Bonerama: Bell of the Bar

Craig Klein. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

“Fuckin’ cab driver.”

It’s November 6, 2006 and Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Tom Morello, Mike Mills and Bonerama have just finished a version of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio.” The occasion is the first “Musicians Bringing Musicians Home” benefit concert at Tipitina’s and as a surprise to everybody, Bonerama’s Mark Mullins has called a pissed-off Tony Clifton to the stage. Clifton was an Andy Kaufman character, a bad lounge singer who’d inevitably end up at war with his audience.

Earle and Mills chuckle knowingly as Clifton complains about his “Pollack cab driver,” but as he continues into a series of Polish jokes, the crowd grows restless. Kaufman had been dead since 1984 (though his friend Bob Zmuda was conspicuously absent during the performance) so few in the crowd were thinking “comedy.” They just thought he was inappropriate (to be kind) until he asked, “How do you get a gay guy to have sex with a woman?”

The punch line’s too offensive and gross to tell comfortably, and even Earle took a step back. As Clifton’s battle with the audience escalated, a perplexed Morello asked, “What’s going on here?” When that got no response, he said dismissively, “Thanks bro. Thanks,” to Clifton, earning a “Fuck you.” When Clifton finally sang a flat, Vegas version of “For Once in My Life” backed by Bonerama, Bill Taylor from Tipitina’s Foundation tried unsuccessfully to wrestle Clifton back to the wings. After 15 minutes of theater at its most conceptual, Clifton left the stage to boos, but the mood lightened when the show resumed with a rousing version of the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” and a singalong on “This Land is Your Land.”

“It makes your stomach hurt,” Mark Mullins says, remembering that night. Tony Clifton had approached them a few weeks before, and he’d appeared at two of their shows. Neither was as raw or rude as that night at Tip’s, so no one in the band realized how real it would get. “These were guests here to help the city,” Bonerama’s Craig Klein says.

Bonerama. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

As outrageous as the night was, it set in motion the machinery that made Bonerama what it is today. In addition to being Andy Kaufman’s friend, Bob Zmuda founded Comic Relief and when the comedians’ activist organization held a benefit for victims of post-Katrina flooding, he asked Bonerama to be the house band. Air Traffic Control (ATC) and the Future of Music Coalition (FMC) continued their series of activism retreats in New Orleans, bringing interested musicians to the Crescent City to learn how they could better use their platforms for social causes, and each concluded with a “Musicians Bringing Musicians Home” concert (the sixth took place in March at One Eyed Jacks), and Bonerama has been the house band for all but one.

At the first show, their highlight was a radical reworking of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” for Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, but they proved themselves indispensable when Mullins worked up a series of arrangements including five for OK Go singer Damian Kulash while the band was on the road in California, then showed up a few hours before the show due to flight delays and nailed it anyway, and studio versions of the songs in the set became I Shall Be Released, an iTunes-only collaboration EP between Bonerama and OK Go. At the most recent show, the largely indie musicians were so excited to have a horn section that Bonerama played on almost every song.

As a result, Bonerama has broadened its circle of friends, and Mullins, Klein and Greg Hicks have recorded with ATC/FMC workshop alumni Jon Langford, Alec Ounsworth, and through alums Mike Mills and Scott McCaughey, R.E.M. Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin attended one, and he has called them for the albums he has produced in New Orleans.

“They’re consummate professionals,” Berlin says. “And they know how to play together. I’ve worked with some sections elsewhere where they might be virtuosos individually, but it takes a while for them to play together. Those guys have a wonderful singularity of mind where they can sound like one incredibly powerful thing.”

With all that going on, one question remains: What will it take to make other people talk about guesting on Bonerama albums instead of vice versa?

Bonerama. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

In a way, the Bonerama story started in New York City. Mullins and Klein were in Harry Connick, Jr.’s band in the late 1990s and they often played New York. “Whenever we were there, we would take advantage of the music scene,” Klein says. “There was a club, and every Monday night it was just salsa mix jams. And I went to this club, and I saw, I think it was Willie Colón, and it was a five-trombone Cuban band. That’s what started me up. Here’s this Cuban band that features the trombone, and I said I’d love to do that with a New Orleans band.”

