Nick Zamora of the Suffers talks touring, gear, and how their rapid success propelled them to places they never thought possible.
So where's the band at right now? Are you touring at the moment or at home?
I’m home. We're heading to Denver for a show on Saturday, Napa on Sunday, and then we come back for a day. Then on Wednesday we leave for a series of trips overseas, which will be our first time touring in Europe and then Japan. If you look at our schedule it looks insane because we go from Denver to Napa, and then to France. After that we're going to Paris for a Festival and TV show appearance, and then something in Wichita, Kansas, and then Tokyo. It looks like the world's worst tour booking job ever. Back and forth and back and forth.
You said this will be your first time touring overseas, have you left the country before?
This will be, we've played Canada a couple times this year and for a festival last year, but this will be our first time going overseas. We're doing Afropunk Festival in Paris and some TV show. In Japan we're playing two nights, two shows per night at the Blue Note in Tokyo. The Afropunk thing came through a relationship with the Afropunk people here, but the Japan thing just kind of came out nowhere.
Last fall when we were in New York, we played a show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn and this Japanese Radio Station called NHK - they're kind of like the NPR of Japan, like a radio and TV Network - they have a couple guys that are based in New York that occasionally go out and tape shows. They played our show this past New Years in Japan and I'm guessing that's how people out there heard about our music. We've got some records for sale in a couple stores out there and they wanted to bring us out. It's really cool and we're really looking forward to it.
Yeah, isn't ska pretty popular out there? They must like their horns over in Japan.
I've talked to a couple of people who have lived in Asia, traveled there or performed there, and they said it's kind of different. The music fans there are a different type than here - they're definitely some true fans of certain bands here in the US, but they said in Japan for example - if they're into you, they get into it. They want to know about the whole band and want to know about the people in the band, the history, everything. And usually if someone is into soul music, they're ahead - they dig and find all sorts of classic stuff and have a little bit more finesse about music in these genres.
Having our roots in reggae and ska from where we started, there's definitely been some attention that we've gotten in other countries, including Eastern and Western Europe and other places. Especially now that it's slimmer and slimmer pickings as far as bands out there with horns and doing rocksteady or any sort of stuff like that. So, I think people hear about it and they have their finger on the pulse with what's going on. Plus now with blogs people are writing about it, so it's cool - it's nice to reach people through those different connections that we have.
So for the people that are looking you up, what are they finding, who are The Suffers?
When the band came together this was just a side band for all of us, just a fun thing that we did on the weekends. Everybody was in a bunch of other bands, the music we were doing ranged from ska to Latin rock to straight ahead jazz. Pat [Kelly] our keyboard player is also a drummer and he was doing musicals. Everyone's background is very raw at this point just from years of playing. We started doing this just to do some reggae stuff, and when we decided to write, the music didn’t come out just like reggae, it came out like, whatever our first album sounds like. We didn't want to force them in a specific direction so we just let it happen and that's kind of how the album came out.
We have kind of "borrowed" the label of gulf coast soul from an artist by the name of Barbara Lynn, she actually still lives near Houston and still performs. For us, it kind of combines this range of different influences we let into our music or that squeak out in our music, that are all to us, representative of some aspect of gulf coast. There's everything from rap to Tejano, other types of Latin music and some New Orleansy stuff, jazz-blues, all sorts of stuff. It served us well in that we have a pretty broad potential fan base, essentially if you like music and aren't listening to only one type you can come to our show and you will probably enjoy something that we do. It's nice for us, we haven't set any hard expectations so we are kind of free to continue doing it like that. I don't know if there will come a point where somebody shows up and they're like, “Man, ya'll changed.”
How exactly does the writing process work with so many people in the band? Does any one person take control or do you all collaborate?
It's pretty collaborative, and it just depends, we don't rely on one particular way of writing. We give the majority of the lyrics writing to Kam [Franklin] and she's always thinking of different ideas. Some of the stuff that came out on the album are lyrics of songs that she wrote a decade ago. Sometimes we write around a lyrical idea that she has.
As far as the composition of the music, it's typically an idea that someone has and sometimes it's just a riff - sometimes it's a little more fleshed out. Whether it's something we come up with in a rehearsal and just start jamming on, or something where someone says, “Okay I've got this song,” only on rare occasions do we really try hard to stay true to the original idea. It helps if the idea is pretty well-developed, but either way we like the surprise we get when we start kicking it around.
As the drummer among so many other instruments, who are you listening to while playing in a live setting?
At the root I'm listening to the bass especially, but he [Adam Castaneda] and I do a pretty good job of locking in together and he's got great time. It helps if I'm tuned into him because - and I think maybe other drummers can relate to this, but when you're the only timekeeping instrument in the band, the band can kind of be pushing and pulling you. It can be stressful and it just puts a lot on you to keep the song together and keep it moving. When you have someone like our bass player Adam who has that sense of time, it's not something he has to put a lot of effort into. He is also helping push forward the song so I can relax a little bit and play fewer notes or just lay back. With so many instruments on stage or in the studio the one thing we've definitely learned is that restraint is important. So a lot of what I do is figure out how to play less and still keep the same feel. Otherwise it's just a barrage of sound and that's not always what we're looking for.
It must be rough as a drummer playing a lot of fly dates, relying on backlines all the time, what's your rider look like?
Our rider at this point has gotten a lot more specific and that's just one of the benefits of having played a bunch. The more you do it and the more tickets you sell the more people are willing to accommodate specific requests. Ultimately, and I think this is true for the rest of the band, we will make due with pretty much anything because it's not like we're fancy or anything. The equipment I get is usually good, but when you go to South by South West or CMJ or something where it's a showcase kind of vibe - it puts a strain on the local rental companies, so all their old drums and old amps come out of the woodwork.
