Interview: BoomBox

bill bodkin interviews the electronic duo on the eve of their performances in New York and Philadelphia …

The electronic duo known as BoomBox will bring their amazingly unique sound blending elements of the red-hot electronic world with elements of classic rock and that quintessential jam band sound to the East Coast this week.

Tomorrow, BoomBox will perform at The Bowery Ballroom in New York City and in Philadelphia on Thursday at The Theatre Of The Living Arts.

Russ Randolph, the duo’s producer/enginee/DJ/drummer, a veteran of the behind the scenes work of music production for countless major tours, festivals and records, spoke with Pop-Break via phone. His cohort in the band, producer/DJ/vocalist/guitarist Zion Rock Godchaux, son of former Grateful Dead and Heart Of Gold Band members Keith and Donna Godchaux, spoke to with us via e-mail.

PB: You came together recording The Heart Of Gold Band’s 2004 reunion album. Why did you two decide to work together?

Zion Rock Godchaux: I had grown tired of digging for good dance tracks to play as a DJ. So I started making my own. I had grown tired of relying on others to play the songs I was writing, so I fused the songs with the dance tracks. There was a formula I saw that could work. But to sing and play guitar on these songs in a live setting called for a certain approach. Someone else needed to run the mix and I would in turn play off them. And vice versa. So this way, variation would always be there. So in working with Russ, we both saw how this could be achieved. We just might be the perfect anchors for each other.

At The Table, The Heart Of Gold Band record where BoomBox met

Russ Randolph: We were together making that record and the Heart Of Gold Band, that incarnation of the band, was very acoustic string oriented, his uncle Brian was playing the mandolin and all that kind of stuff. At night Z and I would get our fix playing records, doing some drum programming. Working by day on the album we realized that when we lent our ear to something we really like the outcome if that makes any sense. If something had our stamps [of approval] on it, we really liked what that meant.

Zion had been doing some songs with a drum machine because he couldn’t find a band, and I basically had been mixing and engineering records because I had been without a band as well. And we just started working together at night … we actually did some programming on that record for a couple tracks and we figured, ‘Man this worked out pretty well … we should take this into a band.’ We started hanging out late at night, dreaming, lot of what ifs … what if we do two people in the band … we could do this, we could travel pretty efficiently and if there’s only two people in the band, a lot of bands would let us open up for them. It’d be easier than if we were an eight-piece horn band and all this other crap.

So it just kinda made a lot sense since we had similar frustrations with traditional-style bands. It just seemed a door opened and we were able to really, truly do what we wanted to do. With two people we have a pretty good shot of the final product being less committee-like, not a watered-down version of a couple of people’s ideas. We figured with two people involved it would be a realistic representation in the end product of what’s in our brain.

PB: Zion, how did having two parents who were so entrenched in the music industry for so many years help prepare you for your career as a musician?

ZRG: I imagine my up bringing has given me an instinct musically that I might not have had otherwise.

PB: Why form the band BoomBox in terms of the musical style you created? And how would you describe your sound in terms of a musical genre?

ZRG: See my first answer.

RR: In our heads and our heart of hearts it’s our interpretation of rock ‘n’ roll. Being that we feel the drum machines and laptops are the same as electric guitars were for bands in the ’60s. We don’t think we’re doing anything all that different — we just feel we’re adapting technology to what we’re doing. With that being said, we obviously play in the electronic world and we get grouped into the electronic thing, the jam … whatever the hell it is.

We’re both heavily influenced by house music. Zion grew up in San Francisco and I grew up here in Alabama, but I grew up influenced by that early house stuff. That heavy, full on the floor, hypnotic, minimal just tracks that made you groove. The grooves were just so good you couldn’t get away from them. And they weren’t covered up by cheesy lyrics and all these other distractions. It was just a solid groove with good players, a good track that’ll make you feel good. Late night in the studio, those are the type of records we were listening to. So when we started working on our stuff we obviously lent ourselves to that full on the floor, swinging, clapping, minimal type thing.

