St. Paul & the Broken Bones, a soul-infused brassy rock band, is among the top rising groups on the road today. After their first successful album Half the City came out in 2014, and after an extensive world tour, they went back into the studio to make their newest record Sea of Noise, which debuted in 2016. Crowned by many as one of the best and energetic live acts to be touring today, their Thursday, Sept. 28 show in Jacksonville—headlined by Hall & Oates, is not to be missed. Jesse Phillips, co-founder, gitarist and bass player, took some time out from traveling to sit down and talk with us before their only Florida show.
You're on tour at the moment; how's the road?
The tour is going great … It's been a really busy summer, it's been good, though, we've been all up and down [the] East Coast and West Coast, we spent some time in Europe, and we are going to start this little run with Hall & Oates and that’ll be a lot of fun to cap it all off.
Has touring changed since the inception of the band?
Well [pause], it’s gotten a lot more comfortable. [Laughs.]
Instead of a 15-person passenger van, a tour bus really is a game-changer. It sort of gives you your day back on tour. When you're in a van, you wake up every day and get in … drive for five or six sometimes seven hours to wherever you're going, with … eight or nine other people. I mean, our band is big, you add a couple of crew members in there and it’s just a bunch of people. So now you just play the gig, you get on the bus and you go to sleep and you wake up in the next town on the next day. It's a beautiful thing, you can get out, go get coffee or go for a run or find a park, it's a really nice change.
You did about 200 shows in 2014; fewer in ’16 and ’17. Has touring taken a toll on you?
Yeah, I mean, there's the sort of predictable stuff, like some of the guys are married and the rest of us have serious girlfriends and being away from your partner and your home for that much time, it's difficult, obviously. You get used to it, and I think it's a lot of easier now than it used to be since [you can] Facetime or Skype, I can't imagine doing that before everyone had a cell phone. But mostly, it's a little bit of a battle to just keep your physical and emotional health strong. [Laughs.] There's a lot of boredom when you're just sitting around not doing anything and you can use that time constructively or not. The temptation to make poor choices is always there, whether it's eating bad food or drinking too much or whatever it is. You really gotta be conscientious of how to stay a mentally and physically focused human, in a life that really doesn't have a whole lot of routine attached to it.
You mention trying to stay mentally active. Do you write anything on tour or do you save that for home and the studio?
It's different for everyone in the band. I usually make sure that I've got an acoustic guitar on the bus, you spend a little bit of time with that every day … I think some of the guys are better about actually getting more work done on the road. Personally, it's a little bit like a code shift in your mind, getting into a really creative, fruitful space. Most of my good writing and working and arranging time comes at home; I get there for a couple of days and I sort of get back in the groove at home and spend a couple of days working in the demo studio.
Should we be expecting anything new from the band in the near future?
We are beginning to work on LP 3; as we speak, we’ve already done a lot of writing and source material and demoing the stuff and … started doing some sessions with a producer we're excited to work with. So I think we’ll be headed in the studio probably at the beginning of December and hope to get something out first quarter of next year, maybe second quarter.
That's so soon after Sea of Noise.
It's quick, man, it never stops. We aren't big enough to just put out a record, do a tour, and hang out for three years and then do another. You just have to keep hammering away at it.
Has being in the South changed your dynamic, your musical style?
Yeah, living in the South, I've spent a lot of time in New Orleans before moving to Birmingham. [The South] has definitely definitely changed the way I feel about music, and that's part of the reason why I moved to the South in the first place, to just sort of absorb some of the more identifiably Southern traditions, whether that's funk music and jazz music in New Orleans or R&B all over the South or just straight-up blues from Alabama or Mississippi. You think of the legacy of a place like Muscle Shoals or Memphis, you come down here and there's still people who were involved in those traditions hanging out whom you can talk to and learn from and play with. That's not something available where I grew up, which is pretty rural.
The band went from six people for the first CD and eight for the second. How has that changed the sound and the band dynamic? Is it difficult to tour with that many people?
Sometimes it is, honestly, most of the guys in the band, I genuinely like them, we get along pretty well. Everyone is a respectful person, but you kind of have to be, to live in that close of quarters all the time. But from a writing perspective, it's simultaneously awesome to have that many brains that you can pick and mine for creative stuff, but … it can also be difficult to sort through all those musical identities and egos and decide which is the best way to go. Sometimes it does have that 'too many cooks in the kitchen' vibe. I was a little bit of a control freak early on, I really wanted things to sound a certain way, to be played a certain way. I had to lighten up on that as the band has grown, and come into its own. You have to let people flex their strengths, it's been a little bit of an ego check for me, too: ‘oh, these guys are really awesome at what they do,' ya know, so you kind of just let them do it.
