Juicebox, the soul and funk band based in New York City, experienced several positive changes that launched them into a new direction after they released their 2012 single “Occupy my Heart.” Isaac Jaffe, the bassist of the band, shared the story of the birth behind this sultry and contagious single.
“I wrote this song while we were on a previous tour. It was probably one of the first songs where I wrote the lyrics before the melody. In my head, I pictured this song as a Neil Young-type of folk song – one with a falsetto voice which was sweet and a little bit wistful. Then I said, ‘there is no way the band is going to want to play that.’ So, I gave it a few weeks to kind of incubate and then I found a rhythm and the syncopation for the song.”
Saxophone player, Nicholas Myers, singer, Lisa Ramey, and then the newest member of the band, percussionist, Jamie Eblen laughed with Isaac as he shared this story.
After the single’s release, Juicebox toured Italy. Isaac claimed that sharing a song with people in a very different place was incredibly thrilling. Lisa added, “That’s when we turned to being pretty cool. We were nerdy cool, then we were not nerdy anymore. Now, we had this style, we had artwork, we were the Juicebox guys.”
As I interviewed these four members from the seven piece band, I noticed how elegantly they answered each question. Like a perfected performance piece, nobody interrupted each another. They came in with their own words and comments in a timely manner, never too soon and never too late. All members neatly and smoothly connected their comments so that they flowed like a well-written article. It almost felt like they had a structure for the way they interviewed. I had the same thoughts regarding the composition within their songs. So I asked the group how important structure was for a band like Juicebox?
“It’s not so much structure as it is about communication,” said Isaac. “That’s the key. Because of the improvisational thing, we have a pretty clear roadmap of how we work, but at the same time, every once in a while, our guitar player will play something that is too good to run away from. With the bands all in the same place, you are plugged in and there is nowhere to run.”
Whether or not soul and funk are your thing, Juicebox has proven there is really nowhere to run when you listen to their music live or on a recording. That is why I just had to interview this band. As I talk with them, I soon realize what will attract all types of listeners to Juicebox. Read my interview with the band right here on Music Historian to find out.
Starting in 2009, all the instrumentalists in Juicebox met through the jazz performance community at New York University. Isaac was a senior when Jamie was a freshman. Prior to Jaime joining the group, the five piece group of male performers recruited Lisa while she playing with another band in the city.
“She was singing back up with another group,” recalled Nick, “and I said to myself, ‘what is she doing singing back up?!’ She needs to be in front of the band! We did not have a singer at that time, we were only instrumental. We wanted to be a band but could not find anybody. Then, we saw Lisa and said “we need her. She is phenomenal. We need her out of the background and right up front. It was a match.”
Lisa remembers the moment this five-guy band approached her as being a tad terrifying. However, she quickly recognized the opportunity to come into the forefront.
“I enjoyed being in the background, and I knew I would sing in the front. But at that time, I was trying to perform and get out in front of people. They [the Juicebox band] said ‘you are up in the front, in the middle, go!’” she explains. “I actually remember being so nervous when I sang in front for the first time with the group; I had all of the lyrics and everything written out. I thought I was not going to get hired for the job.”
“That was a really great show,” added Isaac. “I remember we had been playing in many downtown bars, performing mostly soul, jazz and instrumental stuff. Then, we did the first show with Lisa – I had only known Lisa after we hung out once or twice – and she started singing, I looked up and saw her immediately rock the crowd. I thought to myself this is probably the coolest experience I have had being up on stage. So, I knew it was going to work out.”
“I am the quiet one here because I was not around to see any of this,” said Jamie.
If you need a little more convincing that Juicebox is a band you must hear, consider how this ensemble can move a crowd of rap and hip-hop enthusiasts. This happened to be the case at the New Music Seminar during the performance nights, when Juicebox performed next to hip-hop artists, Dylan Owen, M Bars, and Lanz Pierce at Tammany Hall on the Lower East Side, on June 9th. Speaking to the group, I learned that although hip-hop might be very different stylistically from funk and soul, these two genres have something in common. Nick explains:
“All of the hip-hop artists sampled records we listened to. That’s what first got me to listen all of that stuff [soul], I would listen to [hip-hop] songs on the radio and I figured out the samples turned out to be my favorite parts. When I heard a sample from Stevie Wonder in a song, I would go and listen to the original song by Stevie Wonder.”
Returning to the show, Lisa said, “Everybody loved our show… With a foundation like that, you can’t go wrong. It was a hit.”
I then asked myself, which soul artist presented an example for Juicebox, and what have they done to move that influence forward? What is the most important element within soul for this band? Finally, how do they fit in today’s music scene while remaining distinct?
It turns out the name Juicebox, pays homage to one of Nick’s personal idols, James Brown. Aaron Rockers, the trumpet player within the band, suggested the name and it clicked.
“In his [James Brown’s] band,” stated Nick, “all the instrumentalists called themselves the JB’s, and we look up to them. So then, we thought about Juicebox and felt it was really cool.
“We went through many names and thought, ‘oh that doesn’t feel right.’ Then Juicebox immediately felt right, and with the type of music we had, it [the name] makes sense. Plus, it makes everyone feel positive when they say then name.”
