Snake Oil is an all-instrumental, quasi-fusion group, started by drummer Jason Labbe. It's loosely based in the New Haven area but has members spread all around the Northeast. Though the cast of musicians involved isn't set in stone, all participants in the project have extensive resumes of other notable area bands they've played with, past and present. But let's not dwell on that. We spoke with Labbe about what the group is all about, what other music has influenced him and what's coming next. Visit snakeoilsounds.com to learn about all things Snake Oil.
Who's currently in the band?
Jason Labbe: Snake Oil resists the idea of being a "band" per se, though there is a core group of people involved with the project. The recordings are collectively made, and twelve musicians contributed to the new record. When I need a particular sound, I find somebody who can play that instrument. The live representation consists of Jason Labbe, Emily Lee, Adrian van de Graaff and Bill Readey.
What was the initial concept for the band? What were you going for? What sounds & ideas were you chasing?
I started recording Snake Oil's first material in my basement studio in 2010 out of frustration with being a drummer, a sideman, in other people's projects. I had an idea for an eponymous project where my friends and I would collaborate on pieces of music without anyone really claiming authorship. I also tried to have a hands-off approach where I didn't dictate what I thought they should play. My philosophy was, if I let you interpret this piece as you want and let you do what you do best, the piece of music as a whole will be stronger — and more surprising. I didn't want to start another "rock band." I wanted a project that was more fluid with an eclectic range of influences. The philosophy remains. Snake Oil is fuzzy psychedelic pseudo-fusion prog.
How has that initial concept evolved in real life, with the players you've chosen?
I wrote most of the first record, but now Emily Lee, Trevor Healy, and I do most of the writing together — at least the core of songs, which sometimes change direction as we arrange and add to them. All three of us live in different states — New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut respectively — so file sharing has been invaluable to our composition/recording process. I think we've refined our sound a great deal with the second record. Bill is a great addition because he's great at consolidating the complicated, layered guitar performances on the records into one thing for live performances.
What are the benefits and/or drawbacks of not having vocals?
I decided to make Snake Oil an instrumental project mostly to resist falling into the "rock band" mold that I was very tired of. I wanted to play in a way that wasn't mostly focused on supporting a vocalist — which I love to do, by the way. But I just wanted a different kind of musical interaction with Snake Oil. I'm sure there will be vocals at some point. We're more into what we can do than what we can't. We're not super proscriptive about stuff.
When people who have never heard you ask what you sound like, how do you respond?
Quasi-fusion? Nobody really asks.
What musical influences directly contributed to your sound, if any?
Can, Soft Machine, Lungfish, Fela Kuti, The Funkees (Nigerian Psychedelic in general), jazz/free, jazz/soul, jazz/post-bop, prog, Black Sabbath, Wayne Shorter, Alice Coltrane, Steely Dan... Everyone who contributes is into something different.
What are your goals? In an ideal world, what would you be doing with the group? What are you trying to accomplish?
We think in creative terms; we are not achievement oriented. We're going to make a 10" this winter with one of Trevor Healy's compositions on one side and a cover, to be determined, on the other.
What's the most interesting thing for you about being a musician in 2013?
I've been playing drums for 28 years now, and I feel like I'm finally gaining some mastery of the instrument. It's interesting to finally sit down at the drums with a sense of freedom — which often means knowing how to say more with playing less.
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