San Diego Funk and Jazz Band Greyboy Allstars Play the Belly Up Tavern
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The Greyboy Allstars have been bringing funk and jazz to San Diego's music scene since the early 1990's. The band is playing two nights at the Belly Up Tavern this weekend and have been in the recording studio working on a new album. We'll talk to two founding members of the band, Karl Denson and Chris Stillwell.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. When you think of funky towns in America, San Diego's not the first city that comes to mind. But somehow, right in the middle of Surf Town USA, a deep groove, a funky heartbeat emerged in the form of the band, the Greyboy Allstars. They started out in the early nineties after hearing classic funk music spun in clubs by Deejay Greyboy, and their aim was to re-create the sound of the great jazz-funk bands of the late sixties and seventies live on stage. Over the years, the Greyboy Allstars have become one of the most popular funk bands in the country with a very loyal following. The band is playing two nights at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach this weekend and they've been working in the recording studio on a new album. And it's my pleasure to welcome two of the founding members of the Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson, who plays saxophone, and Chris Stillwell, the bassist for the band. Welcome to you both.
CHRIS STILLWELL (Bassist and Co-Founder of Greyboy Allstars): Great to be here.
KARL DENSON (Saxophonist and Co-Founder of Greyboy Allstars): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Hey, Karl, you come to us fresh from the recording studio where you're working on a new album. And I wonder how long it's been since you've been in the recording studio together?
DENSON: We – What? Two years now?
CAVANAUGH: Two years.
DENSON: Yeah, we recorded "What Happened to TV" and released it a year and a half ago. And so we kind of ran around the country for that for awhile off and on. And finally got back in and started working on some new stuff.
CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us a little bit about this new album.
STILLWELL: Well, the way we worked on the last one was basically go in ten days, no prewritten material, and we had the benefit of having our guitar player's studio to sort of work things out so there was no real cost involved so we could just sort of experiment and not worry about time constraints and stuff. So we basically went in and wrote stuff on the spot, hashed things out. I think we got probably two songs a day, so ten days we recorded one record and…
STILLWELL: …recorded it all directly to tape so there wasn't any pro tools or editing. You know, if we had to do something over, it was just mainly like you overdub something over your messed up track or something like that, so it was all on tape.
CAVANAUGH: Why did you do it that way?
STILLWELL: There's something about the warmth. People say, you know, audiophiles or people listening to records, and the way the saturation happens on tape as opposed to digital, there's a certain warmth that happens. I mean, discerning ears. I can't really tell the difference very much but…
STILLWELL: …it's kind of a neat thing to do, you know. People sort of – audiophiles and people like hearing that kind of stuff. You know, going back to the old way of recording, it's kind of neat.
CAVANAUGH: Now did you work digitally this time?
STILLWELL: Yes, we did.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And did you hear any difference?
STILLWELL: Not really. I mean, imagine what we'll do is probably record the record and maybe dump it onto tape.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
STILLWELL: So get that sort of warmth after the fact, post, you know, post-recording.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Karl, Greyboy Allstars are known for improvisation and for their live performances and I'm wondering how you approach the time you spend in the recording studio. You don't always get all the time in the world to do an album, so how do you bring it together in a, I guess, in a more, I would say, disciplined way in a recording studio?
DENSON: Well, we – we've been doing this for a long time and everybody writes on their own so the composing part of it, it's pretty easy. You know, somebody throws out an idea and then everybody else kind of puts their two cents in. Mike – Mike – Elgin probably puts in like thirty cents. And we just kind of go for it that way and, you know, basically we do it the old way of just you throw out an idea. We finish composing it, which usually takes about an hour or two, and then we play it live. And so, you know, I think one of the reasons for doing that was so that we'd all feel really invested in the tunes because a lot of times – You know, all of us write so you bring in a tune and you've put a bunch of time into it and the guys feel, you know, they don't like the parts, you know, or they're not really feeling it. So it's – Rather than hurt each other's feelings, it's better to just come in with no preconceived notions and just go for it.
CAVANAUGH: Is that easier to do because all of you now have outside projects? It's not just all concentrated in the Greyboy Allstars?
DENSON: No, I think it's more easier to do because we're really – everyone know – everyone has good taste, you know, so…
DENSON: …we understand what the end goal is, is to make something good. And if it's not good, then, you know, we're totally cool with saying, no, that's not happening. Let's move on to the next thing.
