Jeremy Phipps, through his band People Museum (together with Claire Givens and Aaron Boudreaux), has created a sound that you don’t really hear anywhere in New Orleans. It’s a sound that I’ve actually never heard anywhere else either: a melding of trombone and synths, of natural and electronic, of formal and chaotic, a warm, cozy, unsettling sound that sweeps you up and washes you into their world. While researching, I discovered that a baby-faced, 22-year-old Phipps was featured in the earliest iteration of this column (“Red Light Fever”) by one of my gear-obsessed predecessors, in May of 2014. Let’s check in with Phipps again for a bit of a reunion, and see how he’s doing nearly a decade later.
What instruments do you play live versus in the studio?
Live? I play trombone. When I’m doing studio stuff? Some keys (but never on stage). We put all our keys stuff on a [Roland] SPD-SX [sampling pad]. We had a synth player years ago (and sometimes Aaron does some synth live) but what you hear live is mostly what I recorded on keys in the studio, or Claire, or Aaron. We all play. I play enough to get the point across. Sometimes I want to take real lessons to become a real keys player.
Tell me everything about your onstage effects.
My only personal mission, since the start of People Museum, has been, “How do I make the trombone fit within the world of synthesizers and ambient sounds?” Every year I get a little closer. When we first started the band, I got a[n Electro-Harmonix Micro] POG [polyphonic] octave [generator] pedal and I used that a lot. The whole goal was to sound as non-acoustic as possible, because when you have backing tracks and you add an acoustic trombone it just sounds like a person is playing with the radio on. Ideally, the sounds would just seamlessly fit together. The octave pedal gave it less of an acoustic sound and I usually jack up the octave on it so you hear something that’s not there in the room with you.
How does an octave feel on a trombone?
It’s a little unsettling. It feels like an 808, a little bit, just the feeling of it. I’ll get the live sound person to turn on the sub of that channel with the trombone and it’s an incomparable sound: sub-trombone, almost as if the frequency of a sub was a voice. I’ve had a lot of times where I’ll be at sound check and I’ll do the octave pedal and the sound guy will go, “Woah!” and then I get all excited and we start nerding out over pedals. That was the beginning.
And now it’s developed.
Over the years, I’ve added a[n Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy Analog] delay pedal because you don’t always want an octave effect but the delay I’ll put on, literally, the whole show. That made it to where I could play higher stuff and you still heard something that wasn’t in the room. It fit into the world of the synthesizers a bit more.
People Museum is very hard to categorize. I hate the genre question in general but you’re in particularly murky, other-worldly water with your sound.
Every band, I feel like, has the problem of being able to genre themselves but man, [with People Museum] it’s really hard to describe sometimes because I don’t know if I’ve seen these things put together, like: a tuba, a trombone, a singer with ambient synth sounds, and drums. I don’t ever know what to call it. Pop, I guess, ‘cause pop is such an overarching idea? Or alternative pop? Because, for some reason, that label always works for, “I just don’t know what it is but I have to say something.”
I feel like those elements are rarely mixed because brass can be so easily overwhelming.
That was the struggle in the beginning of the band. I’d have to use just 20% of the sound that [the trombone] can make and, still, it peaks out in certain moments… sometimes you want to hit the people with the brass but, for the most part, it’s about dialing it back so you don’t lose the feeling of getting lost in the world of the sound.
Do you have a collection of mutes?
No! Actually, I have one mute. I don’t really like the way it sounds. I just do it with breath control. I should start using mutes.
How do you actually get all the effects on your trombone? Because you can’t just plug it into a pedalboard like a guitar.
I have a mic cable and this thing that Paul Webb at Webb’s Bywater [Music] gave to me. He was like, “Here, use this.” and I’ve been using it for so many years. This thing, it’s like a low-Z female XLR to high-Z 1/4-inch transformer. I had a different version of it and it didn’t work for some reason, and then I got this and it’s so corroded from wear and tear, it works so well. I don’t even know the brand of it. I’m so afraid to lose it. God forbid it ever gives out.
It looks like a tiny rocket ship that takes your sound to space.
Oh! That’s a good way to put it! This little rocket ship, that I clip on the horn and put on the mic cable allows me to go through the POG, which goes to my delay pedal, which goes to my [Radial Engineering Pro] DI box. I’m fearful with electronics. I’m like, “this works” and then I’ll use it for years.
Setting up onstage with sound guys you’ve never worked with before must be a fun challenge for this band.
