Mark Mullins of Bonerama Keeps Trombones Hummin’ & Rockin’ (INTERVIEW)

It is a well-documented fact that when Bonerama hits the stage and those triple trombones start humming, an entire room full of people will stand up and start moving to the rhythm. There is something very electrical about this band full of horns, something magical and unique. Their brand of funkified brass quenches the thirst for music that has shades of a time gone by – think the big bands of swing – unified with a hot torch mixture of what is best about today’s music – excellent musicianship, hummable melodies, no signs of bubble gum smacking pop. It’s pure music.

It was back in the late nineties when trombone players Mark Mullins and Craig Klein were heating up the horn section in Harry Connick Jr’s band that the idea for Bonerama came about. Their first couple of releases were live recordings because onstage was where the band was most alive. Fans loved the sounds, textures and shimmy-rhythms they would hear in the band’s hometown of New Orleans, where music is the bread of life and where there is so much music to choose from on any given night, you had to work hard to stand out. And Bonerama did.

Acclaimed music journalist David Fricke sang their praises early on and they have been a favorite at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for numerous years now. In 2013, Bonerama finally released their first studio album, Shake It Baby, and from what Mullins told me last week, there is more of that in the works.

What has been going on in the world of Bonerama lately?

Quite a bit. We’ve been working on new studio work. We’ve been working on a CD, possibly two CDs. We’re not quite sure yet how we’re going to do it but we’ve been in the studio recording new music and recording a bunch of the Zeppelin music that we’ve been playing over the last couple of years. We have a whole record worth of Zeppelin stuff so we’re thinking we might do something like that but we’re not sure yet.

Also, we just got back from the Midwest. We sold out Chicago, which was awesome. That was like the third time in a row that we’ve sold it out and it was really, really good. We did a few other dates on the run as well. After Mardi Gras, well, we’re playing Lundi Gras at Spanish Plaza [in New Orleans] when Rex arrives there and he meets Zulu. They have a big ole festival all day long, free festival, nice family kind of event, all day at Spanish Plaza on Monday, on Lundi Gras. We’ll be out there with Cowboy Mouth and a bunch of other bands. Should be really nice, the weather is supposed to be great. Then after Mardi Gras we head out again.

We’re going to Texas, first time in Texas in a while. We’ve been to Austin a few times over the last couple of years but Dallas, I don’t think we’ve played Dallas in like seven years, and Houston, probably the same for Houston. So we’re just checking back in with our neighbors to the West cause we’re overdue to get over there. We go to New York or Chicago or DC much more often than we go to Texas or even some other places around here.

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You said you were working on some new music. Tell us how that works for you guys cause there are like six or seven people in the band. How does it not become too many cooks in the kitchen?

(laughs) That’s a good question. You know, it’s a mutual admiration society that we have within the band. Everybody in the band brings something real special to the table. If somebody has an idea that they want to present or a song idea they want to try, we bring it to a rehearsal and check it out, give it a shot, and if it works well in the gig, we’ll keep it. You know, Matt Perrine has been back with us on sousaphone and electric bass. He was with us from the very beginning but after some years of touring he decided he wanted to stay closer to home and work on some other projects. But we’re so happy that he’s back. And he writes a lot. He’s got a lot of material, he’s always got his musical mind cranking and he brings some really great stuff. And Craig Klein, of course, is always bringing in fun New Orleans funk, and it could be almost anything with his stuff.

I still love writing original stuff and bringing in, well, I tend to lean towards a little more of the rock covers. That seems to be a little more my territory (laughs). So all those things live together in a really good way and help define what Bonerama is. So I think that supersedes any ego issues cause it helps the band to be more diverse and better and more fun and different and it really works well to do that. It’s like, even within each songwriter, you never quite know what someone is going to bring in. Like Matt is such a good songwriter, he’s got such a riff vocabulary of different styles and different influences that you can have three Matt Perrine songs and they’ll all three sound different and they all three will be great for Bonerama somehow. But everybody knows how to kind of write for the band at this point.

Do you flesh those songs out more in a rehearsal or is it a more time-consuming process?

