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What about Mob? An Interview with Steve Bernstein of the Sex Mob

By Brian L. Knight

With the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in full swing in four different cities from May 4th to June 11, the Eastern Seaboard is going to be alive with exciting music. One act that will be making several stops along the way is New York City’s Sex Mob, led by the charismatic Steven Bernstein. There is so much to say about Steven Bernstein. And as this article will show, Steven Bernstein has a lot to say. But first, the introductions. Bernstein is the man behind the New York City jazz quartet, the Sex Mob, which has been creating quite a stir in the last couple of years. Consisting of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, drummer Kenny Wollenson, bassist Tony Scherr and Bernstein on the slide trumpet (one of Bernstein’s claim to fame is that he is the only slide trumpeter ever caught on record), Sex Mob recorded two CDs for Knitting Factory Records. The first, 1997’s Die of Inequity, was an instant critical success with its originals and innovative covers of tunes by Prince, Paul McCartney and the Animals. Since the theme worked so well, the band followed up with Solid Sender which has 10 originals but also covers of the Grateful Dead’s "Ripple", the Rolling Stone’s "Ruby Tuesday", Nirvana’s "About A Girl" and ABBA’s "Fernando". These songs are not smooth jazz George Bensonite version but in your face funky avant-garde pushing the limit interpretations. In addition to Sex Mob, Bernstein has been involved in numerous projects such as John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and his own experimental group Spanish Fly. On the non-musical side, Bernstein is man of staunch political and social views and also a caring father.

The members of the Sex Mob are part of the New York City jazz scene that is known as the Downtown scene or the Knitting factory scene. The music within this scene covers the whole breadth of music styles: free jazz, electronic, punk, funk, fusion and avant-garde. Sex Mob is just one small component of this scene. Through our conversation with Bernstein, the Vermont review received a first hand view of the downtown music scene. When I first spoke to Steven Bernstein, I briefly explained to him my intentions of the interview and that I would be asking some basic questions and then try to pick his mind. His response: " Don’t worry, I am game for both. You are going to be in trouble." As the nest few pages will quickly show, Steve has a lot on his mind.


The Vermont Review: Spending so much time in New York City, you must feel the tradition of jazz that the Big Apple embodies.

Steven Bernstein: Oh yeah. That is the whole reason I moved to New York City. I moved to New York City to be a jazz musician when I was seventeen years old. When I first moved there, it was the very end of the loft scene. I thought that I was going to move to New York City and play in the loft, of course those things had just about finished by the time I go there. So when I moved there, the Defunkt movement was just starting. That had a lot to do with the reason the way I sound today. Defunkt……….I used to see Joe Bowie every single weekend. That just changed my life because I was already always into the Art Ensemble. I grew up in Berkeley, California and I started listening to the Art ensemble when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I always loved Cecil……Don cherry…..Albert Ayler. I was also really into Hendrix and P-Funk. I never figured that you could put those two things together but then I heard Defunkt and I said "wow. This where it is at. Let’s get all this wild music – this wild sonic music and this wild rhythmic music and put it together." That just changed my life.

VR: You mentioned the loft scene. Do you think that the "Downtown Jazz Scene" of the 1990s is a logical extension of the 1970s Loft Jazz Scene?

SB: Oh definitely. A lot of people who started the downtown scene moved to New York as a result of being exposed to the loft scene. People like Wayne Horvitz, John Zorn and Bill Previte – the real pioneers of the downtown scene, the first generation, were really inspired by that. So when they started playing, they came to prominence and there was an extension of that. I feel like I am the next generation. Is ten years a generation?

VR: I am not sure of the exact definition, but I always related the word "generation" to when your children have children, then that’s a generation.

SB: So that would be 20-30 years. Well, than music generations go quicker than that. I feel like that I am the generation after those guys – even though we have all played together. They came to prominence ten years ago. Now people see me as a leader. Ten years ago, even though I was playing all the time, I was still just a kid. Those people were starting to push their stuff out there. Every ten years, a new group of people are getting out there.

VR: How do you think the music has changed in those ten years? You being the new generation leader, have you brought things to a new level?

SB: Well it is a different level. Sure, it is new. By definition, it is a new level. It does not mean it is a better level, it just means it is different. Every generation takes what they heard before and adds their knowledge to it. In a sense, people like me have been exposed to more different kinds of gig. In a sense, guys like us, Don Byron and Dave Douglas, we have benefited from having more experiences. Those guys really came up playing one kind of music. We all did a lot of different things. I played a lot of Latin music and Salsa. For a time Don was into that. Dave did a lot of big bands and I did a lot of big bands. Uri Caine did a lot of Straight-ahead jazz. I did a lot of funk bands and a lot of Haitian bands. I think my generation had the opportunity to make their living do in a lot of different things. That was in our twenties. Now that we are in out thirties, you bring that knowledge to the table.

