With their gritty and soulful brand of old school rhythm and blues, the Alabama eight-piece, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, are a band that sound like they’ve been teleported through time from the 1960s or 1970s to the present day. Seemingly channeling the music of Stax Records, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, they’ve been dubbed the doyens of retro-soul by some commentators but the group’s charismatic front man, Paul Janeway (dubbed ‘St. Paul’ by the rest of the band due to his saintly nature and lack of personal vices) is eager to prevent the group from being typecast as one-dimensional, stuck-in-the-past soul revivalists. Their forthcoming second album – which is also their debut for Columbia Records and due to be released in September – is called ‘Sea Of Noise’ and sees The Broken Bones evolving musically from their debut LP, 2014’s acclaimed indie release, ‘Half The City.’
“I think for us, the whole kind of thing was to expand our musical palette on this new album a little bit so that you are not so trapped in the retro-soul thing,” explains Janeway, who proves to be a personable young man who’s blessed with a wry sense of humour and whose high-pitched, slightly maniacal laughter, which frequently punctuates our conversation, sounds almost Hyena-like. “If that’s what you do, that’s what you do,” he says, acknowledging his group’s soulful core sound. “There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s not fully us. I love that music and it’s very influential but that’s not fully us.”
Indeed, a cursory listen to ‘Sea Of Noise’ would indicate the truth of Janeway’s words. Certainly, there’s enough of a faux vintage soulfulness in it to satisfy their existing followers but they are developing their sound with funk, country, folk and gospel elements and the presence of orchestral strings on some tracks takes their music to another dimension. And then there are Janeway’s lyrics and his song’s themes. The music might sound retro-steeped but the super-talented, gospel-reared Janeway brings a 21st century sensibility to bear on his material, proving that the band live in the present day rather than the past. One song in particular, the striking ‘I’ll Be Your Woman,’ is a gender-reversal soul ballad that singers like Otis and Wilson Pickett would have probably objected to performing because it goes against the macho stereotype that they and others like them projected.
“It’s just challenging the standard gender role thing, the ‘I’m your man’ and ‘you’re my man’ kind of thing,” says Janeway explaining the thinking behind ‘I’m You Woman.’ “In my experience, the woman’s always been the strong person and is always the one who is the foundation. So it’s a love song twisting it on its head and trying to challenge that a little bit.“
The band, who’ve opened for the Rolling Stones in the States, were recently in the UK on tour and when SJF’s Charles Waring spoke to Paul Janeway, they were preparing to get their wellies on and brave the mud of the legendary Glastonbury festival…
How’s the UK tour been going?
It’s been good. We’ve got to see all the way up to London and smaller places like Norwich and Cambridge, which have been great. I actually really enjoyed seeing those two cities. I was telling my wife that those have been some of my favourite cities in England so far.
What’s the response been like from UK people… Have you got a legion of fans over here that follow you or are you winning over new people?
It’s a little bit of both, you know. I think we’re not quite to the point where we can just show up and three million people turn up. I don’t think we’re at that point but my philosophy has always been, one person at a time, as weird as that is, so, we’ve played to some big crowds in London and we’re doing 500 to 600 throughout the UK and then we did Koko in London yesterday. So it’s good.
How did the band come into being and what sort of circumstances brought you guys together?
Well, Jesse (Phillips), who’s the bass player in this band, me and him have been best friends for almost a decade now. But we struggled for a long time and this band was our last hurrah. I was working as a part-time bank teller and it got to the point where I was getting my life in order and was going back to college to getting my accounting degree. Jesse is more social than I am and he knew some players so we went to the studio, just me and him, with some songs that we’d written, and he knew Bro (Browan Lollar), the guitar player, and Andrew (Lee) who’s the drummer, and when they came in we were like, “oh shit, I think we have a band.” That was 2012, so it hasn’t really stopped since then.
Was St Paul a nickname that you had… and what about the Broken Bones? Where does those names come from?
That was actually Jesse once again, because I said I really don’t want my name in the band and I guess he decided that I didn’t have any say in that and (laughs) it’s kind of a dig because I don’t drink, I don’t really party or anything, I’m pretty boring. I’ll curse a little bit though. But that’s where the St Paul comes from. And then Broken Bones, honestly, that was the first song that we wrote together, a song called ‘Broken Bones and Pocket Change’ and the whole line was “broken bones and pocket change is all that she left me with” which was basically saying that she left me with no money. So that’s how it happened.
