Yes In My Backyard is a semiweekly column showcasing MP3s from new and emerging local talent.
Michael Leonhart is a weird afro-funk merchant, a psychedelic dreamer, a dusty Bollywood record found under a mysterious stack, a walking issue of Wax Poetics, a twisted funkateer ready to mesmerize New York with infectious, hand-markered grooves. His current outfit, Michael Leonhart & the Avramina 7, makes the type of awesome, acid-damaged retro-funk that labels like Stones Throw and Ubiquity churn out. But his musical resume is ridiculously diverse: Leonhart started off as the winner of very first Student Grammy Award for most outstanding high school musician in the US (presented to him by none other than Henry Mancini!), and became a session trumpeter on records by Yoko Ono, Mos Def, Steely Dan, Brian Eno, and James Brown (not to mention tons of records for the ever-funky Truth And Soul label). His debut album, Seahorse & The Storyteller (due April 20, Truth And Soul), is a totally spaced-out, funked-out concept album about ” two mythical creatures who meet, fall in love and begin piecing together the mysteries of each others past.” Banger “Scopolamine” is directly influenced by his love of heavy ’60s and ’70s African funk and features gorgeous splashes of mysterious reverb, Free Design harmonies, a note-perfect reproduction of the dirty-as-fuck drums people love to sample and — why not? — a talking syringe.
What is “Scopolamine” about?
“Scopolamine” is about one of the characters named Crayola in the larger story, Seahorse & The Storyteller. She has a hallucinogenic reaction to the drug scopolamine during the birth of her son. The voices singing the gang vocals on the chorus — “Is that the Scopolamine talking?” — are the other characters present in the delivery room, serving as a type of Greek chorus. The voice in the verses, were this ever to be made into a movie, would be the syringe of scopolamine itself singing. I’m not 100% sure if scopolamine is administered in a syringe, but hey, I took some creative license.
What inspired its creation?
“Scopolamine” was inspired by a friend of the family who was given the drug Pitocin to aid in the birth of her child. I was fascinated by the drug and its effects. I originally entitled the song “Pitocin” — “Is that the Pitocin talking,” not quite as nice, huh? Then one night at a casual dinner with my wife’s parents, the lyric idea came up in conversation, and my father-in-law, a noted doctor in his own right, came up with the lesser-known but infinitely more intriguing Scopolamine.
How did you get that great vintage drum sound?
Thanks for the compliment. Drum sounds have been something my friends and I have experimented with endlessly. In a nutshell, it has to do with having a very strong idea of the drum sound in your head and being prepared to do everything under the sun to get it. In the case of “Scopolamine,” that’s me playing the kit at my studio on 16th street in Manhattan. The drums at my studio are a combination of old dark sounding ’60s Ludwig drums along with a pretty rare new bamboo snare on loan from [Steely Dan drummer] Keith Carlock that I taped up until I got the snare sound I was looking for. Lots of old ribbon mics and other obscure vintage mics I’ve collected… The rest has to do with either recording the drums to analog tape, messing around with my old preamps, not being afraid to let things distort a little, and trusting my gut.
What’s the biggest-selling record you’ve ever appeared on?
Probably Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, which won four Grammys in 2001, including the prestigious Album Of The Year.
What were those sessions like?
I have to say the sessions, which lasted on and off for seven months, were incredible. I was 25 years old, leading the seven-piece horn section of studio legends, co-arranging with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. From time to time I was tested by some of the musicians, who seemed perhaps a little hesitant to take musical direction from such a “young buck,” but in the end, those same guys said to me, “Great job. We were just seeing if you could really be a leader. And clearly you can.”
We know it’s corny to ask, but tell us a story about Brian Eno…
This is one of those New York stories where I came in to the studio for a 2 to 4pm session. David Byrne was walking out the door from his 12 to 2pm overdub session on the same track. The producers had a 6pm conference call set up with Brian in England to play him the overdubs that David and I had added. So unfortunately we never played together in person.
What’s the most memorable show you ever played in New York?
Even though it wasn’t the biggest show, the one that stands out was the night I sat in with my father, bassist Jay Leonhart, and the late, great guitarist Joe Beck at the old Village Gate on Bleeker. It was 1990 and I was around 15 or 16 years old. This show stays in my head, because after playing an amazing second set, Joe asked me to not play the third set and never gave me a reason why. He was an utterly brilliant musician but was sometimes hard to read. Maybe he didn’t want to share solos with me, who knows. But I remember coming away from that gig thinking, “You do the best you can do and sometimes unexpected shit is gonna happen. Don’t take it too personally.”
What’s your favorite place to eat in New York?
That would be the incredible Japanese restaurant Cho Cho San on 8th street. They treat my wife, my son and me like family. The food is ridiculously good — my favorite is tempura udon aor the eel with avacado roll. They even go so far as to wait by the front door when I’m picking up the food on a nighttime walk with our dachshund. The owner, Jun, even has a Michael Leonhart & The Avramina 7 sticker by the sushi bar!
Michael Leonhart & The Avramina 7 play the Mercury Lounge on May 5, joined by the Antibalas horn section!