Breathing New Intention into Brass Music:

From Subways to Stages with Lucky Chops

Interview by Corinne Casella
Photo by Lauren Desberg

Dubbed by NPR’s Bob Boilen as one of SXSW’s “break out bands,” Lucky Chops blend their mastery of brass music with a fresh and intoxicating take on pop hits. The sextet met as students while attending Fame-based LaGuardia Arts High School in Manhattan. Fostering their love of brass, the group hit the streets in high gear, using their hometown as the backdrop of their continuing education. Videos of the group playing in the subway quickly went viral and earned not only a spot on the festival circuit, but legions of fans worldwide. Building off the momentum, Lucky Chops is now in full tour mode, promoting their latest EP, Walter.

The band took some time to share their story, and their mission to “reach every listening ear around the world”…

Tell us, how has the band evolved since your high school days?

Raphael Buyo, Josh Holcomb, and Daro Behroozi were all in the school bands together, but we also wanted to make our own music and get together and play outside of the classroom. One day, Buyo decided to get a sousaphone on eBay, put together a brass band, and take it to the streets of NYC.

The first gig we ever did was the 2006 Filipino Day Parade, and after that we started playing outside on weekends and after school pretty regularly for a few years, mostly in Central Park and Columbus Circle. We went through many different phases over the next several years but somehow managed to keep it all together. We started playing weddings, doing some club shows, random parties and events.

Fast forward to 2014, we auditioned for the Music Under New York program and got a permit to play in the subway. We hit that as hard as we could, and by summer of 2015 we were playing in the subway three times a week. It really taught us how to become performers, how to connect with people from all walks of life, how to put on a show that would make them stop and check us out. We developed a lot of our repertoire and got pretty tight during this time. Trumpeter Joshua Gawel, whom Josh Holcomb met at the Manhattan School of Music, was in the band by then, and our drummer Charles Sams joined in late 2016.

Playing in the subway got us a lot more attention, and in early 2015 someone took a video of us that went viral. We started getting noticed in Europe and Latin America, and in 2016 we started touring in Europe and the U.S. We’ve been to Europe three times now and plan to go back in the summer and fall of this year. In between tours, we’ve managed to work on a lot of new original music, and it’s been well received in our live shows. So we’re really excited to put out this new EP that represents where we’re at right now in our development.

Explain how you fell in love with brass music, and the challenges you face interpreting classic pop and rock through instrumentation.

Everyone in the band brings a wildly diverse range of influences to our music, and we’ve all checked out a lot of different brass traditions, from Balkan to Banda to the United House of Prayer to New Orleans. The sound of brass is the sound of the breath, and its intense vibrations have healing potential that we spread through our music. When we started out, we were playing mostly classic New Orleans repertoire and songs by other brass bands, like Rebirth and Youngblood. It was exciting for us to encounter a repertoire of music made for our instruments that we could groove to and dance to and sing along with. When we started making our own versions of pop and rock songs, we were mostly using the same kind of format already developed by other brass bands.

But as we grew, playing and evolving these songs together for years and incorporating different influences like ska and Turkish music, we started doing our own thing, incorporating the individual voices of each instrument in unique ways. Now, when we write music or interpret pop and rock songs, we like to explore all of the possibilities that each voice can contribute to the arrangement. We’re pretty small compared to most brass bands, and we don’t have a chordal instrument, so it takes careful consideration to figure out how to get the biggest sound and fill enough sonic space so that the sound has a powerful impact on the listeners. We’re always exploring different techniques for voicing harmonies and incorporating rhythmic and melodic counterpoint, and it’s a fun learning process.

Let’s talk about the journey from playing in Grand Central to releasing an EP and playing in traditionally booked venues. What are the pros and cons of each setting?

In both situations, we’re trying to create a deep connection with audiences, trying to support and uplift, heal, inspire, get people moving, and ultimately have a transformative experience together with the audiences. Though it is different being on stage where everybody is there to see you and listen to the music, as opposed to the subway where people are going about their day to day and we’re trying to get their attention. In the subway, some people are just not in the mood and that’s totally OK. But when we’re on a stage and we know everybody is there to go on a journey with us, it’s a really amazing feeling. It gives us a special kind of energy that enables us to perform at a level we couldn’t otherwise reach.

Playing in the subway is special in a different way because it gives us a chance to reach people with joyful, healing music who wouldn’t necessarily have access to it or know about us otherwise. We can support people as they go about their daily lives rather than only in the context of the concert. It’s challenging though, because we really have to open ourselves up and make ourselves vulnerable. Down in the subway the energy isn’t always all that positive, so we need to find ways to stay committed to our goals of spreading healing and loving energy. It’s like a training program for cultivating the power of the intention that goes into our music.

With your own success with the medium, how do you feel social media plays a part in your creative process?

Social media allows us to engage our fans in ways other than the traditional concert setting. It allows us to speak directly with our fans. We get to hear about things that we do that they like and things they don’t like. Both are very important. It also allows us to reach people globally who we may not be able to meet face-to-face. We want our music to reach every listening ear around the world.

What advice would you give to new musicians trying to get their name out there?

Stick with it. You never know when or where your “in” will occur. Don’t miss it because you stopped trying before your break. And remember that there is more to being a musician than just playing music. Be professional.

See Lucky Chops live on April 20th at Irving Plaza. For tickets and more information click here. | NYC