Left to their own devices, hardcore punk bands in the late Seventies devised their own schemes and machinations to get their music heard. Adopting a DIY attitude, pioneering groups like Black Flag and Minor Threat dealt directly with their fan base, exposing their music to as many listeners as they could by playing shows wherever space was available. The concept of bringing the music to the people, so anathema during that time, has become de rigeur in todays jamband world. BuzzUniverse (one word) is but one of the many bands utilizing a modern-day DIY approach to get their music heard and connect with their audience. The New Jersey based band has been making a name for themselves over the past couple summers by setting up their amps at popular New York City gathering spots like Chelsea Piers and Washington Square Park and playing free outdoor shows for the unsuspecting public.
On a slightly brisk yet sunny Sunday afternoon in October, BuzzUniverse returned to Washington Square Park to entertain a whole host of Manhattanites with their eclectic blend of the blues, Latin music, country bluegrass and progressive rock. Ensconced on a raised concrete stage on the South side of the park, BuzzUniverses free show offered an interesting alternative to the war protesters, artists, street performers and other eccentric denizens that typically populate the park that is known for its idiosyncratic habitu BuzzUniverse brought many people into their world with most park goers stopping for well over a song or two once they came within earshot of the band. Anyone taking their kids out for some fresh air became familiar with BuzzU as nearly every child became transfixed by the band, staring in wonder before starting those little joyful dances that only toddlers seem capable of producing.
At present, the core of BuzzUniverse is comprised of guitarist Alex Garay, bassist Greg McLoughlin, drummer Dave Migliore and saxophonist Brian Ciufo. For their Washington Square Park gig, they rounded out the group with percussionist Bob Ramos and flautist/saxophonist Stefanie Seskin. In BuzzUs perfect universe, both Ramos and Seskin would be permanent members of the band but for now they are beloved and featured guests. While bluegrass group Free Grass Union entertained the Park during the break between their two lengthy sets, BuzzUniverse sat for an interview. While sitting in the virtual shadow of the artistically minded Judson Memorial Church that played host to Arcade Fires pre-_Neon Bible_ concerts, the friendly group of guys chatted freely about their beginnings, their approach to capturing the interest of people just out for a stroll and the various dispositions that make BuzzUniverse an extremely eclectic entity.
BuzzUniverse got their taste for guerilla style shows in 2005 when, on the suggestion of Neil Cleary (Ramble Dove), they sought out and secured a spot playing weekends at the Chelsea Piers on Manhattans West Side. Having loved the experience and the exposure, McLoughlin started keeping his eyes open for other locales where BuzzUniverse could put on the same type of show. I saw an advertisement for RANA playing at Washington Square Park and I immediately started calling around, figuring out the logistics, he explains with a rushed excitement that always seems to accompany any discussion of his band. First of all, being outside playing music, theres nothing better. I could be in an open field playing music with no one there and Im happy. Theres nothing better than playing music on a beautiful day.
Both Migliore and Garay praise McLoughlin for his marketing savvy, referring to him as a promotion machine. Last summer, BuzzU brought former Spin Doctors lead singer Chris Barron onto the stage for a time-warping version of Little Miss Cant Be Wrong, and their last October WSP show attracted the attention and ink of the New York Posts gossipy Page 6. The overarching purpose of playing lengthy free shows though is a simple one. We want to expose people to different genres of music, explains Garay, who is as articulate as his songs would lead you to believe. We want people to hear bluegrass, funk and New Orleans jazz; give people a reminder that the music that comes out of this little band comes from all over the country and all over the world. Does the exposure lead to increased attendance when they return to New York City? We basically dont think about that, hedges Garay. If you like what you hear and you want to come back, were open to anything. We can play for anybody. The jury may still be out on the long term benefits of growing fans through the outdoor performances. In the short term, though, their mailing list and fan base grows with each public performance and the majority of people that stopped to listen for even a brief period of time made inquiries into BuzzUniverses identity.
They look at the all-day shows as a point of pride. I want the music out there and I want people to hear it, says McLoughlin. We do it to get a little exposure for ourselves, explains Garay. The bottom line was to get it heard; any kind of avenue any kind of path. Migliore concurs. No matter where we go, we have to get heard. People need to hear this band, says the drummer. We want to grab peoples attention, continues Garay. We just come out and play and try to get people turned on to what were doing. In playing the park, BuzzU doesnt gild the lily and put forth a face that isnt genuinely theirs. The set list is whatever were feeling, explains Migliore. Even here, it wont stop us from playing Astronomy [Domine] or something along the weirder side. And play it they did, although their fine early afternoon rendition of the Syd Barrett classic had the unintended effect of sending most of the people who had amassed before the stage off on their merry way. No worries though, by the next song they had once again attracted a crowd.
You have to have the right ambience for this Park, explains an ebullient Migliore. You have to be able to appeal to the general public very well, agrees Garay. Thats something Ive always been proud of, says McLoughlin. We play a swinging jazz song, a Spanish song, then a country song and our volume is just right. We have enough variety to get a reaction from all sorts of different people. I think with all the cultures in New York, were a perfect band for this. Our music grabs people, says Garay. Everyones different and the musics eclectic; it appeals to everyone. Its not like were a metal band, were a whole universe.