It’s… oh man… Sometimes, with an event like Jazz Fest, they’ll give you 10, 15 minutes to set up and it’s like, “Oh my god, our setup is so odd. I can guarantee you don’t have any presets for the trombone going through the POG pedal so it has to have some sub in it and reverb and delay and backing tracks…” That’s always the most stressful part of set-up. We’re also so electronic. We had one gig where it rained, on the rooftop of the Ogden, and we just had to stop and cover everything.
How different is it, playing with People Museum versus playing with traditional brass bands?
I played with brass bands my whole childhood, basically. I started kinda late. I was 15; that’s late for New Orleans. My friends were like, “I’ve been playing trombone since I was 3.” I was in beaucoup brass bands. I started out with this band called Next Generation and then I was in this band called Young Fellaz Brass Band, who’s still around. I was with this band called Da Truth Brass Band. I did one show with The Soul Rebels. That was my peak brass band moment. I was in Lagniappe Brass Band… I still, to this day, play traditional gigs here and there. I did it so much. When I got started, we used to play on the street. That was my first introduction to the idea of getting paid to play music.
We would be on Bourbon and Toulouse, back in the day (Bourbon and Canal was mostly for TBC [Brass Band]). It was funny: We’d make a decent amount of money. At the time, I was like, “I’m rich!” We’d be out there every day and that’s how I learned how to play. When I first started playing in clubs my first reaction was, “You all make way less money than I make.” That was ‘cause we were just starting, though. Everything was new. Mics were weird. Talking on a mic was weird. Stage banter. All of it was so strange. You would think it would be more of a transfer than it is. Playing to tourists on Frenchmen Street, as opposed to playing ticketed shows, is also a whole other world.
You just did a big tour, didn’t you?
We did. It was a lot of America. We do the whole “U.” New York all the way to San Francisco. A lotta mileage on there.
How did clubs treat your music setup?
It helps that I have a lot of effects going in and delay the whole time, ‘cause it already gives a lot of ambience. But what I learned on this tour—which was a Phase 3 of what I’ve learned—was to have the sound guy give reverb to my trombone so then I didn’t have to play the delay pedal the whole time. I turned it off for one song but it felt like taking off the training wheels (seven years of playing in this band, with delay on the entire time). When I put reverb on the mic it was like, “OK, well, if it already has this ground of ambience then I can add the delay pedal and it’ll only add more ambience and then the octave pedal with the delay pedal and with the reverb pedal and then you get this huge sound.” Onstage, Claire uses a TC Helicon VOICELIVE [harmony and effects pedal] that they discontinued. We have that in common, where we use stuff ‘til it breaks. Our last SPD, it had 2GB of storage. I watched its birth and its decline. Then, seven years of wear and tear later, we finally got a new one.
Can I get a tour of the home studio?
Yes. It’s not a lot of gear, though. I don’t collect. I will use something until I can’t use it anymore. I have this MIDI controller [the Arturia KeyLab Essential] that I’ve had forever and until it fails me, I’ll keep going and going. It’s my baby. Then I have this [Universal Audio] Apollo Twin interface that’s also my baby that I bought and thought, “This is a waste of money” until I realized what it does. Then this mic, which I’ve had for… a minute, it’s just a [Shure] SM7[B]. I use it for vocals. I don’t love recording trombone myself because it makes me kinda crazy. A friend of mine has a studio right across the street. His name is Ben Lorio. He used to work at the Music Shed and now he, like, owns the Music Shed, but it’s just his Studio B. I record with him on a lot of projects.
Did the People Museum songs or the effects come first?
It started with the songs because every pedal and effect that I’ve bought, so far, is not so much about creativity, more utility. It’s about what fits the music. If I thought [the trombone] sounded right natural I’d play it that way. One day, my dream would be for the trombone to make zero acoustic sound and only the sound I want. I did it once in a way but it was very DIY and not very user friendly. I was wrapped in wires and I was like, “I’m doing too much right now.” I have this [Yamaha] pickup mute [PM5X]. If you put this in, the trombone is extremely quiet. You damn near can’t hear anything. People use it for practicing. You put a wire out into headphones. I tried it where I had this 1/8 inch out into a 1/4 inch and I put it through the pedalboard and I projected that through the house. It worked but I had a wire going in there and a wire coming in here and it was a strange experience. It felt so unnatural. On bigger stages, the audience gets more of the sound that I’m looking for. In a small venue, if somebody has backing tracks and they’re sitting right in front of you, it has less of an effect than when it’s on a big speaker. It’s way easier to play bigger rooms. Everything sounds so big, grandiose already. Everything meshes all together.
For more info, check out peoplemuseumband.com
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Photos by Sabrina Stone