These days, it’s common knowledge that the level of talent coming from the musicians in the Brooklyn music scene is among the highest anywhere. On any given night, in any one of New York or Brooklyn’s small clubs or DIY venues, these musicians can be heard playing their hearts out for anyone who will hear it—quite often just for tips. So it came as no surprise when, for the second year in a row, Phish reached into this scene and pulled out a world-class horn section to back them on Halloween for their cover of Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus.
In recent years, Brooklyn artists and bands like Marco Benevento, Joe Russo, TV on the Radio, Rubblebucket, Antibalas and others have helped bridged the gap between the Brooklyn and jamband worlds (with a little help from their friends in Phish). There’s plenty more out there, and if you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I champion many of these bands on a regular basis.
For the past two years, Phish has plucked musicians from the extended Daptone/Antibalas family to assemble a lineup of horns for their musical costumes. Today, you’ll get to hear from trumpet player Eric Biondo who talks about about his experience playing with Phish, a secret jam session that went on backstage, and his own side projects outside of Antibalas—”side dishes” as he likes to call them. Eric plays in Antibalas, Superhuman Happiness as well as his own project Beyondo. He has also recorded and performed with with Spoon, TV on the Radio and many others.
Anytime I get the chance, you’ll find me front row at Eric’s shows. If you live in the NYC area, come check his bands out, say hello and hear some of the best music there is out there. Phish clearly knows how good these players are, and so should you.
The next Beyondo show is at Rockwood Music Hall on March 9th in the Lower East Side.
When did Phish first approach you about playing with them on Halloween? How early did you know which album you’d be covering?
They approached us for the gig about a month and a half before the actual concert. They approached Antibalas management about getting us on there. We didn’t know what the record was going to be until maybe about a month before. We were kind of curious what we were going to play, because we knew there was a record [being covered]. So I got an e-mail from the management that they would be getting us the tracks soon and then we would go from there. So, yeah, it was kind of a surprise for us—to be waiting for this information in suspense.
Did the band require you to sign a confidentiality agreement right from the start?
Yes we did. We were sworn to secrecy and we also had to sign an agreement, which was something I’ve never experienced before. So that was cool.
Were you familiar with Waiting for Columbus before you found out you’d be covering it?
I knew about Little Feat because my father was into them back in the ‘90s. I had gone to see Little Feat in Buffalo back in the early ‘90s. So I knew about it, but then I kind of forgot about Little Feat for many years. My dad was into Little Feat and Robyn Ford and all these bands that I wasn’t as familiar with. But when the Little Feat record came up I was like “Oh my god,” and then I listened to it again and I was like “wow, I am familiar with this music.”
What was the rehearsal process like?
We did two days of rehearsing at SIR in mahnattan. It was a big sound studio. Us horn players trickled into a Phish rehearsal in progress. It was obvious that the had done there homework on the Waiting for columbus record. They were running the set as if they had been playing those songs for years. Once all the horn players were there, we started practicing the arrangements. It was a smooth process. Aaron’s charts were right on. We ran the set a few times each day to get the flow. I have to say the first time I heard Stuart play the solo on Mercenary Territory I got chills as it transitioned in to the guitar solo. We also sight read Julius. It’s always a great feeling to add the brass!
Did you realize you’d be assuming the role of Greg Adams from the Tower of Power horns who plays on the original recording?
[Laughs]. Oh man, I could never assume that guys role. Growing up as a trumpet player, Tower of Power was one of the biggest inspirations, and him being one of the soloist for the trumpets and the arranger and all of that—he’s a serious inspiration. And obviously all of the Tower of Power horns, and Tower of Power…I’ve got to see them at least four or five times in my life. I actually didn’t know Tower of Power was on the record until this thing came up. I mean, when I was a kid I guess I didn’t read the liner notes.
That must have been a double bonus for you—getting to play with Phish and take on the parts of one of your heroes at the same time. Were the arrangements very complex or how did you find them?
