Sufficiently recuperated from an October auto accident that induced an extended hiatus, Florida-based Mofro has returned to the road and the groups momentum is building once again. In addition to performances at the Bonnaroo Music Festival and the Gathering of the Vibes, the band will open a string of dates for Vida Blue on July 12-16.
The bands Fog City Records debut, Blackwater demonstrates the bands facility for writing music that defies expectation as a slinky funk number is followed by a grinding blues which gives way to a soul rave-up. The group describes its sound as Southern-fried soul straight off the front porch a characterization that proves apt for a band that references its native south not only through its musical idiom but also through lyrics that often focus on the Florida environment inhabited by the bands two principal songwriters, Daryl Hance and John JJ Grey.
The following article is slightly modified from the original that Josh Baron wrote for the Bonnaroo Beacon. It is proceeded by a Q and A with Grey. Additional information can be sound on the bands web site.
When the last day of the Bonnaroo Music Festival wrapped up, it seemed fitting that some of the featured artists were distinctly Southern- Blind Boys of Alabama, Dottie Peoples, the Campbell Brothers and Mofro. Local flavor, if you will. Lead singer John Grey and the rest of Mofro were extremely excited to be there. "I can’t believe we even got to play, I’m pretty much totally blown away by it. To me, it’s one of the biggest festivals I’ve heard of. It’s like Jazz Fest, but in the middle of the mountains or something." Speaking of a slightly vague something, that’s exactly what the band name means.
Grey explains, "It’s just a play on words really. If you’re at work or are messin’ around and you want someone to hand you a wrench or something, you’d say ‘hand me that mofro’ and point to it. ‘What’s that mojo or that mofro.’ It’s used the same way. It’s just whatever you need it to be at the moment." A fitting concept for a band whose recognition and popularity are on the well-deserved rise.
"I just felt the word was a Southern thing. I thought it was Southern enough, but didn’t say too much as to what that something was. I just figured that was something good enough to call the band." Seeing as Jacksonville, FL (the band’s hometown) and Manchester, TN are both the Deep South, Grey offers up a few other "things" that people should check out.
"Man, the BBQ is a must. You just got to go try it, straight off jump street." Jump street? "Jump street is an old saying, meaning, like, ‘they got to try that for sure. Not any particular street or anything. But BBQ is probably the best call when they’re down there." Gray and the band have had a few changes since the last time around, so they’re out with a slightly different lineup when they come up.
"Tim, our drummer Tim had to leave because he just had a baby and can’t be on the road right now. So we got Craig Barnett now. And our keyboard player went to Australia to do some playin’, so now we got Mike Shapiro." Mofro’s latest release, Blackwater, is a large, hearty helping "Southern-fried soul straight off the front porch." Don’t know about ‘bout you, but sounds damn good to me.
Your music draws from a number of realms and genres. Talk a bit about your influences growing up.
JG- All the early blues stuff. I also grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and then all the way over to Sly and the Family Stone. Stevie Wonder was a major influence think all of that at some point or in some fashion shows in what we do.
On Blackwater your songs move from funk to blues to soul and back. I would imagine that the range of your sound takes some listeners by surprise. Were you concerned at all about those divergences and was there an impulse to push your music one way or another?
It depends who you are talking to at the time but people do wind up surprised by our music. If its a blues person they may find a little more funk and if its someone listening for a funk record they find theres a little more blues on it than they expected.
I love both of them and when me and Daryl write stuff it just comes out that way. I love a lot of gutbucket funk and I love a lot of the old school blues and somehow or another they come out. I didnt want to take a full blown funk song and try to put blues elements in it. If its funky leave it funky and if its bluesy leave it bluesy and some songs meet somewhere in the middle.
Mofro came together in London yet the bands music references your native Florida quite deeply. How did you end up in England and what led you to put the band together over there?
Me and Daryl had another project here in Jacksonville and Acid Jazz, a record label in London that had recorded Jamiroquai and Brand New Heavies, was interested in signing us. One thing led to another and that fell through but the guy who was running the label at the time asked me and Daryl to come over because Jacksonville at that time was mostly heavy metal, this was in 94 I think.
