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
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
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