At the first Bonerama show in 1998, there were seven or eight trombones including Lucien Barbarin, Freddie Lonzo and Corey Henry. “We had about 15 onstage by the end of the night,” Klein says, laughing.

“I was up on the drum riser,” Mullins says. “Trombones were everywhere. It was killer. This sounds corny, but there was definitely something about the very first few measureswe played together in front of people that felt different than anything I had ever been involved with before. It was different than Harry, not in a bad way. Different than playing with George (Porter, Jr.). We were playing songs that we knew and were familiar with—I think “Funky Miracle” and we might have done “Frankenstein” that night—but we were hearing it in such a different way through the voice of the trombone. We could definitely sense that were was something special about it.”

The trombone band wasn’t just a novelty, though. It was a natural extension of an obsession with the instrument. The first stable Bonerama lineup went so far as to include a bass trombone courtesy of the late Brian O’Neil, and the band’s classic rock covers emerged directly from the way the trombone occupies a similar place in the sonic spectrum to an electric guitar. In 2009, the band recorded “Bone Again” with trombone great Roswell Rudd for his Trombone Tribe CD, and he appreciated Mullins, Klein and Hicks as players and as part of a band.

Bonerama. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

“Mark Mullins—the first trombonist I’ve been around who’s making amplification and distortion an integral part of his playing,” Rudd says. “I didn’t feel it was an attempt on his part tobe a so-called pop musician. I felt he was doing something organic. This is a beautiful style. Greg (Hicks)—a sound and articulation that I’ve hardly ever heard before. I didn’t realize it was possible to sustain notes like that and play them one into the other with such little separation. He’s really got something going with the breath. Craig Klein plays like the guy next door, only with tremendous intensity and great feeling.”

Not surprisingly, their experience recording with Rudd taught them things too. “There’s something about hearing him playing in person,” Mullins says. “Just a beautiful horn sound. It’s not such a loud thing, necessarily; it’s just a big sound. Harry used to always talk about big sounds, and I used to be like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

“He was always about different sounds, too,” Greg Hicks says. “I remember on the sessions, he’s like, ‘Let’s all bring in mutes and stuff.’ It opened my ear to you don’t have to just play the normal trombones.”

The Trombone Tribe session was one of the few that has involved the full band, which earned effusive praise from Rudd. “In the course of that session, I realized that I was dealing with a very unified band but seven individuals,” he says. “Four trombones (Steve Suter was in the band at the time), a great sousaphonist, a great drummer and a great guitarist. Matt Perrine is a force of nature. They’re ideally suited for one another.” Since then, Nori Naraoka and his electric bass replaced Matt Perrine’s sousaphone after Perrine left in 2008. “What Matt does, you can’t replace that,” Mullins says.

“We had to move in another direction,” Klein says. Up to that point, Bonerama existed primarily as a live band. It was—and remains—on the road a lot, finding an audience the old-fashioned way: one city and venue at a time.

“Before I got to the band, there’d been a lot of Northeastern dates and an occasional West Coast, San Francisco hump,” drummer Eric Bolivar says over lunch in Juan’s Flying Burrito. “Now, we’re everywhere.”

“Last week we flew from San Francisco to Baltimore, all over the place,” guitarist Bert Cotton adds. “Friday night in San Fran, Sunday a festival in Baltimore with Chuck Berry.”

“When we went to San Diego, they loved us over there,” Bolivar says. “All it takes is a couple of people. In Brazil there’re guys that come up and hire people. They heard us, loved us, got us on a couple of things down there that were just awesome. In Rio, we played with John Scofield. It was really beautiful. We were right on the water—literally.”

According to Cotton, “It seemed like for awhile, we were following all the other New Orleans bands. Like Galactic, and Papa Grows Funk, and Ivan, like going to Colorado and California. Still, you’ve got your good nights and your bad nights, but it’s getting better and better. The good nights are more frequent.”

So far, the band has recorded live as well, releasing Live at the Old Point, Live in New York and Bringing It Home, recorded live at Tipitina’s.

