INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY MIKE SCHOEFFEL
The NO BS! BRASS BAND‘s heart will always rest firmly in the city of Richmond. For proof, just check the titles of two of their studio efforts: Alive in Richmond and RVA All Day, both of which have been embraced by fans and critics alike. They’re often introduced as “Richmond’s Favorite Band,” a title that few people entrenched in the metro music scene would challenge. But recently, their dynamic hodge-podge blend of jazz/rock/punk/blues/avant garde/pretty-much-every-musical-genre-that-one-can-think-of has shot the band beyond the city limits and into the national spotlight. This newly-realized echelon of recognition has occurred partly because of trombonist Reggie Pace’s affiliation with Bon Iver’s touring band, which has performed on several nationally-aired television shows, including “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”. In fact, Pace even donned a NO BS! BRASS t-shirt on stage during a taing of “The Colbert Report,” a clever marketing move that has undoubtedly helped extend the band’s exposure beyond the wall of RVA. “All I have is Brass Band shirts,” Pace has said in the past, and that’s no b.s.
One could call it street music – or even “the people’s music,” as drummer and co-founder Lance Koehler referred to it in an interview with RVA Magazine in 2013. The band’s work has been featured in several well-respected publications, including the Wall Street Journal, which streamed the band’s warmly-received Charles Mingus tribute album Fight Song on their website, Spin Magazine, and Time. They’ve also performed on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, a series of 15-20 minute concerts that has featured such acclaimed artists as JOHN LEGEND, THE XX, and WILCO.
As it stands, No BS Brass! is an 11-piece band in which no two pieces look the same. Or even remotely similar, for that matter. Their appearances are as varied as their influences. Pace is a jovial fellow who sports dangling dreadlocks. His smile is infectious. He’s gregarious and knows his way around a story, easily making mental connections where less fertile minds would shrivel and falter. Koehler, owner Minimum Wage Studios in Oregon Hill, is in many ways Pace’s physical foil. He’s rough-looking – a scraggly grayish beard confirms this – and the only member of the band that boasts a true hard-rock aesthetic. He appears livid – or perhaps intensely focused – while assaulting his drum set on stage. Yet down in the seats after the show he’s one of the friendliest guys you’ll ever meet. Some of the members wear suits. Others don t-shirts and jeans. Nearly all are professionally trained musicians: In fact, three are music professors at VCU. And, to round out the carnivalesque nature of the band, there is a white guy who raps named Bryan Hooten – sometimes into a megaphone.
After their riveting two-hour performance at Hanover High School on Jan. 16 during which many-a-cheek was blown red, the band’s two founding members – Koehler (who, despite popular belief, is not a New Orleans native) and Pace (who used to sneak into Alley Katz during high school by pretending he was in the band) – sat down with us to discuss, among other things, brass band battles in New Orleans and why Charles Mingus was the first true punk rock artist.
Can you talk about the Charles Mingus tribute record Fight Song, which was featured in the Wall Street Journal? I know all of you are heavily influenced by Mingus’ music.
Lance: I think he’s just somebody that we love, and he kind of represents the approach we take to music. He was totally no bullshit; he was totally about the music. Didn’t care if the audience showed up to the gig or not, you know what I mean? He was going to play his heart out no matter what, and that’s what we try to do.
Reggie: It was very punk rock for its time, you know, because there are so many rules in standardized music. ‘You’re allowed to do this, but you’re not allowed to do that.’ And he just wasn’t concerned with any of that. And I think this band kind of fits into that. It doesn’t really follow the jazz rules, and it doesn’t really follow the rock ‘n roll rules. We do what we want.
Is that something that you all set out to do? To create this sort of hodge-podge of musical styles?
Reggie: I think it happened pretty naturally. We knew we wanted to do something that was danceable and groove oriented. Something that would connect to people. We started out a bit spacier than we are now. Our songs are a little shorter now. But yeah, I think it was all pretty organic. Lance calls our band the “Tiny U.N.” or something, because every member has their own style. Very different personalities. We all listen to very different music, but when we come together, we create something that fits in that land. And I think we stumbled upon something that only we could have made, which is what is making it work, I think. No matter how many [NO BS!] BRASS BAND records you hear, we don’t sound like any of them. So, yeah, it was way organic.
Lance: We all have very different ideas. The only things that we can come together on is that we like MICHAEL JACKSON, [JOHN] COLTRANE, and WU TANG CLAN.
How did NO BS! BRASS BAND become a thing? Neither of you are from the Richmond area originally, so how did the two of you come into contact with each other and decide to form a band?
