Scott Tournet Talks Life After Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, New Project Elektric Voodoo & More
In April of 2015, Scott Tournet, the then-lead guitarist for Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, issued a brief social media missive letting people know that he would not be participating in the tour that would follow the release of the band’s upcoming album. Never one to indulge in ostentatious bouts of self-serving publicity, Tournet’s brief statement actually served as a quiet and subtle announcement that he would be leaving the band he co-founded in Vermont more than a decade ago.
After taking some time out of the spotlight, Tournet has reemerged with Elektric Voodoo, whose marvelous self-titled debut blends Afrobeat, psychedelic deep-space blues and vintage rock and roll in a manner that will not only delight those who appreciated his work with GPN but excite those that were fans of Blues & Lasers, Tournet’s last outing as the leader of a band.
JamBase: From a musical standpoint, Elektric Voodoo marks the beginning of your post-GPN life. How did the album come about?
Scott Tournet: I had a strong idea of the kind of music I wanted to make and the underlying concept was to start with undeniably propulsive rhythms. I would start by recording a bed of percussion instruments like tambourine, shaker, maracas, etc. and then I would come up with something on guitar, bass or keyboard that I found interesting. Next I would find a melody and lyrics. Then I would add a few changes so it had a few different sections. I ended up actually adding the drums last, which is totally backward to how you normally record. I heard Stevie Wonder did that on the albums he played drums on and I always thought that was interesting. Turned out to be a huge pain in the ass! [Laughs]
I wanted to make an album that people want to listen to and I want to play on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. What happened with my solo album [Ver La Luz] is I enjoyed writing and recording it, but then I didn’t want to go out and play those songs at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, it just didn’t feel right. So with Elektric Voodoo, if anyone asked me “what music do you want to play with a band and in front of an audience?” The answer is “this.”
JamBase: One of the things that jumps out on the album are the Afrobeat influences. Was this a recent interest or something that you’ve wanted to explore for a while?
ST: It was something that I had studied and was into from the time I was in college but I’ve never really had a band where I could explore it. My senior thesis was a concert with a 12-person band and a horn section and a percussion player. I wrote this song called “The Fela Movement,” not very creatively titled. It was basically a carbon copy of a 15-minute Fela Kuti composition. From that I figured out the architecture of his music and how those instrumental parts go together. So, yeah, it’s always been something I’m passionate about. As an American musician, you often hear the same funk or rock beat or blues shuffle. Lately it’s been the same electronic disco beat over and over again – I’m bored of that. I don’t find it inspiring. There are all these cool rhythms in the world and I just wanted to explore them. It’s really re-lit the creative fire for me.
I’m excited about this because I feel like I’ve created something new, as opposed to something that’s a re-creation of something else. It’s the goal as you mature and grow into your own thing. We all start out imitating but at a certain point I no longer wanted to try to recreate The Rolling Stones from 1973 or Neil Young, that’s awesome and that music will always be in my playing and come out in some way but I don’t want to try and always do that. I already did that and it was never gonna match the original.
JamBase: If not the ’73 Stones, who influenced this album?
ST: Fela Kuti, for sure. The Budos Band. Dr. John. Early Santana. The Beatles, even though that’s an obvious one. I listened to the Revolver-Sgt. Pepper’s era stuff where they were breaking the rules and turning stuff on its head. That concept was a big influence in the sense of how can we make it different? How can we not paint by numbers and not do the obvious thing?
JamBase: In what ways were you able to steer Elektric Voodoo away from the norm?
ST: What I think makes it a little different is that there’s some middle ground between American pop and rock ‘n’ roll – basically the music that I’ve been a part of – and Latin and world music. There’s a lot of bands that are doing the full on Afrobeat or world music thing and then you have a lot of American rock ‘n’ roll bands but not a lot – that I’ve heard – in between. A song like “Expectation,” that’s an Afrobeat rhythm that could be a typical 15-minute long Afrobeat song it’s got a verse, a bridge, and a chorus. It’s a five minute pop song mixed with a psych slide loop outro on top of an Afrobeat groove.
A different example is “Mercy” which isn’t really a world beat. The guys in the band have taken to calling it the “death march.” Basically the bass and drums never change. They just keep pounding straight ahead while the keyboard changes chords and a bunch of crazy horns, guitars, and synth throw paint at the wall. I like elements of noise and free music but I like it against heavy rhythm.
JamBase: Is this going to be an ongoing project?
ST: Yes. This is my thing. I started it with the intent of it being the band I was going to stick with for a long time. I get all my ya-yas out with this group and this music. The blues and roots are there, the longer improvised guitar solos are there, the rock ‘n’ roll is there, the songwriting, the psychedelic forays. All the stuff that I’ve done before is there but it now happens over, in my opinion, much more interesting and exciting rhythms.
JamBase: So a return to GPN is not imminent?
ST: I just want to make it clear that I don’t play in that group anymore. I was a big part of that group and it was a big part of me but that chapter is officially over.
What’s been a little disappointing, I guess, is that a huge percentage of our fan base don’t really understand that clearly. I guess it hasn’t really been clearly said until now.
JamBase: For many people, they learned that you were stepping away from the band from social media. What prompted you to address the issue?
ST: I personally announced that I would not be part of the band and tour supporting the new album. The longtime fans were confused. I wanted to let them know what I knew because I knew it was important to them … it was important to me as well.
