Tonebenders – Bent into shape
Usually, detailing a band’s pedigree gives you a rough idea of what the group might sound like. But sometimes, all it does is confuse the issue.
Consider the Tonebenders, who have personnel links to many of the A-list bands from the North Carolina country-rock crowd. The horn section of saxophonist Steve Grothmann and trombonist David Wright are part-time members of 6 String Drag, an early version of which also included Tonebenders singer/guitarist Jim Pendergast. Before the Tonebenders formed, Grothmann was the original bassist in Whiskeytown, while drummer Jason Bone used to play in Trucker (a spinoff from Patty Duke Syndrome, which was Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams’ first band). And the Tonebenders’ new album was co-produced by Trailer Bride guitarist Bryon Settle.
All that aside, you won’t hear much country on the band’s self-titled Yep Roc Records debut, which has got The Funk in spades (maybe that’s why spades adorn the cover). The disc mixes rocked-up hard swing, Rolling Stones-style rockers, occasional hints of ska in the horns, and a couple of vamps you’d swear were lifted off a mid-’60s-vintage Booker T. & the MGs album.
Onstage as well as on record, the Tonebenders play an intriguing combination of Morphine’s bottom-heavy grooves with the jagged pop angularity of Pavement. But they never stray too far from soulful reference points. Wright’s keyboard sounds bring Billy Preston to mind, while Pendergast’s guitar playing favors the terse rhythmatism of Steve Cropper.
“Everyone in the band is really into music with a groove,” says Grothmann, a native of New Orleans. “We’re not a jazz band, we just have that swing on some songs. We all really like the Memphis Stax/Hi sound, and I’m into New Orleans R&B and funk. And Jim’s really into that sort of rootsy, British-sounding rock like the Yardbirds.”
The result is a sound that’s hard to pin down into just one simple, easy-to-market category. That has its advantages when it comes to booking, in that the Tonebenders can be paired with just about any band and it makes sense. But it makes selling the album a bit harder.
“It’s a challenge, commercially,” acknowledges Grothmann. “But I like that in bands. I think things are way too market-driven. There’s this impetus to pigeonhole a band into one sound after hearing a few songs and reading a few reviews: ‘Oh, they’re ex-punks playing country’ or, ‘They’re a blend of SST and free jazz.’ Then you get limited to that one thing.
“I like that we can do other things. I can bring in a Latin groove and it will get really rocked up and come out with the Tonebenders’ own sound. We can pull off a lot of different kinds of things — swing, Booker T. or T. Rex, ’60s garage rock. Whatever.”
In Grothmann’s case, especially, there’s a good bit of following his own heart involved where the Tonebenders are concerned. Grothmann played on Whiskeytown’s 1995 album Faithless Street, and was in the band during the 1996 bidding war. But he chose to quit before the band signed to Outpost/DGC.
“I’ve never had a second thought about leaving,” he says. “I wasn’t fulfilled in a lot of ways in Whiskeytown, and not just musically.”