BrassZilla: Toddlers and drunkards don't dance to look cool
Photo by Peter Lee
We think it's fair to say the sousaphone has outgrown its namesake, John Philip Sousa, our nation's very, very serious March King. Sousa may have made his tuba highly portable, but it's taken a whole line of Dixieland and jazz musicians (oh, and that guy from the Roots) to make it cool. Today, if you see a sousaphone alongside a trombone and trumpet, playing before a drum kit in your local bar -- you're not in New Orleans, mind you, you are in St. Paul -- you can be fairly sure something weird and fun's about to go down. Not that Sousa wasn't weird; he spent much of his life wearing a uniform. And we could be wrong, but we kind of doubt he was much fun. So we digress.
Back to the point -- you can check out some wild sousaphone action this weekend courtesy of BrassZilla, playing Friday and Saturday evenings at Sea Salt (in Minnehaha Park), as well as meeting up with their former Chooglin' cohorts on the Turf Club's old stage between bands at Saturday night's Eleganza! Extravaganza! Comprised of sousaphone player "Hitmaker" Hal Longley, trombonist Zach "Low Bar" Zins, trumpet player Bob "Pipe Fitter" DeBoer and drummer Joe "drummerjoe" Cline, this brass trio (with percussion) combines members of longtime local jazz act GST with former members of the Chooglin' brass section. In advance of their weekend shows, we caught up with trombone player Zins to discuss the group's transition from Chooglin' to BrassZilla, Civil War reenactors (Longley happens to be one), fart jokes, and gettin' paid.
Gimme Noise: First thing's first - explain your nicknames.
Zach Zins: They're just silly crap Bob and I yammer about to fill downtime at practice. Hal writes all the originals and arranges all the covers, so "Hitmaker" is an obvious choice there. As a fan of both high wit and fart jokes, I got stuck with "Low Bar." I mean, "Oscar Wilde" or "Biography lends to death a new terror" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, right? My toddler daughter has been calling Joe "drummerjoe" since he joined the band, and I'm not sure how "Pipe Fitter" even came about.
How did BrassZilla get its start?
Bob, Hal, and I all played together as the horn section in Chooglin'. Towards the end of that band's reign of error, Hal started bringing a few charts in just to mess around with while we were on tour. We'd toot a few backstage to warm up or to keep the chops in shape or to keep ourselves out of the beer cooler rabbit hole. Eventually, we played a few mini-gigs while wandering around Art-a-Whirl a couple of years ago, and then played a gig here and there around town. But once Chooglin' got taken out back behind the grove and put down, we got a bit more serious, started practicing weekly, and scraped together some steadier gigs. And once we realized we couldn't keep time for shit, we decided we could use a drummer. We played a gig at Lee's Liquor Lounge one night with GST, Bob's other group, and, while rehearsing a tune in the green room beforehand, GST's drummer, Joe, said he really liked it. So, naturally, we asked him if he wanted to join the band. Against his better judgment, he said yes.
Three of you became known about town as members of Chooglin' -- can you tell us about the transition from playing behind loud guitars and vocals, to a brass-driven group?
To state the obvious, it was a huge change musically. Playing rock music is easy; playing jazz is hard. Listen, I'm a huge rock fan, and I can safely speak for the others in saying we all unequivocally loved playing in Chooglin' for a million reasons, but there's no question that we've become much better horn players by playing in BrassZilla. There were plenty of times in Chooglin' where we literally could not hear ourselves due to the roar of the band. I like loud music, so that didn't necessarily bother me as an aesthetic, but it certainly didn't help my playing. But it also provided a cover when you screwed up, too. "Oh, well, I sure made a shitshow out of that horn lick, but nobody heard it, anyway." You don't get that luxury playing as an unamplified horn trio. People will hear your mess.
Also, in rock music, horn sections are often playing similar lines and similar rhythms together at the same time -- and often with lengthy breaks in between those lines. In jazz -- particularly when you are just three horns who can each only play one note at a time -- you are playing constantly. You have to to fill out the sound. You are layering: You are playing rhythm, melody, harmony, contrapuntal lines, and improvised solos, and you are constantly switching between those roles both from song to song and within songs. Also, I hadn't read music since my college band days, so to begin to re-engage that part of the brain was fantastic from an academic, music-theory standpoint.
