Hailing from the same edgy nook of the UK as Alt-J, Leeds-native funk band The New Mastersounds are returning to Japan for the first time in seven years. In honor of the band’s 20th anniversary, the British four-piece released a new album with American musician Lamar William Jr. — son of the late Allman Brothers Band bassist, Lamar Williams — last year. Appropriately titled, Shake It showcases The New Mastersound’s ability to mesh blues, funk and jazz elements into a soulful, high-energy soundscape that could only belong to four artists with two decades of collaborations behind them.
In light of the band’s Japan tour, which kicks off this week, Metropolis spoke with guitarist and band leader Eddie Roberts about the funk genre and working with different artists.
Metropolis: Funk music isn’t necessarily a mainstream genre of music, but The New Mastersounds have been touring internationally for years, including doing Japan tours and playing at Fuji Rock Festival. A lot of other American funk bands have also been coming to Japan recently — like VOODOO DEAD, who’ll be here this February. Why do you think funk is so important to Japanese fans?
Eddie Roberts: I think funk is part of jazz and blues. Therefore, questioning the importance of funk is like questioning the importance of any genre. In fact, if you believe music is important, then it doesn’t really matter what the genre is if it speaks to the listener.
M: How would you say the funk scene has been evolving here?
ER: We’ll find out in a few weeks! I’ve definitely noticed that there has been a growth of bands in Japan playing funk, so I guess that is more of a gauge.
M: Do you remember the first time the band came to Japan? The New Mastersounds met Keb Darge, who was sort of a legendary deep funk artist in Japan at the time. He even helped to produce the band’s first album. Was he the first exposure the band had to working in Japan?
ER: Keb helped us produce and release our first album. So yes, before Keb there was no New Mastersounds anywhere, let alone in Japan. I remember the first tour well. We played a lot of cities over two weeks and had an incredible experience. We also met and played with bands like Osaka Monaurail, Scoobie Do and Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro.
M: If we’re being honest, it was a bit of a surprise to us that The New Mastersounds is actually a British band. The band was playing covers of the New Orleans-born funk band The Meters when it started out, and The New Mastersounds is now based in America. Does its British roots affect the band in any way?
ER: In the UK in the late 90s, there was a big scene of DJs playing funk, jazz and soul. This was a huge influence on all of us individually, and the band met through these clubs. When we started playing in the U.S. in 2004, there weren’t many bands playing from the same roots as us. But I feel that between us and a few other bands like Galactic, Greyboy Allstars, and even Lettuce, listeners became more aware of the funk roots that we were playing.
M: In 2003, The New Mastersounds released a song “Your Love Is Mine” in a collaboration with Corinne Bailey Rae, who is also from Leeds. How did you come to work with her?
ER: Corinne used to work at one of the clubs where we were all first playing in Leeds, The Underground. We all knew she was a great singer, and most nights she would join one of the bands on stage for a song or two. It made sense to record with her. About a year later she signed to a major label and became very famous.
M: You’ve mentioned before that your largest fanbase is actually in America. What about the funk scene in your home country, the UK?
ER: Funk is indeed a niche market, and as the UK is a lot smaller, our popularity in America is partly because of the size of the country. But I also think that because we play American music, more Americans understand and relate to what we are playing.
M: You released Shake It with Lamar Williams Jr. last year. How was it working with him?
ER: I met Lamar nearly two years ago and we immediately felt a connection. I invited him to come sing with the band in Atlanta a few months later and it just felt so natural. After that, we decided to record an album and the band came to Denver where I have my studio and label, Color Red. Since we released the album, Lamar has been on every show with us, and the sound just grows and grows. He brings a fresh approach to funk and soul, and we even hint at his roots in the set, as Lamar’s dad was the bass player in the Allman Brothers from 1972 to 1976.
M: Lamar Williams Jr. will be joining this upcoming Japan tour. What can we expect from the performances?
ER: Lamar will indeed be with us in Japan. It’ll be his first time and he’s very excited. We still play a lot of our instrumental songs as well as the new album vocal tunes. When Lamar is not singing, he hangs out with us and plays tambourine and shaker … which is a great addition!
M: It has been more than 20 years since the band started. Where do you see the band in another 10 years? Is there anything you would like to achieve in the next decade?
ER: Personally, I’m really enjoying producing a lot of music for my label Color Red, and I believe that it is influencing my creativity. I think this is in turn going to influence the band and my musical leadership of the band… So who can say? It’s been an incredible 20 years, and there’s no stopping us now.
Shibuya Club Quattro
32-13 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku
1-1-14 Oyodominami, Kita-ku, Osaka
Tickets available here.