Tuba playing Tycho is from Illinois, so there’s a silence when I say “Are you one of the brothers?” He’s not sure if I’m being colorfully racist, or if I’m referring to the fact that eight of the brass band share a father.
After gaining a name for his demonic trumpet playing with Sun Ra, Phil Cohran taught his sons to play jazz, often against their will, and despite the Ensemble’s success in their own right, performing with artists like Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Gorillaz, Phil’s philosophies still hold a deep influence on the band’s spiritual outlook.
“Our father got us into astronomy,” says Tycho. “He’d show us stars, the heavens, the different constellations. We were raised vegetarian, but he also taught us about food and how it’s made, so we’d know why we were vegetarian. He taught us philosophy and took us to Christian churches and Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples. He didn’t force religion on us, but he did teach us about them – what their differences were, what they had in common”.
Although the eight-piece horn section are all brothers, the ninth member and drummer is always sourced from outside the family which requires a strong will on their part.
“My brothers – my blood brothers – we’re all young, strong guys. We’re like a pack of wolves. When picking drummers we want someone who can show personality through their instrument, but also someone we can chill with. Touring is like a rite of passage for drummers. Once you make it through the tour you know you’ve made it, you’re one of us – a brother. It’s still a family affair.”
The catalyst for Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s drive and focus came from outside the family.
“He was a friend of ours, like a brother. The day he died, he took every one of us and talked to us individually. He told us all, ‘you’re not doing your best. You can do better.’ He got shot later that day. See, in American there’s this gang violence. We were sort of involved with that. Three of us were in the car with him. The car got shot 11 times.”
As well as incorporating rap into their live shows, last year’s EP Bulletproof Brass shows the band experimenting with vocals which they say helps them to express ideas that were hard to get across using just instrumentals.
“We sort of say that Hypnotic is an anagram for ‘Help. Young. People. Notice.’ With the song War we were trying to say ‘We’re from America. We have this president Bush, he’s about to start a war and we’re asking for peace.’”
Their incredible live show has earned them a reputation as a stand out act on the festival circuit, and made them one of the highlights of the Forbidden Fruit festival, but the band honed their skills with huge, and extremely loud, street performances.
“We don’t play on the streets anymore. Out on the streets, people often only value what they pay for, even if you’re playing priceless music. We liked taking our music out to the people but it started hindering our career, people would ask ‘How can you ask us to fly you across the world to play when you’re giving it out for free?’”
So no street performances in Ireland this time around, though you should still get plenty of opportunity to see the Ensemble live. They are here a lot.
“Man, we’ve lived in Ireland. Leitrim, Galway, Dublin, loads of small towns. We’ve recorded two albums in Ireland [Including 2010’s Heritage, out on Choice Cuts, recorded when the band were stranded due to the Icelandic volcano]. We have a lot of connections here, we like to go to farms to chill out for a while. We got to play with Prince in Dublin. He liked us so much, he took us to Copenhagen.”
Yeah, enough of that. Is Prince mental?
“When you’re that much off the charts, you have to be a little weird. But whenever I talked to him, he seemed like a humble servant of the people. You look at people that big and then, when you get in their presence you see why – they’re always practising. It’s their craft, they live and eat and sweat it. In real-life he was a humble dude, twenty minutes later he was on stage jumping off pianos doing the splits.”
Published by VenueOne in June 2012
An edited version can be found online at: http://venueone.com/#!/blog/interview-hypnotic-brass-ensemble/