Prior to seeing The Primate Fiasco perform a few years ago, I’d only once before considered the clarinet an instrument that deserved awe or packed much punch.
It was years ago in middle school. A group of us sat in the hall, waiting for the first bell to ring. Arriving a little later than usual, our friend Bunky came through the front doors. He was immediately subjected to the gauntlet of cool kids lurking there, all ready with an unfriendly remark.
Stacy made a crack about the clarinet he was carrying and, quite out of character, Bunky snapped, walloping the girl in the head with the instrument’s case. She needed stitches.
But between Bunky and The Fiasco, the only reed blowers on my radar have been the likes of Woody Allen and Kenny G. Swell guys, I’m sure, but I’ve never even come close to breaking a sweat while grooving to their tunes, and they’ve never made me shout at the top of my lungs, begging for more.
But then mighty Steve Yarbro appeared, towering over them all.
There’s no use denying it: he and his bandmates have made me dance like a man possessed, and plead for more—nothing I’d ever have expected from a quintet comprised of clarinet, banjo, drums, tuba and sax.
The Primate Fiasco defies easy categorization. They were mysteriously named best folk band by Valley Advocate readers in this year’s Grand Band Slam, but it’s a designation they deny flatly. In other years, they’ve been voted best jazz band, which is more apt—their style is rooted in Dixieland jazz—but this doesn’t account for the fearsomely funky backbeat and rock and roll attitude they bring to just about every song they perform.
The inventive, eminently catchy original tunes are mostly penned by banjo player and lead vocalist Dave Russo, but in concert, they broaden their repertoire by borrowing from all over the place. I’ve seen them perform songs by Led Zeppelin and Guns ‘n’ Roses, the children’s classic “The Hokey-Pokey,” and a Star Wars medley that would make even Darth Vader grin and get down.
The band has been a fixture in the Valley for years, appearing on street corners, at festivals and in the spotlight at concert venues throughout New England. In the past year, though, the group has been on the road. They’ve been making a name for themselves on the festival circuit, working their way up and down the East Coast. On New Year’s, they will be returning in a big way, performing at the Hotel Northampton before, when and after the ball drops.
On a recent Sunday morning at Esselon Café in Hadley, after the band members had dragged themselves out of bed, the Valley Advocate forced them to answer questions about what it was like performing in the Fiasco. In order of amount of facial hair (something all Primates wear with pride), sitting around the table were:
J Witbecke_SEmDWith a full-on Grizzly Adams beard, Witbeck keeps feet tapping and bones rattling with his monstrous brassy bass lines from his seriously sexy Sousaphone.
Steve Yarbro—His straight-as-an-arrow Amish whiskers disguise a wild side that only comes out when induced by his gargantuan sax and clarinet solos.
Dave Russo—Playing banjo, harmonica and vocals, the man with curls on his chin acts like the band’s leader when the others allow him to. Last year, Russo made headlines for another fiasco involving a wardrobe malfunction and a passing school bus full of athletes. The case never saw trial.
Chris Trevethan—Behind an understated soul patch, Trevethan plays drums and looks like the only Primate who has any business in a kick-ass quintet.
Jeff Fennell—The new guy isn’t so certain where his facial fuzz is going, but as a sax player he clearly has potential. The morning of the interview, he was sporting his best Dick Nixon.
This is what they had to say.
In the Beginning…
Valley Advocate: How long have you guys been a band?
Dave Russo: God, I hate that question. Let’s just say we moved to Western Mass. in 2006. We had our first indoor gig in November of that year.
VA: Where did you move from?
DR: Steve [Yarbro] and I moved from Arizona. Neither of us are from there. But we were out there; the band started there.
Steve Yarbro: No one’s from Arizona.
VA: Why bring the band to the Valley?
DR: Because Arizona sucks for music. And I’m from here. I knew, geographically speaking, this would be a good base for touring. I also knew it provided a good everyday life. There’s a musical community here and a lot of action without having to pay a Brooklyn rent, so to speak.
VA: It was just the two of you, then?
SY: No. We also had a trumpet player. Our tuba player stayed behind.
DR: If we’ve had any kind of “story,” it’s that the band has started about every year and a half or so for the last six years. Not just different musicians, but we’ve played different styles, too. In the beginning, we were a Dixieland band with no drums—we were straight up trad-jazz. We’ve done the kid’s album thing, the Six Flags thing—
VA: I didn’t know you played at Six Flags.