I grew up in Muscle Shoals, so the tracks that come out of here that influenced me were the ’60s R&B stuff that Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, even Aretha Franklin kinda stuff. The kind of tracks that were simple even simpler than what was coming out of Motown but really groove-oriented. It had a really fat bass, swinging kinda back beat feel. Our first album was called Visions Of Backbeat, and we were definitely looking for a certain kind of sound. As we’ve grown and developed, we’ve gotten more into that [sound] we seem to be going in the opposite direction of bands today in the age of dub step and crazy apocalyptic sounds.

PB: Since your sound is so unique, where have your fans come from — the electronic world, the jam world? How were you able to develop a fan base, especially since you’re offering a very unique sound to the musical masses?

ZRG: Well, that’s just it … predisposition to a certain music flavor isn’t required in order to relate to our music. Or at least we hope that’s the case. Word gets around easier that way.

RR: In the beginning, we basically put all our energy into opening up for bands that … we just wanted to get in front of people! It just so happened that the bands that opened the door for us like Particle and Dark Star Orchestra, were friends of ours who said, ‘Hey you can open up for us — the stage is yours.’ We did as much of that as we could. With that being said we played in front of electronic, jamtronic, especially Particle, and a bunch of hippies, and it’s cool — we end up playing a lot in that world, but we don’t want to limit ourselves to playing just in that world. So we do try to reach beyond those genres or music lines.

In the beginning, it was a lot of that jam scene, a lot of that social, counterculture, hippie culture that helped spread the word. Now, we don’t think as of ourselves as a jamtronic band or a jam band. Obviously, The Grateful Dead and those bands are an influence on us and the way approach music in general, but sometimes that world can get really, really redundant and sometimes stagnant. But what’s cool is we’re seeing more and more electronic music flow across lines. Electronic music is really coming into the living rooms of America and the world. People are becoming much comfortable and realize this is not just a traditional band but they’re giving us a listen like they would a traditional band in the past.

PB: Russ, how did your work behind the scenes with Los Lobos, Saliva and Sugarland prepare you or get you ready to become BoomBox with touring and being a part of the music scene. Did your production background give you any insight or help?

RR: I was mixing and I was doing it live for the bands. It really just gave me a chance to be like, ‘I know what this arena is like.’ We’re not on that level yet, but I know what production standards we need. It really helped us with the opening thing, I keep going back to that, but it really, truly helped us out. The last thing a band really wants is a pain in the ass opening act. Traveling with these other bands I saw how a touring show worked. I knew the way that way professional opening artists would share things, or they would just make it easy as possible, and that would make everyone really happy.

I mixed for tons of bands and tons of festivals and I think it gives me a good insight on how a show works. It’s going to have an experience and there’s some artists out there, it doesn’t matter the genre, that know how to give people an experience. And that’s what we want to do — we want to give people a good experience. Sometimes just watching and learning from the masters, just sitting on the side of the stage or mixing for them you pick up a lot. Mostly, it helped get us prepared to jump to that bigger level and know what to deal with.

PB: You have a new record coming out soon. Can you tell us how this will differ from your downriverelectric record?

ZRG: Hopefully it will sound more like BoomBox than ever. More refined. More distilled.

RR: downriverelectric was something we started going with one direction, and because of time constraints, it ended up being something else. We’re still really proud of that record, but a lot of the songs were songs we were playing live already and a lot of the newer material didn’t make it on the record.

The new record, some of the songs we play live and some songs no one’s ever heard before. The approach is a little bit different. The last one, we recorded the tracks we had already played live before, we produce all our own tracks, all the sounds you hear we’ve created ourselves. We manipulate these things ourselves and brought them into one, unified platform being Abelton Live or Logic.

