When thinking of rock and roll hotbeds, Alabama typically isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But the Brittany Howard-led Alabama Shakes broke through with their 2013 debut and haven’t looked back since. Now, just an hour and a half down the freeway in Birmingham, another southern superpower is ascending in the Yellowhammer State.
The Paul Janeway-led St. Paul and The Broken Bones first made a splash with their 2014 debut, Half the City. A retro-soul juggernaut punctuated by punchy horns and dynamic vocals, it found the band garnering praise from almost every music outlet across the country, as well as invitations to play major festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo.
They expanded the band from six to eight players and returned last year with Sea of Noise, a thoughtfully upgraded and modernized extension of their powerhouse debut. They’ve since gone on to tour with the Rolling Stones and perform with Sir Elton John.
On Sunday, the band makes a stop at the Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre on a co-headlining tour with Trombone Shorty.
PACIFIC recently spoke with dynamic front man Janeway from his home in Birmingham about the new album, staying true to the art, and how to carefully navigate success.
PACIFIC: Talk about the decision to expand your sound.
PAUL JANEWAY: To me, that’s kind of the most important thing. Expanding that palette. Expanding where you can go. And as artists and musicians, I think it would be disingenuous if we didn’t do that sort of thing.
So the express purpose was to differentiate?
That was the main goal. We recorded Half The City in January of 2013. But it didn’t come out until February of 2014. So we had sat on it for over a year. And by the time it came out, we were a better band. So I knew when it came out what we were going to do next was going to be different.
It’s funny, because we went into the studio about six months after Half The City came out. We started recording and it was turning into Half The City 2. I was like, “we’re not doing that.”
It was an interesting time for the band. And it is nerve-racking thing.
I still believe in the album format. We’re already starting on the next one and experimenting with that whole concept. But I still believe in a collective work. And I think with Sea of Noise it was like a concept record in a lot of ways.
That can be tricky. But I think you were incredibly successful in the way you did it.
It was one of those things where we were like, “Now we feel like we can do anything we want.” And obviously we’re not going to make a death metal record. But we feel like we can do whatever we want to do. And I think that’s what Sea of Noise has done for us.
You’re free in a lot of ways. You don’t feel like you just have to do the retro-soul thing. And to be fair, when we first started, we went to our roots. That’s what we grew up around and it was easy to do for us. Sea of Noise is a record that really allowed us to spread our wings. It’s the bridge.
But there were guys in the band wondering why we were changing the formula. There was some tension. And I get that. But for me, if we made the same record as we did before, what you’re telling your audience, and what you’re telling everyone else is, this is what we do. This is who we are. And with your second record, I think you get to tell people what kind of artist you are.
Did the creative process have to change?
It did to a degree. How we develop the songs changed. The first record, half of it was just (bassist) Jesse (Phillips) and I. He played guitar and I sang. Then the band sat in a room and got it all together. Everybody sitting in a room together is good in theory. But, for us, we found it became incredibly unproductive. It’s just hard to wrangle all of those ideas.
Everyone took time. Wrote a riff. I sang something. And with the technology now, you can swap it back and forth. At this point you don’t even need a studio. But we did it that way and it was far more productive. But you learn stuff that you didn’t know the first time around. And it worked. And all that happened was that we grew a little more. Had it taken a nosedive, well, then we’d have to reevaluate.
And the live show gets to grow as well.
Right. The way we do the show now is completely different from how we used to do it with Half The City. With that album we were, like, punching the audience in the face for an hour. And with this record, we build it. And it still has great energy and all the things you want. But it’ll change again with the next record. As long as you keep your essence — that’s the thing. If you change who you are, that’s when the shows start sucking. As long as you keep you’re essence, you’ll be all right.
Flash forward 10 years to the St. Paul & The Broken Bones death metal show!
Yes! And it’ll be nothing but math calculations!
St. Paul and the Broken Bones w/ Trombone Shorty
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 27
Where: Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre, 5500 Campanile Drive, SDSU
Did adding additional players just come with the expansion of your sound?
At first we were a six-piece, and then we turned into an eight. With the new album came more space to cover. And with eight, you can add two new parts to it. If there’s one thing I can say about the new record, it’s far more nuanced. It really is — for me as a vocalist, and the guys as players.
How is success treating you?
I’m one of those people who like to move forward. And as terrible as this is, I always think there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who want your spot. And you have to always work at it and try to push yourself — although that doesn’t always happen. But I think what we realize is that we just played an amphitheater in Washington D.C., the Wolf Trap, and it’s a 7,000 cap venue. And you’re just like… Man! And in certain places, that’s where we’re at. It’s insane. But we just want to continue to make great music and put on great shows. That’s the goal. But it is crazy.
Well, if it comes on your own terms, it can only help the process, right?
I think so. But it all comes down to making sure that you don’t lose yourself in the process. Like, everyone is always telling us, “Y’all could be huge! You just need a radio hit!” And we’re like, “Yeeaaaah, but things are pretty good right now.” And if we did have a radio hit, great. But I’m never going to write a song with making a radio hit in mind. Never gonna do it.
We don’t write inaccessible music. That’s true. I know that and am OK with that. But most importantly, I think you just always need to be yourself and do what really moves you. Do that, and it will always be good.