DR: Yeah, that’s what more or less funded our move out here: marching around the fairgrounds, playing for people who couldn’t care less. It was kind of like boot camp for what we do now at the music festivals.
Chris Trevethan: That’s where you met Nick [Borges, the band’s former trumpet player], right?
DR: Yeah. He was working there, too. But we’re not allowed to say [what masked persona he was playing at the time]. We’ve had different incarnations. Sometimes when people ask us how long we’ve been a band, we can say, “since February.” We’re planning an album for next year and talking about revisiting some of the songs from the first album [Geek Dreams] because they sound completely different now.
VA: Tell me more about Six Flags. That sounds absolutely awful.
DR: We shared a dressing room with the Looney Tunes.
VA: What’s the scoop on working with Tweety Bird? Nice guy?
DR: Actually, Tweety’s usually a she.
SY: A very egotistical bird.
CT: Yeah, she’s got a big head. [Laughter] I think when you guys were working at Six Flags, I was a life guard there, and you were...
J Witbeck: I was making kettle corn.
CT: We all worked at Six Flags at some point.
Jeff Fennell [the band’s newest member]: Actually, at that time, I hadn’t been born yet. [More laughter]
VA: What’s it like joining such a tight band as a newcomer?
JF: It was kind of—
DR: Did you get permission to talk just now? [Laughter]
JF: It was interesting. At first, it kind of felt like I was playing catchup. I was filling someone else’s shoes, but also trying to bring my own personality to the band. What was nice, though, was I learned pretty quickly that everyone was on board to get a new sound. They understood that by adding someone new, we were going to go different places musically. That was kind of refreshing.
VA: Still, rather daunting, I imagine.
JF: Oh, yeah. There’s something like 30 different tunes. We don’t read sheet music on stage, and not only that, but a lot of the tunes aren’t even written down. So it’s like: “This song kind of goes like this, but we don’t like these horn lines.” I had to be pretty elastic in the beginning. Things were changing because I was new to the band, but the music itself was evolving, too.
The New Sound
VA: Tell me about the Sousaphone and the tuba. Which one are you playing now and why?
JW: I play the Sousaphone primarily now. Two main reasons. One, ergonomically we’ve been playing more festivals and outside now, and a Sousaphone is much easier to carry. It has its own challenges, though. The other reason is bass orientation. I was privileged enough to own my own orchestral tuba that I used to play more often. It had a darker sound. I’d compare it to an upright bass, whereas the Sousaphone is more like an electric bass. The sound, due to the shape of the bell, is tremendously larger. There’s little to no resistance… The one I have now is from the 1960s. It’s a Cleveland. It’s a student horn, but I’ve taken it to what I call my blacksmith, Dick Hanson.
He’s renowned. He works on the brass for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He lives in Brimfield. I owe him everything. He took a student horn and made it into this beastly, no-resistance instrument. People always say, “Gee, it must take a lot of air to play that thing.” True, but with this customized version and so little resistance when I blow, it makes it much more sustainable.
But the big thing is being able to play more like an electric bass. It allows me to come in on the front of the beat, so you can have more push—a more driving sort of sound.
DR: Everything we have is somehow Macgyver-ed or hot-rodded. We have a roaming drum rig we’ve made for festivals so Chris can walk and play. I’ve got all kinds of technology in my banjo. Everything’s been tweaked. I mean, if “brasstronica” had been a thing for the last 50 years, we could walk into a store and buy it. When you invent stuff, you kind of have to build your tools.
JW: Yeah, we’re cutting edge. We’re like pioneers. People sometimes ask, “Is that camouflage duct tape on your tuba?” And I reply with confidence, “Why, yes, it is.”
SY: Tell him about your other high-tech enhancement.
JW: Oh, yeah. Dick Hanson did provide one customization that certainly wouldn’t be on a student horn. There’s actually a cup holder that he welded on. It’s reinforced with a glow-stick wristband. It’s for water, of course.
VA: Having switched a trumpet player for a sax player, how has your sound changed?
SY: The way the two saxes interact—or the sax and the clarinet—the sound waves build on each other. It’s almost a matter of physics. It’s a different dynamic.
