AfroPunk Interview with Gabe McNair

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Back in June,Gabe McNair was interviewed by AfroPunk-it’s a really fascinating read in which he discusses everything from his current projects(in addition to playing in the band on the Glee tour this summer,he just finished the score for an indie movie with Shirley Manson and most recently has been playing with Lenny Kravitz),his musical influences and collaborations with bands like Green Day,and his long-time relationship with No Doubt. It’s awesome to read Gabe’s quotes about the powerful and mutually respectful dynamic shared between himself and Stephen Bradley with the rest of the band,and it’s sweet how Gabe praises Gwen as being one of his favorite frontpeople ever. (FYI,he had this to say about the new album: ”I don’t know when its going to be ready, but they’re probably getting close, that’s about all I can say for now, but stay tuned.” As fans know,Gabe was pictured in the studio with the band earlier this summer.)

What are you up to these days?

Gabrial McNair: I am playing in the band on the Glee tour right now. I’m playing guitar, trombone, and keys on this tour. We have a five piece band. It’s been a pretty interesting experience. Different than any tour I’ve done before. It’s big bucks. The chain of people in command is a lot bigger than for a band or solo artist. We’re doing arenas. It’s pretty interesting, it’s fun to watch the whole spectacle.

June 28th is the slated release for the new Oslo album, are you psyched?

It is, but it’s a different kind of thing now. I haven’t actually worked on this one [album]. We played our last show together three years ago. We took a long break and during that time my wife and I had a baby. It’s not easy to have a band in this line of work. There’s not always a lot of work out there [as a touring musician], so when it comes, I have to answer. I’ve been working on some movies, but it’s difficult for me to do the band thing at the moment, so I’m basically sitting out this next record. I do look forward to getting back into the studio with my cohorts. It’s nice to work with people who are cool enough to say, go do your thing, we’ll be here when you get back.

A lot of your visibility stems from your long standing collaboration of fifteen years with No Doubt. You obviously have a mutually loyal relationship, yet neither you nor Stephen Bradley are “official” members of the band. Obviously the dynamic works, but it would be interesting for us to know how it works.

It’s kind of a funny thing, when I first started playing with them they had decided it was going to be the four of them and they would always have people come and play [horns, keyboards] with them. Each show they had to pay me even though they weren’t earning much themselves. They’d gone through a lot of horn players. So when I started playing with them I said, ‘let’s make this a full band,’ and they were like ‘no, it’s just going to be the four of us.’ Then Stephen Bradley comes in a couple years after I’m in. He talks to me and he’s like, ‘hey we should talk to them about being in the band,’ and I was like ‘dude, I already tried it, they’re not gonna go for it, but you know what, let’s try anyways.’ We had another meeting with them and they said, ‘sorry, we’re just gonna keep things the way it is.’ I wasn’t going to let my ego get in the way. At that point there were a couple hundred people who would’ve liked this job.

But they do have a loyalty to both of you. They’re always extending that opportunity to record and tour with them. They come to you guys first. There’s obviously mutual respect and appreciation there.

We have a good relationship. We’ve got a complete understanding. If something sounds weird they look to me and Stephen for, ‘how do we make this work?’ They’re all great musicians, but I’ve got a great ear, a very consistent ear, you know. As far as making things work, I have lots of ideas for those things. There is a high level of respect, a mutual respect on both sides. And there’s no crazy, heavy drug use and those things. I came straight out of high school, then community college and into No Doubt. I started playing with them when I was nineteen. They’re great people. We all have such a good time with each other. Playing with them has led me to other opportunities too.

How did you and the other members of Oslo come together as a band?

I met Kerry, the bass player, in the early 90’s. He played in a band up in the Bay area. We passed each other backstage at this little club in Berkeley, and him and Stephen had been in another band together before. Later on, they came down and stayed with me at my house in L.A. when Return of Saturn was about to come out. We had long conversations. At the time there weren’t a lot of black people who liked Radiohead or Sonic Youth, so we started talking about different music we liked. We were at this party, and I said, dude we should write some music together. Then Kerry met Mattia around the same time. We all made all these demos on my computer, just writing. I didn’t really think about ‘let’s start a band,’ in my head I was just like, let’s start some music and then it just turned into a band. (In 2005 Oslo released its first self-titled album, and in 2007 came The Rise and Fall of Love and Hate)

You write scores for television and film. Which scoring project are you most proud of? Where do you find the inspiration to write a film or TV score? I imagine it’s quite different than composing with a band.

