WHAT WOULD DIGITAL DUKE DO?

words BRIAN GRAHAM

Image

Left: Brian Graham; photo: Joshua Timmerman. Right: John Maclaine; photo Port City Photography.

A brief history of The Fogcutters
as seen through my eyes and how
"New Moanin’" came to be

I met John Maclaine through a musical series called “Clash of the Titans” in Portland. It was a weekly series that took two famous acts and had local musicians cover their music. John is a trombone player and I play the saxophone. We had been in the scene together for a little while, but it wasn’t until we played a couple gigs for the “Clash” series that we actually played together. A mutual respect developed quickly because we realized that we could rely on each other. If he asked me to do something I did it, and vice versa. It was the beginning of a great friendship as well as an incredible musical adventure.

The Fogcutters was born in 2009 out of a “Clash of the Titans” gig: Ella Fitzgerald vs. Frank Sinatra. John put together a big band to back two singers. We chose their songs, got the charts, rehearsed and showed up to the gig. Although I had been playing in big bands since middle school, this was the first time I ever realized what big band music was about. When the power of the band hit in a club, it was exhilarating. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I realized that big band music wasn’t written to be educational, it was written for people to dance to, have a drink to and have fun to. It was a way for people to escape. It was about the bass drum driving, the rhythm section supporting and the horns blaring. A huge wall of undeniable sound that couldn’t be ignored. I was 26 years old, a graduate of the University of Southern Maine with a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance, and felt like I was experiencing big band music for the first time in my life. I finally got what it was all about.

After that gig, it was clear that we needed to do it again. So, The Fogcutters was born. In the beginning, the band played a lot of old timey jazz standards—which was fun, but started to feel educational. That’s when John and I began to brainstorm what the next step for the band should be. One of John’s favorite musicians is Duke Ellington. He was a pioneer of big band music and jazz. We asked one simple question: “If Duke was alive today, what would he be doing?” The answer was: He would be pushing forward; trying new things, new sounds. He was always experimenting. So we decided that would be the road we would walk down. We decided that just because we were in the formation of a big band, it didn’t mean we had to strictly play jazz. We knew that we had an arsenal of amazing musicians at our disposal that could literally play any genre, so we took advantage of it! One of my favorite things about my friendship with John is how natural our ideas would flow. It was like each idea was a stepping stone to the next one that always escalated in a positive direction. That’s when Big Band Syndrome was born.

Big Band Syndrome was our brainchild. The Portland, Maine, music scene is a very special place. For such a small city, you can find any genre of music played at a very high level. Portland musicians take pride in their craft and it shows. John and I created Big Band Syndrome to showcase it. The idea was that we would take eight local artists, write arrangements for two of their songs, and have them front the band. We presented this idea to Lauren Wayne at The State Theatre. She liked the idea and set up a meeting to discuss it.

In the time between pitching Lauren our idea and the actual meeting, John and I started second-guessing it. We started thinking about how the biggest crowd we had pulled at a club was around 120 people and decided that we should put this on hold until we had a bigger fan base. We were scared that we would play to an empty State Theatre: 120 people in a 1,600-seat venue would be devastating to the moral of the band as well as financially. So, we went to the meeting and told Lauren thank you, but no thank you. She looked at us and said, “You guys are going to do this show. It’s a great idea and the State Theatre will back you 100%. If you want to share the risk with us, you can, but if not, no problem. Just let me know what you want to do.”

John and I left that meeting feeling very confident and immediately decided we would go 50/50 with the State Theatre. The very first Big Band Syndrome was on December 2, 2011. I had never worked so hard for anything in my entire life. Between organizing rehearsals for 30+ people, writing 16+ all-original arrangements and promoting the show, I was a nervous wreck well before the doors even opened. There were over 850 people in attendance to witness what John and I had created and that night ended up being one of the best musical experiences of my life. My favorite part of Big Band Syndrome was how it brought the musical community together. It showed me what an amazingly supportive city we live in and I could not have been more proud of it. Big Band Syndrome went on for five years, had a total of 37 guests, 74 all-original arrangements of local artists and averaged 1,200 people a year in attendance.

