Staxx Brothers: Oh, yeah
interview by Brent Cole
photo by Sarah Van Houten
Davin Stedman, leader of Staxx Brothers, is all about the Pacific Northwest – full of positive energy and love, he’s opening eyes and ears to regional music happenings and making connections for Bellingham, Everett, Seattle and beyond. He recently helped organize fundraisers in Bellingham and Seattle for Bernie Worrell, who is battling stage four lung cancer. Davin is a music machine and it’s time for even more with Staxx playing a special Cinco de Mayo show at the Green Frog with members of Baby Cakes and Snug Harbor, and releasing their new album, Hot Chocolate on May 12.
This interview was simple enough… talk to Davin about the band, incorporating Baby Cakes, and other projects like Up Late at Night PNW. I should note this interview didn’t quite turn out the way it was originally planned (thank you bronchitis) and it is lengthy in Q&A form (and totally awesome), but I respect and appreciate Davin more than words can say so I’m stoked to have his thoughts in the mag. We got through seven questions before we stopped because Davin had more words than we have space to print.
The print version had to be edited (we kept the love), but feast your eyes here on the whole interview as follows.
Enjoy! I did.
What is the brief history of The Staxx Brothers? How did it come together and who have been the main players over the years?
As a LIVE act The Staxx Brothers started when I was a student at WSU. The day was October 25th, 2002. But I was already on a mission. I went to college because my best friend Wyatt Powell convinced me in a heartfelt talk that attending Wazzu with him was a superior life choice. We sat there under the power lines in Mays Pond in 1998 and he sold me on the idea of starting a band in a college town. It was a much better plan than my incredibly limited vision of buying a van and trying to be Bruce Springsteen back when you used to wear beanies and rap sing impressionism about “Madman drummers, bummers, and Indians in the Summer with Teenage Diplomats”.
He sold me, and in many ways, that was the beginning of The Staxx Brothers. But when I went to WSU, I needed more fire power on guitar to achieve my vision of breeding the music of Outkast with The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. So I went back to Mays Pond, recruited Joshua Hansen AKA JD Staxx, and we just at that whole scene for lunch. We became best friends with this blind rapper named Decurrian and we became three.
When we started playing those little house parties and we were rapping and singing like do-woppers on the street corner, I stated THE MISSION and I’ve stuck to it. The Staxx Brothers are going to play The Apollo Theater in Harlem and put on a great SHOW. Everything else we do is an audition for that. So folks come and go, I’m the leader of this ship of Corsairs, Pirates, and Privateers, but I treasure the crew that comes with me on every raid. If The Staxx Brothers aren’t a band, then we’re certainly a very sexy Pirate Ship.
The longest running member of the gang is definitely Angela Rickard. She came on board back in Pullman and she just played shows with Bernie Worrell and Lyrics Born where she was actually 9 months pregnant. There was a possibility we could have played a low enough note and she could have given birth on stage. She is a treasure.
Ultimately, Pullman was by no means a college music town. Nearly every show we put on even after we were 21 was an illegal house party, and not choice. At the time after the 1997 Riots, with the exception of Rico’s the jazz club, we could play on a Tuesday in a blues combo, there were no music venues. It was brutal. But when I moved operations to Seattle in 2005, Pullman had proved to be so challenging it was like taking off leg weights. The first night I experienced live music in Bellingham and saw Joel Ricci and his band La Push, night turned to day and the sun broke through the clouds and shined on Joel as he commanded the band. Pullman was a case of sink or swim; finding a way to feast during a famine. Thinking back on it now, it’s almost seems inconceivable that cops broke up practically every one of our shows. It’s a strange routine when Officer Carl Bell would start to do us the courtesy of letting us finish a song before he and the boys would bust the whole thing up. Strange days. It was like this detente because they knew there was no where to play.
…so yeah, my love for Bellingham is deep. I’m like your starry eyed immigrant grandfather from the Old Country, kissing the ground off Holly St.
What prompted the change in the Staxx Brothers line up and how did you end up connecting with Baby Cakes to have them play in the band?
