Tenor Saxophonist, McGarrigle is back with a new sound, new band and new album. The band, Mudphonic gathers inspiration from the rugged Texas landscape. The album, “Music for Dorothy” is steeped in the soul of the humid . We caught up with the quartet before they headed out on a month long CD release tour. They’ll be back in Austin on October 10th to celebrate their homecoming with a post-Panic show at Antone’s.
AUSTIN DAZE: You guys have all been in different projects before. What makes Mudphonic different or better than the rest? How do you know?
ALEX MARRERO: For me musically, it’s a new start in a new instrument. In Ghandia, I was the head of the thing. I was the singer and the guitar player and it was my baby. My role was different. In Mudphonic, I’m the drummer, so my approach is very different. I can’t compare them. I’m enjoying the experience tremendously and I’m happy to be playing with just about everybody in the room. Topaz gets on my nerves.
TOPAZ MCGARRIGLE: I think that’s the main thing, that it is something new for all of us. We are all pushing our boundaries, so to speak. For me it was starting to sing and play guitar and harmonica, whereas before I just played saxophone. The project is about putting yourself out there and pushing what you would normally do and not worrying about it. I hope that’s what makes it better—I hope that some of that energy is portrayed to the crowd, that we are really putting ourselves out there and doing something that we really shouldn’t be doing. Something that is exciting for us that is so fresh and new.
BOBBY PERKINS: With the previous Topaz band we were doing more funk and instrumental acid jazz, and now we are writing tunes and doing more vocals.
JOHN BRANCH: The main difference for me is just how I’m playing guitar. I started playing slide guitar before I moved back to town and was looking for an outfit where I could do that, so it was sort of serendipitous that I met Topaz right when I got back and that he was interested in doing more blues. I wanted to start playing music that was more stripped down, no effects, straight guitar straight into the amp. It’s way more natural for me. It’s something I should have been doing a lot sooner.
AD: Did you all write the songs together or individually and then get together? How does that work?
TM: It’s a mixture. Some I had written before we even started. John had written a song before we started as well. Some of them are more collaborative. We are definitely becoming more and more of a collaborative effort as we go.
AD: How did you all get together? Did you put an ad on Craig’s list?
AM: I met Topaz at a Ghandia gig. I was playing and there was this whole, “Topaz is in town, Topaz is in town” and I was like, “Who the fuck is Topaz? What is this Topaz business?” He ended up sitting in with the band that night and I hired him for some gigs and we became friends. John came back to town from San Francisco and he was the original guitar player in Ghandia, and he and I always had a really good musical connection. We wanted to start a new project and we started going to Topaz gigs and sitting-in in different scenarios, and then there was a Headhunters gig.
TM: I find experimenting on stage can be the best way to do it–find a small club with a small audience and improvise. So we did. Bobby was out of town at the time so we tried a couple of bass players and then he came back and started playing with us.
AM: And then we did a Halloween party—that sort of cemented it.
TM: A bonding experience for sure. I was dressed as a fairy, John was Jesus, Alex was dressed as Alex, and Bobby was a fine lass in a mini skirt.
BP: A very revealing mini skirt.
JB: It had nothing to do with the music.
AD: Who is Dorothy?
JB: My mother.
TM: She passed away shortly before we recorded the album—it’s a tribute to her.
AD: And the picture on the cover of the album? Where’s that?
TM: That’s where we recorded it. Patty’s barn.
AD: Tell us a little bit about the recording process.
JB: It was very hot.
AD: It looks like it was in a swamp.
TM: The a.c. was so loud we could only use it in between takes. Lots of sweating. We hardly used any multi-tracking—everything was recorded live–so any mistakes that were made basically are what we had to live with. We were all in a circle without headphones–very interactive. A very freeing way to record.
JB: Slightly nerve-wracking because you get three or four minutes into a take and it’s like, “This one feels pretty good. Oh wait, no.” It’s just trying to keep together.
AD: Why did you guys decide to go that route?
JB: At that point, we had been playing together 8, 9 months at the most and a lot of what we do is so improvisational based; a lot of the stuff that we would do, it was very hard to map out, say, a solo is going to be a certain length. What we do on stage is all based on visual cueing.
AM: What we first intended to go for, we just wanted something on disc. It wasn’t going to be as involved, as I remember it. It was just supposed to be a rough interpretation of what we do live.
BP: Which it is.
TM: I think our engineer, Craig Brock, wanted that. When there’s “bleed,” something different happens. When you are separating each instrument in a traditional recording studio, there is no cross bleed. There is something that is different. I talked to him about it–that it’s a controlled bleed—like with the bass and bass drum, he wanted that, this organic sound.
AM: It fit the music that we are doing—that old school approach. All these old records that we love are just people sitting in a room and everyone just playing together and creating music in the moment. Palpable.
AD: (To Topaz) So are your funk fans still liking what you are doing? Do you get any feedback from people missing the funk sound? And why did you pick up the guitar?
BP: Yeah why?
TM: John made me do it.
JB: I did not.
