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Interview: The Ironsides

24 May 2023

Max Ramey, Joe Ramey and Jamie Payne have crafted what Michael Toland calls “a long lost treasure from the musical world of Italian cinema” in his review of The Ironsides’ Changing Light. It’s a breath of fresh air for those who spend their time listening to traditional rock music as The Ironsides mix cinematic qualities with the soul jazz they cut their teeth on. They make a welcome addition to the Colemine Records family, an Ohio-based label specializing in modern day soul and jazz acts like Durand Jones and the Indications, Ghost Funk Orchestra and Young Gun Silver Fox. While the Ramey brothers and Payne are the principal songwriters, to get the full soundtrack sound they are after, the trio engaged a New York-based arranger and Bay Area musicians who lent their strings and horn contributions to the record.

The San Francisco-based trio recently joined me to talk about how the band started, what it means to be on Colemine Records, and provide synopses for yet-to-be-made films using their song titles as inspiration.

Can you give me the band’s history?

MAX: The band started with Joe and I. We had this idea of trying to play a bunch of covers, obscure cool shit that we liked. Some jazz stuff but also some deep cuts by artists like the Lafayette Afro Rock Band. It started with that and then it morphed.

JOE: Our dad was a professional jazz and classical musician his whole life. We grew up in this environment of listening to all kinds of stuff, so we really did appreciate jazz. We kind of started out with just loving rare, instrumental soul jazz music, like the CTI Records thing. It was a lot of Don Sebesky, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard. The list goes on, but we were just digging that kind of music and then started branching out and getting into stuff like Éthiopiques, that whole French-Ethiopian soul jazz type of stuff. We went deeper and deeper into that world – there’s no bottom for people who dig that stuff. That led to getting into rare soul music and loving that. I think that’s where the band originated and Jamie joined us really early on.

JAMIE: You guys were doing all the cover stuff of rare songs and then blending some Éthiopiques stuff into it. But, you guys moved into cinematic stuff right before I joined, like the first 45 with “The Raven” and “Song for Adrian.” We were selling that at the first shows that we played in 2013 with Gene Washington. There was a movement into the cinematic universe right before the Gene stuff. And now we’re back. I was there for all the Gene stuff and now we’re back doing the cinematic stuff. If you think about it, this current album is a mixture of the groove-based CTI Records type of stuff and the cinematic stuff.

We were trying to come up with an original style for this project that was really important to us. It’s an interesting blend. It’s cinematic but we’re also making sure it’s fun to listen to and maybe has some groove. We don’t love that word, but we’re definitely thinking in textures and making something that is fun to listen to that sounds good and feels good. With their history and our history, that’s how we arrived at this latest album.

JOE: That was really the turn for us. We were getting deep into David Axelrod records and film composers like Piero Piccioni. There’s a whole list of Italian composers that we dig whose names we can’t pronounce. But, even like the Savage Planet stuff and some of the French stuff too. That cinematic turn happened at a time when we were getting ready to start this thing with Gene Washington, who was a straight-up soul singer from California.

MAX: I think we’re at a place right now where this record is really what we always, I think as a collective, really wanted to make. I think we had these little chapters leading up to this, but this really felt like a moment, like a defining moment as a crew of musicians that really wanted to make a different record, something that really feels authentic, but also that not a lot of people are really doing. And Colemine Records gave us the ability to make this record, a record this big. So it was kind of a crowning achievement for us and I think a lot of work. But, yeah, that’s the long story of how we got to this point.

Before going down this route, did you start off like most kids by playing in punk rock bands?

JAMIE: I was leaning towards the ska-punk thing that happened in the early-to-mid ’90s. Those were my formative years. I was playing in these little clubs or this big punk club that also had a ska scene in Petaluma, where we’re all from. I wish I would have leaned into the punk thing more but I got weird. While I was exploring my ska stuff, I was also being taught about flamenco guitar. My dad was a flamenco guitarist so I grew up listening to that. I also got into bluegrass at the time. This all kind of happened when I was 12. I had someone give me a lot of jazz records, like Miles Davis. Strangely enough, I was given – I don’t know if Adam Theis, one of the trombonists that helped us so much on the record, knows this – one of his albums in that batch. I also got Roy Hargrove’s A Tribute to Miles. All that stuff happened all at one. I veered to ska, then bluegrass and then I got really into Motown and Muscle Shoals. My journey was very eclectic from the beginning.

