Easy to Like. Hard to Define. Doo-wop, Philly soul. Jamgrass?
by Mary Eisenhart
“There were people who yelled at us in the beginning and said, you can’t do all these different styles! And we said, well, this is just what we do. And the reality is, now that it seems to be working, it allows for license!”
- Bob Stirner
Philadelphia has launched more than its fair share of musical movements over the years, so it’s no great surprise that hot new band Boris Garcia – who recently opened for the New Riders of the Purple Sage at a Rex Black Tie-Dye Ball in the Washington, D.C. area – also hails from the home of the Liberty Bell (and cheesesteaks).
Barely three years old, the band has been gathering a growing fan base, not to mention raves from fellow artists. Most recently they’ve been out on the summer jamband festival circuit, but they’re just as much at home in the folk world, the bluegrass world, adult contemporary or Americana radio and beyond. And if no one seems to quite know how to categorize their music – “jamgrass” is the label they came up with themselves – everyone’s pretty clear that it’s struck a nerve. Comparisons abound – Dead historian Dennis McNally, now the band’s media representative, says that some see a resemblance to Tom Petty, others to early Byrds. Some in the music press compare Boris Garcia’s work to the Grateful Dead’s on American Beauty.
And, says bassist/guitarist Bob Stirner, “I don’t think anyone could have paid us a better compliment.” But while he describes himself as a former tour rat and played in a Dead tribute band called Living Earth back in the day, he feels a certain need to set the record straight regarding this band. “I think the jamming is really more by osmosis, and we’re not trying to be derivative,” he says.
With three strong songwriters (Jeff Otto, Eugene Smith, and Stirner) in the band, each with his own distinctive style, Boris Garcia plays no cover tunes (though they did make an exception for a memorable “Candyman” at the Rex benefit, with Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay and the New Riders’ Buddy Cage sitting in). Stirner’s the only self-identified Deadhead in the group.
And Boris Garcia, the band’s eponymous cartoon character, has nothing to do with Jerry; a Panama Red-like desperado, the result of a one-night stand between a Mexican bandit and a Russian Ã©migrÃ©e, the fictional Boris is the creation of bandmember Otto, a talented animator. “He’s a bad guy, but only bad enough to be interesting,” says Stirner of Boris. “And all the girls love him.”
The myth and music of Boris Garcia started three years ago when some longtime pals on the Philadelphia music scene, who loved playing traditional music, decided that renting a studio and making a record for their families and friends would be relatively inexpensive fun. Forming a real band wasn’t on the agenda at all. However, the resulting record, Family Reunion, turned out to be a lot more popular than anyone envisioned, and the musicians almost immediately realized they were on to something. Much touring ensued, followed by a second album, Mother’s Finest (2006).
Over the years there’ve been occasional personnel changes; the current lineup is Otto on vocals, bass, guitar, and ukulele; Stirner on vocals, guitar and bass; Smith on vocals, harmonica, recorder and guitar; Bud Burroughs on mandolin, bouzouki, button accordion and Hammond organ; and Stephe Ferraro on drums and percussion. With the summer festival circuit behind them, the band’s now hard at work on a third album, still untitled but due next year.
“We’ve all been in earnest, paying our dues for many, many years,” says Stirner, a few days after the Rex show that still has him grinning. “This just kind of happened, and it was a pleasant happening. We’re having a lot of fun.”
Rex Foundation: So the original intention was more to do a fun project than have a real band?
Bob Stirner, Boris Garcia: Exactly. It happened very quickly. We started out as a recording entity, and then it became pretty obvious that there was something very compelling and very honest and very serious about the songs that we had amassed. At the very least, we knew we had good songs that we felt in our hearts.
So many good things have happened, so many wonderful opportunities, so many amazing situations. You can’t really stop to look or revel for too long; you kind of giggle and clap your hands and say, OK, well, what’s next? And you keep on keeping on down the path. We have real big blinders on at this point, trying to filter everything out that doesn’t have to do with why we started this thing, which was a belief in the music.
There were people who yelled at us in the beginning and said, you can’t do all these different styles! And we said, well, this is just what we do. And the reality is, now that it seems to be working, it allows for license! (laughs) So I guess it wasn’t that bad of a call. But truly, we all write a little bit differently, even though there’s a great commonality.”
