Pollstar chats with BoomBox’s Russ Randolph and Zion Godchaux.
BoomBox, the two-man group based out of Muscle Shoals, Ala., may use sequencers and turntables, but the two men behind the music don’t necessarily consider themselves to be electronic music artists. In fact, they’re reluctant to categorize their sound, preferring instead to describe it as their own unique style of music.
At one time Randolph and Godchaux played in the Heart of Gold Band led by Godchaux’s mother, Grateful Dead alumni Donna Jean Godchaux. The two men formed BoomBox in 2004.
BoomBox had stopped somewhere between Dallas and Phoenix when Pollstar caught up with the group. Self-managed, the two musicians not only talked about their music, but also described BoomBox from a managerial point of view in terms of product, branding and “building the machine.”
The conversation also revealed something about BoomBox that fans may not be aware of but should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever gone on tour – both men can appreciate a good truck stop.
Russ Randolph and Zion Godchaux at The Parish in Austin, Texas.
February 15, 2012
Whereabouts are you right now?
Russ: We’re at some random truck stop along the way.
Zion: We’re aficionados of truck stops.
Do you have any favorites?
Russ: We stop at Love’s a lot.
Zion: Pilot has pretty good coffee. We pretty much know the difference between all of them.
What do you use for transportation?
Russ: We have just found what we think is the best touring combination ever for a band our size. We’re traveling in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. There are only four of us on the road. Zion and myself and we have a tour manager – Heath Bennett – and Todd Jones who does our visuals and projections. In a small rig like this – basically a bus – we can drive ourselves. We think it’s a smart way to tour.
You have a reputation for not wanting to label your music. When somebody asks about BoomBox, how do you describe it?
Zion: Honestly, I can describe it as our own brand of music. Sometimes we’ll say “funky” or “dance music” or “electronic rock ’n’ roll,” but it’s just our own take on music in general.
Russ: We really don’t try to use the “electronic” term out of the gate because it somehow conjures up these ideas that it’s abrasive, over-the-top. In our heart of hearts we really think what we’re doing is rock ’n’ roll.
Is everything live or are samples, tape loops or other elements involved?
Russ: We create the tracks in the studio – drums, bass – in the software and create foundational points to jump off of during the show. So in real time we can still manipulate these samples and how we’re playing it back.
Do you create the samples yourselves?
Russ: Most of them. When we first got started we were using a hardware drum machine and we sampled things but we used a lot of sounds from the drum machine.
Zion: For the most part we produce our own beats. Sometimes we’ll use samples, part of an old disco song or something, but for the most part we’re constructing our tracks from the ground up.
Russ: What makes it rock ’n’ roll is the interplay between the guitar and the vocals and the interplay between that and the sequenced beats. The relationship between the live and the sequences, and utilizing that relationship to our advantage, in our minds, is rock ’n’ roll.
But you do play some electronic events, festivals and the like.
Zion: Yes, but we also play banjo festivals.
Is every BoomBox show different?
Russ: We don’t do setlists or anything. For every show we start with a blank canvas. We talk about the first song we’re going to play. We don’t have the best process right now of tracking setlists each night. We try to be mindful of playing a different show every time we’re in that city. We’re not the best at that right now.
Zion: We’re not repeating songs.
Russ: If we’re back in your city three or four months from now, we’re playing a different show that’s unique to that city. I know a lot of people travel and see multiple night shows. We need to keep it fresh and moving for those people. And just keeping our heads straight too, keeping us in the show. We would just go nutty if we were playing the [same] setlist every night.
Zion: Or even have a setlist. During the course of the night, the room goes through different moods. You can’t forecast what those moods will be until it’s happening. So me and Russ do our best to make a judgement call on what song we’re going to play, what best fits the current mood of the room. And we just go from there.
What’s a bigger thrill, actually being in the moment while performing, or walking off the stage at the end of the show after achieving one of those moments and knowing that you nailed it?
Zion: Being in the moment. That’s heaven. It’s kind of like trying to learn how to ice skate. When you finally start to get it… you’re trying to get a rhythm going while crossing smooth ice, and it starts to be like a self-perpetuating motion. It’s like that, but with all of us, and everyone understands the current motion. But when we get off the stage we’re just Russ and Zion.
Russ: When we’re in the moment and we’re truly connecting, there’s something that happens when we as individuals, the self disappears and everything is effortless. I know that when we’re truly connecting, time seems to stop. Time doesn’t seem to be ticking away. It’s almost like we as individuals disappear. We’re trying to be vehicles for what we feel is coming through us and trying to connect with the crowd. And the more we can get our individual selves out of that equation, the more healing that can happen. And in those moments where we feel we’re connecting, we feel the efforts of the band that we’re trying to lock into, channel, are truly coming through.
“For every show we start with a blank canvas.”
February 15, 2012
So it’s a greater whole than individual efforts of the band.
Zion: It’s more than just the two of us – [its] sound, lighting, visual, the whole presentation.
You say you don’t decide the first song until right before hitting the stage. How easy is it to choose the second song?
Russ: Generally not too difficult. Once we hit the ground we see how the crowd reacts, see how the room is moving and we pretty much know where we need to shift gears. Once we get the reaction from the first song, then we pretty much have a general idea … after we get halfway through the first song.
Zion: Then we try to take our time and get to where we want to go.
Do you feel you can read each other’s minds?
Russ: Something has happened. We can complete each other’s thoughts. Together, we truly balance each other out. We feel if both of us are agreeing on something … if we both feel good about it, then we feel it’s really going to work on a grander plane.
Zion, do you ever get tips from your mother regarding improvising on stage?
Zion: Not really on the scene technical help. It’s not like she’s giving me stage tips and stuff like that. She tries to help me understand the right mind set. Simple stuff like knowing who you are when you go out there and just letting them have it. There’s kind of an unspoken, kind of a telepathic thing. There’s a lot of stuff she tells me that she doesn’t have to say.
“What makes it rock ’n’ roll is the interplay between the guitar and the vocals and the interplay between that and the sequenced beats.”
Who are your musical heroes?
Zion: Dylan, Jerry Garcia. Jimi Hendrix is a hero. There are a lot of guys I look up to.
Russ: I like Chuck Berry. He kind of challenged the system and the way things were. There’s some rock ’n’ roll characters that I really like. Chuck Berry is a big influence on me. I like his kind of hustler, snake-oil salesman approach. At the same time he’s looking out for him, he’s still rock ’n’ roll to the core. I think that’s really cool.
Van Morrison, the things he’s done, The Who, there are a lot bands, musically and business-wise, the way they kept their career together and the way they stayed true to what they wanted to do. Musically, we’re really into songwriters. Guys who can really translate an idea or a thought or place through song.
Zion: The guys who can write the real-deal songs are the heavyweights.
Russ: People like Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, those kind of traditional classic songwriters.
What songs would you like to cover?
Russ: There are some Van Morrison tracks that we’ve been kicking around for years. There’s some J.J. Cale tracks that we’re working on.
Do you ever hear songs that you like but know you can’t cover?
Zion: Michael Jackson.
Russ: A lot of Quincy Jones-produced stuff that we really love, but we could never actually do it.
How about when you’re traveling, is it all small talk or are you constantly working?
Russ: We’re constantly working. We were driving at 7 o’clock this morning, discussing the lighting on our new video, brainstorming on our brand, the way we can expand our brand and keep the machine moving forward. We have to remain focused or the machine doesn’t move forward. Right now we’re managing ourselves and we have to be on top of our game.
Zion: Not only that, but it’s just what we’re into.
Russ: It’s what we like to do, not because we have to. It’s where our brains are at.
So you’re very independent.
Russ: Right now we’re truly, truly happy. We’re where we want to be, doing what we want to do, making our own decisions. We’re like little kids.
Zion: And we don’t owe anything to some big financier.
At The Parish in Austin, Texas.
February 15, 2012
Russ: We’ve had a crew, people helping us along the way, but we’ve slowly grown, building our machine up to this level where it can provide for us and our crew. It’s something that we built. That’s a really cool thing – to be happy about something we built. To be proud of our product.
Because you handle the business as well as the creative side, were there times when the business practices of the live music industry really surprised you?
Zion: The one thing is, we both grew up in musical families or families that were in the business, so we grew up with industry stories. It was surprising how long it took us to get a foothold in the industry. It’s a long road starting from scratch, building a touring road machine, releasing material and branding it to a level where people are familiar with it. It’s a tremendous uphill battle. Some people have no idea of how to get started touring. It’s still an uphill battle. I think that is maybe the most shocking. We struggled for years.
Russ: You have to destroy rooms night after night after night for years. A lot of bands that start out, think, “If we get this gig opening for this big band, from there it will just snowball.”
The truth is, they have to sell out the place themselves and then do it over and over and over again for like 10 years before anyone is going to start playing attention.
Zion: We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. There are a lot of people in this country in the grassroots style. It takes time to get your product into the small towns and to college kids.
Do you do better in college towns or perhaps in clubs where the patrons are older?
Russ: We do well in colleges but we’re seeing more and more growth in the cities.
What would you tell someone who wants to form a band and hit the road?
Russ: Make sure they have absolutely no question in their mind that that is the only thing you want to do. Once you actually make that commitment, you got to commit for years.
Zion: I mean, if there’s even a fraction of a thought, somewhere along the line of something different you could do, then do the other thing.
“We’re where we want to be, doing what we want to do, making our own decisions. We’re like little kids.”
Upcoming BoomBox shows include San Francisco at The Temple Feb. 24; Reno, Nev., at Cargo @ CommRow Feb. 25; Eureka, Calif., at The Red Fox Feb. 26 and Salt Lake City at The Complex – Vertigo Feb. 29. Touring in March and April, other stops include Philadelphia (March 22), Brooklyn, N.Y. (March 30), Pittsburgh (March 31), Chicago (April 21), Cleveland (April 26) and Detroit (April 28). For more information, visit ThisIsBoomBox.com.