The changes in The Staxx Brothers after our a long, consistent, and wonderful run with players like that went back 9 years, goes back to my commitment to playing that show at The Apollo Theater. That seemingly wild eyed commitment to something so improbable is really a mental trick and artistic safety switch. I had created the perfect band. But if became clear as we completed our 4th album Hot Chocolate after 5 years of trying to make it the greatest thing we possibly could, that this group of friends was never going to able to tour this album properly. As long as I am on this earth, I am aiming for The Apollo. Which leads me to The San Antonio Spurs:
The Staxx Brothers can’t make it to the Apollo Theater, and the San Antonio Spurs can’t make it to the Finals with out an incredible bench. I needed to supplement my band with a fresh rotation of players I believe in and want to help develop. Angie is about to have a baby, my drummer Tom Wilkenson is committed but has a limited availability. People have kids, mortgages, commitments, some can’t get into Canada. But Bellingham and Baby Cakes in particular represent something nobody is quite duplicating in Seattle or Everett. Bellingham is a town full of creatives that replaced a paper mill with an art scene.
There are musicians feasting around Bellingham that are ready to tour, and they have the talent. As music supervisor, I put Baby Cakes on the Up Late show to perform the first original song they had ever written as a band because they are the band can write their first song and have it be a HIT. But they need the right opportunities. I went to bat for them and our executive producer saw it to, and so did other TV affiliates. But if they don’t have those opportunities, (and then embrace those opportunities), they will just be another legendary local band that is archived on these pages. That is the same fate The Staxx Brothers are facing even as a more established band with a deep catalog. Kevin Chryst is the leader of Baby Cakes. He’s an important alumni member, that recorded on half of our next album Hot Chocolate. We are joining forces. I want to see Baby Cakes record an incredible debut album. I want to walk in Conrad Denke’s office at Victory Studios, show him their performance on Up Late, and tell him that after I get back from running around Europe with King Porter Stomp all Summer, that Baby Cakes is going have 45 minutes set of HITS to perform on Band in Seattle. I am an associate producer for that show as well, and it’s my job to make pitches I believe in.
As long as everyone just brings it, we can make things happen. Right now Baby Cakes is learning a set of Staxx Brothers material so can create the opportunity to tour as a Staxx Brothers & Baby Cakes co-bill. It’s an alliance. Together we’re like the San Antonio Spurs and we can win championships. Chris & Michelle O’Connor and Jake Amster may have turned in their jersey, but they are up in the rafters.
But ultimately I want help position Baby Cakes to succeed on their own. I think it’s so nice that Stephanie and Miles ask me to listen to their new songs and that I can give them friendly and maybe helpful feedback. It’s fun being a big brother. The line up Kevin put together is staggering. When I’m at their rehearsal it’s like being in that mansion with all of those X-Men.
Tell us about recording the new album, Hot Chocolate, which is slated for digital release on May 12. Where did it occur, what went into it, and how long have you been working on it?
I have one simple rule when it comes to recording full length albums. It has to be better than the last one. The why our first album took 5 years. That’s why our 4th album took 5 years. At some point we have to fail, but we haven’t yet.
The recording for Hot Chocolate came on the heels of an intense writing and preproduction process in Everett that yielded the most perfect song we’d ever written, Black & Mild. We were fortunate to be able to get into studio with Justin Armstrong (Death Cab for Cutie, Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews) at Robert Lang Studio in 2012. Everywhere we turned we saw our reflection in Platinum records. Kevin Chryst recorded on Tommy Lee’s drums right onto analog tape.
Recording an album in that kind of studio is a very expensive process but a friend named Matt Cyphert (MTP Studios) insisted at least the basic tracks needed to be record there. He had a chat with Justin and Robert Lang and he just made it happen.