It’s a little more time-consuming. We also like to arrange so once you write the song you arrange it for the band, which means you really spell it out, like what note should this trombone be playing and how do three trombones arrange their notes to really work the best together. Sometimes that stuff is done on the fly and sometimes it changes every night but most of the time with a new song there’s a skeleton of an arrangement that the arranger and the songwriter would bring in. And that would be a rehearsal kind of thing. We check it out at rehearsal, work it out, record it at the rehearsal, digest it, tweak it – it’s a process, a real process, like a craft. Sometimes in a small way it’s like building a little house each time because there are so many different parts to the song. Some work, some don’t work. You just got to figure out how to make it better. It’s a different process for each song but basically that’s it.

I guess it’s safe to say that you were the one that started bringing in the Zeppelin and the Hendrix into Bonerama’s music.

(laughs) Yeah, I did, although Matt did the “War Pigs” arrangement, which is brilliant. But I think early on I might have brought in like Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.” It’s amazing how they work so well with the trombones and it’s fun, not just to play them and to write for the band like that, but it’s fun to see people’s reaction when they hear it, the songs they know played through instruments they never thought would cover a song like that (laughs). To us, it’s not rocket science, it’s not hard or anything, that’s just our voice, the trombones. So when we’re playing these songs and reinterpreting these songs, it’s not all that awkward or unusual for us. But it’s fun to see the crowd really take a step back like, wow. They never thought they would hear Hendrix or Zeppelin through trombones like that and it kind of works. Jimmy Page riffs and licks do kind of work through the trombone. It’s pretty wild.

Did you start doing things like that when you were a kid?

It was kind of like that cause I had rock & roll in my house all the time. I grew up in the New Orleans area but it was out in the suburbs so I wasn’t as close to knowing about the Nevilles and The Meters at such a young age as some other folks might have been. I found that stuff as I got a little bit older through high school and college. Back in middle school I was listening to some Traditional Jazz from New Orleans and Dixieland and emulating that on my horn cause that was normal for a trombone player but there was also a lot of rock in my house. My older brother played Zeppelin all the time and Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago and Hendrix. There was all sorts of stuff, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, and I would love to play along with my trombone to any of those albums. No one told me I couldn’t do it (laughs). And just cause a record didn’t have a trombone in it didn’t really bother me cause if I liked the music, I liked the music. It didn’t have to have trombones in it for me to like it. So since it was the only instrument I really played, I would play along on my horn to Pink Floyd and Clarence Clemons and Springsteen. It was fun and I think I learned a lot from doing that, like stylistically I picked up a lot I didn’t really realize I was picking up on.

And playing along to singers I would emulate vocal phrasing, which can be different and it can be copied on a trombone because a trombone is a fretless instrument. You don’t have any buttons, you don’t have any valves or keys to press down to make the note. It’s a fretless instrument so you have a lot of flexibility and area to bend notes. It can be very, very expressive and great for copying things like vocal lines or guitar lines that have bends in it, you know. That’s one reason it transfers so well. It’s such an expressive instrument.

When are you going to play some Slash and some Guns N Roses?

(laughs) Yeah, that’s a good idea, a really good idea. We haven’t touched any of that but we just might have to tackle something like that soon. That would be fun. With Slash, that’s some fast guitar playing there. I’d have to practice (laughs).

Like guitar players tend to do, they like to store up all these riffs for when they are creating music later. Is that similar to how a horn player creates?

That’s a really good point. I’ve got a whole folder full of snippets and things that all need to be looked at and developed as songs because I wrote them down for a reason. I record things on my phone, the little recorder on my phone, all the time too. Like, I just hum a riff or hum a lick and when I’m feeling creative I’ll go back and listen to it and be like, I totally forgot about that! (laughs). Let’s tweak that and work on it. It’s totally how songs can get written for sure. Take one of those riffs and really see what you can do with it and see where it can go. I love doing that. But other times, sometimes you’re just sitting at the piano and something comes out and develops. So there is no real rulebook for us or for me on the process but that is definitely one way. We try to remain totally open to any process that can take us to a finished song.

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Why didn’t you pick up a guitar and become a guitar god? Why the trombone?

