[Interview] The Founding Members of The Soul Rebels Talk Their Personal Style and History
Main Image: The Soul Rebels Official Website
The native sounds of lively New Orleans manifested at Wanee 2018 in the shape of an eight-piece jazz ensemble known as the Soul Rebels. Prior to their excellent set, I was able to sit down with the two founding members, Lumar LeBlanc (President and snare drum) and Derrick Moss (Vice-President, bass drum and percussion), joined also by newest member and sousaphone player, Manuel Perkins. The Soul Rebels are a multi-generational company that have mastered jazz as well as the sounds of pop, rock and hip-hop. The result? A fusion so pleasing and unique, you can't deny that it makes for anything other than a soulful, rebellious masterpiece.
Welcome Back to Suwannee! Happy to have you guys. I’m very excited about your set tonight.
Lumar LeBlanc: Glad to be back.
Your music stems from your start with The Young Olympian Brass Band. When did you guys start to incorporate all of the other sounds - the hip-hop, the pop, the soul?
Lumar: Kind of early on. I mean, we obviously started more traditional with [Harold] Dejan’s Young Olympian, playing more of the authentic, wholesome, traditional songs that New Orleans was made famous for. But, being part of the generation that we were brought up in, and having the ear for funk, hip-hop (the emergence of Hip-hop) and Afro-Cuban rhythms we wanted to incorporate them.
So, that’s how The Soul Rebels emerged. Cyril Neville (from the Neville Brothers) named us The Soul Rebels and we got our own identity from there. We dressed in fatigues. There are a lot of powerful black messages in our music; we want world peace and to stop the violence, so it all grew from there.
So, with your individual backgrounds, how do you bring that unique sound to the band? How about the pop influence, were did that come from?
Lumar: I grew up in New Orleans, went to school, elementary, high school, did everything there except college. I played music coming up, my time in college was a big influence on Soul Rebels because, at the time, everyone was basically either a college grad or was presently in college or had college experience and I think that’s where a lot of the college type routines and exploration of the music came from, because we always wanted to be a mainstream type of act. We were ready for the world, we wanted to hit the stage, so I think college had a lot to do with it.
The pop influence, we loved the approach to that style of music, the idea of taking it basically from the street to the stage. I wanted to strictly be a street band because, you know, in New Orleans the parade thing is a big thing. It’s authentic. New Orleans has a right to cradle it and say it’s ours, so no disrespect to that at all, but we always wanted to be more of a mainstream act. We were all in marching bands in college. It’s interesting actually, did you see any of the footage of Coachella with Beyonce?
No, I didn’t.
Lumar: You have to look at it; she paid homage to H.B.C.Us and that’s exactly what we experienced.
Derrick Moss: We were leaders in the University bands that competed against each other.
Lumar: The level of choreography, the exactness with the music - that exemplified what Soul Rebels wanted to be. But we had to go in another direction. It’s good that we had the traditional training because it helped a lot. It gives you a foundation, and exposes you to so much different music, such as the gospel, or the rich African music that came from Congo Square - which is where Jazz emerged from - so we needed that foundation.
We are indebted to the guys who taught us, but we wanted to do our own thing, and we've eventually got to where we can do it and people love it now. When we started, nobody knows about the hours of stress we went through. We were branded as being rebels in a negative sense, but we always looked at it as a positive thing, Soul Rebels, but they looked at us like we were rebelling against a tradition. You know: “why do y’all do it that way? Why are y’all dressing that way?” but we stuck with it. I guess you have to be yourself.
Lumar: With this band, you could go out on a limb and say we were the most educated brass band on the street. I say that, in that our experiences through high school marching band's led us to these university bands in the South that were very popular and well-liked by the whole community.
That was the whole south, because we are all from the S.W.A.C.: The Southwestern Athletic Conference. I was drum leader at Southern University, while Lumar was on bass drum at Texas Southern, and we were big rivals. We could have bitten each other’s heads off before the game, but then we would go out and party after the game.
So, the competitive nature of New Orleans remains inside of us; it drives us to continue to push the envelope and not be stuck in a shell or box, so we’ve broken that wall now. There are no boundaries.
Your sound is very eclectic. You guys have collaborations with Marilyn Manson, String Cheese Incident, Wu-Tang Clan; those collaborations are just as diverse as your sounds. Are there any collaborations or sit-ins prepared for this weekend?
Derrick: Not for this show. We are giving strictly Rebel power (laughs).
Lumar: But we have been so busy that it was a refreshing thing not to be doing collaborations, because it’s a hell of a lot of working. People don’t realize you have to practice, and you have to learn each other’s music. They have to be acquainted with your music if they're doing your songs so, a lot of the time, when we collaborate with the people you are talking about, we have to learn every song and play them to a tee. We are already looked at as a "brass band."
