Monday, 18 February 2013

Feature - Tuba Skinny

Published in the February issue of Rhythms.  Full, unedited story below.

What's The Skinny?

New Orleans, N’Awlins. Squatting on the banks of the thick, slow-running Mississippi river, an ancient, gnarled old man of a city – the Big Easy – languid in the oppressive heat, creaking and cracking; its streets running down to the old port, greasy watered; its history leaking, seeping from every building, cobblestone, creases on faces, where grown men sweat 24 hours a day.

It’s a city of Sin to be sure, a unique city that seems at odds with the ubiquitously rampant conservatism that defines America these days, but one gets the impression that down Louisiana way, they do things differently.

As such, it’s also a city of music, a city of a million cultures and creeds which breed their own sounds, mixing and melding, taking from one, giving to another and so this uniqueness shines and booms, it rockets from the mouths of horns and falls from strings, vocal chords, skins and reeds like nothing else you’ll hear anywhere else.

Indeed, walk down the street in the Crescent City and music will take you, whether it be blaring from open club doors, filtering from windows high above the street-level bustle, emanating from groups busking on all corners and in all doorways, a veritable feast from which there is no escape, no end, no menu. N’Awlins is the real deal, of this you can be sure.

On the street is where our story begins then, specifically in the French Quarter, even more specifically with seven-piece Tuba Skinny. In 2009, these feisty cats came together, long-standing friendships solidifying into a unit, one which breaths rag-time blues and Dixie jazz, as easily as you or I breath air. Their sound is as old as the hills, but their youth brings to it a vitality, a freshness which takes the old music and makes it new again, something which is happening as we speak.

“Currently, it’s a pretty vibrant street scene, the past few years there have been quite a number of… folks our age playing a lot of different styles of Americana and traditional jazz, and doing it really, really well,” observes vocalist Erika Lewis. She goes on to say that it’s been noticeable since Hurricane Katrina, back in 2005, that a younger generation of musicians have been drawn to the city, inspired by what’s come before them, but looking to move it ahead, even subconsciously, as is the case with Tuba Skinny.

“All of our inspiration comes from all that old music, it’s so unique… the structure of the old blues, the old jazz, is something that we draw from,” Lewis muses. “I think, [for us], it’s about staying true to the form that was laid out before us and not trying to intentionally reinvent it, but you know, you take it and make it your own just by playing it. I think we’re more sticklers for laying the groundwork for the songs in the way that it was originally intended, and then if it becomes something else, then I think that’s great.”

The group have taken this formula and made it their own, ever since they began playing together, only a few years ago. As Lewis says, “Most of us had met previously, seven or eight years ago, down here in New Orleans just playing music on the street. None of us are from New Orleans, but we’ve all traveled here to see what life was about down here and play music, so we met that way.”

“In 2009, we were all looking for something else, a new musical project,” she goes on. “All of us at the time, for the most part, were making our living by busking on the street, and so we formed Tuba Skinny as a new endeavour. We didn’t really have any grand intention of it, we just wanted to play music together and try and make a little money, and it really took off.”

Take off it did, the band almost immediately heading over to Europe to busk, along the way taking, as Lewis says, any opportunity that came their way – something which has seen them introduce themselves to the world. Over the past three and a half years, there aren’t many places on the planet the group haven’t been, Australia being no exception – when they’re here this very month, it’ll be for the third time in only a year and a half. It seems we here Down Under, have become quite taken with this laidback band of street players.

“I’m not sure how, but it’s pretty amazing when people are so receptive to the music, we’ve been quite surprised,” Lewis smiles, not just referencing their Australian sojourns, but “most other places” they’ve played. “I think for one, it’s the type of music that we’re playing – it’s very straight forward, it’s meant to be social music, music to celebrate to.

“I mean, in New Orleans, traditional jazz has been the backdrop to everything, from funerals to every kind of celebration, and it just has (with the tuba and the brass) this strong beat, it’s referencing the blues – whether you can understand the language I’m speaking or not, they’re emotional yet uplifting songs. People can just feel that, and maybe talk to it really well. I think it’s actually a physical thing.”

Speaking of physical things, we turn the conversation to records – just because The Skinny hail from street corners and alley ways, doesn’t mean they’re not want to capture places in time to share all over the world. However, herein lies a tricky proposition – how does a band like this one go about recording? Their element lies in, and is fuelled by, the hustle and bustle of life on the street, it’s where they’ve cut their collective teeth, honed their collective chops – how do Tuba Skinny approach recording?

“Well, we’ve tried a few different things,” Lewis says with a laugh, which hints at the fact the band aren’t overly comfortable in a recording setting. “Our first album (Tuba Skinny, May 2009) we did record in a studio, with the brother of one of our band members, that made it a bit more comfortable. But we’re definitely not very comfortable in a studio.”

“The second and third albums (Six Feet Down, February 2010 and Garbage Man, January 2011), we hired an engineer to come and record it at one of our homes,” she goes on. “We just set up in the living room, and even then, it wasn’t an ideal recording [set up], and I don’t think any of us are truly happy with those albums. As structured and arranged as our songs can be, there’s still something that is very spontaneous about the energy of the whole thing, so I think it’s hard for us to go into a box and lay ‘em down, it doesn’t really work.”

However, there’s been a light at the end of that recording tunnel, and it comes to be in the shape of their fourth record, Rag Band, released in June last year. The method this time? Get rid of everyone but the band. “We’re all very proud of this one, we did it ourselves,” Lewis acknowledges. “Just with a single Zune recorder and a lot of agonising placement of [mics]. We just recorded it at home over the course of nine months… and we also ended up taking recordings people had made of us playing, and put them on the album. It gives more of a feel of us, you know?”

Rag Band is pure music, being played purely for the sake of music – and perhaps this is the fact that it’s this music, but it just feels real, it’s like a band is playing, and someone else, unbeknownst to the band in question, has artfully placed a mic in the middle of the room, capturing exactly what needs to be captured. It’d be a relief to the band they’re able to record in such a way, not to mention a relief to their growing multitude of fans the world over.

However, in true Tuba Skinny form, they’re not agonising over the record, it’s well done for them, and so they’re turning their attention to their next offering, which for Australian fans of the band, will be happening closer to their own front doors than they may realise.

“Yeah, we’re planning on recording a new album actually, when we’re in Australia, in Tasmania,” Lewis confirms. “We’re definitely thinking about that, we’re really looking forward to it.” This will come as the band’s fifth release in only three and a half years – the word prolific hardly does them justice.

“Well, we play a lot, and we can get bored if we play the same things too much,” she smiles. “We don’t want to run [the songs] into the ground, so we like to try and keep it fresh, with new songs and new inspiration.”

These seven have seen more than enough in the past three and a half years to inspire them, and it’s coming out in their music, this old-time-for-the-new-time sound, so heavily rooted in old blues and jazz and rag time good times, yet wrought for today, which is a very important thing indeed. May the street music of New Orleans, along with Tuba Skinny, live on and on.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuba Skinny tour Australia this month. Rag Band is available now through the band’s website at

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