The New Mastersounds have many old friends in Japan. The British four-piece was first noticed on these shores by fans of Scottish Northern Soul and funk DJ Keb Darge’s “Deep Funk” series of compilations in the early 2000s, and an impressive live resume has followed.
Funky guitar licks and jazz-club style jamming are a fixture at the band’s gigs. It’s all executed with the skill required to avoid seeming self-indulgent, but bassist Pete Shand has suggested there is a certain “British scratchiness” to their sound. He hints that it was this, and quirks like keeping the same strings on his bass for more than two years, to really feel his way around the instrument — “music magazines in Japan can’t believe it when I say that” — that has contributed to their overseas success.
In fact, “we rarely play shows in the U.K. or Europe nowadays, traveling really is a perk,” guitarist Eddie Roberts says, and “kicking off our latest tour in Hawaii and ticking off another,” means the band have played shows in all but three U.S. states. Alaska, Arizona and New Mexico audiences will have to wait — first come Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo.
On stage, the band drag the Hammond organ as close as possible to the drums, sandwiching guitar and bass; this retains some of the feel of their early gigs, in residence at a basement bar in Leeds, England.
But, “playing in the USA definitely changed our approach to live shows,” Roberts says. “We were so used to playing clubs in the U.K. with DJs opening and closing for us, but when we arrived in the U.S. essentially we were the ‘DJ’ and needed to keep the party going as long as possible. We had to re-think our snappy 45-minute set, which is now more like two or three hours long.”
After 11 or so years as an instrumental jazz-funk group, having previously relied on famous friends and occasional collaborators such as Corinne Bailey Rae for vocals, the band say they have recently become confident enough to sing themselves. The results of hard work in the practice rooms honing their coordination for live shows — they were recorded separately and added in post production for the record — were “at first a bit terrifying for us, and we did decide group vocals work best, as none of us really wants to be a lead singer.”
Led, then, by a tight bass guitar that oozed funk, and with Joe Tatton’s organ piercing the rain, this summer’s Fuji Rock turn on the White Stage was a hit. Japanese audiences, Roberts says, are “almost a cross between the U.K. and USA. Very well informed and educated in the genre and style of the music, in quite a specialist way, like Europeans, but with the open-mindedness of our American audiences.”
The band felt “really appreciated by the fans over here,” especially when festival organizers invited them back two days later to cover for a late cancelation on the Orange Court stage. But Roberts says the band “really weren’t prepared for the whole weekend’s weather, and we spent most of the time with plastic bags tied round our legs; there are still a few funny pictures floating around!”
Their new album, “Breaks From the Border,” is the band’s eighth, but the first to be recorded in the U.S. — indeed the first outside the vintage-equipment-laden studio in Leeds that had become their recording home. At one point, when an anticipated U.S. studio session seemed like it might not happen, Roberts says he was “so deflated, I wasn’t sure if I could face making another (album) in Leeds.” But it did, the band got the time between touring, and have produced something that they say “feels really good.” As well as featuring so-called “saxophonics” pioneer Skerik, the bonus tracks for Japanese purchasers include female vocalist and long-time Roberts-collaborator Freckles, also known as Rhianna Kenny.
In promoting it, bassist Shand says, “we’re a dance band. When we see people moving to the music, it makes us want to play it more.”
If “the funk” was a dance move, you’d go far to find a band with more perfectly suited tunes.
The New Mastersounds play Shangri La, Osaka on Dec. 3; Club Quattro, Nagoya on Dec. 4; and Club Quattro, Shibuya, Tokyo, on Dec 5 and 6. The new album, “Breaks From The Border,” is out now on P-Vine. For more information, visit www.newmastersounds.com.