The Big Noise of The Commotions

Photo courtesy of The Commotions

The Commotions represent not only a bit of vintage fun, but the power that can come from creative minds. Their ability to bring electricity back to music long out of fashion gives every show a life you rarely see anymore at concerts. We caught up with band leader Brian Asselin ahead of their November 30 show at The Rainbow to talk about their latest album and finding unique strength in numbers.

Ottawa Life: How has it felt to see such a vibrant reaction to Bad Girl across the web when Jazz and R&B often struggle in terms of views?

Brian Asselin: I know I can speak on behalf of everyone in the band when I say we are forever grateful for the positive reaction the public has towards our music. It has been long hard road to get this band on stage but it was worth every single second. As soon as we posted the video on Facebook I was overwhelmed with how many people not only watched it but shared it on their own walls. It is very important to myself and the rest of the band to stay true to our roots in jazz, soul and R&B and while those genres don’t often get the recognition they deserve, I still feel that quality music will still shine through. I am humbled and honoured that the public digs what we are doing.

How did the look for "Bad Girl" come together and what was the creative dynamic like between you and the director?

The idea for the video came about from a meeting with Rebecca and our co-Producer Jason Jaknunas at an amazing bar in Westboro called Trio. We often go there to discuss our next venture or plans for world domination LOL. All joking aside the video is completely DIY. I think Rebecca still has the napkin we sketched the stage design on. Once we had the idea of paying tribute to the Ed Sullivan stage design, Jason and I went to work to build the set. On the day of the shoot, the morning after a snow storm no less, we had Rebecca take the reins on directing the shoot. Once we finished shooting the video, which was filmed almost exactly a year ago today, Rebecca, myself and our videographer, Andrew Maclennan edited the video and we released it last January.

Considering the projects everyone is coming for this local supergroup, how do you keep all the creativity focused?

Everyone in the band brings such an amazing talent and energy to this project. I am completely humbled every time I get to share the stage and they all inspire me to be the best musician I can be. I tend to start most of the tunes on my own but quickly I bring in Rebecca, Jeff Rogers and David to help craft those ideas into a song. Once we get the harmony and lyrics done I get to work on arranging the tune for our rhythm section as well as our 5 piece horn section. What is really amazing I find is there are zero egos in the band either in the writing process or on stage. When one of us has an idea we come together and give that idea a chance.

Speaking of this, how exactly does your role as band director play out and did that evolve out of necessity or just an organic flow of working?

I started the band back in 2013 after a short run with The Funk Brothers but the band has surpassed any expectations I ever had and I consider myself very fortunate to be standing in front of them – metaphorically speaking because let’s be honest – horns should always be in the back

How did you all want to approach Volume II to grow from your last album, and were there any stark differences in the studio or writing process that stood out?

What really changed our sound from the first album to our second album was the co-writing. I cannot tell you how much of a game changer it was to get Rebecca involved in the writing process. Writing lyrics or singing a vocal melody is something I do often but I am still learning every day. It was such a breath of fresh air to get Rebecca’s take on not only changing my lyrics but giving her free rein to write her own for the songs. David and I did all the writing on the first disc and he was so instrumental on our second recording simply because of his expertise on harmony. I always tend to write in a more Pop style but it has been great working with David because he forces me out of my element sometimes and that’s when the creative juices really started to shape this record. We have already written the majority of tunes for Volume III and I am so happy that Jeff Rogers has joined our song writing team.

You talk about soul music's power to touch on the issues of the time like nothing else, so how did you want to do that on Volume II?

Wow that’s a fantastic question and I am not sure I have an answer. I do agree that Soul music has always been the music of the masses. There is so much passion in soul music whether you are talking about love, self-expression or politics. As a songwriter I strive to write something that makes a connection with someone so most of my writing comes from true life experiences. I wrote Loving You for my brother (and drummer) Jeff Asselin and his wife (Erin Asselin) for their wedding anniversary and birth of their son. Each song I had a part in tells a story of either my life or someone who is dear to me.

Considering the overt feeling of nostalgia many of your songs can elicit I was curious to get your take on how much honesty and energy can make these genre fresh these days as opposed to simply updating textures for the times?

I don’t think Soul music really left – I think it just changed. All the you have to do is listen to artists like Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, Meghan Trainor or Ed Sheeran – all these musicians have been inspired by Soul music and you can hear those characteristics either in the harmony or arrangements. I love the fact the both Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake tour with horn sections. All these artists are amazing and are pushing soul to new heights. I am not comparing the Commotions to these amazing artists but we too have tried in our own way to push our music into different directions. Like I said before I come from more of a pop world while David tends to stick to his roots in jazz. When we write together our music tends to have characteristics of both genres. Now bring in Rebecca or Jeff Rogers who have played a lot of music from the blues genre and you get something else entirely.

How did Steve Marriner and Petr Cancura end up on the album, and what was it like collaborating with them?

Both Steve and Petr were amazing to work with and I am so thrilled they shared their talents on our album. Petr and I have been playing together since the late 1990’s when we played in a community band together called The Nepean All-City Jazz Band directed by Neil Yorke-Slader. In fact my brother (Jeff Asselin), Jeff Rogers, Steve Boudreau, Petr Cancura and myself all came out of that band. I have known Steve Marriner for a long time as well and I am big fan of MonkeyJunk. As soon as I heard David’s composition ‘Don’t Walk Away’ I knew he was the perfect guy to get.

Also just in case anyone has forgotten how you all started playing together, where did The Commotions start and how have you amassed over a dozen guests on top of your 12 ongoing members?

I put the band together in 2013 but the band then was called Delbert and The Commotions. Delbert Nelson was the touring lead singer of the Funk Brothers while I was on the raod with them. He is an amazing musician and a dear friend who took a chance on me to come up to Canada to start this crazy project. After our first album we took a little break but I kept writing in hopes I could get the band back together again. I knew I wanted Rebecca to take a bigger role in the band but I still wanted that male/female duo fronting the project. Jeff Rogers and I have been playing music together since we were in grade school and one day I asked if he would be interested in joining the band – I am forever grateful he said yes. Now I get to work with two of the most inspiring talented singers I have ever known.

I was also interested to hear about the unique benefits and occasional challenges you face with so many members, given that your size is somewhat of an anomaly in modern music?

Being a touring 12 piece does have its challenges when it comes to availability and costs. This is probably the hardest part of my job keeping the group of this size together. Each member of The Commotions has their own amazing careers and I would never want to take them away from that. It’s really just a bit of back and forth with me and 11 other people on a constant basis – I have a pretty good phone plan. It has been an amazing year for us and I am hopeful we can continue our momentum. Stay tuned for more from The Commotions!!