"Once we've played songs for a while, everyone finds little parts that they like," says Countdown Quartet bassist Steve Grothman. "Even though the styles of music are different, they come across as sounding like us. Most bands don't have a trombone and a saxophone, so there's a unifying element right there." Grothman and his cohorts are preparing to debut Countdown's third disc, Sadlack's Stomp, this week with release parties planned for both the Carrboro ArtsCenter and Humble Pie.
The new disc is brimming with experimental numbers, a perfect party CD encompassing a wide range of musical flavors. Along with the Crescent City-influenced jump jazz featured in the band's eponymous debut and 2001's Party With! the new disc features forays into Captain Beefheart-style grinders ("F.T.P."), island-style Caribbean twisters ("Mardi Gras In Gloucester") and a head bobbing ska number ("Mr. Tippy"). "For 'Mr. Tippy,' [original CDQ guitarist] Dave Andrews was looking to write a funky instrumental," says Grothman. "I was listening to a lot of older ska and reggae and that's just what came out of it. Bands like the Skatellites used to play a lot of jazz and you can really hear that on their instrumentals."
"We cover a few ska tunes," says frontman and trombonist Dave Wright. "So we were thinking, 'Why don't we have some originals that reflect some of the other songs we play?'"
But is there any divine plan behind trying out new sounds? Grothman simply states, "When I start writing a song, I usually don't have an idea in mind of what style it's going to be. I don't think, 'This is going to be a blues song or a funky song,' it just comes together after I start. Then I, along with everyone else, bring songs to the band and we usually keep the songs that everyone wants to play."
He also stresses that every hand on deck gets their say-so with regard to new material. "We're all part of a collaborative process," he states. "Different people get into different things and it's reflected in what we do. Personally, I want to do more R&B stuff and I'd like to get a little weirder on top of that. We do a lot of private shows and a lot of times conform to what the people want. We play a lot of traditional jazz and New Orleans standards that we don't do in our club gigs as much. I just want to keep on the creative side with more of that funky edge. I love old rock steady instrumentals and I'd love to have something a little more dissonant, like the song "FTP" on Sadlack's Stomp. We're open to anything anyone in the band writes. We just have to like the individual song."
Countdown Quartet has seen a number of personnel shakeups but Grothman is no stranger to revolving door lineups having witnessed it earlier in his time with Whiskeytown. He says, "We basically had the same group on the first two records, but everything changed after the second one. Ted Zarras moved to finish school, so we got Ray Duffey, who had played drums with us in Six String Drag, to step in. Zip Irvin, along with myself, contributed sax parts to the album in addition to the baritone sax of Scott Adair and trumpet of Jé Widenhouse."
Wright sees being flexible with numerous players as being important, not only creatively but also financially. "We've always just wanted to keep playing, and we've done whatever we've had to do in order to allow that to continue," he says. "If someone had to quit or leave, we found someone else. We didn't let what other people were doing interfere with our playing. We needed to play all the time. When you start out you've usually got another job, and when you start making money and you're just able to make it with music alone, you quit your day job. You keep doing everything you can to stay in that position. Where you can keep creating, keep writing, keep doing everything and, hopefully, still pay your bills."
Since the completion of the record, things have already shifted a bit. Drummer Ray Duffey has since moved to Nebraska, following his wife as she pursues a doctorate in ceramics. "One of the reasons we had to do this record quickly was because Ray was moving, and we really wanted to get the stuff we were doing down on tape with him playing drums," says Grothman. Even Wright himself has relocated, moving with his wife and two daughters to Mooresville, where he works with his father and spends a fair amount of time on the road traveling to gigs.
Sadlack's Stomp finds the Countdown Quartet at their best, delivering funky, fun music designed to liven up your mood and rinse away worry. In addition to the aforementioned tunes, songs like "Joseph," a stomping blues number about the biblical seer and his trials with Pharoah, highlight the band's exemplary songwriting talents. Recorded live by Rob Farris in his house, the feel of the band's stage show translates nicely to disc. "A lot of it is spontaneous," says Grothman, "it's just what happens when we're playing normally." When Wright is questioned about his approach to studio work versus performing, he says, "I don't see a whole lot of difference in being in front of a microphone and being in front of people. As far as music goes, I want to do the same thing in front of both. It's like when the group connects on something. Those things happen in the studio and they happen live as well."
The ninth track on the new CD, a Dixieland ditty called "Livin' Old School," could provide some insight on future of the band. Dave Wright, who wrote the track, claims the title as his own personal philosophy. "Life's too complicated," he says. "There's too much going on today. We should simplify. All this crap we have slows us down and leaves us with no time to do things that actually matter, like go fishing or hang out with our kids. We're always on our way to the next thing instead of being where we're at." Like the song itself so eloquently states, "The hustle and bustle has got to stop/Why's everybody tryin' to get the top/Best days are flyin' right by your nose/Time to take a break and smell that rose/Good times we got 'em/Baby let's love awhile."