I just finished some music for a movie, an independent film, it’s not released yet, called LA Ricochet. My wife is one of the producers and she also acts in it. I’m now working on a song for a new film with Shirley Manson of Garbage. We’re working on the score. The main character is a painter. He falls in love with this girl who is a singer. I was asked to write the song this girl would be singing. I thought, ‘Shirley would be good for this,’ so I shot a call over to her and she agreed, so we’re working on that right now. [listen to some of Gabrial’s scores here]
My most stressful moments can be figuring out which way to go. I studied jazz at the California Institute of the Arts. I’m into classical music too, and I’m into rock and hip-hop. When I hear something I can dissect it and figure out how it was made. Sometimes I have to watch something over and over before something starts to stick about which direction to go in. Sometimes I just start writing, making more of a subconscious effort. I draw inspiration from Angelo Badalamenti, best known for his work with filmmaker David Lynch; John Williams who composed music for Star Wars; and Clint Mansell, who tends to create a kind of a dark, electronic sound for his films.

I understand that you play trombone, keyboard, tenor sax, guitar and drums. Am I missing anything?

[Laughs] Well, that’s right, kind of. I played tenor sax with Green Day on tour in 2001. On the second day of the tour Billie Joe said ‘Dude it would be really cool to have tenor sax on this song. Who could I call to play sax on this?’ I said, ‘well, I played in high school for a couple of weeks’. I squeaked three notes out of this saxophone and Billie said, ‘let’s try it!’ I started playing the thing, and some more squeaks came out. He looks at me and says, ‘you’re doing this tonight!’ So between sound check and the gig I sat there and played it over and over and ended up performing it that night. Afterwards bassist Mike Dirnt told me, ‘Billie likes a challenge. He wouldn’t challenge anyone if he didn’t think they could do it.’

Who are some of the artists that have been your biggest influence? Judging from the people you’ve collaborated with it’s clear you have eclectic tastes.

I got into Miles Davis when I was a young tyke. I just loved him. His vibe, his style. I love the music from all different periods of his career. He’s one person that always been on the forefront of the development of music. From the forties playing bebop with Charlie Parker, to him and Coltrane doing their thing, then working towards the electric, you know, so I’ve always had a lot of respect for Miles. Then there’s The Police, U2, those are two bands I’ve grown up listening to. Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder. Songs in the Key of Life; that is one album I got into as a child. Stevie Wonder, he’s the man. He’s an amazing songwriter. He plays so many instruments and writes such beautiful music. I was into Living Colour back in the day, I still like them, but I hadn’t discovered Bad Brains yet, and of course Fishbone. I didn’t discover Bad Brains until the early, early nineties, ‘cause you know I didn’t know anybody playing rock music on that level that I sort of wanted to be like. Being a black kid growing up in the suburbs, I didn’t have a role model I could really look like… I can’t pull of Sting, you know what I mean? [Laughs] When I discovered Bad Brains, I was like ‘this is where it all starts!’ For me, when I look at modern black hardcore, that’s it right there. Elvis Costello is another amazing songwriter. He’s got another flavor than Stevie Wonder, not as soulful… but he’s soulful in his own way. I’m probably forgetting somebody huge, but I can’t think of it right now.

You kind of touched on it a little, but I wonder how it was for you starting out as a musician. Did you ever feel out of place pursuing this kind of music?

When I started playing with No Doubt they sat me on the couch over at the band house and they put in this video tape of live footage of them performing on stage, and I look and there’s two black horn players and a lead singer. Gwen was barely singing then, she was kind of the background, sidekick singer and the lead singer was black. So there was never any kind of weirdness there. Ska is another form of music that I love, you know Jamaican, ska, reggae. Toots and the Maytals, Bob Marley, Lee Scratch Perry, Peter Tosh, The Skatalites. I love it all. Jamaican music is a huge part of my palate. The whole motto of the two tone concept, with bands like The Specials, The Selecter, the motto was, ‘we’re all in this together and there’s no separation or segregation’. Most of the kids I grew up around were white. I went to church in the city. There were lots of black kids around and they didn’t really have a problem with it, [the kind of music I liked] it was more my own internal thing, wondering if they’re gonna say something. I did listen to Prince and Michael Jackson, and I knew Bell Biv Devoe, so any time somebody mentioned music it wasn’t that I felt completely out of place it was just, I wasn’t like ‘Check out this new record by The Cure!’ Listening to jazz is an African American tradition, it’s our music, so I felt with that I was carrying the torch. Playing rock music and being into rock music… When you’re younger, especially twenty years ago, there was a line. You’re either into this or you’re into that. Nowadays I don’t know anybody that listens to only one style of music, if you listen to one style of music you’re not that cool. [Laughs]

Thankfully kids don’t have to face these kinds of social dilemmas as much anymore.