Eclectic is a term that gets thrown around pretty indiscriminately. In the case of BuzzUniverse its apt. Alex and I came out of that whole 70s thing where you were expected to be diverse and if you werent you were expected to be damn excellent, says Migliore. BuzzUniverses wide ranging variety of songs results from Migliores progressive rock leanings, McLoughlins jamband background and Garays voracious appetite for all forms of music. Over the course of the afternoon, passersby questioned whether they were from New Orleans, a Klezmer band, from the Deep South or even from Latin America. Were not a prog-rock band but we throw prog-rock twists into straight-up rock songs, states McLoughlin. We use the progressive influence to catch people off guard.
BuzzUniverse traces their roots back to 1990 when Migliore and Garay met through a mutual friend and formed their first band, Amorphous. It was a two chord, three chord psychedelic kind of band. After that came to its conclusion, I got Alex really interested in progressive rock: King Crimson, Gong, Yes, Genesis. Migliores prog-rock tutorial took hold and the two quickly formed their second band, Catbootz. We were an ambitious little thing, recalls Migliore. When personal differences tore that band apart, Migliore set aside his drums. For maybe two years, I would just tap on the kit every now and then. Eventually, Alex started doing a couple open mikes and started drawing me back in, he explains. Withering, albeit willingly, under Garays constant persuasion to form another band, Migliore relented. Just when I think Im out, they pull me back in, he says, putting on his best Al Pacino imitation.
This band that would ultimately become BuzzUniverse began with Migliore and Garay working on song ideas. Wanting to form a different kind of power trio, they needed to recruit a bass player. We went through months and months and months with a gazillion different bass players, none of whom were a match with the eclectic range of stuff we wanted to do, recalls Migliore. In an event of karmic proportions, McLoughlin called Garay to inquire about the band just moments after their previous bass player quit.
A product of the jamband scene, the bearded McLoughlin bears a resemblance to a young Trey Anastasio. When he came to BuzzUniverse he was looking for a jamband and had to adapt to Garay and Migliores power trio with horns concept. When I joined the band, there were certain songs on which [a jamming style of bass] worked and others where it didnt. It took almost two years for Dave and me to develop any type of strength, recalls McLoughlin. Once we clicked, it was such a rewarding experience. This band turned me into a stronger bass player, he confesses. I could never go back to a band that just noodled around. Not that theres anything wrong with that. Im just saying that this band is so diverse and I love being on my toes, I love flipping the switch from one song to another. Im so proud of how far Ive come as a musician because these guys have pushed me in so many different directions. The great thing is that I gave them a little bit of the jam thing and we have a little taste of that in there too cause these guys didnt really come from that as much.
Migliore has a lot of good natured ribbing reserved for McLoughlins jamband leanings. He jokes that McLoughlin only joined the band because he needed something to do during Phishs hiatus but his respect and affection for the bassist is clear. Greg came in all excited thinking we were going to be like String Cheese Incident. He had been following them all over and thought we were going to be like them, Migliore says with a chuckle as he recalls his initial impression of McLoughlin. Oh boy, were going to be a jamband and Im going to get to solo for about eleven minutes he jokes in a high-pitched imitation of McLaughlin. We actually had to tell him to stop listening to Phil Lesh. It works for the Dead, its not going to work for us. We are basically a power trio with a horn on top; you cant wander all over the place.
The power trio with horns concept has always been BuzzUniverses vision. We kept seeing so many bands doing the traditional guitar, drums, bass and keyboard. It seemed too obvious to go that route and we wanted to try something new, explains Garay. The concept was always no keys horns, adds Migliore. Then one horn led to two and thats where Brian came in.
Current saxophonist Brian Ciufo started playing with BuzzU as a second horn to Freddy Moises, only stepping into the lead role when Moises left the band. We werent looking for another full time horn player when we found Brian, recalls McLoughlin. We had always been a band that invites people to jam with us. We like to find different guests, he adds. When Brian told us he played barrie (baritone sax), it was obvious, you need to come around, remembers Garay. Like Migliore, Ciufo came to BuzzUniverse after walking away from music for a period of time, having set aside the sax in favor of the married with children route. About two years ago, he started to feel the itch to get back in the game. My kids were getting older and we kept watching shows on TV about music. My son had never seen me play the saxophone because I had put it aside to get a decent job, start a family, get a household up. I was questioning myself. Am I still a musician? relates the soft-spoken Ciufo. I thought that if I didnt do it then, I never would.
When [Ciufo] came at first, he was used to bands where he was reading off a chart. He was going to play his part and that was it, McLoughlin recalls with a bit of a grin. He didnt take a solo for the first two months. Now hes our MVP. Garay is likewise impressed with Ciufos emergence. When Freddie left, we were so insecure: Freddies gone. We only have one horn. What are we going to do? The double horn had become a staple of our sound. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. No longer playing under Moises wing, Ciufo found his own place in the band. I went to college for music in Albany, he relates. Im playing stuff I never thought I could play before. Ciufo attributes BuzzUs song structure, which focuses more on lyrics and energy as opposed to numerous chord changes, as the key to his newfound success as it gives him room to play around. It really helped my confidence to play in that kind of style.
