Speaker of the House: Binky Griptite Interview

(Editor’s note: The voice of the Dap-Kings, Binky Griptite, graciously gave us the scoop on I Learned The Hard Way, the fourth studio album by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. For this this interview, we got miss Sharon herself to introduce Binky, which is somewhat of a role reversal, as he explains his duty as a King of Dap. Thanks Sharon. Big ups Binky! –DM)

Intro by Sharon Jones

I first met Binky at a session for Lee Fields, it was on 42nd Street in Manhattan. He still had on big dreads he’d wear under a beanie that looked liked a turban. I think he was still playing with Antibalas at the time. I remember thinking how so laid back he was. The Dap Kings hadn’t really formed yet, and Binky would just show up and do his thing. At the time, I was actually real afraid he’d leave our band and just stick with Antibalas full-time!

For the new one, he’s been working so hard. Some nights he’d come to the studio late and just lay down his parts; other times he’s playing the guitar half asleep with his eyes closed. He’s a stubborn perfectionist, really. He had me re-record a song over and over again because he said it ‘wasn’t soulful’ enough. It ended up taking four days! And I don’t take four days to record anything.

Really, I love what Binky does with the Dap Kings and his own Mellomatic stuff is great too. As an announcer, his voice gets people hyped. He’s like Bobby Bland. He’s a master. I really notice when he’s not at one of our performances. He’s that good.

You’re essentially the master of ceremonies at all the shows. Where do you draw your influences from?

BG: Well of course there’s Danny Ray, James Brown’s longtime emcee, as well as some gospel preacher. I come from a family of preachers so it’s not that much of a stretch. There’s also a real strong circus ringmaster influence there too. You know why people call the Ringling Bros. Circus the “Greatest Show on Earth”? Because the emcee told them to, that’s why.

My job is to prepare the audience for what they are about to see and hear, and to let them know what’s expected of them. We are not a ‘sit down and pay attention’ show, we’re a ‘get up and dance’ show. You’d be amazed at how many audiences still need to be told that they are a part of the show and that it is not meant to be a passive experience.

How did it all start? That’s obviously a lot of added responsibility.
It all started at the first Lee Fields show I did with the Soul Providers. It was at the Wetlands in NY, Gabe and I talked about all of these different elements that we needed in order to be a legit soul band, like wearing suits and stepping and stuff. Then about 10 minutes before we were about to go on I says to Gabe, “Who’s gonna introduce Lee?” because a star should make an entrance. So as I’m standing there saying, “Somebody’s got to do it”, I remembered the Jesse Jackson line- “I am somebody”, so I elected myself the emcee. There are a lot of great bands that seem to deny that they are in showbiz. I take my showbiz very seriously.

Tell everyone about the new album.
The new album is great. It’s a step further in our progression. With each album the band is better, the songs are better, the sounds are better. On the first record “Dap Dippin’” we were more of a Funk band but as time has passed we’ve been getting more into old soul records and that’s naturally reflected in the music we play.

Compare it to the previous projects.
Like 100 Days… this album has a lot of orchestral elements, strings and vibes and French horns- it’s very lush at times. But then when we play the songs live as an 8 piece they still work. Of course we recorded it at Daptone as we have since Naturally. Gabe’s now using an old Ampex 440 1″ 8 track tape machine. He has a 16 track deck as well but the Ampex sounds better. Digital audio is much more clean and precise, and that’s why some consider it boring. Since we are influenced by the sounds of the past, it makes sense that we should use the machines and methodology of the past.

How does using older gear affect your projects?
When you work in digital, whether it’s Pro Tools or whatever, you can get up to 192 tracks or something if your computer has enough speed and memory. Many modern artists actually will use about that many. That’s one of the reasons modern rock sounds so mushy and stupid cause everything is touched a bit too much. Limitations can be blessings. Having only 8 tracks forces you to get to the point. It also forces you to make decisions on the spot. People have been overproducing records for years; the computer just makes that a little bit easier. I just produced a record for The Pepper Pots in Pro Tools and it doesn’t suck or sound bad, because I did it with an old school mindset. And because I put it on tape before I mixed it!

How’s Sharon been?
Sharon’s great, as usual. We’ve all been working together for so long that everything just comes together naturally. We know our roles and what to expect of each other and everybody delivers like they’re supposed to.

Hear the title track from I LEARNED THE HARD WAY

Who wrote the majority of the songs on the new one?
Mostly Gabe of course, but there are a few by some of the rest of us in there. The truth is we have about 2 ½ LPs worth of material so I’m not actually sure which ones made it on to this “first” record. The upside is that the next one is ready to go whenever the time is right to release it.

What has remained constant on all the projects?
What has stayed the same is we do as much as possible in full band takes. The horns are usually added later, and of course the horns and strings and backing vocals and such are overdubbed. But the rhythm tracks are mostly live. The room is a bit smaller than your average studio, so the sounds from one instrument will get picked up by the mics that are for another instrument. If one guy makes a mistake the whole band has to do it over. It’s better that way.