Are Jesse and yourself the main songwriters in the band?
Primarily. We get a little more democratic at times and it varies how strongly we feel about something (laughs). But for the most part I write all the lyrics and obviously vocal melodies and he’ll write a lot of the music.
You’ve been described as ‘soul music with a conscience.’ Is that an accurate way to sum up what you do?
I guess with this record, maybe. I don’t know. I think that’s an interesting thing to say. For me it’s a situation where you write what’s on your mind or what moves you and if that’s being conscious then I guess so (laughs).
Is it important for you to have meaningful messages in your music?
You know, it’s one of those things. I think for me it’s just having some sort of… Just meaning something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but not just doing the same old ‘she broke my heart I’m sad, hey, let’s dance,’ that kind of stuff. Just going beyond that. I think for us it was just for me, I felt like I do want to get put in a box and pigeonholed. For me also it’s like challenging and about finding identity as a southern male when you don’t agree with everything that’s happening in your part of the world and you’re trying to process all that so I figure that all out.
Your second album, ‘Sea Of Noise,’ is about to be released in September. What’s the story behind this particular record?
Basically we’ve been touring like crazy and it was like we’ve got to write a new record and get inspired. We went through a time when we played at a festival out in the states called Coachella and we had a week in between so we rented a house at a national park out there in California and started writing songs. I think for us, the whole thing was to expand our musical palette a little bit so that you are not so trapped in the retro-soul thing. If that’s what you do, that’s what you do and there’s nothing wrong with that but that’s not fully us. I love that music and it’s very influential but that’s not fully us. So we started going through that process and lyrically I wanted it to explore that and try and go further than I did the first time and really look into that stuff but obviously we always wanted to groove with everything and wanted some kind of group but wanted to expand the sound. So we got Paul Butler to produce the record, who played in a band called The Bees. He’s a British man and we actually brought him to Nashville and that was his first time in the south for fun. I think he gained 15 lbs, we fed him so well. We worked hard at it and I think the end result is good. I’m really proud of it and from there, who really cares? If you’re proud of what you made you can’t really worry about it from there.
The album has many highlights but one that really stands out is ‘I’ll Be Your Woman.’
(Laughs) Yes, it is interesting. It confused my mum. It was actually hilarious. It’s just challenging the standard gender role thing, the “I’m your man” and “you’re my man” kind of thing. In my experience, the woman’s always been the strong person and is always the one who is the foundation. So it’s a love song twisting it on its head a bit and trying to challenge that a little bit. That was an important song for me. I’ll never forget this, we were sitting in the practice space rehearsing this song and some of the guys pulled me aside and said are you saying that you want her to be your woman? I said like no, I’m saying to I’ll be your woman. And they were just like, mmm, okay. (Raucous laughter). So I had to explain it but I’m proud of that one because it kind of turns it on its head. I think it’s ridiculous how misogynist some of that stuff can be. So I just kind of turned it on its head.
There are also three parts of a song called ‘Crumbling Light’ on the album. Can you shed some light on that?
Well, that was a thing that I’d done vocally about a year ago and I kept telling the guys I really feel like that this is the creed of the record for me. There’s actually an interesting Winston Churchill quote. Yeah, I’m quoting Churchill. He said that England was kind of like a crumbling lighthouse in a sea of darkness. I thought it was a really interesting idea and I was like, that’s interesting, so I found like at times and in general that you experience real things… Just being real is slowly kind of crumbling and becoming digital. People are coming up with online personas and even in music, you know the mean? And there are so many layers to it and I thought, all right, let’s make that the common theme throughout the record (15:26), and so that’s where that comes from.
How does the recording process take shape in the studio? You pride yourselves on your live shows but what happens in the studio? Do you all record together at the same time?
It varies. If there is on this record. Last time with ‘Half The City’ we just played it live. Yeah, we just played live. And that was it, because we only had like two days to record it. This time we did a little bit of both. Some songs required a little bit of a live feel. And then one song, I can’t remember which one it was, I think it was a song of as called ‘Brain Matter,’ we only recorded bass and drums and vocals at the same time. And that was it. So then we layered from there which was really difficult but it just varies on the song. We treated each song differently. Some songs were done fairly long and others were done one piece at a time.
