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It Goes to Eleven (No. 6): Brent Berry y Tambien

Kiki Shakti gets together with Brent Berry and Jamie Rann (from Brent Berry Y Tambien and Monsoon), as well as Giles Shelton (also of Brent Berry Y Tambien). She joined them prior to a rehearsal for a little chat.

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1. How long have you been playing music? 

Since I was eleven years old.

And you started with the guitar?

No, it was all drums. Just drums –- really one snare drum. And, that led to others.  You know, bagpipe, elementary school band, church choir…

Wait a second; you played bagpipe in elementary school?

No, I played snare drum to accompany bagpipes. Then the Kansas City St. Andrews, which I joined when I was twelve or thirteen, was really great. Changed everything. It made music suddenly a very serious thing. You know, not just school and chicks dig it, but we’ve got a competition, and I’ve got twenty-three other people who are taking it very seriously. So, I learned to take it seriously.


2. What was your favorite music growing up?

(There is a long pause as he considers this question)

Fleetwood Mac… yeah, Fleetwood Mac.  It really was Fleetwood Mac. They had such a sense of feel and style and my parents talked to me about them like they were part of the family at the dinner table, “Did you hear that Mick and Stevie are in a fight?” You know, shit like that.


3. So how did you get the point where you now have… what do you call it? Afro-coastal…

Afro-coastal-Cuban-Americana. Well, that was the Brent Berry Band, and that was true, you know, it was folky, because I was playing guitar, we could play an Irish song and then a highlife African feel and then a Cuban song, and so we needed some little shtick that would encompass everything.

How did you get to be such a multi-genre, eclectic musician? 

Kansas City.  Kansas City is a really cool musical place. Along with the bagpipe band, I joined the Kansas City Traditional Music Society when I was 15, which were all Cubans and Haitians and even some Balinese gamelan players and then the Irish people were in it, too. So, once you started hanging out as people… And, my mom. I couldn’t have done it without my mom, without my parents driving me around – constantly –my sister, my grandmother, my whole family took turns driving my ass to rehearsals. So, that led to the Irish and the Scottish and that led to the Cuban. And then the Cuban led to the African. And, then the Cuban and African merged into reggae.  And, then, yeah…


4. How many incarnations of your music have there been? For instance, you had Brent Berry and Honest Abe and then the Brent Berry Band and now you’ve got…

…Brent Berry Y Tambien, which I think might just be changing to a band name soon. The guys are finally leaning on me a little. They’re finally like, “Hey dude, time to get your name out of it. Time to let it grow up.” I think I just held onto the whole ‘put my name in the band thing’ because of the first record deal I got. This manager, Joe somebody or other, was like, “You’ve got to have your name on it. Be proud of it.” It made sense and so it was. And, then by the time I got to Taos… Yeah, luckily the guys let me put my name on it early on. But, people know what they’re getting if it’s got a Brent Berry on it. That worked for a long time, and now I think that when people go to a Brent Berry show, they think it’s is just going be some guy with a guitar and some fucking Simon and Garfunkel bullshit, or you know, mother-child reunion.  Yeah, I don’t know what people think but…


5. Well, yeah, you definitely have your own style. You definitely have an interesting scenario set up, too, with you on the guitar and drums, and Jamie on the other guitar and then you guys have how many people in your band now?

Now, it’s Peggy, Jamie, Giles from Katie P & the Business, Jeremy Jones of Big Swing Theory on sax. This is really, honestly the band. I’m still a drummer. I’ll admit it; I’m really stoked to be playing drums again. I love playing guitar and I’ll always play guitar, but, boy I am glad to be playing drums again, because I feel like I can do anything I want on drums, whereas on guitar, yeah I can do a lot, but I’m a little limited. So, now it’s fun to be back in that seat. So, now Jamie is the one holding it down with the guitar and I’m not even playing guitar anymore.

And, are you still playing solo gigs?

Yes, actually, I am going to be the “Artist in Residence” at the Taos Inn next month in March, which is a cool thing. This month, it’s Jennifer Peterson, next month it’s me. The greatest thing about solo gigs for me, is that I can do anything I want.

So, yeah, solo gigs, and then Monsoon, which is Dan Irion from the Last to Know and O’Duffy’s Lament, and then Jamie, who is my captain, my general, my right hand.  I think the closest way to describe Monsoon is hearkening on Honest Abe material — the Monsoon record — that is why we called the new band Monsoon, just because we were bored and we had a gig and we had to call it something.  It’s neat, because, Dan Irion! Man, it’s been years since we’ve played together. He’s always been an amazing mandolin player, but Wow! has the break done us good.  It’s really fun because he and Jamie are just like twins, in terms of musical communication, and I’m just sitting there in the middle stomping the drum, holding the guitar part down while these two guys are just going off.  And, I have to like butt in with a lyric occasionally. It’s kind of neat.

That’s cool. How did you guys decide to do that?

