Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 





by Jim Testa

If you’ve been reading JerseyBeat.com lately, you know that I’ve become enamored with a collective of musicians who are building a scene in Brooklyn around Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, the DIY studio run by Oliver Ignatius and Justin Coles. Bands like power-poppers The Great American Novel and The-All-About, Ignatius and Coles' group Ghost Pal, the post-psychedelic Sons Of An Illustrious Father, math-rockers No Shoes, and the poppy Jean Jackets (to name just a few) are creating not just an impressive body of recorded work, but a true community – sharing gigs and turning them into parties where it feels as if you’re part of something that’s bigger than just a single set or show.

One of the bands at the heart of the Mama Coco’s community is the Harmonica Lewinskies; as it says on the group’s Facebook page, “Funny name. Serious music.”
Six extraordinarily talented musicians – three of whom take lead vocal turns – come together for a fusion of blues, R&B, soul, and good old rock ‘n’ roll. It’s like a party where someone invited Sam & Dave, Zappa, a young Elvis Costello, and Chuck Berry, and they all start jamming. They sing about girls, and rocking out, and girls, and falling down drunk, and girls; “How To Run A Business,” my favorite Lewinskies tune, is a multi-part tour de force about a happy ending massage parlor visit that segues from a pokey country intro to a feverish Exile On Main Street R&B jam. You’ll usually find the Lewinskies at a show wearing white shirts and skinny black suspenders. I’ve already raved about the new album, Octopus Wallstreet (here); now you can meet the band.

This interview was done at a Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen showcase in Brooklyn; present were Roberto Bettega (guitar/vocals,) Dan McLane (guitar/vocals,) Will Simpson (lead guitar/vocals,) Jake Warren (sax, harmonica, piano,) Zebedee Row (bass, backing vocals,) and Oliver Fetter (drums). Just to make things more complicated, also present were Oliver Ignatius, producer and co-owner of Mama Coco’s; Devin Calderin (keyboardist extraordinaire;) and Mama Coco’s co-owner Josh Tobin. Got it? Good.

Q: Let’s start with the basics. How and when did you guys come together?

Dan: We started in college. I met Will when we were freshman roommates in the dorms. Then I got kicked out of the dorms. Actually we all got kicked out of our dorms. And then I took a songwriting class that was a big help, it really got us all started doing what we’re doing now. And I met Rob the first day and… there I was, a freshman, and he embarrassed me in front of the whole class. And then we started a band.

Roberto: Of course me and Jake have a totally different story. We met at Marymount, the same school, and then we started playing together. We had this drummer named Vic and we jammed all the time in Jake’s apartment. Vic recorded the first song we ever wrote, “Horizontal Yellow And Blue.” And then from there, Vic moved away and we got
Oliver (Fetter) to play drums for us. But before that, Oliver and I were playing in a band together called Vanilla Thang. We also called it Chocolate Tooth. So Jake and I were playing, and Ollie and I were playing, and then I took a class with Will and Dan, and it all kind of fell together.


Jake on the sax, Dan on the beat


Q: So the bad band names did not start with Harmonica Lewinskies?

Roberto: The actual name came much later.

Will: We had a lot of dumb names. The Tony Danzas. The Socials. We played a show as Pants Optional. The Compliments. Bag Of Rocks. The name Harmonica Lewinskies came about two years ago. We started out as a cover band. Then we started playing at National Underground and we started playing consecutive gigs and we started to take it a little more seriously, so we settled on the one name.

Roberto: I think what really pushed us to be a little more professional is when we saw The Bennys play, and they had the sax player, and they did really great covers, and it was really energetic. And they had a uniform thing going, all wearing the same thing. That really inspired us. We got Jake to start playing sax on stage with us right after that.
Will: Before that it was just a party at every show. Although it still is. But really it was a lot more about just getting drunk than making music at first, and then we started taking it more seriously.

Q: When did it become apparent that your sound would revolve around blues and R&B? That’s really not the kind of thing that young guys from Brooklyn are into these days.

Jake: I think that was obvious right from the beginning. I come from a strictly jazz/blues background and so does Will.

Will: I think we’ve always been listening to older music.

Dan: Will has I-IV-V tattooed on his chest. (Note: that’s the basic blues chord progression.) That shows how serious he is about it.

Will: We definitely have a lot of roots in older music – 50’s, 60’s, 70’s music.

Q: You guys don’t do this with any kind of irony or “retro” vibe though, you’re totally serious about your love of that kind of music. Which is interesting, because that’s not exactly going to have Brooklyn Vegan knocking down your door to write about you. Was the fact that what you’re doing is so outside what’s trendy ever become a consideration?

All: No, not at all.

Oliver Fetter: We all knew what music we liked, we like playing with each other, and fuck everybody else.

Robert: When we came together, we never really thought about creating a certain sound. That was something that we actually always talked about. Let’s just play what comes out. Having three songwriters in the band makes a big difference, and Jake is a really good arranger. He knows a lot of theory and I think that’s what really makes us different.

Will: The whole band is writing the music. This band is a true collaboration. And because there’s so much input from six different guys, we’re coming up with a sound that’s not really… I don’t want to sound too pompous here…

Jake: It’s something completely different.

