Interview: The New Mastersounds

Matt Inman on December 19, 2019
Interview: The New Mastersounds

Photos by Paul Citone and Joe Mimna

Leeds’ grooviest musical export celebrates two decades of funky, cross-continental boogaloo.

In their early days, The New Mastersounds scored a prime gig playing backstage at Glastonbury, but quickly learned the hard way that the only people paying attention were their fellow musicians. And, despite forming in Leeds, England, and woodshedding on their local pub scene for years, it took a trip across the pond for the uber-funky quartet to truly find an appreciative audience.

“Everyone prioritized this band, even in the hard times when it didn’t seem financially worthwhile—which was a lot of the time” says drummer Simon Allen, who formed the group in 1999 alongside guitarist Eddie Roberts, bassist Pete Shand and former keyboardist Bob Birch (current ivory master Joe Tatton signed on in 2007). “That’s really the key: the persistence.”

Though they were influenced by New Orleans heroes The Meters early on, The New Mastersounds didn’t know much about the modern jamband sphere—or that the members of The Meters were still at the center of a vibrant music scene—until their maiden voyage overseas. But, during the past two decades, they’ve grown into pillars of the roots-oriented American festival circuit. On their most recent album, Shake It, the band even recruited the services of a member of a true American musical dynasty— Atlanta-based vocalist Lamar Williams Jr., son of the late Allman Brothers Band bassist— for most of the LP’s tracks and recorded the set at Roberts’ Color Red studio in Colorado.

“It has been really tricky, and it’s a financial struggle, but we’re still getting joy onstage after 20 years, so it can’t be that bad,” Allen admits. “Part of the thing that makes this band special is that you’re watching a conversation between people who have a long-established relationship. That is what the music is.”

Let’s start at the beginning. How did The New Mastersounds form?

EDDIE ROBERTS: It must have been ‘96 when we started the original group, The Mastersounds, which had Simon on drums, a percussion player named Sam Bell—who’s also played drums on a few of our albums over the years—and then a guitar player who played bass for us, Dan Brown. That’s where our song “One Note Brown” comes from because he wasn’t that good, see? [Laughs.] He only plays one note.

SIMON ALLEN: Dan had learned bass specifically to join the band because we didn’t want anyone who was too schooled. I recently posted a photo on Instagram—one of the only photos of The Mastersounds—taken at an outdoor street party in Leeds in 1997. Eddie’s got short shorts on. [Laughs.] Then we sort of parted company with the other two guys, even though we are still friends with them now, 20 years later.

ER: That fizzled out after probably two years. But then, me and Simon still wanted to work together, and we both came to the same conclusion that we needed to have a superstar that was in Leeds at the time, Pete Shand. Pete had been around a long time—he’s 10 years older than me—and everyone just looked up to him and wanted to play with him. Me and Simon were like, ‘Do you think Pete would play with us?’ We we both thought, ‘We doubt it, but we could ask.’” [Laughs.]

SA: We were both nervous about approaching him because we thought he might be a bit too good.

ER: So we hit him up, and he’s just like, “Of course, man.” Then, we found this guy called Bob Birch, who was a total Hammond geek, and he had that vibe about him. So, that was the start of The New Mastersounds, in ‘99.

PETE SHAND: At the time, I was playing in a high-speed country-bluegrass type band with some really good, fast pickers. [Joining The New Mastersounds] gave me a chance to switch to a genre that was much more natural to me—funk and soul—and we’ve taken it further than that since then, haven’t we?

SA: Yeah because, since then, Pete has taught me how to play reggae on the drums— Pete being half Jamaican and me being a slightly insecure white boy who didn’t really feel confident with reggae. He guided me through and told me what was bogus and what wasn’t bogus.

So, we started that band in Leeds because there was a club night starting and they needed live bands for the interlude between the DJs. The first show we did, which was at a place called The Underground, we had a three-piece horn section, which went on to become The Haggis Horns. Joe used to play with that band. It was all very incestuous: There was a scene in Leeds with a limited pool of musicians, and we were all the most qualified in that pool for this project.

ER: We started with playing Meters covers and tracks from an album by Jimmy McGriff called Electric Funk, specifically, because it was a similar kind of sound. And we had a few originals. The first rehearsal we had, we recorded the session just so that everyone could go home and learn the songs, and some of those tracks, like “One Note Brown,” ended up getting released. That was the first time the band had played it, onto a four-track, just for reference.

Then, Blow It Hard Records happened to send me a seven-inch single, and it wasn’t very good, so I was like, “Hey, you guys might be interested in this,” and they said, “Yeah, wow, we’d love to put this out.” So, [“One Note Brown”] was our first single. The DJs in the U.K. picked it up and started playing it, then we started getting some shows in London at the Jazz Cafe. This DJ called Keb Darge took us under his wing, helped us produce the first album and got it onto a label called Barely Breaking Even. He also was a bit of a superstar in Japan, so that started the Japanese interest in the band, and it just grew from there.

