Image Courtesy of The Squeezebox Trio
Sydney gypsy swing masters The Squeezebox Trio are set to launch their debut album And A Hotplate at 505 in Sydney on the 21st November, so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to sit down and chat with the boys. We found Thomas Hodson (accordion), Michael O’Donnell (violin) and Javen Sanchez (guitar) lounging under the stairs at their regular haunt Mr Falcon’s in Glebe where we chatted to them about the new album, defining their genre and why they’ve been adopted by the Australian folk scene.
Gareth Hugh Evans: Your music feels is such a melting pot of styles. What do you think people expect when they come down to see a Squeezebox Trio show?
Michael O’Donnell: I don’t know what they come expecting to hear, but they do hear a combination. We started off playing pretty traditional Django Reinhardt gypsy-jazz and then we got a little bit sick of just doing the traditional stuff so we started to get a little bit dorky with the Disney covers and…
Thomas Hodson: The French stuff.
MO: Oh yeah!
TH: We went through a French phase
GHE: Well if you’ve got an accordion in your band you pretty much have to go through a French phase.
MO: And then Tom went away to the Balkans.
TH: I went overseas last year, toured Europe and spent a lot of time in Romania and the Balkans – Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. I got some lessons, tracked down some famous players. So that’s kind of been the latest influence on the album. All the originals that I’ve done were written on the road.
GHE: I can definitely hear the Eastern European influences. It’s not a huge leap from the Stephane Grappelli/Django Reinhardt gypsy-jazz to that kind of music
MO: What we’ve been calling it is gypsy-swing. Rather than your traditional format which is Django plays the head or Steph plays the head and then they solo for 20 minutes then we’re done, we’ve tried to gear it more towards the swing era where they had those big fancy introductions by the saxes, except the accordion takes that. We’ve been trying to be a lot more arranged with what we do – we still have room for solos but it’s not the highlight of the song or the focus of the song.
GHE: I was going to say that seeing you live, while there’s definitely improvised elements, you seem very tight, everybody knows what’s coming next.
MO: Do they Javen [laughs]?
Javen Sanchez: Well we do spend a bit of time rehearsing…
MO: Here and there.
JS: Here and there. And a lot of it’s through trial and error – we’ve played a lot of gigs in the past and during those gigs we get a bit experimental. Especially playing at Mr Falcon’s, we have a bit of fun, change the rhythm a bit. And sometimes it catches on with the actual playing, so it evolves over time. And we always find ways to piss each other off [laughs]. I like to use one specific lick. It’s very infamous
TH: Sing it for us Javen.
JS: Can you convert it to notation? [starts humming “The Sailors Hornpipe”]
GHE: I think I’ve heard you play that!
MO: In terms of influences I think more recently we’ve listened to a lot of Oscar Alemán. He’s a really phenomenal player. He had a big band instead of just guitars and violin – he had piano sometimes, double bass…
TH: Drum kit. That was a big one.
MO: He just switched instruments. Instead of just soloing he spent a lot of time making these great arrangements. So that influence shines through.
GHE: As well as writing your own music you guys also don’t shy away from trad music, classics and even contemporary covers. I think I’ve even seen a Youtube video of you guys doing the Tetris theme.
MO: That was on our first EP!
JS: What I like about that music is it can really get a broader range of audiences. If you play the traditional stuff it hits the older folks who really appreciate that kind of music. And if you add a bit of swing to it, arrange it a bit and make it a bit dorky a lot of the younger kids will get up and do crazy dancing. So you try to keep that openness about it so it’s kind of family friendly and can go to festivals.
GHE: It feels like you guys are quite ingrained in the folk scene in Sydney and the folk festival scene in general, but I wouldn’t describe your music as purely folk music. Why do you think you’ve been so embraced by the folk scene?
MO: There’s no one in the folk scene who’s sharing this music. I feel the gypsy jazz community is closed off in a way. I think we’re the only ones who’ve been in that folk festival circuit doing this stuff which is a shame.
GHE: But then I’ve seen you guys get massive crowds at festivals.