Your music really covers the gamut, from traditional jazz and Dixieland to originals and beyond. How do you decide what tunes to tackle in this group?
The rest of us are too stupid and lazy to write or arrange songs, so, so far, that's pretty much entirely up to Hal.
Marching in a neighborhood parade, playing in a dive bar or BBQ blues club, or performing in the park outside a family-friendly seafood restaurant before moving on to a rock blow-out in the Midway as you'll be doing this weekend -- what kind of venue do y'all prefer? What best suits your sound, style and attitude?
Truthfully, we prefer any place that will pay us. And the more they pay us, the more we prefer it. But we also like to play music -- we've all been playing plenty long enough to know there's no money in this thing -- so we enjoy playing all sorts of places. All of the venues you've listed were fun gigs for one reason or another.
Gun to my head, there's still nothing more fun than playing a rock'n'roll blowout in front of a packed house.
And on that note, who makes for a better audience -- little kids dancing while munching on fish tacos, or a bar full of drunk dudes just before last call?
Same thing, right? Stumbling, passing out in weird spots, public nudity, boob-groping, uncontrollable babbling, and occasional vomiting. Seriously, as long as they're enjoying the music, then both types are great audiences, because they both are enjoying it genuinely and uninhibitedly. Toddlers and drunkards don't dance to look cool.
What can we expect out of your appearance at the Eleganza! Extravaganza! this weekend?
We're playing a couple of very short sets on the Old Stage at the Turf Club. Instead of the usual soundman-puts-on-a-CD thing in between bands, you're gonna have live jazz. We'll play a few of our more lively numbers and hopefully keep the patrons moving a bit.
Playing a rock club like the Turf seems the ultimate band geek's revenge, doesn't it? Could you all have been classified as band geeks growing up, or have you always been so cool?
There's no question I was a bona fide band geek. I was in jazz band, concert band, marching band, and pep band. I was in all the local, regional, and state band contests, and I even attended band camps in the summer. Throw in the inhaler, thick glasses, and frequent nosebleeds and I was the real deal. I'd bet the farm that Hal was, too. I'm not sure about Bob, really, and Joe has always been cool.
As far as band geek's revenge, I mean, we're just too old to give a shit about that anymore, but at the same time I personally take some satisfaction from getting free beer, free food, some money, and the occasional audience compliment for all the practicing I've done over 30 years. Oh, and the undying adoration of thousands of beautiful young women. They love chubby, old, married, band geeks.
But then, I always thought one of the most uncool parts about being in band was wearing a uniform - I had to wear culottes in mine. You sometimes wear matching BrassZilla shirts, no? Aren't you afraid the popular kids... er, maybe we call them hipsters now... will make fun of you?
Hahaha. Yeah, we did wear matching BrassZilla shirts for a gig or two, but I think that was a weird juxtaposition when you're trying to play semi-serious music. Then again, have you seen us? We sure as hell aren't getting by on our looks, and our everyday sartorial choices are already quite suspect -- if the weather is nice, I'll be in cargo shorts and flip-flops for the Sea Salt gigs -- so maybe the band shirts were an improvement. Actually, we should probably just go whole hog and get the marching band unis out. Or go nude.
And speaking of uniforms, is Hal still doing Civil War reenactments?
Does a bear shit in the woods? Hal Longley: Union Professor of Phrenology 4 lyfe.
BrassZilla performs at the Eleganza! Extravaganza! this Saturday June 8 at the Turf Club (with Eleganza! Appetite for Zacchardi, the Floorshakers, Fuck Knights, Fret Rattles, Mighty Mofos, Crash & Burns, Abortion, Poverty Hash, Iguano and Wizards Are Real), music starts promptly at 7:30, $8. You can also catch them this Friday (5-7) and Saturday (6-8) at Sea Salt.
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