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Soul Rebels Brass Band attracts big crowds with a sound that keeps evolving

David Hulen

It has been a good year for the Soul Rebels. With a well-received new album and non-stop touring that includes some of the biggest music festivals in the United States and Europe (they played the main stage at Bonnaroo last Friday), the band has never had a bigger audience.

They began as a traditional New Orleans brass band, playing classic tunes in a city where brass bands still fill an important role in local culture and community. They've evolved over the past two decades to incorporate jazz, funk, R&B, soul, pop, hip-hop -- and, lately, metal.

As co-founder and drummer Derrick Moss explained in a phone interview earlier this week, the idea all along has been not to stand still.

Q. You've been doing this a long time, but it looks like the band is hitting a new level and you're now reaching a bigger audience than ever. Where does it feel like you're at career-wise?

A. What we aspired to be from the beginning was a mainline act on the main stages and playing at major festivals all over the world, not just a local band or a band that plays at the front gate of the festivals for people coming in to see the real acts. I remember feeling that for years in the early days, so it's great for (co-founder and fellow drummer) Lumar (LeBlanc) and I to be where we are now.

Q. Tell me about the band's music and how it evolved.

A. We started off as a traditional brass band (Dejean's Young Olympia Brass Band). We were young guys, like freshly out of college. And so once we mastered doing the traditional stuff ... we started slipping in some of our own ideas. And the first thing, which was really simple, but major, was changing the beat of it a little -- going from that old traditional beat and playing a more funky beat, something more of a dance beat. The same traditional song, like Louis Armstrong, but instead of the old, kind of two-step or slow-drag beat or jazzy kind of laid-back feel, we gave it a more upbeat feel and a little edge on the tempo and with a little side-to-side step or movement from the band, and we noticed the crowds began to dance more and get more into it. Once we noticed that was happening, we kept it pointed in that direction.

Q. At some point in there hip-hop comes along ...

A. It just naturally progressed to that. Once we learned how to do the pop stuff really good, like the Michael Jackson type stuff and old school pop artists ... we had that and people loved it. We had to keep progressing and changing over time. Now it's just natural. ... We had to keep moving forward for our future.

Q. Is your music still evolving?

A. Yes, always. That's why were still here. Lumar and I are the only two left from that original band, and we had to evolve. We evolved with time and music and with culture, and that's why were still here now. I plan on continuing to evolve with time, 'cause I plan on doing this the rest of my life.

Q. There's this quote (from the Village Voice) I keep seeing as I read about you guys: "The Soul Rebels are the missing link between Public Enemy and Louis Armstrong." Do you think that's an accurate description of what you're about?

A. It was at the time. That was made maybe eight years ago.

Q. Is there a better way to say it now?

A. Actually ... (laughing) you just put this on my mind. Now I'm going to stand here and evolve that comment. The Soul Rebels are the missing link between brass horns and metal. We opened up the 30th anniversary shows for Metallica every night in San Francisco.

Q. How'd that come about?

A. We played live on the Jools Holland show in London, the biggest music show in all of the UK. ... There are five bands on each show, and we were one of the five bands and one of the other bands that night was Metallica. It blew my mind. I was like, 'Are we really on the same show with Metallica?' We just did our thing and those guys loved us. They're tapping their feet and pumping their fists and rocking their long hair and stuff. It was cool, man. ... And long story short, one month later, we were opening up their 30th anniversary concerts (four shows in December at the Fillmore Auditorium).

Q. What was the band trying to accomplish on your new album? ("Unlock Your Mind")

A. It's a continuation of our very first album. Total separation of thinking like a brass band. I didn't say not being a brass band, but it's a different state of mind. We think more like a pop or funk band that has a message ... Something positive and uplifting that people can build on and aspire to be better people in life.

Q. The music you play is really made for moving around - like physically moving around. How do you manage that when you're playing in an auditorium with seats?

A. We play a song called "Get Up." We tell 'em: Get up, stand up in front of your seat and if there's room in front of you, get in it and dance. If that's not enough, come down on the floor from upstairs or wherever you are and come dance. We don't care if you're standing in your seat. We want you to get up.

Read more of the interview, hear Soul Rebels music and watch videos: adn.com/play

Read the full interview on the Play Blog
By David Hulen
Anchorage Daily News