CARLOS SOSA: Bob Schneider was doing his own thing at Antone’s on Tuesday nights. And after 12 of playing with him I felt like I just wanted to do something of my own so I talked to Will at Lucky Lounge. Antone’s was always packed on Tuesday nights and he would stop I think at 12:30. Will’s formula for Lucky Lounge was that he didn’t ever want music past midnight but I figured that if I started there when Bob’s show lets out people will come to Lucky Lounge. And it worked. Within a month it was just packed with people. Our first gig there was just ten people there and then after three weeks it was at capacity. It was just a jam session-it was just messing around. And then friends of mine started showing up. Two weeks later a drummer showed up and never left and then a guitar player showed up and never left. And it was like, “I want to be a part of this”. So the band just kind of evolved and just happened. We started as an instrumental acid jazz thing and now–for the first year it was just instrumental-and now we started writing songs and doing all that stuff and it’s working.
AD: It seems like a cool space to try stuff out on an audience.
CS: We used to do that with Bob where he would come in with a new song every week and we would just learn the song. We would probably perform it terribly for a packed house-it would be the worst song ever and we would all be embarrassed but the next week we would all get it right. So we’ve been doing that all the time now and the crowd, they don’t really care as long as they are having fun.
AD: There seems to be a lot of improve but it all flows together so well. How do you pull that off?
CS: Well everyone in that band has played together in one fashion or another in different bands. So we all go way back like 10, 12 years so musically we all understand each other. I never thought that the whole jam band thing was something that I personally would be able to do that or that was something that was any kind of reality for me. But it was kind of cool. I didn’t know that. But I guess that is how we started, was all improvisational, so now we have our songs and then we like to blend the two because it excites the crowd and then the band is excited when there is something fresh going on.
AD: Is the improvisation a different musical planet than a more planned out show?
CS: It’s such a different musical planet. We are on tour with Kelly Clarkson right now and doing big tours like that it’s great, it’s five star hotels and all that stuff. Touring with Rob Thomas for an entire year you do not deviate for a year. It’s just the same thing and so monotonous-it’s just not gratifying. But it’s what every musician aspires to, it’s like, “Oh my God you guys have this gig, how do you do it?” This for us, we are trying to meld the two. Blues Travelers does that a lot and Tre, I toured with him for awhile, he does that as well. They all kind of have their songs and if they take it somewhere else than it’s cool. The horn section, that’s above all what I’m loyal to, we will come up with things immediately and then we have a bag of tricks that we all know collectively so if it’s in this key it’s like, “Ok let’s do that” and people think, “Oh my God these guys are amazing.” It works.
AD: You have an eclectic sound. Do you ever think about how you are labeled?
CS: I don’t know what people are calling us. Anything with a rapper is hip hop it seems. I have friends, like Paul Wall, he’s a really good friend of mine, and all those ghetto Houston rapper guys and they are really sweet guys and they are really great business men but their music is not anything close to what I want to be listening to. We’re not traditional hip hop. We couldn’t be played on a hip hop station because it doesn’t translate to what those fans are used to listening to. There is a trend. When I was when I was in Portland recently there were all these bands starting to happen like Boom Box. I think the first mainstream band that was like this was the Roots. A lot of these rappers are starting to use live bands. So there is this transition. Like Paul Wall and Travis Barker from Blink 182, they just started a band together. I don’t really know where we are going to be put but I do think that when you take chances it’s beautiful. Ozomatli for instance, they were the first band to fuse cumbia and hip hop and it’s great. I feel like as long as we keep putting ourselves out there it will define itself.
AD: I’ve got to ask, and we’ve talked to a bunch of musicians about this, does doing a free show hurt you?
CS: That’s something we’ve been battling for awhile. We obviously started that way because we wanted to bring people into the club. I was having discussions with Will, the owner of the club, because he had said he was going to give us this percentage of the bar and then I’m like well, “If I sell out every Tuesday night that’s an investment in your club so you are going to have to pay me more than that.” I was really drilling him hard. So he said ok, he pays us this amount which is more than he pays anybody else. But a lot of guys in the band are complaining that we need to make more money. When we were selling out Antone’s with the Scabs, there was a 10 piece band and we would all be making $500-$1,000 a night. Consistently. Charles, our guitar player was in the Scabs with me and he’s like, “We need to make some money this is ridiculous.” But we’ve talked about it and talked about how and if we are going to start charging a cover. It’s like, “Well lets wait until there is a line down the street.” And a couple of times it has been that way and we don’t know if it’s going to last. Then it’s like, “Let’s start charging a cover at midnight.” All over the country there is this night that when touring musicians come into town that’s the place to go; that you got to go check that out. And it’s worked with us. The free thing is hard because it’s the perceived value.
AD: Does it hurt you playing other gigs or other places in town?
