If you’ve caught Super Hi-Fi (“Brooklyn’s finest double trombone-fueled live dub,” according to their website) at one of their shows, or enjoyed their Dub to the Bone LP, they might not strike you as the most obvious choice for a Christmas concert. Formed by bassist-composer Ezra Gale in 2010, the quintet does showcase eclectic influences, comprising jazz, reggae, afro-beat, funk, and even punk.
They’ve got the chops to handle those various genres with aplomb, and have been inspired by the radical production technique of Jamaican dub to play with all those sounds, manipulating the music with a variety of electronic effects both in the studio and onstage. It’s an impressive achievement, though not one that immediately suggests “Jingle Bells,” candy canes, or chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
But looks can be deceiving, even if it’s the look of two trombones playing in a band in a Ditmas Park bar. Super Hi-Fi is a perfect pick for Bar Chord’s special holiday show. The group’s just released their second Yule Analog collection giving them an impressive list of traditional Christmas carols performed in a very funky, very dubby style to draw from when they take the stage around 9pm on Saturday, December 19. We talked to Gale about the upcoming date as well as the development of the band.
DPC: Last year, a review praised your Yule Analog Very Dubby Christmas album because it’s music that is “written by and for people who HATE Christmas music.” But this year, you’ve released Yule Analog Vol. II, with 10 more dub versions of holiday classics. Do you really hate Christmas music?
Ezra Gale: I guess you’ve found out our dirty little secret — we don’t actually hate Christmas music! I think we’re all sick of the versions of these songs that we hear incessantly at the shopping mall or the supermarket this time of year, but it’s funny, when I really dug into these songs to do the arrangements for Yule Analog Vol. I last year, I realized that the melodies to these tunes are just beautiful. So the challenge really has been to dress these melodies up in a new context and rock out with them a little.
On Volume I, you managed to rescue “Little Drummer Boy,” a song that often irritates even people who love Christmas music, with some sweet skanking guitar licks and a truly twisted solo. How do you decide which Christmas carols to tackle, and where do you get the inspiration for the radical versions featured on the two Yule Analog collections?
Mostly it’s just picking the melodies that appeal to me and then thinking about ways we can do something different behind it. When you strip everything away and just play the melody to “O Come All Ye Faithfull” or whatever, you can do anything — change the harmony, change the rhythm, it’s a blank canvas. On a couple songs there has been a specific inspiration. “Little Drummer Boy” was sort of a tribute to a great Jimi Hendrix version of that song (which Jon Lipscomb — our guitarist — purposely didn’t listen to before the recording because he didn’t want it to influence him), and this year on Vol. II there’s a version of “What Child Is This?” where the opening bass riff is patterned after the John Coltrane version of “Greensleeves,” which is the same song.
Will any of the holiday music make it into your set at Bar Chord Saturday night?
All of it! It’s “Super Hi-Fi’s Very Dubby Christmas Party” and we’re going to play everything from Vol. I and II and some others that haven’t been on the albums. We might even wear Santa hats.
Dub music is interesting, because it was invented in the recording studio by dropping the vocals from an existing record and adding elements like reverb, echo and delay into the mix. But it was recorded music specifically created for live audiences. Then reggae artists, and eventually even punk bands like the Clash, started releasing dub versions along with their other music. By having a band play dub live, you are adding yet another layer. How does Super Hi Fi fit into the evolution of dub?
That’s a great question, and of course all I can really say is I hope we do fit into the evolution of dub somehow. On some level it’s all very ‘meta’ isn’t it? An art form that started with producers manipulating the recorded sounds of a live band has evolved to live bands inspired by the sounds of producers manipulating the sound of a live band.
Essentially, it would be foolish to try and reproduce the sounds of classic dub recordings exactly because those were specific ‘performances’ captured in the studio. I think what we’re doing is using the same template of manipulating sounds in a variety of ways to come up with a new piece of music, but in live performance instead of on a mixing board.
In the original dubs, superstar producers and engineers like King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, and the Mad Professor would use the studio hardware to improvise by manipulating recorded music. When Super Hi-Fi is playing live, does a lot of the improvisation get returned to the individual musicians?
Yeah, because we can do things like drop the bass and drums out spontaneously or what have you, but the hard part is thinking collectively about it.
Even when playing live, the dub elements of echo and reverb and delay are clearly a part of Super Hi Fi’s music. Who is manipulating the sound when you are onstage?
Trombonist Rick Parker manipulates his effects rig for a lot of the effects that you hear. When we play in places with big sound systems — like Brooklyn Bowl or places like that — we’ve had people come in and manipulate the sound from the soundboard. Victor Rice did that for us once, and our friend Giorgio Poli (Dr. Sub) has done that a few times.
The very foundation of dub was the emphasis of what reggae musicians called the riddim tracks, the bass and drum parts. Is this what attracted you, as a bass player, to dub style?
Yeah, I can’t deny that I like the fact that it’s built from the bottom up. But I also have always liked that it’s kind of radically minimal and different from everything else; there’s deep bass lines and then these sort of collages of sound on top sometimes, I think it’s very unique.
One thing that obviously sets Super Hi Fi apart is the presence of two trombone players. Was this something you planned when you conceptualized the band, or did you just start looking for the best horn players you could find and end up with both Rick Parker and Alex Asher in the group?
I’ve always loved trombone and especially the sound of two trombones. But the way it started was I was playing in a theater show called ‘Beowulf’ with music by Dave Malloy, and he had two trombones in the band. And I thought, I’ve got to try writing music like this and putting a band together, which I did. That was 2010, and I thought we’d play a couple parties and that was it. I didn’t think we’d still be here, two Christmas albums into our career.
I do have to say though, if we were just trying for great horn players, trombone would be a great instrument to pick — there’s like a swarm of great trombone players in New York. In addition to Rick and Alex, we’ve played with Curtis Fowlkes, Ryan Snow, Adam Dotson, Sam Kulik, Kevin Moehringer, and several others, it’s awesome.
What else was involved in putting Super Hi Fi together?
Drummer Madhu Siddappa was a big part of making the lineup come together; he was playing with the group Dub Is A Weapon when we met and he just makes everything sound awesome, which is a good thing for a drummer to do.
Reggae and dub were very consciously a music of the African diaspora, perhaps most famously in Peter Tosh’s track “African” from the 1977 Equal Rights album. Brooklyn may be the quintessential diasporan city, with communities of West Indians, East Asians, South Asians, Russians, Arabs, and others all maintaining a vision of their homeland while contributing distinctive elements to our local culture. How does that Brooklyn vibe get expressed in the music of Super Hi Fi?
Reggae is definitely African, there’s no doubt about that. To me the whole swing of the reggae beat is its three-against-four triplet sort of feel, which is exactly what you find in so much African music.
As far as Brooklyn goes, I think we take for granted the incredible wealth of influences and cultures we have when we live here. The rest of the world is much more homogenous, and you can hear it in a lot of the bands from here that mix all these different styles together. I think a band like Super Hi-Fi that mixes dub and jazz and punk rock and afropop together (sometimes in the same song) the way that we do sometimes is a very New York and Brooklyn type of thing. These are all sounds I hear in a typical day living here — on the subway, on the street, going out at night, whatever — and it all filters into our music.
The group has played at Bar Chord before, and I think you also played there recently as part of Beninghove’s Hangmen. Is Ditmas Park a sweet spot for musicians playing original material to find an audience?
I’ve played Bar Chord with several bands now — Super Hi-Fi, Molly Tigre, Bourbon Sprawl and Benninghove’s Hangmen — and it’s always great. We’ve had everything from dance parties to people sitting and really listening intently to people just enjoying the vibe, it really does seem like a place where people who love music go to hear it, and that kind of atmosphere is always really inspiring to us onstage.
The music is free at Bar Chord, where’s there is no cover even when live bands are performing, so consider this show the club’s holiday gift to you. But think of the words from a Christmas carol Super Hi-Fi probably won’t be performing: “Christmas is coming/The geese are getting fat/Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.” There likely won’t be an old man with a hat Saturday, but the tip jar will do in a pinch. See if you can give the band a merry little Christmas.
Super Hi-Fi performs at Bar Chord, 1008 Cortelyou Road, on December 19 at 9pm.