The Macrotones, a nine-piece well known for bringing some of the Hub’s tightest afrobeat jams since the Aughts, turn 10 this year. Which means that we’ve been bumping their beats in the DigBoston office for half the time we’ve been publishing. Wow. With their big anniversary bash coming up at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge this weekend, as well as two new EPs on the way, we hit the band with a barrage of questions which, being the solid outfit they are, the Macrotones chose to answer as a single unit.
You describe your shows as “dance parties.” Was that the primary aim when you started? Or just what it quickly became soon after you moved from rehearsal spaces to live venues?
When we started we were somewhat focused on afrobeat, which includes the Fela Kuti tradition of all-night dance parties in Lagos, Nigeria. The music is relentless and hypnotic and relies on a groove that is difficult not to dance to. When we began playing out, the same vibe came with us. We want people to know what we bring, in case they’re looking for a night at the club where they won’t feel out of place dancing in front of people standing and staring with their arms crossed. If you can’t make music that people can connect to and enjoy, there’s no reason to leave the practice space.
What have been some of the biggest venues you have played? And is something lost at those places? In spite of a lot of you having roots in the festival scene, are you a dedicated club band?
We’ve played pretty much every room in Boston—still open or closed. The biggest was probably the Wilbur. As long as you can make that connection with the crowd, and you can see faces and expressions, you don’t lose anything. And that energy obviously transfers right back to the stage. A big room or field full of people dancing is obviously a powerful experience, and at festivals you sometimes get to play in front of kids, and our music is exciting for them too. Our music isn’t exclusive in any way, as long as you want to have a fun time, you can enjoy a Macrotones show.
What place outside of Boston have you built up, perhaps surprisingly, an ancillary fan base over the years?
We play all over the region, from Burlington, to Maine, to New Hampshire, Central Mass, Providence, down to New York… but Boston has been our main focus. It’s difficult and expensive to transport a band as large as ours and to coordinate all of our schedules, so a long time ago we decided if we could just become Boston’s house band, that’d be good enough for us. We like the idea of being something special to Boston, almost like something you should try to see while you’re here because it pretty much only happens here.
What’s been the secret to keeping the group together for so long? What kind of changes have there been in the ranks through the years?
You don’t start an afrofunk band because you want to get rich and famous. Anyone who is in our band is here purely for the music, and we got lucky that 10 years ago we found a core group that had the same musical interests and the same level of commitment. All of us play in other projects, but I think we all know that there’s a level of musical satisfaction we’ll only ever get from this group, and the reason we’ve stuck with it for so long is because we still love that unique feeling we get when we play music together. Early on we picked Monday nights for rehearsal and we’ve stuck with that, playing almost every Monday night since. Our attitude has always been, as long as you’re a beast on your instrument, and you’re free on Monday night, you can be a Macrotone.
We also look for ways to keep it fresh. We are focusing now on a working with vocalists. We’ve done some work with MCs before, but now we’re focused on developing a whole new vocal repertoire —both covers and originals. We’re insanely lucky to have piqued the interest of some amazing singers in Boston. Rob Carmichael from Destroy Babylon, Phil DeSisto from Gold Blood & Associates, and Iyeoka (who mainly tours internationally and has millions of YouTube hits) are all part of our musical family now. The crowd really digs the variety and it gives us a new writing challenge and new energy in our band and live shows.
For a while, a lot of you lived together in Charlestown. Do any members of the band still live with one another? And how much easier or harder is it for you all to stick together is you don’t get to spend as much time together as you used to?
We all got a bit older and live on our own now—also they tore down the old band house in Charlestown! We still see each other often though, we see shows together and hang out together when we can, and some of us play in other projects together, so living separately hasn’t had any impact. The strict Monday night rehearsal schedule keeps everything on track.
Perhaps this is a subjective observation, but when you guys started out it felt like afrobeat was extremely hot for a moment. Any truth to that? And if so, has it died down?
Yeah, probably around that time there was definitely an afrobeat buzz. Around Boston there was really only one other band playing it though (Boston Afrobeat Society, later renamed The Superpowers). And we wanted to put our own spin on it—that’s why we have always called it afrofunk. We don’t play 10- or 15-minute jams on one chord and groove. Our style is more funky and we inject rock elements like distorted guitar and really creative and progressive arrangements. We try to make the music “cinematic” so there is a direction and a vibe to it.
