Booka Brass Band have been lighting a fire under Irish audiences for the last year. Having graced the stages of national festival countries last summer, they’re looking forwards to expanding throughout 2014. In the run up to their headline gig in the Button Factory on March 28th, Goldenplec caught up with the lads and see how they’re getting on.
So, who are Booka Brass Band? Seemingly, they’re somewhat hard to define. And don’t even ASK where the name from—we did, but they’re not giving it up. All we know is that, “it comes from the worst joke you’ve ever heard. We’ve agreed no one ever gets to hear it. People think it just means ‘book a brass band’ but it doesn’t. Also it sounds kind of African which is cool.” From the school of New Orleans brass bands, but classically trained, they associate themselves with the title ‘urban brass’, but mostly want to be judged for their own music and style. Trumpet player Paul reckons they are somewhere between Youngblood and Hypnotic brass bands, but sax player David cites Bruckner as his main influence: “I get given out to for obsessing over harmony. If we walk into a rehearsal room and there’s a piano the rest of the lads are like oh jeeesus here we go! But you know a few suspensions have made it in…”
Booka’s music is a mix of influences. Their covers range from Destiny’s Child’s Survivor to Blackstreet’s No Diggity, but they instil each one with their own signature classical/jazz brass crossover sound. They reckon it’s part of how they’ve drawn in a fan base in a small amount of time: “We use covers to connect; the crowd really respond to it because they know the music but as a brass band we put a twist on it.”
The band has begun adding originals into their sets too, although they are still figuring out their sound. “You can hear in our music that we’re still not quite settled on a genre, because we have some poppy, some latin, hiphop, Balkan, Hans Zimmer… No one ever comes in with a tune totally written. The lines turn into something no one would have thought it was. Paul wrote the bassline to BBB thinking it was going to be a real New Orleans tune but Ronan put a kind of James Brown rock beat to it and it just evolved so quickly from there. We chase the music and it writes itself” and, as David hastened to add, “we added a chorale too!”
He clearly is quite the harmony enthusiast.
With a few tried and tested own tunes under their belt, Booka have recorded a number of tracks. “We’re not really going to release it as an EP but we have a good few recordings done. We’ve had our first radio play with them and will be looking forward to some collaborations over the next while. We don’t want to rush into releasing anything, it has to be right.”
With their classical backgrounds, it is no wonder the group are such perfectionists. After meeting at an orchestra course and finding they shared a love of the Youngblood Brass Band track Brooklyn, then finding eachother again at a Hot 8 gig, “we were talking and thought that seeing as no one in Ireland was doing it we’d give it a lash. We were six originally, then we lost and gained a few. It’s been like this since March or April last year.” A love of Brooklyn still endures within the group, particularly sousaphone player Jack: “It was kind of the really cool tuba solo in Brooklyn that did it for us. Jack learned it and hasn’t stopped playing the same bit constantly since.” Bit harsh? “Nah, we all just take the piss out of each other. Rónán’s a bit of a loose canon, Dave is definitely the half member as a reed player in a brass band. He doesn’t really count as a member.”
Are there any particularly good stories from the year’s gigging that we should(n’t) know about?
Jack told us about the night after their main performance at Electric Picnic 2013: “Oisín was running back to the Salty Dog stage just wearing – well, technically he was wearing shorts. They were those GAA shorts that barely constitute the name. No shoes or tshirt. He just charged off, we had no idea what was going on. He made it back with his missing contacts, which was very impressive. He was passed out when we were meant to be playing the next day so we ended up getting someone to fill in. And for that gig – this is so rock and roll – I had gotten earplugs stuck so far in my ear I couldn’t hear a thing. It took 3 medical tents including an ambulance trip to get the bit of tissue out of my ear.”
Booka are a group of classical musicians playing New Orleans jazz-inspired brass music. How does that quite work out, is there authenticity to the music? “Classical is work and Booka is play! It’s definitely been helped by the introduction of James to the band – our other trombone player, he specialises in jazz. We finally sound a bit less white. Everything was very tight and together but it felt a bit too rigid. We all try to do a bit of improvising, but we’re young, we’re still learning!” Wait, too “white”? We were wondering about the bandanas the guys wear on stage. So do they see racial stereotyping as an integral part of brass band music? “I think that would have been true in the ‘60s and ‘70s but I think so many people have broken that ground that it’s not really in issue any more. We don’t go advertising ourselves as the ‘white’ Booka brass or the ‘Irish’ Booka brass, we just wanna go out there and play our music.” But while wearing bandanas and fur coats, trying not to sound too white. It can be hard to step outside what people might view as typical of a genre, so perhaps this is something that will change as the sound does. They do also sport a spiffing top hat, braces and skinny jeans. Full range of styles across the board, just as can be heard from their music.
If you want to catch the Booka Brass Band live, they will play their first major headline show in the Button Factory on March 28th. It sounds like they’re trying to make it count. “We have a bit of a theme of taking a classical piece for an introduction and mesh it into one of our own. It’s a nod to where we came from I guess. There’ll be a bit of that at the gig. Daryl (McCormack) is here, he wrote lyrics to a hip-hop track we wrote maybe three or four months ago so we’ve badgered him and just recorded them this week. We’ll be releasing them on the Dublin public at the show. Daryl’s got the stage presence we want and he brings the ladies. Jerry Fish kindly offered to come along to along with Lisa Hannigan and Daryl. There’ll be a few sneaky surprises that night! Some 80s drummers tricks, Ronan’s trying to get the pyrotechnics organised.”
How have Booka made connections with Jerry Fish and Lisa Hannigan? “We were lucky enough to get under the banner of Turning Pirate and so got the opportunity to play their Mixed Tape at Vicar Street on New Years’ Eve at 11:15, in front of 1,500 people, so we were just like holy shit! Even for four days after we were buzzing; floating.”
Anything big to look forward to? It seems that from baby steps, Booka are learning to run. “The reception took us off-guard. Very quickly we had people asking us to come do festivals. Everyone seems to like it. You look into the crowd and you see indie people, rock, older, younger – they all seem to enjoy what we play. This year we’re mainly playing festivals, we’ve a few confirmed so far, including our first international gig, you might have heard of it, it’s called Glastonbury! We just got the confirmation, we’re really excited. Trying not to be wankers about it! But when you’ve Paul in the band…. It’ll be on the Sunday so we’ll have to stay alive. It’s all been one ridiculous step after another. Getting with Turning Pirate was huge for us. Una Malloy has done so much for us. In a year we’ve gone from playing a pub in the back of Slane to Glastonbury like.”
Catch Booka Brass Band at the Button Factory on March 28th, with support from Young Woods. Tickets available here.