When did you guys have time to write and record this, especially being on the road so much last year.
The road is nothing but time! The songs were written gradually over time, and some of them have been in the set for some time now. Then we started pre-production rehearsals early in ’09. We started recording it in the spring of ‘09; the final mixes got finished in the fall. The original plan was for a fall release but these things always take longer than you want them to. Some of these songs have been performed for months, even years. We have a bit of a backlog.

The cover looks great. Whose idea was it for the cover photo?
Gabe usually has everything a plan for everything. A couple of us really wanted the suits-with-turtlenecks look so I’ll take a partial credit for that. Jacob Blickenstaff did a great job on that photo.

What did you specifically do on this album?
I played guitar! Sometimes we contribute to the arrangement of a song depending on how complete it is when the songwriter brings it in, but sometimes people bring in songs that are 100% arranged. It varies.

What’s next for you as a solo musician
After all of these years playing and touring and whatnot, I’m still looking for new challenges so that I can better myself and work on developing some of my other talents. I’ve been lucky enough to work with and learn from a lot of very talented producers including Gabe, as well as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Bob Rock, Hank Shockley and Mark Ronson and many others, so now I wanna use the things I’ve learned.

You’re producing too right?
To alleviate that I’ve started to produce records for others as well as myself. Last year I did a record in Spain for The Pepper Pots, my first full length LP as producer. I don’t know what made them come to me but it was a very good thing they did, because we were a good match. The record is called Now! and it’s gotten them a lot of good press in Spain and Catalunya.

Tell us about your band, The Mellomatics.
I’ve also got my band, the Mellomatics back up and running again. I’ve had a couple of false starts with it, just trying to find the right combination of people as well as the time and energy to be the bandleader. Our scene is so incestuous already, practically everybody’s is in everybody else’s side band or whatever, it seems to be stretched as far as it can go. Besides, I really am looking for a different sound and vibe. Where before it was “Binky Griptite and the Mellomatics”, now it’s “The Mellomatics” and I decided to go with organ and one guitar instead of horns and two guitars, and so that we sound different from the Dap Kings.

Why deviate from that sound?
The Dap Kings are a Soul and Funk band; The Mellomatics are a Rhythm and Blues band, dirty roadhouse style. Besides, there are so many bands that are trying to cop the Dap Kings sound now. I don’t have to do that cause I’m already in the Dap Kings. I also have my own studio now and I’m actively looking for other bands to record and produce.

Where did you get the name Binky Griptite?
Well when I first joined the Soul Providers, they had set this precedent of using these fake and rather preposterous names on some of their records, like on “The Revenge of Mr. Mopoji” [fake soundtrack record] and the Daktaris [fake African record], so I was trying to come up with the stupidest thing I could think of. Couldn’t do it, nothing would stick.

So the building where the Desco studio was had a doorman named Joe Williams, you can hear him on the Lee Fields album “Let’s Get a Groove On” talking over “Bad Bad Bad” at the end of the record. He was a character to say the least. Of course he would say hi to everyone that walked in the building, and after he’d seen you come and go a few times he’d get more and more friendly. His catch phrase was “I still love ya”. He’d say that to everybody, and sometimes he would add “…and I don’t care who know about it”, and sometimes maybe even get a little religious on you. He was really good at the uncomfortably long handshake, just standing there holding your hand and talking to you.

So one day I’m on my way in to a rehearsal, Joe’s working so I say “How ya doin” or whatever. He tells me that he’s troubled. I ask him what’s got him down and he starts to tell me a story that some of the others had already heard, but it was new to me.

He says he’s been robbed; somebody stole his invention! My curiosity is piqued, I ask him to go on. Seems he came up with this idea for a baby’s pacifier that is also a rattle. Say’s he had some unique design, he had an attorney help him secure patents on it and all that, he even drew me a picture of it. Tells me he approached all of these different companies and they all turned him down. Then he finds out that some English company that turned him down then went on to make it but didn’t pay him for it. I say “That’s messed up. We’re going to England in a couple of weeks you know (our first tour), maybe I could look for one and bring it back for you so you have it as evidence in you lawsuit”. He says “Really? Could you do that for me? That would be great. It’s made by a company called Binky Grip tight”.

And as I’m standing there looking at him and listening to these words fall out of his mouth, it was as if the clouds parted and there was a single ray of light shining down just on me, and I could hear a choir of angels singing much like the opening of The Simpsons. And deep down inside I was laughing really, really hard. I said “Really. Binky Griptight you said? Okay I’ll look for that for you”

The night we landed in Plymouth, England I told them my new name. They laugh. Phillip Lehman, the drummer and Gabe’s partner in Desco Records asks, “Okay, what’s the name of your band?” “The Mellomatics.” They laugh some more. Phillip says, “What’s the name of the first single?” “In a Mellomatic Mood b/w Mellomatic Feelings”. This was in ’99.

A few years ago when we played the Bowery Ballroom with Amy Winehouse a few of us went to a club after the show and I saw Joe Williams working there! I talked with him for a minute, tried to remind him where we’d met but it was all very vague for him. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that my name was Binky Griptite, wasn’t sure how he’d take it.

* Check out The Ghetto Funk Power Hour (pt. 1 & 2) , a radio show Binky does for Heritage Radio.

* Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings new album, I Learned The Hard Way, comes out April 6th 2010 on Daptone.


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