Rex: There are three of you who write songs. How does that work – do you all just write individually, or do you collaborate?
Stirner: We mostly write on our own, though we’ve really been collaborating together a lot recently, and that’s kind of cool. It’s not because we force ourselves to do it; most of what happens in this band is sort of by osmosis, or because that’s the way the evolution takes us.
I think the change-of-the-wheel thing is very important here; I don’t want to stand in one place ever. We blend and meld in the sense that it forces the songwriting to a new level.
The next release, which should be around March of ’08, will likely feature a couple of collaborative things. In general, it’s pretty much a democracy with regard to the music; the songwriters will just present a song to the body, and it takes shape. It’s kind of neat. We all get along, and it’s a mutual admiration society of the songwriters, which is very unusual (laughs). Not too much ego, believe it or not. We’re not all 22, and that might help that equation a little.
Rex: Tell us a little bit about the songs and what goes into them. David Gans, who played with you out on the festival circuit, was telling me that there’s one told from the point of view of a cat.
Stirner: That would be one of our new tunes. Eugene Smith wrote that one. It’s a love song, essentially, about Eugene’s wife, but it’s told from the perspective of a cat that she found. It alludes to how much the cat loves the female figure in the song, who happens to be Eugene’s wife, but I think it really speaks of how much Eugene loves his wife. It’s very interesting. It comes from a different slant.
Our songs range from political to metaphorical. There’s a tune on the new record called “Through the Window”; one of the verses goes, “Go through the window or the door, go through and don’t look back no more.” It speaks of rite of passage, or taking risks in life, or drawing big lines in the sand behind you and allowing them to propel you to go forward and walk down the path, if you will. Which is a scary thing, but if you walk down the path, new doors open.
On the political side, we definitely have a soapbox. We are political, and I don’t understand why more artists aren’t political at this point, considering what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with our government, which none of us are really happy about. But in order to change things you have to have awareness.
We tend to dwell on the crap of the moment, if you will, and we do get on the soapbox. Hopefully that’ll change in another year and we’ll be singing happy stuff.
Rex: Why acoustic?
Stirner: I think we’re all old folkies, and that’s just the way it started. We had some violin players and some percussion players, and it was all very earthen and very round-the-coffee-table. That’s just how it started, and one thing led to another.
Then Bud Burroughs came into the band, and Bud is a mandolin player extraordinaire. It lent a certain modality, musically, and texturally it enables a lot more of a dynamic feel. We get very powerful, I think, for a band that plays primarily acoustic instruments.
Having said that, we’ve crept some electric guitar into the mix, and some keyboards. It’s part of the whole evolution thing. It tends to grow and spread out, and different songs call for different things. But predominantly, we are an acoustic band, and it keeps you very honest.
Rex: And it doesn’t seem to prevent you from jamming, either.
Stirner: No. We like to do that. It just depends on the tune – we write some three- and four-minute songs that are just three- and four-minute songs, and there are other songs that allow us to go out and explore, and do that whole thing. Being a Deadhead, and with Jerry Garcia clearly one of my biggest guitar influences, this stuff courses through my veins, and our veins collectively.
Rex: But unlike a lot of jambands, you don’t do Dead cover tunes.
Stirner: We know a lot of that material, and we travel in those circles, and of course we did the Rex benefit. In the first set Dennis McNally suggested that Buddy Cage and Donna sit in, and so we did “Candyman.” We absolutely loved doing that; we loved interpreting it; it was really a wonderful moment.
We have huge reverence for the Grateful Dead, but we don’t feel compelled to cover anything. Been there, done that.
Rex: How did the Rex gig come about?
Stirner: It partially had to do with our friendship with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and working with Dennis, who’s tied in with Rex. We’ve done a lot with the New Riders, and they’re just wonderful people. They’re on a tear, too. They’re back.
So we’ve been stoked and fortunate and humbled to be asked to do some of these things, and we were really honored to do the Rex thing. Rex is a very noble thing. It was a great honor, and we had a blast. It was very well received.
The whole Rex Foundation is a wonderful group of individuals with a wonderful cause – and they keep on keeping on.