Brian J is Zooming in from his recording studio in New Orleans. Positioned amongst an array of hefty sound equipment, the mastermind behind the Pimps of Joytime unabashedly dives into the story behind the early stages of writing the band’s forthcoming album, Reachin’ Up. With a manner that can only be described as the suave sophistication of a well-seasoned musician, the GRAMMY-award nominated producer delves into the ensemble’s latest endeavor.
In early 2019, before the pandemic-induced global hiatus shut down the world and essentially eliminated the live music scene, J lived in New York. Subsequently, he was also actively moving his recording studio to New Orleans. On a two-week trip to the Bajou State, he started creating songs using an 8-track tape machine: playing with chord progressions while piecing together ideas that could become half the tracklist on Reachin’ Up.
The LP features J and his romantic partner/ new permanent Pimps of Joytime member, Carole C (Si*Sé), Antibalas’ shekere player Marcus Farrar, New Mastersounds bassist Pete Shand, and longtime friend and collaborator Chauncey Yearwood. Together, their high-energy 10-track LP evokes the funkiness of New Orleans paired with an air of California cool and soulfulness that has seemingly plucked out of San Francisco’s effervescent music scene—all the while staying true to J’s Brooklyn roots.
Reachin’ Up encapsulates the band’s signature funkiness with soul-driven performances and masterful musicianship that keep listeners’ heads bopping and hips swaying. With past collaborators ranging from Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., Zigaboo Modeliste, and the late Art Neville, it’s no surprise the ensemble’s sixth studio album exemplifies grooviness with a soulful-disco flavor that can only be Pimps of Joytime.
Let’s talk about the timeline and the process of putting together Pimps of Joytime’s new LP, Reachin’ UP.
I think it was 2018 or 2019. Yeah, it was probably 2019. I was living in New York, but I partially moved to New Orleans. I moved my studio down here. So I came for about two weeks and just started creating– not full songs but, sort of tracks using my 8-track tape machine and just making cool chord progressions and sort of piecing together ideas that could potentially become songs at a later time. So a bunch of those songs became what’s on the record, a little over half the songs on the record were from those two weeks of just waking up every day and doing a track a day. And then I slowly, whether it was collaborating with Carol or Marcus, collaborating with different people, and making those into full song form.
What do you feel is the biggest difference between 2017’s Third Wall Chronicles and Reachin’ Up?
I’m just in such a different place in my life. I think it’s reflected on this one. I think it’s a little less edgy and I really tried to just be very authentic on this record—meaning authentic to me. My singing, sometimes I do a falsetto, sometimes I try different things but I just tried to do something very honest with my singing. And I just tried to make each track–-I always try to make everything I do feel good–but, I think I was definitely going through a disco-and-dub-and-remix of those genres phase. When I did that two weeks of doing one track a day, I was definitely focusing on that disco tempo and template which I haven’t done as much before.
I think this album was a bit more refined, maybe because I had more time to really spend on it, and I just wanted the tracks to be very well-thought-out, well-written, well-arranged, that the sounds as a producer all kind of work well together. And I think the songwriting, I had a lot of help from Carol C. With the songwriting, each song is really saying something.
What major themes do you see on the LP?
“Reachin’ Up” is a lyric that I’ve had for a long time. It was part of another song I started writing but never finished. And then when I was working with Marcus I threw out “Reaching Up” and was like, “Now’s the time.” So, I took that out of the filing cabinet and put it into that song. But the concept of Reaching Up is part of how I feel when I’m playing music. It’s like a healing thing. It’s like a show is kind of like a ceremony that some religious group or tribes do where they dance around a fire and it’s all about cleansing the spirit and uplifting. That’s really like the broader mission of what I’m trying to do with music, it is to uplift. Myself and the listener.
That’s definitely the essence I got. It’s like there’s a greater message to every song. There’s also such a lovely pairing of lyrics and instrumentals.
