Big Mean Sound Machine: Popular afro-funk band bringing national tour to Winter Park
That was the key for success for Lucas Ashby, a descendant of Jazzland struggling to transition to the relatively slower paced world of afro-funk, a percussionist boxed in by two others having to share the rhythm. He grew up on jazz, born into the world of rapid improvisation and stream of consciousness, limbs operating independently, taking on four different tasks as once, and seamlessly swaying into the next melody.
But that wasn’t going to work with the Big Mean Sound Machine. Just months after the bands creation there was already a direction. Original members, packed into a rented house on a lake in Ithaca, New York, envisioned an American/African funk combo, drizzled with notes of Afro-beat, Ethio-jazz, Congolese rumba and highlighted analogue synthesizers. As Ashby recalls, it was cinematic music for the movie inside your head.
As a life-long musician he needed to find a way to adjust, a new sort of guiding philosophy that would slow his hands and feet, and allow him to listen more than he played.
In short, do less.
“Coming from the jazz world, where my head was all in jazz, you’re always multi-tasking, and each limb has a different function,” said Ashby. “There’s a constant thread of improvisation that is sort of beaded through a whole composition. There’s all this shaping going on, all these complicated core changes.
“Then I got into this band. It’s this funky, West African funk music, and I’m trying to get my bearings. My mantra for more than a year was do less.”
Today Ashby is the solo percussionist for Big Mean Sound Machine, a nine-piece instrumental afro-funk intelligence dance music band, set to play Ullrs Tavern in Winter Park next week.
Ashby was born in New York, but grew up in Pittsburgh as the son of two musicians. His father, Jay, was a jazz trombonist who toured with the likes of Paul Simon, and later became a professor at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. His mother, Kenia, is a native of Rio de Janeiro and vocalist. For Ashby, there was really no question what he wanted to do with his life.
“It never even occurred to me to do anything different to be perfectly honest,” he said. “In school some kids had dads that were lawyers or whatever. My dad was a touring musician, and it was the same for me. It normalized it for me. They were touring and operating on the biggest stages in the world all the time.”
Ashby began playing the drums at a very early age, and would often go on tour with his parents, occasionally filling in on songs with small percussion roles. Growing up ingrained into the musical lifestyle his artistic education was defined by his time on the road, observing how his mother handled different sized stages. He would go on to laud the time he spent with Big Mean Sound Machine in a van during the band’s early days, taking in thousands of songs from around the world. The “Institute of the Big Mean Van,” he called it.
Ashby’s first real passion came while visiting Brazil with his family, when he discovered choro, a fast-paced, urban, groovy style on tunes.
“It’s a pretty cool milieu to be a part of,” said Ashby. “And tapping into it as a young age has ended up applying to my livelihood today. I live in Washington D.C. where there’s a really close knit Brazilian community. There’s a lot of work for people who understand Brazilian music, especially as a percussionist and a drummer. So I’m working all the time playing Brazilian, including choro music. It had fallen into obscurity, but it’s now experiencing kind of a revival.”
Big Mean Sound Machine began in 2009 with a melding of bands that including current members Angelo Peters, Andrew Klein and Dan Barker. Ashby joined up a couple of months later, after the band had begun to establish their identity.
“By the time I joined a couple months later it was like they had hit the ground running,” Ashby recalls. “We were doing it. This was the band, we’re going to tour and we’re really going to do it. It was trial by fire.”
Ashby, like the other members, had to adopt the new philosophy of doing less, keeping out of the way of the drums and bass, and melding into the new creation.
“It’s very much a dance,” said Ashby. “It’s finding the space and jumping back out. Finding a space then jumping back out…It’s one of the underpinnings of the group: everything in it’s rightful place, and not stepping on anybody’s toes.”
Since its formation Big Mean Sound Machine has released five albums, including their most recent, Runnin’ for the Ghost, which debuted last year. They have enjoyed their fair share of critical acclaim, but for Ashby, the beauty is in the ears of the beholder.
Ashby said that there are messages in their music, but as an instrumental band their music is based primarily around moods, and giving their audience near complete interpretive agency.
“Someone told me that a trombone solo in one of our songs reminded them of baby elephants playing in a pool,” Ashby said. “Moments like that add a little bit of depth and content…we’re providing a score for people’s night of dancing and socializing live. But in the sanctity of their homes, it could be the soundtrack for the art they’re making, or the piece they’re writing. It’s an odd strength of this music.”
Big Mean Sound Machine will be coming to Winter Park to play Ullrs Tavern on Jan. 25, at 9:00 p.m., part of a highly anticipated tour that will formally introduce them to audiences in Winter Park, Chicago, Miami and a number of other cities in the west and south.
The band is also working on a side-project called Cha Cha & the Ndor Band with Ghanaian vocalist Foli Augustine.
“In markets where you’ve played a thousands times you have familiar faces, and people that you’re close with which is amazing,” he said. “But you don’t get that first spark of people excited to see you live for the first time. So this upcoming tour, busting into a lot of new markets across the Midwest and into the west, has been in the works for a long time.”
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