You know, Dan is one of the owners of the brewery and he had some gigs to fill and he was just trying to put something together. He called me, he called Jamie, he said, “We’ll just call it whatever.” We did and then we played one gig, and it was awesome and we’ve kept booking more. Who knows where it’s going to go. I love the trio.  I love the trio. It’s simple. It’s not theatrical — it’s not too much bullshit, not that any band… But, yeah, it’s really chill. We don’t even practice.


6. How has your music evolved from say the Honest Abe days to now with Y Tambien?

I got off of the songwriting kick a couple years ago and got more into playing other songs, you know, Cuban songs that I like, Norteño songs that I like, any song that I like. It kind of got back to that. It’s fun to do that as a player. There are a lot of people who the majority of their material is other people’s songs, and I kind of have a shit-ton of songs. So, it’s good for me to remember that I can still learn — there’s more to learn. I got back into congas really good, and so that made me want more drums. Not to be terribly selfish, but I love dance bands. So, I told Jamie a couple years ago, I said, “You know I love the folk thing, I mean, people dance to us, but I want a dance band.” And, we are shaped a lot by the community, too — what the community wants. Whenever your turnout starts to go down, and you feel like you’re playing great music, you’re providing good product, then, if you’re just going to stay in one town, like we do — we stay in Taos — you can’t just do the same damn thing that you always done that worked for you and expect people to keep up with you. You have to keep up with what the people want, which is going to dance — cover bands and dance. And, so, I’m not a cover band, but I can play a dance band. We can do that. So, to answer your question, we are just morphing. We are just keeping up with the times, what the needs are.  The bars are changing, businesses are changing… You know what I’m talking about.


7. So, I’ve always had this image of you (probably from before I met you and we’ve personally known each other for a long time now) floating down the river with the guitar on a raft –I totally just had this, you know, far-flung, river guide, musician image of you in my head. Does that come from someplace real or did I just make that up?

No, I do that. Yeah, I still guide — definitely not as much as I used to. And now, we do Brent Berry music trips on the Chama. People come — we get like 25 people, six boats. I guide them, I cook for them, and at night I play music for them, and then, everyone gets drunk and passes out. We do that for three days.

That’s cool. And where can you sign up for that? How many of those do you do?

Yes, you can sign up for that at http://www.farflung.com. We did three this last year — dedicated Brent Berry raft trips, where — get this — people actually paid to hang out with me on the river.

I don’t find that to be so terribly surprising.

We had people come from Kansas City, and from Chicago, I’ve got a crew from Los Alamos I take every year. They’re all musicians… Far-flung does other music trips, too, you know, with other local musicians.


8. So, I do know that you’ve done some extensive traveling. Where did you go and when was that?

Back-and-forth around the United States for a long time. I was in the military over in Asia. I joined when I was seventeen, and it didn’t last very long. I was in the army and I wound up on the DMZ South Korea – the demilitarized zone – doing patrol. And, I got to do some humanitarian shit, which in my mind, now that I’m a grown man, justifies it all. Yeah, I was good at it, which was scary, but then, I really learned about the government and I lost all heart. Then, I hurt my back and got out. As soon as I got home I got on a Global Peace walk in 1995 and that brought me to Taos for the first time. We walked from Kansas City to San Francisco and Taos was one of the stops.  The mayor declared Taos a Global Peace zone. It was beautiful. We finished the walk, got to San Francisco and I came right back to Taos.

Then you just started running the river and playing music, or what?

No, I started writing songs and going back to Lawrence, Kansas and playing in bands. I was a side guy. I played timbale, congas, drum set, back-up singing and just came back and forth every three months to Taos. I’d have two weeks of rest here; go back [to Lawrence] to work – where the music work was. Then, I got a record deal and that’s when it got serious. It was a reggae band: Brent Berry and the Roots Crew. We had a manager and a booking agent; we had to do things and I came back here to write the songs that fueled the band, but I would tell them I was going to Tucson.

Why?

Because this was my hideout. This was where I gained inspiration, and went to rejuvenate. Yeah, and we just toured all over. That lasted until 2002. Then I came back here, left the band, the contract was up. I was sick of all of them – sick of the whole fucking everything. So, yeah, I came back here and got a job as a photographer on the Rio Grande. Then, I became a guide the next year and Honest Abe was formed, by the riverside. Dan is a kayaker; Jamie is a kayaker – that’s where we all met. Jack Wilson is a kayaker. It was born there. The rest is history. That’s the clincher– by the banks of the Rio Grande….  but that’s the real deal. This place has always been a hideout. It wasn’t until I was really ready that I could leave fucking Lawrence and come to live here full-time. The band just grew and grew and grew.

(All the while Brent has been setting up for rehearsal. He sits down at his drum set)

Want to hear my new beat?

(At this point, he plays a drumbeat for me. Then, Giles and Jamie show up for rehearsal and I get to sit with them and ask them a few questions.) 


9. So Jamie, you have been in a variety of incarnations of Brent Berry bands for a long time.

Jamie: Yes, I have…

How has your playing changed? You know, how has your experience playing in all these bands with Brent changed or evolved?