We ended up leaving a couple of years later. My wife is from London, and we started recorded at my in-laws house in my sons bedroom on a little rig. Then we ran an ad in Melody Maker and put together a band. Our first gig as Mofro was at the Jazz Cafn London. We played there a year but things werent working out over there, things switched away from live music to the DJ thing and there really wasnt a lot going on. So I contacted four or five record labels in the US that I thought were pretty cool and Fog City Records was one of them. Me and Dan [Prothero] hit it off. He liked what we were doing and we loved what he was doing, so we came back home and did the record here.
How did you hear about Fog City?
I actually went on line and entered funk into a search engine. I pulled up a few things including Fog City. When I went to his web site and listened to what he had doing on, I thought, Man, this stuffs pretty cool. Then he sent us a disc of stuff and the first song I think was Papa Malis version of Walk on Guilded Splinters. We were blown away and we knew then we wanted to do something with him.
I really didnt know what was going in the rest of the country until we hooked up with Fog City. I never knew that Boulder was a great music town or the stuff that was going on in San Francisco or Galactic. I felt like a kid in the candy store when I got to hear all these groups and find out what was going on and that a band can actually doing something in the United States without being on MTV or the radio and that junk, I was floored.
How significant a role do you feel the that your natural environment plays in your music?
I felt like it’s significant because theres so much to be learned. If you walk across the field where I live and go to my grandmothers house and just talk to her for thirty minutes you realize shes smarter and sees more than you might think. This can be anywhere. This doesnt have doesnt have to be in Florida, its just Im from Florida. Theres something to be said about people who learned how to live in some level of harmony with the natural surroundings and how that gives rise to culture. If you listen to old southern music in general youll find some many references to animals and trees and the everyday natural world but you dont hardly find that on records anymore unless someone’s singing about saving the environment. Its just not part of everyday living anymore.
I feel like theres something to be said about a culture thats going away and being replaced by pop culture which has no ties to any natural surroundings. It just floats in off the airwaves, it has no roots anywhere. I actually thought it was going to be hard with a record label to do a record that has such a strong regional flavor to it but Dan encouraged it wholeheartedly. The local culture that had time to develop in conjunction with the natural surroundings sort of gets destroyed and everythings replaced by shopping malls and carefully manicured lawns that really isnt relevant to Floridas natural Florida.
Is that inevitable?
As long as people live and die on this planet its pretty much inevitable. Things change and not always for the better but not all things that were old are always great either. I don’t think the human spirit has changed but I think the way we live relative to whats around us that has gotten worse.
Did you write most of the songs on Blackwater in Florida or in England looking back?
A lot of it was in London looking back. I cant stand on a soapbox because Im as guilty as anybody about any of that. I logged my time in high school trying to get away from home like everybody else and tried to separate myself from the south. You don’t want to listen to southern bands, you want to listen to Elvis Costello which also is great. Younger people in general dont want to be where theyre from or who they are. If they got straight hair they want a perm, curly hair they want straight hair, thats just people. I did a lot of that lyrically in London looking back but I did some of it here too because you almost miss it just as much here at home. Every day another piece of its gone. Time catches up with everybody.
In your bio you credit Jerry Reed as an influence. I would imagine that some of our readers are unfamiliar with his music and probably just know him from Smokey and the Bandit.
First off him and Tony Jo white are two of my favorite people. Jerry Reed was one of the sickest guitar players to hit Nashville and thats from Chet Atkins who might have been the sickest guitar player in Nashville. It doesnt take much, all somebody has to do is rent the movie Gator with Burt Reynolds and listen to the title track The Ballad of Gator McKlusky. That stuff is very nasty and I just like his whole trip, everything hes about. Hes actually a good actor too, hes the best actor in the movie Gator. I love Jerry Reed and Tony Joe White I think theyre peas in a pod.
Mofro is playing on a number of notable festivals this summer including Bonnaroo and the Gathering of the Vibes. What are your perceptions of these events?
At a jam band festival you can have guys from Fat Possum Records or you can have Galactic playing funk up there and I was blown away by it, I love it.