The brass band Lucky Chops was started by some kids at LaGuardia High (the “Fame” school) who cut their teeth playing in the subway. When a South American tourist shot a video of them that went viral, they started getting real gigs.
I caught them at SXSW, in the backyard of The Empire Garage, on Tuesday night, and the scene was frenetic. The band was audible from the street, despite the stage’s being half a football field away, and the plebes were lined up a full block to get in, Orwelled in by the white and orange barriers that brand this year’s SXSW. (Pro tip: These are supposed to be filled with water to stop high-speed cars from mowing over pedestrians. They mostly aren’t.)
After walking through the front indoor space–lit with a four-wall lighting installation to back the top-notch dance set by Flor –I was dumped into a massive back lot packed like a pickle barrel with drunken bros. On the stage in the distance were the Lucky Chops–ballistically bringing it. The trombonist Josh Holcomb pogoed like his life depended on it, and the sousaphone waved over a sea of ballcapped heads. It felt like nothing so much as a Tuesday night at the Maple Leaf in New Orleans to see the Rebirth Brass Band.
The Lucky Chops have chops indeed. Their new track “Danza 2016” got the whole crowd singing when they slipped into a sample of “Eye of the Tiger.” Another song started with Raphael Buyo on the sousaphone up front, blatting out a solo that cracked into a walking bass line; the horns joined in swinging, and the trumpet rose out over the top in a balladeer style before the bari sax solo built the whole band to a wild squeal–to drop back into the unison swing. And the crowd was loving it.
Their recordings may not radiate the same energy–brass bands were born of live performance–but are worth a spin, as even when the selection might be questionable, their clever arrangements save it. (Case in point: Adele’s “Hello.”)
I caught up via email with the band’s trombonist Josh Holcomb to talk about how an all-analog band is blowing up thanks to internet virality.
The SXSW press release claims you have LGA High School roots—but your individual bios certainly seem like you’re more of a mixed crew from all over the place. Has there been a serious change in line-up?
The members of the band hail from all over the country but three of us met at LaGuardia Arts High School together almost 10 years ago. We’ve been performing in many different configurations since then, but only in the past year did we finally crystalize our lineup and go full time with the band… a lot of awesome things have happened in that year!
Our tenor saxophonist Daro, our sousaphonist/founder Raphael, and myself are the remaining members of the “old guard” so to speak. Going to LaGuardia really gave us the tools, knowledge, confidence and encouragement we needed to become professional musicians. By my senior year I had SEVEN music classes a day! I wouldn’t trade that kind of training for the world and the band wouldn’t exist if not for the education and opportunities LaGuardia provided us.
One cell phone video from a South American tourist changed your futures. What do you think about the idea that a band of analog instruments—and a definitive analog sound—blew up because of a digital medium?
Our live performances allow us to convey to the public the energy we create when we play music together. It’s been a great process learning how to translate that energy through recordings and videos, and we’re looking forward to experimenting with new techniques that allow us to convey maximum energy across all mediums.
All of us have vastly different musical backgrounds and influences, so that’s more of an individual question. Joshua’s [trumpet] pop sensibilities translate beautifully to his lyrical trumpet melodies, Leo’s [bari sax] beat-driven electronic and hip hop influences give us a gritty modern edge, Raphael’s [sousaphone] love of Soca rhythms make his bass lines extra groovy, Kevin’s [drums] rock-like precision keeps us locked in, and Daro’s [tenor sax] love of jazz and Arabic music pushes us to new expressive heights. I personally get a great deal of fulfillment from studying as much music history as possible and as such I draw heavily from all your above-listed musical idioms. (Except the marching bands… we don’t have any football fields at NYC high schools!)
We aim to capture a wide variety of different human feelings and emotions in our arrangements. We try to be genuine in all our music so we shy away from satire and irony… but we definitely enjoy throwing people curveballs : )
How did the band enjoy (or not enjoy) being the house band on “Girl Code Live?” Is this something you’d like to do again—maybe get a late-night gig like The Roots have, learning tons of songs and playing “walkovers?”
That was a great experience for us and we gained a lot of musical versatility as a result. Learning tons of new songs in all genres for every episode was the musical equivalent of boot camp… except on live TV!
We still go into the subway to perform when we have the time. It’s a great training ground, if we workshop a new song in the subway and are able to get strangers to stop what they’re doing and listen to us then we know that song is a keeper.
Lucky Chops plays March 16 at 12am at Buffalo Billiards, March 17 at the Yard, and March 18 at Whole Foods rooftop.