For 12 years, Scott Tournet was the guitarist for and founding member of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. While the steady success of the group brought national attention to the roots-rock band from Vermont, most of that attention focused on Potter as the star. With other musical ambitions bubbling inside him, and the emphasis of managers, producers, and labels pulling away from the Nocturnals and pushing towards Potter, it was time for Tournet to exit. A move to San Diego and a new band, Elektric Voodoo, emerged, enabling the musician to realize a long-held vision of an extended ensemble heavily influenced by Afrobeat and Latin rhythms. We spoke with Tournet, shortly after the release of Elektric Voodoo’s eponymous debut, about the album’s creation, the parting with the Nocturnals, and Voodoo’s plans for touring.
How long have you been waiting to make an album like this?
Since 2001. Without really knowing it, I was on the path to making this kind of music when I graduated from college; from, I guess you’d call it, my senior-year concert, I was basically barking up this tree already.
What took so long?
I was at Goddard College, where the Phish guys went. Everything at that school was all about not going down the middle. It was, like, Sun Ra, and free jazz, and world music. Anything but normal. Nobody cared about The Beatles or the Rolling Stones in that environment. And, that was cool. When I left there, it was a time when I discovered The Band, and The Beatles, and early Stones. That’s when I met Grace (Potter) and (Nocturnals drummer) Matt Burr, and they were kind of enjoying the same thing. And off we went on this minimalistic, simplistic journey into that kind of music. Which I like a lot, too.
You talk a lot about the influence of Afrobeat, particularly Fela Kuti, on this band, and this album. How aware were you of swerving into imitation?
I’m super-aware of that. Having done this for quite a while, I’m very conscious of it. I don’t want to do that. When I look at other bands, there are ones that do that. A band like Antibalas was one I looked to a lot. I love them. They’re great. I saw them live, years and years ago, and they do it so well. They’re probably the best example of Afrobeat that I’ve seen in the States. But, I feel like everyone else I saw doing Afrobeat was like an exact re-creation of that. That’s what I didn’t want to do.
The interesting thing to me was to write songs up against Afrobeat influences. I haven’t heard a lot of people doing that. It’s more unchartered territory. I think with the Nocturnals, early on, like a lot of young musicians do, we were trying to sound like Neil Young on Harvest, or the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. “Let’s try and record that way.” And that was fun, but I’m not interested in doing that.
Is it something in the music that sets off that alarm, that it’s not enough of your own style in the process?
It’s more feel than thought. All the music that I wrote for the last record- and I’m writing a new album now- I’m writing by myself, generally. When I’m crafting a song, I try out this move and that move, and it’s that process. So, when I’m done, I’m excited about it. It needs to feel right. If I’m too far into Fela Kuti mimicry, then I’m not going to do it. It’s the rhythm and the groove that’s exciting. Afrobeat is the main reference, but to break it down, there is as much a Latin influence, like early Santana, coming through. And, there’s some funk, too. I’m just really bored with American rhythms. I feel we’ve heard them so much. It’s like, let’s try anything else out.
How much of a turn away from a perception of who you are is this band, this approach?
I always feel a part of the jam world, but there’s a part of me that’s fighting against it. It’s great, where it comes from. I love improvisation. But, let’s keep pushing forward, as opposed to retreading the same songs and same grooves again and again.
Sometimes it takes artist known so well for something to say, we can also do this. Like Dylan going electric.
That’s how I personally felt. The latest record is the one I’m happiest about- it’s a very standard thing to say. But, I felt that way, about opening this door. Like, I can do this? This whole new world of possibilities is open now that I’ve broken down that wall.
Are you writing with your personnel in mind?
I totally am, and it’s been really enjoyable. The last record I did mostly by myself, so I didn’t have anybody in mind. I just went wherever the muse led me. I’d put four guitars on a song, not thinking who is going to play it, or how it would be played. Which is cool, too. But, with this record, I have a good band of very good musicians. It’s been really fun, and it gave me parameters to work within; not going too far, like putting 48 tracks on a song just for the hell of it.