If you’ve heard Menahan Street Band’s Make The Road By Walking (one of the year’s best!), then you know the horns are a major part of the album’s feel—if not the most important. The horn-lines entirely anchored the songs, adding texture to the already colorful arrangements but could also serve as its centerpiece. The horns were the product of Leon Michels, founder of Truth&Soul Records and frontman of El Michels Affair.
Menahan’s bandleader, Tommy Brenneck, has said that he thinks Leon is currently one of the top horn arrangers in the business, which is tough to dispute if you’ve heard either Make The Road…or Sounding Out The City. I spoke to Leon last year for a piece I was working on, and afterwards, he graciously shipped us a box of records to help sponsor San Jose’s Dig Dug. The year’s young, and Truth&Soul are gearing up to drop more heat this year. Here are some parts from the series of interviews we did a while back. Thanks again Leon, looking forward to the coming year.
Sounding Out The Scene
What was the response when you guys first played live?
It was first with the Mighty Imperials. At the time, we were sixteen and played hard funk songs to audiences of twenty-something hipsters in New York. People usually had a hard time wrapping their heads around the experience. It was a novelty act of sorts. With the El Michels Affair, it is different. Aside from the Wu-Tang shows we played, our original music is entirely instrumental. So the shows, depending the audience, are hit or miss.
Do you see your band expanding and playing different types of music, or just sticking with what you’ve already established?
Most of the stuff we do at Truth&Soul is produced and written by myself, Jeff, and some of the guys from El Michels. So we are consistently changing our style but attaching different band names to the music.
How did that Amy Winehouse remix come about?
Universal asked us to do a remix cause they had been played some El Michels stuff, and heard a few of the songs that we had done with Lee Fields. [Click HERE to download it!!!]
How did it feel when you found out your song was going to be used on The Sopranos? Were you guys fans of the show?
I was watching the show and had no idea the song was gonna get used. That show, in my opinion is the best TV series ever, so I freaked out and called everyone I know. I’m glad we could contribute to that series.
Where do you and your band want to be in five years?
Doing the same thing we’re doing now….making real music that we’re feeling.
Renewed Interest (for the interested)
What about your music do you think has been grabbing people’s attention?
I feel our music is a little more “smoked out” and soulful than certain stuff coming from the same scene. We are making music from the heart rather than simply trying to ape a sound.
So then, what are your thoughts on this recent revival of funk and soul?
No one making the music should be following the “soul” formula so literally. It cheapens the art form.
Would we only find old funk and soul playing at your pad? What music are you currently listening to?
I love all types of music but it’s hard for me to enjoy most of the new music being played on the radio. I’m listening to Rocksteady and early dub records, 60’s Cumbia, Fania Records, Sweet Soul music ala The Delfonics, The Sylistics, and I listened to way to much of our own music at Truth&Soul.
Your songs definitely have a Latin flare. Touch on that a bit.
I love Latin music and sometimes that stuff creeps into our music.
What upcoming projects do you have in store?
We have a record of Wu-Tang Covers that will be released on Fatbeats, a Lee Fields & The Expressions record coming out on T&S, and a couple of other projects in the pipeline. We did a remix for a Universal artist by the name of Gabriella Cilmi called “Sweet As Can Be”, and a few other production things we’ve done for other labels.
How was working with Raekwon when you guys backed him on the road?
Raekwon, Wu-Tang and El Michels Affair were a perfect match. Rza’s beats have a very cinematic feel to all of them and the beats by themselves are good compositions, not just good loops. All those guys were crazy professional and making music with them was pleasure. We did the tour with Raekwon and then we also did a series of shows with Gza, Inspectah Deck, and U-God.
What’s your favorite Wu-Tang album?
Their first record, by far!!!!!!
How has being a hip-hop fan affected your songwriting?
I love hip-hop but mostly for the samples and records they flip. That is why the Shaolin Series was so good. It was full circle—original songs flipped into a collage of loops turned back into a live song.
So, what were Wu-Tang like? Were they funny dudes?
They could never get the band name right! [laughs] I don’t think they’d ever worked with a live band, so sometimes when the tempo drifted, and didn’t sound exactly like the record, there would be confusion [laughs]. They were great. Overall, it was great working with them….they’re legends.