Interview: Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects

Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects is a musical collective from San Diego, CA. Led by producer, guitarist and vocalist Pall Jenkins (Three Mile Pilot, Ugly Casanova, Black Heart Procession) and bass player, trumpeter Brad Lee (The Album Leaf), the band is comprised of San Diego music royalty. Mr. Tube traffic in expertly layered, funk-infused, Latin-flavored modern soul music, but there are doses of blues, punk, rock and soul in each of the songs. Elements of WAR’s seminal The World is a Ghetto, Santana’s Abraxas, and Funkadelic’s eponymous debut are fused with the indie and punk inclinations of the band, and appear in some form or another in the songs and especially live.

Live, Mr. Tube is the quintessential dance party band. A people moving, energy generating groove machine. The songs take on a different shape. Expanded jams are fed from the energy of the crowd. Mr. Tube have taken ingredients from every aspect of music and created an entirely recognizable but singular experience. Recorded over the course of nearly a decade at Stereo Disguise Recording Laboratories, a studio co-owned by Pall and Brad in San Diego, No Wrong, No Rights is a revelation and a testament to the perseverance of the artists who brought it to life, and the legacy of the man who created it, Freddie Feelgood.

I met with Brad and Pall at SDRL recently to discuss their long gestating project. They were busy preparing for their album release show at the world famous Casbah, a venue that has been home to hundreds of bands for the past twenty-five years. Celebrating a successful Kickstarter campaign to underwrite the cost of releasing No Wrong, No Rights on vinyl, Pall had just finished hand painting each of the slipcovers intended for recipients of the album.

Pall’s meticulous attention to detail extends to every aspect of the project; from the artwork he designed and sourced from some of Freddie’s photos, to the instrumentation and arrangements on the albums ten songs. The lyrics sheet included in the album art features a haunting photo taken by Freddie of Vermont Street in Los Angeles during the Watts Rebellion in 1965, where a traffic incident with LAPD and an African American motorist sparked six days of riots and claimed 34 lives.

Life, love, struggle: the timelessness of these themes resonate in the ten tracks of No Wrong, No Rights. From the layered density of “How Strong is Your Love,” to the urgent wake up call of “Know Brainz,” to the lounge swing of “Stingrays:” these are songs that span the arc of style and ignore genre limitations.

Brad looks at the console and smiles. “There’s some aspect to this where it’s not about genre. Good music is when you’re being yourself. And I know Pall and me –there’s no way we’re going to be in this world and not make music. There’s no doubt. I wake up and think about making a song. Making a record.”

The effort put forth to craft something from nothing must transcend the challenges of making that sonic statement. To document the sound and commit to the record is hardly a new concept. But each choice that is made – where to add percussion, an ethereal horn line, back up vocals, choice of samples or the artwork – leads to an end result that has to be agreed upon by the collaborators in the project. Often, as in the case with Mr. Tube, that process included a silent partner, the principal songwriter, and septuagenarian, Freddie Feelgood.

The band began playing in 2006 but the seed for the idea happened much earlier in the 00’s. The record, No Wrong, No Rights isn’t necessarily homage but rather a reimagining of the songs written by Freddie Feelgood, an electronics repairman whom Pall met on a visit to have his television fixed.

What Pall felt in that TV repair shop a dozen years ago was the kernel of inspiration. The songs had a weight that demanded more than just a cursory listen. Who knows what might’ve happened had Pall never needed his gear fixed. Would those songs have been lost? Certainly. Did Pall have any idea it would take nearly a decade to pull it all together? The way Pall tells it seems to point to some form of synchronicity.

That kind of magic and awe that exists among creatives and musicians.

A shared desire to create art.

“Twelve or thirteen years ago I had taken my TV to get fixed a place called Tube Heaven in National City. It was kind of a weird place. So, I dropped off my TV to a woman who was handling all the customers. In the back of the store, there was a guy working on gear. Husband and wife running a small business. After I dropped off the TV she called to tell me it needed some tubes and they needed me to come in and pay, and when I went back she wasn’t there, so I was knocking on the door. The guy didn’t really want to be bothered but I got him to let me in. He took me into this back room. It was just filled with tapes, vinyl records and tools and parts from electronic gear. He was listening to some music that sounded really cool to me. Some kind of Afro beat style of music. So I asked what he was listening to and he told me it was his old band [Freddie Feelgood and the Real Good Feelings].

