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Riot Jazz Brass Band interview: live and dangerous

Henry Lewis spoke to drummer Steve Pycroft ahead of his group's live album shows at Band on the Wall during Independent Venue Week.

Henry Lewis

Date published: 18th Jan 2017

Image: Riot Jazz Brass Band

It's been almost a decade since Riot Jazz Brass Band celebrated the music of Manhattan in Manchester and collectively began to woo the city with their stellar performances. The years that have followed have led to them working alongside the likes of Plan B whilst also opening for Dizzee Rascal, The Wailers, The Streets and more. 

Throw a slew of albums and EPs into the mix and the result is a stage commanding, festival conquering unit that brings hip hop samples, virtuoso musicianship and a serious sense of fun to whatever venue they are gracing.

At the end of January it will be Manchester's Band on the Wall, arguable the most well suited venue imaginable, where the group will record a live album over two nights. In their home city the group will perform in the same venue that has housed spellbinding shows from Roy Ayres, Lee Scratch Perry and tonnes more. When it comes to blues, jazz, funk, soul and all that's in between, there's not a venue quite like it, one of the reasons why the two gigs are part of Independent Venue Week 2017. We spoke to drummer Steve Pycroft ahead of these landmark shows to find out more about the group's beginnings, and what they have planned for 2017.

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Hey man how's it going, rehearsing a lot? 

I've just been at the gym actually, I'm trying to get back into shape after Christmas and all that madness, got to get the upper body going again.

You've had a pretty busy Christmas period haven't you?

Yeah we went to the Alps in December and played a couple of towns there for their Apres Ski student festivals, one of which was an outdoor gig which was interesting because it was about minus 10. It was all good though, we kept the stage warm.

We did one in 2013 I think for a guy called George and went out there and played up a 3000 metre mountain so there was epic views and it was really cool. We don't do it that much but we love to travel and that kind of environment is really cool to be in.

Did you get out on the slopes after?

Some of the guys did, some of the guys just chilled out and enjoyed it.

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How have things been since you came back to England?

It's been all guns blazing with work on promotional things and working on the new tunes and rehearsing lots to get them sounding tight, so that we can put on a good show and produce a good album. 

So you're recording one album over two nights?

Yeah that's right, so we've done two albums before and an EP in the traditional studio environment and we're happy with what we've done but we've decided to try and capture exactly what we do live, and the best way to do that is to record a live show. We've got a good connection with the Band on the Wall guys and just discussed with them the idea of doing it, so we've put on two nights and we'll have a bunch of new material.

We'll then have two nights of good, recorded music and we'll then create the album out of that. It should really capture what we do live and obviously it'll have the audience in it, their interaction and all that stuff. We can't wait to see how it turns out, it's a new way of recording for us and it's going to be a really fun experiment.

The songs are all brand new, some of them haven't been performed at all, probably won't be until the first show at Band on the Wall. There's a couple that we've had in circulation for about two or three months, it's always good to try these tunes out and see what the crowd's response is and see how it works in a live environment.

How are the nerves holding up? Obviously there's quite a lot of pressure on you

I'm confident and I'm excited. I think as a band we work together so well now and we know each other so well. Obviously we're not arrogant in the way that we think it's going to be amazing or anything like that but we have confidence in each other, and confidence as a unit that we will deliver a good show. The only pressure, really, is from ourselves to make sure that we each individually play and perform at our best so you don't let your bandmates down.

What makes a live performance so much better than studio?

For me it's the interaction with the crowd and the audience which I think means that the energy we bring to the stage is strong. It builds and builds as the set goes on and that's down to the audience's participation and how they feed back to us. That just builds our energy and we respond to them. In a studio you're over analysing and over crisiticng every note you play and you lose that sight of the energy and the atmosphere. It's not always about playing everything 100% spot on perfect, it's about the atmosphere. I'm excited to see the different results and I've no doubt it'll be a step up.

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Will this live album form future tours throughout this year?

There is a plan to do a tour in the spring or summer time, where we would go out and try and emulate that album. What we don't want to do is limit ourselves to a template. We very rarely come up with a setlist until we're backstage about to go on because we like to leave it to get a sense of the crowd, sort of like "what's the best tune we should start with?" and I think we always wanted to get to that stage where we have enough repertoire to go "let's just decide on the day" based on the environment and we don't want to lose that. Similarly it's quite nice to go "we're going to play this album live" and people who know it will appreciate that.

How did you get together?

Well several of us were studying at Manchester Uni, a few of us were on the music course and then there was just one night that a couple of medical students put on and they really wanted a brass band, a New Orleans type thing. So we got together and did a load of covers and then it just grew. I think we met after that for a rehearsal, in a workshop type of environment, and started writing our own tunes and then brought our own individual voices through those tunes, and the way we would perform and that developed into our sound. It was 2008 where we had this first night, at the Attic in Manchester and then it grew from there.

Being a Mancunian band it must be such an honour to play at one of the city's most iconic venues

Absolutely. I think that was really important. There's loads of amazing venues around the country and around the world but we're a Manchester band and we're proud to have founded the band in this city so to go to Band on the Wall, we thought "that's perfect, we're going to have the home crowd" and hopefully some new people in the audience as well, but it seems like perfect combination to me.

Looking ahead to Independent Venue Week, how important are place like Band On The Wall?

It's great as a musician to play in front of 10, 000 people or whatever and that's very rewarding. But for me it's those intimate audiences and intimate venues where you can really interact with the audience and they're really paying attention and you can really show them what you're doing. Those venues that put on those nights,  places like the Attic which I don't even think is a venue any more, and places like Mint Lounge, Gorilla and plenty more. Those environments have been so key in developing our sound and giving us the chance to perform and to try it out in front of an audience and develop to where we are today. We can't thank those venues enough.

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Manchester - Band On The Wall, Thursday 26th January

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Manchester - Band On The Wall, Friday 27th January

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