Brown

An Interview With Chris Masi

When you talk of the Jersey rock scene, the first names to pop up are Bruce, Bon Jovi, Southside Johnny, a sound that was created around the Asbury Park boardwalk some thirty years ago.

That sound remains a focal point for the audible description of shore rock, but the diverse sound of today's new crop of bands makes that inaccurate. Brown is a band that doesn't shy away from diverse originality, and their sound belongs to them, not New Jersey. Their sound is filled with fresh, positive, cure-what-ails-you funk music.

Everyone in the club becomes a member of the band at Brown's live shows. They sing, dance and groove to music so tight, it scares the audience's musicians to the pawn shop. Singer/guitarist Chris Masi preaches a positive message to whatever choir arrives at a Brown show and the harmony vocals behind him do the emphasizing.

Band members switch instruments on stage, sometimes grabbing a guitar, sometimes banging a bongo. The result is an energetic set that could make the most angst-ridden teen crack a smile. Rhythm sections are key in all funk bands. Drummer John Michail and bassist Ryan Thompson hold their own, staying in the pocket during the song's progressions and jumping out for jams. Brown knows how to jam. Their song excursions deliver emotion right to the listener. Sax player Andy Citkowicz can make his instrument talk with uplifting notes.

While today's mainstream rock jumps on the bandwagon of negativity, Brown has jumped off that wagon and has the courage to say something inspiring and soulful. It's hard to draw comparisons when describing their music, especially in trying to compare them to their contemporaries.

The success of today's bands with less vision, songwriting style, and stage presence makes you wonder: Why isn't this band on a major label? The answer may be their courage to make music that fills hearts over bank accounts.

The band continues to make a buzz around the shore, playing at least two gigs weekly. They won three of the eight Asbury Music Awards they were nominated for this year: Top Funk n' Groove, for the sixth consecutive year of the event's nine-year existence, Top Local Release and the Listener's Choice Award. Their debut release is a two-CD set, the first called "turn the house lights down ...," the second titled "we ain't tired yet".

When did Brown first form?

Chris Masi: We first formed in 1993.

Who were the founding members in the band?

The only person that's still in the band today that I initially invited to join is Matt (Kabbel). Last night (Stone Pony show on October 30 with Osiris Rising, Venus Butterfly and Redenginenine), he was the one playing a lot of the keyboards. It's funny because he's mostly been our percussionist for, like, the past eight years, but lately he's been doing the keyboard stuff. So, I'm so used to saying Matt the percussionist, but I'm going to have to start changing that to Matt the keyboard player. He still does the percussion and stuff, but Matt is the only one still in it from back then.

When you started out, were you playing all funk?

Yeah. That's the style of music that I've always enjoyed, that I've always gotten into. I don't know, I guess just from listening to it my whole life. It got inside of me somehow. When I sat down to write music, it just came out in that way. It definitely wasn't intentional, because before Brown I played in plenty of rock bands. I did the whole rock and roll thing. My guitar hero is Hendrix, so I could have very easily been writing songs in that vein. But it just came out funk, so we've been doing funk from the beginning. At least our brand of funk, you know.

You were a guitarist first, right?

Yes.

So who inspired you to play guitar first, was it Hendrix?

Oh yeah, definitely.

What song of his, or was it just a whole album?

It's funny because I was just telling this story the other night. Actually it was "Red House." It was back when I was, like, 13 years old and I had no idea who Jimi Hendrix was when I was 13. I mean, when I was 13 I was listening to, like, Men at Work and Hall and Oates and, like, whatever. I mean, I don't think I had a preference back then. Whatever was on the radio, I was into back then. I heard that track on the radio one day and it just blew me away. I was like, 'Oh my G-d, what is this.' I never heard anything like it before. I was like, 'Jimi Hendrix, I don't know who he is, he plays guitar, ok I'm gonna play guitar.' It was pretty impressive.

When did you start listening to funk?

That started probably when I was a little kid. It was in my youth, when I say youth it was, like, one to ten. That's the youth for me. It was the 70's, growing up then. That's when that music especially was kickin'. My mom liked to listen to that stuff. Whether it was funk or disco or whatever. She listened to all this kind of dance music stuff. I was exposed to it back then.

So it was your mom who first got you into funk music?

I think so. I don't think she did it purposely. It's just that she would put her records on and its just what was coming out of the speakers. So I kind of just grew up on it.

Which funk bands did you start listening to first?

When I was able to save up my dollars and get to the mall and buy a CD, well to buy a record, the first 45 I bought was actually by Prince. He was the first funk artist I got into and then from there I went backwards because I learned who his influences were and then I went and checked them out. You know, like James Brown, Parliament, you know Parliament Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder. I mean, I can go on and on. Like all those greats. So it started with Prince and I kept just going back in history and just kept discovering these great funk bands. It was just nasty. Nasty, nasty stuff.

Who inspires you when you're actually playing live, who's performances? Did you ever see Prince play live?

Yeah. Definitely. I've seen Prince, like, a number of times. I don't know, like, four or five times maybe over the past ten years. I've also seen Parliament. I've seen James Brown. Even though James Brown was past his prime. He still puts on one Bad Ass show. To me it wasn't even funk shows that really inspired me. I remember seeing back in '91, the first Lollapalooza tour, and I saw Jane's Addiction. That was an incredibly inspiring live performance. They definitely inspire me, too. I've always been inspired by anybody that puts on a show. Like a real show - show, you know.