Obviously music trends come and go, but outside of the “public eye” they usually stick around. It’s not like the people who really dig that music stop digging that music. Sure you lose some. But we haven’t really ever seen a downturn in excitement over our stuff. Think other trends like Klezmer or Americana. Maybe for whatever reasons they don’t get the hype they were once getting in the media. There’s probably something new to talk about. But people are still making incredible music in those styles. Brass bands are buzzing now. But we were first listening to the Rebirth Brass Band years ago. Or going way back to something like swing. We actually played a sold-out show with the Cherry Poppin Daddies at the Middle East Downstairs a few years ago.
What is the primary audience for your band and the bands you play with at this point? And how if at all has that changed through the years?
Our audience has always been people who can appreciate good music and want to have a fun time. We’ve always taken pride in being a band that other musicians really love. We know we are doing something right because sound engineers in Boston are excited when we are on bills, and sometimes even put us in for support gigs, because they want to mix us in. We fit well with a lot of sounds on different stages. We’ve been blessed to share the stage with soul singer Lee Fields, ska greats Bim Skala Bim, punk legends Big D and the Kids Table, reggae from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Grammy-winning Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma…
It’s not often that you get a local band that’s been together for so long to ask this kind of question, but what has been your band’s experience in the changing venue climate? As some favorites have gone and new ones have come, is it easier or harder for a group like yours with a Boston area fan base to play regular shows.
It’s been sad to see so much go over the years. Our homebase was always Johnny D’s. It’s where we developed and had our most fun and some of our biggest crowds. We’ve felt a bit homeless since it closed. We played our first show out at All Asia. It’s particularly tough for our band’s size, as we can’t fit into small places. So when you lose stages like Johnny D’s and Church, it’s limiting. Plus we usually book our own shows with only one other band and without a promoter—again that’s limiting. It can be frustrating in terms of playing shows, but over time we’ve actually felt less shows has done us better in terms of songwriting and tightness. Also, booking less shows leaves you more open to getting on cool bills when the opportunity comes around, but we wish we knew of a solution. Once upon a time we could play Boston once a month, and that’s become way harder due to a lack of rooms. Running a club is tough and of course we hope more will come back around. Everyone needs to just keep going out and packing what we have so others know the demand is there.
One big difference between the Macrotones and a lot of comparable groups that are in the afrobeat or even jam band ecosystem is the precision and execution of your recordings. From having dedicated retreats at rehearsal barns to tapping ace producers like Dan Cardinal of Dimension Sound Studio, can you just explain the importance of that process a little?
We’re in no rush. In the past it’s taken us up to two years to record and release a record. With so many members in our band, and with everyone getting their input, it can be a painstaking process. But a process that has delivered us four solid full-lengths that are intricate, and tunes that fit parts and instruments together precise like a puzzle. Having someone like Dan to look over all of it has been clutch. We’re equally blessed to work with Grammy-nominated Benny Grotto of Mad Oak Studios, and in the past have worked with Craig “Dubfader” Welsch and the legendary Sean Slade. Part of this has to do with our finances. Our band has never paid out any of the members, and every cent we make goes into an account to save money for recording. Once we’ve saved up enough we buy premium studio time and hire outstanding engineers and producers. When we say we’re really about the music, we mean it, we never do anything for any other reason.
For your 10th anniversary, you are releasing two EPs—The Prisoner Flees, and The Shark Eats. What’s the difference between them? Why celebrate this way?
We had a couple sessions in the can. Aside from the single with Phil DeSisto singing, the tunes are the last of the instrumentals we had written and never recorded. It made sense to get them out in celebration of our 10 years, at a time when we’re transitioning to having more vocals—which started with the vocal and hip-hop tracks on our last record. Splitting them up made sense because we had two different producers and recorded them in two different studios. But we liked the concept of linking them together thematically, and also they have musical similarities. These two EPs really mark the height of our instrumental songwriting prowess, they sound like a band that’s been working on making interesting music you can dance to for 10 years. They also mark the transition we’re going to be making—our next release is set to be a more vocal-centered record, for which we already have a number of tunes written, and a few Mondays from now hopefully we’ll have a few more.
MACROTONES 10TH ANNIVERSARY BASH. SAT 10.14. LIZARD LOUNGE, 1667 MASS AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 8:30PM/21+/$10. LIZARDLOUNGECLUB.COM