Moises departure also created the opportunity for Stefanie Seskin, who fronts her own band, Blue Number Nine, to step seamlessly into the vacated second horn role. Primarily a flautist, Seskin jumped at the opportunity to hone her sax skills. I first saw Stef for the first time about 10 years ago, says Garay. Im blown away that shes a part of this now.
McLoughlin never doubted that BuzzUniverse could make a dent on the jamband scene but Migliore and Garay needed a little convincing. In 2004, we did Phan Phest for the first time, McLoughlin recalls. Not only was that our first jam festival, it was where we saw people dance to us for the first time. And as a group, we now thought we fit in here. Migliore likens BuzzUniverse to a jamband but not in the traditional sense. I started playing drums cause of John Bonham. Led Zeppelin was a band that gets called heavy metal but they played everything. They played funk, they played reggae, they dabbled in all sorts of stuff. Thats the ideal I grew up with in the Seventies. There was no such thing as a jamband then; it was expected that you were going to have your album and the live show was going to be something different. It may not be an epic jam into another song type of thing like Phish or the Dead but it was considered no, expected that you were going to hear something different from the album. Led Zeppelin isnt a jamband? Lets see Dazed and Confused, six minutes on the album, 30 minutes in concert.
BuzzUniverse lives up to Migliores ideal that a band should be able to do a little bit of everything with Garay, the groups predominating songwriter, playing a significant role. Born in Colombia, Garay came to the United States around 1970. Although he didnt come from a musical family, he grew up in a house where his brothers and sisters always played Latin music. Garays musical taste though couldnt be limited. Once I heard the Beatles, The Jackson 5, old soul music, rock music, I just embraced American culture and American music, he explains. Garay likens BuzzUs forays into Latin music to those made by Los Lobos. Once you flip that switch, we turn into another band.
Its only within the past year that Latin music worked its way into Garays songwriting repertoire. I had been listening to a ton of British bands like Yes, a lot of Frank Zappa, all the progressive stuff. It was time to try and listen to the Latin thing. I started to get interested in the Buena Vista Social Club and hearing those songs started to bring out something that was natural in me; I started to rediscover it. The Latin music has been a challenge for Migliore. With the exception of Los Lobos, all this music didnt have set drum parts, mostly they have a battery of percussionists, he explains. When percussionists play they really dont mark time, the bassist usually does. Trying to create drum parts for that type of music is pretty challenging. Its kind of intuitive, Ill just listen to it and try something and without being overly conscious, it will morph into something. Its tough. Bob Ramos is the expert; hes taken courses and plays in a Latin band. He can show me stuff but I still have to come up with a part in case hes not there. When hes there for the Latin tunes, a huge weight is lifted off my shoulders. He does give Garay sole credit for bringing that influence into the band. It wouldnt work if we were all just white boys from the suburbs, which we are.
In stretching their abilities into different genres, theyve had some rewarding times. One of the most satisfying moments Ive ever had in the band was at Chelsea Piers two years ago, recalls McLoughlin. We were doing In The Sun, our big-horn, funk song, and I saw a 30 year old black woman sitting on a bench really getting into the beat and I thought Im doing it! Its working! Im funky! he says while Garay and Migliore laugh in appreciation. Id been sitting around my house playing along with disco beats from the 70s, the Ohio Players, just trying to learn how to be funky. I was not funky when I joined this band, I was Phil Leshy. Standing a couple feet behind McLoughlin, Migliore raises his fist and gives a small triumphant cheer. Having predicted that McLoughlin would mention Phil Lesh at some point during the interview, he claims victory.
Over the past year, BuzzUniverse made their first inroads into the jam scene. McLoughlin, who handles all of the bands marketing and booking is well informed on the terrain and wanted to have a studio album under their belt before hitting the circuit. I had full confidence in the music, states McLoughlin. Once we started laying it down, I knew the album was going to be sick. You have to have a good studio album under your belt. birdfishtree was warmly received: SIRIUS radio worked some cuts into their rotation and Hour, the albums opening track, won Relix Magazines September 2007 JamOff competition.
The upcoming winter will see the band hibernate in the studio to work on a new album. While they are excited about recording, they havent yet finalized their vision. Its hard to say until we get working and get the ball rolling, says Garay. Theres an idea floating around but it depends on where we go with it. The music is going to dictate the whole big picture. We want to do some Latin stuff, record some Latin songs and see how that comes out. It will likely have a different vibe from birdfishtree as their approach will be different. The purpose [of birdfishtree was to make sure that a people heard a lot of the eclectic music that we can play, he explains. Our goal was to put all the variety of things we do on that disc.
Garay does make it clear that at the very least they are going to try and live up to their name. The name BuzzUniverse: it gives us an opportunity, a wide open door to do anything we want and thats pretty much what we want to do.