In 2013, I got a call to play in the band Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds. It was an opportunity to hit the road and tour the country, which was something I had always dreamed of doing. After two years of juggling commitments, I decided to leave The Fogcutters. The band continued on without me and released its first all-original album, called Flotsam, and continued its yearly tradition of playing at The State Theatre with a brand new Christmas show full of all-original arrangements of Christmas songs. It quickly became a Portland holiday tradition.

In 2019, the Portland music scene lost a dear friend named Dave Noyes. He was one of the good ones. He was one of the four trombone players in the band and by far one of our best arrangers. Whenever we had a song that we didn’t know what to do with, we would give it to Dave and he would hand-write the most beautiful arrangement. His music was as beautiful as his soul and he will be forever missed.

At the end of last year, Sister Sparrow decided to take some time off the road. The Fogcutters welcomed me back to the family with open arms and I started playing with them again. When COVID-19 hit this spring, the band was looking for something to do and that’s when we decided to make the video for “New Moanin’”!

“New Moanin’” is a concept song I wrote last year. The idea was that it would be how we start a show using a loop pedal. (To learn about what a loop pedal does, check out https://youtu.be/dMmHVgSwyFM.)

The stage would be completely empty and I would start the show by playing the first phrase into the loop pedal, then each section would come out one at a time, play their part and go stand in their spot on stage. Each individual part is very simple, but when stacked on top of each other they create a more complex sound and a complete song. By the end of the song, everyone would be on stage, you would hear everyone playing, but no one would actually be playing their instruments. It was all loop playback. Then we would stop the loop and bust into the song all together. As of right now, this is still a concept. We never got to try it live because of COVID-19.

When the pandemic hit and the world stopped, the idea was floated around to try and put out some music. One member suggested that we try “New Moanin’” and I realized that it was the perfect song to make a “Brady Bunch”-style video to because everyone just had to play one four-bar phrase.

How I put it together was a grand learning experience. The first step was to make a demo of the song. I played every single part into the recording software and then did a voiceover telling each musician when to come in. I sent everyone their individual part as well as the play-along track. Each member had to film themself playing along to the track while wearing headphones. The reason for headphones was because I only wanted to hear their part, not the play-along. Once each member sent me their part, I replaced my demo track with their real track. It was incredibly tedious because I had to make sure each track lined up perfectly with the time and had to do that for 20 members. After the track was set up and I had everyone’s part, I sent them off to my buddy Josh Myers to mix.

Next, I had to edit the video. The first step was lining up each individual video with the rough mix of the whole song. Then lining up all of the videos so we are playing together. Thankfully, the Final Cut X software
has a synchronization tool that does it automatically. If it didn’t, I’m not sure this video would have happened. Once all 20 videos were synced,
I resized each one and placed them in their spots on the screen. From there, it was minor adjustments as well as adding graphics/texts until I felt it was ready to go!

As I was putting this together, I realized that this song would be a great way to create a digital interactive platform. I could make a play-along video for other musicians to drop themselves into. So I did! I made two interactive videos that you can download for free on TheFogcutters.com. One is a musical play-along where you can be the soloist with the band and the other is for any visual type of art. There’s an empty square for you to be creative with! I also wrote out the chart for anyone who might want to put a band together and make their own version of the song, which is also available on our website.

All in all, “New Moanin’” is a digital attempt at bringing people together and continuing to push creativity to the forefront. It’s not unlike Big Band Syndrome in the sense that you can showcase your talent from anywhere in the world if you want to. I hope you enjoy it and showcase your own talent!


Favorite Maine restaurant?
I have two: Sichuan Kitchen and the
Otherside Deli, both in Portland.

 

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