Reggie: Well, I think we both came into the area around the same time–2001 or so–and there was a brass band in town that did gigs together and then we did club gigs together in a different band. There’s just a lot of stuff happening in Richmond. If you’re out there working, you see who else is working. Know what I mean? I met Lance at 2nd Street Festival, and (to Lance) you were playing bass drum?
Lance: Oh yeah. YO MAMA’S BRASS BAND and OREGON HILL FUNK ALL-STARS were the two bands that brought a lot of us together.
Reggie: And that kind of changed into something else, because me, you and Stefan are the only few people left from that. And Taylor came later. And then, yeah, we just made friends as we were going. The original plan was to be a trombone band. Then a saxophone player wanted to join, and then we had one trumpet and a whole bunch of trombones, two tubas at one point. Yeah, it’s a crazy thing. I never really think of it that way, as a timeline. But yeah, it was a group of people, a little scene. Because there’s always a horn player or two in every band. And for drummers, there’s only one drummer in every band. So if it’s like it you want to do something with a whole bunch of horn players, that’s definitely possible around Richmond.
When did this rapping come into the mix?
Reggie: It was always half-way there.
Does Marcus rap on the side, do his own thing, or…
Reggie: Bryan Hooten is our rapper homie! Marcus is our trumpet, but he does rap with DJ HARRISON. He used to have a rap-rock band or something. What was it called? Astroman? Astroglide?
Marcus: You talking about ASTROLAB?
Reggie: Yeah. Marcus raps, but not in this band. [laughs]
I know Lance grew up in New Orleans. How did being in that culture influence you and shape your musical personality? Were you really involved in the music scene down there?
Lance: Actually, I grew up in California. I gotta stop that [having people think I grew up in New Orleans]. Before I moved to Richmond, I spent five years in New Orleans. I was more involved in the noise and the song writing scene. I wasn’t really involved in the jazz or brass band scene other than just going out and listening to them, but the brass bands were playing every night. Being down there is actually when I started getting an appreciation and a love for traditional music like brass music. Until then, if I heard a standard blues progression, I was not into the tune. That stuff, I don’t know, I just found it really uncreative at the time. But then I got down there and started seeing the whole community, and there’s call and response, and there’s a whole communication within the music that I started understanding, and then I thought it was great. All of it clicked and made sense. It was like: ‘Oh, it should be really simple. Not everything has to be super complicated.’
Reggie: And down there every neighborhood has their own brass band, right?
Lance: Right. They mingle and sometimes they sort of have it out on the streets together. Where they’re marching and they’ll meet each other in an intersection or something and that’s when you hear those call and response things. And they’ll do it back and forth, and it’s like ‘Who can play that shit louder?’ You know? Trying to nail it off of rooftops and stuff.
So you started with noise rock and made your way into more traditional forms of music?
Lance: Punk rock and speed metal is where I first came from. And then I went through some strange metamorphosis and just got really into playing jazz and that branched off into prog rock and other types of contemporary music that I can play and make money. Like, more foundation. So I guess I have more of a wobbly style because my foundation came way late in life, so I’m a little lopsided, you know?
So what about you, Reggie? Do you come from a straight jazz background?
Reggie: I don’t think anybody is straight jazz unless they were like born in the ‘40s or something. I heard about jazz in high school. I grew up playing drums and keys in church. And I played trombone in marching band, and I was just like ‘Oh, I guess I’ll play trombone.’ Then I came to Richmond, and I saw all these people were playing. So when I was in high school, I would sneak into clubs. I would sneak into Bogart’s with my horn and pretend I was playing in the band. Sneaking into there, sneaking into Alley Katz, sneaking into Hole in the Wall, just trying to see what was up. And I was like ‘Oh, I just need to be here.’ Which is why I decided to go to VCU and get a music education.
What do you all do full-time?
Reggie: I just play in a bunch of bands, this being the main band.
Lance: Everybody is a professional musician in the band almost. Almost everyone teaches music. Three are VCU professors. One’s got his doctorate. One’s got a masters degree. Most of us make our living playing music. Hustling, one way or another, you know?
Reggie: Done it all, man. We once played on the back of a truck for five hours in the Philadelphia for the Mummer’s Parade. It was crazy. We’ve played at Metalfest, Floydfest. Anything you can think of, we’ve done it. We just love the music.
For more updates on the life and times of the NO BS! BRASS BAND, follow them on Twitter, “like” their Facebook page, and head over to their official website.