The Greyboy Allstars: Let It Flow Through You
After celebrating a quarter-century together, The Greyboy Allstars return to the studio for their first new recording in seven years.
The Greyboy Allstars credit the genesis Of Como De Allstars, their latest album, with an auspicious event—a canceled gig. At this point in their long career, the San Diego-bred quintet is only able to perform a few times a year. So when a 2017 show in Dallas was canceled due to inclement weather, the band didn’t want to squander an opportunity to play. “It’s really hard to get together because everyone’s really busy with other projects,” admits keyboardist Robert Walter.
Considering that their previous release, 2013’s Inland Emperor, was already four years old at that time, the musicians were hungry to spice up their live set. “There was some feeling in the band that we wanted some new stuff to play live,” Walter explains in July. “When you start making setlists, you’re like, ‘Oh, I wish we had just some different ones to put in there.’ It’s rare that we have a night off on the road. Somebody was like, ‘Let’s get a space and start working on some songs.’” Despite having no previous plans to hole up and write a record, The Greyboy Allstars managed to write half of their album in that one impromptu session. As saxophonist Karl Denson explains, with The Greyboy Allstars, “There were already a lot of ideas floating back and forth.”
“It wasn’t written completely spontaneously,” adds Walter. “People would bring in little things.”
While those sonic kernels existed in the members’ heads, the Allstars never bring in ideas as fully fleshed-out tunes. In addition, the band doesn’t rely on a single songwriter. “Writing is fair game for anyone who can put forth an idea that people can get behind musically, so there is never a shortage of ideas,” says bassist Chris Stillwell. “It can be as simple as a good riff or, sometimes, a whole tune. Once it gets filtered through the input of the players, an idea can shape up fairly quickly.”
“My tunes are usually written on the spot,” explains guitarist Elgin Park. “Whoever brings the tune in, whatever stage it’s in, we all dig into it and everyone puts their own spin on the idea. This band is all about giving up the idea to the group.”
Denson recorded the material they developed during that spontaneous Dallas session as a series of voice memos on his phone and sent them around to the group. The band then realized that they wouldn’t actually need that much more time to finalize their record. “It was flowing so easily that we were like, ‘You know what? If we do one more of these things, we could probably have a record,’” says Walter.
“Our chemistry makes it easy to record because no one is too precious about the process,” adds drummer Aaron Redfield. “We start with an idea, workout the sections and refine everything until we all feel like we captured the spirit of the tune.”
Soon after, the quintet carved out some time to shack up in an LA house, renting four days’ worth of studio time at the nearby Studio 64. “Making Como De Allstars was different in that we decided we would benefit greatly from staying in the same place while we recorded,” notes Redfield. “We booked time at a friends’ studio and stayed in a house together so that we could focus on the record. As a result, [the album] feels incredibly coherent and is a great representation of where we are as a band.”
After three days of heavy recording, the tape machine died and the band called it a wrap on the session. Though that might seem a tad fast, it is nothing new for the Allstars. In fact, the name of their new record is a play on the Spanish phrase como de costumbre, or “as per usual.”
“All of our records are pretty quick and dirty,” notes Park. “Our debut record, West Coast Boogaloo, was made in a day. We have never spent more than 10 days recording any of our records.”
The Greyboy Allstars first came together in 1993, when Denson, Park, Walter, Stillwell and original drummer Zak Najor were hired to perform with Andreas “DJ Greyboy” Stevens at his album release party in San Diego. “Greyboy is a funny guy and he just likes spinning soulful, old groovy records,” explains Denson of their initial formation. “For his record release party, he wanted a live band to do that, so he pulled us all into a garage to do a show.”
Initially, the members figured that the gig would remain a oneoff collaboration. “All of us just thought it was going to be that one gig,” concedes Walter, with Park adding bluntly, “I did not believe it would be a long-term project.” However, the five musicians also quickly realized that they possessed an instant chemistry—playing together just felt right. “There was something about the first note of the first thing we played that felt awesome,” recalls Walter. “We were all just like, ‘Oh, my god, this is amazing music. For some reason, everything works.’ We played the gig and it turned out to be even better than the rehearsal.”
“I knew it was special right away. It was the best group of players that I had been with up to that point,” adds Stillwell. “I think we were playing a style of music that not many bands were doing at that time. It felt new and fresh both for us and the for audiences and that helped keep it going.” Denson, who is a few years older than the other members of the band and had the most performing experience at the time, took the lead on forging ahead. “I immediately recognized, ‘Wow, we’re the right fit for each other,’ so I pretty much went to work right away trying to figure out a game plan for how we would conquer the world.”
The Greyboy Allstars quickly made a name for themselves throughout San Diego, performing alongside DJ Greyboy during his Wednesday night residency at the Green Circle Bar. “We morphed into that Wednesday night with him,” remembers Denson. “It became big news in San Diego—it was packed every single Wednesday night. San Diego blossomed into a place where you could gig six, seven nights a week. We were playing all over town and then slowly moved up to San Francisco. We just built and built and, eventually, we got a manager and started traveling all over.”
