WHERE THE GODS ARE IN PEACE:
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: WHERE THE GODS ARE IN PEACE is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the way the album turned out and the reaction to it so far?
MARTIN PERNA: We are happy with the way the album turned out, or else we wouldn’t have put it out. It was a lot of work and represents several years of effort working through some problems that would have sunk most other bands. We had some members graduate to other projects not long after our last record in 2012, and this album proves both to ourselves and people who listen to us that we have more juice than ever.
SPAZ: Can you briefly explain the concept behind the album and the inspiration behind it?
MARTIN: The album title WHERE THE GODS ARE IN PEACE is a lyric from the song “Tombstown“. In short, this album is long look back into the past and a long look into the future in order to figure out what we need to do right now.
SPAZ: The band sounds tight, unified and every player seems to be in tune with each other. How difficult is it to find players that truly understand the musical vision and interject themselves into the recording without stepping over each other?
MARTIN: We have been doing this for twenty years, and the band and the style of music we play is self-selecting. In the beginning, when we were getting established back in 97-98, we experienced a little bit of that. It was difficult telling great guitar players that the answer to “when do I get to take a solo” is “never.” Similar to a sports team with positions and roles, each instrument has a pretty defined role so people know what they are getting into and what is expected of them musically. We write songs for this musical formation as well and often times write feature parts within the song for particular instruments.
SPAZ: On a track like the epic “Gold Rush,” does the band improvise during much of the recording or is the song meticulously rehearsed until you feel that it is ready to be recorded?
MARTIN: The answer to this is neither: we road test and tweak the songs for months (or years) until we are able to get back into the studio and record. From there, we figure out what parts of the live version will translate most effectively onto the record. There, we have some limitations as far as time, since you can only put 20-22 minutes max of music on one side of an LP, so the recorded versions of songs tend to be shorter and more compact than the live versions. Each song has fixed parts that are the same, and elastic parts that are open to improvisation by the vocalist, the horns, or another instrumental solo like congas, keys or vibraphone.
SPAZ: How are the songs composed? Do they evolve out of jamming or does someone come to a rehearsal or session with an idea and it grows from there?
MARTIN: Every song is different. There is no process or formula. We are all fluent in the style so the main architecture from composer to composer is not all that different. Sometimes a band member will bring the song in a state of near completion. Other times there are some solid ideas–a horn melody, guitar parts, or a bass line that we flesh out in small groups or as an entire band.
SPAZ: There’s so much passion in these recordings. Do you feel the album captures the feel of your live performances?
MARTIN: I’m happy that the passion translates to the record, but there is no comparison to the live performance as far as the energy level because the audience is not there when we are recording, and that feedback loop of energy from the audience to us and back takes the experience to a completely different level. It’s like the difference between watching sex on TV or being a part of it in real life.
SPAZ: Many bands incorporate the Afrobeat vibe into their sound but you manage to channel the groove without having to resort to watering it down for commercial reasons. Do you feel that presenting the music in it’s rawest form will bring a deeper understanding of Afrobeat and World Music in general?
MARTIN: I think the opposite is true. Afrobeat music has three major strikes against it which keep it from becoming mainstream. 1) The lingua Franca of the music is not standard English 2) It is a long-form music, and most radio stations are unwilling to open up space to any song that’s not between 3 and 4 minutes in length. One of our songs is as long as three or four full-length pop songs 3) It is inherently a music that speaks truth to power, and as our airwaves become increasingly monopolized, corporatized and sanitized, it is more unlikely than ever that protest music will be heard on mainstream radio stations. As far as a deeper understanding, I don’t know. I think people should listen to Fela Kuti, Eddie Palmieri, and the other artists who were major influences on our sound to appreciate the ways in which we have followed in their footsteps as well as the ways that we have forged our own musical path.
SPAZ: WHERE THE GODS ARE IN PEACE will definitely be a ‘gateway’ album for new listeners, one that introduces them to the band’s unique sound. Do you feel that the album is the perfect distillation of Antibalas?
MARTIN: I don’t know if any album is the perfect distillation of Antibalas because it is a dynamic group that has evolved in many different ways over the years. I would say that it is a pretty good snapshot of Antibalas at the time that we made the album.
SPAZ: The band is coming up on their 20th Anniversary in 2018. Do you feel that you’ve accomplished everything you set out to achieve thus far?
MARTIN: Yes and no. I had no expectations or goals when I started the group so in that sense, I have achieved things beyond my wildest dreams. At the same time, as we have matured and grown, I know what we are capable of as a group and what is possible for musicians to do as artists and change makers and feel like we have a long way to go.
SPAZ: What’s next for Antibalas?
MARTIN: We are finishing up a great summer of festivals and begin a pretty rigorous schedule of touring around North America and Japan around the release of the new album. We also had some writing sessions for the next album and will be trying to get into the studio before the end of 2017 to start recording.
SPAZ: What are you currently listening to? (could be new or old)
MARTIN: Classics-Jorge Ben, Neil Young, Arsenio Rodriguez, Crosby Stills and Nash, Tabou Combo, and lots of podcasts. A lot of my energy is spent listening and poring through the six hours of song sketches we recorded together in July and picking out song ideas, parts and textures that we want to be part of the next album.
Thanks to Martin Perna
Special thanks to Steve Dixon