Funky Butt Brass Band: Mardi Gras in August!

Funky Butt Brass Band: Mardi Gras in August!
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Funky Butt Brass Band: A Funky Good Time

Who: Funky Butt Brass Band
What: N’Awlins music
When: 2011-08-27
Funky Butt Brass Band: Mardi Gras in August!
Brian Wilson

Since 2008, the Funky Butt Brass Band has played an important role in the Saint Louis music scene. Although rooted primarily in the New Orleans brass-band tradition, the group-- consisting of members of well-known area groups Gumbohead, the Feed, and Musica Slesa-- has an eclectic sound that fuses several different types of music, including jazz, funk, Motown, and the blues.

On Saturday, August 27, the Funky Butt Brass Band will return to Southern Illinois for the third time when they perform at Tres Hombres.

For more information about the band, or to hear sample tracks, visit <>.

Nightlife recently spoke to guitarist Tim Halpin about the band’s history, their music, and how they fit with the brass-band tradition.

How did the band form?

Well, two of us-- Ron Sikes, the drummer, and I-- had played in the band Gumbohead for years, and Gumbohead is sort of another facet of New Orleans-style music. It’s zydeco, it’s funk and piano boogie-woogie and blues and Mardi Gras music and stuff. And we were coming back from a Chicago gig a number of years ago and were talking about different types of New Orleans music, and it dawned on us that nobody in Saint Louis really was playing brass-band music.... And we said, “You know, somebody really should put something like that together,” and then of course we paused and looked at each other and went, “Yeah, naturally it’ll have to be us.”

With Gumbohead there were opportunities from time to time to do second-line parades, and we would just go out and rip through with some horn players that we knew. And a couple of the guys who played in other bands really weren’t available to really start their own thing, so we just got the word out on the grapevine and really came up with four tremendous horn players with great attitudes-- nice guys, great players. And it kind of fell together pretty easily.

Matt Brinkman played sousaphone and for a lot of the parades and stuff that we had done in the past. He was really the only sousaphone player we knew, so that was kind of a no-brainer. Adam Hucke is the trumpet player, Ben Reece is the sax player, and Aaron Chandler is the trombone player. It’s a great chemistry and they work really well together on stage, so we’re lucky that we all kind of found each other. It’s kind of meshed maybe better than our expectations, which were pretty high to begin with.

I’ve read the band described as a mixture of the New Orleans sound with some Chicago blues and other forms, so the sound is very appropriately a kind of musical gumbo then, right?

Yeah, it is. You know, with a couple of us being in Gumbohead, I’m not sure I’d use that word, but that’s okay. [laughing] But yeah, it’s really a mix. I mean, we think of it kind of as the New Orleans brass tradition with a Saint Louis spin, which means we incorporate a lot of different styles. We play a lot of traditional jazz, traditional funk. Some that you would hear from a band like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or Bonorama out of New Orleans, but then we... add a little Chicago blues, we add some Saint Louis [rhythm and blues], we throw in some southern rock, we play some Allman Brothers and a little bit of Motown, and it’s really kind of a fun challenge to see how far we can bend the genre. So you might hear a classic tune like “Go to the Mardi Gras” followed by Prince’s “Purple Rain” or something like that. It’s all designed to be really fun and kind of keep people guessing, keep people dancing, be surprising, unexpected.

I think it’s kind of interesting that there wasn’t a brass band to fill this void before you guys in Saint Louis, given that city’s jazz heritage.

I think there were a couple of Dixieland bands here in town that do a great job and kind of cover that end of it, and there’s some great jazz bands as well... but the New Orleans brass-band formula, if you want to call it that, is kind of a pretty eclectic mix, you know? And nobody was really doing that thing where they were playing sort of the traditional jazz and gospel, but then throwing in some funk and throwing in some kind of pop music. I mean, that’s sort of the mold for what a lot of brass bands out of New Orleans now, especially the younger ones, are doing. But it’s been that way since the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in the early seventies was playing traditional jazz compositions and then throwing in pop songs, so, you know, it’s just kind of that eclectic nature of it, or that willingness to really shake things up is what we really like and what really drew us to the idea. And yeah, it is kind of surprising that nobody was doing that, but we’re happy to sort of carry the torch, I guess. Maybe there will be others after us.

Yeah, it’s really fun. I mean, it’s just different. It’s nice doing something that’s a little bit unusual when you’re in a town that has such a great musical heritage.

Who have been some of your main musical influences?

