalas and what they are doing.
MG- Do you feel the material included on Budos Band II reflects this stylistic change?
JT- I think, personally, our second album is a lot stronger than our first album. I think part of the reason is that there were some songs on the first album which were sort of written to fill out the album. We never really play them live and we never really ever did. The second album is full of songs we wrote over the course of the year and a half since the first album came out. So, when we got into the studio, the first album took three nights to record and the second album only took two. It was super fluid and easy. Part of that is that we rehearse almost every week out on Staten Island. I think that it is really rare for a band that plays, especially one that is really large, to still have regular practice. I have played in a couple of bands in the city where we only really practice in preparation for a show and all the charts are charts,’ more or less that people write up. With Budos we hang out every Monday night. We drink beer, hang and write songs together. That made the songs much stronger, the recording process that much more fluid and easy and, like I said, that is one difference between the first and second album. I think it leads to stronger songwriting as well.
MG- How collaborative is your songwriting approach at this point? Does one musician typically bring in a completed song or do you find yourselves working out your ideas as a group?
JT- There are a couple of guys who do most of the writing. The bassist [Daniel Foder], guitarist [Thomas Brenneck] and drummer [Brian Profilio] will come up with a lot of the rhythm tracks and grooves and me and our trumpet player usually come up with the horn melodies. Every once and a while someone will come in with a full idea, but everyone contributes. Most of the time everyone has their own instruments and everyone contributes their parts. But, usually, our bass player, guitar player and drummer get most of the songwriting credits because those are the most prominent parts of the songs. But when we are cranking it out in the rehearsal studio everyone brings their own parts to the table.
Half of the group grew up together in Staten Island, so they are super tightlike brothers almost. I am slowly, having now known them for 4 years, starting to get into that family mindset as well. When we go on the road it is like a road trip where we happen to play music in front of a lot of people.
MG- Budos Band bills itself as “the quintessence of Staten Island Soul.” Can you talk a bit about the club climate in Staten Island and New York’s five boroughs?
JT- We used to play there fairly often. The first show I played with these guys was at a venue called Doc Street. There is also a spot out there called the Martini Red, but it has probably been almost a year since we have played a show out there. It’s cool out there and we are definitely not doing this for the money, since we aren’t making any really, but you certainly don’t make any money at the shows in Staten Island. It is tough to find a good place to play out there. We consider ourselves a Staten Island band, but we play most of our shows in Brooklyn.
MG- Most members of Budos Band balance music with a number of other careers. Will you be able to tour behind II in this fall?
JT- At this point, we had a fairly active summer for us, but it is tough to tour once the school year starts because we have a couple of school teachers in the band. Only a few guys in the band are professional musicians. So, for everyone else, it is a matter of finagling work schedules and all sorts of other stuff. So it makes touring extensively a bit of a challenge right now. I think at this point we have some shows in the city in September and October in the city and are going to Canada for a run of shows in September, but we are really looking forward to getting back into the rehearsal studio. Our summer has been so active that that we haven’t been able to rehearse all the time. We are ready to write the new album since, as I said before, we have been playing these songs for almost a year, probably. We have already written a few new songs that we have played out here and there, but hopefully we will play a few shows to hone down these new tracks and get them into tip-top shape and go into the studio. Hopefully Daptone is ready for us!
MG- Speaking of Daptone, can you talk a bit about what you’ve learned from playing with Sharon Jones?
JT- Sharon is a living example of vibrant, musical creativity and energy. I love hanging out with her. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with her now and she always has something to say and it usually either makes you laugh or makes you think. She just keeps on doing it and she is an inspiration really. If I am 51 and I am still kicking it like she is I will consider myself a success. Personally, I feel this next record she is doing with the Dap-Kings is going to put her over the top. With all the things happening to her and the Dap-Kings playing with Amy Winehouse and her personal career taking a step up, I think this can be a real big album for her. So, if anything, she offers us inspiration to keeping doing what we are doing and working hard and good things will happen.
MG- Recently an artist we frequently cover on the site, Cochemea “Cheme” Gastellum, has started playing with Budos Band more regularly. Is he a fulltime member of the group at this point?
JT- He is pretty much fulltime now. Him and Dave Guy, who plays trumpet and plays in the Dap-Kings as well, are more or less part of the band. They are not original members, but at this point they come to most of the gigs, so they are pretty much fulltime now. The first album, which came out a few years ago, showcases the current configuration, though he have added a couple of hours over the last year and a half.
MG- Finally, you are currently studying law in addition to playing music. What connection do you see between your two chosen professions?
JT- I am trying to study music/entertainment law. One of the reasons I decided to go to law school was that I saw all my friends like the musicians in the Dap-Kings. They have had some great opportunities come up, but I want to make sure their interests are going looked at and they are getting the credit they deserve. I want to be a positive force and help them make a living doing what they want to do. I’m not really sure I want to be a touring musician for the rest of my life, which is one of the reasons I made a decision to go to law school instead. But I definitely want to be involved with the people I play with now, but maybe in a different type of roll. As I said, I want them to be able to make a living doing what they do and get credit for it.
_Though Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus prefers music clubs to law bars, he is happy that his roommate recently completed law school. He blogs at www.greenhauseffect.com