CAVANAUGH: Now you brought in a demo track from your latest recording session. And, Karl, what are we going to hear?
STILLWELL: Well, there's no – This is Chris.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, Chris, I'm sorry.
STILLWELL: There's no title for it but…
STILLWELL: We came up with something but it didn't stick. We just basically come up with funny titles along the way.
DENSON: Yeah, what – what did we…
STILLWELL: Maybe food related titles or something like that.
DENSON: What was the name of this one at first?
STILLWELL: Sandy eggo – Sandy eggo go, or something like that.
CAVANAUGH: We'll work with that. This is a demo track from the new album by Greyboy Allstars.
(audio of Greyboy Allstars demo track)
CAVANAUGH: That's a demo track from the forthcoming album by the Greyboy Allstars. And you got to come up with a good name for that.
DENSON: We don't even know if that's going to make the record.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, really?
DENSON: You know, it's just…
STILLWELL: Sort of tossed it off.
STILLWELL: It's a blues-based simple thing and it was interesting and sometimes you get things recorded and you're all stoked about it, you're excited about it…
STILLWELL: …then like a week goes by and you're like, ehh.
CAVANAUGH: You're not ehh about this, though.
STILLWELL: No, in a way. I'm excited about it but, I mean, when other things get written, they might – this might take the backseat for me.
DENSON: So you might have a completely exclusive take here.
STILLWELL: And this might be the only time it ever gets played.
CAVANAUGH: So with all this indecision, is there any chance of asking when this album might be released?
DENSON: Oh, yeah, right. No, we're just starting. We just started. This is last week…
DENSON: …we did this, or week before last. And we will probably not get back in the studio until sometime in late August and then we'll start – we'll build some momentum…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
DENSON: …and, hopefully, we'll have the thing done by the end of the year. And so – so maybe next summer.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, and I – I hear that there's some word that there might be a compilation disk coming out? A kind of best of…?
DENSON: Yeah, we finally got all the masters from Greyboy Records and, yeah, and we're talking about how to package it correctly.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that makes me – Let me – That gets me to the beginning of the Greyboy Allstars. Not everybody is aware of your history and so, Karl and Chris, you can just trade off each other, if you want to, tell us who Deejay Greyboy is and the role he played in the genesis of Greyboy Allstars.
DENSON: Well, I met Greyboy in – up in Orange County. I was playing a club in Laguna Beach. And he came – and this was in '92. He came up to me and said he was looking for some live musicians to do some things with him…
DENSON: …with his deejay thing. So we started hanging out and we made a couple of songs together that did pretty well, like kind of in the club circuit. And so – And I was out with Lenny Kravitz at the time, so in the meantime he knew Elgin…
CAVANAUGH: Chris – Chris…
CAVANAUGH: …you mean…
DENSON: Elgin, the guitar player.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.
DENSON: He had met him and they had been doing some work together.
DENSON: And then he was having you guys come over and play over his tracks, right?
STILLWELL: It was two separate camps. It was Karl, Grey and Elgin, and then the other side, there was Robert, me and Zack.
STILLWELL: And we had been doing this thing called Motherlode, which we were basically doing what the Allstars sort of ended up doing. We were covering James Brown, Meters, that kind of stuff, in clubs. And we ended up going to a club where we ended up playing for two years, every Wednesday. It was called the Green Circle. And Grey was spinning there. And somehow they had double-booked.
STILLWELL: So we showed up to do our gig and Grey was spinning and then that sort of was a conflict there but, you know, we ended up not playing. He did the gig. But we got talking and he sort of like told us about the idea and stuff so we ended up going over to his house and doing some tracks and stuff with – I remember doing one with Mark Antoine, he was kind of a big guitarist on the smooth jazz circuit.
STILLWELL: You know, and so those two camps sort of like developed on their own and then they sort of like coalesced.
DENSON: Yeah, I showed up at Zack's garage for a rehearsal in like December of '93 and that was it. It was kind of like, poof, it works.
CAVANAUGH: What was it about the music that Greyboy was spinning that really captured your attention?
DENSON: For me, it was that I was listening to the same kind of music and I had noticed the kind of the migration back toward jazz and the deejay scene when I was in Europe. So I was already kind of thinking in that direction and I – but more as a writer. And so when we talked, Grey and I talked, the fact that he used the word 'bugalu'…
DENSON: …was what really struck my attention.