Well, as a group, for this specific band, it really is the trailblazers-- you know, the guys like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and we’re all big Bonorama fans. Bonorama really is kind of taking that brass band and just doing it with all trombones. And then some of the new guys... Trombone Shorty and Big Sam’s Funky Nation, the guys who grew up in that tradition but have also put a much funkier kind of [rhythm and blues] spin on it. They’re fun to listen to and they’re kind of a model in a way for what we’re trying to do. You know, the traditional format of a brass band usually is you’ve got somebody playing a bass drum, you’ve got somebody else playing a snare drum, you’ve got a sousaphone handling the bass line, and then any number of trumpets, saxes, and trombones. A lot of the bigger brass bands like Rebirth will have a couple of trumpet players, a couple of trombone players, a couple of sax players, and then bands like Dirty Dozen and Bonorama brought the guitar into the mix, and that’s kind of the line with those guys. You know, I’m the guitar player and it just sort of brings a little different flavor to it and it allows us to do kind of traditional jazz voicings from the guitar. But then also I play a lot of wah-wah, I play some heavier guitar tones when the song’s appropriate, so it’s just finding that balance of all the ingredients to make a great sound. And that way, with only six guys, one of whom is a guitar player, it’s a little different from the usual setup, but again, it kind of works for us. I like it that way.

Obviously the New Orleans sound is very important to your music. Geographically you guys are in a different location, but is there a connection to [New Orleans] in some way outside the music? Is there a personal connection or is it strictly more of an artistic connection?

I think it’s an artistic connection, primarily, maybe a psychic connection to some extent, and a historical connection in the sense that Saint Louis and New Orleans share a lot of common history, and the [Mississippi] River obviously links both cities, and there’s a lot of back and forth. People here really love going to New Orleans. After [Hurricane] Katrina, there were a number of New Orleanians who were relocated to Saint Louis, obviously, and to a lot of other parts of the country as well.

Personally, I went to Jazzfest for twenty-one straight years and have been going to the city since the mid-eighties and always brought back a new sound, a band that I had never heard before or something. So personally it’s like my second home after Saint Louis, so I guess that kind of informs what we do as well. We’ve all been down there at some point, so everybody’s had that experience and brings it to the band kind of at different levels, and it all sort of adds up to that sound, that kind of vibe which we love.

In the past ten or fifteen years, there’s been a great resurgence in the popularity of brass bands, everywhere from the mainstream stuff of the nineties with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to newer groups like the Lowdown Brass Band, who are working on a smaller level. Why do you think this is?

It’s kind of always been there, and I think the New Orleans tradition expands outward maybe in ways that we’re not even consciously aware of. I mean, horns have been a part of blues bands and swing bands and big bands obviously forever, and it’s kind of all in what you do with them. You know, the swing thing in the nineties was obviously fairly horn-driven, but you look at rock bands in the seventies like Chicago, a seriously horn-driven rock band and kind of different for their time, and then you flash forward to the eighties, everything was kind of synthesized and maybe not quite as pure, and I think maybe there was just a return to some sort of primalness of that big brass sound.

How have you guys tried to set yourselves apart?

I think a lot of it is just in the choice of material. I mean, I think there is kind of a pattern or a formula, or kind of a core, I guess, that exists at the center of most of the bands we’ve talked about, and then it’s all in how you branch out from that. You get bands like Lowdown, who are very funky. You get bands like Mama Dig Down out of Madison, Wisconsin, who tend to be a little more traditional and jazzy. You get bands like Youngblood Brass Band, who tend to be a little more in the hip-hop kind of area. You know, I think that we.... [pauses]

I don’t know that we have a really strong genre identity outside of the brass-band thing, but we just try to be surprising and unexpected and come up with some tunes that kind of come out of left field, that maybe you would never in a million years expect a brass band to do. So it’s really that kind of thing. It’s just sort of the personality of the players, I think, [that] define what the band becomes, and the styles of music that the individual players like can sort of bring those influences to the table.

I’m older than most of the guys. Well, I’m older than all of the guys in the band, actually, and so my references tend to be kind of seventies rock sort of stuff, and you’ve got some of the other guys who are much more into the eighties-pop kind of stuff. There are a lot of places where we cross over and can identify with each other’s influences, but having that kind of varied experience, really, I think is helpful because it allows you to see different points of view and play different things that maybe you’re not used to playing. So it keeps it fresh for everybody.

who: Funky Butt Brass Band

what: N’Awlins music

where: Tres Hombres

when: Saturday, August 27