VR: Does your diversity in playing reflect the difficulty in landing a permanent gig?

SB: It was both that it was a tough to make a living and that………………..there is a trumpeter named Jimmy Owens. He made a lot of records in the 1960s and 1970s. He played with Mingus and he was an early teacher of mine. He once said to me "An eclectic mind leads to eclectic music." I think that we all had eclectic minds and eclectic outlooks. We were forced to play a lot of types of music to make a living but we also wanted to play a lot of music because we had a lot of interests. The popular music of or day was good music. When I was growing up, we used to dance to Parliament/Funkadelic. How hip can you get? Even though it was party music, it was this really wild multi layered, multi-textured rhythmic music. Having that as my popular music was pretty…………if that is square as you get, that was pretty hip. You know what I am saying? That was square side of what I listened to. Briggan Krauss who plays saxophone in Sex Mob, well he grew up in Seattle. He really is that Nirvana generation. You can really hear that in his alto playing. You can really hear Kurt Cobain’s influence. Same with Tony the bass player. Both those guys are really into Nirvana. I am into Nirvana too but I was already 32 the first time I heard Nirvana. Those guys were a little younger. I think the younger you are when you hear the music, the more that it gets into your DNA. With Briggan, I can really, really feel that grunge thing in him.

VR: You were saying eclectic tastes. That pretty much depicts Sex Mob. How did the name come about?

SB: The name was like a lucky break almost. Like most people, I am obsessed with sex but I am little more outgoing about it than most people. I had a gig with a band that has now become Sex Mob and I wanted to call it "sex mob" or "slide mob". They had printed some preliminary stuff that said Steven Bernstein’s " Slide Trumpet Quartet". I said "Slide Trumpet Quartet" – that sounds like four slide trumpets. Why don’t we call it Slide Mob?" Than Is said: "Why don’t I call it sex mob." They said: "Yeah Sex Mob!!" I said: "Can I really call it sex mob?" They are like "Yeah, Yeah. Call it Sex Mob". All the guys were hanging out at the Knitting factory with the guys who were working there and telling me to go for it. I went for it and I realized that it was the perfect name. It totally embodies modern culture. Everything nowadays is either John Gotti or Pamela Lee. Sex Mob is modern culture. Those two things – sex and gangsters- is on every TV show and every movie. Also, there is something really great about it. The way that the name is set up, there are two three letter words with consonants on either side and vowels in the middle. Th soft consonants are in the first word and the hard consonants are in the second word. It just kind of made sense. It was a mini picture of the universe.

VR: I think that another way that you represent modern culture is the Sex Mob’s inventive covers of pop songs. How do you come about picking those songs?

SB: Well someone asked me "what makes a song Sex Mobbable?" I said that it has to have a really, really strong melody. So strong that it can withstand the sound of the slide trumpet. The way that I play slide trumpet, it obliterates the normal spaces between notes. That melody has to be song strong so that there are no gaps between notes. Almost all those tunes that I play, I didn’t know who the original artist was. "Ruby Tuesday?" I had no idea it was by the Rolling Stones. I remember hearing it when I was a little kid. I am a record maniac. I buy every record I see. I gone to a record store that a friend of mine ran and he offered me 50 cents for each record. I walked out there with 40 records and one of them was Flowers by the Rolling stones. I put it on and there was "Ruby Tuesday". I was like : "That’s the Rolling Stones!" The same thing with Buffalo Springfield’s "For What its Worth and Abba’s Fernando. Almost all of these songs have been in the back of my mind. The first Nirvana album I ever got was Bleach and I remember putting it on and hearing "About A Girl" and thinking" That is a great song". The same thing with Ripple. I never listened to the Grateful dead. Growing up in Berkeley, the last thing you wanted to do is listen to the Grateful Dead. Because it is always around so there was no real reason to seek them out. As I got a little older, I decided to check out the Grateful Dead. I bought a copy of "American beauty" and I heard "Ripple". Again, this 12-13 years ago and when I first heard "Ripple" I was like "You know what man, this is a great song." Because I grew up playing jazz, when I heard pop songs, I did not know how they worked. I just knew I liked it. I couldn’t figure out how the harmonies worked - I had no reference point. They were not referencing with jazz harmonies.

VR: You obviously love James Bond. What was your favorite James Bond movie?