DR: These might sound like little nuances—in a normal rock band, if a musician switches guitars, only other guitarists are ever going to notice—but with us, these changes really affect our DNA. These little things just start spiraling and the whole groove changes. Other than, say, when Chris joined the band and we added drums to the sound, this is the biggest change we’ve ever been through. It’s a totally different show than it was a year ago.
Often, I’m hearing the band for the first time during a show. We’ll be in the middle of a jam, and I feel very similar to an audience member. Either I’m getting into it, or maybe I’m wondering if I’m into it, or if I like the band’s earlier stuff better. A lot of what we do is so new, none of us have heard it before; the songs are structured with room to improvise. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and then blank, and the blank might go anywhere from three to 10 minutes. And I usually prefer to hear something I’ve never heard before there.
JF: You never want the improvisations to sound stale, and that only comes from being completely committed to being with the music as it’s coming. We talk a lot about not going on auto-pilot while on stage. It can be easy, especially when you’ve been playing these same tunes for a while, to start thinking about other things. You know when your horn line comes, and you just play it. That’s really not what this band is about. It’s about being engaged all the time.
Our sound comes from actively listening to each other during these blank sections. We’re not really sure what’s going to happen, but we know we can trust each other enough so that we can add all kinds of strange things and everyone will be responsive. We can go from point A to point D, and who the fuck knows how B and C got in there, but it’s all going on.
CT: And a lot of what these guys are describing, I think, is all a part of the Dixieland tradition and New Orleans influence. It might sound like we’re moving away from that, but I think it’s still at the core of what we do. It’s not only what’s coming from the bandstand, but what’s going on in the room. Everyone experiencing what we do.
VA: Do you have tricks for getting through the improvisations?
JF: Yeah, there’s a few. We have nicknames for different audio cues. We call them “audibles.” [One of them called] “double-O seven” doesn’t have anything to do with Bond. I don’t even know where that came from…
SY: It reminded me of a James Bond moment.
JF: Okay. So there is some glue to what’s going on. It’s even kind of Zappa-esque. But if we hear a certain cue, we all know to get on the same page. I think it’s what separates us from the other jam bands. It tightens things up.
DR: I like the trancy stuff. I don’t like for it to go too long, but I love holding a riff over and over again. But only because these guys are going to do something interesting over it.
JF: The looping acts as a kind of foundation.
DR: But also, in terms of how we navigate these jams, I think it has a lot to do with us knowing each other’s habits so well. It’s like your dog knowing it’s you coming home even before you open the door. Maybe the tuba or drums change their beat, or the banjo starts strumming differently, but you know that in three beats, things are going to change. Maybe someone’s trying to wrap things up, or someone’s being stubborn and wants to keep it going.
JF: That’s true. Sometimes it’s explicit, and sometimes all of a sudden I hear just a snippet of a baseline out of J, and I’m getting ready for what I think might come next.
SY: Sometimes I find myself getting locked in with Jeff after just a few milliseconds. I’ll play something and he’ll play the same thing, and boom, we’re off. It’s this weird sort of telepathy that happens all the time. Sometimes it takes two notes. Sometimes less. I know Jeff’s always listening.
VA: Do you think sometimes the audience is dictating how the show goes?
CT: I guess that’s all art: a give-and-take relationship. But to make this thing happen, I think we need to take responsibility. We need to take a stance. I think that’s what the audience is expecting, even though you might be thinking, “What do they need?” They come to us, so we can give them what we know they need.
SY: I don’t think there’s ever something we play for the audience that we don’t want to play. If the audience is asking for a song, it’s not like, “Oh, man, we’re having such a good time and now they want that old song.” Actually, it’s kind of fun to play.
VA: So you’re not going to pull a David Bowie and insist your old catalog is off limits?
SY: Not yet.
DR: There are songs we’ve successfully phased out, where we don’t play them anymore and don’t mention them. We’re just going to let that sleeping dog lie.
VA: Can you give me an example?
SY: There are some songs that we’ve played a lot and then put down for a long time, saying we’ve had enough of that. But then it resurfaces later. We just revisited “St. James Infirmary” at the last rehearsal. It’s an old New Orleans funeral dirge that’s a lot of fun to play.
On The Road
VA: A question about a song from your last album,“Wrist Band Tan Line” [about losing one’s self in a psychedelic cloud during a music festival]: what drug are we on?
JW: Playing the tuba in 100-degree heat.
CT: Your drug of choice.
