Unless you’ve been trying really hard, you’ve heard of at least one member of The West Coast Get Down. Kamasi Washington‘s breakout success with The Epic has captured national attention in a variety of circles. What is less covered, unfortunately, is the tight relationship, chemistry and history of the band on that record, a unique situation that created the sound that has made it so popular. We have been fortunate in that we’ve gotten to talk to multiple members of the band about their unique situation: Kamasi, Cameron Graves and now, bassist/vocalist/composer Miles Mosley and drummer/engineer Tony Austin.
Miles Mosley’s unique sound, an upright bass loaded with effects, recalls a variety of influences. Hendrix comes to mind immediately, but bassists like Ray Brown aren’t far off either. On Uprising, he showcases his signature sound which, aside from being engaging instrumentally, has a strong vocal and songwriting component to it. Recorded during the same marathon 30 day recording period as Kamasi’s and Cameron’s records, the album has some of the grandeur of The Epic in that there is skillful use of large ensembles and, one could argue, unconventional instrumentation, but also has the live energy that is at the core of The West Coast Down’s sound. We spoke to Miles Mosley and Tony Austin about that sound, the record and the session at Mosley’s home in Los Angeles.
Revive: Uprising is such an evocative word, and it seems like you put a lot of thought into the story and concept that the music on this new record expresses. Can you talk about what this record means to you personally and how it fits in, if it does, with the larger social/political situation that’s happening right now?
Miles Mosley: Uprising is a collection of songs that I’ve been working on for some time, and I think when you take a step back and look at the overall theme it’s that life is hard out here. My investigation into the how and why of that created this body of songs. Some are uplifting, some are a pat on the back to tell you to dust your knees off and keep on going, some are me expressing how I can understand where other people come from with different let downs of your fellow brethren or your career. I think music serves different purposes and this collection of songs serves as, hopefully, a beacon of light to let you know that there’s someone out there that understands where you’re coming from and that everything is all good, it’s going to be ok, but we’re human and these can be difficult times. Sometimes you need a pick me up or just someone to cry with you.
R: That goes for you personally and also on a larger scale, to anybody?
MM: Absolutely. It’s not just about being a musician that has to struggle through the music business. It’s being a human being that has concerns and confusions and different elements of their story line or even us as a society in general.
Tony Austin: I think the record currently right now, has a really interesting cultural significance as well, especially with all the stuff that’s happening and all the strife and turmoil that we’re experiencing in this country, with equal rights for people and stuff like that. Even though this record wasn’t made to answer that, it coming out right now, it has the possibility of being received in a way where it can sort of help those movements along and sort of be the soundtrack for getting through a lot of this turmoil. I feel like it’s perfect timing.
R: The music reflects a wide range of influences. How do you approach blending vocally driven songs with technical, instrumental music?
MM: The only approach I started off with was a conversation with Tony about the production of it. Because my bass is effects-laced, I wanted that to be the only thing that had those elements. Everything else I wanted to feel very visceral and wooden and brassy and close. Personal. They only suggestion that we came up with to accomplish that from a production angle was not to double track anything or fake the size of something. However many people are in the room, that’s what it’s going to sound like, so if you want a big horn sound you just have to get more horn players. So, we went with a string quartet because that’s one of my favorite sounds and I think 6 or 7 horns. It was just making sure that you were only recording what was actually sonically happening and not faking anything, so when the bass comes in with all these effects and things it really stands out prominently because you haven’t heard anything like that up until that point within the recording.
Songwriting, I don’t think about blending styles, that homework has been done. The more influences I have moving forward in my life my songwriting will change, but I do write with the band in mind when I have an idea for a song, but those were the only preconceived notions I had from a production end.
R: These songs have been around for a while, how did they transform? Did you guys work together when you were bringing in the larger ensemble?
TA: We’ve been playing Miles’ songs for a while. We’ve gone through different arrangements and different re-toolings, and we’ve been jamming them for a while as a core group, as a quartet or a quintet and really finding the essence of the song. We went into the studio with that idea. We tracked just the rhythm section and Miles’ stuff first just to get and build the essence that we had already sort of jammed out on and capturing that. Afterwards, Miles always had the idea of adding more, of adding strings, a bigger horn section and a choir on a couple. The thing about the core band is that we can all play. We’re all very technical musicians, we’ve been studying our instruments, studying our crafts and trying to master our craft. From a production standpoint we didn’t want to hide or mask the fact that we can all play. We didn’t want to hide the fact that Miles can actually play his bass and play it tremendously well, or we didn’t want to hide over the fact that Cameron or Brandon on organ or Moog, they can play. We wanted to feature that.
