Sarah Chaplin spoke to Barry Gordon and Aki Remally, the guitarist and lead vocalist from Scottish funk band James Brown is Annie, who will be performing their first London gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club on Dean Street on Saturday 20 June with none other than Malcolm ‘Molly’ Duncan, founder member of the Average White Band, who also just so happened to produce JBiA’s first album.
SC: How did the band form originally?
Barry: We started out as an instrumental funk outfit, gigging in a piano bar. I was also working as a music journalist at the time and got sent along to interview Alan Gorrie of the Average White Band. During the interview I mentioned I was also part of a funk band and offered to be their support band next time they played in Scotland. To our amazement, Alan later contacted us and asked us to do just that, and now we always have played as their warm up act twice now, and are scheduled to do so again in November.
JBiA has been kind of like military service for people - in the early days it seemed as though everyone came into band, stayed for a bit and then moved on to other things, so for a while the band membership was quite fluid. We are quite influenced by Frank Zappa and how he changed his band around every few years, so it seemed like a good thing at the time. Once we decided to do an album, however, the line-up became much more settled and we’ve found we’re able to maintain a much higher quality of sound and musicianship.
SC: Tell me a bit about how the album came about.
Barry: I was living in a cold, very isolated castle in far north of Scotland at the time I started thinking it would be good to record some stuff. I felt that in order to work, we would need to work with a well-known producer, so I found Molly Duncan’s website and sent him an email with links to our demo tape and hoped for the best. To my amazement he came back and said we had a really original sound and he’d like to work with us. By then we’d built up a good CV in terms of our playing and writing experience, so we applied to Creative Scotlandfor funding for the album. They fund about 20 albums a year across a wide range of genres. Luckily, we got the money and had plenty of material to choose from. We played it all to Molly and his main thing was to take each tune and really establish where the groove was, simplifying the tunes to make sure the hooks were strong and they got to the chorus quickly - his genius is to really make our music groove and tidy things up in terms of production.
Aki: Molly described himself as a ‘funky referee’ and although he made changes to our material we felt we could really trust his musical sense, so it was a great collaboration, and in terms of funk he really knew where we were coming from. We recorded it in July last year at the Chambers Studios in Edinburgh, had it mixed in Majorca, mastered in New Jersey and then printed in London.
SC: What can we expect at this London gig?
Barry: We are really looking forward to the gig - it’s a hell of a venue to play there as our first gig in town. We’re quite choosy about when and where we play, so this will be our London launch really, and our aim is to knock people out of their seats as soon as possible. London is where it’s at musically, and we are keen to reach a wider audience, so on many levels it’s a big step forward for us.
Aki: The cool thing is Molly Duncan is going to be playing saxophone with us, so hopefully that will immediately raise people’s expectations.
SC: What’s with the name? Can we expect some Annie tunes in your set?
Barry: Haha, one of our ideas is to do a medley of Annie songs in a hard-rocking funk style! When I was 14 I was bunking off school and we’d go round to a pal’s house and drink Scrumpy Jack cider and watch tapes of Saturday Night Live and I remember there being this one show where they were playing songs from the musical Annie in a James Brown style and we all thought it was hilarious. It might be too much of a gimmick now, but the name has stuck, so you never know! What it really captures though is how we like to take two totally unconnected things and put them together - we’ve always liked weird combinations. I suppose now we’re just a bit more conscious that we need to make it accessible for people too!
Aki: I should also add that our bass player looks great with a ginger afro, but I think he’d draw the line at dressing up as Annie!
SC: Funk seems to be in the ascendency again now, what new ingredients is JBiA throwing into the mix?
Barry: I think funk is all about the riff. I often develop these using a polyphonic octaver, then we put some guitar over the top, let the drummer work something into the mix, and individual band members all add their own take, so as a creative process it’s quite organic. We’ve learned a lot from Molly about making songs appealing and commercial without losing an opportunity to show some flamboyant jazz chops too. Our band is quite technical but we see ourselves operating a bit like Steely Dan in terms of being a jazz-pop outfit. I think we differ from the new ‘uptown funk’ genre; we’re more meat-and-potatoes.
Aki: It’s less about making music for the brain and more about being vibey and visceral. A lot of funk bands are more jazz-oriented; we want to reach both young kids as well as the older guys who grew up listening to the AWB.
SC: How did the song ‘Ask Your Doctor’ come about?
Barry: ‘Ask Your Doctor’ was written for us by Alan Gorrie, who found out our band was working with Molly and emailed us to ask if we wanted him to write a song for us! So it’s built around Aki’s voice.
Aki: Yeah it was quite eerie singing it the first time, as well as being an honour, but it needed no adjustments, and immediately felt very hooky. It’s up on Youtube now.
SC: What do you plan to do next as a band?
Barry: Since recording the album we’ve played on STV, done some interviews with the BBC, gigged at a few major festivals and so on in the UK. So our next step is to build up more of an international following. We have fans now in Europe and North America so it would be great to tour and play live for them. It’s all about keeping up the momentum, but we think that anyone who loves jazz and funk will like our band. We just want people to have to good time.
- Sarah Chaplin