Ronnie Brannan, Paul Mauceri, and Wheeler Newman are the three psychedelic proprietors of Cosmic Roots Collective. The trio’s debut album, Poor & Happy, was released back in April 2014, and they’re ready to follow it up with an unexpectedly fresh second release. “Big Hand,” the currently untitled album’s first single (listen below), was released less than a week ago and CRC has been playing a string of Florida shows, the next being Friday at Spacebar. Happy Camper Booking’s Dave Hanson sat down with CRC for an in-depth discussion about the band’s evolution, creative process, and vision moving forward. Enjoy.
Fill us in a little bit on the history of this band.I noticed you guys seem to have dropped the Wheeler Newman prefix, is this indicative of a new era for this group?
WN: When I moved back to Orlando after briefly living in Asheville, NC, I wanted to get involved in the local music scene. Having been in bands where one member would leave, ending the band and leaving me to start over. I thought that if my name was associated with the music, no matter what happened, I could always continue as myself. I fully expected this to be more of a solo pursuit … then, once Ronnie and Paul started playing with me, writing and heavily contributing to the music, the style completely changed. These new songs sound nothing like something I would do alone … it is now a group effort. So, to sum all that up … we went from a solo act to a band, which I think is great!
RB: Yes, very much so. We’ve shifted from our former status of Wheeler being the featured solo artist into that of a fully collaborative and democratic band, in addition to a big stylistic change in our sound overall. It’s been a long time in the making; we started moving this direction back in the beginning of 2015. We’re just trying to get the rest of the world to accept it! [laughs]
PM: That, and “Wheeler Newman and The Cosmic Roots Collective” is quite a mouthful Wouldn’t you agree? In 30 years or so, Wheeler’s name will be added back, à la “Jeff Lynne’s ELO.”
“… psychedelic music comes across programmatic in the way that it paints very specific emotions with sound.”
What are the different musical influences/backgrounds that each member brings to the band and how do they each incorporate themselves into the songs?
RB: I played upright bass and percussion in college, and studied a bit of jazz. I’m also a big prog rock guy — Yes and Rush being my two big favorites. That influence manifests itself in the form of big, loud, distorted basslines that aim to be bold and melodic, but also support the song without overtaking it. Sometimes, the bass riff is the hook of the song, which is exciting. I’m very happy to be in a band where I’m not censoring my instrumental or songwriting voice; I’m empowered by Wheeler and Paul to carve out my niche in the group. But even with the large palette of sounds and genres that we pull from, the song comes first.
WN: The three of us have played in jazz combos, classical ensembles, and many rock bands, so we are all pretty eclectic in our musical tastes. As far as my main influences, I tend to lean towards music with catchy melodies and what I believe to be good lyrics — artists/bands like Elliott Smith, Gram Parsons, Radiohead, The Beatles, etc.
PM: I was once in a band that was heavily influenced by My Bloody Valentine and Pavement and then played with a classic pop band with lots of hooks and harmonies. But we try to be open. For example, I play a Bernard “Purdie Shuffle” in one of our newer tunes, in an attempt to give it a funkier vibe. I also hear a Krautrock influence in one of the new tunes, like something the band Can might have done, and we also have one with just synths and drums, like an electro-pop thing.
What specific elements of your music and songwriting has evolved most?
RB: Musically, we’ve started to incorporate some interesting techniques like odd time signatures, tempo shifts, and a greater palette of sounds via effects pedals and synthesizers. As far as the songwriting goes, Wheeler and I co-wrote two songs together on the upcoming record, including our new single, “Big Hand.” Our writing styles are very compatible, so I look forward to exploring that in the future … Paul and I came in right at the end of making that record, but our involvement then was nothing like it is now.
PM: Yeah, we went from a more country rock Gram Parsons/Sweetheart-Era Byrds/Stones’ “Dead Flowers” vibe to a more expansive psychedelic rock vibe with more noises and effects, including the Moog synthesizer (Fun Fact: Wheeler built it himself when he worked at the Moog factory in Asheville). There isn’t much acoustic guitar anymore, or at the moment anyway.
