Playing DJ with Eddie Roberts of New Mastersounds

Words by James Farrell
Photo by Jim Mimna

Eddie Roberts pauses frequently as he lists his five biggest musical influences. After much internal deliberation, he cites Grant Green, the Meters, James Brown and Ramsay Louis. For his last spot, the Welsh guitarist of the British funk quartet The New Mastersounds refuses to list just one name. Instead, Roberts credits a collective of DJs that once swarmed the clubs of Britain.

“We were just influenced by the whole funk and soul DJ scene that was happening in Britain in, like, the ‘90s, which is where we kind of got most of our sound from,” Roberts said. “A lot of the tracks we were hearing were just one-hit wonders . . . the DJs had them and were just playing them back-to-back.”

As musicians, the New Mastersounds certainly take a lot from these obscure artists. But on some level, the band also learned from the DJs who were spinning the tracks. The New Mastersounds have spent more than a decade using their instruments to become live-music soul DJs, providing uptempo, dance-oriented funk music for party-seeking audiences. It’s music made for pure enjoyment, and that’s the band’s highest goal. On October 2nd, The New Mastersounds release their 10th studio album, Made For Pleasure. Their intentions are clear in the title.

“Sums up what we do,” Roberts said of the title. “We’re definitely a fun-loving band.”

It’s fitting, then, that the album (available via Royal Potato Family) was recorded in New Orleans, a town infamous for its free-spirited party culture. “There’s always crazy shit going on,” Roberts said. On the band’s very first day in the city, for instance, they passed a car in flames as they crossed a bridge. “We were gonna call the album ‘Burning Bridges,’ but then we thought, you know, we’re not really about burning bridges,” Roberts said.

New Orleans did seep into the album’s consciousness, however. The smooth, laid back track, “Pho Baby,” is a bluesy ode to the Vietnamese dish, pho, which the band members ate every day in New Orleans’ West Bank. “I think we originally called the tune ‘Pho Belly,’ Roberts said, referencing the fullness brought on by a pho meal. The band names all its music at the end of the recording process, so song and album titles are often in flux. “It ended up being changed to ‘Pho Baby,’” Roberts said. “But I’ll always remember it as ‘Pho Belly.’”

Coming into the studio for Made For Pleasure, the New Mastersounds had nine albums and over a decade of growth under their belts. And their time spent in the US undoubtedly had a hand in their evolution. “We’ve been influenced by being in the US scene, been influenced by being in these amazing kind of influential musical towns, you know, like being in New Orleans. I feel I can hear a difference in the way we all play since we’ve all spent so much time in New Orleans,” Roberts said. “You just pick up things as you going along.”

The creative processes on Made For Pleasure, for instance, were very different from the processes of their past records. Like on previous albums, the songs feature many guest collaborators, including the powerhouse soul singer Charly Lowry and horn players Joe Cohen and Mike Olmos. But this time around, Roberts says that guest musicians had a greater hand in writing the songs than they have in the past. Rather than overdubbing parts from in post-production, as had been common practice for the band, the music was all recorded together. It made for a product that “had a different kind of energy,” Roberts said.

And that energy may have been used to accomplish the album’s goal of pleasure. The title track is a contagious instrumental dance-funk tune, driven by chunky guitar rhythms and smooth organ. On “Joy,” Lowry sings of the joys of being joyful: “I’ve got joy, joy, joy, joy deep down in my soul. It really turns me on, yeah it turns me on.” The album’s most pleasant surprise is a reggae cover of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” the 2014 smash that sung of the pleasures of the high life. Spellbinder, a reggae singer who Roberts discovered at a nightclub, toasts in place of the original lyrics. Without Azalea’s words, the cover is less gluttonous than the original, and the reggae beats hint of different kinds of pleasure than those offered by Azalea.

For Roberts, though, music for pleasure doesn’t have to be selfish. Outside of the New Mastersounds, the guitarist is hosting a series of benefit concerts called The Payback, which supports Compass Family Services, a non-profit that helps the homeless in San Francisco. On September 25th and 26th, Roberts will take the stage at the Great American Music Hall with a line up of all-star musicians, including Zigaboo Modeliste of The Meters, Reed Mathis, and Jennifer Hartswick. A silent auction will raise money for Compass Family Services.

Roberts was inspired to act after living in the Tenderloin, an area of San Francisco known for its high level of homelessness. “I actually felt a sense of community in that area despite all the problems. I was kind of a little bit sick of all the hipsters coming in and saying, ‘Oh I hate the bloody homeless.’ Well, you know, it’s a problem that can face any of us. And it definitely has nearly faced me a few times, you know, being a bloody musician,” Roberts said.

He also plays with a slew of musicians, including his American-based band, the West Coast Sound. But Roberts’ first love is playing with The New Mastersounds. He says their chemistry is so strong they can do anything they want “with a nod or a wink.” On stage, Roberts controls the room like the DJs that inspired him, the ones who controlled the scene that give his band members a common ancestry.

“I get to kind of direct it,” Roberts said. “We always call it, ‘I get to DJ,’ you know? I get to be the DJ of what we’re doing and they all trust me. I never throw an idea out there and have people go, ‘no I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to drop into a reggae groove right now.’ It’s like they just trust me. They just go with it. When I get off the stage sometimes when it’s been a really good run, they’ll say, ‘ah good DJing Eddie!’ That’s the best compliment”. | RPF