Derrick: Which we are instrumentation-wise; we are a brass band but we play anything and everything. So, when these people show up and are like "where is the keyboard..."
All: They always ask where the bass is!
Lumar: Then we pull out a Sousaphone and they ask ‘hey, why do you have this?’ and we say: ‘you’ll see.’ But, that’s a lot of work, collaborating, and it’s well deserved for all those members who put in the time and effort to learn the music and basically play it back for the artist so they can be like: ‘wow, they pulled it off.’
Derrick: Take my song for example, which is without the bass, without the keyboard and without the guitar. We cover that using horns, and I have to say that what allows us to do this is our experience with University marching bands. What a marching band has to do with music you hear on the radio is often understated so, take Michael Jackson and Prince, we play their songs but we don’t have any electric instructions. So, from what we learn, we master how to transpose music from electronic to horn, and we wouldn’t be able to pull this off as well as we do without our college experiences.
The newest member in the band, the bass man, that’s right, he graduated from U.N.O. with a music degree, so we have cats who really know music. They can really read and write music, so there's a difference there. We've all got all different levels of stuff, but somebody can give us some charts and we can play the song for you.
So you guys got a new member? Have you been making any new material, especially with the new member?
Lumar: Oh yeah! We have a bunch of new material that’s going to another planet, another universe! That too is a lot of work, getting all the creative ideas to come together. We’ve been doing a lot of touring, collaborating, all while working on our image. It’s a different ball game now. We are way ahead of the curve because, like I said, when we started we dressed in fatigue uniforms. It was a big statement.
Derrick: We were like The Militant Rebels, but we were militants for peace, aspiring to stop the violence and foolishness on the streets, starting in New Orleans. The nineties were a murderous decade, and we were experiencing five murders a day within the city. That rate went down after Hurricane Katrina; New Orleans got cleansed. They say everything happens for a reason and I believe that. No matter how bad something is, I always try to look for the bright side and that’s where we are now. We have a new New Orleans, which is more diverse too.
Speaking of New Orleans, how does Suwannee compare to some of those venues venues like Madison Square Garden or those back home, such as Jazz Fest? Do you design set-lists based on where you're playing?
Derrick: We treat every venue the same. When we come to a stage, we come to entertain and to play. When we pull up, we're looking around like: "HOLD UP, Wait a minute, it’s a hoedown out here…" We try to base a set-list around an audience.
Lumar: Jazz Fest is not that remote. It obviously takes place on horse-racing ground, so it’s all dirt and stables, but it’s in the city.
Do you guys thrive more making music on the road or when you are back home in New Orleans. Every Thursday you all have a gig that you play at Le Bon Temps Roule?
Manuel Perkins: It depends on wherever that creative juice starts flowing, whether it’s in New Orleans or on the road. We just take to it and we vibe off of what that person’s energy is giving us and, once we vibe off that and we get a flow of where they’re at, we chime in and we mesh together. If it's not originally a piece, we will sit down and work it out and come up with structures of the song; we'll just put it all together and it will be a whole new song on the spot and people won’t even realize it.
Derrick: A lot of the time, I want to say it starts off as a mistake. I often say to people that I don’t make mistakes, but I don’t mean that I don’t mess up, I just do some things I don't mean to do. So what I've done is, I've figured out how to turn something that wasn’t supposed to happen into something new so, over the years of playing, I have realized that if it isn't going to happen I don’t freak out. I relax, take a deep breath and let my brain jump ahead of the music to see if I can loop that. I often loop that. Whatever I do wrong, I loop it and do it again, and at some point my brain is okay with it.
Is anyone in the band influenced by a certain new artist, an artists who has taken your music in a different direction - especially with the rise and popularity of electronic music? Is there someone in the band that is into someone right now that you can tell is influencing the music?
Manuel: Not as far as one particular artist, because everybody doesn’t specifically just delve into one artist’s library and just listen to that and determine how they want to write a song. There isn't one specific period of music that everybody likes, though everybody in the band likes music from before our time. We like the challenges that come from the different kinds of genres that we play, because it keeps everybody's brain actually working instead of being on autopilot.
Derrick: We have such a big age difference from the oldest member to the youngest member, but age is only a number, not just in spirit or soul, but also in that everybody in this band is really a true artist. They play a particular part within the whole, but we all like different kinds of music. Each one of us listens to different stuff.
We have a lot of things that we like together, but everyone has something that nobody else listens to unless it’s just playing. The Doors, Rage Against the Machine, it’s all in there, even if they don’t realize it. I’m the oldest guy in the band, and I’m old school. I like soul, pop and funk. Funk is my thing; I like the funk.
Big Prince fan?
Derrick: Prince is my freak master.
Well, thank you guys. Welcome to Wanee.
Lumar: Our pleasure. See you out there.
The Soul Rebels are touring throughout the summer, including dates at Billboard Live, Summerfest and Grandoozy. All dates and tickets are available here.