I don’t know (laughs). I did trombone in the band and then I tried playing guitar after and I sucked and I couldn’t do it. I got so frustrated, I said, I’m going to make it work on the trombone. Give me some pedals and I’ll figure out how to do this on trombone. I wish I could, I wish I could play guitar. I’m so influenced by so many guitar players and it’s such a fun instrument but at the same time trombone was like a less-competitive instrument. When I went to school to play trombone, my brother said, “Play trombone in the band because you’ll be first chair right away cause nobody plays trombone. You’ll be the only one.” And he was right and I was like, wow, nobody wants to play this instrument, what’s up with that? (laughs). That was a long, long time ago before Trombone Shorty made it cool or we did what we tried to do to make it cool. There weren’t too many good things going on for the trombone at that time. But I wish I could play guitar. I still try. I have a few in my house and I just don’t let anyone hear me do it (laughs).

But that little boy who played with you at Jazz Fest last year could really play.

(laughs) That’s Matt’s kid Ben and he is so talented. It was so cool to have him and Michael, my son, up there together and we got to figure out what we can do this year. It’s something we can’t stop doing now (laughs). But it’s really cool. And I can tell you, every city we go to, I swear, everywhere on the road, every single night, somebody comes up to me that I don’t know and they’ll say, “Loved your son playing with ya’ll at Jazz Fest.” It happens every single night and as a dad it’s really super cool; very, very cool, like passing the torch a little bit. And I never wanted to be that dad that pushed their kids into music. I’m still kind of like deathly afraid of that cause I just don’t want to force them or make them do anything. But then you don’t want to hold back any opportunity for them either. You don’t want to deny them a chance to experience some fun with it. So I’m glad that Michael is tapping into it and checking it out. If he quits tomorrow, hey, I’ll be fine, cause we’ll have that forever, that connection. If he wants to go ahead and be a lawyer or a doctor or whatever, I’m great with whatever he wants to do.

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As the father of a son who plays trombone, what similarities do you see in him?

A lot, actually. It’s funny, when I see him play I think of myself when I was his age playing and he kind of physically looks a lot like I did, the way he holds the horn, his facial expressions. It’s kind of crazy to see, you know. He plays piano too and he plays some guitar but honestly I never really thought I’d see him playing the trombone. I thought it would probably be something else. But it’s like a mirror image of myself when I was a kid. It’s pretty wild as a dad cause I still think and act like a fifteen year old myself sometimes so through my eyes, you know, to see him at that age, it’s really crazy. I can’t believe how old I am! (laughs) But I’m just happy to see he’s enjoying it and doing the best he can. He really works hard at it too. He’s got a lot more going on, some strengths that I definitely didn’t have at that age. His ear is super, super sharp, he can pick up things really quick, just real natural ability and that’s really cool to see and see how he uses that. It’s really fun to watch.

How did being in a band with Harry Connick Jr help Bonerama be a stronger band unit? What did you learn from him?

I learned a lot from him on many, many levels. I learned so much just from watching him, his mannerisms, how he related to his crowd, how he could work the crowd, his mannerisms on stage. But then go over to the musical side, my gosh, the benchmark he would set every night for how good and perfect things had to be was extremely high. Most of the fans probably had no idea just how high his standards were and his expectations were. And it was consistent every night. He led by example. He was the kind of guy that when you’re around him, everybody wants to be like him. He’d be the coolest guy in the room, funniest guy in the room, and then when he starts playing, he’d be the most talented guy in the room and he would show it without showing off. And he would lead by that way and he would lead by example.

Every single night on the stage he would do something musically, and funny-wise and personable, but musically, every night, he would do something that would exceed your expectations. You would be like, man, that was unbelievable (laughs). You didn’t know where it was going to come, where it was going to show up, and it would be good all night long, none of it would be sucking or anything, but there would be some part of the night that would be just off the charts for a minute or two. And he did it every night. So to see that, to see someone actually perform at that level was, okay, if we’re doing something, we know what’s out there and you know what benchmarks can be set and be met by yourself or by the folks you bring in around you. I think we learned a lot from him by just watching him, being around how he led his band. It was great.

What is the hardest part about playing live – is it the stamina?

