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Trombone Party

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Bonerama spreads the gospel of New Orleans music

Rising from New Orleans’ fertile club scene, Bonerama can evoke vintage funk, classic rock and free improvisation in the same set, maybe even in the same song. Trombonists Mark Mullins and Craig Klein were both members of Harry Connick Jr.’s band, where they’d been since 1990. Both were looking to supplement this gig with something fun, a little less structured and featuring the trombone.

With three trombones up front, these boys have the agility to feed off one another like Spanish moss and rainfall, and Bonerama’s skill set and variety, in style and flow, is ever-evolving.

The buzz on Bonerama has grown since 1998 with hometown acclaim (the band has won numerous OffBeat magazine awards, and Mullins regularly tops OffBeat’s trombone category), lots of roadwork and three live albums.

Another album is in the works, as the band prepares for Jazz Fest 2011. Co-founder Mark Mullins spoke with NOL recently about the band:

How have you pulled off making the trombone a cool instrument?
The trombonists used to be the butt of the jokes. The trombone would be the first instrument to get cut out of a band, and you always had this reputation of an instrument that could sound silly and was often used in cartoons in comical ways, so we decided to figure out how to change that with the trombone at the forefront of a serious band, but also make it fun for us.

Please walk me through how Bonerama happened.
We first started with about six trombones for our first gig in 1998 at Tipitina’s French Quarter, and ended up with about 20 trombones on stage that night, which was just ridiculous, and by the crowd reaction we thought that maybe this is something we could do for fun and do it often, and it snowballed. We started traveling and we went from six to five to four to three trombones now. With fewer members in the lineup, we can now hear each other better and communicate musically onstage when we get into those collective improvisation moments. A lot of our arrangements are originals and New Orleans music, but we also do rock covers and a lot of those tunes lend themselves to strong, meaty, unison riffs, so it still carries a good effect.

What’s the band’s life like lately?
We have been traveling a lot over the last six or seven years and still see a lot of opportunity to spread the word about what New Orleans music is doing today. We are doing a lot more original music and a lot more vocals, since we see how the audiences react when we bring in the vocals. We keep pushing ourselves while spreading the word of New Orleans music.

How did you pioneer a trombone-centric band in this city?
In church and Gospel traditions there are collective trombone choirs, but we did not want to be restricted, and we like a lot of different types of music. We’re in our 30s and 40s and grew up not only listening to New Orleans brass and funk bands, but we listened to rock, too, so that is part of the inevitable inclusion of some of that music into ours.

How does springtime look for you?
We’re staying close to home for Mardi Gras and enjoying the festivities as we get ready for Jazz Fest. We’re playing on May 6 at the Gentilly stage; I love that stage. I think Bonerama has only missed one or two Jazz Fests since 2003, so we’ve done six or seven as Bonerama, and lots more individually with other artists.

You are backing up R.E.M. on their next studio album?
We met Mike Mills on one of these artists’ retreats that we do here in New Orleans twice a year. We had Tom Morello (from Rage Against the Machine), Steve Earl and Mike Mills here shortly after the hurricane, and a whole bunch of other national artists. So when R.E.M. was here to record their album, they tapped us on the shoulder to help with the horns, along with Shamarr Allen and Leroy Jones for some New Orleans horns on their new album. They gave us songs that were not even finished yet, with no vocals, so we didn’t even know what the melody was going to be, and they said, “Just come up with something.” They’re such down-to-earth guys, which is amazing considering what they’ve done for rock and pop music over the last 30 years. There is no ego there. It was a brilliant and humbling experience working with those world-class dudes.

Is the band involved in any other endeavors of late?
We’ll be on “Treme” on HBO this season; we don’t know what episode yet, but we are really excited to be involved this year. They present a very authentic view of New Orleans. It’s such an honor.