“I took my TV and left. I couldn’t stop thinking about the music I’d just heard. I needed my stereo repaired so I went down there again and left it with the woman and started talking to her about the music I’d heard and told her I was interested in hearing more. She told me that he [Freddie] was kind of grumpy but she’d see what she could do.

“When I went back to get my stereo they gave me two cassette tapes filled with random recordings he’d done with his old band. Most of it seemed like someone was in the room with a microphone during a jam. Practice sessions with them talking running through a set. It was them playing and you could hear him saying, ‘Let’s do it like we’re going to do it live,’ and they’d go into it. Some of [the songs] were more like four-track or eight-track recordings and sounded a little more polished. But most were pretty crummy.

“I told him how much I liked it but he didn’t want to give me anymore. So I went back and he was playing some songs on a reel-to-reel, he had these half-inch master reels of some decent records they’d did. Eventually, they gave me a shoebox full of tapes, cassette tapes. Never released stuff. All different numbered sessions, live shows and a few other reel-to-reel.

“I started talking to him about doing a record with him and releasing some of the stuff and he had no interest. He was absolutely adamant about not wanted to release anything. He didn’t want to put out any music. He felt that music should be free and nobody should have to pay for it. I explained the Internet and how he could make the music available and free. The original intent was to make a record with him and release it.”

Pall continued to pursue Freddie with the hopes of releasing the music online and his persistence eventually paid off. Just not in the way he’d initially planned. He’d begun playing with several of the grooves and pieced together a set of ten songs that became the first Mr. Tube and the Flying Records LP, Listen Up, a collection of funky, soul-tinged funked out border rock. Listen Up is a cornucopia of styles mixed together, not unlike, No Wrong, No Rights. Both are extensions of the initial concept, and the tenants of the creative partnership require that, “Every song goes by [Freddie] before it makes it on the record.”

Rather than a silent partner, Freddie was an active advisor, commenting on songs and arrangements. Some songs had to be completely retracked, “Everything we re-did, [Freddie] was right about in some ways, even if he couldn’t articulate exactly what it was in the song that wasn’t working. He would know if a horn player was off slightly. Other times it he’d say the groove was wrong or there was too much guitar.

“‘Stingrays’ is one of the only songs that has a true sample from a Freddie song. It’s the baseline.”

Lyrics were carefully pieced together by Pall after long and often exhaustive sessions going back and forth with Freddie. “The lyrics were written by him. But a lot of them had the lyrics in bits and I had to fill them in and decipher what was being said through some of the parts because it was kind of hard to hear every lyric when you’re listening to a tape. Getting [Freddie] to clearly tell me what was going on was a challenge at times.” Pall smiles conspiratorially.

Brad chimes in, “Pall’s got a lot of patience.”

The kind of collaboration that took place between Pall and Freddie and Mr. Tube was real and crucial, in service of the songs. Pall humbly explains that, “[Freddie’s] evasive but in a kind way. What are you saying there? And he’d say, ’I’m speaking the truth. Okay but are you saying ‘Poke out your eyes’ or ‘No disguise.’ He’d be like, ‘If you poke out your eyes you have no disguise.’ And he’d laugh then tell me, ‘Oh I’ll get you those later.’

Freddie’s playful, gonzo-like and slightly exhausting approach to songwriting belied a more deliberate process of bringing the music to life while allowing Pall the agency to be an active participant in the songs creation or re-creation.

“We’d share a laugh and he’d say he’d get me the lyrics later but forget so I’d write them down. ‘That’s great. That’s what it is.’ He’d say. ‘Those are perfect. 10% of the lyrics you put in is good Pall. The other 90% is me. I’d say, ‘I can sing that?’ And he’d say, ‘You can change 100% of my lyrics. Music is free. Words are free, you just have to reach out and grab them.’

But like in any creative group, agreements aren’t always guaranteed.

“One song he didn’t want on the record. “Money.” That’s going to be it’s own EP. We recorded it four or five different ways. He wasn’t happy with any of them. Then he had this idea that we should release it as an EP. But that’s one of our most popular songs that we play live and he was like, ‘that’s why you wait.’ We’re like, ’wait for what?’ But he does have an idea on how we can do that and the record is everything he approved. We’ll hopefully release another EP with ’Money‘ by the end of the year.”