Zebedee: We’re not putting any limitations on ourselves. We’re happy to approach all ideas with equal enthusiasm.

Oliver Ignatius: As evidenced by your notoriously terrible choice of cover versions.
(laughter)


Dan and Roberto


Q: A lot of bands will add a trumpet or a sax solo, but I think what makes your record exceptional are the arrangements. It really sounds like an old Stax/Volt session or a Booker T. and the MG’s session. The horns are an integral part of the sound, not just stuck in there for effect.

Dan: The horns are all Jake and Chris Lucca (trumpet).

Jake: The horn section is me, Devin (Calderin) on trumpet, Will laid down a trumpet track, and Henry (Kandel) on baritone sax. And I do the arrangements

Q: How do you write the harmonies?

Jake: It’s pretty basic. You write a part that sounds good. You throw down a third that sounds good. Try the 7th…no, screw that, put the 5th in… (Note: This is all music geek talk. Ignore it.) It all just happens on the spot. Oliver Ignatius helped a lot with the harmonies too. But basically you just try a harmony and if it doesn’t work, you throw it out and find something else. And you keep building on it until you get that BIG sound that we like.

Q: Do you guys work on your vocal harmonies a lot? I know some bands that practice harmonies till they’re hoarse and they still can’t nail them live, and other people who can just sing harmony without thinking about it.

(Everybody laughs and comments unintelligibly)

Roberto: With us it depends on how much we had to drink.

Jake: It’s a whole lot of sweat.

Dan: We didn’t do that many takes, did we?

Jake: Some of those songs were more difficult than others. And of course some of the songs we’ve played a lot and practiced many times and that made it easier in the studio.


Dan rocking out, Will wailing, Oliver Ignatius on the tambourine


Q: How did you find Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen?

Dan: Ray Weiss. Ray was in the bands Red Dwarf and Les Rug. He introduced us to
Oliver and we recorded our first 3-song EP in his basement. And he invited us to help him set up this new space that became the studio.

Oliver Ignatius: It’s true, they were part of the set up crew when we were putting the studio together. If it wasn’t for Will, we would have never gotten those sound panels up. They helped us with carpentry and painting and whatever needed to get done.

Q: Oliver, as the producer, what was the most challenging thing about recording these guys?

Oliver Ignatius: I wouldn’t say there was any sort of a challenge, really. They’re one of the most talented bands I’ve ever met, and I consider myself fortunate just to have had the chance to work with them. But with that said, if there was anything that was hard, it was just that there were so many fucking ideas going on at the same time, crammed in there. It was a matter of finding the space for everything to be heard, because there was such a smorgasbord of things in there.

Will: I don’t think we’ve mentioned Devin Calderin yet, but he’s totally changed our sound. His keyboard playing was super influential in how this record came out.

Jake: Basically I was playing keyboards the whole time and I’m a terrible keyboard
player, and we saw Devin play with The Great American Novel and we were just like… That guy. In our band. Now.

Roberto: And we totally have to thank Oliver (Ignatius) for helping us get the energy we did on the album. Our live show is always fun and huge but I was concerned about how we were going to get that across in the studio. And I think he totally nailed it.

Oliver Ignatius: The sessions, would you agree, were controlled chaos?

Jake: That was the strategy and it totally worked.

Q: What’s interesting is that there are bands who have recorded at Mama Coco’s whose albums sound like organized chaos. But this record sounds like every note is exactly where it’s supposed to be. Even though it’s got that live energy, everything is incredibly tight and precise.

Oliver I: That’s because there’s so much musicianship in it. It’s not like people were coming into the studio all loosey goosey, falling all over their instruments. Yes, there’s the party aspect of this band, but there’s also the really important side – what I think makes the band – where everyone is a master craftsman at what they do.



Q: Let me ask you guys something that I asked Oliver when I interviewed him. You guys are making this amazing records at Mama Coco’s, and it’s reasonably priced but certainly not free to record there, and then you’re mostly throwing this music up on Bandcamp and letting people download it either for free or whatever they want to pay. Is that a realistic model going forward for sustaining a band?

Roberto: I think it’s a stepping stone, I don’t think it’s the final result. Because ultimately bands need to make money from their music or they can’t go on. Yes, there’s live shows and merch, but ultimately you want to be selling CD’s. And it is a little frustrating to think we put so much into this and we’re only going to sell it for so much as a CD or a download, but that’s part of being a musician, I guess.

Jake: And the other thing is, you have to believe in the future. You have to believe that what we’re doing and what Oliver is doing is going to lead to bigger and better things.

Oliver I: Exactly. We’re trying to do create something that’s actually something, not just to benefit ourselves but to build something for the future.

Oliver Fetter: And everybody involved is going to take off. The guys at Mama Coco’s, all the bands who have worked with them, all of us are gaining notoriety as this thing builds.
Oliver I: And not to sound grandiose, but maybe we can inject just a little bit more fun and vitality and community into the whole fucking scene. That’s what we’re all trying to do.

Jake: It’s how to run a business.



For more information, visit theharmonicalewinskies.bandcamp.com and mamacocosfunkykitchen.com

See the Harmonica Lewinskies on Saturday, August 18 at Piano's (158 Ludlow St. NYC) with The Motive and The Can't Tells. Admission is $10, showtime is 8 pm.


 

 


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