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Steven Bernstein: Proud Member of the Pre-Computer Absorption Generation

By Published: November 20, 2006
AAJ: Just to cover the cost of tape, say.

SB: Well, we don't use tape anymore. We all just record onto hard drive. I mean, there was no tape for a few months—it was all gone. But they have started making it again. But tape is like $180 for 20 minutes, and a hard drive is $200 for two CDs. So everyone just buys the hard drive.

AAJ: Time to talk about Sex Mob. This is your longstanding quartet of you, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. This is a pretty popular band. If Sex Mob is a party band, it's the smartest party band of all time. The group's new CD is Sexotica, which came out on Thirsty Ear the same day as the MTO CD, right?

SB: Same day, yeah.

AAJ: Before we talk about this new one, just tell me about Sex Mob—what you like about playing with these three guys in this band.

SB: We really create a language that is so personal. It's kind of like all four of us feel that the way we play in this band is the way that we really play, and you have to change a little to play with anybody else. So everyone gets to do this really natural thing that they do. So it's incredible; me and Briggan have developed this total language together. Now when he plays the saxophone, he can sound like a slide trumpet—he can move between notes in this really ridiculous way. He's always had his own language, which I immediately heard and incorporated into the sound of the band. Then there's Tony, who's kind of this über-bassist. He can just do whatever he wants on his bass: he can be the guitarist, the pianist, the drummer, the horn player—and keep pounding away on the bass. Kenny knows all these different rhythms. So we play everything. We play some straight-ahead stuff, we play rock. It's funny, I talked with someone, and he said Sex Mob was my "funk band. I don't have a funk band! I don't have any band that's a style. I just have bands.

AAJ: You have a Sex-Mob-style band.

SB: Yeah! It's Sex-Mob-style band. It's just a band that's these guys. We have hundreds and hundreds of tunes. It's interesting—we hadn't seen each other for two months, and we played in Europe at this really cool little festival where you play in these old barns outside of this small town and people bike from place to place. It was nice, because when you play a big concert or festival, you kind of have to go for your hits, because you're playing for a couple thousand people and you have to make those grand gestures to make it work. But we were playing in a small environment for a couple hundred people in an enclosed space, and man, we did four sets and we never repeated a song. And we hadn't seen each other for two months. But before we played, I was just saying, "Hey, remember this one? "Oh, yeah. You remember that part of it? "Yeah, right, that part—I forgot about that.

We just have so many songs. There's such a huge library of stuff in that band after eleven years. I've written so many charts, and these guys all have incredible memories. They remember everything. Briggan's the only one who carries charts with him, and sometimes I'll carry some of the newer songs. Tony and Kenny don't carry anything; it's all in their heads. So it's amazing. We've had one rehearsal in eleven years, one actual rehearsal where we called a rehearsal at an actual rehearsal studio. Before we did Sex Mob Does Bond, we got together at the club that afternoon and ran some charts. But we did a concert of waltz music once, and I had these twelve-page charts, and they were exact transcriptions of Strauss waltzes. It was really complex—you had to go from this section to this section to this section. So I said, "You know, we're actually going to have to have a rehearsal. But in eleven years, that was our one rehearsal.

AAJ: That one seems kind of called-for.

SB: Yeah. But it's a pretty unique way of creating a band—it's being created onstage. With both bands, actually, but even more for Sex Mob, because we've been doing it onstage for eleven years.

AAJ: Sounds like some fortunate relationships to have.

SB: Yeah. Unfortunately, because everyone's so busy, we don't really play that much, but luckily now, whenever we play, we're either playing at Tonic for our friends or playing in Europe for a lot of money. We barely play the States; I've kind of given up on that. I don't really give a shit at this point. I'm not going to kill myself. I'm 44 years old; I make a really good living as a musician. If people don't want to pay me, I'm not going to go! I'm not going to bang my head against a wall. I can play with Lou Reed, and Levon Helm, and Rufus Wainwright, and write music for TV jingles, and make money doing that. I did it, I went on the road—Sex Mob paid serious dues on the road, man. We went out there. We've never had a tour manager; I drive the van and I check the guys into the hotel. It's all self-propelled. The guys just believe in me. "You lead, we'll be there, man. At this point, I feel like everyone knows at this point that we're one of the really cool, unique bands in the world. We just do what we do, and I don't have anything to prove.

There are people who really like this music all over the world, and I know that. When we play a festival in Europe, and it's like, World Saxophone Quartet one night, and us the next night, and Mingus Dynasty the next night—that's all you've got to say. And we're all part of the same community; when we're backstage, they all know Sex Mob. So I feel if the U.S. promoters can't figure it out, well then, forget it. Like I said, I'm not going to bang my head against a wall.

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