By the time trombonist Nate Leskovic walks in the door last Monday night, his nine bandmates in the Macrotones have been talking in the living room of his Charlestown apartment for over a half-hour. Without interrupting, he grabs a Narragansett out of the refrigerator, pulls up a stool on the far side of the room, and sits down, listening intently but not entering the conversation as the band answers questions ahead of their headlining show at the Middle East Upstairs on Feb. 17. As the interview session begins to wrap up, he finally chimes in with a telling contribution.
“I would just like to stress that we are not an Afrobeat band,’’ says Leskovic, an original member of the group, which has seen various incarnations since its foundation in 2007. “In a way, I think Afrobeat is kind of beat. We are trying to do our own thing with it. It’s a style that’s kind of ‘take it or leave it,’ and we put our own spin on that.’’
This kind of genre hair-splitting isn’t unusual for a band seeking to define its style -“spy music,’’ as they like to call it - which drummer Aaron Duffy says emerged during the recording of their 2011 album, “First Signs of Danger’’ (Young Cub Records). But despite their equivocations, the sound that pulsed from the rehearsal space in Leskovic’s garage an hour earlier owes at least some of its inspiration to the robust percussion flavors and punchy horn sections that colored works from Afrobeat pioneers like Fela Kuti and Tony Allen. The band’s development owes as much to its identification with that genre as it does with its desire to escape the constraints that accompany it.
Case in point: founding members Duffy, Leskovic, guitarist Brian Gagne, bassist John Beaudette, and bassist Nate Smith met upon answering a Craigslist ad seeking musicians for an Afrobeat band, but soon found the group leader’s purist leanings too much to bear (“He literally described himself as the spiritual son of Fela Kuti,’’ is Duffy’s description of their former colleague). Reassembling on their own, they began playing together at Duffy’s apartment in lower Allston and figuring out what their new incarnation would, and would not, be.
“We were originally called ‘Mzungu,’ which means ‘white boy’ in Swahili,’’ deadpans Duffy. “We thought it was too spot-on.’’
Drawing on different musical backgrounds and tastes, the Macrotones eventually found a balance between Afrobeat traditions and American pop, soul and funk flavors that didn’t require a deeper knowledge of Kuti’s politically charged, hugely ambitious productions. Ten-plus-minute jams with multiple extended solos were eschewed in favor of more direct and punchy songs, and the band wasn’t above playing crowd-pleasing Rolling Stone or RJD2 covers when required.
“We’re not trying to be traditional,’’ says saxophonist Andy Bergman. “We don’t try to focus on a direction so much. It sounds like it’s related [to Afrobeat], but one song might rock out more or be funkier. Whatever you thought going into a show, by the end you might think different. It’s kind of a launching point.’’
Though primarily focused on live performances, the group’s creative direction came into sharper focus on “First Signs of Danger.’’ After a low-budget, whiskey-fueled 14-hour recording session resulted in their 2008 debut album, “Wayne Manor,’’ “Danger’’ saw them work with producer Craig Welsch (of reggae group 10 Ft. Ganja Plant) to tighten things up with a more polished sound that drew greater inspiration from ’70s blaxploitation movies and pulpy spy thrillers than from Africa. The result was cuts like “Book It!,’’ a crisply paced groove that sounds like a darker, funkier version of one of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic themes from the ’70s.
“We were here listening to the masters of ‘Danger,’ and somebody had the TV on with no volume watching a movie with a car chase and we recognized that it went really well with that,’’ says Bergman.
As the group begins to disperse at the end of the interview, the subject of what genre the band is (or isn’t) continues to spark discussion amongst them. Various labels are thrown back and forth and auditioned for fitness, but wherever they may fall on the spectrum, the Macrotones are already exactly the way they want to be.
“When people ask, ‘What kind of band are you in?’ I have to kind of gauge what I perceive their musical knowledge to be, because if I say I’m in an Afrobeat band, it kind of soars over their head,’’ says Duffy. “I say we are an all-instrumental band: 10 guys, some danceable jazz, some Afrobeat. I don’t think that genre needs to be traditional.’’
Ned “Leedz’’ Wellbery, head of local hip-hop promotion powerhouse Leedz Edutainment, was announced as the new lead booking agent for the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge on Tuesday, taking over from Dan Millen, as first reported in the Boston Phoenix. Club spokesperson Clay Fernald told the Phoenix that Wellbery will not be focusing on booking solely hip-hop acts. . . . Ex-Roc-A-Fella labelmates Freeway and Jim Jones both make separate appearances at the Middle East Downstairs this month. Freeway performs on Feb. 16, while Jones, now a regular on VH1’s reality show “Love & Hip-Hop,’’ returns to Boston on Feb. 28. . . . Rising local outfit Retrospek - MCs Junelyfe and A. Spendcash, along with producer Rah Intelligence - dropped their new album, “Sleepwalker’s Remedy,’’ on Feb. 5. The album is available at www.retrospek.bandcamp.com.Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_el_caballero.