These days it is hard to mention Chris Combs without Josh Raymer immediately coming to mind (the same applies conversely). Their rise to prominence within the Tulsa live music community has been an ascension intertwined in the same breath. The two possess a close-knit bond spanning a dozen years that was initially kindled by a mutual affinity for a certain local powerhouse: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. After going on to play in a series of jams with Jacob Fred founder Brian Haas at the old Continental Club, within a few years they were both members of the Tulsa jazz institution that is coming up on its 20th anniversary. Now firmly entrenched within Jacob Fred’s rich lineage and international recognition, it would be just as easy as it would precarious to rest on their laurels. To essentially say, “fuck it, we’ve done quite a bit in a short period of time – let’s put it in cruise control.” Not even close. Combs and Raymer are prolific by nature. Just like the thought of a shark needing to constantly move to survive, these two are continually absorbing musical insight and channeling it back into their symbiotic core.
Combs and Raymer, in just a relatively brief span, have assembled a diverse profile beyond JFJO, playing in such groups together as the Paul Benjaman Band, Gogo Plumbay, Archer Trio and now even Dead Sea Choir. Perhaps once perceived as just an auspicious project or an extended glint in the eye, their newest pursuit, Booomclap, has been the perfect collaborative storm as the duo has been percolating within the New Tulsa Sound ecosystem. Like mirrors looking into one other, theirs is a manifestation that reflects endlessly and effortlessly. Never stationary while enabling an ever-transforming balance. They are a unit that not only moves together seamlessly within each musical outfit they grace their presence with, but are highly transportable and accessible across every venture they form a niche within. Although each musical avenue leading up to this moment in time has been more so a collective vision, Booomclap is their own unique and beautifully strange gaze. It is jazz intuition synthesized in a hip-hop dance party, finesse entangled in fury, stillness within motion and unquestionably a yin to a yang. There is Combs, who is a music medium, transmitting ghosts of passion’s past to the forefront as he has smoothly incorporated digital tools such as Ableton into his arsenal. One that includes a supreme command of the guitar that is rowdy and daring just as it is haunting. Then you have Raymer, who is not just some backing drummer or a glorified sequencer that monotonously interlocks with the production work of Combs. He is alive, moving, swinging, laying his soul into anything and everything. His method is conviction incarnate. Booomclap is indeed the sleeping giant that has awoken. Earlier this week I had a conversation with Chris Combs about the connection between J Dilla and Charlie Parker, his previous disdain for laptop computers and how his relationship with Raymer is a “pure interchange energetically of information.”
MC: You have been playing all these years with Josh in Jacob Fred, Gogo Plumbay and everything else in between. What kind of groundwork has that laid, in terms of the intricacy and dynamic between you two, leading up to forming Booomclap together?
Chris Combs: It's been formative to say the least. Playing in Jacob Fred has been amazing and we've experienced some great things in a lot ways. We've had the opportunity to play music with some of our heroes. It's informed and educated us in a way that's certainly unique. The whole time playing together you're developing a language with someone and a way to communicate without speaking. I think we've developed a pretty intimate understanding of each other musically and can move as a unit very easily. I really think Booomclap is one of the purest crystallizations of that interaction.
MC: So obviously the instincts and the trust are there.
Chris Combs: Right. I can trust that it's always going to be different. Which is really nice to have in a solo improviser. Because a lot of the stuff we're doing with Booomclap, whether it’s looped material or stuff that is dance influenced, we're still playing it like jazz students really. So the confidence in me knowing that he's not going to repeat himself and keep it fresh from night to night has become priceless.
MC: It is very clear that there is a deeper connection you and Josh share that goes well beyond performing onstage. How has that reinforced the link you two have while playing?
Chris Combs: You have to be best friends with somebody to make this kind of thing work. And we're super close. When we're on the road we are roommates. And when we're in Tulsa, we're working together on enough projects that it's like running a business with somebody. I talk to him every day about something. So I can't imagine doing this with somebody that you don’t personally get along with. I think that almost has to come first. If that's not there, the music suffers immediately - it's ten times harder. But if it remains effortless, it's way easier to work a lot. Because you're not having to spend your energy combating other forces, it's just a pure interchange energetically of information.
MC: Being within such a company of talented musicians here in Tulsa, what kind of effect has that had on both your overall development and Booomclap?