CAVANAUGH: And you kind of say that the Greyboy Allstars is a bugalu band. What do you mean by that? What does bugalu mean?
DENSON: Bugalu means black hillbilly music.
STILLWELL: It sounds good. I mean, bugalu, to me, was, I think, developed in Latin music. So…
DENSON: Yeah, Dizzy Gillespie.
STILLWELL: Latin bugalu, and that's prevalent in Latin, early sixties, sixties and early seventies Latin music. So…
DENSON: And if you listen – and the stuff we play is more based on kind of what happened in like the Blue Note jazz label with people like Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan, Horace Silver. Those guys kind of – they kind of were the bugalu jazz inventors.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hear some more music. Let's – It's an early track. It's one of your hits. This is the Greyboy Allstars' "Happy Friends."
(audio of Greyboy Allstars cut "Happy Friends")
CAVANAUGH: That's "Happy Friends" from the Greyboy Allstars. You know, one of the things you guys are really known for is long performances. You know, you – three hours long and I wonder, Chris, how much improvising you're doing and does that sustain – I mean, how do you get the energy to make a concert that's so long with you being there so present all the time?
STILLWELL: Well, it's not usually three hours straight. We usually do an hour and fifteen, hour and twenty…
STILLWELL: …and then take a long break.
CAVANAUGH: Some Gatorade.
STILLWELL: Then we go back. What really is the test is playing the older songs and then bringing new life, keeping them exciting. Bringing the new life to them. Certainly, you have to hit the heads and the important stuff in the song so people recognize it, you know, so the head and then once the soloists start, I wouldn't say anything goes but there's a certain framework that you can work off of. And then within that framework, you can add news ideas or, I mean, I never play – in those certain sections, I never play the same thing twice. It's all – it's all in the basic language of it but I don't play the same notes and I might deviate here and there. But saxo – As far as the soloists, they can play anything they want to, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Right. We have to take a short break but when we come back I'm going to continue a conversation with Chris Stillwell and Karl Denson, founding members of the Greyboy Allstars. They're playing two nights at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach this weekend. And we'll be back in just a few moments here on These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Welcome back. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. And I'm here with two of the founding members of the Greyboy Allstars, San Diego's own funk band. Karl Denson plays saxophone. Chris Stillwell is the bassist for the band. And they're going to be playing two concerts up in Solana Beach this weekend. You know, I want to ask you guys because, you know, I'm not a musician and I don't know what these things mean but I've read that critics praise your band for being in command of the pocket. And I want you to tell me what does that mean?
STILLWELL: For a bass player, it's where the – where your notes lay within the framework of rhythm and stuff, so if your drummer and bass player are playing in sort of a tandem way and together, feeling the rhythm in the same way, I guess you could consider that pocket. It's kind of a subjective thing, what is pocket.
STILLWELL: Because some people might think they have good pocket or someone says that, oh, that guy has good pocket, then another guy might hear it and say, he does terrible pocket.
STILLWELL: Or I'm not feeling the way his pocket is, maybe he's playing a bit above – on top of the beat or too behind the beat, not – so it's kind of a – I mean, I like the feel that I have of certain pocket and I think pocket is basically your rhythm of who you are and what's going on inside you. So if you have yourself together, I think your pocket is better.
DENSON: And if you understand – if you understand what you're hearing then you can relay that to other people. Not being in command of the pocket, I think most of the time is based on people not knowing exactly what they're hearing. When they hear a great record, they might hear it and it sounds good but they're not – they don't know exactly what's going on there. But if, you know, the people that know what they're hearing know how to relate that from their instrument to other people…
CAVANAUGH: And I think you brought an example of a master of the pocket.
DENSON: The greatest pocket, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: And what is that?
DENSON: James Brown.
CAVANAUGH: And you – What is the song we're going to hear?
DENSON: It's called "Can't Stand It."
STILLWELL: "Can't Stand It," '76. It was a remake that he did from an older song in the late sixties and he redid it on an album called "Hell" and it was done in '76. And the bass player is Sweet Charles Sherrell, who is one of my heroes.
