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Interview with Ziek McCarter of Con Brio

BissList Interview With Ziek McCarter of Con Brio
By Josh Danson, Contributing Editor
Con Brio: a musical direction, meaning "with spirit" or "with vigor" – Merriam-Webster
Borrowing their name from and personifying the above definition, Con Brio are swiftly, and with vigor, making a name for themselves. With incendiary performances that have earned comparisons to the likes of Sly and the Family, D’Angelo and Prince, the 7-piece San Francisco-based funk and soul outfit have just come off the road in support of their self-produced EP, “Kiss the Sun”. Their first major headlining tour, heavy on appearances at festivals like Austin City Limits, Milwaukee’s Summerfest, Bottlerock in Napa and the Biss co-produced GuitarFish Festival, provided the band with great exposure and even caused one critic to ask, “Is Con Brio the best new live band in America?” They followed up summer festival season with a European mini-tour and are set to close out the year with two New Year’s shows in San Francisco.
The band was formed when longtime collaborators Micah Dubreuil (keyboards), Jonathan Kirchner (bass) and Andrew Laubacher (drums) joined up with Benjamin Andrews (guitar) and Ziek McCarter (vocals) to play a few gigs. Based on the initial chemistry and the positive response they received from the audience, the five decided to seek out the services of horn players Marcus Stephens (tenor saxophone) and Brendan Liu (trumpet) – and in 2013, the current lineup of Con Brio was set. Through their relentless touring schedule and an equally relentless focus on “Wow’ing” audiences with their high-energy performances, Con Brio have gained recognition as one of the most exciting young bands around and have punched their tickets for the upcoming Jam Cruise in January and a full-blown international tour in early 2016.
I recently spoke with Ziek on the phone as he was walking home from his day job working for an environmental education non-profit. If Con Brio continues on their current trajectory, that non-profit may soon be looking for Ziek’s replacement.
Con Brio is playing two nights at The Chapel in San Francisco, December 30th and 31st. Click here to purchase tickets: New Years with Con Brio.
BissList: When did you guys record “Kiss the Sun” and have you been able to accumulate enough material to follow up that initial effort with a full-length album, or are you still working on that?
Ziek McCarter: We just released “Kiss the Sun” on Valentine’s Day this year and we’ve been touring, all over the world, promoting that record, and promoting Con Brio ever since, just trying to make a splash. It was our first international tour this year – we’ve toured all over and now that we’re back in the City we’ve got a month off and then in January we’re playing Jam Cruise, which will take us to Belize. And then when we get back we’ll have a little bit of time to actually get into the studio. We just had a nice meeting with the producer yesterday, so we’ll be in studio, hopefully getting it done by the end of January, beginning of February.
BL: Excellent. So you’re doing Jam Cruise thing? I’ve yet to go myself but I’ve heard great things about it. Is this going to be your first Jam Cruise?
ZM: Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard too. A lot of heavy hitters are going to be there, so I’m looking forward to learning from them and being in the audience – at least most of the time.
BL: You guys have already played some pretty big stages recently, played to some bigger crowds, opening up for folks like Karl Denson, Trombone Shorty and The Pimps of Joytime. You played Austin City Limits for the first time back in October and it sounds like you got a great response. What’s it been like to take that next step from small to mid-sized clubs to playing big name festivals and larger format venues?
ZM: That’s actually, for me personally, that’s what I always imagined. When I imagined playing music I didn’t see that I would start off in the small clubs – this is when I was like a teenager [He’s the ripe old age of 21 now.--BL]. I imagined The Grammy’s. I imagined stadiums. I imagined, like, the big amphitheaters. So when we got there I was like, “OK, this is what I always thought it was supposed to be.” So when we hit those big stages, we feel like… I know I feel like I’m right at home and I know the guys do as well. I feel like we’ve played the smaller venues and it’s been great. It’s been great in that we’ve been able to develop our chemistry together and get it stronger and stronger so that by the time we hit the Fillmore opening up for Galactic, or we play Austin City Limits, it’s like we’ve had our hours together. So when we get there we’re confident.