It was a goal of mine, at least as a producer, to find ways to feature the tremendous playing that’s on this record and also sort of flank it by mother musical elements that are contributing to that sort of notion. The strings are on there to add this blanket, and they have their time to shine where arrangement wise you can hear them playing a little bit more. The horns are there to add to the beefiness of it. I think the idea production wise was just to balance those two things. We have this song, we have lyrics, we have guys that can play their butts off and we want to make it sound big and huge. It’s a hard thing to accomplish, so it took a lot of time to sort of figure out how to make all these elements gel together.
MM: One of my favorite parts about how these songs grew was that when we started playing at Piano Bar, Tony and I discussed the idea of no stock beats meaning that you wouldn’t lean on anything that was just the obvious thing to do in a song from the drum chair. I think as much as human beings hear music from the ground up harmonically with the bass, they feel music from the ground up with the drums, so if you start with something that is a solid choice, and an obvious choice, then sure, it’ll work just fine. People have heard it a thousand times and it’s not going to detract from the song, but it also won’t necessarily add anything. Making sure that the bass and particularly the drums were doing something that was not the obvious beat and was not something stock was the impetus to open up the song to have different elements and some room to move around and different motifs to hang on.
R: What does that mean, exactly? Does that mean that every time you played the tune you would change the groove?
TA: We held a pretty long running residency at this place called the Piano Bar in Hollywood, and when Miles first got the gig it was sort of thought of, in the inception of going in there and playing since at the beginning there was nobody there, it was like, “Well, let’s not make this just like another casual gig, let’s try to experiment a little bit. I know a way we can experiment. Whatever your first thought is to play under whatever my first bass line is, don’t play it. Your first thought is going to be something natural.” If Miles is laying down a groove right here [snaps], I’m going to lay down a [vocalizes a backbeat]. It’s very natural for me to think in those terms, but let’s not do that. Play something you’d never think of playing. I’m going to lay down this little bass thing, play something you’d never think of playing. That was sort of the goal of that evening. Then it became interesting.
It wasn’t, “Aw I gotta come to this dumb gig and placate to the audience.” There is no audience, so it was like, wow I’m going to come and try to reinvent the drums here and Miles is going to try to reinvent and Brandon or Cameron were going to try to reinvent what they’re doing on piano. It was like, look man, I don’t want to hear any quotes from any other songs or the top 40 standard bass like or the top 40 standard keyboard line, play something that you’re going to hear 10 years from now. That was our goal stepping in, that’s what we mean by not stock. I don’t want to see you rolling in your car with the stock tires and the stock wheels, customize that joint. Make it look pretty. Make it look like something special, something unique, and I think Miles definitely wanted to carry that over into his record.
R: That approach has worked for The West Coast Get Down so well. How does it feel to see your sound, the sound you’ve developed as a unit by playing together for years, be embraced by a notional audience?
MM: The short answer is it feels great (laughs). The long form answer is that we’ve put a lot of time and effort and invested a lot into each other. We’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve played a lot of gigs together. Most of those gigs have been in Los Angeles. We have seen the effect of our music on the Los Angeles music scene and have wanted to get that sound to the rest of the world for a long time. Despite our efforts, the world and the entertainment industry was not ready for that yet. It’s an ever revolving spotlight that shifts over many genres of music. Just like people weren’t ready for EDM when it was banging out in London, then they were ready for it 30 years later, and it was huge. A number of things had to happen. For us this is something that, I wouldn’t say it was unexpected. It’s interesting that a jazz record could come out and make such a splash in this day and age. Kendrick Lamar came along and helped move the spotlight to a sound that happens to be, if not uniquely ours something we’re really good at and something we’ve championed.
We had the idea and the notion that if we can figure out a way to get this out to the masses, we’ll do just fine because Los Angeles is a notoriously bitter audience. We love ‘em because we get ‘em movin’, but we are doing that in one of the hardest arenas on earth because people show up with their hands crossed and it’s a show-me-what-ya-got city. We’ve been getting these audiences of our age range, which is my favorite part about it is that we’re able to continue to play in front of our peers. We have so much music on deck from the sessions that we did that it feels like an honor and it feels exciting because I can’t wait to continue to release the music. I myself started 3 different projects. the uprising is one of them, the other one is a duo with Tony called BFI, that’ll come out after that. There’s just so much music on deck, but you step on the stage come where else, in Finland, and you know these people have no idea what’s about to happen, and to see their face feel what we do and feel our connection to each other for the first time is really, really special.