STILLWELL: And he just constantly mixes it up. He's not playing the same thing. He's just – It's almost like a concerto of funk bass so…
DENSON: And it's just where everything lays, you know, the way the drums are played, the way the bass, the guitars, James Brown over the top of it, the horns, it's just a – it's a masterpiece.
STILLWELL: And the pocket also, as well, it's much more than just knowing the subdivisions of rhythm, eighth notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes, it's different than that.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Master of the pocket, James Brown.
(audio of clip from James Brown's "Can't Stand It")
CAVANAUGH: Master of the pocket, James Brown. I still don't know if I understand it, but I like it.
STILLWELL: As long as it makes you feel good…
STILLWELL: …and you want to dance, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as I mentioned before, you guys all have extensive side projects that keep you busy. And, Chris, you collect, you hunt and gather for records of the past. Now where do you go to find these rare treasures?
STILLWELL: When we used to tour quite a bit, it would – every time we'd have time off in any sort of city, I'd always scour the – get to the hotel room, tear out the Yellow Pages and just call and say, you got old records? You know, and then I'd try and get a taxi. If we had time, I'd go and shop. And eventually I'd go back, I'd know where the spots were, and I'd go and see if they had anything. They had no idea what they had, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, what did you – have you find (sic)? Anything that surprised you?
STILLWELL: It's pretty much every genre. I've – I guess I've studied – I wouldn't say studied but I collect in all manner of genres, you know. I'm a big sound track fan so I naturally go for those kinds of things but anything that's in good condition and it's obscure and I don't see it too often and if it sort of logs a thing in my brain that I've seen that go for big money before, I'll…
STILLWELL: …certainly get it if it's like, you know, five bucks, sometimes…
CAVANAUGH: Did you – have you found things like that?
STILLWELL: I've found things like that for a dollar and I've sold for two or three hundred.
STILLWELL: It's rare but, you know, usually get for myself and then I get too many records and have to let some go and…
STILLWELL: …they sit on the shelf and they never get listened to so I just get rid of them. It's fun. It's a great hobby, you know, because I can make a little money doing it, get new music, turn, you know, people on to different stuff they haven't heard before, out of print stuff that's never been released on CD, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, I know that this last James Brown song is one that you found and you shared it with Karl. Is that what you do with the band a lot, is say, hey, listen to this? Listen to what I found?
STILLWELL: I make compilation CDs for guys in my band and other people. And they might ask, what is that track? I never heard that track before. What is that?
DENSON: He's always listening to soundtracks of some random sound track thing, and you're like it's – you know, it's like really funky…
DENSON: …so you think it's like a record or something, you know, like some pop record or some funk record and it's actually like "Beneath The Planet of the Apes."
STILLWELL: And it's nothing, "March of the Apes." But the thing's like it was a much more open market back then and things – you would never find things of that nature being released today. It was a much more wide open, forgiving market back then so things that were just so fringe and left field found their way onto vinyl and whether it sold a lot, I don't know, you know. And to some – soundtracks to films that you've never even heard of, you know.
CAVANAUGH: And yet they had the music.
STILLWELL: And yet they had a soundtrack for it.
STILLWELL: And then some movies that you've – are well known in your consciousness that have never got a soundtrack released for some reason, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Karl, I know that part of your career is not exactly hunting for records but actually making some of them with Lenny Kravitz. You toured with him but you discovered that really wasn't what you wanted to do. And I'm wondering why? Everybody kind of knows the name Lenny Kravitz. You would think that maybe you'd have a good time doing that.
DENSON: It was fun but I wasn't playing enough saxophone, you know, and – and, you know, from the time I was a kid, I always just thought about, you know, when I get to be this age I'm going to be really good on saxophone. You know, that was kind of my whole concept, you know, and the guys that I liked, you know, it was about playing the music. So with Lenny, it was a really fun gig and the first couple of years, you know, it was a bit freer. But as he got to be bigger and bigger, he started to really tighten it up and, you know, wanted it more like just a straight pop thing. Like we're going to play the songs just like the record and we're not going to improvise that much and so at that point I kind of was a little worried about my own development. And then, luckily, I met Stephen Minor in Germany and he asked me to record some records for his company and from there I split off and did my own thing.
