Smile Politely

The Sugar Prophets: Expanding the musical family tree

Local band The Sugar Prophets is culminating a year plus of hard work in a big way this week. On Sunday, they will have a record release party at Memphis on Main for their self-titled debut album. They will follow that up a few days later with a trip to Memphis to perform at The Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge. I recently got in touch with frontman Josh Spence to discuss the band’s history, their new album and the Blues Challenge. We were supposed to sit down for an in-person interview, but we decided my laryngitis was a deal breaker for both of us. So the following exchange took place via email.

Smile Politely: Can you talk about how the band originally formed? How did you all end up getting together?

Josh Spence: Let’s see, where to start… I had been a regular around the C-U music scene for 10+ years, sitting in and playing at every chance I got. This was mostly with Kilborn Alley, but I also sat in with other bands around the area and beyond including Candy Foster & the Shades of Blue, the Blue Deacons, Deluxury, Shirley King (B.B. King’s Daughter), Studebaker Jon and the Nighthawks from Chicago, Bad Whiskey Blues Band, and many more. Joe Asselin (Sugar Prophets guitarist) was in Kilborn Alley at that time, Al Chapman (SP bassist) was with the Blues Deacons, and A.J. Williams (SP guitarist) was in several bands during that time including the Bad Whiskey Blues Band, Candy Foster & the Shades of Blue, Shirley King, and he also toured legendary saxman A.C. Reed.

The first band that I had ever gotten on stage to jam with was Bad Whiskey Blues Band about 13 years ago. Right around that same time Joe had moved here from Maine. I met him a week after he moved here, and we have been close friends ever since. Skipping ahead to 2009, the economy tanked and I was laid off. I had been talking about forming a band for years, so I thought, what a better time than now? I called A.J. and Al to see if they were down with starting a band…and they were. We then hooked up with Bob Weber on drums, and Jesse Steinberg on guitar to round out the line-up. A few months in, Jesse got a job in Pennsylvania and had to leave…enter David “Lucky” Wiser, a smokin’ guitar player from Arkansas. He was with band for about six months before he had to move back home. Joe had parted ways with his brothers in Kilborn Alley about a year or more prior to “Lucky” leaving. He had also helped us out by recording us in his living room, and shooting some promo shots for the band, so he was familiar with what we were doing, and he decided to take “Lucky’s” spot. In January 2010 Aaron “A-Train” Wilson joined up replacing Bob Weber on the kit. We’ve been rolling like that until just recently, when unfortunately, A-Train decided to move. We are going to miss him greatly. However, we are proud to announce that our new drummer is Vince “Fuzz” Elam, and are excited about competing in Memphis with him on drums.

SP: Can you tell us about the new record? What was the recording process like? Did you pick from a long list of songs or did you have a specific list in mind?

Spence: Sure, this is our first studio album and contains twelve original songs. It’s all rooted in the blues, but contains feels from other genres such as Cajun/Zydeco, country, reggae, soul, gospel, jam and rock ‘n roll. We really are excited to get it out and into folks’ hands and to see how it is received. The album is a mix of upbeat, playful and soul-tugging songs. If you had to stick it into only one genre, I would say roots rock would be the one. However, we try not to pigeon-hole ourselves, and try to push the genre of the blues to new boundaries with our music.
The recording process was fun, tiring, stressful, and a life changing experience all in one. We recorded at Great Western Record Recorders, located in Tolono, IL. Matt Talbott, the front man from Hum, is the owner/operator. If you or your band would like to record all analog, old school reel-to-reel, GWRR is the studio for you. Matt was great, and really knows his stuff and is total vintage gear-head. He really helped us through the recording process and kept us moving to try and stay on budget. We did go over but that’s because we tried to record and mix 12 tracks in two days. We did it in three days and some change, and that was really working hard to get it done. In the end the long hours were so worth it, as we are thrilled at the end result!

We had a list of about 15 originals that we wanted to record but we just ran out of time, so we figured we’d save some for the next CD. The band approached this CD as a vinyl album, reinforcing that vintage style we were after. All design decisions were made with this in mind, and the packaging is designed to echo the feel of a vinyl from the 60’s and 70′. The songs are split into a Side A and Side B, to echo the vinyl album concept as well, and even arranged them to create a full album experience. We feel that this is something that is being lost in the digital music era. We want people to experience this album non-stop start to finish. Grab a 6-pack, a pack of cigarettes, press play, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Bigger Than Life Size (from the new album)

SP: When you write songs do they form from practice and jamming or are all the parts conceived ahead of time?

