Dig Baton Rouge

Q&A: Alabama group St. Paul & the Broken Bones talks southern influence

Known for their classic ‘60s blues sound and spell-binding live performances, Alabama-based band St. Paul & The Broken Bones quickly built an impressive following after forming in 2012. To date, their debut “Half The City” has sold more than 105,000 copies, and they have blown audiences away at Coachella, Lollapalooza and most recently in Australia. Now stateside, they’ll be playing at the Varsity Theatre on June 2. Before the band hits Baton Rouge, dIG talked to bass player Jesse Phillip about St. Paul’s early history, its sophomore record, “Sea of Noise,” and its stellar live show.

Can you share about your time in Australia?
Our trips to Australia have been fairly magical. This is a second time we’ve been down there. We did basically the same trip last year…it centered around this festival up near the coast called the Byron Bay Blues Festival. That’s a five-day festival that takes place over the east weekend, I guess would be Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. So, we get contracted to play a few days at the festival, but the cool part is you just get to go and just post up in this beach town. Like literally they put you up in a hotel right beside the beach…so you have almost a little beach vacation while you’re up there playing the festival and everybody’s nice, there are coffee shops everywhere, and the weather is beautiful. It’s one of those things like you talk about how hard touring can sometimes be, because it really can be a grind, but then you’re there sitting on the balcony of your hotel watching the waves pulling in, and it would be pretty tough to lie to anybody and telling them doing that tour is tough. This year we were joking around, and we took to calling it the ‘lifestyle touring’ because it’s like play a show, take a day off on the beach, play a show, take a day off on the beach. It’s really fun. I imagine we’ll probably continue to go down there once a year if they ask us to because it is fun and relaxing.

To get a bit of history about the band, you and vocalist Paul Janeway were in another band together before St. Paul, correct?
Yes, that’s how I met Paul initially. His first band, which eventually was called the Secret Dangers, I guess I might have started subbing in that band maybe in 2009 or something, and Paul is the singer, and then there was another drummer and then a guitar player. I guess you would call it an alternative blues band kind of hing, it wasn’t very focused, really, but it was fun. I was eventually made a full-time member of that band, and by that time Paul and I had become pretty close friends. We were going to shows together and hanging out listening to records together and stuff outside of that band. I think we practiced religiously in that band, you know weekly, for probably a couple of years and played a few shows here and there, and just sort of eventually fizzled out. Paul had basically become my best friend at that point, so we just kept working together on it for fun, for posterity basis and that eventually turned into [St. Paul & the Broken Bones], surprisingly.

And how did you decide on your genre?
Paul has always sung like he sings now, even when you’re pulling around in other styles of music or whatever. We started this recording project around in 2011, Paul and I were just gonna make a little EP together to have a document of our musical friendship, and we were in the studio, just trying everything, just throw everything at the wall and see what stuck. Paul has always gravitated naturally towards the gospel, R&B kind of thing anyway. We would do these for fun, little gigs where I would play guitar and Paul would sing. We would just play at a coffee shop and do a lot of covers, and of course, the covers that always seemed to go really well and be the most natural fit for Paul would be O.V. Wright songs or Otis Redding tunes, that kind of thing, so once we opened ourselves up to it and just decided to present Paul’s voice in the most natural setting, I mean that was it. I think earlier on in the other band we would be like, ‘Well, let’s have Paul sing a Led Zeppelin song just because he can’t;’ they’re not easy songs to sing. So, when we were in the studio trying on all these things we realized it had been starting at us in the face this whole time. Paul, he is a soulful guy, he is an R&B singer, and you just have to let that happen.

What were some of the inspirations behind your sophomore album, “Sea of Noise?” Especially when it came to the songwriting?
I think going into it, I think we think of our first record as being a very visceral record. There’s a lot of big, climactic moments and Paul does some hollering and screaming and shouting. We think that it’s a very cool record and it’s done a lot for us, but…going into this second record we wanted to display a slightly more cerebral side of our band maybe.

You don’t want to lose the underlying groove factors that make it feel like an R&B band but approach it musically with a little bit more nuance. We toured on “Half the City” forever. The record came out in 2014, but we recorded it at the beginning of 2013, so we were settling into our third year of touring that record. I think at some point, Paul read this book called ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson and had this kind of ‘What am I doing?’ moment, getting on stage and singing these made up, my heart is broken songs. Not that anything is wrong with that, but I think he decided he really needed to up his game lyrically and conceptually and try actually to say something. So, going into the second record, I think everybody was intent on making it a smarter affair in general. There are fewer standard songs on ‘Sea of Noise’ where it’s just ‘Oh, she broke my heart, I’m so sad.’ They’re more about specific feelings of frustration. A lot of what Paul was writing about lyrically was just the fact that he is a progressive-minded guy who has grown up in a very, at times, non-progressive part of Alabama. And growing up in a very conservative church environment, Paul’s not a person who would ever turn his back on that. He embraces that as his home, and his upbringing, and its influence into making him into who he is.

A lot of what Paul was writing about lyrically was just the fact that he is a progressive-minded guy who has grown up in a very, at times, non-progressive part of Alabama.
I think a lot of times it’s about struggling with your identity a little bit, having come from that, and not always agreeing a lot of the people you were raised around or grew up with and having sort of different ideas, and how that all fits into your narrative as you grow old and realize ‘Oh, I am a person concerned with social justice.’ And society does seem very polarized right now and did during the time we wrote the record too; there’s a lot of references to bullets and gun violence on the record just because it’s popping up in the news, so present all the time. So, I think lyrically anyway it’s just an expression of frustration and the process of asking questions and wondering how you can find redemption and reconciliation in all of this.

But for the musical side, the lineup of the band is expanded, we got eight guys in the band now, got some real badasses in there now and wanted to make sure we used all of their talents. We took Jason Mingledorff, our saxophone guy, and we were like, ‘We know you can play the flute, so can you play the flute on this song?’ And of course he was down, so it was fun to be able to do that.

Are there any plans to return to the studio?
Yeah, actually. The boys are just starting to churn out some source material now. Just some kind of stuff we’ll draw from and coagulate into real songs. So, everyone’s been writing a bit. Paul and I have started making a trip to L.A. here and there to explore production relationships to see who we want to work with on the next record. I imagine we’ll start working on it in earnest maybe at the end of this year. I don’t know how long it’ll take to do, but I know we should be started on it the end of the year.

What is your history with performing in Baton Rouge? And what can audiences expect from seeing your show?
Specifically I can only remember one headlining show in Baton Rouge, and that was at the Varsity too, but this is a great time to be seeing the show because we put the record out in September and we had a lot of time to fine tune. We’re playing most of the songs off the new record, but with several of the old favorites off the first one. When you only got two records, and are playing an hour and a half show, you’re not at liberty to leave a lot of them out. But the show is really tight, and high energy, there’s a lot of peaks and valleys, and we’re really pleased with the way it’s turned out.

Photo courtesy of David McClister

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