Feature: The New Mastersounds – Ten Years On in the USA

The New Mastersounds are a four-piece instrumental band out of Leeds in Northern England. The group plays an engaging brand of funk-soul-R&B in a style that makes knowing nods to great music of the past. The quartet includes guitarist Eddie Roberts on guitar and tambourine, drummer Simon Allen, Pete Shand on bass guitar, and Joe Tatton on Hammond organ and piano. The group was in Asheville NC for a headlining spot at a weekend Earth Day festival in April 2010, and Eddie Roberts and Simon Allen sat down for a backstage pre-show interview.

I had originally planned to meet the band a full year earlier, on the eve of an April 2009 show scheduled in Asheville, but last-minute entrance visa complications for the group caused the scuttling of that and several other shows. This was their first appearance in Asheville since that time.

What’s in a Name?
Prior to the forming of New Mastersounds in 1999, guitarist Eddie Roberts led a band simply called the Mastersounds. “It was never called the Mastersounds until I was in it,” asserts drummer Simon Allen. Before that, he recalls, it was called “‘The Yard Movement’ or some daft thing.” In any event, as Allen explains, the original name had to go when “Eddie realized it was the name of a Wes Montgomery-led band.” Roberts picks up the story: “I thought it was just the name of an album when I stole the name,” he chuckles. “I thought, ‘Ah, that’s a good name for a band. Why didn’t they think of that?’ Turns out they did!”

“But then,” Roberts continues, explaining why they kept the name, “we thought, ‘Well, it’s not like we’re ever going to play in America. So it’s not going to make any difference!'” Ultimately they added the “New” in light of lineup changes. In those early days the group mostly played restaurants in Leeds and Manchester. “We’d be trying to play as quietly as possible,” explains Allen, “but Eddie’s guitar is so loud anyway.” (Roberts quickly responds, “I never turn it past two!”) “Sometimes people would be there,” says Allen, “and they’d have just come out for a quiet meal. And then we’d start playing. And they’re trying to pretend that they’re not hating the intrusion that’s right next to their table.”

The New Mastersounds onstage in Asheville NC, April 2010 Photo (c) Bill Kopp
The New Mastersounds. Photo © Bill Kopp
After the laughter subsides, Roberts continues the story. “The Mastersounds was put together to play a club that we were part of. We ran a night there. There were DJs playing funk and soul, with some deep house music on a different floor of the place, and there was a live room at the top. So we put a band together and played every Friday night there, on a tiny little stage.” That experience working in a small space clearly informed the group’s overall sensibility: even now when gigs allow plenty of stage room, the four-piece huddles closely together. It’s clear that the lively musical dialogue and interplay of the band is built on this foundation.

That regular gig was the group’s “grounding,” says Roberts. “Then we started doing spin-off gigs. I had been doing similar sorts of things with a band before the Mastersounds, in a trio called the Three Deuces. So we were already kind of doing the UK circuit.”

Keb Darge Champions the Group
Influential and highly respected DJ Keb Darge figured into the band’s jump to prominence. Allen explains that Darge “bought our first single, and started playing it. Then we did a gig at the Jazz Café in London, and he was DJing.” Roberts says, “I had actually met him one time before. He doesn’t mince his words. He told me, ‘I only play original singles. I have no interest in any of this revival stuff going on.’ So I thought to myself, ‘Why have we got this guy DJing at our show? He’s only going to intimidate us and make us feel like losers.’ Because he’s very vocal with his [opinions].”

But at the Jazz Café gig, Roberts says, “We walked in and I said, ‘Keb, do you remember me?'” Allen recalls that an excited Darge gushed about that debut single “One Note Brown,” calling it his “record of the year.” Darge was playing the record “every night, without fail,” Roberts says. After the show, Darge approached the band with plans to start a label and make a record. “We weren’t clear what he was on about,” admits Roberts, “but we knew he was a good name to hook up with.” The Mastersounds went on in their live sets to cover several rare and obscure 7″ records that Darge had popularized on compilations he curated (such as the Legendary Deep Funk series).

In the studio, Darge billed himself as Executive Producer. In practice, Roberts laughs, that entailed “sitting in the control booth and saying, ‘Yeah! Just like that, only faster!’ So everything’s a bit fast on that record [2001’s Keb Darge Presents the New Mastersounds].” Roberts reflects that the album was “tailor made for the scene that Keb was spearheading at the time.” The record was very popular in the UK and in Japan, where Darge was something of a superstar. “The first time we went to Japan, “Allen says, “we already had a fan base, thanks to him playing our records.”