Personally, I don’t see how anybody can ever get angry saying the word juice box. In regards to music, I don’t recall a moment where a person got angry saying the word soul. Soul is supposed to make you feel good. Nick adds, “that’s what we’re about.”
Jamie then entered the conversation with his thoughts about Juicebox’s performance practice – “Another crazy thing about the band is that they are in different settings and it’s kind of like a chameleon. When we play live, we will have a different vibe, whether it is one for a dinner club or bar. We’ve also played acoustic sets.”
“It’s going to be much different than when we play at Rockwood,” adds Isaac, “where we put the pedal to the metal, beat one and we hit the crowd. Then, it’s like ‘Wow! Did that just happen?’
“I think that’s where all the time we put in playing in different jazz bands… [and] whether we played in a club about 100 times… we are still improvising… we’re trying to be fresh.”
Nick concludes, “I think that is an important part of what we do. I think every time I listened to a James Brown record, he rearranged his theme at every live performance.”
Juicebox rightfully recognizes the JB’s, and they find great comfort in incorporating the music element that attracts the group to soul and funk – improvisation. So, what is Juicebox doing differently from the other bands I have interviewed thus far? The answer is this, they read the audience.
Depending on the setting, Juicebox will slightly improvise certain elements within their songs to match the tone of their performance settings. Juicebox’s has mastered this into a winning strategy.
“We put in a lot of work learning how to win over the club,” explains Isaac. “You walk up on stage, and you see people [in the audience] eating dinner, talking to their girlfriend, or doing whatever. You have to start small and figure out how you are going to get your ‘in’ with them, and have them listen to you. That’s all we really want, is to play music people want to listen to.”
Isaac adds, “We’re getting to the point right now that, when we walk on stage, people automatically think “I am going to have a moment with this.” That I feel is a real privilege and I’m really thrilled. That makes me happier than anything else.”
As all marketers know, word-of-mouth is the best form of promotion. When listeners start feeling this way about a band, the word spreads. When the word spreads, the possibility of an A&R representative or a music producer attending a concert increases. Lisa attests that in this industry, the chances of getting accepted within this industry is very opportunity-based.
“Someone saw us and recognized us. Everyone here, and out there, understands how hard that is, and it is a matter of someone who came to see you, and maybe they liked you, and then maybe they will talk to somebody who will maybe look at your stuff. With all of those things happening, we just feel really honored.”
While for many bands, this career path is full of a lot of maybes, one thing that will always be definite for Juicebox – they will always give their listeners an unforgettable show and music that will move them. According to Isaac, dancing is a level below talking, the internalization of music listening.
“If it hits people there, when they are dancing and they feel it, then I know we did a good job.”
Nick adds, “My personal goal is to leave fans completely speechless.”
Based on fans’ testimonials, Juicebox has accomplished what both Nick and Isaac want. Fans have given testimonials like “Can’t stop moving,” and “[They] murdered it. Oh my God, so funky,” just to name a few.
Juicebox will now continue to bring more great music to audiences with a second album and a second tour which are supposed to peak sometime this Fall. Keep your eyes peeled on their website or Facebook Page for updates.
If you do visit their website and listen to their music, I will say this Lisa’s voice is powerful within all the songs. What makes me remember this group the most is how the instruments come into the forefront with the singer, they are not just accompaniments. I wondered whether Juicebox treated the human voice as an instrument, or the instruments as voices.
“Personally,” began Lisa, “I am not Ella Fitzgerald. She is a natural horn. I can’t say I am a horn but, I can say in body movement, I play every instrument. I consider our band to be an act, a function of different people. Everybody has a chance to shine. I think we are all a bunch of instruments.”
Isaac enters, “I think it’s interesting because, for a long time, all the music I wrote was instrumental. Then, when the shift came, I gave Lisa some words to sing, and that changed the way I wrote songs, and in a really good way.”
“Yeah,” agree Nick and Jamie.
Isaac continues, “I think it [the voice] really made the instrumental parts deeper… and they reflected what was happening in the voice. So, I think there is an important separation there.”
“I think it brings the instruments closer to the vocal side, which positively influences the way we play… They are not meeting, but they definitely inform each other, and that really helps along the way,” adds Nick.
Isaac intercepts, “I was going to say, there is something really satisfying when you’ve got this idea built in the melody within the horns, and then Lisa delivers a lyric that makes everyone fall on their head, and set up the delivery. That’s really satisfying.”
“I’m glad we’re having this interview,” responds Lisa.
So there it is. In addition to Juicebox’s successful delivery of soul and funk, and improvisational music that is sometimes missing in today’s popular music scene; this group makes sure that everybody has a chance to shine. Just like the JB’s, this band relies on all instruments equally to deliver a great piece of music. Yes, they might say the instruments and the voice complement each other within the music, but nobody here is an accompanist.
At the moment, electronic pop seems to come to everyone’s mind when they hear the word “dance music.” Juicebox is plugged-in and they constantly master the craft of live performance as opposed to relying on automated technology. The only drawback is this group still has a small audience. The right exposure, however, and additional time to increase their fan base might be the next step in spreading Juicebox’s soul and funk onto the modern scene.