The trombone, as composer Hector Berlioz once observed, can musically portray everything from “religious accent, calm and imposing…to wild clamors of the orgy.” New Orleans trombonist Mark Mullins seconds Berlioz’s notion: “Especially that part about the orgy!”
Mullins’ own celebrated career is an orgy of work, touring and recording with fellow Orleanian Harry Connick, Jr.’s big band for the past 15 years, regularly joining Better Than Ezra and the Radiators on stage and recordings, and leading the all-trombone Bonerama and the more or less defunct MuleBone. In the studio, Mark has accompanied Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, Joe Henry, Rancid, Papa Grows Funk, Galactic and many others.
On the occasion of the release of Bonerama’s second CD, Live From New York, everybody’s favorite trombonist discussed the numerous aspects of his musical career, confessing a secret aspiration to blow with Pearl Jam, although don’t expect him to call Eddie Vedder, begging: “You’ll see me playing with a lot of different people but I’m like the last guy in the world that wants to be that guy that’s on the side of the stage, saying, ‘Call me up!’ I hate that! I’m just so not-about-that but people probably think I am because I play with so many different bands.”
As a boy in Metairie, why did you initially decide to play the trombone?
My two older brothers played in the school band—Doug played trumpet and Eric played clarinet and sax. I was the youngest of three so naturally I wanted to be in the band, too. I was going to play saxophone. I was in fourth grade and seeing an orthodontist at the time. He said, “You really shouldn’t put anything like a saxophone in your mouth that’s going to affect your bite.” My older brother said, “Take trombone. Nobody plays trombone at school. You’ll be the only one playing trombone—there’s always a million trumpet players and drummers and saxophonists. You’ll probably be first chair right away.” So I took trombone and now I’m stuck with it.
Did you like playing it right away?
Yeah. It was fun. I didn’t really like sports. I liked music although none of the music we played in band really had much to do with the kind of music I liked.
Did you want to play in a rock band when you were a kid?
I didn’t think too much about playing in a band until junior high school. Everybody was listening to Bruce Springsteen so those records my older brothers were playing endlessly in my house. I didn’t even know who Clarence Clemons was but I was emulating him, thinking that it would be cool to learn how to play that kind of solo with one horn in a rock band.
My dad has these Dukes of Dixieland records, from the ’50s, so I started listening to that. I used to write out Fred Assunto’s solos when I was 11 or 12-years-old—not correctly but enough so that I could figure out what he was playing and how I could do it. In eighth grade, I put together a band with a friend of mine from middle school—John Freeman, a trumpet player. We formed a little Dixieland band. We entered the talent show at John Quincy Adams and we won first place. It blew us away.
That’s unusual—a Dixieland band wasn’t exactly cool in the late ’70s.
We didn’t know anything about what was cool. Pretty much all I had were those Dukes of Dixieland records. And I had Harry Connick, Jr.’s first record, that he put out when he was like 10, and Jim Dugan was the trombone player on that. I was taking his solos and trying to figure out what he was doing.
Did you relate to all the music being played in New Orleans?
I didn’t know that much about it. I was yet to really discover the depth of all that was going on just ten miles away. We didn’t come down here [to the French Quarter] a lot. Later on, in high school and college, then I started digging really deep into what was going on in New Orleans.
Yeah. Check this out—something exists beyond Lakeside and Clearview [Shopping Malls]. That was my world.
I went to Loyola, started in music education and switched over to performance, which I knew—on paper—was pretty much a worthless degree but I wanted to go through the program and get the degree. There were a lot of reasons to be at Loyola, especially at that time. Dick Erb is a great trombone teacher and I studied classical with him. I had no real interest in being a classical player but I knew that that would give me a foundation that would give me more depth with other styles of music that I played. If it wasn’t for him giving me the tools to operate on the trombone I might not even be playing music right now. I would have a much more limited vocabulary and wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things that I hear in my head that I want to do.
After graduation in 1990, I was getting set to move to New York and I had everything lined up to go to graduate school. The day of graduation I pretty much firmed up that I was going out on the road in six weeks with Harry.
How did he know about you?
