In the back room at Packard's in Northampton, the muffled strains of karaoke bring an array of amateur singers' choices and voices, offering an appropriate backdrop for talking about music, songwriting, identity and technique. At first, talking with drummer Alex Hughes, vocalist Richard James, bassist Neil Robinson, lead guitarist Greg Saulmon and rhythm guitarist and vocalist Kaliis Smith was intimidating; they seem to be part of a tightly knit family. Richard and Kaliis tend to talk over each other and finish sentences, while Neil, Greg and Alex provide a more grounded, laid-back perspective on the group. The dynamic is interesting to watch. It can seem hot-blooded at times, both on stage and off. But Robinson explains that it's more of a balance system: "[Kaliis is] like fire and [Rich is] like ice, and I'm like lukewarm water." To which James responds, "I think I'm fire and she's ice." He and Smith throw their heads back and laugh. "You're definitely not fire," says Smith.
"But it's true," comments James, "Neil provides an older brother kind of influence, especially on Kaliis and me."
Robinson wanted to create a band that avoided agenda. He didn't want to be "concerned with any kind of authenticity, or any kind of notion of what we should be or what we should be playing. I have to admit that there's a part of me that very specifically didn't want to play R&B music and didn't want to play funk music."
The genesis of The Brass happened about seven years ago, when Robinson and Smith began working on songs Smith had written. Around February 2007, Robinson wanted to start a band. He and Smith started playing with Hughes and eventually brought in James, whom he had seen in the local band Pictures of Animals years earlier. Robinson brought James in, "incidentally incorporating a fourth of [Northampton's] black population," jokes Smith.
The members of The Brass are not afraid to broach the subject of race. Robinson addresses the cultural and racial divide in music: "When I was a kid, black people used to play in bands. There was hip-hop and there was rap, but there was just a whole diversity of black music," he says. "Now there's neo-soul and hip-hop, and that's it. It's tragic, in my opinion. And that's the one concession to identity politics I'm going to make." Everyone else nods in agreement. He continues. "People figured out that they could make a lot of money with gangsta rap and all those negative stereotypes, and it became essential that blackness be defined in a certain way. If we can do anything to undermine that, it's good."
"It also raises questions about what rock music is," offers James.
Hughes says, "I told you guys we should have been [called] 'Token White Guy.'"
To which Smith responds, "But there are two of you!"
"I grew up in the Pioneer Valley," Saulmon says, "and I was born black. Growing up here, I emerged a white male." Everyone laughs.
Saulmon, who was a member of Pictures of Animals with James, was brought in to help the band achieve a fuller sound. The tunes are pop-influenced, catchy and chorus-centric, combining strong vocals with interesting guitar technique.
James and Smith, the vocalists in the band, share similar ranges and the primary responsibility for the lyrics. Because they have such similar timbre, The Brass can achieve on-stage a version of what most bands can only create in the studio: a singer harmonizing with him or herself.
With their "guitarmony," as Robinson calls it, Saulmon and Smith tend to play very differently from each other. "Kaliis is a very interesting guitar player," explains Saulmon. "What I found with Kaliis is that I'm not at all trying to duplicate what she's playing. I'm trying to respect what Kaliis does on the rhythm guitar, because she does a lot of very interesting chord structures that would get muddied or buried if I don't play carefully enough."
In rehearsals, the members of the band are concerned with collaboration. "We try things out until we all agree that they're not working, and then we all let go," explains James.
"There's really a refreshing lack of self-consciousness, and I love that," says Robinson. "We just try to write songs that we would listen to."
The Brass play The Elevens in Northampton Aug. 16. Visit www.myspace.com/thebrassnoho for more information.