Jesse Phillips, the bass player and one of the songwriters for St. Paul and the Broken Bones, arrived home in Birmingham, Alabama, from a show in West Virginia about 7 on this morning. A couple of years into the band’s startling run as headliners, he says he still wakes up and has to normalize a life that includes appearing on late-night shows, opening for The Rolling Stones, getting a call asking it Steve Winwood can come to a show, and playing Elton John’s Oscar party.
The band burst into stardom when barely out of its infancy with “Half the City” and the hit single, “Call Me” in 2014 then returned with a more ambitious, funkier and more socially-conscious sophomore disc, “Sea of Noise.”
The new album explores deeper, stepping back to take a look at the environment, race relations, gender identity and other political themes. Paul Janeway, the band’s lyricist, channels Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. He cites reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption — a memoir about systemic racial inequality in the Alabama legal system — as a pivotal moment while he was working on the album. He explores issues in the songs, but doesn’t offer solutions. “I can’t tell what side I’m on / I can’t tell what’s right or wrong / We ain’t ever gonna sing one song,” Janeway sings.
The band’s career almost didn’t happen. Phillips and Janeway, the band’s lyricist and captivating front man, had decided to make music a hobby and find adult careers. They got together in the studio for fun and those sessions quickly led to the formation of the band, including a three-piece horn section that included a couple of guys still in college.
The group comes to The NorVa on Sept. 12. Phillips swatted away the morning-after cobwebs to answer a few questions.
You guys struggled and almost quit. Tell me about that.
It was one of those things. Like a lot of people do, I’d been playing in bands since I was 15. I was around 30 by this time. Paul hadn’t been doing this for quite as long as me. But it was getting to the point where we were looking at growing up and devoting our energy to most of things do, which is usually like a career of some sort and not playing in rock and roll bands. Neither one of us was looking at quitting music. We were just sort of turning our attention to another more grown-up things. Paul was in accounting school. I’m not sure what I would have done. I have a lot of family who work in forestry up north. I would have probably done that or gone to grad school and become a librarian.
Around the end of the other band Paul and I were in together, which was called The Secret Dangers, we decided to continue working together on a for-fun basis and go into a studio here in town. We started going in once a week with an engineer playing around. The idea was just to record a few things for fun to sort of have a document of our time together, our musical friendship. That recording project ended up turning into St. Paul which turned into a real functional band which turned into a touring entity which got alarmingly serious quickly and it just seems to keep going.
I read where you met in a record store.
Not quite. I worked in a musical instrument store here in Birmingham. The way I met Paul was through another guy who worked at the store who was a drummer. He was playing with Paul at the time.
What kind of music were you playing in the early days?
I’ve always been in rock and roll leaning bands. Some were more blues-oriented. Some were more pop oriented. But they were always certifiably rock and roll. This band is probably the furthest away from being a straight up rock and roll band I’ve ever been in. It’s fun because you have so many voices to play with in the band. A three-piece horn section. Hammond organ. All sorts of stuff.
A band out of Alabama ought to have a soulful sound. You ever think about that legacy?
We’re very aware of it. A couple of guys in the band are natives of the Muscle Shoals area. The keyboard player lives next to the Muscle Shoals in the tri-cities area. The guitar player is from Florence. They’re pretty much straight out of that legacy. They’re the next generation of guys working in that world. I came at it as an outsider, but I think because I was an outsider in some way I almost appreciated more what was happening and what had happened there than people who grew up there because they sort of took it for granted.
I’m somebody who moves to Alabama and (finds) there’s this tiny town where you can throw a rock and you can hit a legendary musician who has played on more hits than songs you know how to play. A lot of those guys still hanging out up there and they’re pretty supportive. It’s a neat thing to be graciously incorporated into that although we have a lot of proving to do before we can ever be measured on the same scale as those guys.
How was that early sound different from now?
My standard line is early on we made up for what we lacked in finesse with effort. It was always balls to the wall playing with our pants on fire kind of vibe. The band still retains some of that intensity, but it’s a more well-oiled outfit these days. There’s a little more give and take, push and pull, not everybody has to be making racket all the time.
When we made that first record we had maybe played 12-15 shows. By the time we got to the second one we had played maybe 500 shows. So a pretty substantial difference how it feels to play together.
You are a bass player in that soul tradition.
I came by being an R&B bass player accidentally. All of a sudden, you find yourself in this position and you really start listening. I like guys like David Hood and Duck Dunn from Memphis and Muscle Shoals. They made sure all the notes they played were really good notes put in just the right place. They didn’t really play too many of them. That’s a really good lesson to learn. I’m clearly still not anywhere near any of those guy’s levels, but it’s been really cool to study what they’ve’ done and try to build on that.
Tell me about the songwriting. You and Paul?
It’s more of collaborative all-the-way-around-the-band thing these days.
I think the main concern for us going into the second record was we wanted to make sure we weren’t going to be perceived as a retro soul novelty act. We kind of wanted to spread our wings and fly and explore some different territory and maybe lean on some strengths in the band we didn’t have the opportunity to explore the first time. By doing so you establish yourself as a different kind of musical entity. After releasing our second album we can go in a lot of different directions on the third, fourth and fifth one. if we had done the first record over again with slightly more resources or fidelity or whatever I think people would have liked it, but then that would sort of been the thing we did for all time, what people expected us to so. The parameters we had to operate under would be more solidly set in stone.
I read one review that called “Sea of Noise” protest soul. I’m not sure about that, but there’s a long tradition of socially-conscious soul.
There’s a real proud tradition of making more socially conscious music, but it’s still fun. It’s still butt-shaking.
Was there a song that for you crystallized where you were going with “Sea of Noise?”
I think my personal favorite is song called “I’ll Be Your Woman.” It started out as sort of a cross between a Bill Withers vibe with a William Bell “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” sort of thing. And then it kind of took on a life of its own once Paul had the lyrics down, bending identity and changing perspectives. I feel like it came together really well. All the elements I was hoping would gel on that record did so on that song. The string arrangement adds to it and it still has this heavy rhythmic thing on the bottom end. The lyrics are excellently done. I have to give Paul props on that one.
That William Bell record from last year (“This Is Where I Live”) is incredible.
That guy has not lost a single step. We played the Otis Redding 75th birthday in Macon last year and we got to back him up on a tune. As soon as the guy opens his mouth, it’s a whole different ballgame. He still sounds exactly the same. This low earthy rumble comes out of his mouth. It’s rich and silky. He should be ten times more famous than he is.
You guys opened for The Stones. You played Elton John’s Oscar party. It’s been a wild ride.
It is a funny thing. I’ll tell you why. As I said. I’m one of older guys in the band. It (success) didn’t happen until I was in my 30s. The process of resolution when you’re a bit older is different.
I definitely have had that that moment in the last couple of years where I’ve woken up and been in bed getting my brain together for the day. Ok, this is what we’re going to do. You have to go through this normalization process. We’re opening for the Stones. We’re going to play Elton John’s Oscar party. Or we’re hanging backstage with John Paul Jones. Steve Winwood’s wife called me to ask if they could see us in Nashville. I was like, of course you can.
You do have to normalize and once you get through, you’re like ‘Holy shit that was crazy’ then allow yourself to bask in the afterglow a bit. It’s been pretty surreal for me. I’d been working music retail and coffee shops for last decade.