Gaining Ground Outside the UK
Other early New Mastersounds gigs took the band to Holland and Belgium. The band made its first trip to North America in 2004. Their initial show was a slot opening for acid jazzers Greyboy Allstars at the house of Blues in Chicago. They returned to the USA soon after for three shows in the Midwest, and again for a higher-profile set of dates including the High Sierra Festival. That gig almost didn’t happen: Allen says, “Their policy was, they’d never book a band unless someone on their committee had seen them play. But because they had never had the opportunity to see us — and because our [promotions] guy was championing us — they said they’d make an exception. We did two sets, and that’s how we established a Bay Area following.” Roberts adds, “When we arrived, nobody had heard of us. By the time we left, we had a ready-made following in the Bay Area.” With characteristic candor, Allen adds, “And we weren’t all that good then, compared to now. The audience obviously saw in us something that was worth investing in, and they helped us develop.” Eddie Roberts concurs.

The Sound Develops
The US gigs were critical in the development of the New Mastersounds’ music. Roberts explains that “in Europe, you’d only ever play for an hour. A DJ comes on before you, then you kind of seamlessly carry on — keep the dance floor going — and when you finish, the DJ carries on for another two or three hours.” Roberts contrasts that with the situation they found in the States: “Totally unrelated warm-up music at a quiet volume, and then we realize we have to play for three hours. And our tunes were pretty trim at that point.” Simon Allen chimes in. “Three and half minutes, each tune.”

“Everyone was saying, ‘Wow, it would be really great to see you guys jamming out,'” Roberts recalls. “But for us, jamming was something you did in a rehearsal studio. Why would anyone want to listen to that? So it took us a little while to get our heads ’round that concept. But that really changed our approach.” Allen adds, “And now it’s so much more fun, isn’t it?” Again, Roberts agrees, and adds that “Now when we go back to Europe, we do the same as we do in America.”


Photos © Bill Kopp
Allen recalls the group doing three-hour shows in Japan. Audiences there are characteristically more restrained than their western counterparts. Unlike US audiences, “they haven’t got the crazy noodle-dancers who haven’t got any bearing on the music.” I mention that they should expect plenty of said noodle-dancers at the Asheville show, where they’ll be playing immediately after our interview. “Yes…” agrees Eddie Roberts, “We’ve been to Asheville before. They’re quite stylized, these dancers. They almost try to emulate James Brown moves. They come very prepared.”

Growth of a Revival
The Northern Soul movement has been big in the UK for some time, championed by Keb Darge and many others. But outside the UK, the renewed interest in forms like soul, funk and R&B is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are a number of artists today who work in the idiom while enjoying both critical and commercial success. Along with the New Mastersounds, groups like the City Champs, Bettye LaVette, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and others are all on their way toward becoming household names. “What we used to find,” Roberts reflects, “is that a lot of American bands doing that — like the Sugarman Three, which became Sharon Jones’ backing band, really — they were coming ’round in the UK and Europe in ’95 or so. And they couldn’t get a single gig in the US. But there was a lot of interest in Europe, where they were viewed as the real deal.”

“Which,” Roberts adds, “is why we struggled a bit in Europe.” It was, says Allen, “a bit like we were the imitators.” Roberts mentions a band out of Nashville he likes called Charles Walker and the Dynamites. “Nobody’s heard of them here, but they’re doing big festivals in Europe.” I mention the long tradition of American acts traveling to the UK to make it big before catching on with the audiences at home; Jimi Hendrix and the Ramones are two of the most oft-cited examples. “It’s always been the same in reverse,” adds Roberts. “Bands come out here, then if you make it in America, you can send it back to the British, who are very fickle.” Simon Allen agrees, contrasting that with what he calls the “non-fickleness of the audiences” in America.

Stretching Out
These days, The New Mastersounds do stretch out for some tasty soloing in concerts. That’s a fairly stark contrast with the approach on their 2005 live album Live at La Cova. That album “wasn’t even our idea,” admits Allen, “because we didn’t ever think that a live album would be of any interest to anybody. Because we were basing it on the European model, which is about the records and the production.” The band’s contact in Chicago lobbied for a live album for release in the States. When it came to editing and mixing, Allen says that “some of the jams were okay. But you know how sometimes you hit the ‘sweet spot’ and even though you’re jamming, it’s somehow perfect? Well, it wasn’t like that. But neither was it a train wreck,” he laughs. “It was somewhere in between.” So to allow the inclusion of the maximum number of tunes on a single CD, they opted for shorter, non-jammy edits.”

In a mock-haughty voice, Allen wryly quotes from the first review of the album in the US: “I don’t know what aversion these guys have to jamming, but I hope they get over it soon.” The band has since released (digitally only) a set called Live at San Francisco, and that performance shows the quartet stretching out a good bit more.

Taper Culture
Part of the reason for a digital-only release of the latest live album is Allen’s having “little faith that a live album is of all that much interest to anyone.” Eddie Roberts adds, “Especially when people are taping pretty much every show we do. Which we’ve always been fine with.” (Good, because I recorded a fine-sounding document of that evening’s show myself on my trusty Zoom H2, positioned mere feet from the stage, directly in front of a PA speaker.)