Half a City was little bit different than Sea of Noise. Do you think LP 3 will shift even further toward a unique sound?
It's going to be different; I mean it'll be familiar, we’re not going put out an edm record or a metal record or something. [Laughs.] It's still going to sound like our band. But you know you have to keep yourself excited, too. Artists that have longevity have evolved and tried different things, and even if sometimes it's a misstep retrospectively, at least you tried. So yeah, we are going to continue to try to evolve and explore new territory while retaining our identity and continuing doing the things we do well.
What might we hear that's a little different on the new record?
Well, all I can say is, the producer we are working with is more known for working in the hip hop world, but … it's not going to be a hip hop record. A lot of classic hip hop is made up of a lot of classic R&B samples and we’re finding this really interesting middle ground between what he does and what we do that I think will be ultimately [an] awesome amalgamation of both worlds.
Songs like “Burning Rome” and “I'll Be Your Woman” are quite heavy tracks. What's the writing process like? Is it different from writing songs like “Call Me” and “Flow with It”?
Ya, it definitely is. They are a little heavier, subject matter-wise; I think you have to be careful with songs like that, you don't want to become too heavy-handed. You don't want to pound a message into people's heads; you want to be able to say something substantial while still just making it fun to listen to. You kind of have to be careful when you approach it. The song “I'll Be Your Woman,” we kind of wanted it to have this darker cinematic vibe, so we got some string arrangements and added them to the track, and I think that does help make it sound … sort of darker and weightier. And similarly to “Burning Rome,” but “Burning Rome” is the style of song that this band has always done really well, a heavy 6/8 ballad. There's a couple of those on the first record, too.
Speaking of the band—where does the name come from?
One of the first songs that Paul [Janeway] and I wrote that become a St. Paul & the Broken Bones song was called “Broken Bones and Pocket Change.” So when it [the band] was still just a studio project involving mostly Paul and I, we just sort of gave it the working title, of him, St. Paul, and the band would be the Broken Bones. There's a line in that song that says ‘broken bones and pocket change is all she left me with’, so the idea was that Paul was a destitute desperate man left with nothing except hurt feelings and this band. And so it was kind of a joke at first, but it just stuck [and] once the band started making z name for itself, it was too late to change it.
You're opening for Hall & Oates; they're both older, around 69 and 70. Do you see yourself touring and making music long into your old age?
...It's impossible for me to imagine touring for another 30 years but I think no one really imagines themselves doing it, it's just sort of the way it works out. And if you still enjoy doing it and there's still an audience, [then] there's no reason you shouldn't if you can still put on a good show and everything. I hope we can slow down and stop playing 150 to 200 shows a year, but yeah, it's hard to say. I think ultimately, I'll do this band as long as we can, but god forbid, if this band were to break up or go into retirement, I think I'm just going to call it ‘good’ … on my touring music career. I'm not really going to be looking to jump into a van again; I'll probably try to work more on the writing and production side if I ever have to make a career change.
What writer alive or dead would you want to work with?>
I think Tom Waits … he's a total enigma. He's a master artist, super-mysterious … I just would love a little insight into how someone like that works and how their creative process works and how their brain operates. I imagine it's got to be terribly frightening or super-interesting or both.
What music are you listening to currently?
As far as young people, I’ve been enjoying the new Queens of the Stone Age record … I like the new War on Drugs record, there's a guy named Nick Hakim from Brooklyn who's doing a real cool kind of psychedelic R&B thing, I've really been digging his records. There's a young guy from home, named Early James, kind of a rusty crooner/guitar-picker/songwriter, his band’s called Early James & the Latest, I've been enjoying some of his stuff. I try to keep my ear to the ground … paying attention to younger up-and-coming artists as well.
If you could play only one artist for the rest of your life, who would you play?
It's a pretty stock answer, but i'd pick The Beatles. I grew up on The Beatles and it's like a warm comfortable blanket for me. I know all their stuff so well but it still brings me so much enjoyment.
What's your favorite Beatles album?
It'd be tough but I'd probably take , but maybe if I could only have one, I’d take the just because there's more songs. [Laughs.]