Hypnotic Brass Ensemble // Interview

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The Cohran brothers are as bold as brass. Thanks to a priceless musical upbringing by their father and master trumpet player Philip, growing up in their house in the south side of Chicago was as much about school lessons as it was about rigorous 6am jam sessions on their trumpets and trombones. And with eight brothers to train, Philip’s work was cut out. Today, the brothers play as the powerful Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, boasting superb albums on Honest Jon’s as well as big name collaborations with Ghostface Killer, Damon Albarn, Erykah Badu, Mos Def – and of course, their dad.

“All of us were given instruments – from about the time when we were old enough to not drop them,” says trombone player Cid with a laugh, who spoke to me by phone from the band’s Brooklyn HQ. “It was real rigorous. The first thing my father wrote on the chalkboard was ‘DISCIPLINE’ – and all of our musical training flowed from that. And that came from his teacher after he picked up the trumpet at age 11. He was encouraged by his mother where he was born in Oxford, Mississippi. And ‘discipline’ was certainly the key word when he played in Sun Ra’s band when it was based in Chicago.”

When Sun Ra left for the east coast in 1960, Philip stayed in Chicago. And by the time the fledgling Hypnotic Brass Ensemble brothers were growing up, Phil’s work as a musical activist and educator led the formation of a rehearsal space called Sun Ark, located in a warehouse above a furniture shop behind the family home. “There was a lot of love in the house,” Cid says. “But there was also always some kind of learning going on.”

At night we used to sneak under the covers and listen to NWA and Public Enemy. Ice Cube and Eazy-E were our heroes,

At night when they went to bed, the brothers would hear their father playing with his band the Circle of Sound. These rehearsals took place five days a week, six or seven hours at a time. “And we were the little kids running around while they were practising, tripping over microphone cords. But we couldn’t play with them!” Cid recalls. “Instead at night we used to sneak under the covers and listen to NWA and Public Enemy. Ice Cube and Eazy-E were our heroes,” Cid says. Very young, they formed their first group, GWC (Gangsters With a Curfew), which morphed into Wolf Pak (War on Pigs and Klan). “We used to hum. We used to all hum the same way that we play our horns now, everybody on beatboxes or making harmonies, and we’d pass the mic around and rap.”

When they hit the stage on Friday night (January 31) at Fulham’s Under the Bridge, the Hypnotic brothers will demonstrate just what they’ve learned over the past few decades. And a lot has happened. One of their brothers passed away. They’ve spent some serious time arguing amongst each other – a bad habit they don’t try to conceal. They’ve added a drummer and a euphonium player to the group. And they’ve spent a shedload of time in each other’s pockets, practicing, practicing, sharing meals, and practicing some more. In fact in 2012, they practiced for almost the entire year. And it was during those rehearsals that the brothers started to prepare for their new album Customs – the sessions of which also recently yielded a self-released ‘mixtape’ called Fly. “And we’ve been experimenting with playing a few of the Fly tunes live,” Cid says. “But it’s more like a compilation than an album, because we’ve got the album Customs on the way. We’re just tweaking the final bits now and then it’s ready.”

After touring a lot, we’ve become more of a party band. So we’ve been honing our show, getting live, and looking to create that ‘Oh my God!’ experience.

Fans wondering just what they’ve got planned for their London gig can expect a few tunes from Fly – such as the pumped up, seesaw groove of Planet of the Apes and the laidback swagger of Rebel Rousing – Cid reveals, but the focus will certainly be their newer material. “The earlier stuff we’ve written and recorded is more spiritual, its smoother, some people even more jazzy than hip-hop – but it’s a mix all of those elements,” he says.

“After touring a lot, we’ve become more of a party band. So we’ve been honing our show, getting live, and looking to create that ‘Oh my God!’ experience. More energy and more athleticism – and when we get jumping, that’s when the crowd favourites come out. We like to blow people away, whether it’s a house track, some favela funk from Brazil, or even something on a jazz tip… We want people to rock out,” Cid adds.

The ensemble adopted the name ‘Hypnotic’ in 2000 after they started getting the hint that their slinky brand of psychedelic brassy jazz was causing passers-by on the street to become mesmerised. Commuters were missing trains, lovers were getting distracted mid-embrace. And all the while their hat was filling with coins. But the band’s mission, whether it was on the pavement or in a concert hall, was to never play second fiddle to a bandleader. “We’ve never wanted to be pegged just as any old brass band,” Cid explains. “And we didn’t want to be just a horn section. No, we’re a proper band – and we like to surprise people. That’s why we don’t play covers and why we’ve only done limited collaborations with artists. We want them to beg us to play with them. If you like good music and artists who put every drip of sweat into their music – you’ll like Hypnotic.”

The brothers made their breakthrough in England after releasing Ballicki Bone and Jupiter on an Honest Jon’s 12”. “We didn’t know too much about the label – or about recording! We were still performing on the streets of West London between gigs. But as soon as they released it, the records were flying off the shelf. They lasted only a couple of weeks. And despite the so-so recording quality, the label asked if we wanted to do more tracks. We were already playing with The Good, The Bad and The Queen and Damon Albarn, and then we all went to Africa together to play Fela Kuti’s birthday tribute with the Africa Express crew. Right after that, we jumped back to London, they booked the studio and we made our first proper Hypnotic release.”

The relationship with Honest Jon’s also resulted in another album – this time with their dad Philip – which, Cid admits, was like stepping back in time when they hit the studio. “As much as we love to party, we also wanted to explore the world of jazz. Get our monocles on! But we wanted to put out a record of cosmic jazz. And in the studio, he returned to being our dad again and we returned to being kids,” Cid remembers. “We’d get into arguments and he’d tell us to shut it down. We just wanted to play whatever was sounding good. But he’s got every note mapped out in his head, how he wants it to sound, the whole deal. So he’d just stop us and say – no, play it this way. Do that. Stop the song! You!! Play it this way. It was fun – but it was also strange.

“We always said growing up that music was our religion. We joked that it was like a monastery or a church. It was part of everything we did. Even as kids when we would tidy up our bedroom we would sing while we did it,” Cid adds.

And from cleaning their rooms to rocking the house, it’s clear the lads have come a very long way, indeed.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble plays Under the Bridge on January 31st.