With the new record, we started from scratch. We went back into the studio, analog tape, set up a drum set, mic’ed it, very old school, minimal miking, like Ringo Starr Beatles old-school miking. Then we set up a real bass rig, real keys, real guitar amps and then cut all those tracks and then took those tracks back into the studio and then kind of arranged and manipulated those tracks. We do that as we go long, but we’ve never cut tracks like that for a record. We may be like ‘this track needs this kind of voice’ and add that to it, but that’s always been created on a drum machine. On this record, we’re going a lot more old school with the approach, a lot more organic. We play multiple instruments and walking around the studio and taking those out it’s been more like a band approach on this one. I think this the closest thing we’ve done that’s sounds like what we have in our heads.

PB: Over Memorial Day weekend, you not only played the world famous Red Rocks, but you played at Summer Camp and Bella. Four sets in three days. How was it playing Red Rocks, and how exhausting was it doing all those shows in such a short span of time?

ZRG: Well, touring is always exhausting. But since this is our love, we can endure it. That weekend happened so fast. Our sets happened even faster. The view was beautiful though slightly blurred.

RR: Red Rocks was amazing. Everyone was super professional. It can be difficult, but if you’re professional and you can work out logistics and all that, it’s way doable. It gets kind of crazy when you’re working with one rig that you’re used to doing every day when you’re driving a tour. With festivals. sometimes you have to fly in and use back line gear that the promoter or venue is renting which may or may not be what you’re used to.

Luckily for us all. those shows were good show, total pros all the way around. As long as we’re deal with professionals, we’re fine. Problems in the past, have been with smaller or up-and-coming not yet proven festivals or promoters, and that can be stressful. We’ve doing this long enough that we’ve got everything covered, we can figure things out. Now, it’s just other than being on a plane a lot — it’s a lot of fun, man.

PB: Continuing with festivals, you’ve got a number of them coming. What is about festivals that you enjoy? How is the vibe different from a regular concert?

ZRG: Seems like a new generation wave is coming on to the scene this summer. Lots of first-timers out there at the festivals. Lots of wonder in the air. Not like the clubs where everyone already knows everything. [laughs]

Russ: It’s definitely different from a club. In a club you’ve got people hanging out generally for a longer period of time with each other. Festivals sometimes are shorter sets, get in and get out real quick. Festivals sometimes take on their own vibe or energy, and sometimes in a club, we’re working really hard to create the vibe. Playing festivals is a like a drop of water in the ocean == it is what it is, you’re part of the vibe. I definitely like that. But I need both of those vibes. Being a touring musician you love being at home, but then you’re itching to get back on the road. Then when you’re on the road, you feel like you gotta get home.

With shows, it’s kinda like the same thing. If we were just doing club shows or theater shows, that would get old. But the dynamic of the club show and the festival, you need that. At a festival, you can’t wrap your head around everybody. Even if all those hands are in the air, you’re still just a part of the thing. I love being a part of something. Sometimes in clubs or theaters, you feel like it’s your train moving along — you don’t feel like you’re part of a bigger thing. It’s not lonely, but it’s a different type of vibe. The festival thing, you feel the other bands’ energy, fans who are used to different shows may or may not have seen you before. You get a lot of people are breaking out there latest tricks. We usually play late night at festivals, but recently we’ve playing during the daytime or early main stage gigs … we’re have a lot of fun playing these daytime festivals. I like that not being able to wrap your brain around a crowd — it’s an awesome feeling.

PB: What can we expect from BoomBox, outside of the new record, in 2011?

ZRG: In the future, we will be chasing the same sound — on a more international scale.

RR: I hate to say this and I’ve said it numerous times in the past and it hasn’t come to fruition yet, we’re trying to put out a live record that really showcases who we are live. The album version of us is one thing, the live version is another. I’d like it to be a DVD album, but something in the live realm … something people can take away and get the live show.

Sometimes, and I get sick to my stomach about it, some kid will leave a live show and they’ll download the show off Archive, which is great, but the sound quality isn’t representative of the show they just watched. It’s not shows we put — it’s fans, friends, the venues and the sound quality is questionable. I think I can speak for Z, but we think we’d sleep a lot better with one live project we feel good about. That’s something that’s been weighing on us pretty heavy. Of course, there’s the EP coming, the fall tour, but we’re definitely going to be working on a live project.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites