Very rarely does a band command the listener’s undivided attention from the get-go. It typically takes a few thorough listens, a few deep cuts and maybe even a little research. However, Once and Future Band’s self-titled debut embraces the listener like a silk scarf of songwriting genius as if The Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Queen and T-Rex had a baby and that baby breathed fire. Upon first listen of “How Does It Make You Feel” from the quartet’s free-range, ’70s California pop gem of a self-titled debut, you’re instantly driving along the Pacific Coast Highway gleefully singing into the wind, giving the finger to the jagged cliffs below. We recently had the chance to talk with the members of Once and Future Band to discuss the re-issue of their Brain EP, mad love for their hometown of Oakland, the iconic 10CC, and their thoughts on their time touring with the titans of prog-metal, Tool.
mxdwn: You’re re-releasing your first recording, the Brain EP. How do you think that first release compares with your debut LP?
Joel Robinow: I don’t really know. I’m not entirely sure. It’s hard to say because we are always constantly writing new stuff and from any number of sources, it’s hard to say how the unrecorded album is gonna be different. I also really don’t know how the LP is any different than the EP. We generally will record as Eli and Raj will get something together at home, some sort of riff or an entire song. We put it through the meat grinder and then we’ve shit out a song, to put it beautifully.
Eli Eckert: I’m not a big fan meat grinder analogy, but, to each their own.
Raj Ojha: The EP that is being re-released it pretty old and is our first foray into any recorded material. The band has really changed a lot since then. The material we play on that album has changed a lot since then as well, because we have been playing those songs for about five or six years now. They have morphed with the live versions. We extend things, change the feel and of course, now we have Raze (Regal) who was not around for that EP. That changes the arrangement and the vibe within the four of us. Some of that was also apparent on the LP as well.
The LP was more of a live vibe of going into the studio and adds a lot within the production of it, and changes arrangements during the recording of it and experimenting a lot. Even that itself is about three years old now. We’ve come even farther from there. I think right now the stuff we are working on is more representative of four people working in a room together and has more of a live vibe. We are just starting to work on new material, but it is way more representative of a live band, rather than a cobbled together song.
mxdwn: The band has a very expansive sound with a sunny, California in the ’70s vibe. How did the band begin writing songs together as Once and Future Band?
EE: It’s been about six years now that Joel got a hold of me and said “We’re doing this band,” but in reality, we have all been playing together in different groups, Joel, Raj and myself, over the years going back years before that. Even though we had never done music like this band before, we knew that all the things that we had wanted to do we did in various ways, but it wasn’t exactly this type of music. To me, this was the band that we always wanted to do, but we never actually said, “Hey we’re gonna do this whatever you think this band is.” Once we started playing it was what we all had been wanting to do in the first place. And it felt really good.
JR: I’ve been playing with Raj for about 20 years and have been playing with Eli for about 15 years or so in various projects. Initially, me and Raj have been working on recordings over the years and were like, “We need to get a band together.” We got Eli on board and then everything changed and it all became our music. Then Raze came along and further sweetened it; now it’s all a pretty well-functioning unit. Raze was someone I knew even before I heard them play. He’s the guy that even before I heard them play, I think he’s the right guitar player for the band just from talking about music and the stuff that we liked. I just knew that that guy could play. And dammit I was right.
Raze Regal: We had all kind of ran into each other and I started playing in this band. The guy that played in the band was like, “Listen, you gotta see this band that is opening for my other band.” So, we get to the gig and there is the three of them playing the baddest tunes that I had heard. I just thought it was incredible. At the time, I was really super into the tunes and the presentation. It was actually one of the best shows that I had seen up to that point. So, I saw that gig, and then I would see the guys around town. Then I saw another gig they played and it was as equally astonishing. Then we started playing at a friend of ours house, Danny James and the squad was born.
EE: I was just remembering that on the Brain EP, the first song called “Brain,” that was a song that Joel, Raj and I played back in 2008. It was another four years until we were able to record, so it just shows the pace of how we went about doing things.
RO: We tried to do a weird version of this band with some other people. It was us trying to play the music that we wanted to play in the early ’00s as a trio. It has been fomenting for a while, as an idea that was waiting to be embodied for about 15 years. And I feel that these sounds are becoming a lot more common place, we were just a little bit underground because those records were not the records you talked about with tour friends. Like, “Hey did you get that new Jeff Lorber fusion record?” Except for beat diggers and stuff like that, we weren’t fully ready to tell the world that this is what we do.
mxdwn: How did the band come up with the name Once and Future Band and is there any significance behind it?
JR: A little bit of both. Our friend Danny James had a hand in it. He is a compatriot of ours and we play in his band as well. We were super into Arthurian legend and The Once and Future King motif. We were hanging out together and thought it would be a cool name for a band. Our one friend called dibs on it and he had it for a while. Naming bands is like, I would rather shove tacks into my eyes. We thought about it and asked Danny James for it back and he said it was fine, even though he had dibs, as one can only have with language. It was either that or “The New Beatles.” There was a whole ceremony. We were knighted. Danny named us in a field, there were medieval instruments and dancing. Band names are kind of bullshit in a way, take a look at the Beatles. No one ever stops to think how dumb that name is because it’s the fucking Beatles.
mxdwn: Once and Future Band is from Oakland, California, how do you think that the city has influenced your sound?
RR: I think a lot of it is from people in the Bay Area generally, have the space to take chances, historically. You have people like Sly and the Family Stone, where it’s a little bit of the English thing, and a little bit of the soul thing and this other thing. I find that people here have that space to do something different. Whether its musical, sartorial, mental chances, that is really a huge difference between this area and the rest of the country.
EE: I think that is really true especially because it’s not LA and it’s not New York, it’s not a hub of commerce. So instead of people trying to chase after the next thing, they chase after their own thing. It’s very defiant, we don’t have to be in those areas, we can just do exactly what we want to do, and that’s the magic of this reason.
RO: As long as I have been here, the musical community is the most supportive that I have ever been a part of. It’s really close knit, pretty incestual. Part of our band and our band with Danny James is a revolving cast of friends. No one is trying to one up anybody, or put anyone down. We are generally stoked if any band gets any amount of success inside or outside of our immediate area. We’ve relied on that and it’s been very helpful. I don’t know that a band like us… we would have had a much harder time anywhere else.
EE: Even being from Oakland, as opposed to San Francisco, makes a huge difference. San Francisco is a major city and there is a lot of awesome stuff there. I’ve never lived there so I don’t know for sure, but San Francisco now is so different, it’s so expensive, and hard to make it. I feel like what Raze was saying it true. You can take more chances here and no pressure to be a certain thing and that is a huge reason why we are what we are. However, many years ago when we had our fledgling bands, no one was talking about making it. Everyone was just having fun and occasionally would get in the van and drive across the county, but no one was ever like “success is on the table.” That happened more down South.
mxdwn: Do you think there is a very large difference between the scenes in San Francisco and Oakland?
JR: For instance, me growing up in Oakland, the first time I really explored San Francisco was when I graduated from high school. If you grow up in Oakland, it’s like the bridge might as well be a wall. You don’t go either direction, and maybe that has changed now but I still haven’t been to Alcatraz, I still haven’t been to the house in the Full House videos, but I definitely have it on my bucket list.
RO: I grew up in Marin in high school, I moved out here from Boston. Back then it was not rad to grow up in Marin. San Francisco, there was way more of a community doing cool things, even in high school for me. It has always been a place where things I wanted to be a part of was happening. All my friends lived there and once people went out for shows it was mostly happening there. Things have changed and Oakland is a little more like how San Francisco used to be. There is a huge DIY movement, more house parties, more places to play, it’s really vibrant and a healthy scene that helped a lot of people get there start.
EE: There is still a lot of San Francisco that I still don’t know about, but back in the late ’90s there was a ton of awesome stuff in Oakland and San Francisco. But in Oakland you could go any night or any club where everyone was dressed like frogs, singing in a different language that was made up, and then next there would be a band that was all tambourines. Just weird, weird, stuff. I don’t want to run down San Francisco because it’s a great place to be, I just may not know about it.