CAVANAUGH: You said that in working with Lenny Kravitz, one of the things you really learned is the difference between live performance and making records.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
DENSON: Well, when he -- You know, my experience before that was I led either a quartet, a jazz quartet or a jazz quintet, you know. And when you made a record, it was always reflective of that thing that you were doing. And with Lenny, you know, it was probably a six-piece band and – but when you go in the studio, you know, he'd have strings and horns and extra singers and, you know, all these different instruments. And I asked him one day, I said, man, how are we going to perform this stuff? He said, you don't worry about performing it when you're making the record. You make a record and then you perform, they're two separate…
CAVANAUGH: Two separate things.
DENSON: …mediums. So that really was an eye-opener for me.
CAVANAUGH: And you rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed to get it just absolutely like it was on the record, right?
DENSON: (snoring) Oh, my God, it was just, I mean, forever. Forever. I mean, he – Even to this day, I mean, I went out and worked with him last year after not being there for 15 years and I did most of last year with him. And, man, he is so adamant about tiny detail that, you know, it's kind of – it'll wear you out. But when you're playing live and the little details have been attended to, it really makes for a much stronger show.
CAVANAUGH: Right. But it's hard getting there.
DENSON: Yeah, it's just boring as hell. You know, you're just like, okay, come on, dude. Give me a break. I know the part. I know it. But, you know – But you might not. You might not be playing it exactly how he wants it and he'll go at it and go at it and go at it until it's just how he wants it and it really, you know, it pays off for – in terms of his career, it pays off.
CAVANAUGH: Now you have a side project, a band called Tiny Universe. Tell us about this band.
DENSON: Oh, when we decided to take a break in '98, I went off and did my band. And Robert went off and did his band, the 20th Congress. So this is what I've been doing since '98 off and on, and we just took a break for a couple years and I did a trio, a smaller thing. And now I'm back doing my Tiny Universe again along with the Greyboy Allstars. And we are doing a record. We just finished it and it's on a New York label called Shaniki. And the record's called "Brother's Keeper." And so we're – we just wrapped…
DENSON: …it up recently.
CAVANAUGH: …we've got a cut from that called "Mighty Rebel." Here's the "Mighty Rebel," from the band Tiny Universe.
(audio of clip from Tiny Universe's "Mighty Rebel")
CAVANAUGH: "Might Rebel" track from the band Tiny Universe, and the album's name is "Brother's Keeper." I want to ask you guys about your gigs this weekend up at Solana Beach. What are the Greyboy Allstars, what kind of music are you going to be playing? Are you going to dip back, old stuff? Are you going to be playing mostly new stuff? Do you know yet?
DENSON: Well, we're going to play – we're going to have to do a little digging because we'll play basically separate shows both nights so we'll have to dig into the crates and find some other stuff. We're also probably going to play a couple of new tunes.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right.
CAVANAUGH: Anything – the one you brought with us today? Or you don't know.
STILLWELL: Probably both the two that we've – or that are new.
STILLWELL: And I'd imagine the second day we're going to have to rehearse long and hard to, you know, go back and review some of the older stuff.
CAVANAUGH: Are these the first concerts you've done in a while?
STILLWELL: No, but we don’t play often enough and we just don't rehearse enough.
STILLWELL: You know, so…
STILLWELL: …it's all in there in your head and stuff…
STILLWELL: …and to get it underneath your fingers and stuff like that, sometimes you just got to – we're pretty – kind of a dangerous band in that sense. We're not always the most one hundred percent together. But when it's on, it's on. And a…
DENSON: The musicianship's pretty stellar is what…
DENSON: …is what we get away with, you know.
DENSON: Elgin – Elgin is…
STILLWELL: Our secret weapon.
DENSON: He – he's doing a lot of – he's doing movies. He's doing movie soundtracks.
CAVANAUGH: Soundtracks, right.
DENSON: And he's doing very well at it. So he's pretty busy in terms of – like year round, we have to really, you know, we work around his schedule. So when he knows he's going to have a two-month break, then we'll schedule some shows and that and go off for a couple weekends here and there. So, you know, it tends to get raggedy but that's kind of part of the beauty of it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we're going to go out on one of the unnamed demos, the new music that you brought in for us to play. And I want to remind everybody that you are going to be up at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach this weekend. And it is my pleasure to have spoken with Karl Denson and Chris Stillwell from the band, the Greyboy Allstars. Thanks so much, guys, for coming in.
STILLWELL: You bet.
DENSON: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.