INTERVIEW WITH SOPHIA URISTA BY KELLEY SIMMS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHERVIN LAINEZ
Sometimes, what you see doesn’t always match up to what you initially expected. Take NYC’s brass/hip-hop/rock band Brass Against for example. Led by brainchild/guitarist Brad Hammonds, the nonet created several videos that went viral of various cover songs from bands such as Audioslave, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine. What started as a brass ensemble performing Rage Against the Machine cover songs to protest the election of our current POTUS has turned into a unique musical entity.
By merging elements of the politically charged Rage Against the Machine (most notably its first album) with the pulsating influence of Undertow era Tool with the template of the late Chris Cornell fronted Audioslave, Brass Against stands out amongst its peers. On its recently released three track, self-titled EP of all original material, the band has finally found its own niche. Vocalist Sophia Urista spoke with us recently about the origins of the band, its latest EP, musical influences, and more.
How have you been during this self-quarantine with the entertainment industry on hold?
Certain things are on hold, and our tour has been rescheduled to the end of the year, but a lot of my writing is solitary. I do a lot of collaborations, but a lot of the initial ideas happen in my own bedroom on my own time. So, I’ve been using this time to get all my voice memos out as ideas and sketch them out, so that when I do get back to collaborating I have a lot of stuff to present to the producers. It’s starting to happen. We have writing sessions next week as people get more information and things become more comfortable. I think a couple of months away is actually a good time for a lot of artists, if they’re willing to hold off on watching TV and binge drinking (laughs). I try to schedule four to six hours of writing a day so I don’t feel like I wasted time. I see this pandemic as a creative opportunity.
How did Brass Against form?
Brad Hammonds, the guitar player, is the founder of the band, and he had an idea when Trump got into office to protest the election with a little string orchestra doing Rage Against the Machine covers. He wanted to do just a one-off show on the night of the election. He was contacting a few friends, including Andrew Gutauskas, who’s the baritone saxophone player, and asked if he knew of any string players. He booked a venue and everything, and all he could come up with were these horn players. He couldn’t really get it done in time, and I guess the venue canceled. So, he said, “Now that we’ve rallied all the horn players, we might as well just do it. Let’s do a video since we don’t have the venue anymore.” Brad is really good at pivoting. If something goes wrong, we always push forward. We just work with what we have. So, they filmed a video with just the horns and then three videos. Then Andrew said, “I got this girl I know who’s kind of a rock singer,” and they called me up to do it. I had no idea what it really was. They just told me to learn a couple of Rage songs. I went to the studio and this video took off. It was that thing where, what you see doesn’t always match what you expect. And it’s an attractive thing when you’re trying to go viral or you’re trying to get attention. When you’re trying to cut through the noise, it helps to be unique in that way. We weren’t trying to do that, it just happened that way. We kept doing videos and we got picked up by a management company, and within a couple of years we’re doing world tours. It happened pretty quickly.
“WHAT YOU SEE DOESN’T ALWAYS MATCH WHAT YOU EXPECT. AND IT’S AN ATTRACTIVE THING WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO GO VIRAL”
What was it like for you growing up? Did you know at a young age that you wanted to be a performer?
Yeah, pretty much. I wasn’t really pushed in that direction as a kid, really. There wasn’t any pressure. I wasn’t going to any auditions. I wasn’t in singing class or music school. I didn’t really discover that until I moved to New York when I was in my 20s, but I always was a performer. I always wanted to be onstage. I think you’re born the way you are. We try all different types of things, but we all go back to who we really are at the end of the day, or else life is pretty miserable. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing—what you love, what you’re good at—life will push back at you. I went to school for pre-med. I tried to impress my parents by going the academic route, and it never really panned out for me. It never made me happy. When I moved to New York to pursue singing and acting, I didn’t know I was pursuing it. I was just wondering where I could go with no money, no license, nothing, no jobs, and make it with a few hundred bucks in my pocket. And New York is shockingly one of those places. If you’re willing to bust your ass, you can do something with your life here. So, that’s how I grew up. I grew up surrounded by rock music and reggae, classic rock and Motown. So, music is just a part of my DNA. Sometimes it’s challenging because I love so many different types of music and I can sing all different types of music. So, it’s hard to pinpoint my favorite genre. I love doing everything, which is why Brass Against works so well, because I can tap into so many different parts of music and challenge my vocals in different ways. Learning to scream has been super fun and challenging. Learning Tool has been so challenging, so rewarding. And the only way you’re going to get better as a musician is by playing different music.
Do you find it more rewarding and challenging to step outside of your wheelhouse and learn these types of new songs?
