Once again, this month's New Groove was selected by our readers. Northern California-based Izabella first came together in 2007, yet Sean Lehe (guitar, vocals), Mark Murphy (bass), Lucas Carlton (drums), Brian Rogers (percussion, vocals) and Sam Phelps (keys, vocals) already have released two studio recordings. The band speaks about their prodigious output, the NorCal music scene, Murph’s prior stint with the Freddy Jones Band and much more in the following interview.
Can you talk about the development of the group? How did you meet and how did the current line-up solidify?
Sean Lehe- Izabella formed when Lucas (drums), Murph (bass) and myself decided to fold a previous band called Home At Last, basically because we had reached the point of no return in terms of group focus and will to press forward. Brian (acoustic guitar, vocals) and I have known each other for years, he took bass lessons at a music store that I worked at and we have played together onstage over the years. He was doing some sit ins with Home At Last towards the end of that run, and the energy was great, so we decided to pick up where HAL left off. Brian had a band at the time with a bassist and a keyboardist and they all sort of assimilated into the new fold that we had decided to call Izabella. Sam Phelps became our utility man, and Andre Fylling played the keys. Andre has since left the band for more individual pursuits, and Sam took over as the man at the keys. Now we got this thing called Izabella that none of us seem to be able to shake.
A least a few of you have been in other bands prior to Izabella, how has that impacted on the development of this group?
Sean Lehe- As far as previous experience goes, I have always been a "band leader" type, artistically speaking, so putting bands together in the past has had a great deal of impact on our ability to get things moving quickly. Murph has had some experience playing with the Freddy Jones Band (although not as a founding member) and is our equipment/technical wizard. Lucas is an organizational genius in terms of all things band related, he’s our man with both feet on the ground. Brian and Sam are our youth, they are both pretty green in terms of prior experience, but they carry that endless enthusiasm that charges some of the older guys (we range from 24-34 in age). The main thing that we keep feeling internally within the group is how well we function when we are focused on finding balance.
The scene has changed drastically over the years, the music has become much more specialized and compartmentalized in my eyes and ears. In the past we had these giant arena rock spectacles where the band seemed as if it could do almost anything. Now we have "americana jambands" or "funk/soul jambands" and there may be very little crossover in the crowds, whereas if you were to rewind the tapes 10 years you'll hear just as many screams for the "My Sweet One" that came right after a "Moma Dance"!? Granted there is the massiveness of the larger rock spectacles that makes it easier to "go with the flow". Now we have festivals that cater to certain styles more so than others and I feel as though the scene needs an injection of something new and fresh. It's also been interesting to see how the whole "Burning Man" aspect has made it's way into the music scene. High Sierra 2008 looked a whole lot different from High Sierra 1998.
Murph, what did you take away from your experience in the Freddy Jones Band that can be applied to Izabella? How have things changed over the years, if at all?
Mark Murphy- I played with the Freddy Jones Band for 2 years, but only after they had
made their mark on the national scene. I had been playing in a local
Chicago band called Citrus which had some regional success. Jumping from a
crowded 15 passenger van and shows in front of a couple hundred people to
tour buses and large audiences was pretty amazing. While I had no part in
the early growth of FJB, I did struggle with that with Citrus. The Freddy
Jones guys would relate stories of playing ridiculous amounts of gigs in a
year- they were touring nonstop for a while. Izabella is trying to work a
little smarter than the 'run yourself into the ground' touring mentality.
So many aspiring bands get trapped in the perpetual touring phase and can't
get out; once you stop playing, you're losing income.
Ten years ago was a different dynamic in the music industry and in the
economy in general. The Dead were no longer touring. Jam bands sprouted up
all over the place and were successful because of the void left by the
Dead. The industry saw these bands as viable means to make a buck, so there
was so money to be spread around. Of course, the economy was stronger,
too. Now we have record labels scratching their heads, trying to figure out
why they're not selling CDs. Gas prices make it nearly impossible to tour,
and the jam band scene is built upon a traveling model, both for the bands
and fans. People have less disposable income to spend on music.
Izabella has come to the realization that the more in-house production we
can manage, the better. The grassroots approaches of String Cheese and Dave
Matthews Band are definitely models for what we're trying to achieve. The
reality that most listeners don't always appreciate is how much income
doesn't reach the band- 10% to a booking agency, 15-20% to a manager,
publicity fees, business managers, production costs, etc. We're working on
a business model that allows for these revenues to flow through our entity.
Once the infrastructure is established, it's easier to provide these
services to other bands. I don't see the industry taking risks on bands
like us, so we need to either build to a level on our own where they'll show
interest, or we need to embrace the DIY mentality.
With the advent of internet distribution, the labels have less of a
foothold. Why are we being charged $.99 a track, which works out to
about $12 an album, when the companies don't have a physical product
that requires printing, duplication, storage in a warehouse, shipping,
shelf real estate, etc.? I think bands are going to challenge this
paradigm and force the labels to respond or fail. We're looking at
ways share our music effectively, at an affordable cost while
maintaining a reasonable income. I wouldn't mind spending $12 on a
download if I was confident that a majority of that was being given
directly to the band, but incredibly, that's not the case.
We're in this for the long haul. I've never been in a project with such
commitment and genuine joy playing with my musical brothers. We're
all grateful for the opportunity to do what we love, and we love this
How would you describe the vitality and support of your local California music scene?
