When the Greyboy Allstars first formed, two decades ago next year, they were nothing short of groundbreaking. They have influenced an entire generation of bands playing improvisational music in a funk format. Meanwhile, they have outlasted most of their contemporaries, because they have continued to enjoy working together and have honed the essence of their collaboration – also refining their chops while busy with their highly successful individual musical endeavors – without ever chasing trends. Throughout, they have continued to operate completely independently, slightly under the radar, with no major label support or radio airplay, while attracting thousands to legendary shows in cities across the country.
On Inland Emperor, the Greyboy Allstars’ fourth studio album to date, one hears the benefits that accrue when a group of exceptional players with a wide variety of tastes and musical experiences continue to collaborate for 20 years. The cornerstones of The Greyboy Allstars sound remain the same: funk, soul and jazz; or, looked at another way, rhythm and spontaneity. Without attempting to recreate them, the band has drawn upon elements of many genres: old soundtracks, psychedelic garage rock, ‘80s dance music, ‘70s FM soft rock and Tropicalia, to name a few. As a result, Inland Emperor has the vibe of a mixtape whose tracks are united by an emphasis upon rhythm.
The Greyboy Allstars came together in 1994, when the individual members were asked to perform at a record release party for the landmark acid jazz and club staple “Freestylin,” by San Diego’s DJ Greyboy, who was famous for spinning `70s soul and funk. The guys so enjoyed playing together that they decided to continue on as a band. Right out of the box, The Greyboy Allstars starting playing weekly at San Diego’s now defunct Green Circle, weekends at San Francisco’s Elbo Room and various clubs throughout Europe. By playing danceable boogaloo music within the soul jazz genre, they became a national and international phenomenon. The lineup of the band remains nearly the same as it did on their breakthrough, West Coast Boogaloo: Denson on horns and vocals, Robert Walter on keyboards, Elgin Park (aka Michael Andrews) on guitars and vocals, and Chris Stillwell on bass. Original drummer Zak Najor has passed the baton on to Aaron Redfield, an old friend of the band and frequent collaborator. While DJ Greyboy is no longer a member of the band, he remains a central figure in their artistic output, having introduced the band to many of the records that inspire their sound, produced their first album and appeared on 2007’s What Happened to Television?
At this point, the band’s members are as well known for their non-Allstars projects as for their work with the band. The individual members have gone to score film and television shows, work with platinum artists and bands both on the road and in the studio, and head their own highly regarded solo projects.
Even for these now well-seasoned musicians, the catalytic force that takes hold when they collaborate with each other seems to pleasantly surprise them. For Inland Emperor, they worked out the arrangements during the recording, which took place live over just a few sessions at Elgin Park’s studio in Glendale, CA. Denson says of this accelerated pace of creation, “We do in one week would take me two months to do in any other situation.” Amazingly, the 12 tracks comprising the album, mostly written by groupings of the band’s members, are seamless performances, and sound as if they’d been rehearsed and road-tested for months.
Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer Mickey Petralia (Beck, Peaches, Eels, Flight of the Conchords) mixed the tracks, expertly capturing the energy and collaborative joy inherent in the recording.
Inland Emperor follows the critically acclaimed What Happened to Television?, which prompted The Los Angeles Times to write, “The [music of] this talented collective feels so cozy and organic you never want to leave its inviting groove.”
This spring and summer, audiences across the country will have opportunities to experience the Greyboy Allstars’ music in its ideal format: live. Given the likelihood that the chance won’t come again soon, these are shows not to miss.