The Allstars’ credit part of their meteoric rise during their salad days with the fact that they were tapping into a community that essentially didn’t exist yet. “We all discovered this weird music out of nowhere,” explains Walter. “There wasn’t any scene for it; we kind of created our own little world for it in San Diego.” Initially, the band was playing to an audience that stemmed from their time backing DJ Greyboy. “When we started playing, we were playing to a totally different audience—sort of like a DJ, clubby scene,” notes Walter. Soon, the band began broadening their following, carving out a niche that drew in fans from the jazz, funk, DJ and jam scenes. Walter says a shift naturally occurred around 1997, when the modern jamband scene was starting to gain prominence in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s passing. “Right about that time, we transitioned to starting to play for people that were into the Grateful Dead. It was amazing; we would play these long songs anyway because we were into jazz records, and that crowd was totally accepting of it. It gave us the freedom to go longer and stretch out more.”
After releasing two LPs—1994’s West Coast Boogaloo, which was recently reissued on vinyl, and 1997’s A Town Called Earth—and playing countless live gigs, the band decided to take a break in 1999. They started gigging out on occasion a few years later, but Najor decided that he no longer wanted to perform with the group, opening the door to a few different drummers. (Najor did contribute to their next studio project, 2007’s What Happened to Television?)
“It took us a while to figure out how to replace [Najor],” says Walter, who notes that the drummer actually brought him into the original band they put together to back DJ Greyboy. “We all learned this music together at the same time. I’ve realized that, to be in this band, you have to have been with us back in the day. You have to get what was going on when we first formed.”
Eventually, after working with Soulive’s Alan Evans and Deep Banana Blackout’s Eric Kalb—who would go on to join The DapKings—The Greyboy Allstars chose Redfield, who had been part of the musicians’ extended community since the project’s early days, as a permanent member. “It was a really easy fit because he got it completely. He was friends with Zak; he had seen us play a lot. He was authentically part of our scene,” declares Walter.
With Redfield now fully integrated into the band, the Allstars feel fully recharged, both in a live setting and in the studio. Denson believes that part of that stems from their collective attitude. “We all have a little bit of a punk-rock mentality, so that’s really one of the things that kind of holds us together,” he explains, adding that they approach their music, “like a jazz setting.” That mindset allowed them to capture an authentic, live feeling on Como De Allstars. In fact, they chose the takes that made the final record based more on feel than precision.
“We’ll take something that has a couple of mistakes but feels good over [something] tried and true every time,” says Stillwell. “Capturing a good performance is the most important thing.”
“We don’t chew on things too long,” Denson notes. “It’s kind of part of the beauty of what we do.”
Denson and Walter point to standout track “Executive Party” as a defining moment on their new record.
“That one captures what we are as a band,” Walter says. “It is a very simple composition; it’s not really any chord changes. It’s all about playing together and interacting and, when we play it live, it’s always super fun.”
While they still work extremely well together as a unit, the members of The Greyboy Allstars are busiest these days with the a range of other projects. Redfield and Stillwell are in-demand session players, and the bassist and Najor also anchor the rhythm section for Denson’s Tiny Universe. Since the late 1990s, Park has composed a slew of major film scores and television themes, including for Freaks and Geeks, Donnie Darko, Bridesmaids, The Big Sick, New Girl, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The King Of Staten Island. He has also found success as a producer, working with Metric, Brendan Benson, Walter and others.
Though he tours less with his own combo these days, Walter spent years carefully refining Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, helping introduce drummer Joe Russo and Daptone staple Cochemea Gastelum to a national audience along the way.
But after that project started winding down, he found a new creative outlet, working with Mike Gordon. After Walter contributed keys to the Phish bassist’s 2014 solo effort Overstep, Gordon invited him to join a retooled version of his solo band in 2015. “One time I was at a Phish show, and he said, ‘Would you ever be into playing with my band?’” Walter recalls. Fortunately, his touring schedule allowed him to accept the gig, which has led to his advancement as an improviser. “Mike likes to say, ‘When you think it’s not going to get any better, if you push beyond that, sometimes you hit this next place.’ And that’s really true,” elaborates Walter. “He’s always talking about, ‘Let the music play you. Don’t apply your intention to it—let it flow through you.’”
Besides his Tiny Universe, Denson serves as the touring saxophonist for The Rolling Stones, a position he scored through previous collaborator Lenny Kravitz. “I was recommended by Lenny. That pretty much got me in there,” he explains. “Once they heard my work, they were impressed enough to offer me the gig.” On working with the legendary band, Denson is frank: “It’s The Rolling Stones,” he says. “It’s exactly what you think it would be. It’s on the biggest stage with the biggest audience. It’s all that and a bag of chips, basically.”
At this point, though, the saxophonist is not star-struck: “Well, now, we spend a lot of time together, so it’s pretty comfortable.”
Yet, despite their busy schedules, the five musicians always make time for The Greyboy Allstars. Their Crescent City appearances around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival are always special and, last year, the ensemble celebrated their 25th anniversary with a series of marquee dates that wrapped up back home on the West Coast. And, when the group does find time to reconvene in the studio, that instant connection is always apparent.
“The band has a way of working very quickly when we put our minds to it,” Walter says. In fact, Denson admits their speed is sometimes a gift and a curse. “The one thing about us, that I love and hate at the same time, is that we write really fast together,” he says. “Como De Allstars is the quickest writing and recording we’ve ever done. Not that we were in a hurry, but it just turned out that way. So as a result, I feel like my work on our records is always really by the seat of my pants.”