Kyle Cripps is a New Orleans based saxophone player for the bands One Love Brass Band Smoke and Bones; here is a link to One Love’s website:
Q: What made you want to be a musician in the first place?
A: Though most of my family is not music-oriented, my mother was a painter and an art teacher and always encouraged having music and art in the house. My sister was a few years older than me and had already started playing flute and we had a keyboard in the house that I’d mess around on, so when I was finally old enough I was able to join the school band.
I had a knack for playing pretty quickly and was one of the top players in school. After a few years I also learned that I had perfect pitch, which I more or less took as a sign that I should maybe try and pursue a life doing music. By high school I was spending less and less time on other subjects and more and more time playing. Around this time I started to write a lot of original music, and would hurriedly get home from school and hole up in my room all night to do so, often at the expense of my actual school work.
I had some teaching experience before I got to college but my dream was always to perform so when I got to college I knew that was the route I had to go. I was definitely tempted to take the “safer” education route but my roommate was an education major and that life seemed totally unappealing to me (earlier hours, more emphasis on classical music, more work away from the instrument).
The short answer is that it was the first thing I noticed I had a natural talent for. I was very involved in athletics and had an athletic body but my natural skills were not quite as obvious as they were for music, so it just kinda made sense for me to try and take it as far as I could. Having a mother who pursued a career in painting helped, and she always assured me she’d support me going that route. It’s something I know is not a common thing for a parent and I was very lucky in that regard. She was also the one making sure I practiced every day on the few days where I didn’t really feel like playing.
Q: What made you chose the sax?
A: The summer before 4th grade my school had a day where perspective music students could come try all the instruments to see what they liked. I had already started falling in love with 90s rock and hip hop and wanted badly to play drum set but unfortunately my parents were against the loud drums in the house and when the music teacher at school informed me I’d have years of learning timpani and snare and xylophone before ever getting behind a drum set I started looking at other options.
The saxophone ended up being my first choice simply because it was the easiest instrument to get a note out of that day. I don’t necessarily chalk that up to natural ability, as I still find sax to be the easiest of the winds to play at first, but it was definitely a match from the very first moment.
Q: What gave you the idea for a brass/reggae fusion band?
A: I grew up at the beach in New Jersey and had always loved hearing Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and the 90s stuff I had mentioned, Sublime, Reel Big Fish, etc. and had always wanted to be in a band like that. At the time, I had been living in New Orleans for about 3 years and was looking to start a new project of my own. New Orleans is chock full of brass bands but I had been trying to find something a little different.
One night I was hanging with some friends and got re-introduced to the Skatalites. I had been familiar with them but this particular night was inspiring for some reason and I decided it might be fun to set up some sort of instrumental ska outfit but still being kinda new in town I didn’t know too many people interested in that style, especially on drums. A few months later I ran into my drummer friend Boyanna and mentioned all this to her only to learn that she had coincidentally been trying to put together a similar concept but in the style of a traditional New Orleans brass band. Another few months later we had assembled a crew of people to try out some ideas. Though the relationship between Caribbean and New Orleans rhythms seemed like a natural fit together (there are a lot of stories about how ska originated because Jamaicans could pick up New Orleans radio stations from Jamaica), it was a pretty unique concept and there were a lot of details to be ironed out, so the band didn’t play our first gig until about a year later. We’ve had several personnel changes and our sound has greatly evolved since then but that was the original idea.
Q: What was your criteria for choosing band members?
A: At first we were simply looking for people who were available enough to come and just try out some ideas without the intention of actually doing any immediate gigs. This was harder than it might seem, most musicians here are gigging regularly and expect when they come to rehearse it will be rehearsing for a specific gig, not just “jamming” and seeing what sticks. That’s rare for real pros.
After the band got off the ground, we realized we had to find the right personalities to fit together, which was actually even harder. We have some complex arrangements which require at least some ability to read sheet music, and that’s not a skill most players here have. I’ve also made it a point to ask everyone that came to try it out whether or not they actually liked ska and reggae before playing with us, as it is a unique style and if you approach it like it’s a jazz or funk band it won’t sound right IMO.