WN: I am enjoying freedom to “do whatever” musically with Ronnie and Paul. If our last song sounded kind of country but Ronnie comes in with a new riff in 7/8 that sounds Rush-like, so be it … cause I think it sounds cool and is still us. Having that freedom allows everyone to do what they do best without preconceived ideas of what the music should be and it has unlocked sounds that individually we don’t make. That is what being in a band is all about.
Was this evolution a specific vision that you all intended to strive towards or did it happen less intentionally?
RB: I would say somewhat intentionally. We knew we wanted to expand past the folk/country genres, in addition to incorporating more psychedelia into our sound. So the psychedelic implementation is intentional. But we didn’t have a clear picture of where we would wind up … We get bored easily! [laughs] Early in 2015, we decided that nothing was off the table musically, as far as ideas go. Then more prog rock influence started seeping in from Paul and I. We all agreed we weren’t going to stop and worry about something being too weird or too heady for a general listening audience. As a result, I believe we’ve written our best and most accessible — albeit the most “out there” — songs to date.
PM: For me, it was more the types of songs Wheeler was coming up with and then it just seemed to happen organically. We eventually phased out the songs from the early sets and just focused on this new material, which was very different from what we had been doing. We’re pretty laid back guys and, it turns out, also pretty adaptable musicians. Maybe we’ll shift again and do an old school Stax R&B thing next, which would also be fun!
What elements of musical psychedelia appeal to you and how have those things started being practiced within your own band?
WN: This may be out there but … to me, psychedelic music comes across programmatic in the way that it paints very specific emotions with sound. Just as some orchestral pieces can evoke scenes by emulating certain sounds with their instruments. I’ve always felt like certain tones in psychedelic music are actually trying to represent the intangible feelings you get when you are angry, sad, or contemplative. The idea of using intentional sounds to paint the atmosphere of the music is where I think the psychedelia in our sound comes from.
PM: We love the whole middle to late ’60’s Summer-of-Love-freak-out-on-acid stuff (who doesn’t?), starting of course with The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper and the LA scene with bands like The Doors and Love and even the Grateful Dead too — although we’re not “jammy” like them. The reverb-heavy guitars and some of the bass effects Ronnie is using reference some of that. We also stretch out more on a few of the new tunes, building in intensity and creating a sort of “wall of sound.”
What are some tenants of a live show that you all strive to achieve?
RB: Giving the best performance I can. I believe performing for an audience is a privilege and that you should prepare accordingly. And between the bass, pedals, synth, and harmonies over odd time signatures … I have a lot to prepare!
PM: A well thought out and paced set that showcases the diversity of the new material, with peaks and valleys and a high energy closer.
What have been some of the highlights of this band thus far?
RB: Getting to play with some great bands here in town! It took us a little while to settle into this little pocket of the scene, but we love it. Transcendental Telecom, Someday River, Timothy Eerie, and PLEASURES are a few of our favorites. Also, making this record has been a blast so far. It’s been a ton of work, but no one is going to believe that we recorded it in a house!
PM: Getting a positive review from my friend and guitar player supremo Gary Lucas (Jeff Buckley, Captain Beefheart) for the last album!
What do you all got planned for the future?
WN: Releasing our first single, called “Big Hand,” from the upcoming record, pressing the album to vinyl, and continuing to (hopefully) entertain Orlando.
RB: Distributing free koozies at the Spacebar show! After this show and the release of the first single, we are playing May 13 at Will’s Pub for the Someday River EP release. We’re releasing the second single in the coming months, and then eventually the finished record later this year!
PM: Ditto what the other two said and also doing the whole social media promotion thing (Instagram or Twitter, what’s your poison?).
What’s your favorite thing about your band?
RB: Playing in a band with such good, solid dudes. We always have a great time, no matter what we’re doing. The fact that I trust them musically is a bonus.
PM: In addition to playing with such accomplished, versatile musicians, the beer Wheeler and Ronnie bring to every practice, some of which is pretty esoteric and quite delicious! For example, the Hunter Thompson-inspired Flying Dog Brewery’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale they call “The Fear.” Try knocking back a few of those over the course of a couple hours!
Cosmic Roots Collective Interview by Dave Hanson (Happy Camper Booking).