“It was Mark’s decision,” Cotton says. As someone so thoroughly a product of the city’s music scene that he listens to WWOZ when he’s not playing, Cotton’s fine with Mullins’ choice. “I like playing live,” he says. “I’m always worried in the studio. There’s something about the energy when you play live that is really difficult to recreate in the studio. I talked to Mark today and I think he was worried about recapturing that energy in the studio. Losing something, like a lot of bands.”

For Naraoka and Bolivar, who moved to New Orleans from New York City, the choice isn’t as clear.

“When I look at my favorite all-time albums—not the jazz stuff but the rock stuff and the pop stuff—people are in the studio for a loooong time,” Bolivar says. “None of this three day, two day, a week.”

Last fall’s Hard Times EP was the band’s first toe into the world of studio recording. It’s not as kinetic as Bonerama live, but it’s hard to imagine a live recording of “When the Levee Breaks” being any heavier. Craig Klein’s “Lost My House” is more distinctive for his vocals being sung through a Leslie rotating organ speaker, and while Mullins’ title cut may be too clean and bouncy in the verse, the pop nature of the songs comes through more clearly for the studio.

“I’m a closet fan of overly-produced music but am still hesitant about pushing this band into that arena,” Mullins says. “Time and natural progression will take care of that. For now, it’s just nice to hear an honest version of the band’s sonic potential coming together on our current studio efforts.” They’ve started work on a studio album and “the band sounds bigger than ever and the trombones are massive.” That comes at least partially as a result of their recent session work.

“Whenever we are in the studio with the Bonerama horns whether it’s with OK Go, R.E.M. or Shamarr or anybody, it gives us an opportunity to hear the role of the trombones against a totally new backdrop. I hear trombones on everything, but getting in there certainly opens up your mind to new possibilities on how the trombone can contribute in current and future Bonerama-land when we are writing and recording.”

Bonerama. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Even before the first ATC/FMC benefit, Mullins and Klein had experience as horns-forhire. They’d guested with the Radiators and Better Than Ezra live, and the pair brought complementary backgrounds. Mullins came out of pop and rock music, while Klein’s background is so New Orleans-oriented that he hasn’t always known who first recorded some of the classic rock standards in Bonerama’s set. That combination of sensibilities, along with the legendary speed and intelligence with which Mullins writes arrangements made them an ideal house band and studio horn section.

But when they were tapped for the first retreat, they were there because Klein could tell the visiting musicians firsthand about what New Orleanians were facing in 2006. Roswell Rudd refers to him as “the humanitarian trombonist,” and his efforts to gut his own and friends’ flood-damaged houses in St. Bernard Parish evolved into the Arabi Wrecking Krewe.

The retreats start at the Mother-in-Law Lounge with a party with music organized by Klein, and the activities take musicians out of their comfort zones. When they were closer to Katrina, that meant exposing them to some harsh realities. Going through that has brought visiting and local musicians together. Bonerama has been part of those activities, and they’ve introduced other New Orleans musicians including John Boutte and Paul Sanchez to ATC. According to Air Traffic Control Information Director Deyden Tethong, the emotional nature of the events has shaped the concerts. “It wasn’t planned that way, but it becomes a very cathartic and uplifting and life-changing moment,” Tethong says. “One of the best things we see after the retreats are the relationships that build up between the musicians.”

One relationship that emerged was between Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth and Steve Berlin, who participated in a retreat in 2008. They returned to New Orleans in 2009 to record Ounsworth’s Mo’ Beauty at Piety Street Recording. For it, Berlin assembled a New Orleans band that included the Bonerama horns. “It’s such a pleasure to work with guys who are so willing to experiment,” he says. Berlin also found their flexibility valuable when he brought them in for a track he was producing for the Canadian folk-rock band Great Big Sea. “A lot of times they’ll come with something and the artist or producer, i.e. me, wants something different, and they have the wonderful ability to change directions on the fly.” In that case, the band didn’t think Mullins’ horn arrangement was right for their song “Don’t Wanna Go Home,” so he started over.

When Berlin recorded the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars’ Rise & Shine at Piety Street, he asked them to play on a few tracks. “They didn’t play on any of the really hardcore African stuff,” he says. “The authentically Sierra Leone music doesn’t have a place for horns.” Still, Mullins and Hicks remember the session as challenging.

