Garage a Trois: These guys rule. At present, they are one of the best instrumental bands in existence. Their sound is difficult to pin down. It is not jazz-funk. They are not a “jam” band, although they travel in those circles. So………Progressive Rock it is.
Garage a Trois (GAT) started around 1998 or so, allegedly as an offshoot of the recording session for drummer Stanton Moore’s “All Kooked Out”. At that time they were a trio consisting of Moore, saxophonics titan Skerik (tenor, with electronics) and 8- string guitarist/ bassist Charlie Hunter.
A quick note about Hunter……… force of nature. He plays a Novax fanned-fret 8 string “guitar”, tuned…….get ready E-A-D (bass) and A-D-G-B-E (guitar). It is literally the lowest 3 strings of a standard bass and the highest 5 strings of a standard guitar, on one wide neck. Each set of strings has its own pickups and amp. He sounds like a guitarist and bassist who get along entirely too well. His command of the instrument is virtuosic. He can flat-out solo on the guitar section, whilst fully throwing down a propulsive bass line. Technique-wise, his right hand thumb kicks the bass, while the right hand fingers do the rest. I have stood right in front of him watching him play, and it still seems impossible. Harmonically, he is a wizard, but funky. According to Skerik, Mr. Hunter spent as much time studying James Brown’s music as most players spend studying bebop. He plays wicked jazz, also, by the way……… During this time period, Hunter favored a Leslie-type effect on the guitar section, and the net effect was that of a Very Funky Hammond B-3 organist. The Funky Einstein. He is also on the short list of persons to call when logjams are encountered during political/ historical debates/discussions in the van on tour.
The first CD was called Mysteryfunk. After some touring, they added percussionist/ vibraphonist Mike Dillon. This version of the group tended toward “jazz-funk” and groove stuff, though already not comfortably fitting into any neat categories. Sometime around 2007, Hunter left the group and they did some gigs with John Medeski, and alternately, Marco Benevento. Benevento became a permanent member, paving the way for the 2009 release- “Power Patriot”.
This summer I have had the opportunity to have Mike Dillon and Skerik as captives on tour in a van. Seizing this opportunity, I decided to interview them about the band, and bass players in general. For reference, Marco Benevento is the keyboardist/ key bassist who replaced Charlie Hunter.
BH- What do you like about bass players?
Mike Dillon (MD)- What I like about bass players is that they always find little “side hustles”. Some bass players start thinking they’re guitar players, that’s a nice side hustle. Marco’s side hustle is that……….he’ll just stop playing bass altogether and just focus on being a keyboard player. And all of the sudden you’ll have no bass. It’s like I heard Steven Bernstein (Trumpet, Sex Mob. Resident Genius) say: “horn players lay out all the time, why do rhythm sections think they have to play all the time?” That’s what I like about Marco, as a bass player. He’s not afraid to lay out. [Note: to “lay out” is to quit playing for a minute.]
BH- Powerful. One time James Singleton (New Orleans virtuoso upright bassist) told me “the most violent thing I can do as a bass player is to stop playing.”
MD- Agreed. James Singleton, a living master. (Laughs all around….)
BH- What do you like about Marco as bass player, Skerik?
SK- um…….I played with Marco with many great drummers, Stanton Moore, Matt Chamberlain, Joe Russo……Mike Dillon……and I’ve yet to see him be crushed by any of them. In a rhythmic bass way. Because drummers, like any good 5th grade child, will always challenge the substitute teacher………..(laughter in van, choking)……… I’ve played with a lot of Hammond B3 players, and with Charlie Hunter, people where one person is playing the harmonic instrument and bass at the same time, and there’s a certain responsibility there, and you can always feel it when you’re playing with someone who understands the bass role, and is strong and comfortable with it. They’re never dropping the ball on you. The thing I like about key bass, it’s like the Mike Watt thing- ball-hog or tugboat? A lot of tugboats out there with key bass, because usually they stay within a 1 1/2 octave range, really. There’s no 7-string bass players out there in key bassland……….. Whereas with an electric bass, the tendency might be to overplay more. So, if you like your bass big, and believe that less is more, then key bass can be good.
Although, the other side of that is that there can be LESS space, as in connecting the notes more, so that there are less rests. When I play with George Porter Jr. (The Meters) or with other New Orleans bass players, they’re playing a lot of rests. Which, to me, is where the funk is. But Marco is really strong, and he balances his strengths equally between his bass playing and his harmonic ability.