As far as the film score stuff goes, I dig, to this day, a lot of 20th century classical music, obscure, sometimes atonal, minimalist, expressionist music. It’s almost too wide, to tell you the truth. That’s what’s so helpful about doing a collaborative project with these guys. They can get me out of my too broad spectrum and they can help me focus.

Some of you have also played in the Monophonics?

MAX: I currently play bass with them. I’m part of the band and have been on the last couple of records. We’re all kind of affiliated through the Transistor Sound Studio. We’ve done a lot of different work there.

JAMIE: It’s all kind of Colemine adjacent. Joe and Max are on Kelly Finnigan’s solo album. I’ve toured with Kelly and played with different Colemine bands as a hired gun. Colemine is like a family.

That’s sort of the old school way of doing things, right? Musicians who are all on the same label or recording in the same studio helping each other out, playing on each other’s records.

JOE: I think Transistor Sound is that NorCal hub for the Colemine family and Colemine recordings. Sergio Rios is a homie of ours. He’s the guitar player for the Orgones. He’s a great dude and a great engineer and mixed a lot of our record. He’s a superb dude all around. He’s a great musician, a great writer, a great guitar player, engineer. He has a studio in L.A. called Killionsound which is kind of Colemine South in California. He works with artists out of his studio down there. There’s a pretty cool West Coast presence.

Colemine is based in Loveland, Ohio and those guys are big fans of this style of music. Is that how all these bands end up on Colemine?

MAX: Terry is a musician, a really good musician and a really good engineer too. He has released material on his label. He’s been a huge fan of all this kind of music for a long time. I don’t know the whole history, but he loves this kind of stuff. I think this label is really an outlet for him to put out music that he really loves and cares about.

There’s more than just the three of you making the music. The other musicians, are they studio musicians or are they card-carrying members of The Ironsides?

JAMIE: Right now, the core is the three of us. We work with a rhythm section and now we’re starting to incorporate some keyboard into the core writing group. Essentially what we do is we write some songs, either demo out or make the basics, and send them to Lou King in New York, the arranger. He continues to do his arranging magic with the strings and horns and some other auxiliary instruments. He’ll put some vibes and glockenspiel on some of the tracks. We’ll go back and forth. Once the songs are done and he’s demoed out his arrangements on top of them, we all agree on it, then it goes into the hiring of local Bay Area musicians to realize the parts in the flesh. All those string players, all those horn players, they’re all local Bay Area musicians that we’ve hired to do those sessions. Lou usually gets piped in via Zoom during the sessions. We’ll stick him in a little PA speaker so he can talk and give notes. That’s basically it.

As an instrumental band, how do you come up with song titles?

JAMIE: Max took on a lot of the song titles. There was discussion that happened between all of us. Then, the album title, that’s when they allowed me to get heady about it and make lists and do the conspiracy theory thread on the wall with post-it notes.

MAX: I think I came up with song titles mainly after we had written the tunes. I had a list of words that I really liked that I was writing out, just cinematic words or things that evoke a certain kind of mood. I had a list going while we were writing and recording and so things that felt like they matched, I’d put them together, which is an interesting way of coming up with song titles. I always hated coming up with song titles. It’s so easy to just be so cheesy with shit. So I’m pretty proud of myself on this one.

I picked out three song titles from the album and I want you to give me the synopsis for the not-existent movie that these songs are from.

JAMIE: I like this. I like this a lot.

Okay, first song title is “A Return from Ashes.” What is that movie about?

JAMIE: Okay, you’re in a desert, obviously, and I hate to say this but it’s a gaucho but not a real gaucho. It’s like a fake gaucho and he’s traveling through the desert and chaos ensues. There might be some multiverse action going on, but definitely some kind of psychedelic experiences that happen and different kind of thresholds. Essentially, the Hero’s Journey is going to be a part of this as well, right? And once he gets to California, he realizes that, “You know what? It’s not actually what I thought it was going to be.” It’s going to have that same kind of Grapes of Wrath energy.

So Hero’s Journey, and then once you get there, it’s not quite what you think it is. You have to settle for something lower. But ultimately, he’s able to ride his horse to the beach every morning and meditate and drink his matze out of a gourd and play his guitar, his acoustic nylon string guitar, to the ocean.

Next song is “Violet Vanished.

