Last week we at DeadCurious, and by that I mean I, pestered the living hell out of the folks in charge of running press for Alabama’s newest rock-and-soul outfit, St. Paul & the Broken Bones. After exchanging however many emails, we (very gratefully, I might add) got a chance to explore the deepest, darkest recesses of Ben Griner’s (trombone and tuba player extraordinaire) mind concerning the band’s recent explosion onto the scene, what it’s like to carry the Muscle Shoals banner, and putting together their outstanding and refreshingly organic debut album Half the City.
As always, many thanks to Ben, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and the folks over at Single Lock Records and All Eyes Media for making this happen.
Now go get your groove on.
DC: Ben, thanks so much for doing this, and congratulations, it seems like you guys are really blowing up… You’ve gotten attention from NPR, Paste, you recently opened for another recent critical sensation in Jason Isbell… When did you guys really feel like you’d reached the tipping point and how have y’all adapted to becoming a “bigger” band in such a hurry
BG: There’s still times when we really have no idea how big this thing is. I mean, people can say we’re the next big thing or whatever they’re saying, but we’re still very new to this so there’s still a lot of ground work we’re doing. When you’re driving 13 hours in a van to get to a gig it doesn’t feel very big time haha.
DC: You guys really have such a throwback sound, obviously one that’s influenced really heavily by where some of the members grew up in or near Muscle Shoals… You guys remind a lot of people of the “Muscle Shoals sound”; what’s it like to be that sort of band that’s bridging the gap between such a storied, well-known past and contemporary rock, soul, etc.? Is the Muscle Shoals heritage something that you guys think about, talk about?
BG: The stuff that was recorded at FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound was, to a lot of people, some of the best music ever recorded, so obviously we listen to that stuff, talk about it and even cover some of those songs. But it’s also such a big shadow you’re standing under when you’re a soul band in Alabama, that we try to just absorb as much of that music as possible but when it comes down to writing the songs, we try to do it the way we’re gonna do and not really think too much about how Wilson Pickett would have done it, for example.
DC: What does your song-writing process look like? I’ve read that you guys are very collaborative, but give me some inside info if you would, particularly as it relates to your various backgrounds and playing off of such a dynamic frontman in Paul during the creative process?
BG: A lot of the songs on the album were written in different ways. Some of the first songs we had, Jesse and Paul were writing them alone and the rest of us just came in at the last minute and played on the recordings. Others, someone might have part of a song and play it for the rest of us, and we’d play it together and throw out ideas until an actual song came out of it. But Paul always writes all the lyrics and most of the vocal melodies. None of us can think the way he sings so we leave that up to him.
DC: I also know that most, if not all of you guys have pretty extensive music backgrounds, whether its from growing up in gospel like Paul, playing with the 400 Unit, attending Samford, etc. As a result I’d expect that you guys have possibly a more diverse range of influences. Where a small group like the Black Keys for example, might cite 5 major influences, the more guys, the more influences. So… are there any artists or groups y’all have talked about in the studio that might surprise us?
BG: I think one album that we talk about a lot that may surprise people is D’Angelo’s Voodoo. The whole record has this feel and a groove that is just so deep and it’s a feel we really want to adopt a little bit.
DC: Your new full-length debut album recently came out on Single Lock Records, which as I understand it is a very new label… Walk me through, if you can, the process behind not only making your first full-length record, but what it was like to do it on a new label and how do you feel being one of three bands to “carry” the label’s torch so to speak?
BG: We were very new as a band when we decided to record Half the City. We hadn’t even written the song Half the City yet. But Ben approached us and said he had this new label and thought we’d be a good fit and we couldn’t really say no. So we wrote a bunch of songs in a little over a month and went up to the Shoals to record. I don’t think we’d do it any other way, looking back. We were just starting to figure out how to make a record, and they were just figuring out how to put out records, so it was a good fit.
DC: In that same vein, what was it like to record with Ben Tanner as your producer? What did he bring to the table? What are some things that you guys maybe walked into the studio thinking about it one way, and he really turned something on its head?
BG: Ben did a really good job of trying to make us sound in the studio like we did live. He’s a wizard when it comes to that. But he also played keys on a few tracks and he’s just as good a musician as he is an engineer.
DC: So now you guys are out on your own tour, you’re going to Bonnaroo, etc. How is where you guys are today different from where you might’ve expected to be a year ago, and where do y’all want to end up? Do you guys talk about “making it” or are you guys just out there burning down one venue at a time and seeing where it goes?
BG: Personally, I’m just along for the ride with St. Paul and I love seeing where it goes. We all have aspirations for the band, but yeah, it seems like whenever we set a goal for ourselves, it’s never too far over the horizon. We’ve been incredibly fortunate in this band to not have run into a lot of the same road blocks as other bands some of us have been in and I think we’re all really grateful for that.