Oh man, those arrangements and just their sound…they’re the quintessential funk horn section. I mean, they’re just out of control. The arrangements were very clear and as far as horn arrangements go, they were awesome. A lot of times when bands collaborate like that, the arrangements don’t necessarily feel like they’re part of the song. But I really felt like that music and those horn arrangements were complimentary—there was a definite coalescence between the two worlds—which makes it that much more exciting. So it was very natural as far as learning stuff and it’s more inspiring to learn it.
Were they the actual arrangements that were written out by the Tower of Power horns, or did Trey or someone else transcribe their own versions?
Well, the arranger Aaron Johnson transcribed those from the recording. He’s the trombone player for Antibalas and the musical director and arranger for the Fela! Broadway show. I believe he was contracted to that. He has great ears and I’m sure it didn’t take him long to do that. But at the same time, you can’t really hear every little thing—there’s five horns. For me to do that would be extremely challenging to really be able to hear every little horn part in a live mix. So hats off to Aaron.
That’s interesting, I did not know that. Were you forced to stick to the charts or was there room to stretch out at times?
There was definitely some rearranging of sections on some of the tunes, just some minor horn changes. But for the most part it was verbatim as the recording. We did some improvising at the end of “Spanish Moon” and “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.” That was all basically improvised. We’d come up with a riff and communicate it across the section and then go from there. And then the rest of it was just totally improvisation after that.
What was it like getting to jam with Phish? Were you a fan of them before?
Phish was a band that I had seen once in 1995. And then really just through circumstances, just drifted away from them into other things. But I have, in the last few years, been coming back and re-familiarized myself with their music.
When we got [to Atlantic City] it was an incredible experience as far as joining in to what they do naturally and being an equal part of what they were doing as far as jamming and improvising. They weren’t like you guys are just the horns. They were considerate of what we could do and they demanded us to play. Trey’s direction was really supportive and he gave us a lot of encouragement to stretch out.
Do you have a specific favorite moment of the night?
My favorite moment would have to be at the end of the jam when we were marching around Boardwalk Hall, the jam continued into the backstage area where we had a percussion jam with horns for an extra fifteen minutes after the band had gotten off stage. It was incredible because we were just in the dressing room just playing and clapping and using percussion instruments. It just kept going and it was so much fun. It didn’t end…It wasn’t over yet. To me I thought that was awesome because we weren’t like “We’re backstage, let’s stop playing.” We just kept on playing.
That’s funny because that almost sounds like a Superhuman Happiness jam.
Exactly. Exactly. And that energy from that show has inspired all of us and our fans. We all left that night…it felt like the crowd was like an equal member to the band. There was this incredible interactive spirit that’s just always there—it never goes away. I’ve been on stage with so many different bands and that was a really special moment. With that amount of people, it’s just absolutely inspiring.
Had you played in front of a crowd that size before?
I’ve played at MSG a couple of times with Spoon, and that was pretty incredible as well, but a totally different kind of crowd. We were actually opening for Arcade Fire, so it was probably a split audience. But it was massive—we did two nights there with six horns. Those are probably the biggest shows I’ve ever played.
So let’s talk a bit about your own side dishes, as you like to call them. Can you tell our readers about some of the projects you’re involved in?
Well, Beyondo and Superhuman Happiness are so closely related, in a way, because Stuart [Bogie] (Antibalas/Superhuman Happiness band leader) has been a big supporter of Beyondo for a while. He actually produced our first band EP back in 2005 or 2006. I’ve been playing with Stuart since 2003 when I started to play with Antibalas. He’s definitely a role model for me as far as his vision and what he stands for as a musician, artistically, and also as a leader. So that definitely affects my music and Beyondo.
[Stuart is] the leader of Superhuman Happiness which is a collective band. We all contribute to that band, we all write collectively. But we’ve all come together and been handpicked by Stuart in a way that we all have a common genuineness where we are all trying to be as pure and honest with our vision and our music. And we all have the same taste in music and these kind of things. So Superhuman Happiness is maybe Stuart’s third or fourth band that he’s ever created. That happened quite recently—it’s only been three years since Superhuman Happiness started, I think.