[Drummer] Shannon Powell and [bassist] Ben Wolfe had been advising Harry on some players in New Orleans. Harry said, “I know I want Lucien [Barbarin]—who else should we get?” Basically Craig Klein’s name and mine got thrown in, as well. Shannon saw me playing at Snug Harbor—he just happened to be walking by the club. The teachers at Loyola were great about plugging students into local work. It was a side of education you couldn’t get in the classroom.
So Harry didn’t really seek you out.
No, no. Actually, we went to Loyola together for maybe one semester. It really had nothing to do with me getting in his band later. I don’t think he had a good time at Loyola—it just wasn’t his thing.
You were lucky to have a job when you graduated.
It was awesome. My parents were happy. It was great, not only to be with a world-class touring act, but to see the world right off the bat, right after getting out of school. The first three years were pretty hardcore traveling everywhere.
But you didn’t really have the usual bad touring experiences.
No, I did the posh tour busses first and got spoiled. Then when it was time to take MuleBone out on the road, I was like, “Oh my god, this is hard! This is what they’re talking about!”
What was the big difference?
With Harry, they have a whole staff and an office of people that handle specific details. When it’s MuleBone or Bonerama, most of those things fall on one or two people. You’re the tour manager, you’re the booking agent, the management company—people just don’t have a clue what you do all day long. It’s a small business.
But you don’t want to work for Harry the rest of your life.
Well, part of me would like that, and the other part wants more. I’m very happy working with him. It’s actually a nice balance—sometimes I wish we were out more but then it would eliminate opportunities for me to do other things that I like to do.
Playing with him has been a real education, on a lot of levels—the business level, to see how things are done on that level. Musically, you see all the pressure that he’s under. Even though he doesn’t have to be the tour manager, he knows that all those people are relying on him to get done what he has to get done. If he’s not doing, all these people are out of work and the whole thing can be gone in a minute.
He’s driven. He’s probably the most driven person I’ve ever met. He’s determined and he’s probably the most talented person I’ve ever met. And he doesn’t get credit for that because of his image. People see the first two or three layers that are out there but underneath all that, he’s amazing.
When did you start working with Better Than Ezra?
I got a call on the road and Tony Dagradi was putting together a horn section for them, for the sessions at Kingsway for Friction, Baby. They had a big producer—Don Gehman, he’d just done the Hootie & the Blowfish record. They had money behind them and it was a real big deal. I was a big fan of them. I met them, did the session. There were a bunch of us on the session—Jamil Sharif, Matt Perrine, Larry Sieberth. I think I was the only fan of the band in that section. I like their music. I appreciate what Kevin [Griffin] does as a songwriter. They’re great to work with. It’s pretty structured but in a good, pop-rock kind of way.
What happens when you play with the Radiators?
I don’t have any clue, I have no idea. They show me a set list and I say, “Man, that’s not going to help me at all.” I don’t even look at it. I just go up and watch Dave [Malone] and watch Ed [Volker] and watch Reggie [Scanlan] and hope I can contribute something that doesn’t get in the way. The history up there is just astounding—I mean that in the most respectful way. To be able to have that one band with the same people and that communication going for 25 years—to contribute to what they’re doing on stage is just the best. You never know what they’re going to do. Dave’s always playing riffs and he wants me to jump on top of his riffs. We have a lot of fun playing together.
It is extremely rare to have the trombone as a solo instrument in a rock band. Since the days of LeeAllen, it’s always been a saxophonist.
The only trombone player I can think of is Jimmy Pankow from the band Chicago. He pretty much elevated the trombone in the rock world.
You have the niche to yourself.
To me, it’s all about doing the right thing for the right situation. That’s the easiest way to sum it up. I’m real attracted to rock music. I know I’m not going to communicate my best statements on guitar or some other instrument that I’m not native to. I became determined to find a way to communicate what’s inside me. The trombone’s my voice.
Explain how you use the amplifier and wah-wah pedal.
It’s something we stumbled on to when we were working on the MuleBone record. John Gros and I were in the studio trying to make this track to sit right in the mix—it was just occupying a smaller space than we wanted. We tried some EQ things, some level things—it didn’t really get it to do what we needed it to do. It might have been John’s idea—running the track through a SansAmp, basically like a guitar amp with a pedal. Once we did that, everything opened up. And then we went a step further—we ran it through an actual guitar amp and miked the amp.
