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Interview: Björn Wagner from Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band

Steel Drums By Way of Hamburg

When one imagines the sound of steel drums, they often conjure memories of vacations in a far-off place, preferably near a beach where the magical sound wafts through the tropical breeze. Or, if you're like me, you remember hearing the sound in New York City with regularity during the 1980s. No matter where you first learned of the sound and music associated with the instrument, your first thought probably isn't Hamburg.

For years, the Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band has taken the steel drum sound and added a modern flair to it. If you're just only learning about the band now, heir newest album, BRSB (Big Crown Records) will clue you in to the band's musical aims. Björn Wagner from the group joins us to explore the group's history, share some valuable listening recommendations, and explain how the breeze caught the sound of the steel drum and carried it all the way to Germany.

Evan Toth: I remember the steel drum sound emanating from the streets of New York City during the 1980s, but I wonder how you came across the instrument in Hamburg, Germany?

Björn Wagner: Ha! I did not come across them over here. It was on a backpacking trip from South America to Trinidad & Tobago where I heard them first. Full orchestra playing open air – got hooked on this groove forever.

ezt: Steel drums aren’t something that most recording studios and nightclubs have to contend with very often. Are there any special considerations you must keep in mind when performing live and recording?

bw: It’s definitely not something you can put on your rider for backline rental. We travel with our instruments and keep an eye on how they’re miked. In the studio, we produce ourselves and I have found a technique that captures the sound ideally in our setting.

ezt: As far as influences are concerned, I think about Van Dyke Parks, and his work with musicians fromTrinidad in the1970s and the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, but what were some of your recording influences relating to the steel drum sound that you might suggest to listeners who enjoy your new album?

bw: It’s exactly that. There are a couple of steel band records that are funky or even have cover versions of soul and afrobeat done steel funk style that inspired us. Esso Trinidad Steel

Band’s “I Want You Back” version is great, 20th Century Steel Band’s “Heaven and Hell is on

Earth” is a classic hip hop sample. Then there are Mosco Tiles Fontclaire Steel Orchestra with several dope funk covers, Gay Flamingos with a killer version of Fela Kuti’s “Black Man’s

Cry”. John Gibbs and Carl McKnight have some great funky originals. Look up Original

Tropicana Steel Band, Sapodilla Punch, Dutch Rhythm Steel & Show Band, Steel Image and

Trinidad Steel Drummers… There a few, but not too many – we started Bacao because we

wanted more of that sound, and punchier.

ezt: The album features a mix between original compositions and cover tunes. Explain the compositional process of writing originals for this project.

bw: Composing for Bacao is fantasy turned into sound. There are no rules how a steel funk band should be, so I have complete creative freedom. Generally, I like to compose music that evokes a certain mood or a scene. The term cinematic is a bit overused these days, but if you do good instrumentals, it’s storytelling without words

ezt: “Hazy Memories” of my favorite songs on the album. There is a very creepy Halloween vibe, and it also showcases the glockenspiel a little bit more than the steel drum. What’s it like interacting with the glockenspiel player and how do each of you find your own space?You did a great job setting the tone on that one.

bw: Thank you. A lot of heart went into this one. You have these dusty drums with the eerie

vibrato bassline, and it’s a dreamlike sequence I had in mind. We wanted it to be more than

just a steel pan section, so we blended it with a Moog, a mini piano and the glockenspiel. I

love how the combination between acoustic and electronic instruments turned out.

ezt: The album’s sonics are good, I really like the drum sound in particular. What was the recording process? What studio did you use? And can you share some information about the production process?

bw: We come from a DIY background and record ourselves in our own studio. We record on 8-track machines, that’s why the drums have a nicely saturated, crunchy sound. Usually, the

rhythm section is done first, live in one room for the feel. Steel pan and horn sections are

usually overdubbed later. Sometimes not. It’s mix of chaos and control.

ezt: Your version of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” is another one of my favorites. I appreciate the addition of the melodica which gives the song a very cool Augustus Pablo vibe. What were some of your thoughts putting this song together?

bw: Arranging this song was deconstructing it first. From the drum machine of the original

Timmy Thomas sample that we replayed with real percussions to the melodica, we rebuilt it

in an organic way. While the original is only slightly melancholic, I wanted our version to

sound seriously sad.

ezt: I enjoy many of the cover songs on the record, how did you choose what covers you wanted to approach?

bw: There is no scheme other than that it has to have style. If you do the wrong choice, it can

quickly turn into a gimmick. Danny & Leon from Big Crown also have excellent musical

taste and we play ping pong with our ideas.

ezt: Also, as an instrumental group how do you work on your arrangements on songs where the driving force is very lyrical? For example, how did you approach “Love$ick”?

bw: If a song a is based on lyrics and pans play the main riff as in "Love$ick," it’s the trumpets that become the lead voice.

ezt: Of course your cover of the Stranger Things theme song is a stand out on the record. Whose idea was it to cover that? It also leads me to wonder if you’ve considered doing more work for the television or film industry? I’m confident that your unique sound would fill the bill for the right project.

bw: We’re all fans of score music and that Stranger Things theme just came up during a

recording session. Our music has been used in countless films, shows or commercials. The

most prominent was certainly in Anatomy Of A Fall, where the song is played for almost 10 minuted and becomes a character in the movie. I like it when a song you did is thrown in a different context and I‘m very happy that our songs often get picked.

ezt: I love the addition of the female voices on “The Champions Walk”, they add a whole other sonic layer, a whole other dynamic to your sound. Would you consider using more vocals on future releases?

bw: I’m happy how this one turned out. It started out being vocal demo for the main melody. As often with demos and layouts, you can’t get them out of your head anymore and they have to be in the final song. Nichola Richards and Gizelle Smith turned it into magic. I think I’m still shy of actual words for a Bacao songs, but a choir as an addition to horns and steel pans I hope to do again.


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