Interview: Northeast Traffic

Photo by James Lastowski

Once in a while, there’s a band that has the ability to meld so many styles together that they emanate pure originality. Providence, RI progressive alt-funk act Northeast Traffic have been doing exactly that since they entered the city’s music scene during the late 2000s. A lot has changed in Providence’s musical climate since that time but this talented quintet has been a constant while evolving into a legit powerhouse. Riff City, which is the band’s second album that came out in November 2018, is an excellent representation of how much this act has risen over the past decade.

I had a talk with the entire band consisting of guitarist and vocalist Alex Claros, guitarist Sam Clemens, drummer Joe Krapf, keyboardist Nick Parisi and bassist Burke White about the making of the new album, maturing as musicians, being more selective and wanting to play in other cities.

Rob Duguay: First off, where was Riff City made and recorded?

Joe Krapf: We recorded it last winter at Robot Records in North Attleboro, MA with Jon Sanders who plays drums in The Stupid Robots. He runs a record label and a recording studio there. We spent December 2017 and January & February 2018 working on it. Then we continued throughout the rest of the year touching it up and getting it ready for the release last November.

What’s the studio like there? Is it Jon’s house? Is it a legit studio?

Sam Clemens: It’s not his house but he does pretty much live there.

Nick Parisi: He has a nice space. It’s a traditional studio set up with a live room and a booth. It’s located in an old mason building in North Attleboro.

SC: It’s tucked away.

You guys are from all different parts of Rhode Island, right?

SC: About half and half.

So how did you all get together to start Northeast Traffic in the first place? You guys have been around for 10 years.

NP: High school, baby!

Alex Claros: I’ve known Burke since preschool.

Burke White: Going back to the good old playground days.

AC: Burke and I grew up together in Warwick, RI. Then I met Nick and Sam in high school.

NP: Joe was there too.

AC: I was going to say that, I wasn’t finished (laughs). It was in jazz ensemble where I met Joe.

SC: We all went to LaSalle Academy in Providence except for Burke. We’ve all known each other for pretty much our whole lives.

JK: Sam and I went to middle school together and I was in the same grade as his older brother. He was two years behind us but we’ve known each other for so long. We’re also both from the same town in Bristol, RI.

Northeast Traffic has a consistent jam band vibe but at the same time there’s a lot of funk and ’90s era alternative rock being incorporated with Alex singing like a bluesman. There’s also a ton of jazzy progressions happening as well. When you guys first started writing music, how did you go about creating these long-form multi-dimensional songs?

SC: When we first played as the group that we are now, we played one of our first originals, “Carlos”, in Joe’s parents’ basement. We rocked super hard, it was the only thing we knew how to play and we just played it for a really long time.

BW: Basically it’s a ton of guitar going over the beats, Spanish style.

SC: Now, coming from there, we write as a whole other than “Jazz Bone” which is a song Nick composed himself. We take into consideration everyone’s input.

AC: It’s always been somebody bringing an idea to the table and we pretty much build off of it. Everyone puts in their own input and that’s why there’s so many influences present in our sound. It comes from us mixing our tastes, talents and ideas into stuff we could never think of.

NP: Back in the old days, on a couple of songs we used to establish the core idea then each of us would get a certain amount of measures a piece. “Down To Funk” as a result is the weirdest song we have because each person directly wrote a part in sequence. That’s been spread out to us having a verse and a chorus but we really need a jam. Then someone will come out of left field with something. It’s building on the old strategy that we had and refining it.

SC: At the same time, we’re always trying to do something different. We’ve gone through so many phases as a band. Right when we all got into college, we all had a deep stoner rock phase. We were playing heavy and slow in weird time signatures. Then we all branched out again and it continues.

JK: Anything and everything kind of goes with this band. There’s never been a thing where we’re directly trying to sound a certain way. It can be difficult to explain to people when they ask us what the band sounds like. It can be easy to just say that it’s rock music.

You guys are all over the place though.

BW: Like you said how you hear all the different styles with the grunge and the jazz and the jam, it’s literally that.

SC: A lot of what we come up with too can be from what someone has been listening at the time. I listen to a lot of goofy country music, that old stuff about broken hearts and drinking in bars.

AC: That’s a good example of how what we write involves what we’re all listening to. Each of us listen to different stuff, we don’t listen to the same kinds of music. We’re always finding new music to listen to as well. I couldn’t tell you what I was listening to 10 years ago but…..

BW: I can guarantee it was something someone in the band told me to listen to though.

AC: Yeah. We’ve gone through so many things that we’ve listened to.

SC: Nick solely listens to Vulfpeck and that’s it.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

NP: You also can’t sleep on Snarky Puppy either. They have a new album coming out.

Damn right they do. As a band playing live music in venues and doing that circuit, how much has it changed from the first time you guys played 10 years ago to now?