“Everything was a pain in the ass for all the right reasons.” Pall smiles.

Brad points out, “That’s also why it took us seven or eight years because we’re working on this and giving it to him, and he’s not into it so we have to redo things. It’s been a beast, man.”

Recording took place in chunks of five or six days, spread out over several months throughout the year between other existing engagements. As soon as both Pall and Brad were both in town and available, they’d begin again, crafting the arrangements and tracking the songs with whomever was available and not on tour.

All the songs on No Wrong, No Rights are musical vignettes, each with its own narrative and sonic personality, forming a cohesive record. It was the intention of Pall and Brad to make an album that would grow with time. Something that sounded great in headphones and on speakers. To their credit, No Wrong, No Rights is an endlessly discoverable record both digitally and on vinyl. Percussion leaps out of the speakers, or subtle synth lines fill and enhance the spaces between the more dynamic parts of the songs.

“I think a lot of Mr. Tube projects start where it’s about making a recording. Then we figure out how to make it cool for live. So the live energy can be different than the record. Most the songs come from an idea of making the recording. Because we have the studio.” Pall explains.

In creating the album, Pall and Brad had the luxury of a well-equipped studio. Their studio, SDRL, home of Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects, began operating when Brad and Pall were looking for a new rehearsal space. Pall had been doing a lot of home recording, mixing and mastering for bands in the area but needed the twenty-four hour access to a place where volume and neighbors didn’t dictate the hours.

“We wanted to make something that we felt good about, and that we would give to people and they’d put on headphones and trip out, or drive their car.”

Brad supports Pall, stating with some pride, “We had the luxury of creating and putting this together in our studio and you know, we don’t have to – like most bands we record that come in here – work against time. You know, you practice, practice and practice and only have a few days. Here we took all the time we wanted to craft recordings and put the song together as we made it. It’s a slow way to make a record but a good way to make a cool sounding record. And it was made without regard to how we’re going to do the songs live. We’re not thinking, ‘Oh we can’t do this because we can’t pull it off live,’ that thought is never part of the equation. [It’s almost always] does it sound cool?”

Creating without constraints?

Brad nods. “Right. Without worrying, ‘I can’t do this second guitar part live or hit that vocal harmony so let’s not do it,’ and that approach is always a little frustrating to me. The idea here is that we’re making a recording that’s going to live forever and someone, hopefully in NY or London or fuckin’ Africa or Australia who will never see your band live, will hear it and connect with it. Don’t you want it to sound cool? I do.”

Pall differs to his inner Freddie. “It’s true for Freddie as well. This project is a way for him to have one toe back in this world. He didn’t want his music out there. He doesn’t want to be in any sort of public eye. He wants his old tapes to be there. It’s the secret little side of him that still loves it. I put the artwork together for the record. He took this (showing the lyrics insert) photo, cover and the back too. That’s the Watts Riots in 1965, Vermont Street. He was there for that, had a band up in LA.”

The band was able to successfully leverage the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter as a pre-order system and tap into their collective network of fans and friends. One of the many ways this humble DIY project has been able to maintain sustained energy over a decade and persevere where many bands might have lost momentum. To illustrate the point, Lee references the song, “How Strong is Your Love.” The song begins with a chorus of horns pulled together thematically with a slithering minor melody mirrored by guitar and trumpet. The group vocals chant, mantra-like, “How Strong is Your Love,” a powerful sentiment sung without irony and with self-awareness.

“That’s the line that I wake up at night singing, “How Strong is Your Love?” says Lee. He pauses before adding, “It’s a better line than the original which was ‘Mama’s got your love.’”

“It symbolizes what we’ve gone through with this record. Because you know, music is hard and weird and fucked right now, and how strong is your love? Are you dedicated to making this record? Or music? Or to this lifestyle?”

In many aspects the struggle of creating the record parallels the time it was born in. Born from the turbulent late 50’s and 60’s of the past century and brought to maturity in a time that has seen many advances in civil rights and many setbacks, No Wrong, No Rights is a timeless examination of the power of music to move and inspire.

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