No, it can be because we play pretty physical, it’s a pretty physical gig, but I tell you, sometimes it all goes away because once you’re in front of people it puts you in such a good frame of mind and a happy mood. I mean, you could have the worst day that you’ve ever had in years and you go out on the stage with the band and all that stuff just rolls off and it becomes like everything is just great. So maybe the hardest thing is if you feel like you’re having a bad night for some reason as a performer and you’re trying to figure out how to fight through that, cause if you know you’re not playing up to your potential, that can be an awful feeling when you’re a performer and you have to figure out a way to overcome that.

How do you overcome that?

You have to just stop thinking so much. For me, I’m usually overthinking something and I need to just kind of quiet the little chatter in my brain down and just play and have more fun and that stuff usually takes care of itself. If I can just relax and forget about it, like I do a lot of the business for the band which sometimes eats at my mind a little bit, so I try to make sure I let all that stuff roll off before we play; otherwise it’ll be harder to have fun. So as long as we’re all having a good time, there’s not much that really gets in the way of us having a good night.

What was your first “I can’t believe I’m here” moment?

Wow, I think it was when we won the eighth grade talent show back in my middle school. All of a sudden it was like, wow, that was really cool. Then I said, now I need to keep trying to find cool things to do. I booked the band in a Mardi Gras parade when I was in eighth grade, this little New Orleans kind of band I had. So okay, that’s cool, now we’ve got gigs and I’m in middle school (laughs).

One of them, I guess, would also be when we were playing with Harry in Miami and Harry was like, “I got a real special guest coming tonight. You guys aren’t going to believe this.” And we were like, awesome. We’re out on the stage and Harry goes, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to bring out Mr Jimmy Page to sit in with us.” And I’m like losing my mind, I’m about to play with Jimmy Page, this is unbelievable. So that goes on the list for sure.

Did you get to talk to Jimmy?

Of course not (laughs) because Harry had him cornered like a schoolgirl the whole time after the concert and I’m like, you know, I didn’t want to be the second schoolgirl in line. So I patiently just walked away. I’ll just let Harry have his moment. So I didn’t get to talk to him but it was fun cause it was some kind of a blues. I can’t remember what song it was, to be honest with you, but Harry was like looking at each section of the band as Jimmy is playing a solo, like, “Come up with a riff behind him. Saxes come up with a riff, trombones come up with a riff,” and all of a sudden it’s like this cool moment trying to come up with a riff behind Jimmy Page while he plays a solo. That’s not too intimidating (laughs).

Do you remember where it was at?

It was somewhere in Miami. I want to say maybe at the convention center, probably 1990 or 1991; quite a while ago. It was like right when the Big Band got together and Harry was doing great at that point. It was huge and freaking Jimmy Page comes out (laughs). Unreal. He looked all sharp with a bowtie and maybe a white suit, from what I remember; looked happy, looked good.

Speaking of famous people, David Fricke has told me on several occasions how much he loves you guys. So how does it feel having someone of that stature being such a big supporter of your music since practically the beginning?

Blows me away. Even if it just happened right now, it would still blow me away because of who he is – the stuff he’s written, the people he’s interviewed, you can go on and on; just the depth of what he knows about rock and music. So for him, especially in the first couple of years, to somehow find out about us and somehow like it, even at that early fragile beginning of the band, I’m like, how did David like that? (laughs) But there was something he was seeing in there and that makes us feel really great. It’s quite humbling for someone like that to not only take notice and like it but to be a guy that just literally walks up, an average Joe, at a CD in-store at Tower Records one year and he walks up to me and told me who he was and he was going to write something. I was just stunned, absolutely stunned. He’s just a normal guy, nicest guy in the world, smiling guy, and that’s a lesson if you want to talk about famous people. I know you interview a lot and some are probably great and maybe some are not so great but to me, what I always find, is the people that have the most to offer that influence me the most or that I respect the most when I get to meet them happen to be the nicest freaking people in the world. There’s some correlation there, I’ve found. Maybe not a hundred percent of the time but 99% of the time. And David, he is such a cool guy, very nice, very humble.

Bonerama will be playing at Jazz Fest again this year.

Yeah, we’re on the second Friday this year, April 29th.

