The Birth of a Groove
The story was surely blown before it began. Over the telephone, Geoff Vaughan, contact person for the groove collective Vinyl, is asked if he can set up an interview with someone in the band for early the following week.
There's a long pause. Then this: "Well, I'm the bass player, so I might be a good person to talk to...."
Maybe interference is mucking up the line -- Vaughan is speaking from a cell phone in his San Francisco hometown -- but it sounds like he might be stifling a giggle.
"It's not that normal that a band guy is on the phone doing all of this stuff, and one of these days it won't be me," he says. "It's a way of keeping it in the family, which is nice, and that's something we always lean toward, because it's one less dynamic to worry about."
Currently, there are already plenty of things to keep Vaughan and his mates occupied. Vinyl has a full roster and travels mostly in a packed tour bus that hauls three percussionists (Alexis Razon, Sean Onorato and Antonio Onorato), a guitarist (Billy Frates), a bassist (Vaughan), a saxophonist (Doug Thomas), a trumpet player (Danny Cao) and a keyboard player (Jonathan Korty). The band also seems to have a never-ending tour schedule. And most of the time, Vaughan is doing at least two full-time jobs: keeping both the group's business affairs and its rhythm section as tight as possible.
"If I was only the manager, I would be a better manager," Vaughan admits. "It suffers a little bit because I'm also doing the other stuff."
Fortunately for Vaughan, the "other stuff" is pretty cool. Vinyl is an experimental eight-member instrumental outfit that almost invariably gets stuffed under the too-broad heading "jam band." This is an unfortunate occurrence. The music most definitely has a groove, as well as smooth touches of funk and reggae that appeal to segments of the Phish/Dead set, but it also suggests an innovative, forward-looking approach to songwriting. Vinyl's 2001 release, Flea Market, doesn't feature any endless Garcia-esque guitar solos or vague song structures. In fact, most of the band's songs have more of a strong jazz feel -- sometimes sounding like Latin jazz, sometimes reminiscent of Coltrane or Davis, or with stoney, gooey keyboard lines à la Steely Dan. Still, the jam-band tag persists.
"It's sort of like, whatever you do, you're going to get categorized, and that seems to be the categorization du jour," Vaughan says. "We don't really noodle out into oblivion that often. We sort of prefer the eight-minute song to the 25-minute song, I guess."
When Vaughan and his bandmates do offer their eight-minute songs -- which are full of rhythmic, modal and tonal changes -- the tunes retain some sense of where they originated and don't meander into the self-indulgent aimlessness one often finds with less focused acts. There's a refinement to Vinyl that seems to come from the familiarity between the players. The group started in 1995, in keyboardist Jonathan Korty's garage, as a loosely knit gathering of friends, many of whom had known each other since childhood. With the exception of saxophonist Doug Thomas, a Mississippi native, all of the players are from the same San Francisco-area neighborhood.
"We started out without horns -- just as some old friends getting together," Vaughan says. "Tony and Alexis have known each other their whole lives. Sean and Jon are the same age and went to school together. There are a lot of roots we share."
Over the course of three albums (1997's self-titled release, 1999's Live at Sweetwater and the current Flea Market) and an estimated 800 live shows, Vinyl has made enough of a splash in the music community to warrant the attention of some well-known artists who aren't widely thought of as jam-band people. Les Claypool of Primus (and, more recently, Oysterhead) makes an appearance on Flea Market, as does hyperactive keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who co-wrote one of the album's songs.
"We did a tour with [Worrell] a few years ago and became good friends," Vaughan says. "I mean, here's a guy who's played with everybody and knows everything. You just sort of sit back and absorb what he brings. He's a resource. He's certainly not just regurgitating his same old thing. I swear to God, his music's just flowing through his veins. You put him behind a keyboard, and anything can happen. You just take the lid off of that and see what comes out."
