Action Figure Party
When it came time to record Action Figure Partys self-titled debut, Greg Kurstin, the mastermind/songwriter/keyboardist/vocalist/producer behind the jazz groove outfit, called upon friends and co-workers. The studio was then filled with players whose work can be heard on releases by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Buckcherry, Soul Coughing, No Doubt, Dr. Dre, Bruce Hornsby, Garbage, Air and Alanis Morrissette.
Its not as if Kurstin didnt deserve the assistance. Hes made his presence felt for years among the southern California music scene, playing sessions for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Matthew Sweet, and Ben Harper among others and playing live with Barenaked Ladies and Janes Addiction.
Few may be familiar with his past work in the eclectic yet poppy Geggy Tah. More listeners now hear the group as its Whoever You Are plays during a Mercedes Benz commercial.
Kurstin’s background is more compatible with what hes doing now. He studied under Charles Mingus’ pianist Jaki Byard in New York and California. He’s also performed with other jazz artists including vibraphonist Butch Henderson and led his own jazz quartet.
I gave Action Figure Partys self-titled debut a positive review in the August issue of Jambands. Seeing them play live extended my enthusiasm for the material. Unfortunately, AFP was performing in front of an indifferent crowd at the Post Gazette Pavilion stop on its tour supporting Barenaked Ladies. It seemed as if playing to a pop-oriented crowd was the wrong way to promote an album of 10 instrumental (and two vocal) tracks that relied on a groove foundation to supplant excursions into the jazz world.
It became even more obvious that AFPs audience rests among the jam band scene than a mainstream crowd. The albums danceable rhythms provide the foundation for its jazz-oriented intricacies. Turntable work gives it a contemporary feel while the overall sound and classic keyboards — Fender Rhodes electric piano, Wurlitzer organ, Moog synthesizer — embrace the funk and jazz rhythms of the past. *JPG: I saw you this summer with Barenaked Ladies, but Id like to open things up and ask, what other things have you been doing since Action Figure got off its summer tour. *
Kurstin: We’ve been doing some local shows in L.A. I’ve been writing some new material for Action Figure Party and then also doing a lot of film stuff. I played some keyboards with Ben Harper for this Sean Penn movie (‘I Am Sam ‘). I played on a Beatles song that he did. People are doing Beatles’ tunes for that movie. I’ve also been doing some work this movie called ‘Orange County’ with some friends of mine, a friend of mine, guitar player, who used play in Karl Denson’s group is doing the music for that. I’m doing a lot of keyboards for that. It’s been a little crazy but I like being busy so… *JPG: Looking at your background and your current collaborators, I don’t know how to ask this in any other way. What is it about you that draws people to you and keeps you so busy? What is it that you bring, either personality-wise or as a player that you end up getting all these varied gigs with a lot of high profile people? *
Kurstin: I’m not afraid to play simply. There’s some good keyboardists out there who play too much or maybe they have to share everything that they’ve learned. I guess I’m attracted to more boneheaded keyboard parts. I like to really seem boneheaded I guess, like really simple, almost forget that I’ve ever learned how to play the piano. This is really simple stuff and I think people respond to that.
Being a jazz player, it’s a challenge to do that. Play with your fists, you know. I don’t mind that. I think I grew up with punk rock and different things like that, so technique and stuff like that isn’t something that impresses me that much. I’ve seen a lot of great technical players that are really doing something different or creative or emotional that I respond to. I try to maybe focus in on that. That’s what people respond to. *JPG: On the one hand as a studio musician, you need to focus on technique. If it’s a certain situation, ‘Here’s sheet music. One two three go.’ But, on the other hand you’re doing much more varied things that would probably freak out some of your former music students. *
Kurstin: A lot of times I approach things, not even from a keyboardist standpoint, mostly from a sonic or producer [standpoint]. Like, ‘What would George Martin or Brian Eno do?’ as opposed to I’m a keyboardist, I need to play piano parts. Sometimes, I like to just sit and play the highest five notes on the piano, just the tinkly stuff, just play those percussively or do things that aren’t traditional piano parts, more like production, so not even to sound like a keyboard or piano.
