From NOLA to New York

Big Sam’s Funky Nation Hits Highline Ballroom This Friday

Interview by Corinne Casella

Big Sam Williams is ubiquitous with the New Orleans sound. Growing up in the Crescent City, he was immersed in music from childhood. A founding member of the Stooges Brass Band, he later joined the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as a trombonist, touring the scene and sharing the stage with musicians across genres.

Due to his musician chops and connection with New Orleans, he was offered a recurring role on HBO’s critically-acclaimed Treme. He has since become a bandleader in his own right with Big Sam’s Funky Nation, playing gigs and major music festivals around the world. His mix of jazz fusion, dance, rock and traditional big band music has garnered him a strong following and a widespread reputation as a professional musician.

We had a chance to speak with Big Sam about his evolution as a musician, and his band’s upcoming show at New York’s Highline Ballroom on June 3rd…

What are the biggest pluses and minuses to fronting your own band compared to being a member of a larger group?

Big Sam Williams: Man, it’s like night and day between the two. Both are awesome, and unique in their own way. Being part of a larger band, or being part of someone’s hired band is usually less stressful because the responsibilities are divided up among everyone, or in some cases you just learn the songs and show up and play. Everything from songwriting duties to booking rehearsal space, coordinating press shoots and bio writing, etc, is split up among all the members. When it’s your band the buck stops with you, so to speak. Everything (and every problem) large and small come across your radar. So in some ways it’s more of a burden to front your own band because you have to wear a ton of hats and keep all the plates spinning. But it’s also awesome because you have a lot of control over the song creation and presentation of your live show and your brand. For me it’s a no-brainer. I’ve always wanted to have my own band, so the extra work and stress is absolutely worth it in my mind.

NOLA is in your blood. Tell me a little about what that means from a musician’s standpoint. In that vein can you explain a little about your experience on Treme and the authenticity of the show?

BSW: It’s hard to explain. If you are from New Orleans, music is just something you have memories of from the beginning. You just can’t remember a chapter in your life that didn’t involve music in some way, shape or form- and that’s not the norm in other parts of the country. I was playing music early in grade school, and basically every other kid in the neighborhood was too. Instruments get handed down from older siblings and relatives, old sheet music gets re-purposed. Kids actually learn to play instruments in school.

It’s the greatest town in the world to be a musician in, and to grow up as a musician in. When I was approached to be in Treme it was a no-brainer. So many other New Orleans musicians were involved, and a ton of locals were cast in other parts. I think almost, if not all of it was filmed in town. So from the authenticity point of view I found it to be very authentic. I think if it had lacked all the musicians it would have been far less authentic. You can’t throw a stone in this town without hitting 5 musicians. My family really got a kick out of seeing me on TV as well, so that was special.

How is the current tour going so far as compared to expectations?

BSW: The touring has been really fun this year. We have been out a lot, all over the country. I think this will be our second or third time in NYC in 2016 alone. The crowds have been great! We played in Chicago Valentine’s Day weekend and it was like a high of 5 degrees out that night. That was a shock to us Louisiana boys, for sure. But despite the cold the room was packed and we had everyone dancing. It was so humbling to see all those folks on the dance floor after braving the frigid temps to get to the venue.

I also got up and performed with Pearl Jam at JazzFest back in April, which was a highlight of this year’s touring schedule as well. Those guys are legends, and it was an honor to share the stage with them. We are also heading up to Canada for a jazz fest this summer, which will be great. Get those north of the border folks some authentic New Orleans tunes!

What can fans expect at your Highline Ballroom date? Songs? Guest stars?

BSW: Fans can expect a high energy New Orleans style party at Highline. ‘Noladelic Powerfunk’ is a tagline that has been associated with our sound, and I think it’s accurate. The horns are in your face, and the songs grab you. You will be dancing if you are in the crowd! You will be dancing with strangers around you also. That’s cool, you are a good dancer so you have nothing to worry about. We’re all about having good times.

We will be rattling off some tunes from our forthcoming album, which will be out next year. You will also hear some old stuff, and some unique covers thrown in there as well. We basically just hit the stage and the set goes where it goes. The guys in the band are all excellent musicians so you never know what is going to come out of them. We will see what happens with guests. That is usually something that we don’t really plan. Most of the time we know about guests sitting in when we recognize them in the room and wave for them to come up. That is about the extent that we plan it.

Catch Big Sam’s Funky Nation in NYC this Friday, June 3rd. Get your tickets here! | NOLA