Interview: Big Kettle Drum

big kettle drumWith their latest EP I Thought You’d Be Bigger, Florida based duo Big Kettle Drum dabble in the kind of music that you don’t listen to, so much as feel every note from somewhere deep within. Brant Christopher Menswar and JT Keel have explored their soulful side with this latest release, but while still maintaining their hard-wearing signature sound steeped in old-school blues and Americana that won them their fiercely loyal fanbase. I fired a few quick questions their way to find out more about this latest release.  

Thanks for your time! You’ve just released your latest EP I Thought You’d Be Bigger, are you happy with how it turned out?
We are thrilled with how this record turned out. We headed to Los Angeles for the first time to record with a veteran producer Carla Olson.  We tracked with Tony Marsico (Mattew Sweet, Jeff Healy) Don Heffington  (Peter Case, Shelby Lynn) live; no click, no grid.  We tracked all six songs in a day and got the basic tracks.  Next day we had about 8 hours to work with and did the overdubs and vocals.  It was a fantastic, frantic, exciting two days. After that we left it in the hands of our producer Carla Olson and Engineer Mikal Reid. They did a fantastic job adding the nuances to this record with horns and harmonica.

Looking back on your previous releases, this new EP seems to show a shift in style, using warm brass and lush organ to create a more soulful sound. What prompted this new direction?
In the past we’ve always hung around the Americana world. JT has played a Resonator/ Dobro and Brant stayed close to home on an acoustic guitar. We’ve always listened to Rock ‘n’ Roll; Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, etc, which are all rooted in the blues, but we’ve been huge fans of bands like Hall and Oats, a band that can rock but has a ton of soul. We both wanted to stretch our legs with something a little more “Dirty”, a telecaster and hollow body with a p-90 cranked up. When we would rehearse this is what we talk about and sometimes do. We just decided that we needed to embrace the things we love about old-time rock ‘n’ roll and blues and create something that is us.

I imagine a bigger sound means working with more musicians and collaborators. Who did you have on board for this release and how did they get involved?
Yes, this is a bigger project for us for sure.  A mutual friend Brett Nemeroff, the head of a label that we were on in New York (Xander Records) had a producer in mind from the first time he met us. That producer is Carla Olson. Carla was in a band in the late 70 and early 80s called The Textones and toured the world. When she settled back into LA she started producing.  She’s done work with Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Gene Clark (The Byrds), Joe Louis Walker and many more. We had Don Heffington on Drums. Don has worked with a ton of artists in LA and on the road. On bass we had Tony Marsico. Tony again has been around playing bass for everyone. He played in Bob Dylan’s first Letterman appearance. Bob hired the whole band to play, they had one rehearsal and it’s one of Bob Dylan’s best performances and it happened only once. Tony was also in the band in the movie Road House where the “I thought you’d be bigger” title came from. On Hammond B-3 we had Barry Goldberg. Barry was amazing. He was there with Bob Dylan when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival back in 1965. The Horn players are  Tom Morgan Jr on the saxophone and Greg Lewis on the trumpet. We also had Gia Ciambotti (Bruce Springsteen), Gregg Sutton (Joe Cocker), and on harmonica we had Rob Stone. All these great musicians were involved at the behest of Carla Olson and her manager/husband Saul Davis.

There’s plenty of old-school soul and blues vibes to be found on the record. Has that style of music always played a big role in your life?
Yes, we’ve always listened to the records of our youth and the records of our older siblings (JT that is). The Rolling Stones in the 70s, Fleetwood Mac’s Buckingham/Nicks days.. although the Peter Green days were pretty dang good and super bluesy. Bands like Foreigner and AC/DC shaped the love of rock ‘n’ roll, and bands like Prince, Hall and Oats and James Brown shaped the soul of what we do.

What was your writing process like when coming up with the songs for the EP?We’ve always written a certain way through 15 years together and countless songs.  JT will have a riff and an idea, record or play it for Brant, and if it hits Brant in a certain way he will almost immediately have an idea for a lyric. That’s when we know to move forward with that particular song. As we start crafting the song we will bounce lyrics off of each other. JT always says “I am good for one line in a song, but it’s a good line”. Brant is the lyricist and he understands how words and melody will affect someone when they listen. We have a symbiotic relationship where our skill sets complement one another.

I love that the cover features the two of you as Lego figures! Where did that idea come from?
This came from JT’s idea of having a cover that showed us as small little figures, even stick figures, standing next to a light casting huge shadows. While searching out a graphic artist to give us some ideas, Brant’s son Theo mocked up the Lego figures. It took us about a millisecond to say “HELL YES! that’s it”.  We’ve since bought some actual Lego characters and have featured them in various places while we travel.

I have to ask; what’s the story behind the name Big Kettle Drum?
As we began this version of Brant and JT we were hunting a name. When in other bands, and even our previous band, we would always come up with names for bands, but when we needed to come up with a name we were stumped. “The B sides”… urgh, lame! Brant was listening to some Johnny Cash and the song ‘The Man Comes Around’ plays and Johnny sings “the multitudes will be marching to that BIG KETTLE DRUM”. We felt like we stumbled on a great name. We still get at least one person ask us “Where is your kettle drum” when we play out.

Now that the EP is out, what have you got planned for the rest of 2018?
We are in full promotion mode! We’ve released records and done the bare minimum and DIY’d as much as we could. With this record, we are focusing on playing live. Getting out, getting these songs in front of people live. These are visceral songs and hearing them live is an experience we want the world to hear and see. With that, getting radio, getting people to know who we are, will get us closer to our goal of playing for as many people as possible

Big thanks to Brant and JT. Big Kettle Drum’s new EP I Thought You’d Be Bigger is out now.