Above: Ex-Friendly and Bennie Pete (All photos by the brilliant Martin Sanders)
The Hot 8 Brass Band are probably the best known of the authentic New Orleans brass funk bands due to their bone-crushing tour schedule across the UK, Europe and beyond, and their life-affirming album releases on Robert Luis' Brighton based label Tru Thoughts.
As longtime supporters of the band, we caught up with bandleader and co-founder Bennie 'Big Pete' Pete on their 20th anniversary tour for a little chat before their gig at the Riverbank in Nottingham in July 2016. Previously unpublished, Ex-Friendly elicits some true insight from this gentle and quietly spoken man into the history and ongoing challenges of being a musician from one of the toughest but most inspirational cities in the US.
Ex - First thing i want to say is happy anniversary man!
BP - Thank you man!
Ex - 20 years is a mega long time for anybody and I was trying to wonder how have you managed to keep going for so long? You’ve been through a lot of tough times, real storms and personal storms right?
BP - Yeah, definitely, I would say the times we’ve been through has inspired us, kind of helped us to continue to go along with our dreams..and our fans have been really supportive in every way
Ex - Well, you just seem to keep getting bigger and bigger every year ...especially in Europe
BP - We have a relationship with the fans over here now, we know names and faces now, we know a few of them, starting to be the same people coming, hanging out, bringing back pictures from when we first hit the town, whatever, it’s really inspirational to just be a part of it
Ex - Can we go back to when you started? I know a little about how you started, you were a street band, a marching band...and I’m interested in what kind of bands were influencing you back then? What bands were there you were interested in, brass bands, hip hop bands, whatever bands?
BP - Wow OK...there were always brass bands and for the most part, that’s what we wanted to be. At that time, the Rebirth Brass Band was there, The Soul Rebels, but I think the band that had our attention the most, because those other bands especially Rebirth were older than us, established in themselves round that time, so I would say with the Lil Rascals..they were like round our age, we was the same age as those guys but they had been a band and were playing that style of brass band music way earlier at a much younger age! Some of those guys picked up an instrument at 5 or 6, 7 or 8 years old you know. on the street just trying to learn! Around a lot of great musicians, a lot of older musicians that lived in that area of NOLA (New Orleans) where they lived, the Treme area, so they had hands on relationships, teachers, talkers, great musicians...so for us to be the same age and for their music to be sounding so good, on another level from us, it was amazing to us, it kept us striving and hunting to get better. You know The Soul Rebels and the Rebirth were older than us, they’d been out a while and we tried to learn from them but we found ourselves learning from the Lil Rascals.
Ex - That’s the thing when you’re young, someone who’s one year ahead of you is more important than someone 10 years ahead!
BP - Yeah, that’s right, because we’re the same age and I could be doing that but I can’t right now, so it was a great thing for us and I still miss those days to these days you know? We’re still in a little island by ourselves with our age, there’s a lot of younger bands out and a few older bands, Rebels, Rebirth, Dirty Dozen but not our age...
Ex - What’s the scene like now in NOLA?
BP - We have a lot of new young brass bands going, a lot of people coming to the city, moving into the city, getting into brass bands, different nationalities and creeds, packing up from wherever they’re from and just moving to NOLA and trying to make it.
Ex - Well this fits into a question I wanted to ask you...there’s a lot of British, European and Irish brass bands now. What do you think about this?
BP - Well it’s a good thing to me, as long as they respect the culture and most of the musicians do...it’s a beautiful thing to see, a blessing that people from different nationalities love to be a part of our culture.
Ex - I know about all the other NOLA brass bands but I guess that in the UK and Europe you’re THE defining NOLA brass band, the one’s making the most noise, the ones who have bit by bit encouraged these new bands. I knew a bit of stuff but when ‘Sexual Healing’ came out then everything changed..
BP - Yeah a lot of people took to that tune..
Ex - OK, can you explain what a Second Line parade is? Why is it the Second Line?
BP - There are a few different terms that they use for a Second Line. At a jazz funeral, the deceased and the family, they come out the church and they place the deceased in the hearse, they’re the First Line. So the Second Line are those on the sidewalks, close friends, schoolmates and people of that nature who’ve come to support and grieve, they would be the Second Line, not necessarily close to the family...So the hearse, the family then there are a lot of people on the sidewalks who would be the Second Line. But when you speak about the Second Line, it’s also a dance form. You say I’m going Second Line, I was Second Lining at the Second Line so it’s a dance! People from New Orleans have their own way of doing it, a signature way but there’s not a certain way, it’s doing your dance to the music..
Ex - Freestyle? Drops and spins..
BP - Definitely, freestyle, spontaneous moves to how the music is making you feel. In that instance you’re Second Line dancing and there’s no certain way you know - 1,2,3,4,5,6 (bangs out rhythm on table) structure, it’s all about letting all that go, letting your body and your mind just go wherever it wants to go with the music so that’s another term they would use for Second Line. And also the parade you know? A group of people in a particular place in the city are marching up a street and people say I’m going to the Second Line parade! Drop me off at the Second Line...where they can catch up and be a part of it.
