Martin Perna: From Fela To Coconut Rock
Saxophonist Martin Perna has long established himself as a primary architect of modern independent music. In addition to founding the popular afro-beat group Antibalas, Perna is an original member of The Dap-Kings, a regular contributor to TV on the Radio and a successful studio musican who has recorded with such diverse names as Beck, Scarlett Johansson, Baaba Maal and DJ Logic. Recently, Perna also released Coconut Rock Deluxe, a new album with his other funk/world-informed rhythmic band Ocote Soul Sounds (a collaboration with Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Quesada that featured a number of other members of the Antibalas universe). While in New York for a weekly residency with Antibalas at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, Perna discussed Ocote Soul Sounds’ evolution, Antibalas’ future and how three success bands formed out of a tiny Brooklyn apartment.
*In addition to Antibalas, your primary project right now is a collaboration with Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Quesada called Ocote Soul Sounds. Can you start by giving us a little background about how that band came together? *
I started the project back in 2001 when Antibalas was still sort of growing and forming, and it was songs that I had written that didn’t really seem to fit the Antibalas model. So rather than sort of pushing them into that and confusing the musical direction of Antibalas, I just created this other entity, and we just recorded a couple of songs. That first incarnation was just me and a few musicians and then the project went into hibernation for a little while.
Then in the beginning of 2004 I was doing this road trip down to Mexico running on vegetable oil. That summer  Antibalas had played at Bonnaroo, and I saw a big bus that said “Powered by Vegetable Oil,” and it blew my mind. I was like, “No way, I can’t believe this, I gotta figure out how to do this” and so I drove down to Mexico passing through Austin and stayed at Adrian Quesada’s house. He and I met once when he was coming through New York with Groupo Fantasma, and we did a super brief recording session—like a 20 minute recording session. He kind of sampled some of the stuff that I played and dropped it into some beats that he was making, but it was a very small collaboration. Then on my way from Mexico, I had some vehicle troubles and he and his wife put me up in Austin. It took me like three weeks to get the car fixed so I was basically couch surfing at his house and I said, “Hey man, I have all this stuff either recorded or in the works that doesn’t fit the Antibalas mold.” He also had some material that didn’t really fit into the Groupo Fantasmo mold that fit really well with my material, so we put the tracks we had been working on together—each of us kind of added to it and that was our first record, El Nino y El Sol. It was released independently and then it got licensed and re-released by the guys from the Thievery Corporation and their label ESL Music.
The next record, The Alchemist Manifesto, came out and then we spent last year working on Coconut Rock, so it is still very much me and Adrian but we’ve been working and collaborating with friends—it has definitely grown from a studio project to a band. Adrian and I are very much at the core of it but you hear Marcos Garcia a.k.a. Chico Mann from Antibalas and some other really talented players that are getting around quite a bit these days. We did our first real touring in May—we went out to California, and then we did a few weeks with Thievery Corporation in the Northeast. It is cool to start a new project and not have to start from square one. In certain ways, you do have to start from square one but it not like we’re playing Monday night at some bar for five people. What we’ve done with music has definitely paved the way for this to get to people faster and more effectively, so that’s exciting.
How did Thievery Corporation come into the picture?
It was Adrian. I think it was 2005 or 2006 and he played at Austin City Limits with Groupo Fantasmo. Thievery Corporation was playing that year too and Adrian just went and gave one of the guys his CD. They called us two days later and said, “Wow, we like this, we want to put it out” and then it took a couple months to actually fit that into their production schedule. So it happened very smoothly. It is funny, the introduction was made a long time ago but I didn’t actually meet them until a year later when I was on tour with TV on the Radio in Brazil. For a long time our relationship was just via email, and we finally met down in South America. This year they took us out on the road so we got to spend some time with them, but we had put out three records on ESL before we had ever been up to Washington DC to visit their studios and label headquarters. It was just that we were so busy touring and that it was very much a side project for a long time. Now it definitely has a very strong life of its own.
How have your collaborations with Adrian changed now that Ocote Soul Sounds is more of a defined project?
We both do a little bit of everything—even though we live in the same city, its very rare that we’re there at the same time, but we do a lot of collaborating online like bouncing sketches around. He will say, “Hey, I’ve got this guitar part, and these rhythms, and this track together, are you doing any sweet lines on it?” or I might say, “Hey, I’ve got this flute note are you doing a bass line under it?” So there’s a lot of working independently first and bringing those ideas together, rather than us just getting together on a Sunday with a completely blank canvas and saying “let’s write a song.” That almost never happens. And then from there—once we get the songs and the material together—we basically sketch them out. Our drummer is on tour all the time with Mike Dillon and Go-Go Jungle so he’s real busy too. He comes in and plays drums and percussion and tours with us. And then we just kind of fill out the part—whether I’m doing the vocals or Marcos Garcia is doing the vocals or my wife is singing. She is going to be singing a lot more on the next record so it is evolving as far as the relationships we have with the musicians on the album but it’s getting more and more collaborative—more bodies, more minds, more hearts involved in making the music.