Jamie:  Well, I think my playing has grown a lot since I’ve known Brent.  He’s helped me with the Cuban stuff and the African stuff, which I really wasn’t tuned into it all before I met him. And, the bluegrass, too. I started playing the slide guitar when we met and the whole thing sort of blossomed, as well. So yeah, lots of different areas have evolved.

So, he’s not playing guitar anymore. What has that done for you as far as how your playing?

Jamie:  Well, the dynamic of the band is a little different. A couple of things — I mean specifically, personally, it’s changed my roll a little bit, as far as holding it down and making sure the songs contain their composition more. Whereas, when Brent’s playing guitar, I can just sit back and be the color man, but with Jeremy Jones on saxophone, he’s doing that job now.  So, my role has changed a bit and we’re still working that out. And, having Giles on bass… He’s a phenomenal melody player — not only a sick bass player, but he can pick melodies out like nobody’s business, so it’s also another aspect we are trying to delve into more and more. And, getting Peggy more bits and pieces, too — trying to get everybody their own little parts.


10. Giles, you’re in another band (Katy P and the Business), so obviously they’re two completely different animals. How do you transition between them? What do you do to transition or change your focus so that you can approach it differently?

Giles: Well, I don’t think I do approach it differently. I try to play my instrument the best I can, to facilitate everybody’s playing around me as much as I can, and to make the song sound best and try to make people dance.  I mean, that rule is just a constant, continuous thing, and I strive for that. I don’t really look at it like I am coming here trying to somehow play something different than I would for another group.  I don’t know, maybe I should think that way, but I really don’t. I play whatever — what comes out, comes out; I don’t take a studiously varied approach to anything. You know what I mean? I don’t really think about it, I guess.

Jamie: What’s really cool about this group is like when everybody just has their parts and all the cogs just kind of fit together, it’s just like this groove machine happens. And, that’s really neat and we get there when we get there. We don’t try to plan it, or anything. It’s something, I think, that just happens naturally.  That’s one of my favorite things about this ensemble.

Giles: I would say that the structure of the songs vary a little bit more with this project. It’s mostly original stuff, and there’s definitely other tunes in there, but with this group it’s really a lot more likely to have a completely different structure from one night to the other and it’s the same song. I really like that and I think it’s something that really keeps the songs fresh, when you’re able to stray from it and there can be maybe a verbal communication or a body-language communication that just takes the song to a completely different place than it would have been the last time we played it.

Jamie: That’s something Jeremy has said, too, that he likes about this group, because, he also plays a Big Swing Theory (which is a great fucking band), but he likes that this project doesn’t necessarily do the songs the same way. We’re willing to step out into the unknown a little bit and trust each other that we’re going to get back. It’s kind of fun to not know how we’re going to get back.

Giles: Yeah, and to see where it goes. When you have that energy and there’s also a nice dancing crowd, the improvisation like that really is a fun thing. I really enjoy doing that.


11. So, Brent mentioned earlier that you guys might try to come up with a new band name that’s not just “Brent Berry and…?” Anything interesting on the table for that?

Jamie: Oh, I don’t even remember. I don’t really know. There was one night of drunken brainstorming session, but I don’t really remember anything — nothing special.

Giles: For me, there was definitely a period where that discussion happened, but I think our last month, or so, as a band it hasn’t really been discussed. We’ve been rehearsing consistently and I think there’s some new material that’s coming out of it. It’s just been more about the music – we’ve found a few songs (it’s crazy!) out of the last few rehearsals… It [the new band name idea] just hasn’t really come up lately. It’s just been all about music.

Jamie: We’re going to open for Habib Koité on the 10th. We’re going to work on that set tonight and I think it might be neat, as far as what Giles is referring to, a lot of that new fresh material. I think that would be a good opportunity for people to come out, and not only see an awesome band from Mali, but also to hear some of our newer stuff, too.

Giles: Yeah, there are some songs that I think are just sounding absolutely dynamic and really cool stuff. And, our rehearsals have been so productive. We’ve been working on these tunes. It’s really great and we have a bunch of gigs coming up.

(Somehow the discussion turns toward this series, It Goes to Eleven. Giles says he thinks I have a very cool interview style and that I get some nice stuff out of the people I interview. I am, of course flattered, and I mention that I think it’s a fun thing to do and that I just want to talk about the cool live music scene in Taos.)

Jamie: I think it feels pretty supportive in Taos, compared to some of other places you go where it’s more cutthroat and competitive. I think everybody pretty much kind of loves each other here.

Giles: I am an eternally optimistic soul, and I think that in every town that has a music scene, there’s a group of musicians who all support each other. There’s always the little stuff that goes on, but that’s part of music.

Brent: And, we all evolve with it.

Jamie: Yeah…

Giles: And, we all evolve with it.

Brent:  We have to. We need to.

Giles: Must! Evolve, or die.