So, I gravitate towards things like that and maybe something a little bit different. You listen, ‘Oh, that’s a good piano player.’ I guess you have to get past that, showing everyone you’re a good player. You have to do what’s right for the song. *JPG: That’s what I was about to say. What you do is to be part of the song, rather than showcasing yourself. *
Kurstin: Right. I mean people have to go back to playing. You get so in that mode. I used to be in Geggy Tah a lot. I tried to take different approaches, not so much a keyboardist approach to keyboards but to use it like a sonic device somehow. Not your typical piano line and stuff like that. Sometimes, I need to do that. *JPG: You think that’s why Action Figure Party is so enticing to you because you can go back to ‘I’m Greg Kurstin keyboard player and here I go…’ *
Kurstin: It’s sort of got a balance to it because I think I get some of my ya yas out, but at the same time I try not to go too crazy. Action Figure Party has sort of a solid foundation. We don’t really ever go completely fusion nuts. I think sometimes that turns people off. I like playing, sometimes, jazz that non-jazz people really like. Some of my favorites like Miles Davis, guys like that really knew how to do extremely simple in a feeling sort of way. Not simple in a less than way. I think it’s the specialty of genius the way that he uses it. You can relate to it even if you don’t like jazz. *JPG: It seems to be according to the temperament of a person. I mean, I like different jazz artists, but it’s someone of a different temperament who really, really appreciates and enjoys the free form chaotic sounding style of jazz. *
Kurstin: Right. I like all the stuff, even some earlier fusion I like. It’s such a bad word. It scares people away. Saying even jazz scares people away. A lot of times, they can’t get into something chaotic and melodic, they don’t understand it. I grew up listening to it and playing it and studying it. I end up gravitating towards indie rock bands, something that’s not even coming from the jazz world. They might have played their instruments two months before they made the record. Even when I was in music school, I gravitated towards the art school bands at least taking a creative approach, not as technical, I guess. *JPG: Is that why just about all the songs on Action Figure Party’s self-titled debut is groove-oriented. Is it that sense of a jazz style that won’t scare people by offering them something to move their hips. *
Kurstin: Yeah, I think definitely people respond to grooves and rhythms. Sometimes, you can just tell that an amazing groove is going over it, free form jazz going over it, people can relate to it because there’s a solid groove there. If you have a solid foundation like that you can stretch out a little bit.
I like having something to be the foundation on the record, then you can always stretch a bit more. Theres always something holding it down to planet earth, so it wont blow away into free jazz space odysseys. I gravitate towards simple grooves. Even the songs are pretty simple. It was easier for the guys to learn em in a day. *JPG: On the opening track, Everybody Ready, in my head I heard the funkiness of Maceo Parker. Is that where you were on that number? *
Kurstin: Maceo is definitely an inspiration. Every thing hes done is inspiring to me. Hes one guy that definitely kept it simple with undeniable grooves. Just his lines when he plays, you can’t help but relate to what he plays.
Yeah that was just the first song. So, it was kind of like Is everybody ready? Ask that question. I wanted this to be driving and simple, sort of a party track, like someone like Maceo. Hes definitely an inspiration for a track like that. *JPG: True about that party element, The track ‘Action Figure Party,’ is a comical description of a bunch of action figures at a party. For someone who followed your last band, Geggy Tah, and its three albums, they had that of lyrical quirkiness and humor as well. Also, that song stands out from the pack because it contains vocals. *
Kurstin: Playing live, I like to have a lot of fun and there’s a lot of energy; a little different from maybe some of the typical sad, emotional stuff that’s been coming out. I like to party when I play. I like to have a lot of energy and I think there’s a lot of people out there who really want to have a good time and something that will make them feel good. I think it’s along those lines. Some of the songs, there’s definitely a little bit of humor in there. *JPG: Even ‘Clock Radio,’ it’s just that dry line, ‘I was saved by the clock radio.’ It’s another vocal track. It reminds me of friends of mine, their short stories have very dry recognizable humor that are based on every day mundane things that you normally don’t see in the spotlight. *
Kurstin: Yeah, that song was more of an emotional song even though it’s lighthearted. *JPG: It was emotional in what way? *
Kurstin: The point I was at in my life, really. I wrote it about a year ago and I think it was about hearing life changing music on a clock radio. Actually, it has happened, a song about being away camping or something like that. You have no contact with the outside world, tv or anything like that, but someone discovers this clock radio in your room and you explore and put on AM, you know?
