St. Paul & the Broken Bones: The Charge of the Light Brigade
by Dean Budnick on November 14, 2016
“It's only gonna get weirder,” St. Paul & The Broken Bones frontman Paul Janeway says of the music that he expects will flow from his group over the years and albums to come.
The band’s second record, Sea of Noise, is already a step in that direction.
The ethereal opening piece, “Crumbling Light Posts, Pt. 1,” announces itself in an altogether different way from the brass-infused slice of soul that began the group’s debut, Half the City. Janeway and a guest choir intone, “We’re just crumbling light, crumbling light in a sea of noise,” for the first of three such sequences on the album. “Crumbling Light Posts” also appears in the middle and at the end, serving as atmospheric tent poles.
These lyrics are drawn from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s book, The Grand Alliance: The Second World War, in which Churchill describes ailing American politician Harry Hopkins, an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as “a soul that flamed out of a frail and failing body. He was a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to the harbor.”
This quote was the starting point for Janeway, who modified the imagery to reflect some of the challenges of the modern age, which is a recurring theme throughout the album. “In my mind, it’s not a total concept record,” he explains, “but there are some common themes and some conceptual, binding ideas. As we experience life in the era of the laptop, you can feel like you’re eventually going to get sucked in. You’re going to fall and become noise.”
Janeway’s longtime collaborator and St. Paul & The Broken Bones co-founder/ bassist Jesse Phillips adds, “The idea is to represent the individual in the modern world full of distraction and influence and information manipulation, where you’re trying to maintain humanity and identity and do what’s right, even though you’re exposed to everything that surrounds you via the cable news and internet news cycles.”
These sentiments are in stark contrast with the musings on love and heartache that predominated on the group’s first album. Indeed, this is not your mother’s St. Paul & The Broken Bones. Except that it is. And it’s your great aunt’s and your little cousin’s, too—a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the band, which has demonstrated the unique ability to span generations in its appeal.
“It’s bizarre: We’ve had grandmothers and granddaughters come out to our shows,” Janeway reflects. “We played a festival outside of D.C., called Sweetlife. It was Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, and all this other stuff, including us. We had a great show, and, I’ll never forget, on the screen it said, ‘For parent pick up, go to this aisle.’ It was an odd feeling for me but a really good one. It’s crazy, but I think that writing real songs and having real music is never going to go out of fashion. And when you see someone giving everything they’ve got, you can feel it. That’s what we aspire to do.”
Phillips concurs: “The joke in our band is that what we lack in finesse, we make up for with effort. In that respect, there’s a modern energy and edge and immediacy to the music that younger folks can latch on to, so there is a crossdemographic appeal—especially when somebody sees the live show, where we’ve got all these elements with the retro and the modern vibes present at once. When you see the band, it’s hard to tell if it’s a soul band with some rock-and-roll influence or a rock-and-roll band desperately trying to be a soul band.”
The eight-piece outfit typically appears nattily dressed in ties and jackets, and then Janeway delivers a forceful performance in which he works the stage (and sometimes bounds into the crowd) in an active, demonstrative manner that seemingly runs counter to the band’s formal attire. In so doing, the unit nods to the sounds and spirits of Memphis and Motown, as well as Muscle Shoals, located in the band’s native Alabama.
However, Janeway believes that some of the group’s reference points are overlooked. “Our live show has got way more punk-rock elements to it than we get credit for,” he says.
The group's origins certainly reflect a broader palette and intent. Janeway first met Phillips in Birmingham, when the bass player was invited to join Janeway’s debut group, The Secret Dangers. The vocalist had grown up 30 miles away in the small town of Chelsea, Ala., while Phillips, who was raised in the southeastern corner of British Columbia, had recently arrived from New Orleans, where he had studied music at Tulane and Loyola. (“I was pretty fresh to Alabama. I had moved here chasing a job and a girl,” Phillips says. “I didn’t know a lot of people. I was in my mid-20s doldrums and I was pretty much down for anything.”)
Janeway was introduced to Phillips by the drummer in his nascent group, who worked with the bassist at an area music store. “Jesse came in and we just really hit it off,” Janeway recalls. “I brought him over to my apartment to see my records and, after I showed him Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, he said, ‘We’re going to be really good friends.’ He was right. That was about eight or nine years ago, and we’ve been really, really close since then.”
Tom Waits is another foundational artist for Janeway, who had aspired to become a minister and grew up with only minimal knowledge of secular musicians until he broke with the church at age 18 (he’s now 33) and began actively discovering new sounds. Phillips describes him as “one of the biggest music fans I knew. He didn’t care about the scene; he was just a huge music nerd. He was in the absolute depths of his Tom Waits obsession in 2008 when the Glitter and Doom tour came to Birmingham. Paul showed up, went straight to the merch table and literally bought everything on the table. I don’t even think he had a job at this point.”
As for The Secret Dangers, Phillips remembers, “It was kind of alternative blues. The project went through a bunch of different members searching for the appropriate calibration. Some of the building blocks were there for what we’re doing now, but we could never really get the vibe right. I don’t think we had too many serious aspirations about it. We were serious enough to rehearse every week on the button, but it was mostly a basement band. We had fun just hanging out in the basement and making stuff up.”
The group was a classic-rock four-piece. Unlike the outfit that followed, there were no horns, the musicians did not appear in dapper dress and Janeway found himself tethered to a guitar, adding rhythm to the mix. “The reason I don’t play guitar in this band is because I ruined the guitar I played in that band,” he reveals. “I would stand up on amps and fall over and roll around on the ground. Later, I decided, ‘You know, if I’m gonna do this, I shouldn’t ruin any instruments.’
“We only played one show outside of Alabama,” Janeway continues. “It was the first band I’d ever been in, so I was happy just to have friends. It never really had any aim. I never thought, ‘Maybe I should practice songs around my voice.’ We did some Zeppelin covers, which I didn’t know because I didn’t grow up with that. It had alternative-rock-type elements to it, it had some more soulful stuff, it was a kaleidoscope of things.”