“Because we couldn’t come [to the USA] that often,” explains Roberts, “to get our name out there, it was really important to get the tapers in. So they were doing a lot of the work for us, spreading the word about us.” Adds Allen, “so now we can go to a town in America — one we’ve never been to before. The best example of that is Charleston, South Carolina. The first time we rolled in there, we played to 350 people. And in most cities, it would take you three of four years to build up to that point. This one, that was our debut gig in that town, and they had all come based on word of mouth.” Eddie Roberts cites the group’s participating in festivals as a big help as well. “You’re hitting a wide audience who wouldn’t necessarily know who you are.”

Guest Vocals
Though the New Mastersounds are primarily an instrumental group, on occasion they’ll feature a special guest vocal on some tracks. Discussing the songwriting process for those songs, Roberts says, “When there’s been a vocal, I think, ‘okay, I’ve got a groove, and I think a vocal might work on this.’ So we’ll record an instrumental version of the track, but leave plenty of space [in the arrangement] to put a vocal on.” Then a guest vocalist such as Dionne Charles or Corinne Bailey Rae will write lyrics and develop their own vocal part. The CD of the group’s latest (Ten Years On) features a guest vocal from Grace Potter on “Nothing But the Water II”.

Influences and More
The New Mastersounds sound is greatly informed by the work of the (Funky) Meters, and the group often cites its big three influences as “Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff.” They’ve had to chance to work with some artists they greatly admire, as well. They mention Fred Wesley, Melvin Sparks and others. “We were Lou Donaldson’s backing band for three days in the UK,” Simon Allen beams. And Eddie Roberts is proud to have worked with Idris Muhammad (formerly Leo Morris). He’s “probably the most-recorded drummer on Blue Note Records,” says Roberts. “He’s on all of the funkier end of the Blue Note stuff.”


Photos © Bill Kopp
Celluloid Heroes
Three days before our interview, the New Mastersounds appeared in Sonoma California at the premiere of a documentary called Coals to Newcastle. The film is a look at The New Mastersounds’ first trip to New Orleans. Simon Allen describes the filmmakers’ approach as “guerilla moviemaking,” and Eddie Roberts says that the film took three years to edit. The band’s first viewing of the finished film was at the Sonoma premiere; after the show they took part in a Q&A session, played a set, and then headed across the continent for a show in Athens Georgia. All nonstop: our interview took place in Asheville NC the afternoon following the Athens gig.

The frenetic pace of touring doesn’t dampen the New Mastersounds’ exuberance onstage. Though they had hoped and prepared to play a two-hour set, the day-long free festival was running behind schedule, and due to local regulations, they would have to keep their set to seventy minutes. But immediately after the festival gig, the hard-touring foursome heads (two miles) across town for a late-night gig at a small club. And in subsequent days the New Mastersounds would play three more gigs in the region; clearly their work in building a fan base is paying dividends.

Digital vs. Analog
In the studio, the group prefers to record onto tape whenever possible. “I like what it does to the sound, especially for the drums,” says Eddie Roberts, producer of most of the band’s material. “The open kind of sound that you can get from recording drums very basically — with two mics — you can’t get that from digital.” But Simon Allen admits, “we’re not purists.” The band uses digital technology and ProTools on occasion. Still Roberts strongly prefers the aesthetic approach of editing and mixing on tape, due in part to its similarity to the band’s onstage approach: “When we play live, the four of us play at the same time. Whatever goes down, goes down.” The relative inflexibility of tape means that the immediacy of the performance — more faithful to that vibe, says Roberts — is preserved. “Technology can sometimes take over and get you bogged down,” he says. “Sometimes you can say: ‘look! We can do this! And this. And this…'”

“But that’s how people get a top 40 hit,” I quip. “And that’s why we haven’t got one of those,” replies Simon Allen, only half-joking.

Ten Years On
While Ten Years On had an official release date in September 2009, in reality “it never gets a proper, full-swing release,” says Allen. “We just make it available,” adds Roberts. “That’s the album we’re promoting,” Allen says, “but we don’t really operate within that sort of business model.” Eddie Roberts adds that “the only reason that we’re playing so many tunes off the new album is because they’re the most enjoyable to play at the moment. We’re still enjoying messing around with ’em.”

“We don’t gig to ‘shift product,'” Allen admits, “because it doesn’t shift in sufficient quantities anyway. But it’s just nice to have something when you’ve done a gig, and people want [a souvenir].” He notes that the New Mastersounds try to stick to a schedule of one album release per year. “We’re due to make a new album in July,” Roberts reveals, and Simon Allen says that they hope to record it in the states. “If we can afford it,” he adds.

 

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