TM: I would definitely say that not everybody responds well to it.
AM: To the guitar?
TM: No, not to the guitar. Well, the guitar too, in the beginning. No, I’m talking about the funk issue. There have been occasions where I have to listen to people screaming from the audience to play more sax and stuff like that. I’m really gracious to the people that have followed the path along with me and have been open-minded. It definitely is difficult to change and people expect something out of you, and it’s hard to get up there and know that they are expecting something and then do something totally different and knowing that some people don’t like it. But I’ve been doing the same thing for about 10 years. Sometimes I talk to people and I’m like, “Have you been in the same job for ten years?” Sometimes you feel like changing it up. Sometimes you just need a different form of expression—your life changes. Especially if you are creative, you can’t always express your feelings in the same genre or the same medium. That’s sort of where the guitar came from. There are certain limitations of the saxophone that I just felt the need to expand my palette a little bit—have more colors to play with.
AD: I like it man. It’s creative. It keeps it fresh and alive. Bob Dylan did the same sort of thing when he switched from acoustic to electric but he stuck with it and…
TM: It worked out alright for him.
AM: People are still getting used to the fact that it’s Topaz and Mudphonic. People are like, “What’s with the weird long name?” It’s just natural. A lot of people don’t know that Topaz is a guy and that’s his name. We thought Mudphonic was a very clear description of the sound. And we needed to let people know that Topaz is involved but that this is not the Topaz of old—it’s a new sound, a new band, something else. It’s a matter of time; it’s getting there. People are starting to respond and realize.
TM: The plan was that when the record came out to make it very clear that it is Topaz and Mudphonic. We weren’t too concerned about it before.
AD: Where did Mudphonic come from? How did it happen? Did you all sit around and come up with names?
TM: It’s so hard because you come up with a really good name and then you Google it and there are so many bands with that name. You pretty much have to make up a word.
AM: We were Texican for a minute.
BP: I’m glad that didn’t work out.
AD: Do you do better in Austin or on the road?
TM: We are about to find out.
BP: Certain markets are better. New Orleans and San Francisco have done us well.
TM: We definitely built up this town on our own.
AD: We know that you are a big Kirk Whalum fan. Is that when you decided to play sax?
TM: My mom used to take me to see him play when I was in 3rd or 4th grade at a place on Sixth Street that’s not there anymore. I started on the violin. This was back when kids could go to Sixth Street. I was like, “Screw the violin. I want to play saxophone.” I was much more comfortable on the sax.
AD: Alex, did you have anyone that influenced you when you were growing up?
AM: Kirk Whalum. No, ever since I was a little kid I sang and performed for my siblings. Paco de Lucia was my ultimate—when I finally got a guitar I was OK that I didn’t get a drum set because Paco de Lucia is the man.
JB: Still working on incorporating that.
BP: My dad. He was the band director at my school and played upright bass and jazz. He was my biggest influence. And then a friend of mine’s older brother – he played bass for the gospel church and he was just funky. He would play in the high school band room. He definitely was a big influence—he turned me onto everything from Parliament Funkadelic to gospel music. Between he and my dad is where I picked up the bass.
JB: Earliest memory of guitar players – my dad took me when I was nine years old to see Jeff Healey. We were right in the front row.
BP: The West End free show?
BP: I was there.
JB: The stuff he was doing then was more blues rock. The earliest records in the house were blues and the Beatles. Both my parents are from Mississippi, so I was into the blues and then also more modern rock.
AM: You made me think of something: when I moved to Austin is what made it seem attainable. Playing music was something that could be done. Growing up in Mexico, I had never seen shows the way that I saw shows here. You’d see these amazing musicians three feet away from you. That completely changed my perspective on being a musician and the quality of music that you present and wanting to play music for a living. In Mexico, you go to a show and there are fifty, sixty thousand people.
AD: Tell us about the new record. Tell us about the sound.
JB: It’s southern funk with a gritty edge and rock & roll attitude.
BP: Bad ass.
AD: Alex, tell us about your transition from guitar to drums.
AM: I’ve always wanted to be a drummer.
AD: And for you guys, Bobby and John, are there any other instruments you wished you played? Any secret instrument fantasies?
JB: I have this fantasy of wanting to play keyboards, of throwing the guitar behind my back and playing the keys.
AM: He’s going to have a keytar strap.
JB: No, it’s not going to be keytar and it’s not going to be a ZZ Top thing. I definitely get a lot of comments that the way I play the chords sounds a lot like a keyboard.
BP: I’ve always wanted to play more guitar but not for stage—so I could entertain my friends around the campfire. And the banjo.
AD: What wisdom would you offer to up and coming musicians?
BP: Let the dream die.
AM: What was Zappa’s quote? “Get a real estate license.”
JB: Yeah, that doesn’t hold any water now.
TM: Now the real estate agents are telling each other, “Pick up the guitar.”
AM: I don’t have any advice for anybody. Do it for the passion and the love of it.
TM: Playing music, you’ll get lots of chicks, free drugs, and you’ll get rich as hell.