Beyondo has been around since ’99 or ’98, with different members and stuff like that. I’m actually going to put out a compilation of some old tapes that were made when we were in Rochester, when the band started while I was in the Rochester School of Music. Those tapes were created by the guitar player in our band, Grey McMurray. So that’s kind of this old compilation and it’s called Beyondo Beginnings. It just kind of gives an idea of where the band started and where it’s going. It’s very lo-fi stuff.
We’ve been rehearsing regularly lately and I put out Gold Tone this past year and it’s still selling, believe it or not, after all a whole year of being out. People are listening to it and it’s getting a lot of support from people who have never heard of that band.
So to keep that fire going we’re making a new record with the full band and we’re going to record that this spring with the idea of collectively writing together. Hopefully that will come out in the fall. But before that one comes out I’m working on another solo production on my own that will hopefully generate some money for our studio expenses. Other than that we’re just doing our gigs around town.
What about some of the other artists you’ve done studio sessions with?
Some of the other bands and musicians I’ve recorded with around town are TV on the Radio [Eric played on the original version of "Golden Age"] and Passion Pit, The Foals, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Holly Miranda, The Barbarians…a lot of independent bands that are just making some great music that need some horns. We do all that kind of stuff. I’ve probably played with at least 60 bands since I’ve been in New York. But Beyondo and of course Antibalas, that’s my main New York family since I’ve been here. That’s where the party is.
I’ve also been the trumpet player for the Davy Jones Band for the past ten years. Davy has been a big supporter and fan of Beyondo. I had Davy over to my house for dinner once and it turned into a Lo-Fi recording session. Davy is like that. He’s a big pop star that is 100% into music making on any level. We’re gonna release my garage band version of his song Love you Forever this spring
Coming back to Superhuman, I think that is one of the most unique bands I have ever seen perform. How would you describe its sound?
Superhuman Happiness has got this magical, almost hypnotic sound. If you could open up your favorite music box, that’s kind of what it’s like to see Superhuman Happiness. Every single individual player in that band is like a note, or like a sound and all those sounds come together in different orders and make this band. The personalities are very strong, the vocals are full of personality. We’re not trying to sound like anybody.
When people watch Superhuman Happiness they should be feeling like a part of the band as well because our show is basically…we want people to join in with us and clap with us and dance with us and sing with us and listen together. When I’m not playing a note and I’m just standing there, I’m listening to the concert. Although I’m on stage, we’re really trying to bring those two worlds together.
We’ve talked about bringing people up on stage from the audience to just create that linkage between this collective room of rhythm and dance. I’m sure Stuart would say the word “joy” because it’s also like therapy for us. We all work so hard together that it’s really like therapy for us to get together and play this music. It just has almost a healing quality to it because it’s so rooted in harmony and rhythm. There’s a lot of thought that goes into the rhythms and harmonies and it’s not one man’s dream. It’s five people’s interpretations and criticisms and constructions. That’s a band, you know?
Would you consider Superhuman Happiness a jamband? You seem to share many commonalities with the jam world, but it’s almost like a super group of session musician—like a jamband on steroids.
Yeah I totally think we’re a jamband. We’ve done a few shows that are totally improvised and every single show we do has plenty of improvisation with transitions or…it really depends. Although we do have a lot of structured material we can open up on, the band is a fearless improvising mechanism. We’ve played shows where we improvised the whole show and people were like “what was that second tune?”
The other thing about what we do while we improvise, and sometimes people don’t even notice it, but we’ll improvise things vocally. A lot of that stuff is totally improvised vocally. I get on stage and I hear a melody in my head and Stuart will be conducting two sections. We have this thing called memory ones and twos and threes and fours. Basically they’re like ways to document moments in our improvisation so we can remember the feel of a certain [jam]. But there’s so many different variables. Sometimes someone will just lead the way and take us into a place where we have no choice but to support.
Check out this live clip of Superhuman Happiness from 3.1.11 @ Le Poisson Rouge in NYC.