Organ Freeman Talks Turkuaz Tour, Next Album And Risky Music [Interview]
An up-and-coming trio with a fresh approach to modern jazz, Organ Freeman is an instrumental act composed of Rob Humphreys on the drums, Trevor Steer on the organ and Erik Carlson on the guitar.
Influenced by Grammy-winning band Snarky Puppy and Grammy-nominated ensemble Kneebody, Organ Freeman is still working to find their fit in the contemporary jazz world.
More artists are working to make jazz accessible, and Organ Freeman is no exception. Though the are only three members, the Los Angeles-based band delivers an expansive sound balanced by inventive improvisation and refined arrangements. The evolution of their style is rooted in the scene’s transformation of the traditional.
Organ Freeman took a break from their tour with Turkuaz to make their Florida debut at Fool’s Paradise, sitting down with Sensible Reason to discuss their new album. Currently nameless, the trio’s forthcoming release follows their self-titled album, which included the single “Go By Richard, Not by Dick.”
The release date for the album, undoubtedly infused with band’s notorious, lighthearted humor, will be set in the next two months. Contemporary jazz lovers, be sure to keep an eye out for Organ Freeman!
SR: So, for the past few weeks, you’ve been on tour with Turkuaz. How’s that?
Trevor Steer: It’s been really awesome. This is our first tour as a band, but we’ve all been on other tours. It’s kind of a crapshoot when you don’t know the other people at all. You don’t really know what you’re in for, personally and musically. In addition to being an awesome band, they’re the sweetest people.
Rob Humphreys: We’ve bonded pretty quick. They have a riser on their set. At the very first show, I’m sharing backline with the drummer, Mikey, and I fell off of the riser while I was playing drums. Mikey caught me, mid-song, and threw me back on.
Trevor Steer: It’s a metaphor for our relationship.
Rob Humphreys: That was only night one.
SR: What have been some other tour highlights?
Trevor Steer: We’ve been doing a couple of sit-ins, having them play on our music and getting in on some of their songs too. Those are definitely highlights.
Erik Carlson: The collaboration between the two bands has been really fun.
Trevor Steer: I’d say setting off some fireworks after our last show, that was definitely a highlight.
SR: I know you’ve been working on an album. Could you tell me a little more about it?
Trevor Steer: We’re closing in on being done with it. We anticipate releasing it in the next two months. Conceptually, compared to the first record, the ideas was that we’re not really trying to do something where we can execute every single part of it live. There’s a whole lot of layers on everything. There’s a lot of different sounds that aren’t classic organ trio sounds. A lot of washed out synthesizers.
SR: Are you focusing more on production instead of the live performance?
Trevor Steer: We made the record, and didn’t concern ourselves with how we would execute it live. Now that we’ve been touring, we’ve been experimenting as we go to see what works. It’s nice, it’s freeing. Where we recorded, there were so many cool instruments. There was a giant pipe organ in there. It took up half a wall. I’m not going to tour with the pipe organ, but it’s just too cool not to use.
SR: Your self-titled album had a combination of ambient lounge mixed with thrash funk, a fusion of styles. ‘Verve’ is a very energetic track, whereas some of your other tracks are more relaxing. Can we expect a fusion in the new album?
Erik Carlson: That’s the foundation of our sound. We’ve branched out a little more, we’re more thoughtful with the arrangements. Tunes are generally more inside, that’s how I’d describe it.
Trevor Steer: Our idea of what we want our band to be is somewhere in between what people have known as the organ trio thing and more of a modern jazz approach. That’s a lot of influences that Erik is into.
Erik Carlson: We all like these guys, and I don’t know if I’m more influenced by them than others, but bands like Kneebody, Snarky Puppy. It is bands like that that we really look up to. At the foundation of their sound, you have a lot of the traditional stuff but they’ve taken it and done something totally different with it. I think that’s what I respect about it the most.
SR: Do you find that it’s challenging to work with a trio? Instead of with a larger group, like a septet?
Erik Carlson: I feel that way. While we’ve been on tour with Turkuaz, and they have such a big sound and they’re so tight and funky, I feel, for myself, it’shard when we’re just three guys and we’re trying to do our best to make the sound big.
SR: I feel like you’re really capturing that… the simultaneous depth and expansion.
Trevor Steer: It’s trade offs, you know. It’s definitely harder in those aspects when you’re constantly trying to knit-pick and refine our arrangements live, so we can try to fill that out. But in other ways, touring with three people is way easier. Turkuaz has 11 people, and it’ll just be the three of out there for the next run. Logistically, way easier.
SR: Do you intend on staying instrumental in your next album?
Erik Carlson: It’s all instrumental, with the exception of one tune, there are some vocals on. It’s singing along with a guitar solo, like George Benson style. The solo is played by Theo Katzman, he played on that tune.
SR: You released the single ‘We’re on Our Way’ in 2016. Are you going to be releasing any more singles to hype up the album?
Trevor Steer: On our first record, we put out ‘Go By Richard’ a little bit before the rest. So I think we’ll probably do that with this one too.
SR: The title of that song… it’s a good one…
Erik Carlson: Should we give away our secrets? A lot of our whole aesthetic has been provided to us by my roommate, or one of our best friends Ryan Dilmore. He’s given us a lot of ideas. He did our album art.
SR: Are those your spirit animals?
Rob Humphreys: Yes, but he won’t tell us which one is who.