We walked out with about 7 songs recorded, and as I always do, I showed the songs to my father because he has an incredible ear for music. Furthermore, while he believes in me, he never lies to me about our music. He listened attentively and looked at me and said “half of these songs are good enough to be on a Staxx Brothers album.” While the feedback stung a bit, he was right. I spent 4 more years working on the album, personally writing a few hundred more songs along the way. When I showed my dad the mastered version of the complete album I was able to finish producer with Mell Dettmer (Femi Kuti, Clinton Fearon, Polyrhythmics), he gave me the thumbs up and told me one of the latter additions, ‘I’ll Set The Ship on Fire’ was the best song. Which is saying something because he thinks most Country songs are just hokey.
During that 5 year journey, we recorded performances by guests like Dr. Fink, Joe Doria, Delvon Lamarr, and Dara Quinn on keys. Thion Diop played percussion on the song ‘Eko Rock’ that Mell is presenting to her dear friend, Femi Kuti. It was a journey and it’s Bruce Stedman approved. Quality control is everything in the Stedman household.
You are an honorary Bellingham resident who has championed the town to anyone that’ll listen even though you don’t live here. What draws you to Bellingham and what do you dig about the music scene?
I fully embrace that honorary status. It’s ironic, but I do more as an honorary citizen of Bellingham by not living here. I live in Everett. Musicians can’t really afford to live in Seattle, and even if they live in Seattle, most musicians would do better on the outskirts. I put it this way, when I explain to people why I live in Everett: I am the ancient conquerer Hannibal. Bellingham is Carthage. I ride down to Seattle from Everett on on elephant. I raid Seattle for its dot com riches. Then I bring that booty up North beyond the wall. Everett is a nice half way point because given the horrors of traffic, I’m usually an hour from either city. I-5 is our Mississippi River.
Now here’s what I dig about Bellingham that Everett is struggling with. Kyle Ledford from the excellent indie label Soniphone Records asked me outside his offices recently how Everett can be the next Bellingham. I explained to him socio economic and geographical advantages Bellingham has in terms of being a college town. We talked about its relative isolation, yet advantageous proximity to the wealth of Vancouver BC.
But it also came down to the FUNK. I was in New Orleans and an old trumpet player named Hack Bertholomew told me “I love Bellingham, that place has got the Funk”. Joel Ricci (AKA Lucky Brown) is from Everett, but he came to Bellingham because it had the Funk, and when he left, he left the place funkier. Everett needs to stop trying to be Seattle (or rather what it thinks Seattle is supposed to be). Everett needs to start reading What’s Up! Magazine. They need to start embracing the fact that FUNK can change everything. I love every kind of music as long as it’s good, but if you’re town doesn’t have that FUNK, you need to start questioning your leaders and the integrity of your city’s infrastructure. That Skagit River Bridge collapsed in 2013 because that particular patch of road was devoid of FUNK. We’re trying to save lives here.
After the new album comes out, do you have plans for touring? If so, where?
I am building Staxx Brothers bands all over the world composed of individuals I call The Soul United Allstars. I have a drummer named Scott Rowe in Brighton, England gathering an army. I have an MC and champion of Nigerian business named M-Trill preparing for my arrival in Lagos. BlueJay Hankins of Sick Donkey Records is setting up recording sessions with Reggae legends in Jamaica.
We aren’t just touring, we’re making television shows. Were creating independent films. And everywhere I go I’m inviting Bellingham musicians to come with me and I’m talking about Bellingham. Justin Smith from Northwest Sound Studio is in his recording studio right now writing an Afro Beat anthem that will be of great assistance to us on that adventure into the heart of Western Africa. I want to build bridges, real and imagined.
Tell us about yourself? How long have you been in the PNW? When did you get involved in music?
My life story definitely isn’t standard issue. My mother is an angelic Puerto Rican from the Bronx, that is closely related to the Frank Sinatra of Latin America, Daniel Santos. He was Fidel’s favorite singer until Santos realized Communism meant he could no longer own a club in Havana.
My father is a smooth white dude from Petersburg, AK. He has a great hook shot. He used to have Top Secret clearance back when he was flying the first drones over North Vietnam. His father is the legendary Bush Pilot, William K. Stedman with photographic memory. A man who was nearly deaf, but who could hold lengthy conversations over the noise of the propellers. I am proud to say I’m the product of a unique blend of people. Naturally when I started making music, I wanted to mix everything I heard up into a guerrilla funk gumbo.
