By: Thomas D. Mooney
We recently caught up with Brooklyn’s JP & The Gilberts, who will be playing with Thrift Store Cowboys at The Blue Light on Saturday, March 10. Like we talk about later on, I was probably a little naive to the idea of an alternative country band in Brooklyn–in New York in general really. Not that they couldn’t really survive and thrive, but more so, wonder how they’d sound compared to “southern-based” alternative country/folk bands.
After we talked, when I re-listened to their debut album, “Introducing…” (listen below), it made sense. Not saying that it wasn’t enjoyable without context or anything. But, I can see the small things that make them different and unique. Like each of them say below, none of them feel the pressure to sound or fit a certain way.
As the album rolls along, it flows naturally from one song to the next, yet each of the 13 tracks have different subtleties where you can sense they’ve been influenced by something outside the sometimes cookie cutter, typical alternative country and folk influences.
Like in the song “A Woman is For Real,” JP & The Gilberts are “for real” and steal your ears, minds, and hearts.
New Slang: I guess to start off, you’ve recently started up a new tour. How many shows you doing and what are you expecting?
Lily Maase: I think we’re doing something like 18 shows in 21 days. We started in Charleston last night and our last show will be in Rehoboth Beach, Del. on Saturday, March 24. Well this is kind of an experiment for us. We used to be a five-piece band and for a lot of reasons, we’ve just trimmed down to being a three-piece. So we’re having to work a little bit harder to get the same results i guess. We’re not traveling with a drummer and a bassist. Alex and I are playing a little bit of drums and at the same time as our other instruments and covering some of the bass work. We’re trying a lot of sort of experimental folk music than we used to. It’s kind of like, we’re covering some territory we’ve covered on our other tours–all the stops we liked a lot during our last two trips. We’re also kind of getting some extended rehearsal time out of it before we get back to Brooklyn.
J.P. Gilbert: We have a lot of original music that we’ve been playing in a traditional format for a long time and now the format has changed, so we’re trying to focus on the music again, and re-address what the song is, and find a way to play it in the format we have now.
NS: I didn’t know you guys had gone down to being a three-piece. Can you talk about some of those changes specifically that you find yourself making when you look at a song and are reformatting it?
JPG: Well, what’s cool for me is that I get to hear my acoustic guitar. Before, it was just me strumming away not really hearing the guitar. And now, you can hear it fairly well. There’s no bass, no drums, so it’s a different kind of feeling.
Alex Hills: We also are playing with just one microphone.
LM: Old time style.
AH: So we’re all trying to get closer to the mic when we need to be louder and then back off when we don’t. When before, everyone would have their own mic.
LM: It’s been great. It’s really opened the music up for us. I don’t know if you have a copy of our new record or not, but if you check out the track “Oh, I love You Darlin’,” that’s kind of in the style that we’re playing now.
NS: I think it’s interesting. I mean, many times, singer-songwriters will start off acoustic and over time, add members into the band to create a full-band sound. Seems like you guys are kind of going the other way.
LM: Yeah. Some of it’s for practical concerns. We’re able to afford doing this right now as a three-piece while we really couldn’t afford it as a five-piece. And some of it, it’s just something creatively we wanted to try. To see if we could play the songs with a little more openness and sort of get the same results.
NS: You guys are located in Brooklyn. it’s not exactly where most people would think a lot of alternative country/folk bands would be playing. I mean, there could be a big alternative country scene, but people don’t really think that when they think Brooklyn.
LM: The folk scene up there is huge.
AH: It’s the funny thing about New York City and Brooklyn in general, it really doesn’t matter what it is, whatever you’re into, there’s a lot of other people who are also going to be into it too. It could be the most random thing and I guarantee there’s other people into it.
JPG: Brooklyn’s great because if you want to go play, you know, polka from the 1930s Germany, you’re gonna find people who know about that. Anything that you’re willing to explore, there’s so many people there that, you can find like it.
AH: i think it’s been really great for us because we don’t feel limited by a regional scene.
LM: Yeah, and none of us play exclusively country–except maybe J.P. at this point. We all do a lot of different things. And one of the nice things about New York is that you’re able to go back and forth with different kinds of music really, really fast.
NS: Is that probably the biggest misconception? Basically, do a lot of people around the country ask that same question I did?
JPG: People will sometimes be like “What? You’re from where?” We get that a lot.
LM: The first time we played in Greenville, South Carolina, we got mocked for being from New York City by one of the drunk girls in the audience [laughs]. Yeah, so nobody believes we can do it. And I think we’ve come up with some things that are honest interpretations of this music and it really can surprise people at first.
NS: I’m a big believer in the fact that the environment and landscape around a band really plays into what a band sounds like. How has New York had an influence in that way, in what you guys write and play about?
JP: Well, i don’t know. I grew up on the East Coast. There’s a certain East Coast mentality–an arrogant bitterness [laughs]. So that’s sort of came up for me. I also went through a bad divorce and that sort of started to what country music was about with all the pain and suffering. So in that way i guess, New York and my life as effected. But there’s also certain things, like freedom–growing up in a scene where you don’t feel like you have to do one thing. There’s no limitations.
LM: I also think you have to remember that New York is like in the middle of the country. It’s like this big city and there’s all this music happening up in Woodstock and then like in rural Pennsylvania, there’s like this big folk scene out there. Even though we have this idea of New York being this indie rock capital, it’s mostly people who are our age, they’re trying to hang onto the things that they grew up with. Our bassist, who was originally from Lubbock, he had a huge influence on us when we were first getting this thing together.
NS: Why did you guys all start playing music?
JPG: Well, I started playing guitar when i was about 13 or so. Right around when Nirvana came out with “Nevermind.” And that’s why I wanted to start playing in general, because you know, they were really popular at school and I thought it’d make girls like me [laughs]. So that’s how that started and then my school had a great jazz program so I started playing in that for a while. And I guess that’s why I started playing music.
NS: What was it that made you go from wanting to play music in your life to it being “I need to play music for the rest of my life?”
JPG: I don’t know [laughs]. It just sort of happened. I don’t know, because I’m cranky if I don’t do it. That’s probably why. Plus, you know, the longer you do it, the more positive feedback you get, you go “I’ll stick with this.” I’ve just always loved doing it.
LM: Well for me, I play the guitar and it’s kind of all I do. It’s kind of a family business. My father is a guitarist. He actually worked with a bunch of notable bands down in the Buddy Holly studio down in New Mexico. I started playing when I was seven because it never occurred to me not to. It’s kind of a vocational thing almost. Had he been a cabinet-maker or something, maybe I would have gotten into that. But, he, my younger sister, and I all play professionally at this point. We all teach and write music and play in bands. And we’re at a point where we’re all emotionally invested into it. Fortunately, I’m at a point where I can pay all my bills by doing it. It has its ups and downs, but it’s super rewarding. It’s kind of like with J.P., the idea of not doing it, is like dying or something. It’s something in you that you got to do.
AM: So I started playing piano when I was five. My mom was my first piano teacher actually. And then I just took private lessons pretty much up through college. I focused mostly on jazz. I was always listening to Thelonious Monk. He was kind of the first guy I really related to. He was always doing something different. What I really love about it is that it’s always a new challenge. So no matter how good you get, there’s always something you can be better at. And then J.P. asked me to learn accordion for this band so I said, “sure, why not? it should be fun.” And I’m really glad I did because it’s a fun. You know, with the piano, you’re always sitting down in one place, but with the accordion, you’re able to stand up and dance around..
NS: What are you guys currently reading and listening to?
JPG: I’m reading “Moby Dick” right now, which is pretty great, pretty epic, and pretty gay. I didn’t expect that. At least to this point. They talk about how Ishmael and Queequeg are always hugging each other. And Ishmael is describing his wife. It’s really interesting since we always think of it was being this real manly odyssey about killing this whale and this bad Captain Ahab who is just hellbent on vengeance. But it’s also kind of like twee. And then, we were recently just listening to Nico, which is nice. Anne Briggs, who is my favorite folk singer of the moment. She’s wonderful. Sort of part of the ’60s folk revival in England.
LM: OK, so right now I’m really digging this new record by this band Earth. They’re awesome. And, the last two Hayes Carll records have been in my turntable. And “Exile on Main Street” by The Rolling Stones. I just fell back in love with that. And this metal band Mashuga. I listen to a lot of different things. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Bach. Bach is awesome. Right now, I’m reading–I just finished the Keith Richards biography, which is fantastic, and just started this heavy-handed book by W. Somerset Maugham called “Of Human Bondage.” We’re really heavy-handed people [laughs]. Also this book “This Is Your Brain on Music,” which is just about that. Sort of the science of what goes on in your brain when you listen to music.
AH: Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Larry McMurtry, “Lonesome Dove,” “The Last Picture Show.” Also some Cormac McCarthy. I just finished “The Crossing.” Currently, I’m reading this book “Cod,” which is the history of the fish cod. Sort of looking at how it’s role has been in world development and the discovering of America and things like that. It’s pretty interesting how this fish has effected history. And what I’m listening to, I’ve been listening to a lot of soundtrack stuff. Bernard Herrmann, and the “Vertigo” soundtrack. Also some Henry Mancini, like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Those soundtracks are great. And also the soundtrack of “Drive.”
LM: I’ve also been listening to the last two records by this band Graveyard which is this big, awesome, Swedish rock band. It’s kind of like a country approach to Black Sabbath. I can’t get that second CD out of the car radio. But, that’s really enough of that. We could go on with that forever [laughs].