Chris Combs: It's been great man. I've really loved being part of the scene here. Some of my favorite musicians in the whole world live here. There are some really brilliant guitar players in Tulsa - Steve Pryor, Paul Benjaman and Clay Welch to name a few. You can't take a week off or anything. You gotta keep playing or they'll come get ya (laughs). So yeah, the people that I've gotten to play with over the years, you know, our friends have informed our music more than our heroes probably. People that we're directly working with. And what they're listening to - what's cool and what's not cool. All that kind of stuff is really what's formative. It plays a major role in your development as a person, let alone a musician. It's growing and I love seeing it get better. And I love seeing music getting treated with more and more respect here. I think Booomclap in some ways is really influenced by being from Tulsa.
MC: What was the motivation for you guys behind wanting to see this project come to fruition?
Chris Combs: Part of it was wanting to do something with two people. That was the very initial base thought. Let’s figure out a way to do a duo and figure out how to get the biggest sound and get the most striking performance out of two people. And from there it's like solving a problem or something. This last year we weren't doing as much work on the road with Jacob Fred. So it lent itself well to developing a new concept. It's something we had been wanting to do for a long time. "We gotta get this thing going. When are we gonna do this?" - you know what I mean? (laughs) And then we would take a stab in the dark with one of the demos and sit down and listen to it and be like, "Oh shit, alright, you know, I think this is in the right direction!"
MC: Your EP is refreshing not only because it’s a great establishing glimpse into what you guys are going for, but also such a multi-faceted collage of musical ideas. How is this endeavor a breath of fresh air for you two?
Chris Combs: There's a freedom in it only being the two of us onstage. I mean the entire enterprise is just two people. Booking, management, setup and tear down. We've even figured out how to run projectors and stuff just between the two of us. We have built something from scratch. Most of the rig that is onstage that is an actual piece of music equipment comes from Lowe's or Home Depot or some shit (laughs). There's a lot of sawing and black spray paint in Booomclap. You know what I mean? There's a lot of work in the garage kind of shit. However, there is just something fundamentally very rewarding about doing that kind of work. Kind of developing something from the ground up feels really good. There's no work whatsoever once we get onstage though. I mean, the material is so much fun to play (laughs). I can't even describe it. The music itself has been the most rewarding part. It's just fun for me to hear it. That's how it still feels when we play live. Man, I'm glad I get to hear this shit!
MC: I know that artists in all mediums somewhere in the back of their minds fear being pigeonholed into a certain category when it comes to their talents. Has Booomclap been an escape for you in terms of consciously trying to get away from what you are strongly associated with or is it simply just needing to try something completely new?
Chris Combs: I wouldn't say it's trying to get away from something. If anything, it's just expressing something different artistically. Between Gogo, Jacob Fred and Dead Sea Choir, I feel like I have a good variety. I feel pretty blessed in that way I guess. For me, it's been a big deal as far as embracing the idea of a laptop (laughs). Because I just come much more from this rock or jazz side of things. You know, where there's instrumentalists and you spend your whole life honing a craft and that's the only way to become as good as your idols or whatever. But then again, I think Ableton is becoming the electric guitar for our generation. It's the thing that many people are going to be using for a lot of different reasons. It's fairly attainable and you can do so much with it almost immediately. Sonically, it let's us cover a lot of territory with just the two of us. So that was a big step – “You know what, let's harness this and really use it.”
MC: What kind of obstacles have you encountered when it comes to bringing this project to life?
Chris Combs: Some of the biggest challenges are just figuring out how the hell to play it (laughs). Because a lot of the stuff originated from me just sitting at a laptop working within ProTools or Ableton. There's a lot of searching through forums. Googling ten different things to find one thing to click or some shit to make whatever work. There's lots of homework. A LOT of homework (laughs). It's really rewarding though. The stuff we've already been able to do just with MIDI has been amazing. It's like having another band member.
MC: Can you tell me what the creative process has been like up to this point?
Chris Combs: It's really not all that dissimilar from how “The Race Riot Suite” was written. This stuff was written on a computer, while “The Race Riot Suite” was more pencil and paper. So that was another big challenge. The music was there first before the band. We didn't even decide a band name until a few months ago. A lot of the time it really is the act of sitting back and listening. Doing what the music informs and tells us to do. That was the hardest part. The music presented itself and then we had to figure out how to make it work with two people. I'm using Ableton now live and running more of an integrated setup in terms of samples, synthesizers and all kinds of stuff. And we wanted it to be where it’s not just triggering samples and playing live drums along with looped material. There are enough bands like that as it is. So it took us awhile to figure out a way to do it and make it special. To have all the funk, jazz, rock and hip/hop - trying to maintain all these things that we love while serving the music.
