Free Radicals have won an amazing nine Houston Press Music Awards for Best Jazz, but jazz really doesn't even begin to cover the 16-year-old Houston group's sound. It's so all over the place that the only category that really fits is the oft-misunderstood "world music," especially on the Radicals' new record The Freedom Fence. In the course of 23 songs, the seven-piece group visits -- lyrically or musically, and not always at once -- Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cuba, Russia, the Holy Land, Mexico, New Orleans, Sugar Land and Houston's own Third Ward.
Earlier this morning, Rocks Off talked to Free Rads drummer and founder Nick Cooper about the origins of Freedom Fence's thorny concept of borders, as well as managing the album's astonishing 48 guest stars including Little Joe Washington, local rappers Niyat and H.I.S.D., Nigerian poet Folasayo Dele-Ogunrinde and Cuban hip-hop group Krudas. Here he talks about some of his collaborators, determining the style for a specific song and the surprising places the Radicals' music has been used.
Rocks Off: A lot of the record addresses some pretty complicated and controversial subject matter. Are you worried about turning off your audience at all?
Nick Cooper: Well, I don't think that's an issue because at this point Free Radicals' market is connected to Free Radicals' allies. I was given a call that said, "Hey, can you guys come play the janitors' protest Thursday?" and I said, "Yeah, I'll get people together." There's no money or anything, that's just what we do. We play a lot of protests, and we don't need to be paid for it -- if there's no money involved, that's fine.
But it also might get us a paying gig. We get a lot of paying gigs, and if we get played on the radio nationally -- what national syndicated radio program played my [2010 compilation CD, which Cooper produced] Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall? Democracy Now! That's about it. It didn't get played on commercial radio, of course. It is our commitment to these causes and our connections to different groups and media sources that gets us out there.
RO: How closely did you try to match the subject of each song to the type of music it was, like reggae or rap?
NC: It's a very artistic process. For example, if you take a look at the second song on the CD, the first song after the intro, "No State Solution, it's played in the style of Afrobeat, it's played in the style of Fela [Kuti] but then it cuts into a reggae. But lyrically, the lyrics are done by a Nigerian singer who sings in the style of Fela; however, the topic of "No State Solution" is a reference to the One State Solution used with Israel and Palestine, so the music doesn't have any connection in that sense.
But, you know, Fela talked about things like that too. It's connected to Nigeria because it has a Nigerian singer and a reference to Fela, connected to Jamaica because it has reggae in it, but the actual theme of the song is connected to Israel/Palestine. Sometimes we back something really closely and sometimes we don't. It's an artistic process.
But the Ethiopian song, which is called "Badme," that's an Ethiopian song and the title is about an Ethiopian border area, so in that sense it's consistent. Sometimes artistically we'll dispatch things because we find it interesting and other times we'll be more consistent on one thing. And the same is true on the instrumentals, like even aside from what the title of the song is, the song might be connected to the song or not, or something in the mix might be connected to the style.
Like, we might have a ska tune that has a musical saw on it [they do, "Imperial Sugar"]. I'd never heard a ska tune that had musical saw on it, but it sounded great, so we went for it.
RO: Is it just mix and match when you write a song?
NC: Oh no, it's just straight-up musicians getting inspired. Like I called up Geoffrey [Muller, the saw player] and said "I have an idea that you would work on this tune, this tune and this tune, do you want to listen to them?" "Sure." "Do you want to hear any other tunes?" "Yeah." "Do you have any ideas on this one?" So picking the ones that he's going to do something on is just a collaborative process.
And then as producer, I may have tracked tablas on seven tunes and only used it on four of them. Or I may have tracked organ or vibes or any given instrument on a bunch of tunes, but then I'm like, "you know, it's not needed on this." Or "maybe just this one little section sounds good on the vibes and I'm gonna cut the rest out."
If you listen to the "Ben Taub Blues," when we tracked it the piano player played all the way through the whole song and I was like, "it's really nice as a guitar-based thing [featuring Little Joe Washington, in fact], but I like these couple little pieces of piano," so there's these tiny little sections that have a little bit of piano, and that's it. That's all it needed.
RO: How are you planning to support or promote the album?
NC: It's gonna be through musical and political channels. So our musical allies and musical publications and blogs and so forth that might be interested in it. We'll definitely be working it in those channels.
And then also politically, there's a lot of organizations and media that's connected already to border issues and other issues that are referenced on this album, and so we want that song "Third Ward Not for Sale" to be used in a video about Third Ward not for sale. That's what we want. We want all of these things to be used in political activists' videos.
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It's happened a lot in the past. People in other countries have used Free Radicals' music. I told them, "it's free for you guys to use on these projects," and they used it. We were the soundtrack for a thing on labor struggles in Rio (laughs). That's what it's for.
Free Radicals release The Freedom Fence 8 p.m. Saturday, June 16, at Fitzgerald's with special guests Samaa Soul, Soular Grooves, Havikoro and members of H.I.S.D.