I’ve been living in Western Washington since I was about 5 years old. In 1985 during the heat of the crack boom, my Dad looked at my sister and I and realized that we shouldn’t grow up that close to Inglewood. I would have been up to no good, libel to represent my own hood, I would have thrived as a young warlord.
I got into music back in high school when I realized I wasn’t going to be tall enough to make it in the NBA, that Bob Dylan was one of the Top 5 rappers alive after listening to Subterranean Homesick Blues, and that freestyling in front of the student body felt like dunking from the free throw line with two hands. I also realized that when I sang, I could get away with saying almost anything if I sang it a certain way. A microphone is a like a stick of dynamite packed with voodoo.
How did you connect with The Up Late NW Show? What is your role on there? What is in the immediate future for the show?
I have to thank the director of our Black & Mild video Ryan Cory for connecting me with the Up Late NW show. My entrance into the world of local television with Up Late and Band in Seattle has been incredible. First I’m a guest on the show, and then the producers give me a business card and they won’t let me leave. I feel like I’ve genuinely helped these television programs, and that any artist I’ve helped thus far (as music supervisor on Up Late, or as a co-host & associate producer on Band in Seattle) has absolutely deserved it. I know the struggle and I love helping artists that are going to seize an opportunity and appreciate the moment. Seeing quality artists like Whitney Monge and Flying Spiders get the exposure they deserve is MY JAM.
As far as the Up Late show, if we get Season 2, the future of the show is going to be incredible. The second half of the first season we no longer were able to tape episodes at the airplane hanger sized Fremont Studios. But the executive producer Anthony Nelson and I turned that into an opportunity. We started shooting music segments in recording studios like Northwest Sound Studio in Bellingham with producers like Sam Chue. This late night show became a vehicle to help independent recording studios all over the region get unprecedented exposure. As a recording artist, these studios are my sanctuaries.
You played a major role in organizing the Bernie Worrell benefits in Bellingham and Seattle. Tell us about how Bernie’s music has influenced you over the years. What did you come away with thinking after the benefits were done?
Bernie Worrell influenced me profoundly, even before I realized a number of years ago who he was. He’s a musical cult hero, but he’s also everywhere. I’m not talking about just on the songs he played on, or the songs he’s sampled on. He created a sound and musical language that has become a cornerstone of Hip Hop and even the Swedish Pop that is dominating the radio today.
I believe in the Taj Mahal’s code that we must honor our ancestors, especially the ones still walking amongst us. Musically Bernie is my grandfather – he influenced a generation of artists that influenced me. I would mow his lawn. I would wash his car. I would carry his keyboards through a blizzard.
In terms of the success of the benefits, certain things didn’t sink in right away because I was in the eye of the hurricane. I didn’t realize until watching the Bernie Worrell documentary, Last Man on Earth how much he really opened up to myself and fellow event organizer Phil Saunders when we did that podcast at Avalon Music after hours (which helped spark fresh energy and interest in developing the Seattle and Bellingham benefits, which were Phil’s idea). I must have asked the right questions, or reminded him of some of his old bandmates, because for a man supposedly of so few words, he dropped some golden nuggets of wisdom on me. I think we spoke for an hour and half. Later at the Up Late shoot he was talking to me about working and traveling with Sly Stone. I adore that man.
When Craig said that the Bellingham benefit was one of the top 5 musical moments the Wild Buffalo has ever known, and the entire capacity audience was whispering Bernie with me as he soloed his ass off like it was the Spring of 76′, I saw how much Bellingham adored him as well. I never saw Duke Ellington, but I got to sing with Bernie Worrell.
LIVE SHOW: See the Staxx Brothers in a special joint show with members of Baby Cakes and Snug Harbor on Cinco de Mayo (May 5) at The Green Frog. Their new album, Hot Chocolate, will be out May 12. For band updates or more information, follow their Facebook page or see www.staxxbrothers.com.
Published in the May 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine