By: Court Scott
When a member of a music group decides to leave and the remaining band continues, it can be risky and the results can be unpredictable. Fortunately, though, Garage A Trois is a band built on risk taking, unpredictability, and capricious malleability. When guitarist and founding member, Charlie Hunter, decided to pursue other projects, the group added keyboardist Marco Benevento, seeing it as an opportunity to prolong the vision and embrace new chemistry and sound. The latest incarnation of Garage A Trois is still a genre-bending juggernaut. With the release of their new album, Power Patriot (10/26/09 via The Royal Potato Family), drummer Stanton Moore (Galactic), keyboardist Benevento, vibraphone player and percussionist Mike Dillon (Les Claypool), and saxophonist Skerik each took the time to share their impressions with JamBase about the revamped lineup, the new disc, the December tour, and their vision of Garage A Trois' future.
Garage A Trois formed in 1998 around the recording of Moore's All Kooked Out! album and was indeed a trio born from an impromptu jam session with Moore, Hunter, and Skerik. In 2000, Dillon joined the group adding softness and warmth - showcasing his vibraphone and percussive skills. He became a high-energy brother-in-arms whose percussive trickery is often point-counterpoint to Skerik's punchy squonks, hypnotic loops, and reedy squeedles. Yet Moore and Hunter, too, shared a symbiotic relationship.
"The chemistry between Stanton and Charlie was beyond deep," Dillon says. "Charlie had studied organ trios, jazz, Afro-Cuban, and other styles; he was not messing around. And Stanton's got years of New Orleans knowledge and experience."
The sound was instrumentally driven jazz-funk-rock; New Orleans strut, swagger and groove with alternately tropical melodies and fuzzed-out, looped saxophone riffs swirled with vibraphone and cross-cultural percussive elements.
A favorite band during Jazz Fest and other party-centric celebrations, due to the members' beyond-busy schedules, Garage A Trois' tours were few and far between, and in 2007 Hunter decided to move on.
| Original Garage A Trois by Zack Smith|
"He'd completed what he wanted to do [with Garage A Trois]," says Dillon. Moore echoes this sentiment, "He wanted to focus on his trio [The Charlie Hunter Trio] and his family." "It was like if he was gonna tour, it would be with his band," agrees Skerik.
Yet, due to the eight-stringed prowess he displayed on his Novax, a signature instrument that allowed him to simultaneously play bass lines and lead guitar, Hunter's departure effectively left the band without a bass and another instrument to define chord structure.
Knowing that they didn't want to disband fully – "We really liked playing music together," Skerik says - the remaining members played gigs with Robert Walter, John Medeski, and, says Dillon, "a bunch of other freaks."
"But we were not playing our own material; it was mostly stuff Charlie had written. Marco was used to playing bass a lot with The Duo [Benevento and Joe Russo], and they played great music, so we thought it was a perfect fit," says Skerik. "We didn't want someone who wrote in any one genre, and Marco even takes it a step further. He's such a great writer and does these lush, super-cool chord progressions."
"There was great chemistry and it quickly became apparent this was our guy," Stanton agrees. "We'd known each other for so long and knew each others' playing styles. During that first session with Marco, we all felt really comfortable, like this was the next step."
| Marco Benevento|
"We all got along well from the beginning" says Benevento, who'd previously played with Skerik, Dillon, and Joe Russo in Coxygen and had opened for Critters Buggin' on the East Coast. "I like to think I create freshness; the change in style is heavy. With Charlie, there was more funk and groove oriented stuff."
"There was no preconceived change in direction," says Moore, "but the darker, more aggressive sound we feel works well."
While not as loose limbed and easy to slip into as previous endeavors, Power Patriot is a cohesive, deeply textured effort. Tunes are atmospheric with the melodies painted in strong, broad strokes. A couple of the tracks are angular and contracted like a muscle, others tender and warm. The blend of organic instrumentation and synthetic electronic sounds creates an interesting, unpredictable balance. While Moore's playing sways from highly excitable rock drummer to deep in the pocket jazz, he drives each track with casual certainty. Skerik says of Moore, "Man, he's so great. He can take you to New Orleans and other places with just one song."
"Electric Door Bell Machine," one of the strongest tunes on the album finds Moore laying down a slick beat, building the skeleton for Dillon's fantastic, imaginative mallet-work, which adds shimmer and light. Benevento's playing and effects – swirlies, video arcade effects, and quirky sonics – create layers of interest and add to the compositions' musculature. Similarly, Skerik's playing is as cerebral as it is wild, and he often seems most focused in the middle of a Benevento-Dillon electrical storm. The more hardcore, low-end-electro-jazz-meets-stratospheric-rock vibe is undeniably fun, and this writer quickly found Power Patriot on heavy rotation. But this change in their sound doesn't sit well with all fans.
"People have said to me, 'You're trying to turn Stanton into a rock drummer,'" says Benevento, "but that's not the case. We're just trying new things and it's an interesting blend of half swing."
While Hunter's melodic, mellifluous playing was often in contrast to the rhythm section, Benevento's playing, though sometimes raw, better compliments the rest of the group and is in sync with Dillon and Skerik's penchant for less warm, minor chords and expanded use of the saxophone.
| Garage A Trois by Greg Aiello|
"I try to stay out of the way," says Skerik. "I want to play a less traditional role. I love playing chords and not a straight melody. I don't want to be obvious. I've tried to redefine the role of the sax. I never want there to be an overemphasis on obviousness!"
Indeed, the saxophone's presence has been dialed down and the minimalism is used to create atmosphere and texture with layered effects and captured loops. "People want more saxophone, but I want them to leave a show wanting more," Skerik explains. "You should never play everything you know. You've got to hold back. It's all part of the tension and release."
With Power Patriot the lineup, sound, and style are not only different, but the approach to recording the album differs from previous Garage A Trois efforts. The initial band's debut, Mysteryfunk, was comprised of spontaneous Moore, Hunter, and Skerik jam sessions. In 2003 GAT released Emphasizer, and in 2005 they recorded the may-or-may-not-have-been-a-soundtrack, Outre Mer, which was both live and acoustic. Power Patriot was recorded over two sessions at two different studios, and prior to its release was tweaked and massaged by Benevento.
Continue reading for more on Garage A Trois...
[Next time] you steal music, I'll be there, while you sleep, pissing on your face. But seriously, that's evil. That's taking money from me and other musicians.
Photo by: Michael Weintrob
Initial recording was done in New Orleans at Galactic's studio space, Number C, over two days in December 2007. When the material was in the can, Benevento explains, "We sat with it for a while. We weren't sure we had enough material and we didn't have a label to put it on."
"We shopped it around for over a year. It was frustrating because there are no more labels because everyone uses BitTorrent and people no longer go to record stores. [Next time] you steal music, I'll be there, while you sleep, pissing on your face," laughs Skerik. "But seriously, that's evil. That's taking money from me and other musicians."
| Garage A Trois at Bear Creek 2009 by Amada Kaschkarow|
Frustrated but not deterred, Marco and publicist Kevin Calabro decided to put Power Patriot - an album, according to Skerik, named after a sexually aggressive bull once owned by Dillon's dad - out on their home-cooked label, The Royal Potato Family. In order to have enough material for the release, the band went back into the studio for a secondary session to record the coruscating '70s synth-rock track "Computer Crimes."
"I think records shouldn't be too long. Vinyl had built-in limitations, but CDs had 74 minutes to work with and it created a bad precedent," says Skerik of the roughly 48-minute disc. "We subscribed to the 'less is more' school of thought."
Garage A Trois finished the final track at the Studio in the Country, a recording industry relic in Louisiana.
"It was such a badass studio," says Benevento, "It's where Stevie Wonder, Kansas, and Willie Nelson have recorded. They had all this pimped out gear and over the day we recorded a bunch of extra tape."