Also, you hear some really bizarre song. I’ve always had some revelations within songs like that. It’s almost little like mono speaker, clock radio. The beautiful revelations that happen just listening to a clock radio. *JPG: I must admit that even though this album is on Verve record’s Blue Thumb imprint, I still think of Verve as a jazz label and jazz as a mainly non-vocal form. Why did you put vocals on at least a couple tracks of AFP’s debut? *
Kurstin: It started as an instrumental record and then I go in stages where I sing and not sing. In Geggy Tah. I sang a lot more on the first record, a little bit less on the second record and the third much less than that. It just goes in phases. Towards the end of this record, I started singing again. Those two songs were the last of the songs recorded. It just went in that direction .Now I’m singing a lot more. I see people respond to vocals too live. There’s something about the human voice that I think when you’re playing instrumental music it’s a little bit more transparent somehow, which is good. People can just groove and dance and not have to focus in on lyrics. Still, it’s nice to…I don’t’ know, I just got in a singing mood towards the end of the thing. *JPG: When it comes time to record AFP’s second album, do you plan on bringing in a bunch of fairly high-profile musician friends that you worked with in the past or are you going to use the touring band? *
Kurstin: Probably a combination. I definitely want to use the touring band because we’ve been striking up a thing. Definitely getting really tight together. I do like bringing in some of these other players. It’s much more of a party if you’re playing it with different personalities. I’ll have a core band and bring in a lot of guest artists. *JPG: Has Verve considered putting on another sticker saying, ‘As heard on the Mercedes Benz commercial’? *
Kurstin: They haven’t said anything about that actually. It’s funny, a lot of people have been calling me about the Mercedes commercial. Man, that’s a nice song on there. Brought that song back to life. (The Geggy Tah track, ‘Whoever You Are,’ is heard in a Mercedes Benz commercial that was broadcast last summer.) *JPG: Yeah, it was a fun , fun, fun song. But what did you think about it being used? I don’t if they had to approach you to get the rights to use it or… *
Kurstin: They asked us whether or not we were interested. They set up what the commercial would be like. I like the fact that it brought the song back ‘cause a lot of people forgot about it, really didn’t know who did the song. A fun song to write. *JPG: Have you ever considered doing it live to keep the interest continuing? *
Kurstin: I don’t know. I haven’t ever played it since we were playing it back when we were in Geggy Tah. Back in the day. So I don’t know, especially since I didn’t really sing the lead part on that. It’s so weird for me, somewhat out of my range. I sing the low part. Actually, I was a background singer. *JPG: When you left Geggy Tah, was it just a matter of wanting to explore this instrumental thing or was it. ‘I hate you.’ ‘No, I hate you, I’m leaving.’? *
Kurstin: There was a limbo period where not much was happening . Luaka Bop records (Geggy’s label) had switched from Warner to Virgin and we weren’t really playing live that much. It took us a long time to finish that third record.
I think we just went our separate ways. The band broke up at this point. Then I was supposed to do the Action Figure Party cd. I started getting interested in that and then Tommy Jordan (Kurstins former partner in Geggy Tah) got into a lot of different things as well. So that’s pretty much what happened. I think we exhausted it after awhile. We toured a lot. I think this [third] record was a really draining process, wasn’t as light and as fun as the first two records. *JPG: That’s true. *
Kurstin: It was a difficult record. I haven’t heard it. *JPG: It came out last spring. *
Kurstin: Same exact day as the Action Figure Party record. *JPG: Now was it before you started making the AFP album, you were approached by the guys in Barenaked Ladies to go on tour with them to temporarily replace Kevin Hearn, right? *
Kurstin: Yeah that was back in ’99 I guess. They gave me like one day’s notice. Geggy Tah opened up for them. I hadn’t heard from them in ages. Ed the singer from Barenaked Ladies called me up said, ‘Hey Kevin is really ill right now, could you come and finish the tour tomorrow?’ We had already finished the Geggy Tah record by that point in ’99. I went on the road for, I guess, three months with those guys. They’re really amazing, amazing guys. Real fine bunch of guys.
Ed is the nicest guy. [Action Figure Party] toured opening up for those guys. Ed would bring his full audience over there, single-handedly, just like a pied piper, start dancing through the audience. Bring everyone to our stage, the side stage on the tour. That’s just so rare. Usually bands that you open up for don’t even get anything with us.
