On the cover of According to Bazooka’s third and latest album, the Davis quartet cast a long shadow over a country road, distant and faced away toward a wide screen of luminous blue sky. Are they following the fading light, dirgelike, a second line band holding a jazz funeral for the sun? Or are they seizing a new day, catching tomorrow unawares and keeping the light for themselves like a newfound fortune? They don’t always leave things in the open for easy interpretation; the best answer is to be found of the album’s title: The Devil’s in the Details.
Roughly six years ago, According to Bazooka (often abbreviated as A2B), emerged from the beloved Davis-based cover band Cold Shot, featuring the two principal players from that project, René Martucci and Richard Urbino. Comfortable with having five decades of pop music as their playground, they managed to graft the sum of their divergent influences onto a more personal blueprint of hooks and riffs, developing a fully original repertoire of songs running the gamut from blues, heartland rock and zydeco to polka, calypso and country—all of them steeped in the freewheeling spirit of casual experimentation that suffused the Northern California scene of the ‘60s.
Functioning as a duo for their first two albums, Easy Come, Easy Go (2015) and Where We Are Now (2017), the heart of A2B lies in Urbino’s deceptively carefree and straightforward lyrics (with an underlying hint of caustic humor) and Martucci’s clean harmonies and jaunty (at times wistful) accordion work. It was the accordion, along with the bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument, that first lent the group their quirky moniker. In recent years, they’ve been rounded out with a rhythm section (Jamie Knapp on standup bass, Don Johnston on drums), adding a new depth and muscle into their genre explorations. On The Devil’s in the Details (coming to Bandcamp on May 11), the leisurely, Caribbean-tinged “Lover’s Lane” easily drifts into the upbeat Tejano flavor of “I’m the One,” each song adding up to something that can loosely be called “Americana” in the best sense, not limited to any one regional palette.
A2B’s omnivorous proclivities stem in part from the core duo’s alternate roles as music instructor (Urbino) and sculptor/art teacher (Martucci). For the former, a broad student base produces the need to communicate stylistically across generational lines, and for the latter, the tinkerer’s notion that pop music, as a raw material, can be molded into wildly different textures. They’ve managed to find inspiration in everything from the San Francisco sound to public access polka shows from the Midwest; years spent playing the hits has made them unusually attuned to audience dynamics, and often the kernel of their creativity is a matter of tracing the shaking, swaying and singing-along of the crowd back to the melody that made it happen.
Whether raiding multiple eras and musical traditions, or pushing standard love song fare off-kilter with clever narrative twists, A2B still manage to be undemanding and buoyant performers, ready to lively up any venue with their detailed (sometimes devilish) brand of bohemian pop know-how.
I think I lost track of counting how many genres were represented in your music. What is the root of your musical adventurousness?
Richard Urbino: I’ve been listening to pop music since I was a kid. I have other leanings—for blues guitar styles, for instance—so that affects some of the things we do. But I don’t demand that every song have some big guitar part in it. Stylistically, I’m just interested in whatever speaks to me in a given moment. Recently, I was thinking about how in the ‘60s, there was a San Francisco sound that I enjoyed, bands like Moby Grape. If you listen to them, you’ll hear a rock band, you’ll hear a country band, you’ll hear some jazziness, and the reason for that is, there were five people in the band and they were all writing, they were all bringing different influences into the group.
In our group, on our last album, I wrote all the songs, so I’m just trying to pick a bunch of diverse, interesting sounds. Our bass player plays a stand-up; she comes from a somewhat folky, somewhat jazz background. Don is kind of a jazz guy, but also a touch of pop, and Rene and I, if you take our history with Cold Shot, there was a lot of cover tunes, so we were exposed to a lot of different styles that way.
For the third album, was there a long repertoire of songs you had already written, or did you start from scratch?
RU: In Davis, we have something called The Performer’s Circle. We play there typically once a month. So, one of the challenges is to write and finish a new song to perform there. A lot of the songs started out that way.
René Martucci: The event is fairly close quarters. Most of the [people in the] audience are performers themselves and very focused on what’s going on. But they’re a very good listening audience. It’s how we’ve debuted a lot of our songs, and it’s a good motivator. We’ve been going there for about two years now.
RU: It can be a little intimidating, too. If you’re talking quietly in the back row, someone in the front row will shush you. But it’s a great place to get feedback. We presented a new song last weekend, and midway through the song, the crowd was singing along with it. They’d never heard it before in their lives. It’s just interesting how if they’re feeling it, they’ll give it back to you.
René, with Cold Shot you were mainly on the guitar. How does switching to accordion change your approach?
