Date: Feb 21, 2012 (Tuesday)
By: Beth Ann Johnson
That beat; the unrelenting beat of electronic music has been pulsing within me since the moment it entered in my life. The more I listen, the more it pulls me in. Its massive auditory and visual components and the seamless blending of disparate sounds by wildly talented DJs is utterly captivating and has seduced me into seeing more than 150 shows this past year.
Unaware of what would soon take place in the Dallas music scene, I traveled to South Lake Tahoe for a New Year's Eve celebration at Snowglobe Music Festival. Much to my surprise, I returned to Dallas to observe the proliferation of electronic dance music into the fabric of the city: Pretty Lights on the loudspeakers at a convenience store, a couple of kids debating the relative merit of the Skrillex tracks on their iPods while I was out running errands, and a sudden spike in attendance at Deep Ellum's bass weekly, Suspect Mondays. Lights All Night upped their game since the 6,000 person party they threw in 2010. Bringing in nearly 30,000 people, the 2 day festival housed more than 30 artists, and suddenly the electronic movement was invading Texas right before my eyes. Standing by were Banjos to Beats owners Josh and Amanda Smith along with their premier team of promoters. Ready to keep the party going, the two surprised local music lovers with a non-stop chain of invites consisting of an incredibly solid lineup.
Last Thursday, Banjos to Beats kicked off their spring series at Trees with none other than masters of livetronica, BoomBox. I was very excited when asked to interview the producers Russ Randolph and Zion Godchaux. These guys initiated my departure from the noodle dancing norm, and I felt it was the perfect opportunity to honor the development of the Texas electronic scene. Considering the new genres newest followers, I tried to focus on the basics, hoping it might serve as the perfect crash course. I caught up with BoomBox a couple days before the show, as they prepared to leave their Alabama homes for life on the road… first stop, Texas.
The two of you met while working on a project for the Heart of Gold Band, what triggered the idea to work together, and when did it become a reality?
Zion: It was probably the discovery that we both thought the same way about rhythm and about ways that we could layer stuff, ways that we could create songs.
Russ: We were working on that project, and at the time Zion was already writing material on a drum machine - or with a drum machine - instead of writing with a band or other musicians. I just kind of started working with him and the drum machines, we basically just fell into it. Literally, on a plane ride back from Burning Man we had basically come up with the concept of what we were going to do, it wasn't like we had the idea in the beginning. We really just kind of fell in, and all of the sudden one day it was like “oh wow… we can actually do this with just two people.”
Russ, in a previous interview you mentioned Burning Man showed you some of the best DJs, and stated "they really tore your head apart."
Russ: For sure. For sure…
Do you remember who it was?
Russ: Uh… Pollywog we think. We are pretty sure it was Pollywog. At the time we weren't, really in the right head space to be figuring out names, it was more just about the experience and what was going on, but we are pretty sure it was Pollywog.
You describe your music as adapting the electronic work to rock and roll. Zion, you grew up in the Bay Area, and Russ, you were raised in the south… do you feel that one of you brought the electronic elements, and the other brought the concept of rock and roll to your music?
Zion: Just by means of the drum machine I was working and stuff that I was into and trying to produce at the time… I brought, or actually, I more reminded Russ about electronic music. I was pretty much was like… check this out. You probably already know, he is from around here* making him knowledgeable about music, the approach to playing and producing, which is definitely a huge part of it too.
*Muscle Shoals, Alabama - home of Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, responsible for recordings by like The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and many more.
Russ: Like Z was saying, he kind of like refreshed my memory, or reminded me about electronic music. I hadn't given up, I had just never had that experience until we were at Burning Man. Z knew, he had been in the whole San Francisco house scene. He lived in it, but I had not actually experienced like that so that was the whole reason Z really drove me out to Burning Man that year. He was like this will be the quickest way to give you a refresher course and get you believing in electronic music. That's really all it took, it was a huge part, Z really just kind of shook me back into it… made me realize - okay, this is what's going on with modern music. I definitely needed that at the time.
I know that exact feeling you are talking about. I remember that WOW moment when I realized what was out there, I was completely unaware. It can really change things.
Russ: It is a very powerful medium, for sure...
Favorite rock and roller of all time?
Zion: Favorite rock and roller, a single cat? I would have to say Hendrix…
Russ: I kind of like the Chuck Berry side of rock and roll, something about it’s intriguing.
What about electronic music, do y'all have a top pick, someone that turned you on… besides the burning man adventure?
Russ: There have been lots of producers, Thievery Corporation is one. Early on I really latched onto their production style and what they were going for. But, there's been a lot of good stuff… I really look up to Massive Attack, you know we played New Year’s Eve with Crystal Method in New Zealand and those guys I really look up to, I like what they are doing and what they have done over the years throughout their career. We don't necessarily listen to a lot of other electronic music… I mean I have a Pandora station I will put on and those types of things, but as far as like buying, following, and keeping up to date with electronic music that's really not who we are.
Zion: You know, for me, I like house music, Johnny Fiasco, Chicago House, San Francisco house, I really dig Miguel Migs, but I'm kind of old school when it comes to electronic music. Like Russ mentioned we are not actively trying to keep up with it.
Anyone in particular you wanted to sound like, were you aiming for a certain sound when you started BoomBox?
Zion: We are not preconceiving anything, we just write according to how we are feeling and what's coming down the pipe creatively, and our approach in writing and in playing live is a rock and roll head space, that’s just where we are coming from. Yeah we are dropping beats and all that, but in our heads, where we are coming from, we are just playing rock and roll and we need the beats to pump the house. It’s not like we are thinking… okay, we want to be a mix of Led Zepplin and Danny Tenaglia. We’re not thinking like that, we just sound like we sound.
Russ: They are basically labeling what we end up making, people force with a label, and that’s what it ends up being. It’s like Z said, we don't have a plan when we go to the board, we just make track and music, and whatever we feel like - is what happens.
The two came together almost a decade ago and because of your visionary style and individualized approach you have contributed a great deal to the evolution of music as a whole.
Was there ever a time when people didn’t understand or get the idea of BoomBox, or want to accept the idea of fusing live and electronic elements, or has your music perceived in a positive manner?
Zion: Not really, I mean we always got weird looks, we still do, but we knew what we were doing that that never faltered since the beginning for a millisecond. I have felt this when everyone is looking at us like we are a silly circus act. In the early days, they thought for sure... should we really be taking these guys seriously, but we knew what we were doing; we knew where we stood in the grand scheme of things. But personally, it ever got me down.
Did y'all experience tough times when you couldn't make ends meet?
Russ: Yes, we never really got down emotionally, but we definitely lived in poverty... we would shower with hoses and shit like that, for sure.
Zion: Oh yeah, and it was hard as hell.
There are a lot of young producers struggling, and then there are also those who go big time because of a single hit. What do you think of the course electronic music is taking and the rate at which it is being produced today?
Zion: In my opinion, anybody who is doing well for themselves and has been over a couple years, they are not just lucky...Nobody, I don't care if you do have a hit, whatever. You have to support that hit, you got to get out there and prove it to the people, or people are just going to quit coming to your shows. That's just where the rubber meets the road. Every artist has goes through this... nobody just gets a ticket to the top and hangs out for free. It’s hard work; don't despise the people who have made it, even if you don't like what they are doing… They had to go through hell, even if they did get lucky.
Do you have any advice for the next generation?
Russ: In terms of up and comers, we had an original concept; we stuck to that goal, that trajectory, and never faltered or got off that path. We know what we wanted to do regardless of what labels, managers, or other industry people may say is hot, or what you should do… As an artist that stays true to yourself and what you’re doing you’re going to be okay. People respect that, people who believe in you as an artist and like your art are going to follow you regardless of changes in the industry…
The industry follows fads and trends… look how many DJs jumped on the dubstep train, and all these other little genres… these guys are freakin' producers but a lot have invested in following some fad. That’s always going to happen. These guys that may be struggling may be living out of their car, but as long as they stay true to their music, it takes time; it took us quite a while and then we had to take that leap of faith and say okay, we are going to be a touring act and we will spread the word / do whatever we need to do to support this band. It just takes time, stay on your course.
