Q&A: John Medeski Talks About Being Excited to Play with Antibalas, Variety, and Brooklyn Bowl

Posted on Monday April 18th in

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In their fourth date of their monthly residency at Brooklyn Bowl — on Wednesday, 4/20 — Brooklyn Afrobeat outfit Antibalas will perform live with Medeski Martin & Wood keyboardist John Medeski. And last Friday, on his way into New York City to see Ween, the affable musician rang up Knockdown Alley to talk about performing with Antibalas, the importance of rehearsal, and what makes Brooklyn Bowl a destination venue.
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Next Wednesday, 4/20, is Antibalas’ fourth night of their monthly residency at Brooklyn Bowl, and you’re their special guest. How did that come about? How did you guys get paired up? I’ve known those guys for years. I’m a fan of the band. The Antibalas horns played on an MMW record years ago called Uninvisible. We’ve toured with them as a double bill and we run into each other at various places across the world — at festivals and things. And I was very happy they called me up to do this ’cause I love them, and I’m really excited to play with them.

Antibalas are known as sort of experimental, and since you do already know them, when you do something like this, are there rehearsals in advance? Or is there maybe just a brief framework laid and you go with it live? We’re gonna rehearse. In general, these things can work any way: Sometimes there’s a rehearsal, sometimes they just send me tunes they wanna do, and I’ll learn them and then just come and maybe go to sound check and do it. Or sometimes there’s nothing and you just go in and wing it. But in this case, they sent me a list of stuff and I’m gonna go through it and see what seems right, and then we’ll hash it out. And then we’re gonna have a rehearsal the day before. Rehearsals are good in general.

I would think. That usually comes across when you see someone sitting in with someone else, a lot of times you can tell if they have rehearsed or haven’t. But some bands just like to let it flow onstage and see how it goes. There is an energy when it’s really truly spontaneous that you can’t get any other way. And that can be great, too.
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You mentioned you’d had Antibalas horns on an MMW album, so on Wednesday, will you guys be doing a mix of Antibalas songs? Will you be doing anything from that album? No, I will be coming to them 100 percent. I think they have some ideas, a few new tunes in the list that aren’t standard Antibalas tunes, but I’m sure they’ve worked on them. I’m gonna be learning their music and coming to them. I like to do that.

With Will Rast on keys, how will it work? Will you guys both be playing simultaneously? Will you be swapping in and out? You know what? That’s what we’re gonna work on at rehearsal. I’m open to anything. We can play simultaneously. I’m happy to play with anybody, any time and any way. So we’ll just have to see what makes sense musically. If we can both play, that would be great. But sometimes it might be too much. But I’m sure we’ll be playing some stuff together — I hope.
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In the past, you’ve played Brooklyn Bowl with a variety of bands. Do you have any special highlights from playing the venue in the past, or anything that sticks out? I had fun playing with the Soul Rebels. That was fun. I always love playing there no matter what. Brooklyn Bowl has a very unique vibe that’s unlike anywhere else, especially in New York City. So it’s always a treat to play there, no matter what the project is. I’ve played there with so many different people, I can’t remember all the things I’ve done.

I know you said the vibe, but what do you think it is about Brooklyn Bowl that’s a little bit different than playing other places in New York? Well it’s definitely a party venue. And that’s a certain energy. I enjoy that, and I also enjoy playing performing-arts centers where people are sitting down. Music has so many different purposes, and it can do so many different things depending on the setting and the environment and the reason for the concert. I like the variety. I like to do it all. And Brooklyn Bowl, for a party venue, it’s just a really great venue. In New York City there aren’t a lot of places like that. A lot of venues in New York are uptight because they turn over a lot of bands in the course of the night. It’s really a drag to play a lot of venues in New York, as a musician, because there’s a jaded quality to the people that work there. The load-in is really impossible, parking’s impossible, and I gotta say, the Brooklyn Bowl doesn’t have any of those drawbacks. As a musician, for the inside scoop, Brooklyn Bowl is a nice place to come play. They make it as easy as it can be in New York City.
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I’ll tell you, as a concertgoer, it seems Brooklyn Bowl, far more than any other local venue, a lot of times people will just go there ’cause they want to go to Brooklyn Bowl, as opposed to people going somewhere specifically because they want to see the band. There’s bowling, there’s food, and like you said, there’s that party vibe. That is an interesting point. It’s rare, but that’s how it should be. A venue should book the kind of acts and have a reputation — it used to always be like that, always. You go back: Knitting Factory, CBGBs. And Tramps. Yeah, Tramps, and SOB’s. The Village Gate, the Village Vanguard, too. You go back in time and it’s like these places had a cachet, and now, that’s really changed. I would call it a very lame situation, the club owners and promoters not knowing anything about how it works — not taking responsibility for their end of the bargain. Expecting bands to just draw, and if they don’t … it’s not really good for the music business. Whereas what Brooklyn Bowl’s doing is good all around. They’ve built a rep as a club, they have good acts in there. They take care of the acts in a certain way that works from all angles, and that’s really important. And, you’re right, it’s really rare to have a venue that’s a destination venue anymore. That’s why all these clubs are suffering. And it affects the music.

I was gonna ask you what you’re most looking forward to about returning to Brooklyn Bowl, but it sounds like it’s all of those things that you just said. [Enthusiastically] Yeah! It’s everything. It’s definitely the best fun party venue in the city, so I’m excited to play there. And with a band like Antibalas, it’s like it couldn’t be more perfect. It’s definitely a party atmosphere with them onstage. Yeeeeaaaah! They’re just a great band because not only are they a good party band, there also just a badass band from any standpoint. And that’s always the best combination. Where you can dance and enjoy it on that level, but they’re also very deep musically. So for me it’s perfect.
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