The members of Tuba Skinny are returning to Oz for their fourth Australian tour with a return show in Mullumbimby, they caught up with Mandy Nolan on the way.
Where are you all from?
Members of the band come from all over the United States. Some of us hail from upstate NY, Chicago, California. I come from the Seattle area originally.
Tell me how you met?
Most members of the band met right before and right after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, while some came to the city later in the years post-deluge. Most of us met through busking in the French Quarter and in other cities around the US. What happens with a lot of nomadic street performers and bands is that they are a part of a greater web of projects, and performers will be a part of lots of different groups over time, depending on what region they’re travelling through. Tuba Skinny comes from a mix of projects that culminated into the one it is today, involving members from the Drunken Catfish Ramblers and the Hokum High-Rollers, two great jug and country-blues bands that began in New Orleans.
How do you think your time busking on the street has added to your onstage repertoire?
We practise all of our music on the street first. The street is where we come from as a group, with street dynamics and sensibility. Our repertoire of music comes from the individual research we make on our own time and then bring to the band later, either during busking or at a get-together at one of our homes.
I came to New Orleans for inspiration. I was travelling around the country looking for stories to write and found them in New Orleans. I was already performing in ragtime and roots bands, but when I came through New Orleans I met so many other people my age doing the same thing; it was very inspiring. Also, the history of music is so filthy rich in New Orleans; the words tradition and traditional music are a part of everyday conversation.
New Orleans is all about its roots and so are the people, who will let you know who they are and where they come from. Sometimes living in New Orleans feels like the college any young musician could only dream of. The way musicians, of every age and colour, share ideas and history about their work as well as that of others happens nowhere else. New Orleans is music. Every morning, the first thing I do is turn on the radio, and listen to trad jazz or funk or some old blues. Around every corner, any time of day or night, you’ll hear folk practising their instruments. When I bike around town, I almost always have a new melody to whistle.
Tell me about your latest album Owl Call Blues.
The band is very excited about Owl Call as it is our latest lineup of musicians and our first recording with Greg, Jason and my old friend Craig Flory from Seattle. It is also the first recording we’ve made from home that we’re all really proud of. Our friend, Max Bien-Khan, recorded us in Shaye and Erika’s home in the fall and winter of 2013/2014. The name of the album is in tradition with our last, where the name of the album is that of an original tune. In this case, the song is Owl Call Blues, which was composed by Shaye with lyrics by Erika. The album was just a lot of fun to make, despite some of us getting winter colds throughout its creation. I am particularly excited about the songs Greg sings on the album, and the instrumentals Cannonball Blues and Willie the Weeper. Very proud of those tunes.
What is it about the music of the 1920s big bands that drew you in?
I suppose we’re inspired by the utmost imagination that groups like Jelly Roll’s Hot Peppers and Big Joe King Oliver’s bands had. What these band leaders composed, as well as what the players improvised, is absolutely stunning. What captivates us is the sense of ensemble and group innovation these players share.
We’re also highly inspired by the country-blues and ensemble abilities of the Memphis Jug Band and Dallas String Band. So much of the ‘Dixieland’ music people are always harping on about doesn’t have these qualities of playing together and creating a space that is meant for dancing and shaking till long past midnight. Earlier, turn of the century, rural- and ragtime-inspired musicians found group ensemble a must.
How do you set about to contemporise a sound that is almost 100 years old?
We have no intention of making this music contemporary. There is already so much contemporary music all over the airwaves and showing on the internet; this music is just fine live and downbeat on the street. A lot of groups, since the time this music was originally performed, have sought to capture it the way it was, and I think that makes sense, as we like the way the old guys and gals played. No problem, let’s keep it real.
What should we expect for your return show to Mullumbimby?
What you can expect are a lot of new tunes, some that both Greg and Erika will sing together; others that we’ll sing as a band, and a lot of fun instrumentals. I look forward to seeing all the old familiar faces there. We had such a fun time shaking the last time we were in town that I expect we will again – if not more.
Friday at Mullum Civic Hall – www.mullummusic.com for tickets and more information.