JS: We paid them actually [laughs]
MO: That was my mum, Javen’s mum. Tom’s mum didn’t come [laughs]. I guess what we’re playing is dance music and we’re definitely emphasising the dance aspect. This music is so malleable to the crowd that you need to play to. A lot of the other jazz players around Sydney, even though they’re phenomenal players, usually play to themselves rather than to the audience.
GHE: And I also think the folk scene is just open to good music, regardless of genre.
MO: I think there’s just a really broad definition of what folk is right now which is really nice.
GHE: Now, I do have to address one thing. You’re called The Squeezebox Trio but almost every time I’ve seen you you’ve had four or five or even six members up on stage. I think this is the first time I’ve seen you as a trio.
TH: I think tonight we’re playing as a duo.
MO: I would call this a solo act [laughs]. It’s funny that you mention that – a lot of the time at folk festivals people will say “ah, The Squeezebox Trio, so do you play three accordions?”. No! Of course not. Does the Lucy Wise Trio play with three Lucy Wises?
JS: Does the John Butler Trio have three John Butlers? [laughs]
MO: So we started off as a trio but especially when we were playing traditional swing – tunes that everybody knew – if we saw someone who could play we’d get them up on stage. And it grew from there. We had a forth member for a long time but we’ve unfortunately parted ways. On the album we had a bass player play with us. And then depending what state we’re in we could have a different lineup. It’s always going to be the core three…
GHE: But there’s this extended Squeezebox Trio family?
JS: A squeeze-family.
MO: On the night of the album launch there’s a few guests on the album who will be joining us on stage.
GHE: Let’s talk about the launch on the 21st November. You’re playing at 505 in Sydney which is an iconic jazz venue. What can we expect on the night?
TH: Expect a minimum eight member Sqeezebox Trio.
MO: That’s one hell of a trio!
GHE: How many squeezeboxes?
TH: Twenty [laughs]. We’re going to do a nice big set of songs.
MO: The support is Snail. That’s Ness Caspersz, Gaia Scarf, Maizy Coombes and I think they’ve got a bass player too. They’re unreal folk-ish harmonies, ukelele, guitar, fiddle and then Ness can beatbox the shit out of anything. She’s so good – she was in the Australian beatbox championships. So they’re going to warm us up and then we’ve got a big fat set. I think we’re playing for about an hour.
TH: Or more.
MO: Depending on how much we drink. And the audience.
GHE: Lot’s of dancey stuff?
MO: Big time. Another thing – in the last six months or so we’ve been playing a lot more to swing dancers so they should be there. We’ll be catering to them a little bit but not exclusively. There should be some technical dancing and then some raucous dancing when we get a bit sillier.
TH: We’ll play absolutely everything.
GHE: You guys released an EP already this year and then you’ve decided to jump straight into releasing the debut album. Obviously you’ve got enough material to do that!
TH: Some of the material is some of the first songs we learnt. Then there’s all the new songs – we’ve just done so much in the past year that we needed to have an album to capture everything that we’ve done.
MO: And it’s not uncommon for us to play three or four gigs a week. So yeah, we did only record in February but six months later we’re like “we’re sick of these tunes”. We start to play other things or those tunes just morph completely into something else.
JS: Also we’re singing in this one which is very different. Everytime people come and see us they say “why don’t you sing?” or “I liked that one song you sang”. So it’s something that we’ve tried to work on.
GHE: I think about you guys as an instrumental band…
JS: What! I sing in the shower really well! [laughs]
GHE: Is moving to more songs just a natural evolution?
JS: Yeah! And we put a lot of our personality in our singing as well which really changes the way we do things. You can go so far playing instrumentals but when you sing it as well it adds a whole new dynamic.
GHE: Last question guys – once the album in launched do you have a big festival season coming up?
MO: We’re going overseas … to New Zealand! We’re going to be doing 25 shows over there. The 505 show is our last Sydney gig before we go over to New Zealand. South Island, North Island and then back via Melbourne for some regional shows. All up I think it’s going to be 32 gigs.
TH: Then later in the year there’s talks of us venturing further overseas.
GHE: That’s bubbling away is it?
MO: We might leave that one mysteriously open…
GHE: Sounds good! Well thanks so much for chatting with me today!
MO: Thank you!