This New Orleans seven-piece features four trombones and a sousaphone (with guitar and drums). Here, they apply a big brass swing to Led Zeppelin, knocking it out of the park. The melodic figure rings particularly strong on the trombones, which feature the perfect dark, vibrant timbre to carry the song's beefy pulse. From the first moments, it's apparent they're a fine match, but the shining moment is the soaring outro. The brass comes unshackled from the groove to explore the capering melody while the guitar chases with a jazzy, wah-inflected rag. It wonderfully accents the song's foaming counterpoint against the churning, sinking insistence of the track's driving, indomitable melody.
The Independent caught up with Bonerama co-founder Mark Mullins at home, preparing for the upcoming tour.
INDEPENDENT: Tell us about "The Ocean," and how you settled on it as a track to cover.
MARK MULLINS: We're all influenced by different kinds of music. When we were putting this band together we knew we wanted to do a lot of New Orleans brass band type music, but we also knew we wanted to do something different. I love rock music, and did an arrangement of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" that people just thought was great. It wasn't a really inventive arrangement or anything, but I guess the fact that we were doing it through trombones, people thought it was kind of interesting. And we ended up picking a lot of rock tunes [to cover] the last 10 years or so.
For this record, I always felt we never picked enough Zeppelin. We have this guy in New York who used to always request "The Ocean" from us, and I've always heard it as a perfect tune, too, because it's got that slow swing section near the end that's just begging for horns it seems. So every time we go back to New York, this guy would be screaming out "The Ocean," and I'd be, "Yeah, I know, that'd be great."
So finally, we just made it happen and went up there the next time and blew his mind. It was pretty funny. He couldn't believe we'd actually learned it. But no, I love Zeppelin. They have so many great tunes that transfer to trombone really well. The really low meaty guitar, crunchy riff-oriented rock stuff is totally doable on the horn. I guess people don't think about the trombone being able to do that, but it's really wonderful to be able to transfer that stuff over to trombone.
In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, author Daniel Levitin talks about a study where this fellow changed these songs, altering the tempo, the key, the intervals, the instrumentation, etc. of familiar songs, and found people had an uncanny ability to recognize them regardless. And that there's obviously a kind of pay off in defying our expectations while satisfying them at the same time.
I think that's dead on. On the one hand people think, you're playing cover music—which we don't, we all write, too—but I don't care. Good songs are good songs, and I love to give them the attention that they deserve. And sure, when you play them in front of people, no matter how you mix it up or how you twist it around or whatever, you can just see that connection of them knowing the original and where it came from, and what you've done with it in the arrangement. And they appreciate that. I love rearranging songs. Some stuff that we do is not all that different than the original, but some things we may mix up and really take into left field, but it all comes from that one song.
You said you knew "The Ocean" would make a good song to cover. Are there some that you immediately discount?
There's a lot of stuff I hear that I'm like, "I'm not sure if that would really transfer as well." Like I figure some Queen stuff with this beautiful really high tight harmonies. And I would love to be able to do that, but just the sonority of the instrument, and that could be an example of how if we're not going to do it like we did it, this would be a perfect chance to really change this sucker up and make it something way different. So I guess to answer your question: Initially you might have fears of tackling a certain song because of how it's played, but that could actually push you into making a much more creative arrangement.
How well did you come out of Katrina?
We had some damage up here. It was a different situation. I live about a half hour north of the city, across Lake Pontchartrain. We didn't have a water issue, but we had a lot of wind damage, a lot of pine trees. It's a little more country setting. It was a wind and tree issue. But we fared well. We were very, very lucky. It could be a night and day difference depending on who you talk to.
Craig Klein, my friend [and co-founder] from Bonerama, he lost his house, but he's rebuilding. He had 11 feet of water in his house, and it sat there for almost a month in water. They're all settled in Baton Rouge. They got settled right away, and in the meantime he's been rebuilding whenever he's off the road. He'll go back to Arabi, where he lives in St. Bernard Parish, and do what he can do while he's home. But we've been traveling so much since the storm we've been pretty busy. We were busy before the storm, but we haven't been home a whole lot, to get any momentum going.
Was he insured?
He had insurance, but that doesn't mean everything is right. There's a lot of problems with how that was handled.
Did you find that there was a lot of renewed attention and focus on New Orleans brass band music in the wake of Katrina?
Brass bands and really all things New Orleans, but music especially. Whether it's New Orleans funk, people revisiting who the Neville brothers are and where they came from, who the Meters are and where they came from, that kind of thing, and the brass band thing as well. Absolutely.
If there is any good that you can look from that, definitely we felt that right away there was a sudden immediate snap of focus and attention back on New Orleans. All of a sudden we feel kind of like ambassadors out there. Craig didn't have anywhere to go home to. We didn't have anything we could do here at home work-wise. We knew we had to get on the road and just wanted to stay on the road as long as we could, because that's kind of all we could do right after the storm. And yeah, the outpouring of people that would come out, especially those very first shows. I think, two weeks later, we were back on the road like Sept. 14, and the hurricane was like August. So two weeks and we were out. The outpouring of people coming to the shows was incredibly emotional and just real humbling. To see these people come out ... they just wanted to be there. They wanted to support whatever we were about, and it was really amazing. It's been a good snap of refocus on New Orleans music, and it's been wonderful.
It had to be heartening to receive all this support, reinforcing your faith in people.
They might not even say much. You could just see it in their eyes. They just wanted to be there. They didn't know exactly what to say or what to do, but they just wanted to come out and just share their energy with us. And that was more powerful than them just coming out, because you could tell they didn't know what to say or what to do, but they didn't have to say anything. It was really beautiful.
Bonerama plays Hideaway BBQ Saturday, Dec. 1, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12.