It's in a live setting that the band feels most at home. On Flea Market, Vinyl attempts to translate into digital format some of the fire and edginess that comes out on stage. The result is a flowing, long-form work that -- in structure, anyway -- resembles the concept albums of old. It's almost like listening to an odd, syncopated symphony, with various movements that neatly straddle jazz, reggae, funk and Latin music. Korty's warm, soaring flute, Frates's mellow, thick jazz guitar and Antonio Onorato's rolling, almost melodic, congas combine seamlessly in songs that bleed into one another. The CD emerges as a whole composition, as if the music were carved out of one solid piece of mahogany.
"We went into it [recording Flea Market] with the idea that, instead of stacking song upon song, we wanted to intersperse jams and grooves, so you end up with these thirty-second, 45-second little dub interludes in there," Vaughan says. "It's a little more of a continuous journey as opposed to the sort of compartmentalized, conventional song, song, song. We just wanted to dabble in a little different approach.
"Also, we did a bunch of jamming out in the studio and just wrote stuff on the spot," he adds. "You can play your songs that you've written, play them in the studio and try to get that perfect track or whatever, but there's something about the birth of a groove, when something is coming up for the first time -- it just has a different feeling about it. So we wanted to see if we could grab a couple of those."
Translating the spontaneous aliveness that weaves throughout Vinyl's shows into the colder, more clinical confines of the studio is not always an easy thing to do.
"If you're a band that spends most of your time playing live, then that tends to be how you perform the best: just playing together," Vaughan says. "It's familiar. The studio is a trippy place. It's another world. You're used to being on a sweaty stage with a bunch of people bumping in front of you, and now you're in a little room by yourself with headphones on, and you're looking at your buddies through the window -- no mistakes!
"We certainly try not to sound like everybody else. That's not our mission. But by using different ingredients, you hopefully come up with your own sort of concoction. That's my favorite thing about the band -- the different styles that appear in the music, as opposed to a lot of bands that sort of stick to their guns and their one deal. I love that, too. I could list twenty bands that play in our scene that do what they do so well. But for us, the variety is sort of our thing."
Vinyl's originality extends to the basic composition of the band as well. Since forming, it has been a strictly instrumental affair, though Vaughan says there was no conscious decision to play sans vocalist.
"When we first got together jamming, I don't think we even had a microphone to sing into," he says. "We were just writing jams. And from the get-go, it seemed to work pretty well. We found a good chemistry, and pretty much from that point on, we haven't messed with it, because it feels good and we don't feel like messing with it. I should also say we don't have anything against vocalists. It's not like we said we were going to be an instrumental band forever. But it felt good, it works well."
One result of the decision to do without a singer is that each player shares an equal portion of the spotlight. Without a vocalist to interpret and filter the songs through, the dynamic is changed not only for audiences at live shows, but also for the musicians as they write and play.
"Because we don't have a front person, it's sort of spread around," Vaughan says. "We like that sort of musical democracy. By not having a focal point, it sort of broadens the sense of the band, the 'bandness' of the band, and hopefully gets people to sort of open their ears to the whole package more.
"Without [a vocalist], it opens up a few more options for the players. I think it also opens up options as far as the way your music is interpreted by people listening to it, because if it's not being spelled out to you in lyrics, you feel the song however you want to feel it."
Having played together for almost seven years, and having known one another much longer than that, Vinyl's members have an understanding that goes beyond spoken language. And it is detectable, even from a vantage point among the crowd that's at their feet every night they play.
"Any family has its moments," Vaughan says. "But we're a happy family. There's a lot of mutual respect, and everyone sort of cheers for one another, and we're patient with each other. I would say that's the foundation of this band, that's what makes everything else go -- the cohesion of the bandmembers.
"We feel lucky about it; it would kind of suck to play music with people you don't really get along with. I don't think it would last very long."
Vaughan can't resist a tiny dig as he says goodbye.
"If you make it to a show, come up and say hi," he nudges. "I'm Geoff...I'm the bass player."
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