Twenty Years on, Greyboy Allstars Still Laying Down the Groove

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It’s no secret that DJs and traditional bands haven’t always made common cause with one another. But DJ Greyboy isn’t your average DJ, either. A far cry from the scene of neon mouse ears and Miami raves, he was a pioneer of the acid jazz scene in Southern California in the ’90s, making his name by blending a rhythm-heavy mix of soul, ’70s funk and jazz grooves. He also lit the spark that got the Greyboy Allstars together, when he invited five San Diego musicians to play his record release party in 1994.

Twenty years later, the band still soldiers on, playing in a unique improvisational (and mostly instrumental) style that appeals to a broad range of fans, from jazz aficionados to jam band enthusiasts. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the spring release of Inland Emperor was only their fourth album. That’s largely because the prolific band members juggle so many side projects — sax player/vocalist Karl Denson (whom you might recognize from either his gigs as Lenny Kravitz‘s first sax player or as the sax player for Sexual Chocolate in “Coming to America”) has his own band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe; guitarist Mike Andrews (a.k.a. Elgin Park) has done film scores for “Bridesmaids” and the upcoming “The Heat;” and keyboardist Robert Walter just released his latest disc on June 18.

As the band got ready to hit the road last week, we caught up with Walter to discuss the band’s longevity, the San Diego scene and dancing audiences vs. listening audiences.

Weeping Elvis: You’ve been together 20 years, but this is only your fourth album. How do you decide when to go back into the studio and record?

Robert Walter: We sort of get together and record whenever we feel like we need new music to play live. This band is all about the live experience. We’re all interested in recording and all that. Sometimes it just comes about from what we’ve been messing around with live. But this came about in the studio. We got into the more esoteric edges of our musical taste. We recorded a lot. There’s probably another album and a half [of material]. We threw out every idea we had and experimented with a lot of stuff. The weirder stuff was left off, but a lot of it made it on.

The new disc sounds a bit more experimental than your other discs. What’s your creative process like in the studio?

A couple of the tunes were made up live in the studio. On the last record, we made a rule that no one was allowed to bring in any songs. That didn’t hold completely but mostly we’d come in with nothing and write on the spot. For this one, people would bring in ideas. Someone would have a melody or a chord progression, or a rhythmic idea. Some people brought in songs. I know with this band if I bring in a song it’s going to be torn to bits by the time it gets recorded.

You all have plenty of other projects, so how does that work? How do you all strike the balance?

There are plusses and minuses. Makes it difficult, scheduling wise, to get together. But it also keeps us from getting too insular. Whenever we do this band, it’s always exciting. Everyone has new ideas from what they have been working on. That’s in part why we’ve had some longevity. We’re all restless. If we had to do the same thing for 20 years day in and day out we’d get bored. But we always feel inspired.

Go back in time. How exactly does San Diego in the 90s produce a band like this?

It was very odd at the time. There were lots of punk bands at the time. There was buzz about San Diego being the next Seattle. I’d always been interested in funk and things like that. DJ Greyboy had a night where he’d play a lot of these records. We’d just started playing between his sets. He’d start playing between our sets.

A lot of bands hate being asked to define their sound, genre-wise, but we’ll ask anyway. How do you define it?

It’s not that hard to define. I would call it soul jazz or jazz funk music. The main influence has always come from this group of records. There are sides of it: the Prestige and Blue Note stuff from the 60s, where the jazz guys tried to play funk and soul. And the other side is funk 45s, black dance music from that era. It’s got a pretty clear bore. I don’t want our band to encompass every kind of music.

 

 

Do you find people get up and dance at most of your shows?

That’s the main audience. It’s very danceable music. [On this tour,] we’re playing at the Blue Note for four nights. That’s a more listening crowd and we do improvise and play solos and that’s nice when people are listening.

And you do seem to draw fans from a bunch of different segments.

I think it’s sort of different how people discover us [while] we’ve done the same thing. It’ll make sense to whatever crowd. When we started playing, they were calling it acid jazz. Those were more clubby, kind of dressed-up crowds. For a second it was like a trendy thing. Somewhere along the line, the kids that like The Dead and Phish stared coming along. Some kids who liked hip hop would recognize it from samples that  they liked. Then there were sax players. I’m very thankful it’s found an audience.

How structured are your shows? Do you have a setlist? Do you know where each song is going, how long it goes, and when it ends?

We have a set list these days. We used to try to call tunes, then eventually there’d be some dead time or there’d be an arguments. We usually don’t play it exactly. At some point somebody calls an audible. Someone changes their mind. Within the tunes, there’s a fair amount that are open ended. The solos might be different, the length of solos might be very different. That’s mixed with tunes that are very organized. Some songs are songs and some are vehicles for something unique to happen. But the shows are different every night and the set definitely changes every night.

 

The Greyboy Allstars play the Blue Note in New York tonight, and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., tomorrow. Click here for other dates.

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