If something joyful is being communicated through the music then it’s like, “Alright it’s being done right.” That’s really what it’s about, Joytime, joy is in the name. Yeah, definitely that each track communicates that fun, uplifting positive vibe. I veered away from any type of negative, downer-type lyrics.
With “Unity,” it seems like that specifically had a greater message, what were you trying to convey?
Well, Carol wrote the lyrics. When we started out, that track was one in those two weeks. I just had a heavy groove then, a dubby kind of groove. We set out to write a song for Chauncey to sing and Carol just wrote it like that. She just wrote those lyrics and it’s pretty literal.
Were there any artists from the seventies that you guys were inspired by? “Paradise” has such a disco feel to it, especially with Carol’s vocals.
Yeah, Carol’s a huge seventies disco fan. Minnie Riperton, Donna Summer, she’s got those influences that she brings to the table. Yeah, just trying to get that classic groove, so that when you turn it on you’re like, “Okay, I can live my life with this music.”
As you were sequencing the album were you trying to evoke anything in your listeners?
Yeah, I mean as I was developing the record, I would make myself a playlist. And I put the songs in, and then I go for walk with my headphones on and I really just tried to get the right flow. So there are some ebbs and flows. Just try to find it like, “Okay what’s the perfect opening song?” And the second song is like a continuation, the third song is like a highlight, the third song is really important.
Can you talk about getting Pete Shand from The New Mastersounds involved with the project?
We have a long-standing relationship and friendship. I’ve helped him with his solo projects. Since we were starting to hit on this disco vibe on the record, sometimes there’d be some lines that I played and I was like, “Oh I feel like Pete could do this much better.” So I just started sending him tracks. One of the songs is something that he sent me to sing on. He was like, “Hey can you write some lyrics and sing on this?” And then I liked what I did enough to be like “Hey what do you think we just put this on the record?”
And that’s “All I Have?”
Can you talk a little bit about Marcus Farrar from Antabalas and how he ended up on the album?
Yeah, Marcus. We go way back, so he was at the first gig that The Pimps of Joytime did. It wasn’t even really a band yet. He was bartending at the local bar and I guess I had heard about him playing drums so I kind of recruited him to play drums and he also sang on High Steppin, the first Pimps of Joytime record. So, then we just went our separate ways and I guess we bumped into each other at some point and were like, “Hey let’s collaborate.” I just invited him over to the spot we had in Brooklyn and I put on one of the tracks that in that two-week period I had come up with, and he started singing, we just brainstormed and put it together. It was the quickest session, it required a lot of editing afterward, but we got all the basic ideas to create the song.
What was it like working through the pandemic?
At first, it was really nice to have time to relax time. Going back to the timeline of Reachin’ Up, I thought the record was done before the pandemic even happened. And then as everything went on hold I kept coming back to it and refining and refining so it actually really worked out that I had another year to come back to it. And on certain songs I would change the drums like five times. I did multiple versions and I really put the full effort into getting each song as good as I could get it. Certainly having the time to do that, I was able to just focus on a ton on recording. I made a blues record which I didn’t end up releasing. Then I have another project called Gitkin, so I made a record for that project– that’s my more world music endeavor.
What has it meant returning to live music and performing in person again?
It’s been challenging. You know there’s definitely anxiety involved leaving the house and it’s like you’re taking a risk and then everything that comes along with is a big group of people getting together because of me. Fortunately, as far as I know, it’s been okay, but it’s challenging for all musicians that make their living on the road. So there’s no real easy route. And then, the band was essentially on a little break, before the pandemic. So it’s just sort of getting that groove back, working with some new personnel, which is great. So getting people familiar with that has stressful all the way up until it’s time to play.
And then your like, “Okay, it’s time to have fun?”
Yeah, when we play it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is why I love it.”
Reachin’ Up is due out on April 15 via Regime Music Group.
Watch their live performance of the title track, live at Tipitina’s: