Here Come the Mummies!

February 5, 2014
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Ohmigawd, where has this band been all my life? That was my reaction when I first heard Here Come the Mummies’ new studio album, Cryptic. Their searing funk serves up hilariously suggestive lyrics backed by horn and rhythm sections that envy nothing to the likes of Tower of Power. Their official story is that an archeologist unearthed a 5,000-year-old disco in which the undead funksters were found laying down nasty grooves. Members appear in public only in costume and give interviews only in character, a rumored reason being that the group contains many A-list (and even Grammy-winning) Nashville musicians who need to guard their true identities for business purposes. 

It’d be tempting to dismiss this as shtick, but here, listening to the music makes that a non-issue. From the disco mayhem of “You Know the Drill” to the ’80s power pop of “Chaperone” to the ska upbeats of “Everything But” to the Al Green-esque ballad “Never Grow Old,” there’s a mastery of songwriting and instrumental craft at work that’s as timeless as their claimed age implies. In playing what he describes as mainly “piano with a side of B-3, Clav with a side of B-3, and B-3 with a side of B-3,” keyboardist Spaz Mummy has a gig many of us would, um . . . die for. Recently, he rose from his sarcophagus to tell us how he does it.

 

Who does what when it comes to original songwriting? 

It rotates at a dizzying rate. Each of us is, by turns: Pun Potentate (a.k.a. the Great Punkin), Vicar of Vibe, Stevedore of Stank, Monarch of Middle-Eights, Lyric Longshoreman, Chord Chieftain, Sound Shaman, Harmony Head, Magnate of Mischief, and Maven of Mirth.


Similarly, does the band have a musical director, or is it more of a collaborative effort? 

It’s more like tag-team wrestling, complete with party hats and folding chairs.


Do songs tend to begin with any specific part of the arrangement: drum groove, lyrical hook, et cetera?

Many songs begin with a lyrical hook, but not all. Some begin as a great “doorknob” that needs a house built around it. There are no hard and fast rules, though we do tend to work hard and fast, for that’s how our fans like it.


Was there a conscious decision to branch out stylistically on “Cryptic,” compared to the more straight-up funk of your earlier records?

Each and every one of us has diverse musical interests, some of which will likely never surface on an HCTM record—folk and speed metal spring to mind. We enjoy the surprising territories we get to explore, and hope to continue being adventurous. We haven’t had too many misfires, either—at least we think we haven’t. 


Who are your keyboard influences in particular?

Bernie Worrell, Thomas Dolby, Stevie Wonder, Richard Tee, Billy Preston, Steve Nieve, and Garth Hudson, to name a few.


What was the first time—at least within the life span of us mortals—that you heard or saw a keyboard-heavy recording or performance that made you think “I want to do that”? 

In the modern era, there are many examples of such performances that continue to astonish and delight. I certainly can’t recollect the first time, and it’s been ages since my forays into the ancient water organ known as the hydraulis, but that’s another story. Here’s just a handful: the Rhodes on “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Billy Preston’s facile keyboard work on “Nothing from Nothing,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever, the bass on “Flashlight” by Parliament, the organ on Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio,” and Emil Gilels’ recording of Beethoven’s A Major Piano Sonata (opus 101).


What was used for the synth solo on “Chaperone” in the studio? Onstage? 

It was Roland Fantom-G6 in both cases. The filter boost the second half receives was Eddie Mummy’s suggestion.


How about the synth noodles throughout the ska tune “Everything But”? 

That’s the Fantom again, giving a shout out to Ennio Morricone in spots.


“Cruel Old Sun” features what keyboardists often call the “Steely Dan phaser Rhodes.” What’s your source for this sound?

That’s the Yamaha S90ES doing the phaser Rhodes—it has a particular patch [“Sweetness”] that just has a thing. [The S90ES] also does the rather boingy synth sound as well as that zappy bit of percussion. Incidentally, this is one of only two songs where I sing the lead vocal, so I’m pleased you brought it up. 