CS: Yeah. It’s hard because we are taking guesses. We don’t know if it’s really hurting us but we know that we are not selling out on the weekends. It’s kind of a scene-there are the same people that come every week. We thought about making membership cards so they can get in all the time. If we charge everybody $5 then we are going to have an empty house. We were going to wait until the record came out to start charging. But the record’s out and we haven’t started charging. It’s like having that conversation with somebody that you really don’t want to have. You keep procrastinating.
AD: The way the city is changing do you think it is helping the local music scene?
CS: I don’t know about that. Well it’s becoming very trendy. It’s just like anything else, when something is undiscovered and somebody says it’s cool, it’s cool. And everybody is coming. But the good thing is that Austin is just a wealth of talent. And film and music-it’s kind of like a bubble; they don’t know how good they are. But LA and New York is where the industry is and I don’t think there has ever been enough industry to support a live musician in Austin. In LA you are a session player and you are making a lot of money. Here you don’t make a lot of money. But I think the industry is coming.
AD: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
CS: As long as people don’t take it over. I do all the music stuff for MTV and that happened from guys coming to see Boombox and finding out I produce records and so the connection between LA and here or New York and here is getting smaller. Now I’m having my friends submit music to MTV so they are making money and when Jason Mraz goes on tour next summer I’m going to be their musical director so I get to hire musicians and I’m going to hire Austin musicians not LA musicians. I might not be able to instantly change something but I might be able to start like a domino effect that maybe ten years down the road some huge artist will come here for musicians or a musical director or a film score instead of going for people in LA.
AD: It’s a double-edged sword. We want people to bring the money but we also want to have a place to go that no one else goes.
CS: You want to keep it Austin but it’s changing so fast. I’ve been trying to consolidate everybody’s resources. We should be doing this together. That’s the only way we are going to do anything. I’ll get on a soap box about that one.
AD: What makes a good show for you?
CS: Everybody having a good time. The band playing well and everybody on stage being happy. Some nights if one person is in a really bad mood it kind of gets infectious. So that sucks. When there is nobody there, that sucks. I think one of our best shows ever was South Padre. We ended up kind of headlining the whole festival-kind of by accident. There was no more music and everybody came to this club, all of these awesome people were there. It was this huge stage and it was just completely packed-there were probably 1,500 people there-and everybody was freaking out.
AD: How has the new CD been doing?
CS: It’s been doing really well. I have so many great people in music between my affiliations with the Grammys, people in LA and my being here, and I never ask for favors, that’s my thing. So I just kind of put it out there and just said, “Ok.” But we’ve got Epic and Atlantic wanting to sign us. I don’t really know how I feel about that. We don’t have a label behind us; we don’t have the publicity machine. Besides the Chronicle, everybody that has heard it loves it. I’ve got Rolling Stone people, I’ve got this guy who is a VP at EMI freaking out–he loved it. So for me personally, as the song writer and producer, that’s my goal, to just make it a good record. And now I’m seeing people in the crowd sing the lyrics to the choruses and stuff like that and that’s really making me happy. We’ve been writing for our next record and it’s almost done. So we’ll probably have it done before the summer. I want to do one or two records a year and just crank them out.
AD: Tell us a little bit about your new CD.
CS: The first song on the record was a complete mistake. We were in the studio and everyone was improvising totally and completely and I was just like, “That’s brilliant. We’re keeping everything just like it is.” And the rapper was like, “really?” “Yep.” And that’s the first song on the record. “Unfunky UFO” is a Parliament song and Dumpstphunk plays a version of it and I fell in love with it. So we did a hip hop version of it and had those guys sing on it and it came out amazing. My favorite song is the blues song “Long Way Home” that has John Popper playing harmonica on it. That’s my favorite. We just started playing that live a month ago because it kind of doesn’t fit with what we do and now we are playing it live all the time and people are loving it. That song just kind of came out of the blue. I had a very clear picture in my head of what I wanted that to sound like and the story I wanted to tell with that song. I wanted it to be like Robert Johnson, an old guy sitting on a porch in Mississippi playing guitar, mixed with hip hop. When I was playing with Blues Traveler I asked John if he would come to the studio and play some harmonica and he did and it worked out great.
AD: What was it like making this record?
CS: It took two years. We started it and then we lost some people and so we kind of put it on hold. I was a perfectionist because I was producing the record and I wanted it to be great. Our bass player left, he moved to LA, so we hired Brad Hauser, and then I had to replace the bass tracks and then one of our rappers quit the band so I had to replace all of his vocal tracks and it was like, “Oh my God, when am I going to have a band?” Like a steady band. I didn’t want to have this old guy on the record that quit. So going through those transitions slowed the process a lot. And then we went into the studio one time and we wrote all this new material so we had two records worth of material and then we liked all of our new songs so we used the best of the old stuff and the best of the new stuff at the time.
AD: Is it ever hard to figure out how to work these new sounds into your live show?
CS: The response has been really great. Everything that we play. It’s a departure but they love it. You have all this acid jazz and really funky songs and then the horns get off stage and I play guitar and it turns into this ZZ Top moment. I feel like a live show has to keep moving to stay interesting. If it is the same thing over and over again people are going to get bored.