Erik Carlson: It’s not my spirit animal…
Erik Carlson: It is, you just don’t know it.
Trevor Steer: You tell us who’s who then.
SR: Alright, I don’t want to butcher this. Rob is definitely the lion.
Rob Humphreys: Of course. I don’t want to be the lion, but I guess I kind of have to be… I like the monkey.
Trevor Steer: A lot of people thought you were the monkey though…
Erik Carlson: He told us to decide, but he said I did intend for the animal to represent one of you.
SR: Is he a musician too?
Trevor Steer: He’s an awesome musician, his record just came out. Rob and I played on it.
Rob Humphreys: It’s called ‘Return to Color,’ by Ryan Dilmore. It’s kind of singer-songwriter, I don’t know how to explain it, but you’ve got to check it out.
Trevor Steer: It’s very Beatles-influenced, in terms of how it’s structured and how things move.
SR: If you were me and you could ask one more question, what would be?
Trevor Steer: Hm, if I had to ask one question, I would ask how do we fit in in terms of the scene, because that’s the one thing I still don’t know how to answer. We play with jam bands, and we play funk shows like this, I think I’m just constantly surprised because I don’t really know what we are. Like you said, some of the songs are funk songs, and some of the songs are definitely not funk songs, so there’s not one clear avenue or audience that we need to find.
SR: I initially saw it as a duality of jazz and funk, but it’s so much more than that. That’s what I was talking about with the layering, about having multiple sounds that are so different but can still fit together.
Rob Humphreys: I think that’s one of the beauties, that I’m learning, that happens when you play with a trio. Even though there are sounds that are being layered, the fact that there are only three people, it gives all of a much bigger dynamic range to play with. There’s more room, there’s more space and a lot of the space needs to be filled. And you fill that. Even though there are all these sounds happening and there are lawyers, I think the fact that they’re still only coming from three of us is what’s important.
SR: Alright, here’s my last question—and my favorite. What’s your passion? It doesn’t have to be music related.
Trevor Steer: I make ice cream. I went off the deep end, making really fancy homemade ice cream. There’s a dairy science program at Penn State and the only actual vacation I’ve taken in a few years. I flew out to Penn State for a weekend and I took this really intensive dairy science program to make better ice cream. I make vegan ice cream too.
My favorite thing about making vegan ice cream is it’s way faster and easier than making regular ice cream because you don’t have to worry about pasteurization.
Rob Humphreys: I’m really passionate about playing live. When we call this work, when we all play music and play on records and some teach lessons, but I feel very passionate about being able to make music on the spot. And be spontaneous with it, with other people. I like being able to find the people where we can get in the same mindset. I think you can still make that connection playing with people you don’t know. I like being able to find the common ground with either people I don’t know or people I know really well. Just being on the constant quest to get creative and do new things that inspire new things, and let it turn into a ball that continues to roll and get bigger.
Trevor Steer: There’s a lot of musicians who don’t really acknowledge that someone is the listener when they’re performing. It’s really easy to get caught up in technique, I think everyone has the same things in every job. It’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that, yeah you’re entertaining people and connecting with people. And it’s way more fun to play music with people who realize that and who are supportive, both in conceptually and in their playing.
Erik Carlson: I think something that turns us off the most, even though it’s something that we’re all guilty of it, I know I am. It’s indulgent musicianship.
Trevor Steer: I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned from playing, from having this band be our fun thing and spending most of the time playing other people’s music and being in a situation where you’re brought in to do a job and to be supportive is to approach things from that way. We can do whatever we want in our trio project but we can’t go into someone else’s recording project or their show and you can’t overshadow. You are there to offer support.
SR: So it’s about taking a collaborative role and leaving space for others to shine?
Erik Carlson: You could make any number of analogies but it’s like having a conversation with someone and not talking over them and being humble enough to let them speak. The collaborative standpoint goes into that.
SR: Instead of waiting for your turn to talk.
Rob Humphreys: And I am totally one of those people. I think we’re all saying this thinking we fall short of that. That being said, I think we’re really passionate about that goal of just being really supportive of one another and being able to play as a trio and support each other as a trio. Everyone has their role in being able to collaborate on the spot.
Trevor Steer: I think that has a pretty noticeable effect on the music we make. One of the things that I think is different than we do than a lot of bands we play shows with. There’s an element of motion with it and sections are organized around whatever the strongest melodic concept we can come up with and how we support that it’s heavily arranged. Others open spaces and spaces to do things but then there’s a lot of spaces. We don’t want to stick around doing the same ting for too long.
Erik Carlson: It’s finding the equilibrium between having things strictly arranged and being improvisatory too because we don’t’ want to have the same thing every night. It’s risky music, so you don’t want to take a chance a lot and suck.
SR: I’ve never heard it described as risky music.
Trevor Steer: Well, it feels risky.
Rob Humphreys: There are so many songs I start, and I’m like okay…
Trevor Steer: it’s challenging, and we’re touring for the first time so we’re still getting a sense. We’ve never played every day for two weeks straight like we’re doing now. We just haven’t had schedules that lineup for us to do that. So it’s a new experience.
I saw an interview with Snarky Puppy. They want to structure the music in a way that in a hypothetical situation if the improvisation is off, the music is still carried on the strength of the arrangement and the strength of the writing.
Trying to strike a balance between something that does the record justice but something that’s not really serious. Because we’re organ freeman, so how serious could we really be?