JamBase: I have very fond remembrances of the Potterville Posse.
ST: I love those people. We were very lucky to have such a committed group supporting us from early on. It was really nice to see that community grow and longtime friendships blossom out of that. When I saw that happening, I realized that this thing was bigger than us as individuals, or as a group. To have a hand in people coming together and connecting and being happy makes me feel good. I’m really grateful for that.
JamBase: Not much has been said about your departure from GPN. What happened?
ST: I think what led to it realistically … time. That happens a lot with groups. Twelve years as a group, people change, interests change. Goals and belief systems can start to spread apart. In the beginning, the aesthetic and sound of the band were really the vision of me and [drummer] Matt [Burr]. Grace was sitting down at a keyboard and doing a mellow singer-songwriter thing. Kind of a Norah Jones thing. Matt and I introduced her to more soul, blues, early-1970s influences like The Band, Stones, Neil Young, etc. We got her a Hammond B3 organ. We had a taste and a style in mind and we pushed her towards it. At that time, that dynamic really worked for us.
Also, in the early days of GPN, we had a really tight fan base who really understood that we were a true band. As we got bigger I think that most of the fans we picked up along the way were only focused on Grace and really missed the point that there was a band and a family thing happening. In general, there’s always a quarterback/lead singer thing that happens in our culture but if you add in gender and sexuality that can become incredibly pronounced. More and more the rest of us were treated and looked at as a hired backing band and to be honest, that sucked after putting in years of work building the band from the ground up and being such a big part of the sound and vision.
I always saw us as similar to a band like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Not in an egotistical way or saying we’re as good … just that we were built similarly. That comparison made sense to me but it just wasn’t in the cards with a female lead singer. People just refused to give the rest of the band that kind of respect and that just got to be a drag. At Red Rocks a very well-known singer I’d never met came up to me, didn’t introduce herself and just said “go get Grace because I want her to sit-in with us”. Shit like that. I’ve got a thousand stories like that. Other celebrities and industry people coming into our dressing room and blatantly ignoring the rest of us. People pushing through you physically to get to her. A couple insane guys seeking me out after the show or yelling at me while I’m onstage that no one cares about the rest of the band and that I suck as a guitar player. It was crazy. It wore me down.
In addition to all of all that, deep down I really just wanted to be doing my own thing for the last five, six years, not out of any type of slight to the old group. Taking all the emotions out of it, Grace writes a lot of songs and started developing her own vision. I love to put music together and to help create a vision for a band. That’s my favorite part. More than the live shows. To not be a part of that and to just sit around and only play the solo on a song and not have any hand in the music, it just didn’t work for me.
JamBase: Was it an amicable parting?
ST: Separations are rarely easy. It was a 12-year relationship.
JamBase: One of the things I think that I’ll miss the most is your interplay with Benny Yurco. You each seemed to bring something great out of the other.
ST: [Laughs] I just got off the phone with Benny! He just got a gig where he’s going to be playing with Ryan Adams. He’s great at making friends and he’s a fun guy to be around. People want to make music with him. We used to call him the “mayor” of Burlington because if you’d walk down the street with him everybody would know him and stop and say “hi.”
Benny has really grown as a musician and an artist since I’ve known him. His solo albums [This Is A Future and Golden Generosity] are really good. He impressed me a lot with those. It pushed me and gave me a kick in the ass to get back to recording my own music. Watching him and the way he did his albums inspired me to set up my own studio and get going on my own vision again. I had lost that fire that fire along the way and he helped me find it again.
JamBase: Has enough time passed to reflect back on the time you spent with GPN? There were definitely more high points than low ones.
ST: There’s been some time for reflection now and I’m proud of a lot of what we did. I think that what happened to us, about two, three years ago, we kind of peaked out in some ways in that we’d experienced this top tier and we’d met our idols and played with them At that point, I think that’s where a lot of bands take a left turn. After you get the money and the experience, you really have to be turned on by the music and the creative process. If you’re challenging yourself, it’s exciting. You have to be getting off on the work or you wonder why you’re doing it other than the money or notoriety. If you’re just doing it for that, it’s going to come across.
JamBase: Having been part of an extremely successful band, has it been a hard transition to go back to the beginning and start up a new project?
ST: Fuck yeah. It’s hard. [Laughs]. I’ve maintained a few connections and contacts but a lot of other people vanish the second you leave the bigger band. It makes things very real. I don’t know how else to put it. The people that are in your camp, are definitely in your camp and the people that really weren’t, all of the sudden they’re gone. In in a way it’s refreshing. It cuts out a lot of the bullshit.
The point where we came to – I realized that I don’t like entertainment as much as I like music. For example, playing football stadiums – you’re running around the stage about 300 feet from each other. That does nothing for me. I want to see a band that’s playing music with each other. A band like Phish or Radiohead, I can appreciate that they’re listening, that it’s more about playing music and connecting with each other than it is about running up and down catwalks.
JamBase: So, it sounds like you’re enjoying the creative freedom.
ST: I really am. I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. When you’re playing to thousands of people – where someone’s set your gear up and there’s food and drinks backstage and a bus to go into – and you’re not happy and not having fun, it’s like what the fuck, why? Now, I’m humping my own guitar and pedal board and writing out my own setlist, there’s 50 people there and I’m having so much fun. It says a lot. That it’s not about those other things.