Another big thing for me is actually being friends with everyone in the band. I’ve been in lots of bands that are together just to make money and never hang out other than when we’re on the gig together and to me, it can be very obvious. This doesn’t always effect the music negatively but I always appreciate a band that actually looks like they are having a ton of fun on stage and I’ve tried to cultivate that with every group I play with.
Q: What kind of day jobs have you had and how did they influence your music?
A: I haven’t actually had a non-music day job since I left Philadelphia in 2008. I taught music at a school down here when I first moved but got out of that around 2011, so I’ve been purely freelancing for about 6 years.
The last few years I lived up north I had a few interesting jobs but I was still in undergrad so it was pretty much relegated to the summers. I had a pretty consistent job at a game and hobby store that I had started working for in high school. It was a family-run business operated by some amazing people and they worked with me a ton to make sure I could do gigs around my hours at the store. This was one of my first real jobs and since we were dealing with toys and games and most of our customers were kids, it really hit home to me how to always have fun with what you’re doing. I think that’s influenced how I make music now; fun is a big big priority for me when picking gigs and who to play with.
Later, I cooked burgers and cheesesteaks for a few summers, worked very briefly serving and had just one shift as a bartender. I didn’t enjoy it and wasn’t very good at it so I quickly decided it was something I’d prefer to stay away from. I kind of randomly fell into my last non-music job the last year I lived in Philly, working as a customer service rep for a video distribution company. Only after I arrived for my first day did I learn that company primarily dealt in adult movies.
It was a fascinating job; most of my coworkers were involved in some creative endeavor (writers, artists, one other musician) and were super diverse. The customers ranged from incredibly sweet (because I was hooking them up with porn) to incredibly rude and/or stupid and I have several insane customer stories. This company also worked really well with me to allow me to get to my gigs on time and everything.
I guess the main thing from those jobs that affect my music now is knowing that lifestyle, and remembering to look back on it the next time I feel like I’m on a gig that I don’t enjoy so much or is maybe less glamorous than I’d like it to be. At the end of the day I’d rather be on a terrible gig than back in that office or behind a hot grill all day, or even teaching little kids the notes on the piano.
Q: What makes Smoke and Bones unique?
A: Smoke n Bones is definitely unique to the New Orleans area because of the style we play. I wouldn’t necessarily say the style of our music is unique, we play mostly R&B and soul kinda stuff, but there aren’t many bands here doing it quite the way we do it. Most R&B kinda bands here aren’t as vocal-driven, usually only having one, maybe two vocalists and the band is there for solos and that kinda stuff. We use four vocalists and I even use a vocoder on certain songs. The emphasis is on stronger songs themselves without the need for long winding solos.
Q: Who are some of your musical influences and how can we hear it in your music?
A: Originally my influences were more rock oriented, Nirvana, Green Day, Weezer, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. As I got older I gained more of an interest in jazz, mostly saxophonists, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, especially Eddie Harris (more on him shortly), Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock. Also a lot of reggae, Marley and Tosh, but also Desmond Dekker, Eek-A-Mouse, The Ethiopians, The Melodians, Mighty Diamonds, Toots & The Maytals, Sublime. Once I got to college in the city I was exposed to a lot more experimental styles, a lot of free jazz, Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, John Zorn, and really started to learn more about 70s funk and R&B, James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Smith, Sly Stone, Ray Charles. These were increasingly becoming my strongest influences but music in Philadelphia is not so heavy on funk and R&B (at least most of my peers weren’t interested in doing any of that) so I felt like an outsider and it was hard to create music in that vein.
My influences after moving to New Orleans are probably most present in my playing now, obviously the music here is front and center no matter if you like it or not. The Meters, Dr John, Galactic, Chocolate Milk, James Booker, and also others from out of town but related, Shuggie Otis, Soulive, Ohio Players, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu. These all heavily influence my keyboard playing more than anything.