I remember when I was a kid, Devoe did a commercial for Honda scooters when they first came out, and I remember sitting in front of the TV. Whoever saw the commercial (I grew up in a big family) would be like “Devoe’s on!” and everyone would run to the TV. We had diversity in our house, there was everything from Chicago and Boston, to Rick James, Steely Dan, The Commodores, classical Beethoven and Mozart, and every once in a while my mom would put on Charlie Pride. It was very, very eclectic. I think that’s kind of what got my juices going. The sky’s the limit with the kind of music I can and want to listen to. I had no restrictions whatsoever. My family definitely encouraged that, it’s really cool.

With hip-hop, as people are focused on writing rhymes, they’re not necessarily as inclined to pick up instruments. What do you think we’re loosing right now, or are we loosing anything, in terms of people pursuing music but not necessarily pursing the discipline of picking up an instrument and mastering it?

The sad thing that’s going on is the public school cuts. It just really, really bugs me because if it weren’t for that I wouldn’t be here. I started off playing the trombone, and the trombone got me into No Doubt. Then Gwen’s brother Eric left the band and they knew that I could play keyboards and they said, ‘do you want to play keyboards on Just a Girl’ and then all of a sudden they start sending these other songs and I go ‘yeah I know that song too’. I’m very glad I didn’t give into peer pressure because being in this band wasn’t the cool thing to do; I liked it and I had fun so I kept doing it. It’s either that or a lot of people grow up playing in church. As far as I know, Jimi Hendrix didn’t take lessons, which is not to say that one doesn’t need to take lessons, but I wish there was some other outlet where people could learn to play music. Back in the seventies when I was a kid growing up, it was a band. I used to listen to the shit out of Earth, Wind and Fire, Cameo, you know―these were bands. The Gap Band. I miss watching those guys rock out. I hope people will pick up instruments more. There’s nothing like playing an instrument that actually vibrates in your hands like a guitar or piano does.

You mentioned before that you toured with Green Day and of course you’ve collaborated with many other artists. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of touring with bands other than No Doubt?

Green Day was the first other first band I’d done extensive touring with. I felt like I was spending summer vacation with family members I’d never met before. And those guys back in the day they were responsible but a little bit naughty, and it was the perfect level of both. Billie used to, he still does, get a fan to play his guitar, and then after the kid’s done he makes him do a stage dive into the crowd, and at the end of the show, Tre would light his drum kit on fire and then there would be smoke everywhere. The promoter at this one show got word of how our show was and they said ‘you guys aren’t allowed to stage dive or do the fire.’ Then Billie goes, ‘Okay, put all your stuff on the bus. As soon as we’re done playing the show we’re gonna take off right away. Then we get onstage and play. We have a kid do a stage dive, set the drum kit on fire, and our bus driver is waiting right behind the stage with the engine running and then we all came off stage, got on the bus and took off. It wasn’t like we were robbing a bank or anything, it was just fun.
After that I went back to No Doubt, then out on tour with Gwen. Then I went out with The Smashing Pumpkins. That was really funny because I was into them when I was a kid. Then I did some shows with Lee Scratch Perry. Our first show with him and the first time we met him was about five minutes before we went on stage, but it all worked out. He’s very much a free spirited… I think he was 73, and he likes just being in the moment and he’s like ‘just play!’ He’s a pretty eccentric guy.

I understand No Doubt is in the studio working on a new album. I don’t know if there’s anything you can tell us about it, or when it will be ready?

I don’t know when its going to be ready, but they’re probably getting close, that’s about all I can say for now, but stay tuned.

What was the experience like of going on tour with Gwen for her two solo albums?

It was really great to be there. We’ve known each other for a long time. Everyone knew she’d eventually do a solo album, it was in the cards for a long time. So when she finally put a band together to tour it just seemed like a no brainer. Gwen definitely likes pop, but her roots are deep in punk and she has that attitude about her. I would say Gwen is one of my favorite front people out there, out of men and women. Gwen and Billie and David Lee Roth—no one can really top that guy.

Gwen is great and No Doubt in general are very entertaining. You and Stephen definitely bring a lot of energy to the live performances too.

We bounce off of each other on stage. Gwen is so crazy we can’t just stand there and be stiff. She inspires all of us. For Stephen and I, we push each other harder, you know, he’s definitely brought a lot to it. The music is infectious. The crowd’s excited. It’s a good time.

What’s next for you in the foreseeable future?

The Glee tour ends in July. Then I might start playing with another band. I can’t say who, [laughs] but I think you understand. And I have to say that I think that Afro-punk is a beautiful and awesome thing that has been created, I’m glad you guys are around. Sometimes I get on the site and discover bands. Is it Santigold? I heard the music on the radio a few times, but I hadn’t seen what they looked like. And then I was on your website and I thought ‘Oh really?!’ It’s cool.

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