The New Mastersounds are leading the funk revival with their four-piece band of guitar, bass, drums and organ. With a career that began with a DJ Keb Darge produced single and now five albums released the band are a global funk phenomenon. Mundovibe caught up with band leader Eddie Roberts to discuss their rise to the top of the funk heap.
Funk music is hard to pin down — much like jazz it’s really beyond defining. But if there’s one sure thing about it, it’s that it just keeps on grooving and when it hits you, you feel no pain. And even though funk as we knew it may have passed with the death of its Godfather, James Brown, there’s more than enough reason to believe that this sweaty, rhythm heavy sound is back and better than ever. Call it the baby boomerang effect on music: kids of baby boomers (and the parents too) have shown a renewed fervor for vinyl records, analogue sounds, 60’s &70’s soul along with classic funk of bands like the Meters, Grant Green, James Brown and a whole slew of more obscure bands. They’re digging the funk.
And it’s not just music fans that are sharing the love for funk: a whole new generation of retro-funk bands have emerged on the scene, injecting a new breath of hot, sweaty air and a new “deep funk” sensibility to the music. Bands like the U.S.’s Breakestra, Australia’s the Bamboos and England’s New Mastersounds pay homage to funk’s golden era while moving the sound forward with a more DJ-like approach that is less congested and more spacious and beat heavy.
Leading the way from across the pond are Leeds, England’s The New Mastersounds. One can be forgiven if this group of four aren’t on their list of leading funk bands – that is, if you’ve never heard their music. Upon listening to their deep, open-ended and warm sound it’s apparent why the New Mastersounds are blowing up on the international funk scene and are now taking America one show at a time. These guys get it and clearly want others to join in.
Their live giging has taken them around the world and introduced their sound to a growing legion of fans. As well as playing club gigs in France, Spain, Belgium and Italy, the band toured the US and Japan and the US is becoming a second home for the band. They appear regularly at the House of Blues, Gratefulfest and have performed at the prestigious High Sierra Music Festival annually since 2005 and are constantly touring and delivering their fat funk to dedicated fans and new ones alike. Their hard work is paying off as the New Mastersounds are being “buzzed up” by those in the know.
The U.S. funk revival is a recent one in comparison to the UK’s which began in the late ‘80s with DJs like Keb Darge who coined the term “deep funk” along with Mark Cotgrove, aka Snowboy (read our Snowboy interview here). Ironically enough, Darge had only discovered this sound after selling off his original soul record collection and being left with what he had originally referred to as “junk music” that he picked up in the United States on his many jaunts to find northern soul records there and in the UK. Though Britain had not been part of the initial funk wave of the ‘60s-‘70s, the scene grew as an underground subculture with DJs laying down the funk for hungry audiences at venues like London’s Club Ormones.
It was Keb Darge that the New Mastersounds cut their first single, ‘One Note Brown’, now a deep funk classic and their first album “Keb Darge Presents: The New Mastersounds”. The New Mastersound are the perfect example of the deep funk DJ subculture influencing the live music scene. In the late 1990’s, guitarist and producer Eddie Roberts was running a club night in Leeds called “The Cooker.” When The Cooker moved into a new venue with a second floor in 1999, there was space and the opportunity to put a live band together to complement the DJ sets. Simon Allen and Eddie had played together in 1997 as The Mastersounds, though with a different bassist and no organ. Through friends and the intimate nature of the Leeds music scene, Pete Shand and Bob Birch were added on bass and Hammond respectively, and The New Mastersounds were born. Though it was raw, and more of a boogaloo sound at first, it was powerful from the start.
Fast forward a few years and five albums later and the New Mastersounds are indeed masters of their sound. Their lineup is back to the original 4-piece NMS sound: Eddie Roberts on guitar, Pete Shand on bass, Simon Allen on drums, and Joe Tatton on Hammond organ and piano. As a band, and as individuals, they have clocked up collaborations with an impressive array of musicians DJs and producers, including: Lou Donaldson, Corinne Bailey Rae, Quantic, Carleen Anderson, Keb Darge & Kenny Dope, John Arnold, Mr Scruff, and Snowboy.