Eddie Harris is probably my biggest overall influence, he played several instruments, mainly sax and piano and recorded many many albums in a wide variety of styles. He also wrote several music exercise/etude books I worked a lot out of. He started with mostly straight-ahead jazz but evolved into some more pop stuff, then went off into funk and R&B, even getting into some spacey free-jazz at times. He is also notable for being a pioneer of the electrified saxophone, which enabled him to use effects pedals to alter the sound of his horn. This is something I’ve tried to incorporate into my sax playing for years now, but it’s difficult to set up and not always necessary. I’ve been lucky, my bandmates in Smoke n Bones have more or less given me full reign to be as expressive as I want in that regard.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about promoting your music?
A: There are several challenging things about promoting my music here. Primarily it is that I have very little real training on that side of things. I had a couple of business classes in college but they were either poorly taught or had them for too short a time to get too good at any specific aspect. I’ve really had to learn on the fly the little bit that I do know.
Another problem specific to New Orleans is that it’s such a self-contained place that many bands don’t feel the need to expand outside of the local clubs because the pay can be relatively good (compared to other cities) and everyone in the band is almost certainly in at least one other band. We all spread ourselves a little thin to pay the bills and can only devote so much time to one project musically, let alone on the promotion side.
The clubs themselves also have a built-in tourist audience nearly all the time and while it can be nice to make money primarily that way, it’s much harder to actually create fans that will come back and see subsequent shows (we’re mostly playing to people who A. have likely been drinking and are prone to forgetting or B. are only in town for a few days and will likely never see us again or C. are only in the club because a lot of clubs don’t charge cover and there’s a crowd). I try not to book One Love Brass Band in certain clubs because we’d only play to tourists and we’re at the stage where we really need actual fans that will come back to see us again and buy our CD. There’s definitely value to doing those clubs (getting the band tighter, putting even some money in our pockets, increasing our visibility) but with that band I think we get more value out of playing different spots and actually gaining fans.
New Orleans is also kind of in its own world, the nearest major city is at least 5-6 hours away, so touring can be especially more expensive.
Another thing is that my two primary original bands play styles that aren’t so prevalent here. Most of the major publications/festivals in the area really try to promote music that is primarily New Orleans-influenced and as such it’s hard to break through if you’re doing something different.
All of these things make it really tough to promote a band here. Using the internet has become more and more valuable in this regard though.
Q: What is your strangest performance story?
A: I have a few really strange performance stories but my favorite one is probably when I played with a brass band by the pool for an out of town swingers meet up. This group was about 50-60 swingers who rented out a giant mansion in the treme with a massive pool and hired a brass band for their orgy party. We needed a password to get in to the house, and once we entered mostly everyone was naked/having sex and consuming all kinds of substances. I played in just my brass band hat and my undies and did my best not to fall in the pool with my sax. We weren’t allowed to take pictures but they had their own private photographer there; I never found out their contact info and I greatly regret it because I’m sure there’s a few amazing shots of me in there.
Q: If you could create your own music festival, comprised entirely of local New Orleans bands, who would you include and why?
A: New Orleans is a town that hosts a ton of festivals, so it’s really difficult to imagine something different than what already occurs and I’m going to cheat a little on this question. In April we have French Quarter Festival, which is heavy on local acts, and the Jazz & Heritage Festival, which strangely enough is not nearly as heavy on local acts. If it were up to me I would have more jam-oriented acts (Medeski Martin & Wood, Soulive, The Meters, Chocolate Milk, Skerik, Les Claypool, Trombone Shorty, Jon Cleary, Charlie Hunter, Nth Power) but force the bands swap members on a rotating basis. We already do this quite a bit during the week between Jazz Fest weekends (it’s two weekends long) but I’d maybe try to do it in one giant venue with several rooms (I’m not sure a venue that size exists here). A lot of clubs here will host mash-up events with some absolute giants who rarely play together getting thrown into something and they often just wing it. The results aren’t always as good as a super tight band but some of my fondest memories here are seeing random people thrown together during jazzfest week making magic happen.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.