"As soon as you walk through the doors, it's 1976," adds Skerik. "It is one of my favorite studios in the world."
| Mike Dillon|
After that session, the group again let the material marinate a bit as they hammered out the release plan. Benevento, ever the tinkerer, would later go back in his "Bat Cave" and fiddle with the final mix and track order. "A couple of the tunes, like 'Rescue Spreaders,' were sketches and didn't feel finished, so I finished them after the fact at home," says Benevento.
Given the different approach to this album and the different roster and new dynamic, how did the songwriting duties and process break down?
"Most of the songs came to the studio pretty fully realized so the initial process was pretty straightforward and easy," says Moore of the ten tunes on the album. "The compositions were really strong; all instrumentally driven."
"Not all the songs were written specifically for Garage A Trois. Actually 'Dugout' was a Go-Go [Jungle] tune and "Germs" was originally for the [Hairy] Apes," says Dillon. And it's fortunate that "Dugout" was brought to Garage A Trois' table because Benevento absolutely kills it. "You know, it's easier to write in New Orleans," Dillon continues. "It's pretty simple. I make a cup of coffee, go for a run, and play music all day. The songs just come up. With 'Computer Crimes' and '[Electric] Door Bell Machine,' they were already written and I was hoping they'd work."
Skerik is of a similar school of thought. "If I know a certain band is going into the studio, whenever I'm practicing at home – if I'm working on a certain scale or time signature – during that process, I'll be flushing out every variable and I'll record what I think has promise, what could be the base of a song," he says. Skerik is perhaps most effective on this album in the creation of the standout title track; a futuristic romp with glitchy effects and a punchy, syncopated beat interspersed with dense squall. My only concern is Skerik and Dillon's synergistic creativity is evident not only with Garage A Trois, but in Critters Buggin' and Dead Kenny Gs, and though not redundant, the style can be a touch specific.
| Garage A Trois at Bear Creek 2009 by Amada Kaschkarow|
Benevento says of his contributions, "Hearing The Duo gives you a pretty good idea of my go-to song style. Lately I've been into epic rock like the Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, and [David] Bowie. I'm into lots of melodic songwriting."
A fantastic example of this is "Fragile," featuring a low-end fuzz and lovely melody reminiscent of Morphine. "Radiohead and Grizzly Bear are using interesting harmonies and expanded instrumentation, which I like," offer Skerik.
The compositions on Power Patriot, for the most part, reflect this ethos. While I immensely enjoyed and appreciated the Garage A Trois from the first half of this decade, I honestly feel this lineup and sound is what Garage A Trois was meant to be and what will take them to the next level. While the former Garage A Trois' sound felt more rooted in cross-cultural, past musical traditions, the new sound feels current and even futuristic. Even with Hunter, recent albums had incorporated more studio effects and experimentation with technology, and not technologies designed to make a mediocre artist sound good but those designed to make great music sound awesome.
So what can fans expect now that the band has found the collective time to tour?
"Oh man, the shows have been off the hook!" says an excited Skerik about the first three shows in Louisiana and Texas in mid-November. "The new songs are just so much fun to play. It's great to get in the process of perfecting them and to get it out there."
| Garage A Trois by Greg Aiello|
"You know, we're still high energy!" Moore assures us.
"We'll play songs off the record and call tunes as we play them - some of our older repertoire, new sounds, different song types. It'll be less monochromatic [than the album] with more colors," adds Benevento. "Last weekend at Bear Creek [Music Festival], we did cover tunes and improv. There was a lot of room for changes."
"You know, the songs are just a jumping off point," says Dillon. "Sometimes Skerik and Marco have gone to another planet with a song and there's no coming back. That's just how it goes."
"Skerik is fearless," Moore concurs, "but those are large risks that often pay off musically. It's fresh."
It is ultimately the chemistry of the players and the sonic vision of the band that determine its success. Forced to risk altering their sound with new players, Garage A Trois has succeeded by using less traditional approaches to an instrument's role and technology to excite the instrumentation. Strong compositional skill and understanding of one another's strengths has been paramount and a firm belief in exploring the unknown a prerequisite. You can see them on both coasts through the end of the year and Japan at the end of January.
Garage A Trois is on tour now; dates available here.
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