Backstage with BoomBox
On the 25th of July, BoomBox played the Fox Theatre in Boulder, CO. Their music is a unique blend of electronica, funk, and southern rock, the likes of which I've never quite seen before. Bringing in crowds of both rock and electronica fans, BoomBox is getting bigger all the time. Zion Godchaux, son of former Grateful Dead members Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux, plays guitar and sings. Russ Randolph, DJ, producer, multi-track sequencer, and lights guy, does everything else. Before the show Grateful Web's Sam Holloway had the opportunity to catch up with the band backstage.
Grateful Web: I have to know, Zion, with your illustrious parentage, did you get to meet a lot of rock stars as a kid?
Zion: As a kid, they were just people. Yeah, I'm sure I probably did. I remember some of them, but it didn't register at the time. I dunno, I guess I don't really think of anyone as a rock star, people are just people to me, it's always been like that for me. Except for Bob Dylan and Hendrix if he were alive.
GW: Growing up in a musical family did you start playing music at a pretty early age?
Z: Yeah, as soon as I can remember I was playing the drums. As I grew up, I started playing guitar, and then DJ-ing. A little bit of everything.
GW: Do you still play the drums or is guitar your main focus?
Z: I never play the drums anymore. It was my first instrument, but I spend all my time on the guitar now, maybe because its not my first instrument.
GW: You guys are based out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and I guess the sound I most typically associate with that area, and this is probably sounds a little ignorant, is like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
GW: But I wonder, what is the electronic, or fusion-rock scene like down there?
Russ: There's not one, but like in the Skynyrd song, they're referencing a scene where a group of musicians were creating a certain type of sound, a certain type of funk, and that's basically all the music that's coming out of Muscle Shoals, but as far as electronica, we're really all that's going on in that town.
Z: But I mean, what we do is not far from what the main rhythm sections were doing back in the day, they were just making really funky music, and that's what we're trying to do, make really funky music. It just happens to be with a guitar and turntables.
R: And it's not like anybody in town goes "Oh, they're an electonica band," we're just another band, ya know?
Z: Trying to get into that funky spirit.
GW: So what inspired you when you were starting this project up, to move away from the more traditional setup where you've guitar, you've got drums and you've got a bass on stage, to one where you were incorporating the turntables and computer programming into the funk framework?
Z: For me, it was just when I started going to clubs in San Francisco in the early 90's, and started watching some amazing DJs and some crazy parties that were something totally new and fresh, and it was sort of futuristic at the time, and that's where it was at. And then Garcia died, and the Dead thing wasn't happening, and I didn't buy into the jam band thing, so I hung out and listened to House music and saw that with a combination of live instrumentation, and taking what was going on at these parties, find a way to really work that beat with an instrument, you could propel it even further. And ever since then, that's what I've been trying to, and get people who would never listen to House, or Disco, or what ever you want to call it, that "techno," to dig it, and then get those electronica guys who've never listened to a guy play a guitar solo. I mean the true electronica kids aren't even thinking about watching some guy bang around on an instrument. But, there's something to be said for both worlds, sure.
R: But we did see a gap, and a think a lot of people only really connect with a band in one way, and when it peaks your connection at the live show is this thing, and then the connection with the DJ is a totally separate thing, a different kind of high, or whatever. And with a lot of DJs, there's a gap because its not organic enough, its just beats that drive it, and its not a musical kind of thing, and then the bands sometimes don't give you enough of that drive. And we saw that what we needed was both of those worlds, and that's where this came from. But it wasn't really until I saw a DJ truly move me, and touch me almost spiritually that I connected the dots. In Alabama I didn't have access to top notch DJs, so I knew the potential, and I played with turntables as a kid, but I didn't see the full potential because I never had the proper mentors. But to see a real DJ really working a crowd, truly intuitively as an artist…
Z: Shortly after I met Russ, we were starting to work on some electronica stuff, and I thought he was the perfect candidate for Burning Man. Sure enough Russ said, "Yeah, I'll go," and he really stepped up all the way and we got on a plane and flew out to Burning Man. That's where the world gets to see the greatest musicians and DJs and artists and all that, and right then and there we put it together.
R: And the plane ride home is where this band was birthed.
Z: It was well worth it, that trip.
GW: One of the first things I noticed about you guys, for some reason, when I saw you play down at Owsley's a few months ago with Steve Kimock was that you played a reverse-strung guitar, something Hendrix was famous for. But I was never really sure exactly what that did for the sound, because he's got so much else going on at the same time. What does that do for your sound?
Z: The Jimi rumor is that he was so poor he couldn't afford a left handed guitar, so he played a right handed guitar strung backwards. Truth is, that's not the deal. If this was a right handed Strat [he picks up his guitar] all these knobs would be right here where you strum. To get all that mess out of the line of fire, you get an opposite handed guitar and string it backwards. And the thing is that on a backwards Strat, the bottom pickup is angled wrong, so it makes the sound a little off. Its wrong, you know? But it's a good wrong. And Jimi's Strat didn't sound like Eric Clapton's Strat, and part of it was just because it was backwards, and had different tones capabilities.
GW: There you go. So Russ, you started out as a producer?
R: More of an engineer really, but yeah.
GW: Okay, so how did that experience affect what you do here in a live setting, as opposed to in the studio or at the soundboard?
R: I think it mostly gave us a path of least resistance to get to where we wanted to be. A lot of bands have to go through a lot of growing production-wise to learn how to move to a larger stage and work a bigger audience. But having the production experience I know what it's going to take. So we stepped into our first shows at a huge level, way higher than we could really afford, and even at our first gigs our production standard was very very high.
Z: And we had things thumping like a legit rave right away.
R: Yeah, and I think it was more efficient because it allowed us to get a really clear picture of who we were across to the crowd even if they didn't know anything about us. Right at the gate we were like "this is who we are, this is the party we want to throw, and this is what we want to do." And as a producer and engineer, I think that's what most people take home with them. And I've done some many shows, trying to take the path of least resistance, using that wisdom of experience has streamlined what we what to do. It allows us to put more energy into the creative process rather then fucking around with cables and trying to learn concepts and shit like that.
Z: And the need for a million techs, but we've figured out a way to get our stage setup as streamlined as possible, to the point that when we use monitors, we're monitoring ourselves, and we each have our own mixers. We're basically taking care of everything ourselves.
GW: Was it at all difficult to transition to the stage where people were watching you, rather than working from offstage?
R: Not really, I've played in tons of bands. I actually turned towards audio production because I was just fucking over the band thing. It's like I was carrying all these idiots, buts its okay because we're doing decent gigs, but I was the guy setting up sound anyway, and I was like "Fuck it." I could make more money going out and setting up sounds, and I wasn't happy with the band I was in. Bands are frustrating, you got four or five guys to deal with and it can be a pain in the ass.
Z: We've never been nervous or anything.
R: Yeah we've always just known what we want to do.
Z: We're just comfortable with what were doing. And even if the ret of the world doesn't like it, that wouldn't really trip us out, because it is what it is, and people can take it or leave it. We're not necessarily trying to impress anybody or anything. Hopefully we can put people in a good mood on the way out, if nothing else and so there's no reason to be nervous about that.
GW: I notice you've got a very strong visual aspect to your shows. How important is that visual aspect to what you do up there.
Z: It's important.
R: We knew from the beginning that we wanted to give everyone a total experience. Visually we didn't quite have a definite plan. It's developing more as we go, we've tried a few different things, and this is where we are now. I control lights from stage, and we still try to keep things between us, and since we know sort of how we want things to look, and were still just doing things ourselves.
Z: And since it's just me and him we have more liberty to create this world that's our world, and we can create inside of it, rather than having that world be like 55 guitar players or something.
