The brass-band sound is a proud tradition of New Orleans. But over the years, those horns have evolved to embrace a broader repertoire, full of funk and jazz and even a little hip-hop — and the sounds have migrated well beyond Louisiana. Take NO BS! Brass Band, whose core members met at Virgina Commonwealth University and proudly claim Richmond, Va. as their home base.
"Those fantastic brass bands from New Orleans, they already have their sound, and they have a tradition, and it's a part of American history already. There is no adding yourself to that," says trombone player Reggie Pace. "We wanted to make something that sounded like the music that we listened to, and the city that we lived in."
NO BS! Brass Band's sixth album, Brass Knuckles, comes out on Nov. 20, and Pace joined NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about it. Hear more of their conversation, including how the group writes lyrics and why it decided to take a political stand after the death of Freddie Gray this spring, at the audio link.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The brass band sound is a proud tradition of New Orleans. But over the years, those horns have evolved to embrace a broader repertoire full of funk and jazz and sometimes even a little hip-hop and rap.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACT LIKE YOU KNOW")
NO BS BRASS BAND: (Singing) Act like you know. No BS and we're ready to go. Act like you see. Ain't nobody flyer than we. Act like you heard. Keep your ear to the ground. We're spreading the word. Do how we do, gonna keep...
MARTIN: The NO BS! Brass Band hails from a bit farther north of Louisiana, Richmond Va. They are a full on ensemble of 12 musicians, and the group has just released its sixth album. It is titled "Brass Knuckles." Trombone player Reggie Pace is one of the founders. He joins me from member station WCVE in Richmond. Welcome to the show.
REGGIE PACE: Hey, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: OK, in my reading, I have seen a whole lot of words used to describe your band. Here are a few of them, roughness and finesse, precision and power, virtuosity and subtlety. Do all those seem to fit? Are you guys all of that and more?
PACE: Yeah, I like that. That sounds good.
PACE: Yeah, the band covers a wide range of feelings and emotions and sounds and how intense that we can play. And also we'll bring things down to a lot more subtle moments and just more intimate feelings. So yeah, I like that.
MARTIN: Is there a common experience that connects all the members of the band?
PACE: I grew up singing in church and going on. And a bunch of us met in college at Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU.
MARTIN: A lot of people meet other people, musicians, in college and say, hey, we should start a band. And they do it for a while. It's another thing altogether to become this cohesive musical entity that becomes super successful. What happened? Was it just your own drive or the collective drive of the group?
PACE: Me and Lance were - we just really wanted to make something that was original.
MARTIN: That's Lance Kohler. He's the co-founder of the bandwidth you.
PACE: Correct. But the core of the band has been the same the entire time. And our camaraderie together - we're all actually friends even though we have guys that lean to the political right. We have guys that are teachers. We have hipsters. We have full-time musicians, professors, guys who just finished their doctorate. We'll have two doctorates in the band. So music is that universal language, as cliche as that sounds. It really is a thing that can break down all kinds of weird barriers that can get put up.
MARTIN: What's hard about managing a dynamic like that, so many musicians of such different experiences and perspectives?
PACE: Just the scheduling of it. Then there's just, you know, the testosterone that can be when there's 12 people in one room altogether for nine years straight.
MARTIN: All men?
PACE: You know what I mean? Yeah (laughter).
PACE: Hey, you know, we're on the - we're always on the lookout. (Laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF NO BS BRASS BAND SONG)
MARTIN: What are you not? What are some words that would definitely describe what - the kind of music you don't want to do or that's not part of your identity?
PACE: I don't want to do music that's safe. I don't want to do music that is just like, oh, yeah I've heard something like that before, whatever. I don't want us to have that feeling. I'd rather us have a feeling of, what is that? I hate that. I'd rather get that strong feeling than who cares. You know, I don't want us to be a who-cares. So we try really hard to, like, push the envelope of what we've heard done within the brass band tradition. So that's a big manifesto for the band, you know. Those fantastic brass bands from New Orleans, they already have their sound. They have a tradition, and it's a part of American history already. There is no adding yourself to that. So I love that instrumentation and so does Lance, who lived in New Orleans for a while. We wanted to make something that sounded like the music that we listen to and the city that we lived in.
MARTIN: I mean, I have to admit I don't - when I think great music towns in America, I do not think of Richmond, Va. Am I...
PACE: That's why we're trying to change that. That's what - that's why I'm talking to you right now. We need everybody to know that that is the case. And it has been for - I don't know, 30 - 30 or 40 years. It really has been that - and even longer than that. You know, Richmond, Va. was a stop for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
PACE: And the jazz tradition, Richmond, Va. has always been a part of that.
MARTIN: Let's listen to another track off the album.
MARTIN: This is called "Tyrannis."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TYRANNIS")
NO BS BRASS BAND: (Singing) Hands up. Hands up, what's up. Hands up, what's up. Now I'm talking to the police. I can't look (unintelligible) in no streets. Hands up. Protect and serve the only motto, something y'all can't follow. Hands up, what's up.
MARTIN: This song and some others on the album were a reaction to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore last spring and all the unrest that followed. This is different for you guys as a band, taking on a political message; isn't it?
PACE: Yeah. I mean, it's a part of being an artist is you take in your surroundings. And that's what the surroundings are right now in America. They just are. It wasn't even so much as a choice. And I remember when we were recording this record, we definitely didn't even think about it. It didn't seem like we were making some political record when we were making it. We were just working so hard at making it, making sure we could even play it. It was hard to us, you know, the music that we wrote.
MARTIN: When you're writing, how do you work out lyrics? Do you brainstorm? Do you just seize on words that connect you to the story you're trying to tell? Or what - how do you do it?
PACE: Well, me personally, it's more of the music comes first. And then - and then I write around it. And I know I've also written songs in which is - there was a feeling that I had. And I was trying to get it down. And then maybe you'll go back through it, just like writing a paper, and see if I - is there a better word for this? Is there a better word for that? And construct it carefully. That's one way of doing it. Another way of doing it is just, like, you put it down, and it's raw. And you just put it out. And that's kind of the punk-rock way. And it's just like, here's what I'm thinking. And I wrote it, and here it is. That's done. And, you know, I'm not going to Henry David Thoreau this thing. This is what it is right now. You know, so it's always emotionally based. You know, and then you - after you've got it, you try to - you be brave. You put it out. And you go, like, hey, everybody, check this out. And they can go, I hate you or not (laughter).
PACE: So, you know, writing songs is - can be treacherous in that way, especially when sensitive people are usually the ones that are doing that kind of work (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF NO BS BRASS BAND SONG)
MARTIN: Trombonist Reggie Pace. He is the co-founder of the NO! BS Brass Band. He spoke to us from Richmond. Their new album is called "Brass Knuckles." Reggie, it was awesome to have you on. Thank you so much.
PACE: Thank you for having me. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.