JK: I was talking to someone about this the other day. This older gentleman I work with was asking me about music and it’s amazing how much the scene in Rhode Island has changed. Our first gigs, we would play “Clusta Funk” and we’d get things thrown at us at hardcore punk shows. We should have not been playing those shows to begin with and luckily we got involved with an old venue in Providence called The Spot. The local alternative rock, jam and funk scenes were involved there so it was a bit more comparable to what we play.

BW: They were definitely a lot more open-minded when it came to music there.

JK: Yeah.

SC: We also fell deep into the community there. It was our first experience where we weren’t feeling like outcasts. We felt at home at The Spot because we were playing pop punk shows where we’d get 20 minutes so we’d play one song and everybody hated us because we were a funk band. We’d play with Afroman and there were 30 rappers and then us. I think a big part of it is experiencing both those shitty situations and the good situations.

We’ve always sat down and evaluated where we want to go from where we were at. We’ve matured and grown to understand where we fit in. Also, we’ve experienced setting things up on our own. This past year was our craziest year with shows. Gaining the experience and being able to mature to the point to know where you are and where you want to go and actually being able to facilitate those desires is awesome.

AC: Going back to what’s going on in Providence, the scene has definitely changed. Even physically with the amount of clubs that used to be open and now.

There’s so many.

AC: There are a few venues in the city where we feel like we definitely fit in. I think before we actually had a little bit more of a variety but now we’re branching out for different opportunities. We’ve grown with that and we’ve seen the same people go through different clubs. We’ve seen the same faces graduate to different clubs as well.

AP: That was the big thing for me. During the first few years we were playing every show that came our way because of performance experiences and whatever. It’s really during when we played The Spot that we started meeting the right people. We’ve played Wormtown and we’ve been playing festivals in Maine and we’ll meet people who’ve seen us at The Spot after we tell them that we’re from Providence. We really found that good community of musicians and individuals and we’ve been cultivating that since then.

SC: I think we’ve also come to understand that we need to play in the right places. We’re not willing to be on a pop punk bill anymore because we’re not going to fit and none of our friends are in that scene. It just doesn’t jive with what we do, not that we’re being picky.

AC: We don’t really have to be that selective. We’re connected with the right group of people now.

SC: Back then when we were playing those pop punk shows it was about us getting our name out there. Now we know that if we play on a bill like that then no one is going to care who we are. We’ve come to realize that playing for 10 years doesn’t do much for you in terms of popularity. It’s more about where you put yourself.

JK: It’s about taking advantage of opportunities too. This year we plan on putting a lot more thinking into booking and we’ve gotten a lot better at it. We want to play with the right bands, with the right opportunities along with booking our own shows. It’s setting up a show, headlining and having other great bands play that may not have the opportunity to play certain shows like we didn’t have starting out. We also take that with a grain of salt because not every show is going to be packed but we’ve been fortunate that people still come out and support us in our hometown.

We’ve branched out to different places. We’ve played Burlington, VT over the past two years close to a dozen times and that’s been a really great market for us. That’s a great scene too so to be a part of that is super cool. What we want to do is to continue finding more markets like that where people are interested in going out and seeing bands. We also want to do a little more traveling, we’re all blue-collar guys who work full-time so we want to take some time out of the year to just be in the band and hit the road.

Musically, when you look at yourselves, how do you think the band has changed over the past 10 years?

SC: I would say that all of us have progressed immensely. I was an amateur guitar player at best when I started playing with these guys.

NP: Then you got paid once and now you’re literally a professional (laughs).

SC: Realizing what we have as a crew has made us hungry to get better. Nick and I both went to school for music, music business technically. I learned a lot on my own just to be able to keep up with these guys. We each do our own thing to pull our weight together.

NP: Like Sam said, when we were up in Boston at school we got to play with some really incredible musicians while we were there. Alex has been doing solo stuff for a while.

SC: Joe is in like 20 different bands.

NP: Burke’s in a couple different projects too and there may be a secret noise project in the works, I’ve heard some rumblings about it. From playing with different people, getting all those different influences and bringing it all back here, it gives you perspective but it also makes you value being part of a core group.

JK: I’m the oldest one in the band and I was 17 when I started. Nick was 15 when he started and Nick and I played together in high school before we even started the band so we’ve been playing together for a long, long time. Anyone can hit Nick up on a whim to have him play keyboard on a particular night, same with myself on drums. Those gigs are alright, you get paid but when you show up to band practice on Wednesday it feels so much at home. That feeling hasn’t changed, I don’t think it ever will.

With writing songs, not too much has really changed. It’s just a bunch of goofy dudes trying out a bunch of different things. We never want to make anything too easy, we keep pushing each other and that’s what makes the band great.

Northeast Traffic Winter/Spring 2019 Shows:

February 9th @ News Cafe Pawtucket, RI

February 13th @ O’Brien’s Pub Allston, MA

February 16th @ Fete Music Hall Providence, RI

March 6th @ Dusk Providence, RI

March 16th @ Revival Brewing Company Cranston, RI