What is your first Jazz Fest memory?

I think going back to around eighth grade again; although I might have been younger, maybe sixth or seventh grade. My friend Lee, my best friend in grade school, played the clarinet and we would work on music together at a young age. He was in that first band I talked about, a Dixieland band. Anyway, his mom loved Jazz Fest and Jazz Fest at that time was probably twelve years old maybe. It was very, very young. It was at the Fairgrounds, of course, but much smaller. There weren’t crowds. People were at the event but it wasn’t crowded.

I don’t remember who we saw. I know we saw a bunch of people. Ronnie Cole might have been one of them. But I just remember going out there and that was my first time going, I think. Might have been my second. My mom might have taken me the first time. One of my earliest recollections, to be honest, would be that first time where my mom took us. It was my mom and a friend of hers, maybe a relative, and she was getting a parking spot on Gentilly and someone stole the spot and she got really mad (laughs). My mom is like this real suburban, quiet, polite mom and poor mom goes to the city for the one time and she was getting a spot and it gets taken away from her. She probably wasn’t moving fast enough (laughs). She needed to step it up and put that city vibe on.

What is the food you always look forward to eating at Jazz Fest?

I love the Jamaican Jerk Chicken. It’s not in that main food section. It’s like over in front of Acura, like if you were on the stage at Acura it would be like way out in front of you, kind of by Congo. They have it every year. The chicken is so good.

Is there anybody in particular you’re looking forward to seeing this year?

I never get to see much anymore. That’s the hardest thing. If I could, Neil Young would probably be at the top of the list. I saw him at the Saenger about fifteen years ago and it was a solo show where he had all these instruments set up onstage and he would walk from song to song over to a different instrument and completely just deliver the most beautiful version of all these songs you’ve heard played different ways that he’s written. It was incredible, one of the most incredible concerts. I haven’t seen him since then so I’d love to see Neil Young.

Who was THE artist that literally changed your life when you heard them?

That’s a tough one, cause it could be guitar, it could be trombone, but I’d have to say it’s a trombone player named Carl Fontana, a lesser known Jazz trombonist – unless you play the trombone and then everybody knows who he is. But he wasn’t a household name. Stylistically-wise, I really got influenced by him when I was at college. His style doesn’t really show up all that much in what I do today but if you really want the most honest influential artist, that would probably be him. He’s from Monroe [in north Louisiana], went to LSU, has passed away. He did the Woody Herman Band in the fifties, then he had his own small group.

But he was a bebop trombone player and he was pretty much one of the trombonists who was responsible for just advancing the instrument on a technical level, being able to play lighter and faster lines and cleaner. He could play the Charlie Parker style solo on his horn. He could play real fast. He had doodletoning, which was his little kind of technique that he was known for, that others used as well, but he seemed, to me, to be the best at it. Just real nice, clean, swinging bebop lines. I used to just absolutely love trying to learn his work. So he was probably the most influential.

But as far as something that impacts us today in Bonerama, that’s still a tough one. I might have to say The Meters. It’s really hard to pin it down to one because of both The Meters and Allen Toussaint, and that was a tough one. Nobody saw [Toussaint’s death] coming. I just didn’t expect it. He was one of those guys you thought would be around forever and for that to happen to him on the road, it’s crazy. But the impact he made on New Orleans music, that one guy, he was the most important guy in New Orleans music before he passed away.

Do you have a favorite Allen Toussaint song?

Yeah, I do. It’s “What Do You Want The Girl To Do.” It’s a beautiful song with some complexities in there but they sound simple. It’s vintage Allen because once you start listening to it, and if you were trying to do a version of that any justice, you’d realize there’s really a tremendous amount of musicality going on in that song. But it doesn’t sound complex and that’s the beauty of Allen, the beauty of everything Allen did. It was intricate, ornate, it had complexities but never sounded hard. That’s why so many musicians were in awe by what he was able to do cause most of the time my stuff just sounds hard (laughs). Like, if I write something technical and hard it’s going to sound technical and difficult. But Allen’s was just beautiful and soulful and worked and it had the complexities that a lot of musicians search to try and have in their work.

 

Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough; group photo by Chuck Cook.

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