The New Mastersounds fifth studio album, “Plug & Play” features vocalist Dionne Charles and Troy Tuscan. It’s an evolution of their sound: trademark infectious grooves, warm vintage production by guitarist and band leader Eddie Roberts, and successful forays into sub-genres like psychedelic afro-funk, CTI-era jazz-funk, soul-jazz and classic soul. Though the NMS wear their musical roots on their sleeve, each track sounds unmistakably like TheNew Mastersounds and Dionne Charles adds to the phenomenal soulfulness of the music.
Never a band to slow down The New Mastersounds are headed soon to a city near you, touring in support of “Plug & Play” and delivering their infamous gritty grooves and deep rhythms. Their live show will get you up dancing and hold you there intoxicated by the funk until last call- when you’ll stagger home, sweaty and exhausted, on a wave of euphoria.
Mundovibe’s Editor J.C. Tripp caught up with Eddie Roberts via telephone to dicuss their tour and music. It began with a humorous account of their first performance on a cruise…
Mundovibe: So how’s the touring going??
Eddie Roberts: It’s been going great, the only problem so far was from last year’s Rocks Off Concert Cruise Series in New York which we’ll be doing again this year. It was quite rough weather but we still had a great turnout. The funny thing was they’d rented a Hammond B3 for us and we did the sound check when it was docked and what we didn’t realize was that once we went on the generator it actually wouldn’t power the Hammond enough to keep it in tune. And when we went on for our first set once we’d set to sail everything was out of tune and we were like ‘what the hell is going on?’ and we realized it was a generator problem so we had to do the whole set on Fender Rhodes.
MV: So, this is your second US tour?
ER: This is our third one this year but if you’re talking about how many tours we’ve done in total we were in the state like nine times last year but this is the third one this year. At the moment we’re pretty much here about two weeks out of every month, that’s how well it’s going for us.
MV: That’s fantastic. Clearly you’re developing a strong fan base here in the states.
ER: Yeah, yeah it certainly appears so. What seems to be changing now and what’s good is that we can go to smaller towns like in mid-week and still pull in a decent crowd, like a couple hundred people which is great. And then when we go to the bigger cities we’ve got a nice substantial fanbase.
MV: And are you touring primarily to play tracks from “Plug & Play” or are you mixing things up?
ER: We always mix things up, I mean “Plug & Play’s” our fifth album so there’s a lot of material there and some things are just part of our staple live show, you know, just tunes that really work live. But we have a repertoire of about 80 tracks to chose from. And then also we’ve just recorded a new album so if anything we’re trying out a lot of tracks from the new album. Some of which, because we’ve gotten better at playing them we’re going to re-record them when we get back. They’re sounding much better having played them for a couple of months. So know we go “maybe we’ll go and re-record this one.”
MV: Live is probably the best way to work out a track.
N: Yeah. Usually the process has been that we go into the studio with some ideas and then finish them off in the studio and record them and release the album quite quickly after that process. But because we’ve been so busy touring, what’s happened is we went in and recorded it and then went out on the road without having a chance to mix it and release. And then we started playing the new tunes so it’s been a different way of doing it this time which will mean that it will be better.
MV: On “Plug & Play” I noted some distinct changes or an evolution in your sound. A little more of an African kind of vibe going on, a little slowed down. Can you comment on its process?
ER: Things just tend to evolve in the studio more, there’s usually not too much thought process it’s just whatever we’ve been exposed to, what we’ve been influenced by running up to that point. And Pete, the bass player has been doing a lot of DJing now, much more than he used to, so there’s definitely some new things that he’s coming forward with like some grooves that he’s wanted to include into things, that’s most definitely had an effect. I think performing in America so much has changed our sound a little bit.
MV: In what sense would that be?