So, musically, the band was following Eddie’s lead from the beginning, playing Meters covers and such.

ER: I was established in the scene already—I had a band called The Three Deuces, which was a soul-jazz organ trio—and I’d been working in these clubs, part of this little team with like three DJs. So I was plugged into the whole thing. Pete was the superstar, but he was doing other stuff, like playing with the Utah Saints and Nightmares on Wax, so he wasn’t so much in the same scene. Everyone took my lead because I was putting the band together to play these clubs. I was the main writer at the beginning, but as the band formed a bit more and found its own sound, things opened up and everyone else started writing. These days, everything is co-written.

SA: The Meters thing came from these DJs we were friends with, who were running this club night. They had made a tape for Eddie—because it was in the days when you didn’t have access to infinite music online, and the DJs were often the gatekeepers of the music. Someone made a Meters compilation tape for Eddie and said, “You should listen to this. It might inspire you.” He brought that down to my basement and we listened to the tunes and just thought, “Well, that seems like a really natural way for us to play.”

Half of Eddie’s playing is that rhythmic, chicken scratch, wah-wah rhythm sound. The other half of it is this Grant Green flowing-jazz thing— fitting as many notes as possible into one bar. [Laughs.] So we listened to The Meters tape, but we didn’t know anything about them at the time. It was several years later, when we started our American adventure, that we realized that those guys were all still going. Later, we ended up meeting them and performing with them. That was something we could have never imagined in my basement in Leeds in 1999 when we heard this tape. We didn’t even know they were still alive at that point.

The New Mastersounds performing at Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver,
one of their adopted “home base” cities

What do you think it was about the U.S. that made you guys want to keep coming back and, eventually, make the States your home base, at least for touring?

JOE TATTON: I don’t think we had any choice but to make it home base, did we? [Laughs.]

SA: As far as I’m concerned, it’s just that this is where there have been people who care about the music in a big way. Although we do have some fans around the world, they are in much smaller numbers than they are in the States. What we found was a tradition of people that know each other well by having a musical conversation onstage—it started with the Grateful Dead and continued with Phish and Widespread Panic and all those bands. We found that we were appealing to a subset of their audience who see the common denominator in what we’re doing, even though the style of music is very different.

ER: In 2004, we were invited to come to the U.S. to open for the Greyboy Allstars at the Chicago House of Blues. That was just an eye-opener. It was two nights of sold-out shows with everybody just grooving to funky boogaloo, which is what the Greyboy Allstars do and pretty much what we do. To see so many people into it—we were like, “Whoa, shit. This is where we need to be. We’ve been in the wrong place all along.” [Laughs.]

And then some weird things happened. We went to a Cubs game the next day—the second day we were in America—and, as we were going through the turnstiles, there was this group of people that were like, “Yo! New Mastersounds, you killed it last night!” And we were like, “What?” Because that never happened to us in the U.K. After years and years of doing it—I’d been playing this kind of stuff since ‘92, really, and there had never been that level of interest. Then, I went into a coffee shop the next day, and a guy said, “Oh, you’re Eddie from New Mastersounds.” I was like, “Holy crap, what is going on? Where’s the camera?” It was really weird, and so we were like, “OK, this is a thing; we need to come back.”

So, we did everything we could to play in the U.S., which was tough in the beginning, but we got there in the end.

Moving on to the recent collaborative album with Lamar, Shake It, it seems like he has meshed incredibly well with the band in a short period of time.

LAMAR WILLIAMS JR.: From the moment that I met Eddie last year at a benefit gig, we had a mutual respect for each other, and he invited me to play [with the group] in Atlanta a few months later. After I heard them live, it was like, “Wow, I’ve been looking for this band for so long.” It’s just divine that we met. Soul just spills out of them, and they play with so much heart. It’s so rhythmic.

I was going after more of a pop sound earlier in my career, seeking radio hits, and it’s been a bit of a journey for me, figuring out my process and where I land in music. I’ve been through many different genres but, at the end of the day, it came full circle—me and Oteil Burbridge have a very close relationship and, before he moved out of Atlanta, we were hanging a lot, writing different tunes. [The Allman Brothers Band] invited me up for their last Beacon run, and it just gave me a whole new light, like, “Wow, you’ve been missing out on such a beautiful scene of musicians.” It’s such an open book. They are such inviting people.

I’m fortunate that my dad put in the work in the past, so that I can come back full-circle and meet people like Eddie. All this stuff is great for me, man.

PS: It’s not easy to walk on with four guys that have been doing it for 20 years and then hang out intensely with them. Lamar has just sopped all that up so easily, and he puts us at ease.

SA: He stops the squabbling, doesn’t he? Lamar is unique among singers I’ve worked with, in that he’s not bringing a massive frontman ego to the party. He brings his voice and his passion to the music. It massively complements the group. Lamar has made individual friendships with all four of us in a way that has brought all of us closer together. It’s quite amazing. He’s got a gift; he’s a gentle soul. We’re just a bunch of grumpy old Brits.

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.