Sean Lehe- We have a tight knit following in nor-cal, most everyone stays in touch and goes out to support other California bands like New Monsoon, Blue Turtle Seduction, ALO, TLG, etc…..It actually is not the easiest community to break into out here on the west coast. You have your staples like TLG, ALO and New Monsoon, which everyone supports, and the younger bands in the scene all come up with these groups to contend with. There is no such thing as a local band when you are from San Fransisco (I imagine that applies to a number of cities); too much world class music in one place for anyone to fly the "local" flag and be noticed. That all being said, now that we have made some inroads with the west coast community, it’s really cool to be part of something that has such strong community support and is a growing network of creativity.
Especially for a new group, Izabella has put out two discs in relatively short order can you talk about the emphasis you have place on your studio recordings as well as your learning curve from the first release to the second?
Sean Lehe- The two discs came together out of necessity. This is a band that changes very quickly, and when we solidified the band (which happened in between the two CD’s almost in response to the first disc) we wanted to get the "new sound" out there quickly. We find ourselves in a similar situation now, for different reasons. Now after about 2 years of being a band we are actually starting to get at our own sound just a little bit, and we are all stoked to get that down to tape.
Who writes the band’s music? How it is typically presented to the group and how does it then come together?
Sean Lehe- As far as writers go, Brian, Sam and myself are all songwriters. Brian is more of the pop element, Dave Matthews Band, Chili Peppers, etc…..Sam comes from soul and hip-hop, and I’m the psychedelic rock guy, so there is an eclectic mix of songwriting to say the least. We love it, because we are all "players" and we need to play different styles of music and grooves to keep ourselves from losing our minds. More recently we have been re-learning how to approach the rehearsal space and we are starting to write tunes together which should pop up on our next disc. The old paradigm was "Here is my song, I’d like you to do this", which is obvious in it’s limitations, maybe not as obvious in the ways it produces results. Nonetheless, I think people get tired of translating someone else’s inspiration, especially when the group is in the situation that we are in, which is that blissful stage where there is no money and little time, and all we have to do is seek that inspiration together! Why not figure out how to translate that inspiration, together.
What about covers, can you talk about what songs you toss in from time to time? Who selects them?
Sean Lehe- Picking covers for this band is a pain in the ass! Because of the 10 year age difference, the top 40 tunes seem dated to some, cheesy to others. That, combined with the different tastes in the band, make things dicey. I love playing a good sad song, like "Ship of Fools", "The Maker" or "Albuquerque", but the dance parties we are throwing more often than not make it hard to get those tunes out. So we do well with tunes like "Got to give it up" by Marvin Gaye, "Strawberry Letter 23" by Shuggie Otis, I love singing "Dixie Chicken" or anything by Dylan or the Band. The covers that get the best response are the ones that are done a little tongue in cheek, like last Halloween we did "Wanted Dead or Alive" by Bon Jovi, dressed up as cowboys. Ridiculous, but everyone there was singing word for word, it was like a giant communal karaoke session.
Brian Rogers- Ever since I heard "November Rain" by Guns n’ Roses as a teenager, I had a vague dream of being a front-man. It was just too much fun to scream those words while jumping off couches in the living room. When we covered "Welcome to the Jungle" recently, it was some kind of call being answered in my soul, but mainly it was just a fun time! I guess it’s always been kind of hard to take the "front-man" role completely seriously, considering I could never give up the drums entirely. I just feel fortunate to be a part of a community that for the most part supports the Grateful Dead whole-heartedly and so they recognize the two drummer thing as sort of a throwback!
How often do you rehearse? What do you focus on when you get together for rehearsal?
Sean Lehe- We don’t get the chance to rehearse as much as we would like, I seem to prefer a 1 to 1 ratio, of which we are falling short on with getting out on the road this year. I’d say we have played about 80-90 gigs so far in 2008 and rehearsed about 30-40 times. My hope is that as the band expands into new communities and markets, that we will be able to even that out a bit, actually be able to afford to rehearse as much as we are "required" to perform (gotta keep the machine moving, even at this level). At this point our focus in on the next CD (at least through Feb.), but where we place our focus in rehearsal is often dictated by outside circumstance, such as learning tunes for a specific guest sit in, or a specific event or seasonal thing. We don’t get to go deep in the rehearsal space unless we can afford to spend a few days/weeks on end, and that time is hard to come by in this stage of the game for us, but we seem to be getting better at setting that time aside.
Can you talk about some of your performance highlights thus far. Is there a gig or gigs that stand out? Why?
Sam Phelps- Festivals are definitely our bread and butter. High Sierra was our biggest festival of the year. We had a lot of fun absorbing a variety of great music and were happy to make our contribution to the fold. One of our most memorable musical moments this year was sitting in with the everyone orchestra at 4 Peaks Festival, where Matt Butler conducted two stages full of musicians from a pick-up truck in the crowd. Anytime we get to collaborate with new forces of creativity, the band gets a special kind of high. This was apparent at our show in Denver featuring a Tim Carbone sit-in. We have also had many wonderful nights in our local NorCal markets, such as the Bay Area, Sacramento and Nevada City.
Any final thoughts to folks across the country who may be hearing about you for the first time from this piece?
Brian Rogers- Izabella is completely communal based in the way of supporting each other’s desires in music and life to the fullest positive degree at which they are expressed as a desire. I guess if there were any final thoughts about Izabella I’d share to anyone listening, it’d be that the more we as a band express, the more we learn that someone else was thinking the same thing!"
Sean Lehe- All I can say to folks who have yet to hear us is I hope we get to share in the experience sometime soon. This band is nothing more than a community dance band, and we hope to connect with as many people out there who are looking to find a comfortable place to let go and trust that we won't let you fall….too hard at least.