SB: That is so hard. I would say, for nostalgic reasons, I would say Live and Let Die. I totally remember going to the theater and seeing it. It was one of the first movies that I saw without an adult.

VR: It was the funkiest one too…..

SB: Yeah, totally. It starts in New Orleans………I totally remember the marching band scene in the beginning. But Goldfinger rocks so hard. The whole late 1960s thing with Bond and the girls was pretty great.

VR: Who was your favorite girl"

SB: Oh man (laughter). That can be really complicated. To be honest, Barbara Bach. What was the one she was in with all the underwater scenes?

VR: The Spy Who Loved Me

SB: You have to hear our version of The Spy Who Loved Me. We have two versions. We have one version with cellos and one with John Medeski. They are both really great arrangements. I have a whole night of music that we did – "the Sex Mob plays Bond with John Medeski" Not only do we the songs, but I also transcribed the music behind the fight scenes and chase scenes. But I am not about to put a pure vote on Barbara Bach., she is a little skinny for my tastes. I like a woman with a little more meat on her bones. That is what I like the late 1960s chicks – they have a little more happening to them.

VR: How about the one in the beginning of Diamonds are Forever?

SB: Yes! Yes! Maybe you and I will watch videos, take notes, add up scores and see who wins.

VR: Perfect. Do you have a perfect villain?

SB: Oddjob! That’s easy.

VR: Here is a little segue. Do you thing Rudy Guliani would make a good villain?

SB: Oh man, don’t even get me started on Rudy Guliani. I hate Guliani. I was illegally rested in a roadblock. Handcuffs. It was really horrible. I think Rudy Guliani is the most evil nazis who ever lived on this planet. He is what wrong with humanity. He obvious believes in his mode of thinking which is everybody else should hate black people, poor people and artists. Unless you’re a rich white person, you are really in trouble Rudy Guliani.

VR: Does that mean you are going to vote for Hillary?

SB: I hate to say it but yes. I almost never drive in New York City. I used to hang in New York City but I am totally terrified of being stopped by the police. Now that I know that than can put you in handcuffs for no reason, I feel like it is a throw of the die. They feel like pulling my car over because they feel like they need to make a certain amount of arrests before they go home – I could be that guy. It has definitely cut down on my hanging out and stuff. If you are driving at night and they say "What are you doing?" I say "I am coming back from work." They say: "Where do you work?" I say: "I am musician." They say: "OH YEAH, MUSICIAN! Do you have any cocaine in the car? Marijuana? Beer?" What can you say? You don’t want to be snotty. You want to say "No, I was at work and I want to see my children." You can’t say anything. You have to say "No Sir". That is all you can say.

VR: It seems like a pattern in jazz – Thelonious Monk had a famous arrest in the Baltimore area……

SB: Oh yeah. Even before that. The reality is that jazz musicians are most moral people you will ever meet. Whether or not we take drugs or anything like that, we do not harm anybody. We have all these Wall Street people who are making these big deals, doing these leverage buy outs and putting people in Minnesota and Oklahoma out of work because they bought out Woolworth’s. Those are F$%^&ing criminals. We are just here playing music and trying to make people happy. If I think about it too much, I get too frustrated.

VR: Time to change the subject and go back to music. Is it true that you are one of the only slide trumpeters out there today?

SB: I am the only slide trumpeter. There are other people who own them and play them a little bit, but no one has ever made a record playing it. Supposedly there is a guy named Chuck Finley – he played it a lot of it in the 1970s. He supposedly played it on the original Barney Miller theme. There are really no recordings with it. So I am basically the slide trumpet pioneer.

VR: So did you just stumble across one?

SB: A lot of people have them. I got mine for $25 at a music store. I just kept it around until I got serious about it. Almost every trumpet player has one. It is so hard to play that most people after messing around with it, go "F&*@ it!" The slide is so small if you are a tiny bit off, you sound like you are way off. Unless you are like me and you are totally shameless. Most people have too much pride for that. I like being a little off. I am hearing it like that anyway.

VR: Would you agree with Frank Zappa that humor belongs in music?

SB: Oh come on. Of course. That is simple. Another thing is that sexuality belongs in music and the best way to get sexuality out there is through humor. Sexuality out there alone is too straight. It scares people. If you add a little humor to it and you can be much more sexual and people won’t get self-conscious. Humor plays a double role in that way. There is humor in music and there is humor that keeps the sexual thing in people’s faces. All great art should be well rounded. The Sex Mob did some Duke Ellington for choreography with Donald Byrd. We decided to focus on Ellington’s dark side, because everybody’s been talking about His Majesty Duke Ellington and all that shit(due to his 100th birthday). Well yeah, but the guys was also a total pervert. The dark side is not bad because you can’t have the light without the dark. It is all balanced. People want to treat music as a serious art , you can’t do that without humor. One can’t exist with out the other. You need both things to make it what is. I hear a lot of music that I would like but they are so serious. They are really brilliant, great technical musicians and they write these brilliant things, but because there is no humanity or humor in their music – something about it doesn’t openly move me. Even though I can appreciate it on a musical level and technical level, it doesn’t me.

