Today we sit down with Simon Allen, drummer of The New Mastersounds. Simon and I talked about the state of music today, favorite drum breaks, and the band’s 2003 record Be Yourself, freshly reissued by King Underground Records.
This record has not aged a bit. It still sounds as fresh as it did back in 2003. Can you talk a bit about what it was like to make that record and the many influences you drew from to get the timeless sound of it?
Thanks! The band had been going for about 3 years at that point, and we had recently transitioned from a 9-piece funk & soul revue back to our original instrumental funky soul-jazz quartet. Be Yourself was all about showing just what we could achieve with that line-up: a broader range of styles and grooves, more space for those grooves to breathe, longer solos. We had been steeped in the sounds of soul-jazzers from the late 60s like Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, Grant Green, George Benson, Lonnie Smith, Melvin Sparks, Lou Donaldson and (of course) the gritty, quirky funk of The Meters. I remember commuting, over five days, to a friend’s attic studio on the other side of Leeds with a real sense of purpose and excitement, and the thrill of having captured 2 or 3 new tunes by the end of each day.
What’s your favorite cut on the record?
Can’t possibly pick one, sorry: This Ain’t Work, Be Yourself, Six Underground, and Coming Up Roses are still welcome staples in our live set 17 years later. But I’m extremely proud of the two guest vocal cuts: Your Love Is Mine (feat. Corinne Bailey Rae) and Idle time (feat. LSK).
I was pleasantly surprised to get done DJing in Asbury Park, NJ a few summers ago, and see you on the marquee at the Wonder Bar. A little after-work gift for me. Your live show definitely had the crowd getting down. How do you see the live aspect of music changing moving forward as it relates to COVID-19?
I remember that place! Well, these are very uncertain times and it’s hard to imagine how the world is going to go from self-isolation and social distancing back to cramming together with strangers on a sweaty dance-floor (which for 20 years has been the perfect environment for our shows.) Maybe there will be a gradual return with bands initially playing venues that are too big for them to fill so that audiences have room to spread out. The last show we played was in Osaka at the end of January. I’m really missing it but there’s a real possibility that we might not get to play again in 2020.
What are you listening to on your turntable these days?
Three LPs that are currently out of the box are Millie Jackson (self-titled 1972), Pink Floyd Meddle (1971), and Akilah! by Melvin Sparks (1972). Clearly, I’m down with the kids and skating on the cutting edge!
You have a very long career in the music business. How do you keep things fresh as a band, music-wise? Are you always evolving, throwing new influences in, or do you have a steady recipe that you stick to while recording a record?
After making the first few records in the band’s hometown of Leeds we eventually reached escape velocity, and over the past decade, we have recorded in Texas, San Francisco, New Orleans and Denver. Each city lends its own unique vibe. And we always enjoy collaborating with musical guests. In terms of influences, there is still that deep connection we feel to the golden age of funk soul and jazz, and for me there are contemporary players like Anderson Paak and Vulfpeck who also draw much of their inspiration from that period.
Do you have a few well-known, or not-so-known funky drum breaks you’d like to share with us?
Ok, since you asked, these are a kind of top five: (click the link to listen)
“Oh, Calcutta!” by The Meters (1970, Ziggy Modeliste) – 4 bar break at 1:42 (partly sampled by Amerie in “1 Thing” 2005)
“Kissing My Love” by Bill withers (1972, James Gadson) – intro
“Got Myself a Good Man” by Pucho & the Latin Soul Brothers (1969, Bernard Purdie) – 8 bar drum break at 1:15 punctuated by stabs from the rest of the band.
“Look Ka Py Py” by The Meters (1969, Ziggy Modeliste) – 2 bar drum break at 0:50
“Do Me” by Jean Knight (1972, James Stroud) – 3 separate 4-bar drum/vocal/cowbell breakdowns
During this downtime, what else have you been up to?
Though we all live in different places, these days we each have a pretty good home recording setup, so when lockdown started we began working on the next record. I’ve been laying down drum tracks and sending them to our bass player in Menorca, who adds his parts before sharing with our guitarist (Eddie in Denver) or our keyboard player (Joe, in UK). If we are thinking of vocals Eddie will assemble a basic arrangement and send it to our man (Lamar Williams Jr.) in Atlanta.
It’s not quite the organic process we have relied on in the past, but hopefully, by the time we can all get in the same room together – whenever and wherever that will be – we will have an album’s worth of solid demos that we can re-record.
Eddie and I also put together a TV show that went out on May 2nd (the night we should have been playing at the House of Blues in New Orleans) featuring clips of past live shows and specially commissioned lock-down performances.
Last remarks, whatever you’d like.
Be Yourself is the only NMS studio album that didn’t get a vinyl pressing when it first came out – it was the debut release on our own label and we just didn’t have the money. In some ways, the production sound is even more suited to vinyl than all our other records and I’m delighted with how this one has turned out. King Underground has a love of the music and real attention to detail: this is a quality piece of wax!
Get the limited edition of The New Mastersounds Be Yourself, reissued on vinyl by King Underground here!