“It was a different language, musically,” Mullins says. “Forms would be stretched out in different ways depending on the lyrics. It’s not just eight-bar stuff.”

“Everything was odd. Nothing seemed to be the same,” Hicks adds.

“It was very interesting and very cool,” Mullins says. “No sign posts in that kind of music that we might be used to in a lot of music that we play. It was great to get inside of those songs and see what they do and what they’re all about.”

Klein agrees with Tethong. “The good thing is some of the relationships that come out of this stuff,” he says. “Black Nature, the young guy who’s their rapper, he came to the Maple Leaf at our shows during Jazz Fest and sang and played with us the whole time. Then they were in L.A. when I was there a couple weeks ago, and they hired me to play on their gig at the Roxy. These collaborations allow us to go even further along.”

One with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills led to Bonerama recording with R.E.M. for its upcoming album, first in a week at the Music Shed around Thanksgiving, then in another week during Jazz Fest. The band decided to record in New Orleans and wanted to incorporate some New Orleans sounds in the album. “[The band was] asking about horns, and I said, ‘I happen to know a few,’” Mills says.

“We were a little starstruck during the R.E.M. session,” Greg Hicks says. “Michael Stipe is like, ‘Hi! I’m Michael.’ I’m like, of course you are. [laughs] But after the first five minutes, you realize that they are just regular men. He brought us coffee. Of course, he didn’t go get it, but he like brought it into the room. Michael Stipe taking our order.”

For the first time, Mullins found himself a little intimidated when he sat down to write arrangements. “I broke my first rule, getting too caught up into who we’re writing for,” he says. “It’s hard not to think of that. But I felt much more comfortable with that second round; it wasn’t overthought.”

For a couple of songs, Mullins brought in two different arrangements. “We would try both, and then sometimes we’d say, ‘Give us something like this,’ and they’d put something down in that direction,” Mills says. “So we’d have something improvised and something more charted out.” R.E.M. won’t mix the album until August, so Mills isn’t sure which takes or even if any tracks with Bonerama will be on the finished album, but he’s optimistic. “Right now there are a couple things that we think sound pretty good in terms of what we want as an end result,” he says.

The time in the studio—for the horns as well as the whole band—has Bonerama thinking more seriously about its own recording future. “The EP was cool, but we didn’t get to manipulate the sound as much,” Bert Cotton says, and Eric Bolivar agrees. “I think they’ve seen the possibilities are limitless in the studio.”

As a live band, Bonerama’s classic rock covers have caused the band to be thought of as a rock band, even though the lion’s share of its own compositions are funky first, rock second.

“The cover thing will always be there,” Mullins says. “These are great songs that we love playing, and people trip out when they hear them through the trombone. But if you look at set lists over the years, you’ll see the ratio has definitely changed and the recordings are headed that way too, especially with the one that we’re in the middle of doing now—our first studio effort to follow up the EP. But we need to keep writing better songs. I love writing songs. Craig loves writing songs. We’ve come a long way in that regard, but we still have so much further that we could be going.”

In the last few years, Bonerama’s reputation has grown separately and apart, which Roswell Rudd considers the source of the band’s strength. “Duke Ellington proved that you can have great unity and great individuality—a democratic ideal, if you will,” he says. “I think that’s happening with Bonerama.”

  • RCProductions

    Great article and insite to Bonerama. I have been a fan for a while and have been interested in the members separatly as well as the band as a working unit. I do miss Matt Perrine. The article states that what he brought to the band cannot be replaced. Listening to the bouncy susophone lines through effects was a wall of sound by itself. Nori is doing a good job on bass guitar. I will continue to follow the success of the band and watch them grow musically. Thanks for the music guys. RCProductions

  • A Fan

    Brian O'Neil was a wonderful person and a great musician. Brian will always be missed. Thanks for remembering him in this article. I bet he'd be really proud of Bonerama today. Good job!

  • Pltrhd

    Great piece ties a lot of history together. You could follow trails to a dozen other stories from here.

  • algiersman

    A great article about a great band. Reading about the Roswell Rudd connection was a revelation. Keep growing, Bonerama, and keep up the good work Offbeat. Only in New Orleans!

  • JoJo – TCities

    Loved the act at the Dakota Street Fest. Jammin man!