Sax, Drums & Rock & Roll
Horn players in rock bands? Next to the electric guitars, keyboards, and sophisticated gadgetry of the average rock band's stage setup, a simple bronze saxophone appears quaint. A novelty. And yet, rock & roll wouldn't exist without the yelping saxophones of Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner, the magnificent adolescent squawking of "Charlie Brown" or Junior Walker's double-barreled "Shotgun." Stax, Motown, James Brown, Sly Stone; imagine the theme from Shaft without those staccato horn breaks. Horn players in rock bands? Damn straight. Even in this decade, artists like Morphine, Cake, Rocket From the Crypt, Afghan Whigs, No Doubt, Sublime, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Wilco, and Beck have seen their horn-enhanced output hit the modern-rock jackpot. Now that pop is once again the order of the day, horns are on the airwaves more often than car-insurance spots. A continuing presence to be sure, but are they as essential as cell phones? Or have horns been forever consigned to the role of rock & roll cilantro, a blowsy garnish that makes the main course all the more mouthwatering? Several Austin bands challenge that long-held notion, elevating horns beyond their traditional sideman status into something, if not a lead, then certainly more than decoration. It's not even that weird anymore to see someone unpacking a trumpet or sax at Emo's or Hole in the Wall.
Naturally, this is not a new phenomenon, but it is especially broad-ranging locally, stretching into virtually all corners of Austin's rock palette. Even if one excludes the multitude of accomplished jazz, R&B, and Latin horn players in town, there's plenty to choose from. There's the Groove Line Horns blowing their horns at the Scabs' weekly Antone's shows, the lowdown bleat of Walter Daniels accompanying Texacala Jones on tenor sax, and D.D. Wallace's sock-hop raunch fueled by saxman Trevor Wallace. And that's just the beginning.
Brown Whörnet's post-punk freakouts would be rendered limp without their horns' cacophonous punch, while Allyson Lipkin's stylings inject a cautious layer of cool into the chameleonic Deep Sombreros. Hard-rock kings Vallejo and Pushmonkey have been known to toot a little trumpet between power chords, Retarted Elf recently resurfaced with its horn-driven hip-hop metal, and Stretford's gleaming pop-punk choruses have been brass-polished since the long-running local band started up. Continuing, there's Skanky Yankee's art-noise skronk, Tunji and Mingo Fishtrap's jam-based ethos, and even the Fuckemos coaxing bowel-like noises out of a trombone. Let's not even go near that last one.
Such a broad sampling points straight to the heart of any brass player's rock & roll dilemma: Since horns are so versatile and are ultimately only limited by their players' imagination and ability, there's only so far their non-horn-playing bandmates are willing to let them go, only certain things they're allowed to do. And because of their commanding presence both onstage and on album, winds are often used sparingly so as not to detract from the traditional rock & roll center of attention -- the singer and/or guitarist. There's also the small matter of playing acoustic instruments in an ear-splitting rock-club environment.
"The stage volume is incredible up there," says Groove Line trombonist Raul "Rollo" Vallejo. "We play right on that mike so we can compete with the guitar player."
The Deep Sombreros' Lipkin has a similar solution: "Blow harder."
Then there's the cheese factor. By the Seventies, rock & roll had taken a turn. More intricate arrangements, larger ensembles, and ornate stylistic flourishes meant more work for horn players.Then again, every time they raised their instruments to their lips, they raised the specter of the dreaded "F" word -- fusion. Or the other "F" word -- Foreigner.
"I grew up on this crappy pop music that, if I didn't have any better taste, I might be really screwed up right now," says Lipkin. "I mean, if my aesthetic taste in music didn't develop any, I'd want to play Foreigner sax, like "Cold as Ice.' Luckily, I grew up with bands like the Who and Rolling Stones."
