The Soggy Po’ Boys’ parade of Big Easy jazz marches on with new EP
The Soggy Po’ Boys have been ladling out their sloppy stew of New Orleans-style jazz for over five years now. When they’re not on tour, you can still catch them every Tuesday night at Sonny’s Tavern in Dover, and at other venues across the region. The infectious spirit of their music and the party vibe of their concerts has long since made the Po’ Boys one of the Seacoast’s favorite bands.
On their new four-song EP, “Hang it on the Wall,” the Po’ Boys continue to celebrate the multi-cultural traditions of early American jazz. From the upbeat swing of the original “Maybe Baby” to the loungy loll of Freddy Taylor’s “Blue Drag” to the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Would I Lie?” to the festive creole of “Ba Moin Ti Bo,” the EP offers a sweet and spicy dose of the Big Easy.
Although the style of music is similar to that heard on their three previous studio albums, some tweaks to the septet’s lineup add nuance. The band’s newest member is Nick Phaneuf, a guitarist and bassist in several area groups. He plays upright bass for the Po’ Boys, replacing the tuba heard on prior recordings. The rest of the band includes guitarist and singer Stu Dias, soprano sax and clarinet player Eric Klaxton, trumpet player Zach Lange, tenor saxophonist Nick Mainella, pianist Mike Effenberger and drummer Brett Gallo.
Phaneuf joined the band over two years ago, but this is the first album he appears on. “I’m like the new guy, even after being in the band for a couple of years,” he says with a laugh.
Phaneuf and Effenberger recorded and mixed the new album, which was recorded in Kittery at the Second Congregational Church, where Effenberger serves as music director. The record is available on 7-inch vinyl or as a digital download.
The Po’ Boys play an album release show at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth on Friday, June 9, following a set from local band Martin England and the Reconstructed. In advance of the show, Phaneuf spoke to The Sound about the new album, the band’s passion for New Orleans jazz, and what lies ahead for the Soggy Po’ Boys.
New Orleans music has such a melting pot of influences, and that really comes across on the new album. Can you talk about the appeal of New Orleans-style music?
Yeah, you hit it on the head that it is definitely the nexus of American music in that it combines blues and European influences, along with the Caribbean influence that is evident in this recording too. It represents an exciting time in American music, before it developed into what we now consider to be jazz. You can kind of feel the energy, I think, of a music that’s about to explode into different things, but also that it’s a time where it’s still meant primarily to be popular music, so it’s very acceptable to people still.
“Hang it on the Wall” includes two originals and two covers. Is that right?
That’s correct. Yeah, it’s the first time the band has recorded any traditional music. The first two full-lengths are all originals, or predominantly original music. So it was exciting to try to put our stamp on some traditional material.
The covers, at least to modern American audiences, are relatively obscure songs. What led you to cover those songs in particular?
Specifically with “Ba Moin,” we felt like we really wanted to show our audience the Caribbean side of the music that influences kind of the second line, dancier side of the music, but show where it came from out of the original tradition. That was important to us, to bring some of that to the table.
And “Blue Drag,” I think we just liked that song (laughs). Even across a four-tune EP we wanted to have kind of a balance of feelings, and (“Blue Drag”) seemed to bring something that wasn’t present in the other tunes to the table.
As for the originals, I know Stu wrote “Maybe Baby.” Was he the primary writer on both of those songs?
Actually, no. The other original (“Would I Lie?”) was written entirely by our drummer, Brett, lyrics and all, which is unusual in the Po’ Boys. Everybody in the band does write, but often the lyrics are always from Stu. So this tune came in complete from Brett, and it’s charming and funny, and whenever the audience can hear the lyrics the jokes land, which is really gratifying to play it live. So I was excited that we were going to put it out so people could hear it.
You mention that everybody in the band writes. When Stu or whoever brings an idea to the table — there are a lot of guys in this band — how much do all the individual instrumentalists get to put their own mark on the song?
That’s a great question. Because we are trying to write within a tradition, there’s a lot about what each person does on their instrument that’s kind of prescribed by the style, so there are roles that each of us understands that we’re meant to play on the material. But, within that, the music itself … has a lot of improvisation within it already, so any given performance is going to be pretty unique, and there’s a lot of room for the personality of the individuals, especially in the horn section. So, no matter what the song is, there’s a fair amount of people putting their own stamp on it.
And a lot of the music is worked out on the bandstand, which is kind of nice. It’s a similar tradition in New Orleans. It’s not like we’re in a rehearsal room writing. Someone brings in a tune and then we try it live in front of people. So that influences the writing process, because you get instant feedback of what’s working and not working. It’s a different process for me from being in rock bands, specifically, where you might work and craft a song in isolation and have it all fully formed before anybody ever hears it.
You guys are known for the energy and atmosphere of your live shows. But the album is very lively and has its own energy to it as well. How do you go about trying to translate that live energy to the studio, if that is something you consciously try to do?