VA: All of them?
DR: People ask me that all the time. They say, “So is it true you don’t remember your whole summer because you were at festivals the whole time? You must be committable by now.” The truth is, I don’t really party that hard, and I especially don’t at festivals. I’m like a health nut at festivals, drinking fruit smoothies and trying to sleep as much as possible, just because we’re working so hard and playing all the time. But I still come home from a festival like I used to when I was someone buying a ticket: “Whoa! Was that just a weekend? I feel like I’ve been gone a year. Did that all really just happen?” I’ve had the experience [I sing about in the song] in the past, and now we’re so intertwined with people still having that experience. People hanging out with us, dancing to our music—you see the pupils on them and you think: “It must be fun for you to find a brass band covered in Christmas lights when you’re on your way from Fervor to Soul Live.” If I’m singing about any drug, it’s probably sleep deprivation. That’s my drug of choice.
SY: I like fried foods.
VA: The few festivals I’ve been to, though, it’s seemed hard to avoid the drugs and alcohol.
DR: Fans sometimes want to show you their appreciation that way, sure. But if you take a hit of everything you’re offered, you’ll be useless by the end of the day Friday.
VA: A lot of new bands who perform at festivals often don’t get to play on the best stages or at times that are likely to draw a big audience. I’ve heard plenty of bands performing at noon on Saturday, when everyone’s still crashed out in their tents. You guys must have come up against that plenty of times. What do you do?
DR: Open with Star Wars. Or the Muppet theme song. Then people come stumbling out of the woods in their underwear to see what’s up, and you’ve got them.
SY: One of the advantages we have is being able to play more often than other bands in weirder places.
VA: I understand that you use your ability to be an acoustic roaming band tactically at the festivals?
DR: We’ll play these festivals where we’re put right at the bottom of the totem pole; everyone else is a legend. They might offer us the 11 a.m. slot on Thursday, but we’re always: “Yeah, give us whatever time you want.” Because we know we’re just going to ambush [audiences] at midnight on the strip when there are thousands of people walking by. There have been a lot of festivals we’ve been to that we’ve had more people dancing around us on the vending strip than there have been watching whatever’s happening on the side stages. By playing all through the weekend in various locations, we often end up having—cumulatively—more people seeing us than the big acts do on the main stage. Except for maybe the really big headliners, being at the Gathering of the Vibes all weekend, I’d say we had more reach than most of the other acts. It’s just a question of taking what’s ours. We can’t ask to be on the main stage at 11 on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play then.
VA: Do you ever get hassled by the police or security when you play impromptu in public?
CT: Here and there, but we usually have overwhelming crowd support.
DR: That’s the thing: if you can get a crowd of people around you fast enough, no body’s going to mess with you. There have been times we’ve asked for it, though. Once we tried walking into Thornes [Market in Northampton], and security just told us, “No!”
VA: What’s a typical day for the Primate Fiasco while you’re on the road touring?
CT: I think of touring as sort of like you’re going to work for a really long day, but you’re also on vacation at the same time. It’s sort of a surreal feeling where anything can happen and is going to happen, but I still have to work really, really hard.
VA: Do you have an example of something strange happening?
SY: When we were in Virginia last summer on the streets busking to promote an upcoming show, this band from Northampton, Darlingside, just walked up to us.
DR: Probably the weirdest things that happen all involve where we’re crashing after the show. It’s always like: “I’ve got plenty of room in my house. I’ve got plenty of places to sleep.” And then you find you’re sleeping in an unheated closet that’s not in the house, but in a shed outside. And you’re sharing it with 11 cats and you wake up with a keg party happening on your face.
SY: I once woke up on the couch and found myself sleeping with a pit bull wearing a spiked collar.
DR: He was warmer than the rest of us that night.
JF: Yeah. People will sometimes stretch the truth a little bit because they really want us to stay, or sometimes we stay with people who have a lot of money, and they really want to show us a good time. We sort of show up and don’t know what to expect.
DR: There was a family in North Carolina that had a whole guest house, and they said we could stay as long as we wanted. They wanted to keep us and tried to convince us to move there.
JF: That same day we were busking in Virginia, we found out where we were going to sleep that night. This woman heard us and just really wanted to support us.
DR: We all slept in beds that night. She lived alone in this big house with all these rooms.
JW: [Wistfully] She bought us tacos.•