Bobby Keyes blowing riff for riff with Keith Richards on "Tumblin' Dice" or "Brown Sugar" is certainly badass enough to make most rock & rollers entertain notions of picking up the sax. Although synthesizers began to replace saxophones in the Eighties, the advent of New Wave demonstrated that bands such as Blondie and the B-52's still had room for horns. Even U2 used a trumpet on its War album. Aggro skate-rockers eventually came around as well, Social Distortion using brass on their self-titled 1990 album, and Suicidal Tendencies recruiting the Groove Line Horns for a Stubb's gig a couple of years back. As they remember it, the ST guys wouldn't even look at the Groovers until after the show. Then they wanted to party with them. How cheesy is that? At least it taught them an important lesson.
"We have this little philosophy that no matter what it is, especially after playing with Suicidal, that anything is better with horns," says Groove Line saxophonist Carlos Sosa.
"Saxophone has a wide enough range that each different personality type can see themselves playing the kind of music they wish they could play on saxophone," says Skanky Yankee sax player Wayne Swoyer.
Another asset horns have is that, in the right hands, they can be electrifying live. The visceral nature of someone blowing their lungs out under hot lights is tailor-made for rock & roll. Combining elements of voice and instrument, horns possess a certain spiritual aspect completely alien to more mechanical instruments.
"I think when you add a horn section it just really adds to the excitement," says Stretford saxophonist Cynthia Sadler. "Every performance is unique -- it's not driven by some computer program somebody's put in a PC or Mac."
Even in a supporting role, horns create a cushion of sound harmonious enough to echo a guitar or keyboard, and punctuated enough to allow the rhythm section to relax a bit. Horns also offer a perfect counterpunch for the choppy, chromatic figures so indelible to R&B and early rock & roll, but are equally capable of extended forays into the finger-twisting scale stratosphere at a moment's notice. Visceral, spontaneous, charismatic -- they're perfect.
"I think the big thing for us is to be huge, and not be timid at all," says Sosa. "All three of us just being this huge, powerful wall of sound, and really tight."
Yet, there's a substantial brick wall in horn players' path: Rock & roll is a lyric-dominated medium at least to some degree, and thus the talking element unique to horns and so useful in jazz is inevitably muted. In fact, ever since Elvis shook his hips on Ed Sullivan, the guitar has ruled rock instruments with an iron fist. As the music evolved quickly from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix, horns found their already-small role becoming considerably more marginalized. Whereas in the mid-Fifties horns and guitars stood on equal footing carried over from R&B, by the early Seventies, they'd been relegated to the second tier with the background vocalists, only seizing the spotlight in outfits such as Blood, Sweat & Tears, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Chicago -- all bands that fit the rock definition rather loosely to begin with.
"Most people that play three-chord rock & roll, there's no room for a horn," posits Swoyer. "When you think about bands that have had a horn on one or two songs, it's because they were doing a song that wasn't straight-out rock. They're a rock band doing a little bit of a blues thing or a jazz thing. People really think of the horn as something you use to play blues or to play jazz."
So, are horns instruments of rock & roll, or are they just slumming?
"Anything can be a rock instrument," says Max Brody, drummer for Sangre de Toro. Brody spent a portion of last summer in Europe as Ministry's touring saxophonist, and experienced close-up some of the difficulties horns encounter in rock settings. First, there was the seemingly impossible task of wiring the saxophone so it could be heard over the industrial institution's notorious din.
"What they ended up doing was finding this stethoscope-looking deal that attached onto my reed," he explains. "I think it's used for acoustic guitars, like a pickup, but we attached it to the reed so that way I could plug directly into their amps."
Once the horn was run through Ministry's myriad of effects gadgetry, still left to consider was how exactly the saxophone should be used. Ministry's sound is not exactly horn-driven, not in a million years, yet Brody's role was still vital. In the face of such an unrelenting aural assault, the subtle shadings and colorings a wind instrument can provide are essential, no matter how sparingly they are used.