BH- I notice that you, Mike are a heavy compositional presence on this recording. Attempt to describe your compositional process…
MD- Well, for me there are two kinds of compositions. The ones where I’ll get an idea, and then work on it for a while, put it in Garage Band, develop it, and the there’s the ones that just come out in 5 seconds. “Dory’s Day Out” came out on Thanksgiving Day in like 5 minutes.” Computer Crimes” was derived from a tabla composition, beat structure 3-3-2. So, I just took out the middle 3 and it left a riff in 5. A lot of times, songwriting comes out of practicing, you find things and then work them into songs.
I like that Mike Watt/ D. Boon thing (The Minutemen) where you decide to write a song a day. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
BH- This CD, I’m not hearing a lot of overt influences. Seems like I’m feeling a bit of early King Crimson, and a little Steve Reich……
MD- The band has sort of been on this path of consolidating what they do. Starting with Stanton on drums, when I first saw him, it was like “here’s this kid from New Orleans, he’s got this Zigaboo (Meters drummer) thing going on”, back in ’97, over the years I’ve seen him bring in his influences, and now when I hear him play, I’m thinking “that’s Stanton Moore”. Skerik’s been that way for a while……
MD- Marco’s the same way. I heard a Thelonius Monk quote, somebody asked him “how do you define genius?” and he said, “being yourself”.
It really became obvious to me, the first time we rehearsed with Marco, I had a few song ideas, and Marco did, and it was that feeling when you get in a band for the first time, and I hadn’t felt that in a long time, where we had a first rehearsal and wrote 4 songs. We were just having fun; it wasn’t like we were in the Resentment Incubator (touring van, usually a white Ford) for months. Everyone was totally excited, and we ended up with a record we really liked.
BH- that show I saw at the Howling Wolf in New Orleans during Jazz Fest was……….ridiculous. Good God.
MD- Yeah. I mean, you get four of the most energetic musicians on the planet, at least of the people that I play with…. Stanton’s crazy on drums, Skerik jumps around like no other sax player I’ve ever seen, and Marco’s just out of his f-ing mind.
BH- that show I mentioned, you guys seemed to have a fairly perfect balance of brutality and precision going all at once…
MD- like Fishbone back in the day………now we gotta make another record.
BH- What are your thoughts on composition, Skerik?
SK- Well, I only wrote a couple of things for the record, and……..I don’t think they were specifically written for the band, I carry around a little recorder, and record little rhythmic things. And, when it’s time to record I’ll take that out and it’s like “here’s a little something”. Actually the A section of that song “Power Patriot” was all I had on it, and I literally made the bridge up on the spot when they said, “how’s the bridge go?” It’s like Wayne Shorter said: “Improvisation is composition sped up, and composition is improvisation slowed down”. Sometimes you can combine the two in the heat of the moment.
SK- Well, it’s been a thing of trying to get the saxophone to play with electric instruments, not just volume-wise. It started in high school when I bought a microphone, because the sax player would get whatever was left over. And then you start realizing that monitors are all different. And then if you like different styles of music then you want to start emulating other instruments, so then you start experimenting with that, and you run into other problems. I mean you couldn’t just walk into Guitar Center and say, ” I want the microphone -to- effects-impedance-matching system”. It didn’t exist. You could get a mixer and run fx on an aux send, but that’s not satisfying, and it’s a pain in the ass. When you’re just starting out, going from gig to gig, and all you can afford is a RAT pedal……so it was trying to achieve consistency with unity gain.
BH&MD- unity gain!!!
SK- Impedance problems. So now 20 years later, and a few thousand dollars…..(laughs) I have this routing system [the Switchblade] that is incredible, you can plug any microphone, any effect, anything in and out of it and it balances the signal, and gives the engineer at front of house what they want to see, signal-wise…
BH- that thing sounds amazing.
SK- I finally got a nice mic, nice mic pre. [Skerik’s rig is a custom switching system that runs his sax thru distortion, a Boomerang looper, wah pedal, an Eventide harmonizer, delay, reverb, and other mysteries, in any order or combination, via MIDI switching.]
BH- Listening to the CD, I had the “Stanton astonishment moment”, on “Computer Crimes” in particular.
MD- When I was working out that tune, I just KNEW that when I give it to this m-fkr, he’s going to do his own thing with it. It’s really cool, he’s always going to have a little New Orleans in there, that Mardi Gras Indian stuff, with years of studying with Johnny Vidacovich, to being a metal-head from Metairie.
BH- His melting pot sounds fully melted. As a band, also, there’s such a unified sound, and the music is very futuristic sounding, not looking back.
SK- Space and Timbre, baby.
BH- What do you like to hear from a bass player?
MD- Funny, I was thinking Space.