Spence: We write as a group mostly, guys will bring different song ideas, licks, grooves, or lyrics to rehearsal and we just sit in a circle and start bouncing ideas off of each other. A lot of the stuff is instant creativity that just happens during rehearsals. It’s really exciting when that happens, Joe will wander on a riff, Al will jump in on a bass line, A.J. kicks in with what he hears, and then I will here a vocal line and then the lyrics come next. Songs don’t always come fast like that, but there have been a few songs that just seemed to materialized out of thin air. We also work with local songwriter Roger Huisinga from time to time, and recorded a joint effort on track four of the album. Some of the songs are more preconceived than others, but they always get “Prophetized” so to speak the end result is truly a collaborative effort.

SP: Though you primarily get categorized as a blues band, your sound is not straight traditional blues. You also have gotten lumped in with “jam” bands, but that doesn’t seem like an accurate description either. Can you discuss some other genres and/or musicians that have influenced the band’s sound, either directly in the music or in your general attitude on stage?

Yeah man, like I said earlier…we try not to get pigeon-holed into one genre. We are definitely based in the blues, but we one thing that I love about our band, is that everyone is willing to go wherever the music takes us. Some people write the blues off as easy and repetitive, and yes traditionalbBlues can be that for sure. But doesn’t most popular music in the mainstream market follow the format of Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus/Out? The point is that each genre has a traditional format and modern artist in the genre are constantly changing and pushing the genres forward, that is what we are trying to do. I always tell people, especially college students, “you like the blues, you just don’t know it yet.” John Mayer, Eric Clapton, The Roots, Cream, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, The Beatles, Aerosmith, Willie Nelson, Fleetwood Mac, Huey Lewis and the News, Rod Stewart, and many more. All of these bands and musicians started as blues artists or were heavily influenced by the blues. Isn’t most if not all American music based on the blues? I mean the first rappers were Blues Cats doing spoken word over rhythmic guitar licks and hooks. Follow the family tree of music and you will see for yourself. I’ll step down off of my blues soapbox now.

I have heard a lot of people say that we remind them of The Black Keys, J.J. Grey & Mofro, The Heavy, Canned Heat, and the British Invasion. We just play music man, why put a label on it…good music is good music no matter what you call it. I feel like we unique sounds due to the convergence of our different influences and personalities.

SP: You guys are scheduled to play at the The Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis next week as the Illinois representative. How did that come about?

Well the IBC is a worldwide, invitation only, judged “Battle of the Bands.” It is the Blues Foundation’s search for the best amateur Blues band ready to take their act to the national and international stage. The first step in that process is to win a Blues Challenge/Battle of the Bands held by accredited Blues Societies around the World in order to earn a “Key to Memphis.” This past summer The Sugar Prophets competed in the Illinois Central Blues Clubs competition down in Springfield. We went up against six really good bands, and were fortunate enough to win, earning our ‘Key to Memphis.” Down in Memphis we will be competing against 110 bands from all over the world. Professional bad ass bands that will punch you in the face…musically. We are looking forward to being measured against this world-class judging criteria, and performing for the thousands of blues lovers and musicians that will invade Memphis in the next week.

SP: The show this weekend will be an album release show/fundraiser for the Memphis trip. Can you talk about some of the costs associated with the trip?

Yes, as I said earlier, this is an invitation only competition that can, and has, launched the careers of musicians like Susan Tedeschi (now married to Derek Trucks and a member his band), Tommy Castro, Watermelon Slim, Fiona Boyes, Super Chikan, and the late Sean Costello. The competitors are not compensated for their performances, but the opportunity that this competition provides is priceless. So we have lodging for five guys, food, gas money to get down there, and another real expense is lost time at work as performers are required to check in on Tuesday, and the competition ends on Saturday. Like with any town that has huge tourism event happening, the hotels have at least doubled their prices for this week so that is a huge expense.
We are thrilled that the Prairie Crossroads Blues Society and Memphis on Main have offered to host this fundraising event for us. C-U BBQ will be serving up their Award-Winning BBQ and we have lots of things planned, including a silent auction, raffle items, and door prizes.

SP: Other than the Memphis trip, do you have an other upcoming plans to do any out of town tours?

Yes we do. I have already started making contact with Blues Societies, as well as major blues clubs and festivals around the world and US. We just sent our album out to 150 radio station in the USA, Canada, and Australia, including XM and Sirius Radio. Our Radio Promotions Agent is Todd Glazer out of Alaska, and he has a long track record of getting his artists charted and into the top 10 of the Living Blues Charts. This year alone, 34 of his clients were nominated for Blues Music Awards. We feel really fortunate to be able to work with him, and look forward to seeing how we do with the DJs. We hope that we are able to use our appearance at the IBC as a jumping off point for the band. Our vision is to be touring on a national level within 6-12 months, and internationally within 18 months.

The Sugar Prophets self-titled debut is available on iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby, Digstation, and more. You will also be able to purchase the CD and other merchandise from the band’s website. The will be performing this Sunday, January 30 at Memphis on Main along with Kilborn Alley Blues Band.

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