BL: That’s great to have that confidence. I mean, who wants to imagine themselves in the small time, right? You gotta’ think big.
ZM: Right? But that’s what’s so funny. At Austin city Limits, there were some artists there that had just put out an album on Soundcloud or something and they had developed a big buzz, but this was their first time touring and actually playing together in front of an audience. So even though they had this great following online, they hadn’t developed their live performance yet. So they were looking at us like, “We want play like Ya’ll!” So we may not have the same big buzz that they have yet, but what we do have is chemistry and we were able to create a pretty big ripple with that.
BL: I saw you guys open for The Pimps of Joytime at the Fillmore and you put on quite a show. To be honest, I was a little worried for The Pimps. Between you and the trumpet player, Brendan, it was like a crazy dance party up there on stage. Where did you get your moves and was there a particular performer that you modeled yourself on when you were younger?
ZM: Yeah, we have different “teams” within Con Brio… Me and Brendan, we’re Team Youngblood, because we’re the youngest. But to be honest my dancing was inspired by a lot of things. I was inspired by musical theater and the theatrics of that when I was a kid. I was inspired by Michael Jackson, of course. And then by James Brown and Prince and other dancers. But I was also inspired by the culture of dance. Because there are dancers that didn’t make it to the platform that those guys did but they were still great. Then there were just different dances that we learned. Dances coming from New York and dances from Texas. Different moves that people were doing and I was picking up on. And just the culture of dance, the art form of dance, I’ve always been a fan of.
Then when I moved to San Francisco I had a great friend, Breton, she taught at Alonzo Lines [Alonzo King Lines Ballet], which is a ballet school. And she had a class that she taught and I got in there not having taken any ballet prior to and just learning and picking up and soaking up that form of dance. But it’s always been a form of personal expression for me. I don’t really have any formal training or background in it other than that, I just had like a mirror in my room when I was a kid.
BL: When I first saw you live, you were sporting a powder-blue tux as part of Karl Denson’s reimagining of “Sexual Chocolate” at Outside Lands. And I remember Karl looking at you after some particularly impressive falsetto riff, like, “Who is this cat and how the hell does he DO that??”
ZM: Well, I’ve always loved the higher range. Like as a kid… artists used the falsetto a lot back in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s… and I listened to my mom’s music when I was growing up. Like DeBarge, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. People who used that falsetto range – like Maxwell also – that were very good at it and I admired their ability very much because it sounded so sweet. So it’s been a journey for me to see how high I can go. Seriously, how high could I go and how much could I push that and have it sound good. I’ve always wanted to encompass the full choir – when we do the background vocals when we’re recording, it’s all me – so I want to be like, the soprano section, the contra-alto, the alto, the tenor the bass. I want to do all of it.
BL: That’s very cool and you do have an incredible range. Did you play any instruments growing up, or has your voice always been your primary instrument?
ZM: Voice has always been my primary instrument. But we had a keyboard at my house growing up and I played that. And when I got older I had some training. I had a teacher who taught me exactly what I was doing and how to manipulate it and use it intentionally. But I played the bass also, with my dad. We played the blues together and I used to play those same blues lines over and over again. That’s also when I was first learning how to use my vocals. So now when I write, I write with bass first.
BL: Developing that falsetto, you have to really work out your vocal chords, right? That’s like a physical workout and not something that just comes out when you open your mouth. You have to really work at that, I assume.
ZM: It is definitely – most of singing is about how you use your chords, so I learned how to use that from my training. But the falsetto specifically, that’s something I’ve been working on doing on my own time. Because when I sing, I project a lot, but when I’m singing to myself I don’t project in the same way, when I’m in a quiet setting. So I use my falsetto to hit the notes that I want to hit when I’m in a quiet setting, and that’s when I’m able to work it out a lot.
BL: So how did you get tapped for that Sexual Chocolate gig? How did that come about for you?
ZM: We had opened up for him [Karl Denson] before and we played The Independent a lot in 2014, like eight or nine shows. So it was through a woman at the Independent – Ann Marie [Svilar] I believe –referred me to the folks at Superfly and a promoter there reached out to me and said, “I hear you’re the guy for this job.” So when presented with that opportunity I definitely took it.
