The New Mastersounds on Playing New Orleans Funk in Denver's Thin Air

As a teenager growing up in Wales, Eddie Roberts, guitarist and founder of the New Mastersounds, started immersing himself in faraway influences: jazz and New Orleans funk.

“It’s a bit of a strange one, and I don’t quite understand it myself,” Roberts says. “I know for me the music is all about the groove, and it’s all sort of dance-oriented, really. Those are the things that resound in me. I think as soon as I heard funk, especially like New Orleans funk, it just took hold of me. It just felt like a very natural way to play, as well. I mean, I love jazz. I love Coltrane, but I can’t play it. It doesn’t feel natural to me. This music just feels natural. It’s part of my rhythm.”

While New Mastersounds drummer Simon Allen, bassist Pete Shand and keyboardist Joe Tatton also sound like they’re natural players of New Orleans funk and soul jazz, as evidenced on the band’s tenth studio album, Made for Pleasure, Roberts says numerous trips to the New Orleans Jazz Fest and New Year’s shows in the Crescent City have had an effect on the band, which formed in the late ‘90s in Leeds, England.

“I can hear it in the whole band’s playing,” Roberts says. “Maybe before, when we’d learn the music off records and kind of emulate that, we didn’t really quite understand it or fully feel it. But being down there, you know, you can’t replace that.”

Roberts took it one step further and lived in New Orleans for nearly two years, during which time he immersed himself in the music scene and got the chance to play with his heroes, which he said definitely rubbed off on him. Roberts and Tatton played a New Year’s Eve show at the city’s Joy Theater with Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste and George Porter Jr., the drummer and bassist of New Orleans funk pioneers the Meters, who formed in 1965.

“That was literally the highlight of my career,” Roberts says. “It was just incredible. I’ve played with Zig before and George before, but to play with the two of them together, it’s just that — no one sounds like that. The energy was amazing from the audience. It really was a highlight.”

While the title track of Made for Pleasure has a Meters groove, recording the album at the Living Room, a studio in a converted wood frame church across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, might have seeped into some of the songs as well.

“Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your surroundings affect you, for sure,” Roberts says. “Just the way things sound down there, with the humidity and how thick the air is compared to Denver, where the air is thin. I think things just sound different. It just gives you personally a feeling, and you can’t help that some of that comes through in the music and on to the record. It’s really hard to put your finger on it, exactly. It’s not really science, you know, but it’s there.”

Roberts is more familiar with Denver’s thin air these days, as he’s been living here since getting married a year ago. A few days before he planned to mix Made for Pleasure, he was at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox (where he’s been playing Wednesdays with the Motet’s trumpeter Gabe Mervine) when he heard local reggae ace Spellbinder toasting (a sort of Jamaican rapping) over what the DJ was playing. Roberts introduced himself, asked if Spellbinder was free that weekend, and a few days later had him freestyling over a reggae-steeped cover of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” which appears on the new album.

After the New Mastersounds finished a tour following the October release of Made for Pleasure, the band went into a Nashville studio and recorded a “live” album with a studio audience of nearly thirty people. The album, which Roberts says includes some of the band’s classic cuts over the past fifteen years, was recorded on analog tape, cut straight to vinyl and is slated to be released in April. 

The New Mastersounds play at Ophelia's Electric Soapbox on Thursday, February 11, at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom on Friday, February 12, and Saturday, February 13.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon