Boogixote Q&A: Empire Strikes Brass

It’s April in the Piedmont and after a wet winter I’m ready for one thing to warm my bones, wake my soul, and get my ass on the dance floor: Festy season. 

It’s that beautiful time of the year when our bodies flow into a new equinoctial rhythm that manifests in communities throwing down together in the name of music and fellowship. Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival in Martinsville, VA, over Memorial Day Weekend, is one of the region’s best for tipping’ your cap to summer and surrounding yourself with a community that you love. 

The festival was originally organized by Saxapahaw local Johnny Buck and his friend William Baptist as a way of honoring the memory of their childhood friends Walker Shank and Edwin “The Rooster” Penn IV. Proceeds of the event go to one exemplary senior at Martinsville High School every year, who is awarded a $4,000 award spread over four years of undergraduate study as a part of the merit-based Penn-Shank Scholarship. 

To give some love to the Saxapahaw community and get people excited about Rooster Walk 13 in a couple weeks –  which includes headliners Greensky Bluegrass, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong –  organizers are throwing a free pre-party at The Haw River Ballroom, tonight, Friday April 14th. Empire Strikes Brass, Big Fat Gap, and Issac Hadden will deliver an eclectic apértif of delightful sounds to make your body bubble, fizz, and bounce in anticipation for the festival.

Imperial funkers Empire Strikes Brass will bring the biggest and brightest sounds to HRB and they are a wonderful representative of Rooster Walk. This rotating collective of Asheville musicians have been perennial favorites at the festival since its inception, and as saxophonist Pauly Juhl revealed to me over the phone after a soundcheck in Jacksonville, Rooster Walk roots were important in molding ESB. 

“One of our good buddies, Jay Frank, his grandpa owned this land that Rooster Walk is on. He had us play his wedding and it was the first time we changed from a marching band to doing more funk. We got on there originally because I have a mobile pizza restaurant called Bangin’ Pies. Vended since Rooster Walk 4, then got the band in through festival food vending (chuckles). I vended at it for nine years and we played at it 3 or 4 times,” said Juhl. 

Juhl certainly has that gregarious vibe that he finds his groove when he’s on a pleasurable grind, which certainly embodies the whole ethos of ESB, of being a grassroots collective of musicians that can bring the funk to anyone, in any town, at any time. They are staples in the Asheville scene, with some members holding down weekly funk jams at Asheville’s One Stop, while others have supported a myriad of larger national acts like Beats Antique, Marcus King, and Shpongle. When the pandemic shuttered touring, Juhl picked up screen printing and also rebranded the band as lawn care professionals, mowing down a new kind of audience as Emprise Strikes Grass. 

This year they’ll hopefully release a new record, recorded at Echo Mountain Studios in their mountain community, of which they’ll certainly be road testing at the kick-off party. Like Rooster Walk, ESB knows one of the best ways to bring people together is music and they’ll have plenty to share for those who decide to come on out and boogie. I’ll leave Juhl with the preview of tonight’s bash.

“We love to throw down and party. It’s going to get rowdy.”

The following is a conversation with saxophonist Pauly Juhl. It has been edited for length and clarity.

You are so much a part of the scene at Rooster Walk. What’s important to you about being a festy hustler? 

I always say that if I am going to festivals just to see music, it’s not as enjoyable for me. I’ve always been about getting people together and going for weekend jaunts and tours and going to sell pizza. Slinging slices out at the festival is how we got to meet everyone out there. It’s an awesome event and we’re super honored to be a part of it. It’s my love language, getting out there and camping and enjoying the full weekend experience.

At Rooster Walk, way back in the day when we first started going we’d do late night renegade parades. They’d be second-line style and we’d normally start right when the music stopped and go around until three, four, five in the morning. It wasn’t like everyone loved it (laughs), but it was still exciting doing those second lines parades and such. 

You’ve been doing ESB for ten years and you’ve been somewhat celebrating online and looking back at the fans and band. What are some of the trains of thought that keep returning to you as your reminisce on your journey and story? 

It’s been amazing to see not just the growth of the band, but more the music itself has come so far. It’s exciting to see how much tighter we are. The companionship too; most of the time it’s just nine people in a band hanging out. If we didn’t all get along and love each other deeply, it wouldn’t work. You gotta hold each other up and let people go through all the emotions and be there for them. 

It’s such a family and loving group of people, we can’t stop. We gotta share our love, we have a blast with each other and everyone has an awesome time with us. I couldn’t pick anything else in the world to do. 

Empire Strikes Brass

What are you excited to take with you that you’ve learned from the last 10 years, and evolve with it in your next decade?

The fans. We’ve done crowdsourcing to get albums done and we only want to give love back to the fans. That means coming out and talking and hanging out with everyone after the shows. We’ve met so many amazing people out there and the music scene in each city is a little different. But you are probably going to meet two or three people that you’ll know for the rest of your life. We keep running into the same faces again and again. 

What’s something you are excited to move on from in your evolution?

We’ve never tried to put ourselves in a box but sometimes you’ll be in a room and think that these types of people want to hear a certain side of you. We don’t feel like we need to play certain covers or cater to the room anymore. We’re just going to give them what we love doing. We always use covers as a way to connect with people, but it used to be all we did for the most part. It’s good to see us keep growing and seeing people loving us and accepting us. 

You’ve put down some new stuff at recording studio Echo Mountain, right? 

We are about knee deep in recording, we just had a bunch of songs we just went in and recorded. We’re still breaking down vocals and horn parts and overdubs. Right now it’s just working up this stuff at our own pace and speed. We haven’t released something since 2019, but we’ve given ourselves time to get more in touch with ourselves outside the band. 

Empire Strikes Brass

What’s feeling good in the music? Where does it feel different than what you’ve done? 

We shed these tunes on the road. Instead of rehearsing every week and getting into the flow that way, we bring them on the road with us and it’s been really productive. By the time we get into the studios for the horns and guitar solos, we’ve played it a bunch. Sometimes when you go in the studio everything is brand new or you write it on the spot. At the end of the tour, you are playing the songs differently and wishing you recorded the songs that way (laughs). 

I’ll leave you with this. You’ve traveled across the country these last ten years bringing a bunch of love and goodwill to people. When was a time you remember when Empire Strikes Brass cashed in a little bit on that karma? 

We travel in a 15-passenger van in a trailer. Last year we had two fuel pumps that went out. The first one we were in Asheboro and limped down the road and ended up in this towing company’s garage. No one was there and we were trying to figure out what to do. This guy Allen, we think he was an angel, showed up and it was something like Friday night, after five. He called up his buddy and got a fuel pump and put it in himself, while it was raining. 

The bolts and nuts were snapping and it was a tough job and he worked on it till midnight and got the fuel pump in us, with minimal tools. He didn’t cuss or get upset doing all that work. We just kept giving him alcoholic ciders and he kept crushing it. We put together all the cash that we could and got into our merch with shirts and CDs and stickers. 

You get a little hope for humanity when someone goes that far out of their way to help. It humbles you and makes you want to do what you can. There’s amazing people out there. 

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