By: Tim Dwenger
Inspired by the 70's funk and groove of Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes and The Meters, jazz guitarist Eddie Roberts and drummer Simon Allen have been striving for nearly ten years to hone their sound into something that moves dance floors in a way that few other instrumental bands can.
| The New Mastersounds|
They began life as the guitar-centric Mastersounds before quickly realizing that the sultry churn of a Hammond B3 was essential to the sound they were seeking. Though the band only lasted a couple of years and recorded only one single, it laid the foundation for a longstanding musical relationship between the pair. Roberts and Allen struck out on their own and soon crossed paths with Hammond player Bob Birch and bassist Pete Shand, and The New Mastersounds were born.
Their sound is a tight mix of jazz and funk that comes to life in the hands of these talented players. While their fondness for jazz is obvious, it's the groove Shand and Allen lay down that holds the whole thing together and keeps the wheels on when Roberts stretches out.
Though they are based in Leeds, England, Roberts says the U.S. and Europe are the most promising market for the band. They've been playing club nights and gigs around the U.K. since their inception in 2000 and though things have always gone relatively well, the scene can't support them playing more than three or four times a year in the major cities. As a result, they were forced to hop the channel early on and expose music fans in Europe to their sound. It was touch and go for a while but recently things seem to be picking up a bit for The New Mastersounds.
"We are having more records released in Europe these days. There are more labels taking an interest and actually starting to license our albums for the individual countries rather than before when we were releasing them on a U.K. label and selling them on import into the different European countries, which is harder because there is nobody on the ground selling it for you," says Roberts.
| Eddie Roberts by Yusuke Kitamura|
The increased exposure around Europe has paid off with Italian label Record Kicks taking some serious interest in the band. Record Kicks knew that The New Mastersounds' tight funk-based sound would be perfect for the clubs if it were remixed by some of the scene's best DJs.
"They approached us saying, 'We'd like to release a remix album. How 'bout it?' We were like, 'Yeah, great.' Then they asked us if we could sort it out and we kinda turned it back on them," Roberts says. "We've tried to get remixes done in the past and it is difficult because everyone is so busy, and to pull a project like that together takes so much time and effort. It's just not our thing. We were busy making a new album and touring and everything, so we told them they could run with it and we would be happy to provide all the tracks and send them out to who ever wants to do what. They ended up pulling it together and it was relatively easy for us. I just had to dig out all the separates for every track and get them out."
It wasn't until the project was finished that Roberts got to hear the results. As chance would have it, he heard it for the first time in exactly the right setting.
"We were in France. I [had] stayed at the bar late night having a few drinks after our set and Simon had given a copy of the album to the DJ who ended up just putting it on. I was talking and all of a sudden I was like, 'I know this tune.' I didn't realize he had put the album on, so back-to-back there were all these tunes I knew and I was getting so confused," laughs Roberts. "It was really nice to hear it in the club environment, which is what it is made for, as opposed to hearing it at home for the first time. The dance floor was full and people were just going for it. They weren't batting an eyelid, and they were dancing like it was all different music. It was only really me that knew what was going on."
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That's really where our sound has come from. The dance floor is already going and we have to slam it for an hour and a quarter and give them something extra compared to what the DJ is giving them.
In the U.S., the music of The New Mastersounds is largely heard only live on stage, but in other parts of the world things are different, where their music is now part of the club scene. "With all the 7-inch singles and vinyl we have put out, a lot of DJs around the world have our music. You can be in a club anywhere and all of a sudden a couple of tracks come on and you see everyone dancing," says Roberts. "That's how I learned my production sound. It was being in a club and hearing a track come on and saying, 'I wish I put more bass on that' or 'I wish I'd pressed it a bit louder.'"
In many ways the role of a funk band like The New Mastersounds in the U.K. is closer to that of a DJ, and it's up to the live sound engineer to push the bass or volume to satisfy the demands of the party. "At the places we tend to play in the U.K. there is usually only one band on the bill with DJs on before and after. We are there to play for an hour and a quarter and that's it," Roberts says. "That's really where our sound has come from. The dance floor is already going and we have to slam it for an hour and a quarter and give them something extra compared to what the DJ is giving them. When we're done we give it back to the DJ and the people carry on dancing for another three hours or more. And we usually go out and join them."
| Simon Allen by Yusuke Kitamura|
When playing in the States, The New Mastersounds try to pack dance floors in the same way, but without the benefit of a DJ they have to shoulder the load and play extended sets, much to the delight of their rabid American fan base.
"We have always found it weird when we come to the States and all of a sudden when the band stops everyone leaves," says Roberts. "We obviously had to rethink our sets because you can't just play for an hour and have everyone leave. So, we started to get into this thing where we'd play longer and longer. It got all the way up to four hours one time, just keeping the dance floor going all that time, like a DJ would."
In order to keep up that kind of intensity it's critical that the band work well together. There is a certain "group-think" that is required to move the music into the territory that beat hungry dancers insist on. In late 2006 the band parted ways with longtime B3 player Bob Birch, who left the band to focus on teaching and settle down a bit. He was replaced by another Leeds local and friend, Joe Tatton.
"Joe fits in well because he knows where we are coming from musically and he has played with all of us at one time or another," says Roberts. "He is also familiar with the DJ/funk scene we come out of as he has been around it as well."
After Tatton joined, The New Mastersounds toured for nearly a year before deciding that it was time to refocus the band's sound and get back to the deep funk roots that first inspired them. They parted ways with horn player Rob Lavers, who had joined them on recent tours, and set to work on rediscovering the group-think the quartet needed to thrive.
| Shand & Roberts by Dieter Van Holder|
"You've got to get the four piece right and really working. Then you can add things on top of it," Roberts says. "We just felt that we needed to pull it back and really concentrate on the sound of the four. So, we did a lot of work on our European run in the fall, [during] soundchecks and things like that, just getting the sounds right and rearranging some stuff."
On their last pass through the States in November 2007, Roberts felt like things were hitting on all cylinders. "Everything was feeling really exciting and fresh again. The show in Denver with MOFRO was one of our musical highlights as a band. We slammed it! Everything fell into place and it just felt great."
The band has recently reentered the studio to try to capture this newfound energy on tape for an album currently slated for late spring release. If Roberts' enthusiasm about their current sound is any indication, we can expect another collection of the finest in nu-jazz and funk the scene has to offer. Until then, The New Mastersounds will continue to hone their skills, road test new compositions and fill dance floors at clubs from California to Colorado during a ten date tour this month.
Click here for full New Mastersounds tour dates.
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