A memorable one we did was a show we had in Austin - it was an early show and the backline guy was uncasing the drums and it's this old Tama kit. It was a cool kit, really cool sunburst finish, but it looked like it'd been in storage for a decade or so. He saw me looking at it and he goes “Y’know, this kit was on tour with Stevie Ray Vaughn back in the day.” So immediately I'm thinking like, 1990, 89, and I'm looking at the drum heads thinking, “Were these the heads on the kit during that tour?” There was literally a 4-inch hole in the batter side of the bass drum head, the floor tom had like a 2-ply emperor and the top ply was just split - there was a long cut in it. I taped it up so it didn't explode on me in the middle of the set.
We need a lot, but we're also figuring out ways to strip down or travel smarter. Our bass player for this tour we did, our spring tour, instead of taking an amp he played through a bass preamp pedal, he's using one of the MXR preamps. We moved the majority of the band over to in-ear monitor systems so we're not moving a lot of speakers. We have the same mix more or less every night and we're even carrying our mics, cables, stands and stuff. We've figured out different ways we can approach the same sound and feel, even if we're just flying in for a little bit.
How was it doing the Late Night shows?
Letterman was a tough thing for most of us to process, I think. When we got booked for that show we had never toured and we had just released our EP; all that could go through my mind was, “We're skipping some steps here, are we sure that they meant to book us and not someone else?” It didn't make any sense. But it was kind of a kick start for us to realize, “Okay, this is something that's happening, we need to plan, we need to figure out how to do this.” Going on there was amazing and it definitely helped get the word out for us as we continued to tour all last year.
The Daily Show will occasionally do a show where the guest is just the musician. What's really cool about that is we didn't just play one song, we got to do three, two of which aired and one was a live exclusive. So it was cool because that's a show we all really like, it made it feel like we were just playing a little showcase for the audience there, as opposed to just these cold starts and hard stops doing one song on Letterman.
Choosing one song to represent yourselves must be difficult…
Yeah and I will say, I don't know how faith kind of intervenes for this exactly to happen, the lead song on our LP Make Some Room was the one we had chosen to do on Letterman. Keep in mind we were just sort of getting our minds around making an album and we'd never done anything like this so we figured, “Okay, let's do Make Some Room, that's kind of one of our big songs.” One of the requirements is the song be no longer than 3 minutes 30 seconds and that song was like 4 minutes 10 seconds, so we were forced for almost a month, while working on other musical things, to really get that song down and make it still sound authentic while keeping it within the time we had allotted.
The taping for Letterman was on a Monday and we were leaving North Carolina on our way up to New York. So it was a Wednesday that we were leaving town and literally as I'm walking out to my car I get a call from our manager. She said she just heard from our publicist that one of the producers at Letterman called and was like, “Hey you guys put the wrong song down when you submitted the info.” They thought we were playing Gwan, which is the one we eventually played on Letterman. I guess Dave signs off on the acts or the music that's going to be performed - they had already played him a video or song and he'd already given the thumbs up on Gwan. So at that point that was fate, we were doing that song.
Luckily we had to do less to get that one down for television, but as soon as we left North Carolina and got to New York we had to go rent a rehearsal space and spend a day figuring out how to get that song down in time, rehearsing it and getting everything ready. So we basically prepped one day for Letterman. When it aired that song ended up being the perfect song and I think we all realized that as we were working on it that weekend in that rehearsal space that it was just a lucky thing. As far as picking the song, it's just sort of guessing and hoping that you pick the right song.
Was there any one moment in particular that you considered to be your break as a band?
The two kind of big ones for me, and I think for the band as a whole, were when NPR’s All Things Considered did a piece on us. This was following a couple things we’d done for NPR like World Cafe and Tiny Desk. Then Bob Boilan of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and All Songs Considered invited us to play the All Songs Considered Sweet 16 16th Anniversary where we met Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered, and he did an interview with us.
I listen to NPR a lot, but you forget that there's one NPR, it's nationwide and a lot of people listen to it, whether on the radio or podcast or whatever. I'll never forget hearing Ari Shapiro's voice introducing a piece and saying my band's name and doing the whole interview, it was just . . . wow, it was a very cool experience. That for me felt like, “Wow, this is a big, big step.”
Recently though, after Jazzfest I had this first experience where something really cool and crazy was happening and I felt like, “Okay, I can hang, I can do this.” I felt like I deserved to be there. Preservation Hall invited us to do one of their Midnight Preserve shows which is kind of like an after-party for Jazzfest. They bring artists out who played at Jazzfest that weekend, they do these little shows at midnight and they invited us to do one of them. Preservation Hall is this really old building in the French Quarter, a tiny little space that fits maybe 150 people. So if you're in the band you're just sitting on the other side of the room from these people and they're right up in your face.
So Preservation Hall has their band, drummer, tuba, keys, and a bunch of other horns. They do some of their songs, then they bring us out and we kind of sit in with them and they're like, “You guys can do some songs and we'll jump in, and ya'll can jump in on some of our songs.” We only played 4 or 5 songs, but they ended up staying in the entire time - it was just this tiny group of people, but it was this transcendental experience as a musician. Playing with these phenomenal musicians and just hearing them playing our songs with us took them to a whole different level. It's hard when you've played a song 300 times in a year to feel like you’re hearing something new, but that added this layer of novelty, the songs were different with all this power behind them.
Just the feeling of being able to play with these guys and have them gig the songs that we wrote, jump in and kind of add their own thing, it was just really validating. I don't remember a whole lot of it, everyone was just really present and aware of what was going on in kind of a “floating above your body and watching the whole thing happen” kind of way. It was just this little show for 150 people, but for me, it's going to be hard to beat a musical experience like that. There are only a few things that I've experienced in my life that can beat that, and they're all on the personal side.