VR: I am just going to name some names. I would like to hear what you have say about them: Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society?

SB: Oh, man. Changed my life. I heard them at the Bottom Line in a double bill with some blues guy who escapes me right now. Vernon (Reid) was up there with all of his guitars. Melvin on bass and Reverend Bruce Johnson on little bass. Barbecue Dog was a real great record. Do you remember that record?

VR: I am just listening to them now. I don’t have the benefit of retrospect, I have the benefit discovery.

SB: That was my era. I was a young guy with my ears wide open. I love Decoding Society. I love the melodies and I love the counterpoint.

VR How about George Cartwright and Curlew?

SB: The first time I heard George Cartwright I was in a art funk punk band from Columbia University. We used to play an after hours place way down in the East Village. One night the Trio played-Elliot Sharp, George Cartwright and another guy. George had been living in Woodstock and he had just came down. I remember hearing him for the first time an going "Jesus Christ, that guys is incredible." He has the most amazing sound I have ever heard on a tenor saxophone. He has a sound that is really focussed and sweet, really bluesy and almost that King Curtis sound. But mixed with Albert Ayler. Curlew was a great band.


VR: Don Cherry?

SB: You are picking the best stuff. This is too easy. Don Cherry changed my life. Everything I do is based on Don Cherry. Don had a whole thing – no endings and no beginnings. In my old band, Spanish Fly, we would always do that. We would never stop a song. With Don, he would never stop a song. "Endless Beginning" is what he would call it. What would normally be the ending of a song would just be the beginning of another song. What he did by doing that is that he took the concept of the jazz structure and blew it right open. I knew Don Cherry fairly well because Peter Apfelbaum and I grew up together. Don was in the bay area for awhile and played with Peter. We used to hang out and listen to music.

VR: Maybe I will challenge you more: drummer Ben Perowsky?

SB: (screams) I started Ben Perowsky. You think I am full of shit now, because every one I say, I talk about the first time I saw them. Ben was like 15 or 16 when I first met him. I remember he had a band and he had a gig at a coffeeshop in Brooklyn or something. He wanted me to do it. I went rehearsal at a friend’s house. It turned out to be Gene Lake, you know Oliver’s son. They had their music written on little manuscript paper like little kids use. It was so funny because I thought I was such a big shot then. Ben has the best time of any drummer I ever met. His wrists, they way they hit the drum, are always in time. Some guys work their whole life to try to get that. He can’t help it – he just has perfect time. He plays the drums perfectly. The first time he played in the Knitting Factory was with my band Spanish Fly. He was also one of the first Sex Mob drummers.

VR Oren Bloedow?

SB: Oren! Oren and I played in the Lounge Lizards together. He is an interesting musician. I don’t know if I would call him a jazz musician. He is more of a singer-songwriter. He is real music guy. Oren loves music. He has a real specific vision of music. He is one of those people that when he hears music, he hears all the parts. He has a really great brain for music.

VR: James "Blood" Ulmer?

SB: Wow. I just heard him on the radio tonight. I hadn’t listened to him in a long time. I had to stop the car and pull aside. Again, when I moved to New York, he was already happening. I remember when Tales of Captain Blood came out. I was a freshman when I bought it. I remember putting it on and not understanding it all. I haven’t heard it in 8,000 years but I remember hearing it and being totally confused by it. I had no reference. I think he is a person who bridged free jazz, Ornette (Coleman) and blues. The Ornette concept of harmonies and the timing is a blues concept of phrasing on a guitar. He is one of the greats.

VR: Alright, time to wind own. What do you do when you are not talking about music or playing it?

SB: I raise my kids.

VR: Are they going to be musicians?

SB: I hope not. No, they can be whatever they want. With kids, you don’t know what they are going to do. My dad always said, talking about my sister and brother’s boyfriend and girlfriends, "As long as they are not Republicans or junkies; it is alright with me!" My kids can do whatever they want as long as they are not Republicans or junkies. That is where I draw the line.

Check out what is happening with Steven Bernstein and Sex Mob at www.knittingfatory.com or www.sexmob.com.

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