"That was more of the job, really -- taking over for samples," chuckles Brody. "The new album has some actual saxophone, little parts, but I played on some of their older songs, too. That's when I'd take over for a sample with a trumpet-like sound or something. I could replace that, or little siren kind of samples. I could pull those off. In that whole set, I probably sounded like a saxophone two times or something."
Brody, whose horn graced an L7 selection at Emo's just last week, thinks the more judiciously saxophone is used in rock, the better. The instrument's tendency to overwhelm other instruments must be kept carefully in check.
"Saxophone is a really strong flavor, and you've gotta be really careful when you use it," he says. "It's really easy to overuse it. I think that's part of the reason I became a drummer. I love playing the saxophone, it's great fun, but I want to play more often in a song and have it feel like it's needed."
Nevertheless, the prevailing trend locally is for more horns, not less, at least for bands such as Deep Sombreros and Stretford. Lipkin spent a year honing her chops as Superego's sax player at the Sunday night Free for All, and says being put on the spot was an integral part of learning to master her instrument.
"I learned onstage how to pick up a song," she says. "Like right then, because Superego throws out covers a lot. I was fresh, I learned how to just get that fear away, to jump in and play something that fits."
Sadler has several co-writing credits on Stretford's recent Long Distance album, a product of her and singer-guitarist Carl Normal passing melodies back and forth via demo tapes. Both women find that assuming a greater role in the band means there's more room creatively, and say it's been very good for their playing.
"The collaboration that we have is exciting to me, because I never know what Carl's gonna give me," enthuses Sadler. "He gives me a four-track demo, and then I put some horn arrangements on top of that. He probably feels the same way -- he never knows what I'm gonna give him. It's a unique situation, because we never sit down in the same room and work on a song together."
"I wanted to be a player -- I didn't want to be, like, another girl singer, for one thing," Lipkin says with a shudder. "Just the idea of it. I wanted to play and be a part of the music."
For the most part, though, it remains an uphill battle for horns looking to be part of a rock & roll package, and even for some bands to accept horn players as full-fledged members. It took a while for the Groove Line Horns to get three full shares of the Scabs' ample gate, but now the trio can point to songs that wouldn't exist without them.
"If you took the horn line out of "Tarantula,' it just wouldn't be that song," states Sosa.
Maintaining a separate identity as a horn section has also proven tricky for the Groove Line Horns due to the Scabs' overwhelming popularity. The trio has teamed with everyone from Ian Moore and Vallejo to a recent date with Luscious Jackson at La Zona Rosa, but all anyone wants to hear lately is Scabs, Scabs, and still more Scabs.
"When we played with Luscious Jackson, they said, "Groove Line Horns!' and there was like 20 people [applauding]," recounts Sosa. "Then they said, "From the Scabs,' and the whole place went psycho."
Things have been worse.
"When we were first starting out, we'd go play with these bands and they wouldn't pay us shit," he remembers.
Horns continue to find themselves in the paradoxical position of perpetual rock & roll outsiders that can supply just the right touch necessary to push a song or live performance over the top. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual, and how he/she interacts with the other band members using his/her horn. Ike & Tina Turner, Jesus Christ Superstar, Oingo Boingo, Southern Culture on the Skids -- over the years, brass has come to occupy a somewhat idiosyncratic, but well-entrenched, spot in rock & roll.
This is not to say that every band should have horns, of course not, but rather that the ones who do have come to appreciate what having that extra sound means. It's an attention-grabber, something that sets them apart. That so many local bands now feature horns only points to the irrepressible urge to create something different, something unique, even if it's something people say you're not supposed to do. That, in a nutshell, is Austin music's rallying cry.
"[Saxophone] brings that soulfulness of an extra voice," says Lipkin. "It's an extra lead, an extra way to create melodies that's unlike any other sound. Like the Gourds, they prefer to bring an accordion in for the extra sound."
"Your whole life experience is filtered through what comes out of the horn," Swoyer says. "And my life is pretty Black Sabbath."