No, it definitely is conscious. We recorded it in a church, which definitely gave it a vibe of a real space. And it didn’t matter that the church wasn’t the exact perfect acoustics. Just that it had a character to it, I think, adds to it having a believable vibe of a live performance. It sounds like it took place in a space, so it’s not clinical.
And then, while recording, we were conscious to keep things moving along, because it’s easy to get bogged down on details when you’re recording, because you know that you’re trying to commit to something that people are going to listen to over and over again. But that element of the live show is not caring and treating it like a moment that’s going to pass and never happen again. So part of it is, you play a take and you don’t think too hard, you play another one, and then if you start getting bogged down you switch to a different tune and come back to it so that we weren’t overthinking it.
Do you feel like this album reflects any new directions or growth for the band?
I think that the band adapting to adding me was part of the growing process of the last year and a half, because replacing the tuba with string bass changed something, necessarily. So I think that the music is accommodating that change of instrumentation. It’d be hard for me to articulate exactly what’s different about it, but everybody’s role within the band shifted slightly with that change. So I think that everybody was probably, consciously or unconsciously, writing and playing more to the fact that there’s a string bass instead of a tuba than they had been. So, yeah, that was definitely a part of it.
Also, one of the things that excited us about doing an EP was that we had these two original songs that we really wanted people to hear, and we wanted to just capture this moment of the band and not wait until we had all the material for the next full-length record to put something out. We were like, “This is what we’ve got right now.” There’s always another record to be made, and we figured it was better to capture the energy of the band as it was and put it out there rather than wait.
You and most — if not all — of the other members of the Soggy Po’ Boys are also involved in other bands and projects in this area. And you have day jobs and touring and everything else. How do you balance all these things?
Google Calendar (laughs). Having a shared Google Calendar is a huge part of that, because we have to try to coordinate everybody’s schedule. And the band has started scheduling further in advance. We play a lot of shows, and the way that it works is there’s just an agreement that we’ll be on top of that stuff far enough in advance that we can get all seven people in the room. We are actually scheduling in the middle of 2018 right now, which sometimes is terrifying just as a person, to be like, “I can’t believe I have things on my calendar that I have to do within a year from now.” But, that’s how we’re able to get the people that we want in that band to be in the same place at the same time.
Tell me about the tour coming up this summer.
It’ll be the Eastern Seaboard. We have some places that we really like that we’ll spend some time in, like Ashville and Charleston, South Carolina, but we’ll go through New York, D.C., Nashville, Tennessee. I think we’re going to Georgetown this time. That was a debate, because sometimes you pick one city that you’d really like to go to and it adds eight hours of driving just to pick up one extra city. We found this place in Pennsylvania — or rather, they found us — that has this blues and jazz festival — Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s not a place that was on my radar, but we went there in February to play this festival, had a blast, and we immediately were like, “OK, well I guess that’s going to be a tour stop in the summer,” because there are a lot of really interested music fans in this city that I wouldn’t have even thought to go to.
Closer to home, The Press Room is closed for the summer. The Blue Mermaid is closed at least for the summer (they plan to reopen in the fall). No more Coat of Arms, no more State Street Saloon. As an active musician, do you feel like there’s still a healthy number of venues in the area? Is this something that local musicians worry about?
It’s definitely a conversation. I mean, I think depending on how long you’ve been around here, your view ranges from (negative) to optimistic. For me, I have worried about it at times, but I feel like the community is resilient and that we might go through periods of up and down, but that there’s a broad orientation toward art and community that will win out over time. That said, if someone told me that The Press Room was closing for good, I would start to really worry. We’ve definitely lost places over time. It’s hard, because the process of gentrification cuts both ways. It brings things in and then it pushes other things out.
The Dance Hall (in Kittery) is a thing that wasn’t around a few years ago, and it’s been a great addition to the music scene, because it’s specifically not a bar, so they’re really open-minded about people doing artistic things there. So, when we did the shows a couple years ago playing the music of Tom Waits, that wouldn’t have really landed in a bar. And the Po’ Boys, a few times a year, will do a night of specially programmed music and a lecture that accompanies it, and again, that wouldn’t really work in a bar. So they’ve been a great addition to the scene. I mean, I would love if there were more clubs with more music happening, for sure. But you’ve just got to ride the wave, I guess.
Do the Po’ Boys have any other news to report at the moment?
I think that’s it. We’re playing regionally through the spring, going on tour in the summer. We’re actually probably going to book the recording session for the next full-length next week, as soon as the smoke clears from this release. So we’re ready to go, already thinking about the next one.
The Soggy Po’ Boys will play an album release show for “Hang it on the Wall” with opener Martin England and the Reconstructed at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth on Friday, June 9, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12, available here. The album is available from the Po’ Boys Bandcamp page or at their live shows, and digital downloads can be found on iTunes, Spotify, etc.