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NEW MUSIC + INTERVIEW: HAPPY ORCHESTRA

Artwork: Alyson McCrink

Happy Orchestra is a band that puts smiles on faces and lights fires under feet. Its members are drawn from some of the Northwest’s most highly regarded funk, jazz, and soul bands including McTuff, Skerik’s Bandalabra, Richie Aldente, and more. The band combines instrumental and compositional firepower with a determined effort at crafting an intensely happy musical experience.

See Happy Orchestra this Thursday at Nectar OR their CD release show in October for the Earshot Jazz Fest!

I had the chance to chat with Tarik Abouzied, the super talented dude behind Happy Orchestra about the creation of Baba, his debut album; whether or not he is an idiot and what his father would think of said album.

the mixtape: What are you doing right now besides answering this question?

Tarik Abouzied: I’m at Ballard Coffee Works sipping an iced Americano. I have an inflatable dinosaur suit in a bag on the ground next to me, ready for some filming for the music video after I’m done.

tm: Why did you open your liner notes by saying “My name is Tarik Abouzied. I’m a musician and an idiot…”?

TA: Haha I guess that’s just how I generally feel, especially so when I was sitting down to write the liner notes. I’ve been through a handful of humbling experiences the last few years, the passing of my Dad and making this record being two big ones. Both destroyed my best-laid plans and left me feeling like I really have no idea what I’m doing, so I may as well accept my ineptitude at life, be my irreverent self, do my best, and live with what comes. I’m definitely more relaxed as a result. It seems like when I enter a situation knowing how dumb I am I’m much more in tune with the reality of it as opposed to trying to make it something it can’t be. I think if we all acknowledged our idiotness we’d get along a lot better.

tm: I realize you wrote all the music for this album (as well as played the drums on the entire thing) and it’s not necessarily improvised (correct me if I am wrong) but that fact leads me to the following question…

In your opinion, what is the difference between improvisational jazz and a “jam” band? If there is, in fact, a difference.

TA: The term “jam band” is really for fans, it’s a marketing term. No musician sets out to create a “jam band,” write “jam band” music, or can even define what it means. History’s great improvisors weren’t members of “jam bands,” and the contemporary masters aren’t either. I would never call Happy Orchestra a jam band but I’m sure some people would disagree, and I’ve been told some of the bands I play with are jam bands just because there are longer sections of improvisation. I don’t know, either way, I just try to write and play the music that I connect to, and that music is born out of jazz, funk, rock, soul, and strong musicianship. Not jam bands… 🙂

tm: When you play live do you improvise at all?

TA: Absolutely! Every show starts from the same foundation but ends up sounding totally different than the last. The Happy music has a lot of composed stuff and pre-determined destinations (this section is the loudest, this section opens up and chills out, etc), but how we get there each time changes depending on tons of factors. The sound of the room, the vibe of the crowd, the mood of a soloist, when the last time the band ate was, etc. We want the music to fit the situation and that’s where improvisation comes in, and why it’s important to me to play with musicians who have the knowledge and facility to direct the music through their instrument and react well to other members of the band. I’m proud to say that the folks on this record are some of the best in the business as far as that goes.

tm: What was the most challenging thing about writing Baba?

TA: The writing part was actually pretty easy. I hadn’t written for a band in a few years, my brain was kind of overflowing with all the ideas it had absorbed, and I had to get it out. It was like an over-filled water balloon and the knot was finally untied. The hard part was having a sound in my head, trying to communicate it to the other players, and then having it translated through the musicianship/filter of eight other people. I’ve never been in a position to just tell everyone what to do and have things sound exactly the way I wanted, and it can be pretty overwhelming! For one, it’s just impossible for a human being to reproduce what’s in someone else’s head, and I’d have to judge when they got as close as they could and/or be open to hearing when they played something even better. It also took way longer than I thought. The first and last recording sessions were about a year apart. The recording process is just difficult when you do it piece by piece, and I learned a lot.

tm: What’s your process for writing a completely instrumental album? It’s got to be hard to be all like “Ok, here’s where the horns will go and then a guitar solo here, etc…”

TA: It’s more like I’m all like “Here’s an idea I like. I’m gonna sit down and play with it.” Then I’m all like “Ok, that sounds cool and it feels like this kind of mood or vibe. How can I add to that?” And then I play around a bit more and I’m all like “Now I have a few ideas/sections that go together. I’ll write it out for the band, we’ll rehearse it, and I’ll see what needs to be added, taken out, or rearranged to make it better.” After a few rehearsals, shows, and edits I’ll be all like “Cool, that sounds finished. NEXT!”

I’ve been living in the instrumental world for a long time and, once you understand the role each instrument plays in filling out the sound, it’s pretty easy to assign whatever idea I have. Guitars are great for creating energy and forward momentum (like in “Reaganing” or “55”), keyboards are better for creating a lush atmosphere (like in “The Mothers” or “Room 358”), melodies project best with horns and synths, organs have a huge array of sounds that can help with all of those things, etc. For me, this music about playing with energy, momentum, and atmosphere through the writing and instruments to make people feel a certain way. Hopefully Baba leaves you feeling upbeat, Dirty Hairy with a confident strut, Room 358 ready to get sexy, and so on.

tm: Did your band mates have any say during rehearsals about possible changes in sound or direction of any particular song?

TA: Not so much in rehearsal, just because that time gets spent learning what I’ve written, but over a few performances the sound and direction of every tune kind of morphs into an amalgamation of all our playing styles. “55” was much sweeter and more mellow in my head when I first brought it to the band, but every performance got more and more bluesy and epic over time just because guitar is featured and our guitarists play that way beautifully. Everyone on the record has such a strong, developed, and personal sound so it would be impossible for them not to have an effect on the songs in some way.

tm: In the liner notes for your song “Reaganing” you mention that your guitarist Andy Coe would play the Ghostbusters theme “as a joke all over the place” during rehearsals.

How important is the movie Ghostbusters to your band mate, Andy? Or even yourself, for that matter? A great title for this record totally could have been “There is no Dana, only Zuuuuul”.

TA: I think it’s safe to say neither of us would be who we are today without Ghostbusters. Andy even looks like Vigo the Carpathian, who I realize is from Ghostbusters 2, but I still think it’s a relevant point.

*Heads up, “Reaganing” is a reference to 30 Rock.

tm: You dedicated Baba to your father and in the liner notes you reveal that your father wasn’t too keen on supporting this album financially.

Would your father be proud of this album? Would he listen to it and NOT think it was a waste of his (and others’) money?

TA: Haha, he would be absolutely appalled at the financial picture of the album, may say one nice thing about one song, and probably tell me it’s not very good overall. He only liked soft, adult-contemporary world music so it’s just not his taste, and records aren’t profit-making endeavors so, to him, they represent a waste of time and effort. He’s probably right in some ways, but it’s just something I’m compelled to do. He had a strange idea of what success looked like for a musician which, from what I could tell, was that I should be playing in Vegas with Celine Dion. He was a weird guy.

tm: What is your father saying at the very end of this album?

TA: That’s a snippet of the last voicemail he left me before passing. He was in a hospital in Cairo and was in a pretty fragile state. We were arranging transportation back to Seattle through his insurance and he wanted me to insist that it be a private jet. Like I said, weird guy. Anyway, he’s saying “Let me know how it goes. Ok, take care, bye bye.”

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