Now I drive it with a microphone that I put in the bell of the trombone and it goes through the wah-wah pedal and into a guitar amp. I throw some things in there that I don’t talk too much about. I’ve got a volume pedal but the one really doing the stuff is the wah-wah pedal. Sometimes I use a harmonizer, a little octave of fifths settings. A lot of times, I don’t use the amp because I think I can communicate what I want to communicate without it if necessary. I’ll go a whole set sometimes without turning the amp on.
So it’s the same trombone and you can turn the electronics on and off?
It’s critical. Sometimes I’ll blend the two, depending on the song. It’s an extension of the natural trombone voice to me. It gives me a whole other voice with which I can reach a another level of vocabulary, another style of vocabulary.
Was it a conscious choice in Bonerama not to have a bass player and use a sousaphone instead?
Craig Klein and I had been talking about doing the trombone brass band thing for a while. We have a lot of trombone players in New Orleans, a real nice trombone sense of community. Everybody knows each other and pretty much gets along. It’s not always like that for the other instruments.
We decided it would be brass band-based; we weren’t sure what kind of music we’d do. We didn’t even think of a bass player. We just thought that since it was a brass band structure, automatically a sousaphone. If there was any thought at all, it might have been towards whether there should be a drum kit or more of a brass band type of drum situation: snare and bass. We just decided on a drum kit because it would give us more versatility towards going in different directions. I don’t think we had a guitar at first—just keyboards. As we started doing “Frankenstein” and some of the other rock stuff, we decided to flip that over to guitar.
George Porter, Jr., and Jim Markway have played bass with us when Matt couldn’t make it and it’s nice. It’s different, it’s something else. It’s louder, a little more funky, and the low end has a different definition to it.
Why did you decide to cut Bonerama’s latest album in New York?
The big thing for us has been the fact that we’ve been able to get out of town the last three years, since we put out the first record. We’re not in a situation where we can just get in a van and tour for six weeks at a time so we’ve had to be real strategic. We’re old [laughs] and everyone’s got complicated situations. We’ve been to New York six times, San Francisco four times. It gets bigger and bigger every time we go.
We did the first record in New Orleans, at the Old Point. We wanted to do another live record—there’s a lot of things that happen on a live show that we didn’t think we’d be able to re-create in the studio. The energy up in New York’s always great so we said let’s do one there. We’ll do the next one somewhere else.
It’s great that you used Stanton Moore. I think, currently, he’s the finest all-around New Orleans drummer, mostly because he’s unique in being a white guy who grew up in a black city, absorbing all the influences.
We’ve known each other a long time. Stanton was actually the first drummer in MuleBone. I played in the original version of Galactic for a while. I always wanted to get back together to do something. I said, “Look, I know you like that song ‘Chilcock’ and we’d love to have you on the record if you want to come up. Fred Wesley’s going to be there.” He’s like, “I’m down.” Stanton plays on about half of the record. Chad [Gilmore] plays on half. We use a lot of different drummers.
What’s the obsession with Black Sabbath covers?
Matt Perrine brought in “War Pigs”—that was his idea. Actually, Stanton mentioned “The Wizard.” I love Black Sabbath but they’re not my…their songs transfer well to the trombone. It’s real raw, heavy stuff.
You prefer Led Zeppelin?
I was hoping we’d get some Led Zeppelin on the record. It was a great band. Each one of them was equal. Bonham!
If you grew up in Metairie, like us, Led Zeppelin was much more important to your upbringing than say,Ernie K-Doe.
Yeah. A lot of people are publicly afraid to say that but it’s true.
And, of course, Jimmy Page married a girl from Metairie.
He sat in with Harry and the big band one night in Miami. We played a blues—I can’t remember what it was. Harry’s looking at us, saying, “Play some riffs!” Here we are, playing riffs behind Jimmy Page, the Riff King of the rock world. That was exciting! Really exciting! I didn’t get to talk to him. Harry had him cornered, asking him a million questions. All the jazz guys in the band were like, “Whatever—he didn’t sound that good.” I was like, “That was JIMMY PAGE, man—come on!”