Breaking Through the Noise
by Miles Hurley
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In the second installment of our “Breaking Through The Noise” series, we talked with two members of the breakout jazz/funk fusion trio, Organ Freeman. Coming out of L.A., the trio just completed their first full tour as a band this past spring, which was–incredibly enough–in support of jam funk favorites Turkuaz. After several more huge performances at places like SummerCamp Music Fest, Jazz Fest, and moe.down this weekend, Organ Freeman will finish recording a second album this summer, and debut more of their dynamically fresh take on organ funk to the world with a full fall tour. Check out our interview with organ player Trevor Steer and guitarist Erik Carlson:
So this past tour was the first ever full tour for Organ Freeman as a group. But you guys have all toured with some other people in the past. Does Organ Freeman feel, to all of you, like your real baby?
Eric: Yeah, for me, I’m definitely involved more creatively than I have been with any other projects, so I care about it a lot. I’m sure Trevor would say the same.
Trevor: Don’t put words in my mouth (laughs). Totally joking, you know that’s totally true.
Well, when you guys started, it was experimental at first, just getting together and coming up with stuff. Was there any specific period, or a specific show or accomplishment, that was the signal that this would be a project that you would be doing for awhile?
Trevor: Sort of. I mean I think that this was just always a fun thing that we were doing for years, where we’d get together every couple of months maybe, and write a little bit, or maybe we’d play a show, and we hadn’t played any of the music for months.
And we did that for a little while, and I just remember playing one show, at this place in L.A, and it was another one of those times where we hadn’t played together in three months, but there were like a hundred people through the door, just for us. You know, we’ve all played for different people, and L.A is a place where traditionally it’s difficult to get people out to do anything. So I just remember thinking, “we’re like not trying at all, and there’s a hundred people here. We should probably do something.” (Laughs)
Eric: Yeah, I remember that instance. And I remember having the phone call with Trevor where we were like, let’s get together and write some tunes, and do our organ trio thing. In college, you have to play these recital things, and Trevor played on both of mine. And I remember we just had similar tastes in music, one of those being a band called Soulive, so we wanted to get together and do that kind of ensemble.
I remember we wrote…there’s a song up on our YouTube called “We’re On Our Way,” and I remember Trevor and I getting together in his garage and writing that.
I was just listening to that one today, and so on that one you have some cool horn parts. Are those guys in an extended Organ Freeman roster?
Trevor: Yeah, one of the benefits of having your own original project is that you can just call people that you want, out of who you know, or whose playing you like or friends of yours, and get them involved with something you like doing. It’s kind of been a rotating cast of characters that has been featured on that record, and then we’ll have more features coming up on this next record, and some more horns.
When we tour, we really just go out with the three of us, but it’s not really a concern of ours to limit ourselves to doing our records like we’re just a trio, you know? Like, we enjoy getting many people involved, layering as much as we can, and then the challenge as well of replicating that when we’ll play live shows. That’s like the whole of this band right now, how can we recreate all of these layers when we play them with just three people?
I think there’s a resurgence of interest, maybe especially in the jam world, for music with complex and adventurous composition, and listening to your stuff it sounds like you’re on the lead of this.
Eric: Yeah I mean I’d say our music is more complex, given I suppose the genre. But we definitely try and reign it in to make it accessible. And hopefully, it resonates with people’s emotions. That’s definitely true, but hopefully it resonates on another level.
Trevor: It definitely is, when we’re writing stuff, it’s at the forefront of our minds. Especially as guys who play for lots of other people in Los Angeles that are not doing this style at all. You know, playing for singer-songwriters, or pop gigs, or things that require a lot more…that require you to be a lot more concise. Like it better not overly complicate it, but you’re trying to find the purest way to communicate that idea, in a non complicated way.
And so I think we try to make sure we have an element of that. And the music is definitely heavily arranged, but one of the reasons I think it is heavily arranged is specifically so that we don’t find ourselves in a trap of, like we’re lost in this segment for three minutes and it has no direction. It’s at the forefront of our minds consistently that there is a melody, there is a direction that things are going, and all of those things need to be supported. I think that any complexity in our music arises generally out of the desire to just support the melody, and the idea at play. Not like a drive to be complicated.
Are all three of you composers when it comes to your music? Can you talk about any kind of a process that happens when writing?
Eric: Yeah we are. It’s different every time, I think that we’ve all come to the table with ideas, and we bounce them off of each other, and resolve to something that we can all agree on. Harmonically speaking, or whatever. It’s kind of a case by case with every song.
Trevor: Yeah I would say that in broad strokes, the three of us all have…I’m not going to say have different musical tastes, because we like a lot of the same things, but we have different musical inclinations. Like, people within our pool of things that we all like, we each tend in very different directions. And, because of that, no matter who’s bringing the idea in, we have a very open process as far as writing goes. And no one’s making any unilateral decisions, or even bilateral decisions. If we can’t convince one another that something is good, then it’s probably not that good. So everything is done with unanimous approval. Because of that, it doesn’t really matter who brings an idea in, or what end of the spectrum it is. If it’s like really complicated, modern jazz influence, or more of a traditional funk thing, it always kind of ends up drifting towards the middle, no matter what the origin.
Heading towards a fusion, you mean.
Trevor: Yeah, exactly. But walking with a song that sounds like a super classic organ trio, and then once every one else has gotten their hands on it, it’s something else entirely, you know? And I think that’s what brings cohesion to the whole thing. That no one person is bringing in finished songs and then that’s it.
In this cohesion, do you guys ever bring something to the table, or maybe even bring something to the live setting, that surprises your bandmates out of the blue?
Eric: Oh I think there’s definitely an element of surprise, whether that’s good or bad.
