It doesn't take long for keyboardist Andy Magowan to name the 15 members of D-Town Brass, the horns-and-rhythms troupe he launched five years ago simply because he wanted to flesh out the sound on a single song. But he does struggle with calling out the profession of each member. "Some of the guys work in IT," he says, laughing. "Anyone who works in that world, I don't tend to know what they do."
The assorted day jobs of D-Town's trombonists and saxophonists, drummers and trumpeters make scheduling hard—recordings can come slow, and shows can be rare. But the size of the ensemble allows them both versatility and force, as evidenced by their excellent new nine-track album, Golden Belt. On "A Close Call," they slink through mysterious harmonies before erupting into a sort of scripted and brilliant chaos. On "No Lock, No Key," they shout the title in unison as a prelude to the way the array of horns will soon split into a half-dozen different directions.
Magowan discussed the minor problems and major payoffs of a band this size and how the players' relationship with the music serves as motivation.
Scheduling is almost impossible. We're all dads and have jobs, so it's not like we're ready to go out on tour any time ever. But even to do hometown shows, it can be a pain to get everyone in the same room. The last time we got together and did anything, it was a recording session. We had three rehearsals beforehand, and I didn't once have the entire band in the same room.
If we're working on new material and someone's not there, I will often email sheet music over to people if we have that ready. But they also don't look at it ahead of time, so what's the point? They're all great players; they just walk in and do it.
WRITING FOR THE MASSES
It's a traditional big-band arrangement, where one or two people write everything and hand it out. There are soloists picked out. We don't write collaboratively, because we would never be able to finish anything.
RECHARGING "BIG BAND"
We don't play traditional jazz. I'm not a good keyboard player. I couldn't sit down and play you a jazz standard for anything. Being worse than a jazz player forces you to find other ways to express yourself than playing "Take the A Train." I don't have any desire to re-create that big-band sound. A lot of us are rock players, and there are only very few of us who have jazz chops that anyone would take seriously. That makes us a bit more psychedelic, because we have no interest in re-creating the past.
ALL THOSE INSTRUMENTS
It opens up a huge range of possibilities for counterpoint and dissonance and harmony and melody. When you get a bunch of people playing single-note instruments together, they can play together and they can play against each other. A lot of these tunes, if you listen to them carefully, they have four or five people playing something all together and then one or two people quietly negating what the other people are playing. It's viscerally pleasing, too. We move a lot of air around in the room, and that does something in your gut and brain.
ALL THAT VOLUME
We have hardly any amplification. We don't need any microphones. We don't need a PA system. It's much more simple, with way fewer headaches. If you get eight horns together and some percussionists, you just sound good.
You instantly have a bigger network of people to draw from. You know when your band that has four people in it plays its first show, and each member of the band brings five people, and you have 20 people there? Our first show was like that, but because we had 14 people, it was a pretty big crowd that could pack The Pinhook. After that show, we were like, "Hey, cool!" The other half of it—and it's not that we do this for money—but we finish the show and say, "All right, we did good. Here's $400." I haven't seen $400 from a band in forever, or a long, long time, anyway. When you split up $400 14 ways, it's still the same $30 you've always been playing for. "Damn, no progress!"
We try to keep the annoying bullshit that brings down the mood in other bands to a minimum. There aren't many interpersonal conflicts, and we don't put any pressure on ourselves to make it or be awesome. We show up and play music together and enjoy it. When I was younger, there was so much other stuff that you thought you were supposed to be doing. That stuff is basically just fun for us.
SQUEEZING ON STAGE
When we played Duke Coffeehouse, we had to have the rhythm section on the floor and the guitar players up above us. That worked out pretty good because it allowed interaction with the audience. When is the drummer ever up front? The first Pinhook show was interesting because we had never played facing an audience before. We had always played facing each other, taking up whatever space we needed. I got obsessed with it, went to The Pinhook, measured the stage and taped out the measurements of the stage. We had to learn how to play within that space.