TA: I pretty much share the same sentiment as Miles. We’ve been cultivating this sound for such a long time. Like Miles said, we’ve tried to get this engine started up a bunch of times, but it just wasn’t the right time, you know. I think being in this business, it’s all about timing and noticing when a door is open. We’ve been ready for so long, as soon as the door had a little crack we just busted right through and said, alright our turn? Great! In a way, it’s been helpful to be sitting on this critical mass for so long because we’ve had more time to perfect it and make it more unique and more ours. Obviously it shows on stage and I think it’s a beautiful thing when it’s noticeable by other audiences outside of L.A. They don’t know the whole story sometimes so they come up and say, “Wow, where’d you guys grow up?” I’ll say, we all grew up in L.A. We’ve all known each other since high school, we’ve been playing together of years, and they’ll say, yeah I can tell. It seems like you guys are brothers or something. It’s heartwarming to know that the feeling that we have on stage translates in different audiences immediately. It’s not something that surprises people, they’re like oh yeah, I can tell, that’s why it sounds like this.
R: You mentioned that a lot of this music was recorded during the same session as The Epic. Can you talk about that time?
MM: Let’s start from the top, just so you can get the facts straight (laughs). Everybody in this band has an added skill set beyond just their instrumental prowess. Tony is like our Danger Mouse. Tony is brains of the operation from an engineering, sound doctoring sound of things, and also a fantastic drummer. I play the bass, I’m the voice of The West Coast Get Down, I sing the songs, but I’m also a supremely organized person. I organize the idea we have and set it up in a fashion so that I can turn it over to Tony so he can actually execute whatever that vision is. Kamasi’s side superpower is he has some magical way of getting us all in the same room together; he’s like the wrangler. He has a relationship with each person, because we are musicians that are scattered around the world. We are touring with other artists and we made the choice choice to invest in ourselves, but to get The West Coast Get Down in a room, all together, like the whole thing, is very, very difficult.
So, all of that to say, when we decided as a group to invest our money together and book out these session, Tony and Kamasi and I sat in Tony’s studio and went through a whole list of places and tried to find something that was of his technical requirement but also our financial capabilities, which landed us at KSL.
TA: Yeah we basically went on google and typed in recording studios and went down the list and started calling places. We had a couple studios in mind that we wanted to go to. It’s always been a dream of mine to record at Capitol and East West and Ocean Way, even the Village. We went over those places and I had a couple friends that worked there so I was trying to pull some favors, but economically it just wasn’t going to work out in order to do everything that we wanted to do, so we went back to my house and literally just googled recording studios, Los Angeles and we just called all the places that came up. I think Kamasi found it, on like page 6 of the Google search. We weren’t finding anything that would fit in our budget. There were places that were cheap but weren’t big enough and there were places that were big enough but too expensive. Kamasi was like “Man, I’m going to go to like page 5 and go to these other ones that we’re missing.” Then we found this place, King Size Lab in Glassell Park. We went over there and it was like, alright this place doesn’t look like Capitol but it has a lot of the same gear and it has enough gear for us to get started and there’s no frills. There’s no nice couch or there’s no coke machine. It’s just a work house. I think the fact that it was meant to be worked in helped us tremendously because that’s exactly what we did. We just showed up and worked all day.
MM: 10am to 2am.
MM: It has to be noted that we have Barbara Sealy on our team, who has been with us for a long time and is really good at ensuring that we have a comfortable space to be artists. She knew that Tony was going to be skipping lunches and busting ass as an engineer and doing double duty on drums, so she went and found some assistants so that he could have some people to point to and plug in cables and things like that. She arranged to make sure that we had lunch there everyday. She’s a phenomenal manager, but she’s truly an artists’s manager and understood what we were getting ready to take on in that we had one chance. We had 30 days, but we had one shot at this, so if we blew it those were our resources. There goes our money, there goes our shot at it. We screwed the pooch because we wasted too much time or didn’t know what we were doing.
I have a stack of this many song sheets. Every dong we did, every single day. Whose song it was, what time we started, who’s on it, what production notes need to happen so that if we come back around to this song a week later we know what to do. It was a tremendous effort and I think that everybody knew that this was our moment to at least capture what we had been working on so diligently over the last 4 or 5 years. We knew that we wanted to put the records out but how and when remained to be seen. We truly had a singular focus which was to get everything recorded.
TA: There was no time wasted. On an average day we cut 13 tracks. From the morning to like 4 o’clock in the morning. That was an average day in the studio and we did it for 30 days straight. It was a tremendous feat. Every time we tell that story to people that go in the studio and take years to record their record, we’re like “Dude, we cut 10 records in 30 days man!” We left with like 100 and some odd tracks altogether and overdubs and rewrites and rearrangements and stuff like that. They’re like What?! Aren’t you guys sick of each other!? We’re like, Yes. Yes we are (laughs).
They obviously haven’t been too tired of each other, seeing as since the release of the records, pretty much every member of The West Coast Get Down has been on tour, with Miles Mosley and the other members of The WCGD playing dates around the country and world in support of the various records that have come out so far. Judging by the amount of material recorded, we probably have a lot more to look forward to as well. Pre-order your copy of Uprising here.