ER: Hard to put a finger on it, it’s really weird but to us it just sounds more American in a funny way. We’re bound to be influenced by it, we’re here so much. It’s kind of hard to put our finger on it. This new album we’ve got a few American guests as well, people who we’ve hooked up with on the road.
MV: Any one you can name?
N: Skerik the horn player has layed down some horns on one of the tracks that’s come out quite cinematic. And then Grace Potter the singer sang a track with us, we ended up at Mile High Festival with her and at places along the way she’s on the same bill as us, I think that’s the only vocal track that will be on the album.
MV: So you’re sticking primarily with instrumental?
ER: Yeah, that’s usually how we move around anyway. On “Plug & Play” our paths crossed with Dionne Charles and it worked for a little while and then she got busy with her band and we didn’t really see ourselves as permanently including vocals.
MV: One observation I’ve made is that there’s the cultish funk scene with people like DJ Keb Darge and then there’s the broader scene. And you seem to be appealing to both. I just wondered if you ever feel like you’re walking a fine line or you’re just doing what you’re doing and everyone likes it?
ER: Yeah, it’s more the second one really. I think if you really think about it too much it’ll kind of mess your head up. I know when we were first a band about ten years ago the whole British funk scene was kicking off and there was a website called deepfunk.org and there was always this constant debate about us, whether we were really deep funk or whether we were black enough. It’s all this kind of stuff. Most of it was complimentary but we had some people just being really, really nasty. Britain’s quite a bitchy place you know? And I just thought, “I don’t even want to know what people think about it. I’m just going to put my head down and do the music I want to make. Regardless of whether it’s funk or whatever, you know? And that’s why the album title “This is What We Do” is a kind of reaction to that. We wanted to say that whatever this is, the sound we make when the four of us get together and play: this is what we do, this is our sound.
MV: For a four-piece you really have a full sound. How do you accomplish that?
ER: It’s the kind of thing where all music fills the same amount of space, you know? If you go to a gig there’s only so loud that anything can be. We could have ten people and it’s not going to be any bigger sound or louder really than two people. It just means that there’s a bit more space in it, there’s more clarity when there’s less people. Sometimes people make the mistake by just piling on instruments and it’s a bit of a racket. And especially playing funk, you need that clarity in it to get the grooves. I like working as a four-piece just because the communication is so much better. When we used to have a horn section, with seven people on the stage, if you want to mess around with an arrangement it’s hard to communicate across the stage and expect everyone to be hitting the same kind of thing. With the four of us, which is how we started anyway, we can switch into whatever groove by literally a wink and a nod. Because we know each other so well, we’ve spent so much time with each other personally and musically. We can kind of just move as one unit, which is the beauty of it.
MV: I was reading that you are a big jazz buff and I wondered why you didn’t go more in the jazz direction of things?
ER: I’m not good enough that’ why! (laughter). I spent a lot of time trying to play stuff that I had but then I realized that when you play something that’s really natural, then that’s what you shine with. Obviously you challenge yourself and do keep my hand in jazz stuff just to keep my ears open and my fingers moving. If you’re doing the same thing all of the time you get a bit stale with it. You can’t understand it when people say, ‘wow, how’d you do that?’ and you think ‘that’s really easy’. Not being arrogant but within yourself you’re thinking ‘that’s the easiest thing of what I do’ but that’s the bit people are going to like because when it’s natural, when it’s easy to you, then that’s what makes it good.
MV: I understand that your live set is quite a marathon.
ER: It depends. It depends on what night of the week it is, it depends what the audience is like really. If the audience is raging then go till we fall over, licensing permitting. When it’s working, when there’s a great energy transference from the audience to the band and back again. We’ve got such a big repertoire that we have been known to play a good four hour set. On club shows we tend to play around two hours.
MV: And do you prefer the larger venues or the more intimate?