BL: Well, I love The Independent and I love Karl Denson, so you’re definitely running in the right circles as far as I’m concerned. So you moved out here from Houston, how long ago? And did you move out here specifically to enter the San Francisco music scene, or did you move out here with family, or what?
ZM: I moved out here in summer of 2010 and it was specifically for music. My mother was actually born and raised in the Fillmore, right by the Boom Boom Room, and my grandmother has been there since the 60’s in that same house. So I used to come here when I was a kid and I always wanted to move here. I didn’t know much about the music scene but I moved here for a specific opportunity. There was an artist that I was intending on working with. And even though it didn’t work out the way I intended, there was the music scene that I was old enough to fall into. Well, actually, I wasn’t, ‘cause I started playing when I was like 18 [laughs]. But I moved out here for music and I was determined for music to be my life.
BL: Yeah, well Pamela Gerstein [AKA “Miss Biss”] says she remembers you coming up to her at the Boom Boom Room after sitting in when you were 18 or 19 and telling her that you were going to be in the BissList before too long.
ZM: [Laughs] Hah, yeah!
BL: You seem like someone who knows musical history and where you fit into the continuum. Do you, or did you, take a studied approach to your craft and watch old performances by people like Otis Redding, Sly and James Brown to see how they worked the stage? Or do you mainly try and stay away from that kind of research for fear of it influencing you too much?
ZM: There was one point where I did… because I knew what was mainstream now was mainly influenced by what was done in the past. So I wanted to educate myself in that. So I did study Sly and the Family Stone… I was obsessed with Sly and the Family Stone. Especially after I saw the Family Stone at Stern Grove a few years ago and was instantly hooked. The fact that they spent most of their lives in the Bay Area but they were originally from Texas [Sylvester “Sly” Stone and his brother and sisters Freddie, Vaetta and Rose were born in Dallas, but moved to Vallejo with his family in the early 50’s], that was something I was fascinated by. The legacy of the music and them at Woodstock in 1969, that 3:00 AM set, is the most influential record of my life because it was just so much energy. So much energy! It just filled me with… I felt like I was there, like in the movie. And it’s something that still fills me when I’m on stage. Even the music, the songs, just the way it’s arranged – we very much have the same instruments that they did – so it’s like, “Hey!” But, Sly didn’t dance like I do [laughs]. You know, I’m not saying that’s what I have on him or anything, because I’m not up there on stage playing the keyboards… But I think absolutely I was influenced by Sly and the Family Stone, by Stevie Wonder, by Donnie Hathaway, by James [Brown]… even Sade. But now I’m allowing that education to come through me and I’m applying it to our music. It’s like, I’ve done my research. It’s already ingrained in me and now we play and it comes out.
BL: Right on. Because that’s the real challenge for the artist, right? To not sound like somebody else and just be derivative, but to find your own voice.
ZM: Exactly. I don’t want to just regurgitate what’s already been done.
BL: So you guys are playing two shows at the Chapel to close out 2015 and usher in the New Year. What else does 2016 have in store for Con Brio? You mentioned Jam Cruise and then it sounded like you were going to head into the studio after that?
ZM: Yeah, we’re going to be in the studio for a bit to work on the next album. And the album will come out next year. But we’re going to be touring a lot next year also. We just got some dates that we got confirmed yesterday. We’re going to be playing a bunch of festivals. We’re going to Australia. We’re going to Europe. We’re going to Japan. We’re doing a lot of things next year. So this album will be a nice propellant to do a lot of those things and even more.
BL: That’s great. It sounds like 2016 is going to be a big year for Con Brio. So I wish you luck, and I look forward to seeing you at The Chapel, right down the hill from me in the Mission, over New Years. On the 30th, I think.
ZM: Great, that’s the night that Bayonics are opening up for us, and I love them personally.
BL: Well thanks again and I look forward to seeing you then!
Con Brio is playing two nights at The Chapel in San Francisco, December 30th and 31st. Click here to purchase tickets: New Years with Con Brio.