Sam Kiningers Royal Anthem
Sam Kininger is a familiar face in both the jam and jazz/funk worlds, thanks to his work with Soulive, Lettuce and his seminal Boston group The Squad. Since enrolling at the Berklee College of Music in the 1990s, he’s played with everyone from Black Thought and Talib Kweli to members of P-Funk and James Brown’s JB’s to Dave Matthews Band and Perry Farrell (at the Jammys). More recently, he’s also stepped out with his own band for a mix of headlining shows and festival dares, as well as released the new studio album Anthem. If that’s not enough, he plans to hit the road with Soulive this summer, tour Japan behind Lettuce’s new studio album and make his maiden voyage on Jam Cruise this January. Below, Kininger discusses his new studio album, Lettuce’s return to form and the link between Eric Krasno and Kayne West.
MG- You are involved in a number of different projects now, including both Soulive and Lettuce. But, can you start by telling us a bit about your own Sam Kininger Band?
Well, it started in Boston. I was playing in a band called The Squad, actually. It kind of formed at Wally’s CafIt started to come together with me and my bass player Aaron Bellamy, who actually played guitar at first. That was definitely the stem of the group, the Wally’s band. So we just started playing. I met [keyboardist Amy Bowles] at a house party and met [drummer Nikki Glaspie] from Wally’s. So Aaron, Amy and Nikki are the group’s core members, but it is an ever-changing band. We kind of have a rotating situation, but have been playing together for about five years. Well, it started in 2003. That is when it came into fruition and we started playing bands as the Sam Kininger Band. We had a good run with Soulive last year as wellthose were some memorable shows.
MG- You also recently released the SKB album Anthem in Japan, right?
It was recorded in January of 2007, so it has been over a year now. We drove from Boston in a snow storm to record that thing [laughter]. One track is called “10 Hours Late” because we were actually 10 hours late for the recording session. We recorded in three days, but there was a lot of post-production. I actually did a lot of the saxophones and horns and production of the sounds after the record was recorded. That’s why it took over a year to come out. It’s came out on the BMG-Japan label and its out in Japan now, doing pretty well.
MG- Do you hope to release the album stateside soon?
That’s the planwe are going to see how it goes and try for some distribution in the United States.
MG- What skills from your time as a sideman have you been able to apply to your role as a band leader?
It’s interesting. I kind of have the same position in all the bands I play in. Even in my band, which I front, it’s not like Sam Kininger in front with his band. It is one unit and I am definitely a sideman in my own group. It is interestingwe definitely all have equal parts. If one person was missing it wouldn’t be the same. So what I learned is how to play in a group situation and not play as an individual playing my own things with a bunch of different guys. In order to be in my situation, in my band, you need to know how to listen to a bunch of different guys and play off of each others. I’m actually on my way to a Soulive gig right now and it is the same thing with them. Once we are all together we all play as a unit.
MG- Your other main project right now is Lettuce. In fact, you guys recently released a great new album, Rage!. I know you joined the group a bit later that some of the guys, but have been playing with the band for well over a decade [laughter].
They formed while at the Berklee high school program. I came onboard a little bit after that, but it has still been about fifteen years, I guess. We definitely played at Wally’s on Sunday nights. It has just been on and off for fifteen years. I was at Berklee and met Adam Deitch and Adam Smirnoff. This was in this 1993 or 1994. At the time, Ryan Zoidis was the only saxophone player in Lettuce and he has since done his Rustic Overtones thing. I kind of blended in and have been there ever since.
MG- Neal Evans has been playing with Lettuce recently. What happened to the group’s original keyboardist? I heard he’s playing arenas now, no?
Originally there was a guy named Mike Butler but Jeff Bhasker was the main Lettuce keyboardist. He went to L.A. and now is playing with Kanye West. He also played with me in The Squad with a drummer named Charles Haynes, who is also out with Kanye now. At the time there was a lot going on in Boston between that whole crew. So Neal is fulltime with the group now.
MG- Can you walk us through the recording of Rage!?
We started working on it around last January 2007. We went out and just got together for three or four days of recording. The Meters tribute song “Speak E.Z.,” that came about in rehearsals the night before the recording sessions, actually. So in total we had about 25 songs and narrowed that down to 13. We went to the studio in Brooklyn and just recorded it. [Trumpeter] Rashawn Ross came in and did the basic horns, and me and Ryan recorded some extra tracks in Portland. But, the bulk of it was done pretty quickly for the quality of the record. Of course, there was also a big mixing session.
MG- How do you divide creative responsibility among so many different musicians, each of whom is also a band leader?
It is definitely a group effort. I am really good about writing the horn parts and arrangements and Adam Deitch did a lot of the free production tracks. Ryan and I also got together to write a lot of the horn charts. So everyone has their niche in the writing process. On the album everyone kind of had one complete song and everything was kind of a group production. It is the same with my band as well, actually.
MG- And I assume you all edit each others ideas?
Exactly. And months later it will transform into something completely different. It will start and something and then transform into something completely different, but we definitely have our set of core tunes that we play. With a rotating cast, like in my band, it obviously changes a lot.
MG- As you said before, in addition to you and Ryan, Lettuce’s current horn section now includes trumpeter Rashawn Ross. When did he enter the fold?
He was later. I was playing fulltime in Soulive, but he had been my friend since Berklee. At the time, he was only playing straight ahead jazz. He called me saying, “what is up with this funky Lettuce thing, I want in.” He has a photographic memory and, when we brought him in to rehearsals, he was actually showing us how to play the songs [laughter]. Not many musicians can do that. Now he is playing with Dave Matthews Band and is out on the road with them as a fulltime member.
MG- Will his DMB commitments preclude Lettuce from touring his summer?
We have pretty much decided that if he can’t make it we are not going to replace him. He is a fulltime member of the band. If he is going to be on tour with Dave Matthews we are only going to use two horns.
MG- In addition to your recent run of Northeast shows and an upcoming show with Maceo Parker [on June 18], what are Lettuce’s other tour plans?
We are going to do some San Francisco shows and are doing some shows Japan and we are going to do Jam Cruise. I’m really excited for Jam CruiseI’ve never been. We do really well in Japan as well. It’s hard to work eight people’s scheduled out, but when we play together we always gel.
MG- After some time on your own, you’ve been playing with Soulive a bunch recently. Are you going to tour with them this summer as well?
They aren’t going much touring this summer, actually. But I am going to do a few gigs with them. We are going these three money gigs with Al Green, George Benson and Soulive which should be great. But those guys are working on a bunch of others projects. Neal Evans is working on a solo album, which I am on, and Alan Evans just built a studio. We recorded Neal’s album in Alan’s studio recently.
MG- How would you describe Neal’s current project?
It’s definitely more of a breakbeat album. There isn’t as much soling and more of these breakbeat tracks.
MG- Finally, can you talk a bit about the Royal Family project you are involved in?
The Royal Family is basically everyone involved with all our projects. Eric Krasno started it as a compilation featuring people like Adam Deitch, Neal and Alan Evans, Nigel Hall and Soulive. The first compilation is being distributed and Eric wants to keep putting them out regularly. I think what he really wants is his own independent label, separate from his brother Jeff Krasno’s label Velour, focusing on more instrumental music. So they have been giving out these Royal Family compilations to keep the buzz going while he wants on that.
I’m also working on some R & B material with Nigel and definitely thinking about that in my head. And I’m a huge fan of that kind of more hard-edged James Brown-style funk. James Brown originated that and I have side-project in Boston, this Cuban jazz project. We play about once a month. So everyone has this whole niche and style, but when we come together we really gel.
_Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus posts his podcasts each week to www.relix.com/radio