Retro Funky Fresh: The Ellis Ashbrook Interview

Ellis Ashbrook may best be described as a contemporary experimental rock group from Brooklyn, New York. But there is really is no way to pigeon hole this incredible band. They describe themselves on their Facebook page as, “Ellis Ashbrook generates ferocious sounds and swarming vibrations. Swim in a psychedelic pool of aquatic delays. Be moved by a band that has rocked audiences all over the Northeast. Their songwriting reverberates beauty and heaviness with respect for the Funk and love of unique grooves. These players and singers have the prowess, technique, and tenacity to play original music that transcends trend.” Ellis Ashbrook‘s album “Merida” is featured in Music Connection Magazine’s latest issue for top picks of 2012. MCM compiled some of the best reviews and highest rated projects from indie artists and showcased them off for the world to see (MCM is a trade magazine that is a staple in any A&R’s office and local Guitar Centers). Recently Pittsburgh Music Magazine had an opportunity to chat with one of the hardest working bands out there…


In what aspects of your music do you think that your influences shine through the most?

I would say the funk of Prince, James Brown and Parliament shines through on a good day, the genre-crossfading of Yes, Frank Zappa, Ween, Beck and Phish most-likely shines through, the hard-rock sexual blues of Led Zeppelin, the spaciness and experimentation of Sun Ra, the out-ness of Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt, the drama of Genesis and The Doors, the fiery passion of Fiona Apple and Love, the fuzzy, kick-ass psychedelia of Smashing Pumpkins, the odd-time rhythmic complexities of bands like Soundgarden and Rush. Really though, almost every artist or band that we attempt to emulate is usually the type that is impossible to pin down or be easily explained , because we appreciate the shapeshifters, those who can’t be defined, those with true grit and personality: Tom Waits, Bjork, David Bowie, Captain Beefheart, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Zorn, Sublime, The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead, Faust, Can, etc…

Where would you like to see your Selves as a band in five years?
I’d like to see us having basically what we have now but on a grander scale: a more advanced and trippier lighting system, many large projectors and screens to impose our favorite and most thought-provoking/inspirational imagery, videos for our stoned audiences to imagine synchronizations to and lots of musical equipment, better equipment: more double-neck guitars, bass synthesizer pedals, mellotrons, a grand piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B-3 organ, gongs, timpanis, lots of bells, samplers, record players, televisions, 12-stringed acoustics, bullhorns, bird whistles, Gibson SG’s, Rickenbacker Basses; everyone in the band having essentially a sampler set-up, a percussion set, and a synthesizer, so you, as well as us, never really know who’s playing what at any given time; while improvising we would have a never-ending arsenal of sounds to choose from. So basically having the combined equipment of the great 70’s prog-rock groups: Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Rush as well as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Wilco, and Radiohead.
Also, an audience that really listens is important; an audience that understands the history of the music being played, as well as the evolution of the players, whether they understand consciously or not. A truly give and take situation.

What other creative mediums besides music do the band members participate in?
I enjoy writing, and would like to continue to write essays, poems, short stories, screenplays, novels, self-help books, instruction manuals, and the like. I admire many abstract painters and would love to be involved with that field as well. It’s tough to deviate from music when it seems sometimes that there is not enough space in life for even that. Music Therapy is an intriguing and relatively unexplored path that lends itself toward powerful healing on a grand scale. Also, comedy is a really important aspect to what we do as a band and to our daily lives. I feel like the day is littered with countless references to comedic films and performances, a way to keep things flowing and moving in a positive direction as well as an entertaining form of philosophy and therapy. I’m really inspired by the organized chaos, so to speak, of great sketch comedy troupes such as Mr. Show with Bob and David and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. So creative endeavours in the film and television world is something you can expect from this band one day.

If you could open up for any band (living/dead/current/defunct) who would that be and why?
There are so many great acts that would have been a joy to see night after night, but I would have to say Led Zeppelin, because when it comes down to it, they are probably my favorite band and the one that all of us enjoy thoroughly and equally. It is a major bonding point for all of us. Led Zeppelin is incredibly influential to us because they had such a large range of styles and crossed so many genres on their path, while simultaneously keeping an original sound; from Blues to Funk, to Reggae, to Rockabilly, to Celtic and English ballads, Indian Ragas to heartfelt love songs to songs simply about fucking. I think that they run a wide gamut of emotions. Sensitive, crushingly powerful, and all of them essentially masters of their respective instruments. They definitely had a deep and intuitive understanding of improvisation and the blues.

