Project Grand Slam’s Robert Miller chats music, muses and Citymeals
Project Grand Slam is one of those wonderfully undefinable bands. The type of group that effortlessly merges genres to create fun, interesting arrangements of classic tunes and original compositions. Besides being talented musicians, they are also wonderful people who are using the platform of a live concert – taking place at Café Wha? on Dec. 8 – to raise money for the New York non-profit, Citymeals On Wheels.
EpRe got a chance to pick the brain of Project Grand Slam’s composer/leader/bassist, Robert Miller, about his biggest influences, favorite collaborations and what fans can expect from the Dec. 8 show.
Laurie Fanelli: Congratulations on Project Grand Slam‘s The Queen’s Carnival. When you recorded the album, did you ever imagine that it would be such a crossover success?
Robert Miller: Thank you! I set out to write and record an album that was a true combination of my two musical loves – rock and jazz. I grew up playing rock and roll and only discovered jazz when I was about 19. With this album I was hoping to combine the power and groove of rock with the improvisation of jazz. I’m pleased to say that our music – both on record and live – has worked really well with every audience that we’ve played before – from hard rock to smooth jazz, from Millennials to Boomers. So maybe we’re doing something right.
LF: The title track is an intriguing blend of genres. What goes into creating your unique sound?
RM: I always loved artists and recordings that had great diversity. It started for me with the Beatles. An album like The White Album is a masterpiece of different styles. So when I wrote the tunes for The Queen’s Carnival I consciously tried to vary the songs. I didn’t have a checklist of styles, they all just emerged as I was writing.
The creative process is so mysterious to me. I never set out to write a particular song. I simply noodle around and if I’m lucky something just comes to me. If I like it I do a quick little iPhone recording just to preserve it. Then I come back to it later on and see if it still grabs me. If it does I try and finish it off.
When I present a new song to the band I only give them a lead sheet with the melody, basic chords and structure. I rarely tell them what to play. I would much rather see what they come up with. Sometimes it totally surprises me!
For example, with “New Folk Song,” when we started playing it at rehearsal my drummer came up with a figure on the snare drum that sounded almost like a march. But it totally worked. In fact, it gave the song a kind of Celtic feel that I had not anticipated. I loved it and we kept it. And my sax player plays with all these pedals and effects, which I love. It gives him such a distinct sound. I told him to use all the effects and I went so far to say (a bit tongue in cheek) that I would be upset if anyone listening to the record knew that he was playing the sax.
When I wrote the title tune “The Queen’s Carnival,” I was channeling my father, who played trumpet and loved Latin music. He only tuned in to the Spanish stations on the radio. So Latin music was infused into my soul from early on. And it doesn’t hurt that all the guys in my band are Latin. I call them my International Cartel.
LF: I love your cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” What struck you about the original tune?
RM: Like I said, I was a rock and roller initially. I grew up during the British Invasion era of pop music. I loved all the British bands – Beatles, Stones, The Who, etc. – and their U.S. counterparts.
On our prior album, Made In New York, I took a song by Jimi Hendrix that I’ve always loved called “Fire,” and decided to reimagine it. People like covers because the songs are familiar. But I personally don’t like covers where the song sounds just like the original. What’s the point of that? So I set out to take the Hendrix tune and make it my own – not to show him up (I couldn’t do that anyway) but as a kind of tribute. I wanted to keep enough of the original so that people could recognize it, but I wanted to change it around to make it mine and to update it. I used a female singer on the track just to flip the boy/girl thing around – a terrific singer named Kat Robichaud. I think the result was fantastic. And the reviews were spectacular.
So when I was preparing for The Queen’s Carnival, I decided to continue the idea of taking a classic rock song and reimagining it. I always loved The Kinks and “You Really Got Me” was one of their biggest, earliest hits. I always considered it a forerunner to grunge, with that amazing guitar riff and that nasty attitude.
The first time we played my initial vision of it at rehearsal, though, it was awful! It sounded like Sade singing The Kinks at a Bar Mitzvah! Ugh! Totally bland. I knew that I had to toughen it up. So I went back, fiddled with it, and then presented it again to the band with a newer, tougher, edgier concept. And it just worked. Then, having a great singer like Lucy Woodward record it with us again flipped the boy/girl thing around, and it came out wonderful. To then get a lovely endorsement of our version of the song from the great Dave Davies – guitarist and co-founder of The Kinks – was truly icing on the cake. When we play “Fire” and “You Really Got Me” live they get an amazing response!
LF: Who are some of your other musical influences?
RM: Well, musically I came of age so to speak in the jazz fusion era of the 1970s. I adored bands like Weather Report, Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Miles Davis’ and Gary Burton’s bands at that time. I’m still not sure why fusion got a bad rap back then because to me it was inspiring and uplifting.
The difference may be that those guys were jazz guys grafting rock into their music, while I’m a rock guy at heart bringing jazz into my music. And sometimes in life what’s old becomes new and is considered differently in a different era. I don’t know anyone else that’s doing exactly what I’m doing (maybe I’m nuts), so we have a fresh sound. We’re the new kids on the block now.
LF: Just by listening to the recordings of Project Grand Slam, it’s obvious that you guys are a live band. How does your music evolve in front of an audience?
RM: Yes, the album was basically recorded live in the studio (the old fashioned way), and playing live is what I enjoy the most. When we resonate with an audience – particularly one that hasn’t heard us before like when we opened for artists like Boney James and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) – it’s so satisfying and thrilling.
And because we’re not a pop band the music comes out different every time. It’s like a living organism. We respond to the audience, the room, and the makeup of the band for that performance. Each time we play with a different combination of players the songs come out differently. I love that variety. And I try to tailor our presentation to the audience. So for example when we opened for Scott Weiland, or when we opened recently for The Reign Of Kindo – both hard rock oriented and so was their crowd – I told the band to rock out. And rock out we did!
LF: Can you tell me a little bit about the musicians that make up Project Grand Slam and what everyone brings to the table?
RM: I use a kind of rotating cast of musicians in the band, both because they’re in demand and sometimes have conflicts, and also to vary the sound. But they’re all great, young, music school graduates. They bring a level of professionalism, experimentation, passion and energy to the music that is just wonderful. I stand up there as the “mature adult” and sort of direct them while I’m playing with them and grooving to the music. It’s a great experience for me, and I think the audiences appreciate their youthful exuberance.
LF: What can fans expect from your Dec. 8 performance at Cafe Wha?
RM: The Dec. 8th show is special. We’re doing this performance as a benefit for Citymeals on Wheels, a fabulous charity that feeds the homebound elderly in NYC. I’ve supported this charity for years and sent out their holiday cards.
We moved the event to the Café Wha? so that we could do it as a free event. Most of the other venues in town wanted us to charge $25 or so as an admission fee. I wanted the event to be free so that more people would come and hopefully donate more money to Citymeals. We’re doing an auction as part of the event – some neat boxed CD sets, gold records and the like – with all the proceeds going to the charity. Everyone who attends will also get a free drink and a free copy ofThe Queen’s Carnival. Not too bad, huh?
So we’re hoping for a big crowd and to raise a lot of money for Citymeals. The show starts at 6:30 p.m.
LF: Is there anything else you’d like to share with EpRe readers?
RM: We would love to have your readers sign up for our monthly newsletter. Just go to our web site, www.projectgrandslam.com, to do so. Our site has music, videos, photos, reviews, calendar, etc. Going there is like a mini-vacation.
And we’re looking to find our Super Fans, people who really love our music and the band. We’ve got a neat package of goodies for those folks that are listed on our web site. And these days you have to be active on social media, so people can access us on Facebook and on Twitter.