In Praise Of… Modern Brass Bands

Esquire makes some noise for tubas, trumpets and trombones

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Brassy, bold as brass, brass neck, blowing your own trumpet, um, giving you the horn: according to English lexicon, there’s something bombastic – sexual, even – about brass instruments. (Well, duh – they make a lot of noise and you blow on them.)

But when it comes to modern-day pop culture – more accurately, pop music – brass bands are nowhere to be seen. Or if they are, just in the backdrop. OK, so you have retro-forward-thinking Janelle Monáe and her "classy brass", but that's part of what makes her sound so unique right now.

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Elsewhere, teenie hip-hoppers Rizzle Kicks claim to be down with the trumpets but like most pop acts would settle for a sample of one.

Within indie music circles, the instrument of choice for cool kids seems to swing between the guitar and the turntable – as LCD Soundsystem noted in "Losing My Edge" – or increasingly, the laptop. Trombones don't even get a look in.

There are obvious reasons why: brass instruments are bulky, expensive, hard to master. Worse: they get filled with spit. You can’t easily get to grips with one in your bedroom, as it were (unless you have a big house or very understanding housemates and neighbours). You often need several to make a decent tune. And you can’t dance like Beyoncé while playing a tuba (unless you are very skilled).

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But ask yourself this: would you rather listen to yet another karaoke rendition of a Mariah Carey warbler on The X Factor or a ballsy, innovative cover that lovingly took the source material and went to another planet with it?

In the late Nineties, artist Jeremy Deller, with his collaboration with Stockport’s Fairey Band, demonstrated the contemporary potential of the brass band and in turn joined the dots between them and rave culture (given that they both feed off the joyous coming together of the working class, in hindsight it seems so obvious).

His Acid Brass, a collection of rave anthems played by the afforementioned brass outfit, which receives a rare live performance this week at the Tate Britain, has set the tone for a new generation of brass bands that had to be taken seriously. What’s more, it’s art you don’t have to think about, just dance to.

From the US, take the likes of Youngblood Brass Band, who take hip-hop and use brass instruments to create something volatile, more akin to Rage Against the Machine. Or Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who have recorded with everyone from Wu-Tang Clan to Gorillaz to Tony Allen. Or Hot 8 Brass Band, who you might know from their riotous cover of Marvin Gaye’s 'Sexual Healing', if not their appearance in HBO’s Treme.

Over here, given the UK’s rich tradition of colliery bands, it’s no surprise that a slew of brass outfits lurk out there in the fringes of British pop: from Manchester’s Riot Jazz to the geographically specified Hackney Colliery Band.

Live, every single one of these ensembles is an experience. After your ears have taken a beating from a trumpet and your bowel has taken a battering from a tuba, it’s hard to go back to an average indie four-piece.

And as with any genre trying to find its place in the pop landscape, the gateway into the wider conscious is through cover versions of already familiar songs (just think of the nu-metal versions of George Michael and Michael Jackson we had to endure back when Jeremy Deller was first trying to turn us on to brass).

So without further ado, here’s Esquire’s playlist of the best modern-day brass band covers.

Art meets music: WARP x TATE is at Tate Britain, 6:30-10pm, 6 December 

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