MAX: It’s funny, with that title, it could be perceived that Violet was a person or that Violet as a color was absent. But, I definitely kind of think of a *Jim Sullivan*-esque story. A girl that is a starving musician in California decides to hang it up here and go out to Nashville to try to try to make it big out there, and on the way is driving through a desert and experiences some kind of alien-type encounter. And ultimately somebody comes across her car and nobody ever sees her again. That’s my idea.

JOE: I think the psychedelic UFO thing in the desert, I don’t know, Max, I think you really might be onto something there. That story of Jim Sullivan, he parks his car and they just found his car and he disappeared, and they never found him.

JAMIE: Maybe it’s a song for the soundtrack of the making of Jim Sullivan’s life.

JOE: If the Coen brothers are listening right now.

JAMIE: You could base a whole movie on that song. It’s two chords. I played two notes.

The last song is “Outlines.”

JAMIE: That’s epic. There’s got to be some winemaking involved. I’m just imagining a scene – the vineyard and perhaps the grapes aren’t doing too well, and they don’t know how the family is going to make it through the season. But there’s a triumphant ending, from the breakdown to the end of the song. It’s every movie, essentially, the main character wants this. The antagonist keeps them from getting what they want, and then they settle in some gray area that’s, like, above par of what would be acceptable for the protagonist, but not what they wanted and not even just okay. You know what I mean? I feel like during the process of trying to figure out how to save the generations-long wine business, they discover that climate change actually brings on this really special microclimate that just their hillside allows for certain kind of varietal and they’re able to get traction in some international market. And then they decide to take advantage of that. But there’s got to be more to it than that. That just seems like too soap opera.

JOE: I’m going in a totally different direction. I think this is like a chance, intense, romantic hookup. Max, am I way off on this? Like, you’re both at a waypoint where you meet somebody who’s magnetic and then you have to say goodbye the same day.

And then the zoom in at the end of the movie is on the bottle of wine which is named “Outlines”.

JAMIE: Oh my God. There you go.

It’s sort of like Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

MAX: Exactly! We’re making this movie.

I’m very nostalgic. When I listened to the first two singles from the record (“Changing Light,” “The Web”), it made me think of the movies from the ’60s that they used to play on TV in the ’70s before there was cable. I would flip around the stations, the movies weren’t ones I watched but the soundtracks sounded like the music you’re creating today.

JAMIE: That sounds really cool and intuitive. One of the big walls that we put up is that we wanted to use the technology of the ’60s and maybe the early ’70s. But as far as needing something to sound psychedelic, we would hold ourselves to the technologies of the ’60s. So the fact that you picked up on that is really cool. There’s a lot of feedback we’re getting on the album now that mentions kind of the ’70s in general. But really, if you want to nerd out about it, it’s more rooted in the ’60s, the late ’60s, and maybe into the early ’70s as far as the tools that we were using.

MAX: I think the approach to the music was really getting into the mindset of playing from that era while still trying to do our own thing and have our own voice. We spent time on that song, “The Web,” to get that one main groove. We spent multiple days trying to find the perfect kind of balance between the instruments. I think that’s a good example of us really thinking deep about what’s best for this song and really digging deep and doing that kind of exploration to ultimately arrive at a really tight part.

Many artists hope for placement in a Neflix series. That seems to be a way to make money. Is that something you’re keeping your eyes on and trying to figure out how to get music into TV shows and movies?

MAX: I think it’s a slippery slope because I think this music would do really well in those situations but I think the more you kind of hope for that, the less likely it happens.

JOE: I think the thing is to do what you feel passionate about and your perspective and then let people find you. Good things come out of that. But we are always open. All of us have had music that’s been used commercially, and that’s awesome, and we’re totally down with that. But the approach, I think, should be make what you want and come from a place of sincerity and goodness will follow you. People will get in touch with you if they dig it.

Having said that, I’d be really interested to see how some of this music could be used. Just the pairing of an audio and a visual. I’d be really interested to see that. If anybody’s listening out there, license us. The marrying of the visual, the music to the visual thing, I think every one of us just would be so down with. For me, it is such a visual experience. If you throw this record on and go on a drive, I think it lends itself so well to that.

JAMIE: We referenced all that when we were writing. We were like, “Oh, this sounds like this kind of scene.” That was one of the original things we talked about at the beginning. We talked about making something you could throw on and drive up the coast to.

MAX: Or drive through the desert.

JAMIE: Or outer space.

JOE: Or the jungle. Or the Cosmic Freeway. Or Miami.