MC: You talk about the process with Booomclap not being that much different than all the composing you did for “The Race Riot Suite” for Jacob Fred. Can you elaborate on this?
Chris Combs: In a lot of ways, it's really the same. The music comes from the same place, which is either me on guitar, piano, steel or whatever. Then from there it's just a different process of capturing it. If it's something that is traditionally more in the jazz world, it's going to be involving an ensemble of people that read music and notation. And then if it's going to be for Booomclap, there's kind of a different developmental process. But I feel like the material in some ways is even similar. It's just the process - and I like to change it. Whether it's playing on piano, guitar or steel or working with samples on the computer, I try to approach it slightly different everyday. I try to write everyday. And it feels like that happens most of the time. But yeah, it's interesting because, although I haven't thought about it that much, they're actually very similar.
MC: What kind of musical/stylistic well are you drawing from with Booomclap? Who inspires elements within your sound?
Chris Combs: I'd say that some of the biggest initial inspirations would be J Dilla, Madlib, Mingus, Coltrane, Miles and Wayne Shorter. A lot of Stravinsky too. In some ways, the Wayne Shorter Quartet is one of our biggest influences. I think what translates more effortlessly is almost the attitude of some of these musicians. We don't necessarily sound like Wayne Shorter obviously, but there's an attitude that has greatly informed us. Then again, being able to swing is really important too. That's what Dilla shares with someone like Charlie Parker, where you have that swing and that feel. Feel is everything. I think that Booomclap is a feel-first band.
MC: The lifeblood of what you do with jazz is obviously all about taking chances. With Booomclap, what kind of musical realms, especially in the live environment, are you looking to step out into and take chances with?
Chris Combs: The way the set is put together and how we move from section to section with Booomclap gives us so much freedom. The sets are different every night. Sometimes we will go way out in different directions. But ultimately there's more emphasis on making people dance, making people happy and providing a party. We want the whole thing to be a celebration. We're going with a different responsibility to the audience in some ways. There's a bigger emphasis on playing a beat and developing material that people are going to relate to. Where it's still harmonically/melodically interesting and at the same time it's a hopping dance party.
MC: You talk about responsibility to your audience. What kind of space are you trying to create for your live audience?
Chris Combs: I love the joy of seeing live music. And it's one of the few places left in our world where there's still an element of mystery and magic on some level. And I love providing that for people – a space that is not just entertaining, but cultivating as well. I feel enriched when I see music that impacts me. I think that's a big part of what we're trying to create. We just want people to feel good man. You know, in some ways there are fewer and fewer experiences where people are coming together and dancing and putting their phones or computers down. Not connecting through a network, but actually having an experience together in the same room. You know what I mean? I think that's one of the biggest things that we would like for people to come away with. Just a sense of connection and excitement for being alive still.
MC: Looking into the future in terms of your overall vision, where do you see Booomclap going in 5 years and beyond?
Chris Combs: I could see it going all kinds of places. I'm really curious myself to be honest (laughs). I think we have some really good things ahead of us. I'm just excited to keep making music and I think it will provide better and better opportunities to do that. We hope to tour a lot and Jacob Fred is going to be on the road a lot too. But yeah, it's going to be a busy 10 or 20 years it looks like.
Although comparisons are ultimately trivial and pointless, there is no doubt that Booomclap has the musical pedigree and chops to become a live power duo in the same right as a Ratatat, Chromeo, Big Gigantic or EOTO. In fact, they are already there - it’s just a matter of exposure right now. As always though, where there is a will, there is a way. And for them this has not been some dalliance or brief jaunt into uncharted sonic wilderness. It has been a commitment with each turn in the maze of exploration feeding the curiosity and feeling the source - the silence where the ocean of infinite possibilities resides. Because creating music can be a meditation. Quieting everything to find what is right, what is true. Always listening, but not letting ego get in the way. Not holding onto or grasping for anything. Serving the spirit of the music instead of expecting it to serve you. Simply being and letting the universe flow through. Combs and Raymer get it. Now let’s see how far they take it.
Chris Combs – guitar, lap steel, synth, keys
Josh Raymer - drums
Booomclap will be performing tonight at The Vanguard in downtown Tulsa. They will be opening for Mike Dillon and Earl Harvin. For more info please visit Chris Combs’ website. To hear more music from Booomclap, be sure to follow them on Soundcloud. They are looking to releasing a full-length album in early 2014.
To read more stories about music festivals, live music, the Tulsa music scene and the surrounding area, please subscribe to my work on this site. Your support is greatly appreciated.
- Matthew Cremer