Even when Geggy Tah opened up for them they were really generous. They’re just really nice guys. They just like helping out, really helped Action Figure Party out in a big way. Touring with them was a lot of fun. Really nice guys, they put on incredible shows. They just have a really great show. *JPG: I got to see your and Barenaked Ladies at Post-Gazette Pavilion near Pittsburgh last summer. You may not remember this but I talked with you and your tour manager about the crowd reaction. And I was told that it wasn’t what other places were like. *
At the same time, from listening to you, I was like why are you even on this tour? It was nice that Barenaked Ladies were doing this, bringing you out but as far as the type of audience, it didn’t seem appropriate.
Kurstin: A lot of places it did work, even though it’s a completely different thing. It’s a challenge. We were trying it out and seeing how we would fit in. A lot of places we seemed to gather fans. Amazed to that. Fans transcend the challenge. It’s fun. I like playing to totally different things, things that are challenging. I love to see how we’d fit in with a really hard edge kind of thing, just see how we’d fit and how people could relate to that. Some people were checking it out. Some people were confused. I was a little scared, but I thought let’s just go for it. A great opportunity to play in front of a lot of people. Truly, that was a good thing. *JPG: At the same time, we discussed this back then as well, because of the idea of the jazziness and the groove-oriented flavor of the band, you would fit in better within the jam band scene. Since that time, have you been playing to different crowds or reorganizing one’s marketing strategy or do you want to? *
Kurstin: Oh yeah, definitely. We just like getting out there and playing anywhere we can possibly play to. It’s a trip for us to get out there, just try different audiences out. We’ve got such a diverse following in a lot of ways. We’ve played a jazz festival in Catalina, which is straight up jazz. People really dug it. It’s just funny to play a Barenaked Ladies concert, then play this jazz thing. I think they both seemed to really work.
The jam band thing would be ideal in a lot of ways because we stretch out live. They’re a lot more open than your usual audience. I saw Medeski, Martin and Wood play. They played avant garde stuff. People out there just grooved to it. Man, that’s amazing. Look what they’re doing and people are getting it. I appreciate that they were out there playing what they love to play, that’s not typically what people get into. To have a whole following out there and they were just all grooving to it even more that they even took it out further. People were getting into it. Kind of a trip, especially for a jazz musician, like your ideal thing. You can play anything and people are with you.
They’re patient in a lot of ways too. They’ll let things develop slowly, stretch out as opposed to pop audiences where you have to get ‘em with three minute exciting songs. Lately in L.A., we’ve been playing a couple of bars, different outlets, they have hip hop groups, pretty diverse range of music. We’ve been playing there, a lot of people dancing out there. We stretch out like crazy. *JPG: Back to the album Action Figure Party, the funky jazz rhythms, certain parts remind me of the 70s because of the keyboard sounds. I was thinking Jan Hammer. Especially on Green, it reminded me of his work with Jeff Beck. Where are you drawing inspiration and influences from as far as the combination of funky grooves, jazz elements and compositions? *
Kurstin: Definitely Herbie Hancock, big influence. The Headhunters stuff. I have to say Joe Zawinul, a lot of his textures on earlier stuff, some amazing textures. A lot of it wasn’t heavy. They weren’t constantly soloing , Mahavishnu per se. I like a lot of Mahavishnu but they displayed more sound than textures. Ramsey Lewis is an influence, some of his piano trio stuff. Let’s see, who else? Jan Hammer, he’s an amazing mini moog player and organ player. John Ambercrombies first album. I love that album. It kind of works as a trio with Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer playing organ and mini moog. Great album. Then guys Sly and the Family Stone and people like that. I’m also a big dub reggae fan. Earlier stuff. Lee Scratch Perry. I love a lot of that stuff. I got in a little bit of a dub mode in Green. *JPG: The people that you used on the album, I see Yuval Gabay (the ex-Soul Coughing drummer appears on AFP), and I think you’re going to have some great groove to dance to. But then I see Buckcherry guitarist Yogi appears on the album, even other people such as Incubus drummer Jose Pasillas and its comes as a surprise to see them taking part in a groove-oriented jazz album. Now, I read that youve known Yogi quite awhile… *
Kurstin: Yeah, he’s a high school buddy and Buckcherry, Buck Cherry… It’s funny he was almost a new personality, he’s playing a lot what they call Afro-Jazz and stuff like that. We definitely played a lot of jazz together. That’s the Yogi that I know. Buckcherry, it was a different experience for him in a lot of ways. We used to play in the jazz band together at school. He definitely gets a lot of the old school parts down, which I really like. The wah wah wah, real dry funky kind of sounds.