And you have strings and a choir on this record.
We got Lester Snell (an arranger at Stax Records in the 1970s) who’s from Memphis. He did those string arrangements. We did those at a little studio in Memphis, Sam Phillips’ studio. It was actually a fun couple of days. We recorded the strings on one day at Sam Phillips’ studio and then the other day we recorded a choir at the old Stax museum, which was incredible. We were like look, if this is the last record we make – in case a record label and everyone says what the fuck is this? – we’re just going to go all out. (Laughs).
Going right back, how did you first get into music?
My mum played piano. My mum’s side of the family would do these gospel caravans and they’d go around the South and sing in gospel groups so that side of the family is pretty musical. My granny, my dad’s mum, she had a guitar and so I got that guitar. So yeah, somewhat I guess. I grew up singing in church you know when I was four years old. I sang. This is only the second band I’ve ever been in. I sang in church you know. I was one of those people that was like “I’m trying to make it!” I just love singing and whether I did this or not I’d still be singing anyway. So I would be doing anyway but now I get to make a living at it, which is pretty neat.
What turned you on to soul and funk music?
All I could listen to as a kid was really religious music and a little sprinkling of soul. I could listen to a group called the stylistics, I could listen to Sam Cooke and I could listen to Otis Redding. That was it. That’s all I could listen to. So when I heard that I thought that’s what good singers sound like. And I still think I maintain that part. And so I did, I got really into them and that was a heavy influence on me.
Do you have some favourite singers whose records you collect?
Oh, man, phew! I really love a guy named Tommy Tate (pictured left). I love his voice and I love O.V. Wright. And of course, your standards like Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. Those I really love. But one of my favourite singers of all time is Rance Allen. He recorded some really amazing stuff early on and then Stax started their gospel label. Man, that guy, every time I hear him sing, I just go God Almighty every time. I love all sorts of singers but those are probably my favourites.
Is there any one particular album that you couldn’t live without them have got to have with you wherever you go?
(Muses to himself) Marvin Gaye’s ‘Trouble Man’ is a record that has always got to stay with me. But one record that is kind of modern that I really can’t go without is D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’ (pictured left) I have to listen to that at least once or twice a month, just to get me there because I love that. That’s probably one of my favourite records of all time.
What is it about that album then that grabs you?
For me, it’s like melted gold. You know what I mean? It’s smooth but it’s got grit to it. You know when you have that kind of new soul type stuff and it’s really smooth but there’s no grit to it, but that record has it. It’s almost molasses but it’s awesome. It’s just genius, with the vocal stuff and the way the music’s played. It just moves me. It’s hypnotic and some of that trickles in on this latest record we’ve done. It’s a cool record and one of my all-time favourites.
What’s the oddest place you’ve had inspiration for a song?
The toilet is always the place. (Laughs raucously). That’s where the magic happens, right? Typically, you’ve got good echo in there, natural reverb, that’s to go to. I’ve definitely been in the middle of the night and my wife’s asleep and I’ll think of an idea and have to record it. My wife’s always like: what are you doing? I’m like: I’ve got this melody and I really like it. So I’ll pop up and do it real quick and then go back to bed.
Have you ever dreamed of a song or melody and then woken up and tried to jot it down?
Oooh, that is the absolute worst because what happens is, you dream of one or it’s right between the time when you’re about to fall asleep, you know that kind of in between, and you’re like that is one of the best melodies of ever heard and you can’t remember a note for shit. Oh God! That’s the worst, it’s the worst.
Looking forward into the future, what ambitions do you have for the band beyond this album?
I just want to make great records. I want to make transcendent records. I think Marvin Gaye said one time, and I think this is true, “the goal of any singer is immortality, and if they tell you any different they’re fools and they’re full of it.” (Laughs). You know I mean? Because honestly if you don’t want people to know who you are why do you release records to the public? I thought that was a really interesting idea. But I think honestly the goal is just to keep growing and keep doing what we’re doing. It’s an art form to me, however that sounds, and I want to keep scratching that itch. But I’ll always be singing and I just want to continue that. I don’t know how big that will get. As long as I get to make a living at it, it’s amazing, it’s a dream. I am ambitious but I don’t know what that looks like.