RM: I think both instruments bring out different ways of writing. And then there’s multiple ways to approach an instrument. I think of the accordion as a keyboard, but also as little organ because of how the notes sustain, how it breathes and has an expression to it. People have described some of our records as having “lots of happy accordion,” but there can be a real melancholy to the instrument, too.
How does one of your songs begin to develop? Do you start with a style you want to work with first, or is that added later?
RU: I start thinking of a vibe that the song should have. If I’ve already written something that I feel is going down one road, then I would just as soon never write another song that sounds too similar to it if possible. If one song is in four-four, then the next has to be three-four, or at least swing a bit. Maybe after a while I can return to a thought I used, but I like to keep it moving. The other thing is that melodies will come to me all the time. The way I listen to music, I like to approach it like a talent show or—say, when you’re watching a talk show, and the musical guest is someone you’ve never heard of before, and when they play, whatever genre they happen to be in, I think, “Is there a hook there?” Is there enough of a melody that I can remember later on, or something in the lyrics that will stick with me after the song is over? Or have I gone through a minute and a half and still have no idea what’s going on in the song—a song that has no stick-itiveness to it? I’m always looking for a melody that can come across and stay with you for more than a fleeting moment.
Through all of the genres that appear in your work, it seems to me that they’re all in some way “good living” music. Would you describe it that way, and if so, what does that term mean to you?
RM: Just sort of making choices and living in the world, dealing with the things that people deal with, life’s ups and downs. Music is the way we get out what’s bugging us—that little pebble in your shoe. Even if a lot of the songs are cautionary tales of heartbreak, sometimes you just have to laugh at the way things go.
RU: There’s always a touch of humor in it, without going for the obvious cheap shot. I don’t want to pick a subject matter or lyrics that are completely obvious. The humor is there if you want to find it, but I want it to be a little under the radar.
Many of the songs on the latest album are upbeat, but have a slightly bitter tinge. Any inside jokes or stories behind the songs that the listener might not catch on to?
RU: Probably all of them. We don’t ever explain too much about what’s really going on. We have this recurring theme of “agonizing reappraisal.” There was this commercial back in the ‘70s—these two hippies talking about ‘60s music, and one of them says, “It was a time of agonizing reappraisal,” and that struck me as really humorous. It could mean that relationship you were in that just went south, or a Thanksgiving dinner-type situation where you feel like telling someone exactly how you feel about them, but instead of telling them point-blank, you’ll write them a song. They’ll either catch on or they won’t!
A2B has been described as having a particularly Californian (or Northern Californian) flavor. How would you describe this?
RM: Our Northern California influences are based out of San Francisco and Sacramento mostly—bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service. These bands, like A2B, had members with different insights and genre-shifted with ease … Rock, folk, blues and jazz influences came into the songwriting as it does with A2B. Growing up in the area, we developed an affinity and love for these styles.
What does eclecticism mean to you?
RU: Being open to different influences and really listening. One day, I might have Stravinsky melodies going through my head. I’m also a huge Beatles fan. I was telling one of my students the other day that “New Rose” by The Damned is a great song, and they said, “I don’t see how can you say that when there’s a song like ‘Stairway to Heaven.’” But it’s not like that—there’s something in both songs that are great, they have different energies. You have to throw away all of your preconceived ideas you have about what the song is and find out what is actually in it that strikes you.
RM: When you talk about the Beatles, for instance, how many different genres can be found on some of their albums? When you’re listening to albums like Rubber Soul, you don’t feel as if every song has to sound like the last one. When a band, or even a type of music is just starting out, there’s freedom to experiment. Nobody’s decided that you can only do things in a certain way. Then as you go along, people have expectations for things to be done one way. There was that recent controversy over whether a song belonged in the country charts or not. How strong do the rules really have to be? The average person isn’t necessarily making or using all these categories. As far as being eclectic, I think it’s the normal way to go. I mean, I can understand liking something in a certain genre. But why limit yourself? Being flexible, opening yourself up to all these different flavors. It’s hard to imagine not wanting to do that.
You’ll have multiple chances to celebrate the release of According to Bazooka’s new album, The Devil’s in the Details. See the band live at Fox and Goose (1001 R St.) on Friday, May 17, for the official album release show. Also catch them at Father Paddy’s (435 Main St., Woodland) on Saturday, May 25; Der Biergarten (2332 K St.) on Saturday, June 8; Back at Fox and Goose on Saturday, June 8; And many other upcoming regional dates. Check out Accordingtobazookamusic.com for more info and a full list of shows.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of issue #291 (May 8 – 22, 2019)**