On several YouTube videos from the Bob & Tom radio show, you perform live in a very tight studio space. How did you get such a produced, polished sound without it getting over-compressed—as is often the case with broadcast?

Thanks for saying so! This has to be attributed to the presence of Jonee Quest, our brilliant live sound engineer of long standing. Additionally, in all but our first appearance, we played through our own Avid Venue SC48 console, as well as Shure PSM-900 wireless personal monitor systems, which further raised the comfort level. Bob & Tom’s princely broadcast engineer, Eddie Hazel, and everyone at the show, couldn’t have made us feel more at home.


What are the challenges of gigging and touring such a large band these days?

Keeping enough French roast coffee on hand (we use a French press mated to a cardiac needle), maintaining air quality on the tour bus, and coping with the recidivist nature of cookie hoarding.


What’s the most important thing for a keyboard player to remember in a funk band this size? Any advice about groove?

In a band of this size, you don’t have to carry the day yourself. It’s luxurious up there, baby. Though, again, you have to cope with the very real problem of cookie shortages.

As to playing advice, don’t forget about the downbeats. They’re often the most surprising place—and sometimes the only place available—to go wonk, wonk, wonk!

 

INSIDE THE MUMMY’S TOMB

Spaz Describes his Stage Rig

My bandmates often ask me, “How are you doing that?” “Rgh, rgh, ugh,” I explain. Here are some favorite pieces of live gear and their key features.

JH Audio in-ear monitors. I’ve been playing in tightly wound bandages for centuries, so you’d think that by now I’d have adjusted to not being able to see anything. Fortunately, these keep me in the know about what’s happening sonically. They’ve been flawless for years.

Gibraltar custom keyboard stand. Given that I play standing up, I have a gleaming, curvaceous, customized Gibraltar stand to direct (or misdirect) the attention of concert-goers appropriately. This required a lot of measuring, pipe-cutting, and general strategizing on the part of my robot-intern Jeena™, but it was certainly worth it.

Nord Stage 2 HA76. Using a Korg Kontrol 49 in conjunction with the Stage via MIDI, I have three main piano, Clav, and B-3 combinations that I use as home base for 80 percent of our set. The Stage does a lot, does it well, and does it simultaneously. My single Roland EV-5 expression pedal doubles as wah-wah and volume control, depending on what sound I have selected.

The Nord Stage’s Morph feature is fantastic for organ drawbars, as it lets you make complex moves (pushing some in while pulling others out) simply by rotating the mod wheel. I can also use the wheel to fade in an arpeggiated synth while retaining independent control of the organ volume via the expression pedal. It’s lightning-fast to program complex control setups, too. For a busy touring band with limited trailer space (despite free-range libidos), the HA76 version is exceedingly powerful, space-efficient, and cost-effective.

Roland Fantom-G6. The Favorites section helps me navigate a fast-moving set that doesn’t always stay the same. Big, mashable sample pads are ideal for making elephant and wombat noises while Mummy Cass and the boys are singing about wieners. The Fantom also has a dizzying array of control possibilities. One favorite is pushing the modulation bar forward for an octave swoop down, plus filter sweep, plus delay boost, while keeping the other axis free to do whole-step bends elsewhere in the song. There’s also a great Theremin-esque patch that, if you adapt your playing a bit, you can get to sound rather natural. Finally, the “skip-back sampling” can’t be beat for capturing an unusual idea or phrase during rehearsal instead of losing it, as my brain possesses the retentive characteristics of a shriveled walnut.

Roland AX-Synth. I love melting faces with my AX-Synth, which Jeena™ has customized with brilliant, programmable LED tape (which is probably responsible for most of the face-melting, come to think of it). I have it controlling the Fantom, which has some cutting lead sounds.

MIDIjet Pro wireless MIDI rig. I don’t know where I’d be without my MIDIjet! The thing has a ridiculous range—it’s been highly reliable while we make our signature marching entrance through the audience, often testing the limits of its range. —SPAZ MUMMY

 
 

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