Eric: We might be surprised by some of the mistakes one of us makes during the set (laughs). But I mean, we’re all kind of growing, and we’ve all been playing with each other for awhile, so we all know each other’s playing really well and we all know each other’s repertoire of licks. But I think we’re all trying to get better, and making an effort to keep it interesting, because it’s hard man, to keep bringing new ideas. Because it’s only three of us, so we’re putting out a lot of information and a lot of our vocabulary is being heard, so when you use up the extent of your vocabulary it’s like, okay how do I keep this interesting.
Trevor: Also just working within a tighter framework, you know? Because we’re really not a jamband, but we’re playing a lot of the places and audiences that jambands would play, where you would typically have very long, open sets…or even not just specifically jambands but just more classic funk bands, or however you want to think about it. Like, traditionally, there’s just a lot of space to work with. But because our music is heavily arranged, it’s kind of a give and take. We definitely want to keep things fresh, and then at the same time, support all of that arrangement work that we’ve done. It’s a little bit of a tug-of-war between those two things.
So on this tour, you were touring with Turkuaz, and a lot of sit-in action happened. Can you tell me about what it was like to have those guys come up and chime in on your music?
Trevor: Oh yeah, well it all happened very organically. Like the very first day we showed up with those dudes, we were just all of a similar mindset. And they’re all just awesome people so we got along super well. I’d say most often, we had the horn players come play a lot of tunes, because as you mentioned, we’re not touring with a horn section, but we have plenty of horn arrangements. So we always have our charts ready to go, in case someone wanted to jump up. But yeah, I think we had very close to every member of that band up at one point or another. There were maybe one or two that didn’t jump up.
There’s the one song on this upcoming record that we’re gonna have Dave Brandwein play, he’s actually tracking some guitar parts back at his home studio for us. And we were playing it on the tour, and as the tour went on, we ended up getting more and more people up, and that became a thing we did with him and Greg Sanderson, their tenor player. And the stuff that Dave was playing on it was just so radically different from how we conceptualized the song. And amazing, because we had already recorded this whole track, and on this particular one there’s a ton of layered guitar work. So it’s not like there was a need for more guitar stuff, but because of the way we ended up playing it with Dave, we were like, man we gotta get this on the record (laughs), if we can. It was nothing we would’ve thought of, ever.
So you had most of the players up, did that include the vocalists?
Trevor: We didn’t do any vocal tunes, no. But Sammy’s also a drummer, so she came and did some percussion stuff with us.
You guys also made a appearance or two down at JazzFest. Can you tell me about getting to play down there?
Eric: The first gig that we did down in New Orleans was with Mike Dillon, and MonoNeon (of Prince’s band), and it was a whole improvised set, so we just played made up tunes for an hour, that was really fun. We’ve never done a gig like that before, so it was a unique experience. And Greg Sanderson came and played with us on that set too. Did he play every gig with us?
Trevor: I think he did yeah, he played with us the whole time.
Eric: Yeah, and he was staying at a house with us. So that was really special, to have Greg playing with us on every tune. And it was kinda cool to see that community of musicians, like all those bands in the same place, and talking and getting to know everyone. Cool to see all the bands that are out touring all in one place.
Trevor: Yeah, I think you get…like living in L.A. in particular, as I mentioned, audiences just don’t connect the same way that they do in other places. And I don’t think that’s unique to L.A, I think in a lot of major cities, because people have so many options of things to go and do, there’s almost this sense that there’s always something better that people should be doing all the time. Like, cool, I’m at the Organ Freeman show, but I could be at the Hollywood Bowl right now, seeing whoever. So people just don’t always connect the same way, so I think I find that playing out of town, you just get a much different energy than you do, particularly when you’re out of some of the biggest cities.
But New Orleans is particularly special in that way, I think. Having never been to Jazz Fest, I don’t think any of us have ever been before, just seeing that community be so at the forefront of the culture there was pretty encouraging to us, because I think that’s pretty unique to that spot.
But the whole thing was amazing. It was also a complete mess (laughs). Just how it’s structured, with just how many bands, and everyone getting through everywhere, in the night, and the changeovers you have to do, and technical problems that arise as a result. Super difficult, but you gotta learn to roll with the punches.
You’re coming out with a new record–how is that process going? And what did you want, or are you trying to do, on this one as compared to how you did the last one?
Trevor: Well that process is still going (laughs). As a matter of fact, when I get off the phone, I’m gonna sit down and work on it right away. But, I’d say we’re most of the way through. We’re kind of filling in a couple of extra parts that are not quite finished, and then mixing it as well. But yeah it’s always a really enjoyable process for us. I think we’re getting to the point where six months in, obviously we’re not working on it all day every day for six months, but we’re like really ready to push it out into the world and have people hear it (laughs).
The concept is related to what we were talking about before, where, the first record…like from the very beginning, when we all started taking it more seriously, and writing with the intention of putting out records, we really wanted to make sure we were doing something that was the same concept as what all organ trios had done before us. There’s plenty of organ trios in the world, and there’s plenty of dudes who do it way better than I do. Like, the world doesn’t need another Soulive when they have Soulive. I mean you should just go see them, they’re amazing (laughs).
So, I think that a lot of the tunes on that first record, in terms of the instrumentation, and in terms of the structure and the overall sound of them, had a little bit more of that classic organ trio vibe to them, than some of the newer stuff does. I think we’ve gotten more into layering synthesizer elements, and really just not being concerned at all with whether or not we would be able to replicate stuff live. Yeah, just tons of layering, and a more modern approach, I think.
Eric: Yeah, I would agree with your one comment that on our first record, we had more of that classic sound, but we’re far removed from that on this one.
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