Farmfest is fast upon us, and with only a few days left to grab your wellies and dig out the tent, Pitch are excited to share an interview with one of our favourite Farmfest acts to get you in the mood for the weekend ahead.
Amongst the tightly packed line-up of exhilarating live acts, including Young Fathers, Gilles Peterson and GoGo Penguin, Hot 8 Brass Band will be hitting the stage to show Farmfest the epitome of feel good music. Bringing funk-infused covers, like Ghost Town, Papa Was a Rolling Stone and Sexual Healing to life on stage with their New Orleans charm.
Pitch had the honour of chatting with bandleader and tuba player Bennie Pete, to get to know the story behind Hot 8 and find out what to expect from their set at Farmfest this weekend, as well as a bit of an interesting history lesson…
The New Orleans based band are currently celebrating 20 years of Hot 8 with their vicennial tour. Over the years, the internationally recognised group have worked hard keep themselves at the top in the very competitive field of jazz and funk.
‘We all started out in a marching band. Marching bands were and still are very popular and competitive in New Orleans, so we used to have band practice every morning from 6am and again after school. We used to go to the park across the street and play older bands’ music from a little boom box and then try and mimic what we heard. The people that used to come out and watch us in the park when we were practicing became our first line of fans – and that was before we even had a name.
The people that used to come out and watch us in the park when we were practicing became our first line of fans – and that was before we even had a name
‘We did it because we were kids with a lot of energy, and we wanted to put all that energy into the band. Other kids would come along and want to go to the park to play basketball, and some kids were exposed to the inner city violence, but we didn’t want to be part of that, so we all put our energy into one place.’
Looking back to when it all started, Bennie reminisces about the time he first picked up his instrument in 1986.
‘When I was in Sixth Grade, I decided I wanted to be in a marching band that marched at Mardi Gras parades and football games, but I never thought I was going to pick anything up because my band director was so strict about his instruments.
‘He liked to make sure you were serious before touching any instrument, so he’d have you do a lot of tests about theory, key signals and rhythm. After doing a bunch of tests, one day he told me to go to the back of the class and pick an instrument. That was one of the happiest days of my life.’
Whether you’ve been to New Orleans, or just appreciate the city’s musical heritage, you’ll recognise the proliferation of marching bands coming out of the Big Easy. Bennie explains why marching bands play such a huge part in New Orleans culture.
‘Marching bands are a way of life in New Orleans. There’s so much history in it, too, that goes way past all the partying. As times go on it has become more about the social aspect of having fun and partying, but originally it was more about a sense of freedom and a sense of being appreciated as a human being.
originally it was more about a sense of freedom and a sense of being appreciated as a human being
‘Way back in slavery times, they only let slaves meet up and converse with each other on a Sunday, so slaves would leave their farms and come from all over to meet at Armstrong Park, or Congo Square as it was called then. People would meet and play instruments together, sing, draw and pray and it was all about feeling appreciated and having the sense of feeling human.
‘For funerals, it was about giving black people a decent burial because they didn’t used to give black people life insurance, so when they died it was something families had to deal with on their own. Musicians would come along wearing something formal and play some gospel. Some people would sing, other people would draw and give the family art that they made.
‘But as times have past and laws have changed, it’s become more about getting together for pleasure, but still remembering what it was originally all about. Every Sunday to this day, they have the bands and people come out to dance and converse.’
Hot 8 have covered a whole spectrum of music across their twenty-year career, and ventured into a whole blend of sounds, including their undoubtedly most popular Marvin Gaye cover for Sexual Healing. Bennie describes why he believes it’s important for Hot 8 to tip their hats to both contemporary and traditional sounds around the world.
‘As a band, we like a family-orientated fan base, so everyone can appreciate our music. If you had kids you could bring them to our shows and you could bring your mama along too, so already that’s three generations of one family at our show. That’s really important to us so that’s why we play such a variety of music. We just want to reach everybody.’
Just like lots of other genres of music, there can sometimes be tension between the older generation of musicians and the younger that are trying to adapt their own styles of sound.
‘The older musicians have a lot of opinions, which is fine with me to a certain extent. If you have an opinion and you feel something’s not right, I feel you should express that.
If you have an opinion and you feel something’s not right, I feel you should express that
‘I think there are a few younger musicians who you can’t really speak to. They want to do it their way and they don’t want to listen to the older cats, but I think that’s where Hot 8 make the perfect connection between both worlds because we are younger and we are older. We can relate to the older cats, but we can also turn around and relate to the younger cats, and they will take to what we are saying because we are still young. We’re not ‘old’ like some of the other musicians around.
‘Some older cats have a problem with it because they fought hard for their music and it was more about respect back then, but now it’s more about having a party. The way I see it is we’re making our own identity now. If you look at a black and white picture of an old brass band, you’ll see they’ll be dressed all smart with their shoes polished. The bandleader would even inspect all of them before they performed because they wanted to be respected and appreciated. That was the times. Now, you can wear a t-shirt and jeans to church, everything is just a little looser now.
Since Hot 8 went on to grab the attentions of the mainstream crowd outside of New Orleans, there has been an influx of brass bands to follow in their footsteps, including Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Renegade Brass Band and up and coming New York based, Lucky Chops Brass Band.
‘There is no limit to the number of brass bands out there. So long as people keep listening and relating to the music, it’ll keep on going. It’s music to inspire people and it’s been like right back from the beginning.
‘I mean look at us – we made it from being recognised in New Orleans to internationally, so who knows what’s next. Maybe we will be the first band to perform out in space, I don’t know!’
Maybe we will be the first band to perform out in space, I don’t know!
With Farmfest fast approaching, Bennie gives a taster for fans that are looking forward to catching the band live for the first time.
‘If you haven’t seen us live before then expect to witness a great party atmosphere and Southern hospitality, with the whole of New Orleans wrapped up into one show – minus the great food, of course.
‘We really like to interact with people on stage and sometimes even perform in the middle of the crowd. We just like to keep a good atmosphere going.’
When he’s not performing, Bennie shared with us what he’s likely to be getting up to at Farmfest…
‘I like to observe people and talk to fans. I also like to just wander around and check out other bands, and maybe try out a little bit of food too.
‘We never have a set list ready before we go on stage, so before we play, we like to walk around and get a feel for the place so we know how to open the show. Usually when we see people stood around laughing and having a drink, that’s when we know they’re ready for us.
Usually when we see people stood around laughing and having a drink, that’s when we know they’re ready for us.
As Hot 8 reach the end of their 20-year celebratory tour, Bennie hints that this may be one of the last chances to see the US-based band, let alone at a chilled-out 5000 capacity festival like Farmfest.
‘We’ve just celebrated twenty years but to be honest, we’re getting older now. We did a lot of extreme working when we were younger, marching in so many parades. I’ve been marching five to seven mile parades at six in the morning since sixth grade. I mean, I’m married now and have a kid.
‘I think Hot 8 are going to continue to play good music, but maybe as time goes on we’ll have to pick our shows wisely. Who knows, maybe we will start to use our music more in movies. But until then, we’re gonna keep on going.’
Photos by Dominika Scheibinger.