Turning Air into Energy: An Interview with The Revivalists

photo by Brantley Gutierrez

“Maybe we can share my mood…” is a line from The Revivalists’ Alternative and Triple A radio chart topper “Wish I Knew You” and it perfectly captures one aspect of this New Orleans-based, 7-piece band’s appeal. Their tone is as rich as their surroundings, a gumbo yaya of jazz, funk, soul, alt-rock and zydeco. The members, who are all transplants, are Michael Girardot (keys, trumpet), Rob Ingraham (saxophone), Zack Feinberg (guitar), George Gekas (bass guitar), Ed Williams (pedal steel guitar), Andrew Campanelli (drums) and David Shaw (vocals).

With charismatic frontman Shaw, vibrant guitar work and horns that add a dash of tympany, this swagalicious, decade-old band is finally finding their groove and coming into their own. As smooth and festive as a second-line parade, they are marching to their own beat and a distinct beat it is. Their sound is both new and old, a blend of contemporary sounds and a throwback vibe. For instance, “Wish I Knew You” has a funky fresh feel, but is also reminiscent of Toploader’s upbeat version of the classic “Dancing in the Moonlight,” which was originally done by King Harvest.

Recently David Shaw and Andrew Campanelli took some time to speak with me about their music.

Sonya Alexander: How did you guys meet?

David Shaw: I was playing the guitar on my porch one day and Zack was riding by on his bike. He stopped to listen and asked me to finish the song. We struck up a conversation.

Andrew Campanelli: Zack and I met when we were 20. We were both in college and outside of the performance bubble at our schools. I was studying the music industry at Loyola, he was studying psychology at Tulane.

SA: Had either of you performed before starting the band?

DS: I’d been dabbling in songwriting and playing the rhythm guitar since I was about 14. I started writing again when I was 20 and finished my first song when I was 22. That was “Soulfight,” which was on our first EP.

AC: This is actually the first band that I’ve played with.

SA: Who have been your influences as a drummer?

AC: While growing up, I’d say the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. Since moving to New Orleans I’d say Stanton Moore and Johnny Vidacovich. Robert Searight from Snarky Puppy. I’d also say J Dilla and 90s hip hop influenced me as well.

SA: David, you have a very distinct voice. Who are some of your influences?

DS: I’d have to say Bill Withers, Chris Cornell, John Fogerty, Robert Plant, Eddie Vedder. One quality that they all have that I eventually realized I had too was power in the vocals. When I picked up on that, I started to cultivate it.

SA: Are you self-taught, Andrew?

AC: Yes, I’ve never had formal training. I learned to read music when I was in the school band and I watched instructional VHS’s by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a tape that Chad Smith put out, and the Dave Matthews Band. Now I learn a lot when we tour with other groups, I learn a lot from different drummers then.

SA (to AC): What are go-go rhythms?

AC: It’s a cultural music from D.C. Kind of like brass bands in NOLA. It’s a whole movement that’s cultural and based in these rhythms of multiple people playing drums and playing off each other and having an interaction between the audience and multiple people on stage. Go-go rhythm is slow and has a pulse on the upbeat, but it isn’t like reggae. It involves a drummer providing pulse with the upbeat and back beat, then another percussion player filling in the in-between spaces. I grew up in Falls Church, Virginia and heard it all the time when I was going to the monuments in D.C. There were always guys playing buckets on the streets.

SA: How would you guys say living in New Orleans has influenced your style?

DS: When we were first coming up, we toured all over the U.S. with the Rebirth Brass Band. They’re one of those types of groups that knows how to get a crowd going. I paid close attention to certain things they would do during a live show. We’ve learned a lot from them.

AC: My first foray into New Orleans music was hearing the Chili Pepper’s “Hollywood (Africa).” When I was in high school I worked at a music venue where I saw Dumpstaphunk and Papa Grows Funk. That’s when I decided to move to New Orleans. I eventually found out the origins of the music.

SA (to DS): What’s your songwriting process?

DS: It comes in all ways. Sometimes it’s good to just let a song simmer. It took me two years to write a song once. Sometimes I’ll sit down and have a melody in my head and start scatting notes. Other times, I’ll have a chorus and wrap verses around it. Or, we’ll come up with a tune, like an instrumental, or Zack or someone else will have a song and they’ll bring it in. Someone else will have a verse for it and someone else will have a chorus for it.

SA: How about “Wish I Knew You,” where did that come from? What’s it about?

DS: I was sitting and playing on my porch. Had the hooks and a certain idea. We’ve gotten so many messages and emails from people saying what the song means to them, I usually don’t like to define the meaning of the song because I don’t want to kill it for anyone else. If they have their own personal meaning, I think that’s what’s important. It’s about the art. Songs can mean so many different things to different people.

SA (to AC): What are the pluses and minuses of playing in the studio as opposed to touring?

AC: I love playing in the studio. It’s interesting because we’re known for our live shows in a lot of ways. We did 30–40 shows with the Rebirth Brass Band. One of the biggest lessons we learned from them was how to walk into a room and turn the air into energy. We’re really into the song and the craft of songwriting, so we love working in the studio, too. When you’re playing a song live, you’re trying it out different ways. Trying to find a special aspect of the song that night. Then, in the studio, the goal is different. It’s to capture this creative energy. It’s not just about how we’re feeling that day. It’s more about really serving the song. Capturing the essence of the song is much more difficult to translate on a recording.

SA: What are your favorite venues to play?

DS: I like the Orpheum in New Orleans, the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY and the Georgia Theatre in Athens, GA. They’re always amazing.

AC: Hard to say, there are so many good ones. I have to say I really love the festivals in the mountains. Also love club shows.

SA: What was the last concert you went to?

DS: Bob Weir and the Campfire Band. He’s one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead.

AC: I saw Sigur Rós at the Saenger Theater a few weeks ago.

SA: What has been your most important moment as an artist?

DS: I’d have to say when I was in Kenya working on a documentary about elephant poaching. I was offered the chance to play for a school that had 300 16 year-olds. I started playing “Keep Going.” You know what a call and response is?

SA: Yes, I sure do.

DS: These kids didn’t need any coaching. Every single one of them in line sang. That was a memorable moment for me.

AC: I don’t have a specific one. It’s the moments where you’re writing your song with your group. You’re creating something and you’re making something. And, you’re in the middle of making it and you’re proud of it. It’s going well. And, you get it down. Sometimes it feels like it’s come from outside of you, you had to dig and fight for it. And, it’s the song that will hopefully go out. But, right then, it’s like it’s only this thing that only we know about. You feel proud to have created it and take it out into the world.

And proud they should be. They’ve had three albums released, Men Amongst Mountains (2015), City of Sound (2012) and Vital Signs (2010), all critically acclaimed. Their sound is organic, soulful and earnest. Break out the bread and butter, because this band truly jams.

They are currently on tour and definitely worth checking out.

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