I gravitate towards old school bass sound too. I just like that round, early r&b. sound on the bass. A lot of these players, you might not hear that side of ‘em. I guess Jose, they’re kind of funky, Incubus. I don’t think it’s hardest thing from what he does. He hasn’t done a lot of other stuff too. He’s a young guy. He hasn’t played in a lot of other bands. I don’t think he’s played in any other band. I don’t know. I could be wrong. *JPG: No, I think you’re right. Unless he did something when he was 14… *
Kurstin: Cause he’s real young. I think it was a trip for him to do it. *JPG: What was the experience like in the case of Flea? You worked on the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album, so they were in charge. What was the experience like of turning things around and being in charge? Did you have parts written out or did you explain what you wanted and just let them go at it? *
Kurstin: I demoed all the songs, even all the parts, played all the parts myself beforehand. I just demoed it at home and sent the guys cds. I even did that with Flea. But still when you get to the studio, things start to unravel and you realize you can’t stick with the demos you know. It becomes something else when you get all these personalities. I do that as sort of a back up, just to make things more organized, I guess, and they knew what they were dealing with when they got into the studio cause we really didn’t have a lot of time, just knock it out in a day. Four songs, five songs sometimes. So thats why I demoed everything out.
With Flea, I let him change stuff around a lot more because, I don’t know, I think that was the end of the record when I got Flea in there. I was just thinking, Let’s just make this a little bit looser. That stuff was probably the loosest stuff where we were jamming. Flea was coming up with some stuff but a lot of the other stuff was worked out. Then they put their flavor over the parts I might have written. A few good things, Yogi jamming some parts and came up with some cool stuff. In fact, that happened all the time too. We were changing stuff around in the studio. *JPG: From the opening number of Everybody Ready and on through the next eight tracks, its a very groove-oriented album. Then over the course of the last three tracks, it slides over to more straight ahead jazz numbers. The method makes you feel comfortable. Its not an abrupt change as if you got dropped on to another planet. *
Kurstin: It’s a gradual progression. It’s that transition into that whole thing. It’s a different mood I was in doing the cd. The last song was definitely the most straight ahead jazz thing. I’ve spent so many years where that was the focus of my life, even before Geggy Tah and everything. That’s exactly where I thought I was going to go for the rest of my life, be a straight ahead jazz player. I couldn’t deny that.
Flea really wanted to play on a jazz record. We’ve always talked about that. He was a jazz fan from way back. So, I really wanted to do something straight ahead., get Flea involved and give me a chance to do what I’ve been doing for so many years. Almost forgot about that.
The label didn’t really want that song on the cd. Actually, I had to fight for it. I had to put down my foot. ‘Look, you’ve got to get this on the cd. I have to have it on there. *JPG: Earlier, you mentioned that youve been playing new material live. Do you have any idea when you’re going to go back into the studio? *
Kurstin: I’m not quite sure. Hopefully, early next year. Recording some new stuff. I’m actually starting to write a lot of new stuff, demos. I’m thinking, maybe after the holidays, early next year maybe get back in there and try to record some of the new stuff. *JPG: Do you think you’re going to try to talk Flea this time into pulling out the trumpet? (Flea was a stellar trumpet player in high school and a major jazz fan.) *
Kurstin: I almost did that. I’d love to do that, actually. I talked about that. I think I forgot to tell him that day or something like that. I ought to do that next time. I’ve got to do that. *JPG: Tell him to get his chops together over the holidays. *
Kurstin: I mentioned it to him and he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t, you know…’ I said, We could do something kind of free. That would be really cool. I would love to have him play on some stuff. He played on the Jane’s Addiction stuff a little bit. *JPG: From what I heard he was an award-winning trumpet player at one time. *
Kurstin: The first time I met him, he called me to play this benefit where I accompanied him on some trumpet concerto, I can’t remember which one. He was going to play that and I was going to play piano accompaniment. I couldn’t do it. I was out of town. That was the first time I met him years ago.