R: So yeah, the visual aspect is important because when you go to a show, you want to have an experience take over and take you out of your normal world. When I go to a show, I want to know that someone has taken over the space, that it's their world.
Z: Right, they come into this bar that you know, but it's not that bar anymore.
R: And we also have people paint with us sometimes, and that kind of real time visual connection can be really cool.
GW: Definitely. I found an interview online that you guys had done a while back, and in it you made the comment that when you were recording your last album, "Visions of Backbeat," the album it wasn't really an example of where you were at the time so much as where you wanted to go as musicians. I thought that was really interesting, and I was wondering if you could explain what you meant by that?
Z: It was just for one guy, that record.
R: Yeah, it was really done as a demo. Right now when I do a show, I have two drum machines, but when we recorded Visions, Zion was on one drum machine and I was on the other, it was a very early stage and we were really just figuring out how to connect the machines, and the way we want to do things. We knew we wanted to be like, old-school, hard cut, no putting MIDI together or anything, just flying without a net. When we did Visions we were still exploring what we wanted to become.
Z: I was going to give a demo to this guy who wanted to potentially put me on tour doing a DJ thing, but I didn't want to go out on tour be myself because Russ and I already had our thing going. But I figured, might as well ask the guy, "Hey, if you want to take BoomBox out, we can talk." But we didn't have anything to show him, so with "Visions of Backbeat," it really was our vision.
R: Yeah and Backbeat was an idea that we wanted to push across, the idea that the swing, the groove, the beats that were characteristic of Muscle Shoals, it IS Muscle Shoals.
Z: You know you've got all these genres, like breakbeat, and house music, and techno, and acid jazz and mushroom jazz, and all these titles for styles. And the best way that we could describe where we were coming from rhythmically was calling it Backbeat. Not big beat, not deep house or deep dub, it was just Backbeat, and we knew Backbeat was where it was at, we just hadn't gotten there yet. So that's why that record is called Visions of Backbeat.
GW: So this forward-thinking aspect something you're trying to incorporate into the next record?
R: Yeah, and we're both working out new toys and gadgets, some of them we're working into the shows now, but when we actually do the final recording, we will have at least mastered how to work them into our rig and use them live. Because we're looking at developing new sounds and increasing our live vocabulary, if you will, so our conversations can get deeper between each other, as in the way we work together on stage, and as we get more sounds and levels then we can develop sonically as well.
Z: Eventually we'll get back around, I think. Russ is a drummer, and we might get a live kit on stage and get that going, and I've got a new chaos pad, and that kind of scratches my DJ itch. So it's coming full circle, but we had to start where we did so we could learn how to fly the plane.
R: Now that we've got the plane off the ground, we know how to fly around and do shows and stuff, we just need to develop. And we knew that even five years ago going into this thing. And now, we're probably not even half-way there yet to our final goal, and to our final plan. So the next album will be the next step, but it's definitely not the end of it.
Z: But we'll probably never reach the end goal, you know.
GW: I hope not, then you'd become like Kiss or something…
R: Yeah, right? Ha!
GW: How much of the album have you got planned out at this point?
Z: It's still really up in the air.
R: We're both developing sounds and beats; we're really just now exchanging ideas and fitting the pieces together. I think our plan right now is that we'll develop this stuff over the next few months, then do like three live shows back home, and record all those and use them as actual sessions. Because, and we were talking about this the other day with each other, we could be recording in hotel rooms and stuff along the way, but without a live audience, you don't get that same energy.
Z: Because what they do for us is the same as what they do for us. I'm always down for kicking it in the studio, and getting a few things down, and it's like "that's cool," but…
R: But I think that if we create these songs and record them in front of an audience, hopefully we can record the energy of the room too. I mean, Visions is cool, but without a live audience, I don't think it gives people a realistic view of who we are as a band…
R: …Energetically especially, and I hope we can get that across to people with the next record.