If you like what you’re doing, you will find other people, it’s too easy to get music out and connect with other people these days. If you like these weird sounds, some of this experimental stuff, there is somebody else out there who will support you. Every night you’re out meeting different people. Even if you’re poor, when you get up on stage, or have a show with people… it’s still a cool thing, regardless of hungry you may be, you can pull through if it’s your life, your destiny.
Rock and roll is a very cool thing, we kind of think our machine - our vision has a rock and roll theme about it, a very classic approach in general. That’s very a cool and very powerful... it’s a beautiful medium in art and in business. It’s an interesting ride, interacting with different people every night of the week is still a cool thing.
The second part of the Souvenirs, Novelties, and Party Tricks 2012 Winter tour kicks off this week in Texas. When you guys are on the road for extended periods, are there cities you get excited about playing, are there places that you are fans of the fans, or the specific venues you like?
Russ: For sure, Colorado was one of the first places we started doing really well in, going back there is always really, really fun, but then there’s places like Trees in Dallas, that have really good sound systems… there are a lot of venues that really get into the production end of it, makes a difference. But yeah, Trees in Dallas is really dope, Fox Theater out in Boulder, in Nashville, Virginia.
You guys just got back from playing a NYE show in Queenstown, New Zealand. Was this your first time to play out of the country?
Russ: That was our first time playing out of the US, and it had definitely been a goal of ours for a while. I really liked New Zealand. We loved the people, we were treated like rock starts, it was amazing. We didn’t have an established fan base when we got there; we definitely made a lot more fans from the show… The people there really didn't know a lot of the bands. It was the first time they had done anything like that there. It was way cool, way beautiful, brilliant. It was actually my first time ever outside the US.
Who did you enjoy opening up for most when you were starting out?
Russ: Well when we started out we were very lucky. We went out with the Heart of Gold Band and opened up for Dark Star Orchestra for quite a while. They were familiar with what we were doing and said you know, when you guys get going we will open our stage for you, so Z and I jumped at the chance. So it was like our 3rd or 4th gig and we we opening for Dark Star. That is also difficult because it was the more the obvious Dead tribute, there are kids, there are older people too and a lot of people who are unfamiliar with electronic music. But it was really good, because we had a crowd, and were playing in front of venues and that type of thing. And also Particle also did a lot for us, Steve Molitz randomly by a mutual fan, he called me up ‘cause they had a few shows so we jumped on board with them. These shows allowed us to get in front of fans and get a foothold on the market.
Are there any acts that have opened for you that blow you away, or you prefer to have warm up your crowd?
Russ: We are very aware of whats going on, we try to gauge the energy of the room from the very beginning. We may not listen to their entire set but we definitely pay attention. Honestly, one of the most excited I have ever been is when Ishi is opening for us... Those guys just throw down and bring a kind of party vibe you don’t see with a lot of these other DJs combo acts. You know, Eliot Lipp was on this last leg of the your and I really like what he is doing, he’s got a drummer with him, Steve, and the combo they have going on is a really cool thing. But in general I have been blown away by the next wave of artists coming through.
Be sure to check out Boombox the next time they roll through town, and if you live in Dallas, rest up... Lotus is up next.
Boombox (w/ ill-esha & Chris B):
2/21 - Las Vegas NV @ Hardrock Cafe
2/22 - Solana Beach, CA @Belly Up
2/23 - Los Angeles, CA @ Key Club
2/24 - San Francisco, CA @ Temple
2/25 - Reno, NV @ Cargo
2/26 - Eureka, CA @ Red Fox Tavern
Banjos to Beats:
2/24 - Lotus / Nadis Warriors @ Trees
3/14 - SBTRKT & Ishi @ South Side Music Hall
3/18 - Two Fresh / Nit Grit / DVS @ Trees
3/28 - Marty Party / Ott / Kraddy @ Trees
4/6 - Zoogma, MONTU, and fatty Lumpkin @ Trees
4/8 - Zeds Dead and araabMUZIK @ South Side Music Hall
5/5 - Manifestation Celebration (Thievery Corporation / Eoto / Flying Lotus / Nadis Warriors / Random Rab / Govinda / D.V.S*)