Oh, totally. I love it. One thing though, the band accelerated quickly, but if you think about each individual player, you got 20 years of experience per player, that’s over 150 years of experience on that stage at any given time. It’s not like we got a bunch of people together to play some songs and then got famous or went viral just for nothing. The amount of talent that these musicians have is just astounding. When I watch Andrew [Gutauskas Bari, sax/musical director] arrange the Tool songs for Brad, it’s phenomenal to see him do that. He has to write a song from scratch for eight different people, eight different instruments. And that shit just doesn’t happen overnight, even though it seems like it. There’s a lot of work that goes into it.
“THE AMOUNT OF TALENT THAT THESE MUSICIANS HAVE IS JUST ASTOUNDING.”
How did the writing and recording process go on the new three track EP?
Me, Brad, our engineer Chris [Davies], Andrew, and Nate [Bell, drums] all went off and rented the studio for the weekend and we just worked around the clock. Usually, it would start with a riff. Brad would have a riff or Chris would have a riff, and we would just jam. And then after, they’d come up with a musical skeleton, and I would just riff over it with a bunch of ideas. Afterwards, we would listen back to all my vocal ideas and expand on that. It came together pretty quickly. We’d start with a melody and then a couple of weeks later, Chris and I got together and we wrote all the lyrics.
On your original tracks, there is still a bit of those Tool and Rage Against the Machine influences.
Since we play Tool and Rage during a set, we want the originals to fit into the set that we’re performing for people. Even though everybody can play all different types of styles, we want to keep it really focused. I try to channel whoever is my favorite voice of the genre. I love Chris Cornell. There’s a song on the EP called “Blood on the Other,” and it flows and reminded me of Audioslave a lot. I just channeled Chris and opened my brain and summoned him from the heavens, and “Pull the Trigger” was trying to channel that backend. “Umbro” was a little more trying to channel Tool.
“CREATIVE IDEAS COME CONSTANTLY, BUT IF YOU CAN DISCIPLINE YOURSELF AND FINISH IT, THAT’S WHERE THE REAL WORK IS.”
Talk about your appearance on The Voice. What was that experience like, and do you think that it helped your career?
That’s hard to say. I started singing when I was 25. In show biz, that’s pretty old. I wanted to have as much experience as quickly as possible. I just went everywhere. I was on every stage I could get on. If I was in LA, if I was in Costa Rica, if I was in Mexico, if I was in New York, Detroit, anywhere I was, I’m going out to the bar and going to karaoke, I’m going to a stage. I had seen friends who were on it a couple of years before, and they always ask the previous alumni if they have any recommendations for contestants. At first, I was a little apprehensive because people think it’s a little cheesy, but I didn’t really think about it in terms of, if it made me look good enough. I wanted the experience of a big production. I wanted to know what it takes to create something that big. And I wanted to meet the coaches. I wanted to meet the people that are at the top of the game, and I learned a lot. For one show, it was a month of filming and we would record our rehearsals. So much work went into one song, so much concentration into one song. And I was able to take those lessons and that discipline, being able to focus on one thing, to Brass Against. Because, I have the patience and the focus and the discipline to finish one thing. I think starting out as an artist, sometimes you can get a little bit sidetracked and distracted. You’re writing 10 songs at a time, nothing ever gets done. There’s a lot of non-creative work that goes into finishing creative work that is almost as important as the performance than the creative idea itself. Creative ideas come constantly, but if you can discipline yourself and finish it, that’s where the real work is. The Voice was the first place that really taught me that.
Although there are no tours at the moment, how have previous tours gone?
We went on tour to New Zealand and Australia this past winter, and as soon as we came back, the coronavirus hit. So, we’re scheduled for the fall. We’re doing United States and Europe. Our Facebook page has all those dates and on the Brass Against page, all those dates have been updated. I’m glad that’s still going on. We did a world tour last year, but I didn’t go on it because I was doing a show in Vegas. I didn’t want to give up that. I wanted that opportunity and I knew that Brass Against was going to keep going. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road. Doing it live, there’s nothing like it. It’s the best thing in the world.
“WE’RE DOING SOMETHING THAT’S RARELY DONE, EVERYBODY SHOWS UP, EVERYBODY COMES OUT, AND THERE’S SO MUCH LOVE.”
Where do you see Brass Against heading? What do you hope to accomplish or achieve next?
The sky’s the limit. I definitely want to write more original music. These melodies that I can create with these guys just comes so easily. Once we’re able to get back together, I want to keep putting out albums and touring. We’ve had such a great response from the people from all over the world because this music is old enough and it was popular enough to resonate on a global level. The people that this music touched, it’s like an underserved audience. A lot of people aren’t making music for guys and girls who love Tool and Rage. It’s such a specific type of music. I think just the fact that we’re doing something that’s rarely done, everybody shows up, everybody comes out, and there’s so much love. It’s not like there’s so many brass bands covering Rage that you have the time to hate on one band and hit on another. It’s an open market and there’s nothing but love and appreciation.