BrassZilla: Toddlers and drunkards don't dance to look cool

Categories: Interview
BrassZilla_Peter_Lee.jpg
Photo by Peter Lee

We think it's fair to say the sousaphone has outgrown its namesake, John Philip Sousa, our nation's very, very serious March King. Sousa may have made his tuba highly portable, but it's taken a whole line of Dixieland and jazz musicians (oh, and that guy from the Roots) to make it cool. Today, if you see a sousaphone alongside a trombone and trumpet, playing before a drum kit in your local bar -- you're not in New Orleans, mind you, you are in St. Paul -- you can be fairly sure something weird and fun's about to go down. Not that Sousa wasn't weird; he spent much of his life wearing a uniform. And we could be wrong, but we kind of doubt he was much fun. So we digress.

Back to the point -- you can check out some wild sousaphone action this weekend courtesy of BrassZilla, playing Friday and Saturday evenings at Sea Salt (in Minnehaha Park), as well as meeting up with their former Chooglin' cohorts on the Turf Club's old stage between bands at Saturday night's Eleganza! Extravaganza! Comprised of sousaphone player "Hitmaker" Hal Longley, trombonist Zach "Low Bar" Zins, trumpet player Bob "Pipe Fitter" DeBoer and drummer Joe "drummerjoe" Cline, this brass trio (with percussion) combines members of longtime local jazz act GST with former members of the Chooglin' brass section. In advance of their weekend shows, we caught up with trombone player Zins to discuss the group's transition from Chooglin' to BrassZilla, Civil War reenactors (Longley happens to be one), fart jokes, and gettin' paid.

Gimme Noise: First thing's first - explain your nicknames.

Zach Zins: They're just silly crap Bob and I yammer about to fill downtime at practice. Hal writes all the originals and arranges all the covers, so "Hitmaker" is an obvious choice there. As a fan of both high wit and fart jokes, I got stuck with "Low Bar." I mean, "Oscar Wilde" or "Biography lends to death a new terror" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, right? My toddler daughter has been calling Joe "drummerjoe" since he joined the band, and I'm not sure how "Pipe Fitter" even came about.

How did BrassZilla get its start?

Bob, Hal, and I all played together as the horn section in Chooglin'. Towards the end of that band's reign of error, Hal started bringing a few charts in just to mess around with while we were on tour. We'd toot a few backstage to warm up or to keep the chops in shape or to keep ourselves out of the beer cooler rabbit hole. Eventually, we played a few mini-gigs while wandering around Art-a-Whirl a couple of years ago, and then played a gig here and there around town. But once Chooglin' got taken out back behind the grove and put down, we got a bit more serious, started practicing weekly, and scraped together some steadier gigs. And once we realized we couldn't keep time for shit, we decided we could use a drummer. We played a gig at Lee's Liquor Lounge one night with GST, Bob's other group, and, while rehearsing a tune in the green room beforehand, GST's drummer, Joe, said he really liked it. So, naturally, we asked him if he wanted to join the band. Against his better judgment, he said yes.

Three of you became known about town as members of Chooglin' -- can you tell us about the transition from playing behind loud guitars and vocals, to a brass-driven group?

To state the obvious, it was a huge change musically. Playing rock music is easy; playing jazz is hard. Listen, I'm a huge rock fan, and I can safely speak for the others in saying we all unequivocally loved playing in Chooglin' for a million reasons, but there's no question that we've become much better horn players by playing in BrassZilla. There were plenty of times in Chooglin' where we literally could not hear ourselves due to the roar of the band. I like loud music, so that didn't necessarily bother me as an aesthetic, but it certainly didn't help my playing. But it also provided a cover when you screwed up, too. "Oh, well, I sure made a shitshow out of that horn lick, but nobody heard it, anyway." You don't get that luxury playing as an unamplified horn trio. People will hear your mess.

Also, in rock music, horn sections are often playing similar lines and similar rhythms together at the same time -- and often with lengthy breaks in between those lines. In jazz -- particularly when you are just three horns who can each only play one note at a time -- you are playing constantly. You have to to fill out the sound. You are layering: You are playing rhythm, melody, harmony, contrapuntal lines, and improvised solos, and you are constantly switching between those roles both from song to song and within songs. Also, I hadn't read music since my college band days, so to begin to re-engage that part of the brain was fantastic from an academic, music-theory standpoint.

Your music really covers the gamut, from traditional jazz and Dixieland to originals and beyond. How do you decide what tunes to tackle in this group?

The rest of us are too stupid and lazy to write or arrange songs, so, so far, that's pretty much entirely up to Hal.

Marching in a neighborhood parade, playing in a dive bar or BBQ blues club, or performing in the park outside a family-friendly seafood restaurant before moving on to a rock blow-out in the Midway as you'll be doing this weekend -- what kind of venue do y'all prefer? What best suits your sound, style and attitude?

Truthfully, we prefer any place that will pay us. And the more they pay us, the more we prefer it. But we also like to play music -- we've all been playing plenty long enough to know there's no money in this thing -- so we enjoy playing all sorts of places. All of the venues you've listed were fun gigs for one reason or another.

Gun to my head, there's still nothing more fun than playing a rock'n'roll blowout in front of a packed house.


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