Ex - So there is no First Line at these kind of parades?
BP - In that instance, the First Line, though they wouldn’t call it that, the Second Line would be supporting the club, the club would be the Associated Pleasure Club, back then (in the past) it would have been the Benevolent Societies but now they’re more the Associated Pleasure Club where it’s mostly about social gatherings and a more fun, party type atmosphere. They may get together, do a party, a raffle or something to support their group but back then, when it was a Benevolent Society it was much more serious, it was about everybody coming together in their society and about helping the community.
Ex - Does NOLA sometimes feels a bit isolated from the rest of the USA at times? You’re at the top of the Tropics, you’re nearer Mexico than New York and California for example.
BP - Somewhat I would say..everybody from New Orleans wants to be right there in my understanding...people don’t really tour much, they have musicians who hate to travel, they just want to be able to make a living playing at home, ride their bikes, catch a ride with a neighbour, anything to get to the gig and perform and go home you know? And that’s a struggle that we’re having now, to this day. It’s about what you want to do once your music becomes a business and it’s a career to you and it’s when you have to do certain things to make it realistic and make a living..and when you’re bringing in family, kids and stuff, and you might have to travel abroad just to make that happen financially.
A lot of musicians, and they always did, especially the older musicians, they would play right there in the city and it wasn’t about making a living, it was more about living and existing and being respected as a human and having a sense of self-respect but also being respected as a human being, straight period.. And if you ever check out any footage of any old musicians back in the days, even to the Second Line, you will see that the band was dressed in tip top shape. Those guys didn’t have a lot of money but they earned money or got family members to make outfits and it was a serious business about them dressing to perfection. They weren’t always new shoes, they was old shoes shined up! The bandleader had a problem with a band member if they weren’t on the ball, being on time, an hour or so early is ‘on time’ to them, being clean, tie straight, shoes shined, white shirt...they had to be that way because they felt like a human being at that point! They had gone through a lot, dealing with slavery, all that oppression, harrowing times..so it wasn’t really about making money to those guys, they was older, you didn’t see too many young guys, they wouldn’t have been able to play! So they already had something going on to make money, working on the river, working on the railroad tracks, being their own kind of handy fix-it type man in the neighbourhood, call-me-I’ll-fix-this man...so they played music strictly to satisfy their soul and satisfy the community for everybody going through their struggle.
They wanted to bring inspiration to the youth way back then because the youth saw their parents struggling, the youth knew that they were eating bread and butter and water, they didn’t have fancy food to eat, they was eating scraps and to see their Father or their Uncle or their Brother performing and to see everybody giving them that attention and showing them respect as a human, that was the ultimate goal right there.
So, to this day, things are more modern, certain laws changed, certain opportunities came for black people where everything now is more social and it’s still a struggle because within that, the people born in the earlier age who were caught up in all that, the younger people don’t even know what the struggle was! They’ll teach them about it in school but if they don’t meet or know or have a relationship with an older musician, they out there having fun.
Ex - You still play in New Orleans right? How is that? Is it like, 'yo’ they’re back from Europe?'
BP - Well, New Orleans is different now...it don’t feel too much of the same, you feel good to see some of your old friends and relatives but everything’s changing now. Everything’s getting more modern, the way they build the houses is all different now..
Ex - Because of the rebuild? (Post-Hurricane Katrina)
BP - Because of the rebuild but it’s a lot of things man..to me it’s beginning to be more commercial, they’re trying to make it like Disney World or something, where the people who have money can come and buy a piece of the land but it’s not really that high to them. They’re coming from Boston or Hollywood or they’re coming from New York where the prices are real high. So they come to NOLA where they can buy a big old piece of property but when they come, they come as a visitor who fell in love with the food and the music and now they want to live there but they never thought about that it don’t stop, it’s 24 hours! They’re not born here, they’re not of it, they want to turn it down, they want to make laws, they want to make all kind of meetings with the lawmakers and want to make deals with them, you know, you’ve got to cut that noise off at a certain time. It wasn’t noise when they first heard it, it was beautiful music but now they live here every day, it’s noise. As a true New Orleanian, it gets you upset with people who visit us because you welcome everybody but then you see the same people that you’re welcoming with open arms moving in and trying to take over! They go straight to the top because NOLA has always struggled financially and especially in the inner city where all the culture is. You go to Bourbon Street, that’s nothing but commercial but when you’re talking about NOLA and the neighbourhoods, everybody’s still struggling man and you can see them shutting the brass band down, trying to write them a ticket or citation for noise violation or something..it’s all different, it’s like going to Vegas and they ain’t got no gambling tables..it’s just crazy.
Ex - Maybe they should release some of the alligators into the city?
Since this interview, the Hot 8 have toured heavily and been back into the studio for what we believe is one of their strongest releases to date with their 'On The Spot' album. The album manages to capture all of the band's insane live energy and their street level funk, hip hop attitude mixed with a sweet jazzy sophistication. Just get it.
Words by Ex-Friendly