I've never been crazy about going out and seeing a band and they just kind of stand around. That's never been terribly exciting, unless of course, I just love the music. I'm so into the band, that the music's so great and I love it that much. I figure when I go see a show, I go see a show, you know, give everybody their money's worth.

You guys work a lot of improve jams into your set. How do you decide how to do them? Do a lot of them just happen?

Certain songs definitely lend themselves to that kind of improvisation. We have songs that are very structured. If we wanted to we could open it up, for the improved part, but for the most part, we're going to keep it structured. If I wrote a song a certain way that's meant to be like verse, chorus, bridge whatever, then that's how we're going to keep it. Then we do have other songs where it's a straight out funk jam, where we're going to open it up a little bit and let the improv happen. hat always comes out different every time. The improvisation aspect of it. Sometimes too, it depends on the show. Last night, for example, I think we did some improv in spots that we weren't planning on. Sometimes it's just like, we'll just let it flow wherever it takes us kind of thing. If something's feeling good then we're just going to roll with it and everybody in the band will be ready for me to sort of give them the cue to keep rolling.

Does it help you get into the performance more when you get into improvs? Does it loosen the band up more?

I think it's necessary. I definitely think so. Especially when we're trying out new things. Last night we were trying out some new things and sometimes you can feel like there's a lot of thinking going on, on stage. So in order to bring that up, we'll be like, 'all right, let's stop thinking, let's just play.' So it definitely helps to do that. It definitely helps loosen things up.

Do you think it helps get the audience loose?

Oh, definitely. That's our goal. When we get on stage, I think for us it's important to try and get the crowd going as much as possible. I don't think Brown is just up there to just play for our self.

We're up there playing for ourselves, we wanna get the crowd involved. You know that's like the most important thing. So definitely improv helps us stay loose and we're loose then we're gonna be, like, you know, hopefully more loose towards the audience.

Does staying loose for a show come from rehearsal?

I think it does. Thing is we've been doing this for a long time. So I think its like an experience thing. We play at least once or twice a week. We're constantly put in different situations. Even last night. We don't actually have the chance to set up and sound check. It's like a set up and play. Those are usually a little more stressful because you don't know how the sounds going to be. You're not sure what it's going to be like on stage. You're not sure what the audience is going to hear. You're concerned that everything is going to work. Like last night the keyboards gave us a little problem in the middle of the set. For the most part, we're all just excited and ready to play. There's always concerns, of course. We've learned to try and not let that stuff get in the way of the show.

What inspires you to write a song?

Anything.

Do you write most of the songs or do the other band members bring stuff in?

I'm definitely the primary songwriter. A good example would be ... I'll come up with a song, like the chordal progression, the lyrics. Then Matt will help me out with the lyrics and then give me an arrangement idea. Something like that. But for the most part, I write the songs. There's always freedom for, like, the bass player or drummer to add their style or their playing style into the tune.

Maybe I'll write a song and I'll have a bass line already. And I'll show my bass player the bass line and it might be a vital part of the tune. Like if that bass line changes, the whole song sounds different. But I definitely will say, 'here it is, now if you have better ideas.' I'm, like, always open to that. For the most part that's how it works. There are Brown-written tunes, especially on the first album we put out. There's probably three or four that we wrote all together, you know, in a rehearsal one night or something.

Which ones are those?

One would be "Babblestub" and another would be "Space Donkey". "Na Na Song" would be another one and "Dirty Nasty."

Do you have a lyrical focus or something you want to present to your audience?

I think that we try to focus on the positive instead of the negatives. When we first put the band together we wanted do something, not just musically, but in the message. It's just like so many bands or artists use the stage to do a lot of complaining. Like, 'oh life sucks, this sucks, you suck, this girl sucks, this guy sucks.' You name it, it's just a lot of bitching and moaning.

It's, like, lets go here and see what this guy has to complain about and that's fine. It has its place. Everybody can get into that style. (They can) like that sound if they want to do some self-loathing or whatever.

From my perspective it was, like, let's do something opposite of that. Let's put a positive spin on things. Make people feel good about being alive. Not like everybody's got to be so damn miserable. It's, like, lets make it so when they come out and see a Brown show and they're not at work anymore and they're not bogged down into any kind of crap that went on in their day or is going on in their life, that we wanted to invent some kind of escape or release. So thinking like that, we decided lets make the lyrics focus on more uplifting things. So that was, and still remains, the focus of our lyrics. Lets keep it positive and lets keep it uplifting. Not so dark. That's one angle.

Like any other band out there, we'll sing about relationships. Or since we're all guys we'll sing about girls or sex. We'll do that too. But 75% of our music is focused on if you're having a tough time forget about it, things will get better. Have a positive outlook, something like that, without trying to sound too cheesy or preachy. We don't ever want to preach anything. We're just trying to make it seem like: Look, here's seven or eight guys on stage and we're forgetting about all this kind of crap. We're just having a good time and letting loose. That's all these couple of hours are about, that's it. Don't worry about nothing else.

So kind of your lyrical message and your show go hand and hand?

Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

Josh Davidson
Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and njcoast.com. He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.
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