ER: We like it smaller, it’s nice to have people packed in and have that hot, sweaty thing going on. But over the years of doing bigger stages whereas I didn’t used to like getting on the big stage because you lost that kind of intimacy, I think from the experience of doing it more and more now I feel that we can still kind of connect with the audience just as well on the big stage. And that just comes from experience. Sometimes with small clubs, the difficulty you have is if the stage is low, really you can only connect with the first row or the first couple of rows of people, because people can’t see you and you can’t see them so it’s nice to have that sort of 500 capacity place or in theaters like the Fox Theater in Boulder.
MV: It’s great that you’re doing so well in the States and it’s a good sign. There’s been a resurgence and a wave of interest with live funk and soul.
ER: Yeah it is, things come in waves, in Europe I’ve watched it come and go a few times. At the minute there’s not much interest for what we do in England, we don’t really play there but in mainland Europe there’s been a resurgence like in Spain where there’s never been an interest in funk and Germany is picking up a lot and Holland, which has always been kind of electronic based, they’re going back more into roots music and reggae as well. So, you can see these waves coming and going all of the time and I don’t know what it was like in America ten years ago but there definitely seems to be a great appreciation for live music. And I think the whole thing with playing funk is people generally want to have a good time and dance and there’s a generation of people at the moment, twenty and thirty year olds, who we’re playing to: they love dancing. Because we’ve got this slight kind of DJ approach because we’ve come through the European scene, of learning this craft through records rather than going to concerts.
MV: I noticed that you had a remix project in which your original material was remixed by DJ-producers. Were you pleased with those results?
ER: Yeah. I can’t say I’ve listened to it much (laughs). There’s a funny thing, when the tunes were getting submitted I just let it happen and turned myself out of the loop. Probably the first time I heard any of those tunes was at a club in France. I was in a conversation with someone and I thought ‘that’s weird, I recognize this tune’ and it completely freaked me out.
MV: You’ve got to have a lot of faith to have your music taken over by another person.
ER: Yeah, I’m not precious. I’m quite stubborn but I’m not precious. I’m stubborn with what I’m doing but if someone has another vision with it then they can run with it. Kind of with the remix album, it’s the Italian label Record kicks contacted us about doing it and we were like ‘OK, as long as we don’t have to do anything about it. You do all of the work and that’s fine with us’ (laughs). It worked well, it helps our profile with the DJs, more of the electronic side of things.
End of interview
The New Mastersounds Discography
• Nervous, 12″ EP, Deep Funk Records, 2001
• Keb Darge Presents The New Mastersounds, CD and LP, Deep Funk Records, 2001
• Keb Darge Presents The New Mastersounds (re-release), CD, Cooker Records, 2003
• Be Yourself, CD, One Note Records, 2003
• Roughneck, CD and double LP, One Note Records, 2004
• Move On – NMS4 Remix, 12″ EP, 2020Vision Recordings, 2004
• This Is What We Do, CD and LP, One Note Records (UK)/3 on the B Records (USA), 2005
• 102%, CD and LP, One Note Records, 2007
• Plug & Play, CD and LP, One Note Records (UK), 2008
• One Note Brown, 7″ single, Blow It Hard Records, 2000
• Taurus, 7″ single, Blow It Hard Records, 2000
• Fire (feat James Taylor), 7″ single, Blow It Hard Records, 2000
• It’s Alright Now, 7″ single, Deep Funk Records, 2001
• Hot Dog, 7″ single, Deep Funk Records, 2001
• (So You Can) Get Back, 7″ single, Cooker Records, 2001
• So Much Better, 7″ single, Cooker Records, 2003
• Nervous, 7″ single, Kay Dee Records, 2003
• Your Love Is Mine, 7″ single, One Note Records, 2003
• Baby Bouncer, 7″ single, One Note Records, 2004
• Believe – NMS remix, 7″ single, 2020Vision, 2005
• Butter For Yo’ Popcorn, 7″ single, Soul Cookers (France), 2005
• Give Me A Minute, 7″ single, Our Label Records (Germany) 2005
 One Note Records