In the late 1990s, trombonist Mark Mullins would occasionally encounter Mark Samuels at Kinko’s well past midnight. They'd both be at the copy center to print promotional materials for their respective startups: Mullins for trombone-powered band Bonerama, Samuels for Basin Street Records.
Two decades later, Bonerama and Basin Street are stalwarts of the contemporary New Orleans music community. And just in time for their 20th anniversaries, they’ve joined forces.
Bonerama released its first six albums independently. But Basin Street will distribute the band's new “Hot Like Fire," that rare album that boasts covers of both Allen Toussaint and Radiohead songs.
“I have so much respect for Mark as a businessman and a person and the spotlight he’s helped bring to New Orleans music,” Mullins said recently. “At this point, it’s time to let somebody handle it for us and get it out there the right way. I can’t think of anybody better than Mark. It was the perfect time to knock on his door. It’s the right fit.”
The feeling is mutual. "The answer to the question, 'Who else do you like other than who is on your label?' has always included Bonerama on the short list," Samuels said. "I have been a fan since the first Bonerama shows. I'm thrilled to have them on the label."
Bonerama will celebrate "Hot Like Fire" on Saturday at Tipitina’s. (NOTE: The show has been postponed until Nov. 18 due to Tropical Storm Nate.)
Mullins and fellow trombonist Craig Klein were still members of Harry Connick Jr.’s big band when they co-founded Bonerama in 1998. By 2006, they had left Connick’s employ to focus full-time on their own labor of love.
The current lineup includes Mullins, Klein, trombonist Greg Hicks, sousaphonist/bassist Matt Perrine, guitarist Bert Cotton and drummer Walt Lundy. Lundy replaced A.J. Hall after the “Hot Like Fire” recording sessions, when Hall left to join keyboardist Jon Cleary’s band.
“It’s hard to keep good drummers around,” Mullins said. “But they all bring something different to the table.”
Bonerama’s first album was an all-instrumental affair. Mullins and Klein have occasionally sung on subsequent releases, which intermingle original compositions with brassy recreations of classic rock songs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath and the Beatles.
“Music is music,” Mullins said. “We’ll tackle anything that moves us.”
Even though four years have elapsed since Bonerama's previous album, “the music didn’t stop getting composed and practiced and played,” Klein said. “We write for ourselves and for the people who listen, so there’s always something new and refreshing.”
“Hot Like Fire” clocks in at 46 minutes, which is closer to a vinyl LP’s running time than a CD’s. Not overstuffing the CD was intentional.
“We’ve been guilty of doing that,” Mullins said. “As hard as it is to get anyone’s attention with anything, we’re not cramming 74 minutes of music down a listener’s throat. A lot gets missed.”
“Hot Like Fire”'s seven original songs include “Mr. Okra,” an ode to the famed local vegetable and fruit vendor. Singer-songwriter Sonia Tetlow initially conceived of the song then invited Klein to help finish writing it. As it includes many of Mr. Okra’s signature phrases, he received a writing credit, as well.
"Hot Like Fire" may also be the only album in history with covers of both Allen Toussaint's "Basic Lady" and Radiohead's “Paranoid Android.”
“I’m a Radiohead fan,” Mullins said. “Certain songs transfer beautifully to our band. That was one of them. It’s very dynamic.
“Once everybody saw the intricacies of the song, that commanded respect immediately. It was a beast to learn. And people don’t see it coming, which is fun.”
A slide trombone can mimic a vocalist. At the opening of “Paranoid Android,” Mullins’ horn channels Radiohead singer Thom Yorke. “It’s a cool way to show off the trombone in a slightly different way,” Mullins said.
His arrangement for the song's quieter, middle section evokes a New Orleans brass dirge. For that, Klein’s trombone takes over.
Mullins “is the rock guy of the band,” Klein said. “I come from the brass band/New Orleans thing. I didn’t really know ‘Paranoid Android,’ but I like playing it. It’s a powerful arrangement. It’s got some nice peaks and valleys.”
“Basic Lady” is a lesser-known Toussaint composition from his 1975 “Southern Nights” album. “It’s a lost gem,” Mullins said. “I don’t hear anybody talking about it or playing it.”
The only horn on Toussaint’s original recording was Gary Brown’s alto sax. “It was fun writing a horn arrangement to a song by one of my biggest musical heroes,” Mullins said. “It’s a subtle, ‘trying to be in the right place at the right time’ kind of horn placement that arrangers always shoot for. I liked the way it turned out, and can only wish Allen might feel the same way.”
Bonerama is the main, but not only, gig for its members. Klein has logged 37 years and counting with traditional brass band the Storyville Stompers, the first band that he ever joined. He also plays on Frenchmen Street two or three nights a week with the Jazz Vipers.
Mullins has developed a sideline as a horn arranger and the leader of a freelance horn section dubbed the Levee Horns. The Levee Horns are a staple of the high-profile tribute concerts staged at the Saenger Theatre during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; they toured with the traveling version of the 40th anniversary tribute to The Band’s “Last Waltz.” Mullins also arranged horns for Merle Haggard, Mavis Staples and Lynyrd Skynyrd tributes around the country.
But he and Klein mostly keep busy with Bonerama. "Hot Like Fire" is the first of three releases in the pipeline. An album consisting entirely of Led Zeppelin songs is nearly finished, and they're working on another disc of new material.
Twenty years in, Bonerama isn't slowing down. “We’re shooting for three releases in less than a year,” Klein said. “It’s pretty ambitious.
“I think we’re playing better than we ever have. As long as it doesn't get stale, we’re good to go.”