Where do you draw lyrical inspiration?
I am a huge fan of lyrics in music. I like obscure lyrics, lyrics that could have multiple meanings and speak on practical, as well as spiritual lines. For instance, ‘Visions Of Johanna’ by Bob Dylan is one of my favorite lyrics; beautiful imagery: “ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face”, “See the primitive wallflower freeze”, etc.. I like Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, John Lennon, Wilco, Radiohead, it’s really hard to pinpoint all the lyricists I enjoi because there’s so many and for so many different reasons. The main thing is that there is something enigmatic, something ecstatic about a great line that you may love immensely and yet not be able to put your finger on or explain why it is that you love it so much. Music is like that, and also a lot of phenomena in life, really; hard to explain. I think lyrics should come at you from a multitude of angles and be useful in your daily life, and a good lyric should last a lifetime, be able to be seen from a plethora of perspectives throughout your hopefully long and able-bodied existence.
I enjoy writing stream of consciousness, however there are many different methods to digging up lyrics. ‘First thought, best thought’ is one way of writing. I’ve read about Brian Eno, one of my favorite lyricists, singing random vowels and nonsense over the music and then going back and listening to the recordings in order to construct words around the vowels. I think it’s important also to have different methodologies to fall back on when things become stale or predictable. I believe in the usefulness of chance. For instance, the William S. Burroughs cut-up technique which entails literally cutting up a previous text to rearrange it in order to create a new form; picking lines out of a hat. I feel there is much inspiration to be excavated from the random.

Which band members bring which influences or strengths that create your unique blend?
Natalie (Keys/Vox) has a very eclectic musical background. The discipline of the church organists from her Dutch lineage, her love of the wackier side of indy-rock such as Pavement and They Might Be Giants, the wild jazz-vocal stylings of Kurt Elling, the giant Latin composition and piano-stylings of Chucho Valdes and Irakere. She has avoided a lot of mainstream music from televisions and radio, so there is a purity about her. She has protected her thoughts more so than many people that I’ve met. She also has a very natural talent for melody and harmony that comes from her jazz vocal training. Words and music seem to flow effortlessly and quickly from her being; quantity AND quality,,, I’m impressed.
Alex (Drums) and I (Guitar/Vox) share many similarities in musical taste. We both learned to play together at the age of 10 by learning and playing Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots songs and then later Led Zeppelin and Rush, etc… We seem to get excited about many of the same artists. We’ve been through huge listening phases together from Frank Zappa to Genesis, Arthur Lee’s Love to Phish. The most recent obsession has been Fiona Apple’s latest album “The Idler Wheel…”.
Jonathan (Bass) boasts the largest and most eclectic music collection, which really says a lot. He is more into Reggae, Dub, Experimental, Free Jazz, etc… as well as being the most well-versed in the Electronic genre of music. Jonathan has worked for the experimental record label ESP, which has one of the strangest collections of music on this planet. At one point he was listening to 5 new records a day,,, and very trying, difficult music. He has the most Sun Ra and Albert Ayler records. He is a great event organizer with his work at our own venue: The Space Palace, booking and organizing the bands, as well as working with the legendary New York City music venue, now located in Brooklyn: The Knitting Factory.

It looks like the making of the video for ‘Hard 2 B EZ’ was a lot of fun. Was it?

Yes, it was a great amount of fun. The entire process is documented in a video that is currently on YouTube. Our good friends Caryn Denise Albert (Producer) and Doug Shineman (Director) really helped shape the project immensely and really got it underway. Some good friends of ours took a bus down to Philadelphia a few days before shooting and built the set in a giant warehouse that stored massive piles of clothes gradually being shipped off to Africa. We invited many of our friends/fans down and had a lot of fun. One night we were given a whole backyard to party in, and party we did. There was an epic ride back to the hotel in our van, chock-full of drunken maniacs, at one point a chant erupted concerning Alex Major, who was driving at the time, and his dear brother Lincoln who was in the back of the van, filming: “Majors in the front and the Majors in the back” – ad infinitum at top volume…epic.