AD: It feels good.
CS: I’ve always been a side man and with the horn section–we are always playing other people’s music–and it’s really cool now to write a song and have people in the audience sing the lyrics. I’ve never had that happen and now I’m like, “Why didn’t I start writing songs ten years ago?”
AD: When did you decide to start writing songs and why?
CS: It’s a really weird and long story. It was four years ago, I had a girlfriend for about five years who completely broke my heart and I ended up in a year long depression-it was crazy. She was the love of my life; one of those things, right? I wouldn’t sleep; I didn’t eat for like months, and was drinking every day. At the time I was producing a record for Warner Brothers Christian and they were paying me a lot of money to produce this record. It was a very high profile record and I ended up getting a Grammy for it which is great, but all during that record I was so dark and depressed. Everything I had, my soul, was poured into that record. Towards the end the A&R guy called me and said he needed four more songs for the record. So I wrote and we never came up with anything. During that time, for a couple of months I started hearing music in my sleep. Beautiful music. You know when you are kind of in that lucid state of being asleep and being awake and you don’t know if you are quite awake or you’re sleeping? I would hear this music and it was so beautiful and I would try and wake myself up or go write it down because it was amazing music. This would happen on a constant basis. And I went to the bank one day and I was in the teller line and all of a sudden I just hear all this music as if it were on the radio. And I look around and the radio isn’t on but it’s blaring in my head. So I haul ass home and call Christian, the guitar player, to come over and we put all the music down. He is one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met. He’s a gypsy from Marseilles France-he’s amazing. And he’s like, “Man you were so set on what you heard.” And we wrote this thing in about 15 minutes and it was done. And I’m an instrumentalist, I don’t write lyrics, and I had this story in my head. And even weirder, I speak Spanish but I’m not fluent and it was all in Spanish. And it was there. Done. The story, the lyrics were beautiful, and metaphors and all this stuff. It was the most beautiful song I had ever done. I couldn’t believe that was the first song I had ever written and it was beautiful. And it’s a Christian record, so I’m like, “What?” So then I asked my therapist, “How does that happen? Because I didn’t write that song it was just a gift?” I’m not a bible thumper or anything but it was total divine inspiration. Then I started researching and Michael Jackson says the same thing and a lot of people throughout history say that it just happens. It’s a gift. It was hard to fill out all the copyright stuff with the record company because I didn’t feel like I wrote it. It was really beautiful. So since then I just write.
AD: Do you feel like you get more out of writing than just playing?
AD: How do they compare as far as communicating to an audience?
CS: The thing about that record was that I knew it was going to do great things. It made a lot of people a lot of money, not me, because the record company screwed me, but that’s ok. The thing was I was so depressed that I almost didn’t finish the record because I just couldn’t do it at one point. Then I realized the band that I produced, they are very, very huge in Christian music. I had this kind of epiphany that it was a Christian record and people are going to listen to it. They already sell tons of records so I knew it was going to reach people. Unlike the Boombox record where I write this song and maybe 1,000 people hear the songs and pay attention to the lyrics. But this, 100s of thousands of people were going to hear this record and would definitely be listening to the lyrics because it’s a Christian record and that’s what they do-they are listening for inspiration. And then I thought, if it touches one person and say they are on the verge of suicide or something like that and that helps one person and inspires them that is like the power of a God to do that. It’s a gift; it’s a blessing, for me to be able to touch people like that so I would be doing a huge disservice to not finish it. So that really helped me out a lot.
AD: What have you learned from the music business experience?
CS: I met some high school kid on the plane yesterday who was a trombone player from Seattle and he knew everything about me and that was really cool. I battle between don’t do it, “Get a job” and the need to just go for it. It’s hard but I don’t regret anything. I don’t by any means believe that I have arrived anywhere. Making it is a personal thing. When I moved to Austin I was like, “When I can play a gig on Sixth Street, I’ve made it.” Then I get there and I’m like, “Ok, now when I play with this artist, I’ve made it.” Then I play with that artist and I realize my goals always change. If I get on the tonight show I’ve arrived. Then I get on the Tonight Show and it’s like, “What next?” It’s all a challenge and it’s such a long road and I don’t know what my end result is. I just want to make great records. Music is such an amazing medium and to be able to touch people like that is pretty powerful. That’s what I’ve come to realize: my goal it to reach as many people as I can whether it’s playing live or making records.
AD: Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?
CS: Absolutely. My playing, I’ve got maybe ten more years of touring and then I want to be just scoring films and writing. So when I retire I can still stay at home with my family and make music.
AD: Anything else?
CS: I’m really curious to see how Boombox is going to do and just really excited. Some of those guys don’t realize how much it means to me. When I was on tour last summer, I would be in Vancouver on Monday and get on the first flight out to come to Austin play my gig make $50 and then Wednesday morning fly to Seattle, and I’m dead; I’m exhausted. It means a lot to me. I just want to figure out a way to make something out of that band and try and get out of Austin.