RR: The other interesting thing about living in Oakland is it’s very, very properly diverse in a lot of ways. Between the space and the courage to try different things, the residents who are musically inclined. There is also a diverse array of people trying to do different things, so that adds to the chance taking, which is just really incredible on multiple levels.
mxdwn: You have very interesting, and natural sounding, vocal harmonies as well, especially in songs like “I’ll Be Fine” from your self-titled debut. How did those harmonies come about?
JR: With the harmonies, it’s usually me or Eli trying to figure them out, a lot of times I will do the Queen thing or the Michael Jackson thing, where it’s like 50 “me’s” over top of each other as that gets a really cool sound as well. It also depends on the song, because it really is about the blend.
EE: On the chorus of “I’ll Be Fine” that is me and Joel on the chorus. That song seems to be one of the simpler songs. We generally have two speeds, with the blend it’s a little simpler than the wall of “Joel’s.”
RO: I think a lot of times Eli and Joel will have a good idea of the kind of harmony they want in a song, especially that one, we would workshop that song live ahead of time. All of the layering and wall of sound type of thing will happen as experimentation throughout recording. On a thick track, we would have 120 vocal tracks just for a 12-part harmony. That is our heavy version. A light version would be 60 or 30 because we will triple track vocals, we’ll have staggered lines, things like that to get the more Queen, or 10CC big vibe to push the chorus out more.
mxdwn: Once and Future Band went on tour with Tool a while back, and you guys have a very different sound than Tool, but I wanted to ask what the experience of being on the road with a band of that caliber was like, because they don’t just bring anyone out on tour with them.
RR: It was a great learning experience to play to that many people on a nightly basis and we really got to attack our metal to a stadium setting. Tool are lovely cats and the staff was lovely and something that taught us quite a bit.
EE: The first night we were playing, the wife of the drummer, Danny Carey, came to talk to us and she was like, “Hey, I hope the audience isn’t too mean to you guys,” and I was like, “oh shit.” I didn’t even consider that that was a thing. That fans were known to be actively hostile to bands and I’d heard a bunch of stories where bands were getting booed by the Tool fans. But I feel that we didn’t have that experience at all. Fans started off skeptical and we won them over, or at least as far as I can tell.
JR: I heard some fans talking shit afterwards, but aside from that, at worst, it was indifference which is always good. I was heading out for a smoke and heard some people talking and this one guys were like, “Ya man, you couldn’t take flash photography, and the first band fucking sucked, well actually they weren’t as bad as that band that opened up for Korn last week.” So I felt a little vindicated after hearing that.
RO: The crowd in real time were great and we got a good reaction after each set. I handle a lot of the social media for the band, and we would immediately get off stage and get a message to our Facebook page that would literally say “fuck you.” But on the flipside, we got a lot of positive stuff too. It was way more positive than negative. What I did notice from the Tool tour was that we gained a lot of younger fans, maybe even kids in high school. Seems like a lot of people were opened up to a different kind of music or a different way of thinking about music. The audience itself seemed really open and I’m not sure that you would get that at other shows of that size. Something that is very akin to what Tool do.
EE: There are literally families at those shows like mom, dad, and kids. People that are there have been Tool fans for so long that they have kids in high school now. There are multi-generational families that make it a point to go to these shows.
JR: Tool has an air of wanting to educate their fan base too, just being that we want to share what we love with you because you are our fans and we want you to love this too. It’s very admirable.
mxdwn: What is next for Once and Future Band after the re-release of this EP, is there any more music coming, new tour, etc.?
EE: We’re about to hit the road for a month next week supporting Chris Robinson, from the Black Crowes, and supporting them with a handful of our own dates too. We’re working on new material as well for some new releases. We have a bunch of songs and recordings we have been working on prior to the UK tour. Our rehearsal space flooded right before the tour. We didn’t lose anything but we had some rebuilding to take care of. That’s gonna be our main priority as soon as we get back. We’re looking to getting back to work.