Imagine a vibe that evokes dubstep, reggae, Dixieland and big band and you have a sliver of a glimpse of the Intergalactic Brasstronauts. Leader and sax player Sam Thornton and his band have a new CD called “Music for the People” which is best described as a huge, screaming heap of fun. An incredible 16 tracks that leaves the listener breathless, heart pumping, stomping away. Inventive instrumentation, counterpoint that’s off the chain and sizzling hooks crash together to make this a memorable offering. Catchy as all get-out.
Sam Thornton – voice, tenor & baritone saxophones, melodica, piano, organ, percussion, lead guitar
Tasha B – voice
B Dubs – voice
Andy Morgan – rhythm guitar
John Settle – drums
Joe Love – drums
James Lancaster – sousaphone
Stuart Garside – trombone
Will Osborne – trombone
Chris Williamson – trumpet
Dan Webster – trumpet
Tom Ashe – trumpet
Stu MacDonald – soprano saxophone & contrabass clarinet
Why and when did you form this band?
This band was conceived just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and the consequent long periods in lockdown provided the opportunity for me to write the brass arrangements and start producing the album. I was inspired by the New Orleans-style street bands, which have become very popular in the UK over the last decade. I love the energy generated by players moving around the audience rather than being confined to a stage. I love the sound of two screaming trumpets sitting on top of a thick wall of brass. But, certainly with the UK bands, I found the repertoire to be mostly limited to cover versions of classic pop and soul hits, with a bit of NOLA on the side. I decided to write some original music for the street band lineup, but to change it up a bit, with some unusual instruments and electronic effects.
How did you come to your own sound and which elements of Nawlins did you want to riff off of?
We have adopted the mobile, “pop-up-party” feel of the New Orleans street bands, but there are many other elements that have shaped our sound. I grew up playing in big bands and jazz orchestras, and have been heavily influenced by composers and arrangers such as Duke Ellington, Sammy Nestico, Charles Mingus and Thad Jones. Myself and the guitarist from the band, Andy Morgan, have played in ska and reggae bands for the last 15 years too, so there is a heavy off-beat emphasis in our music and long, dubby passages, where we strip everything right back to drums, guitar and bass, awash with tape delay and spring reverb effects. The bass lines are doubled-up on sousaphone and contrabass clarinet, giving extra emphasis to the bottom end. We also have a vocalist, B Dubs, who specializes in the Jamaican tradition of “toasting” (an early form of rap, long before that term was coined) over instrumental sections.
Why did you decide to incorporate all kinds of instruments in your music?
I originally toyed with the idea of the sousaphone parts being doubled on bass saxophone but our reeds player, Stuart MacDonald (also of the Hallé Orchestra), pointed out that the contrabass clarinet is capable of playing an extra fifth below the lowest saxophone note and he had one, gathering dust, in his cupboard. He brought it along to one of the recording dates and it was settled. The sousa/contrabass clarinet combo was THE sound I had been striving for… incredibly low and subby, but still organic and mellow. The melodica is another feature of our music which you wouldn’t normally see in a brass band. A reed instrument, similar in sound to a harmonica or an accordion, it cuts through the dense brass and is a familiar sound to fans of dub and reggae, thanks to its main protagonist Augustus Pablo.
What inspired “Music for the People”?
This is a concept album where we (the band) are members of an alien race, having recently arrived on a deserted Planet Earth. The discovery of a human bunker, full of musical instruments and tape recordings, has enabled us to start piecing together a picture of what life was like for our predecessors on this planet.
Back in the real world we have a tendency to focus on what divides us and, in recent years, social media seems to be amplifying our differences. I feel it is important that art and music exists which encourages us to take a step back and examine ourselves from the perspective of an outsider looking in, so we can ask the important questions like “are we really that different?”, “should we be fighting?” and “are we being ridiculous?”
What was the most fun part and the most challenging part of producing this album?
The whole process has been incredibly fun. The main brass recording session, earlier this year, was the first time many of us had been in the same room as other musicians for months. That alone was exciting, but also challenging in some respects. I, for one, had been putting all my time and energy through the lockdown period into writing and arranging, and had neglected my saxophone practice. I didn’t think it would matter, as I was only meant to be directing the band on the first few sessions; however, our tenor saxophone player had to quarantine which meant a dusting-off of the horn, and a baptism of fire for me.
We had financial support from an Arts Council of England National Lottery Project Grant, which covered the costs of recording and producing the album. It was really nice to be able to pay everyone involved, fairly and handsomely, at a time when work has been scarce. The challenging part for me is rarely the music-making, but rather how to promote the finished album. As a brand new band we haven’t toured yet or built up a pot of money, so we are a self-contained unit at this stage, taking care of bookings and promotional work ourselves.
Your favorite track?
My favourite track… actually two tracks that segue into each other… is “Dubfart/Al Baba,” as it features the very talented B Dubs on vocals and has just the right balance of sparse, dubby reggae, and bold, brassy ska, with a good helping of big-band-jazz-style sectional writing.
How did you meet your bandmates and what do they bring to the table?
I’ve known trombonist, Stuart Garside, and reedsman, Stuart MacDonald, for many years through playing in various big bands and jazz ensembles with them, including Doncaster Jazz Orchestra and The Al Wood Big Band. Those guys play regularly with New York Brass Band, who have a slightly misleading band name (they have no connection to the Big Apple).
I guested with the brass band a few times at Glastonbury Festival in the UK a few months before the pandemic struck, and I was gobsmacked by their energy, their stamina and the creativity and quality of their soloists. When they play at Glastonbury, they play around 25 sets over the course of the weekend. At Rio Carnival they play relentlessly in “bloco” street parties for 4 or 5 hours at a time without a break. Those of you who have ever picked up a brass instrument will understand how physically tiring this would be yet, when watching the players in NYBB and Intergalactic Brasstronauts, they never look tired and always give 100%. This stamina has allowed me to write continuous passages of music for the band and our album is 60 minutes in length with no breaks in between songs, much like a classical suite or a DJ mix. Our live shows are similar.
How is the scene where you are, especially getting gigs right now?
Things are starting to pick up in the UK after the restrictions have been lifted. There were periods of full lockdown where live music ground to a halt, along with everything else. There have also been small milestones along the way, such as some venues opening outside seating areas, suitable for live music, and a gradual relaxation of the rules around audience members being allowed to dance.
At the time of writing, all restrictions around social-distancing have been removed, and music venues are allowed to open at full capacity again. However, many large festivals are unable to operate, due to insurance issues. There is still a way to go and, if the last 18 months has taught us anything, it is how quickly things can change. It is however great to be playing live music again and, so far, audiences seem to enjoying it too!
Upcoming gigs and projects you are working on?
At the moment, we don’t have many events set in stone, due to the uncertainty of what’s around the corner. We’re taking baby steps first, with a gig in our local city of Leeds on 29 October 2021. We are planning a UK tour for April 2022 and a European tour for April 2023, including a confirmed appearance at Freedom Sounds festival in Germany. We’d love to travel further afield eventually but, as a new band, we’re enjoying taking it one step at a time and seeing how it all unfolds.
‘Music For The People’ is available directly from our artist bandcamp page, https://intergalacticbrasstronauts.bandcamp.com
For more information visit www.tinyurl.com/brasstronauts, www.facebook.com/intergalacticbrasstronauts, www.twitter.com/igbrasstronauts, www.instagram.com/intergalacticbrasstronauts.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2021 Debbie Burke