Trevor Steer of Organ Freeman

by Josh Hettermann

The modern music landscape features a great many bands whose sound draws from multiple genres and styles. What really separates the great artists from the masses is the ability to fuse those influences in a way that creates a truly unique sound. If you didn’t already consider Organ Freeman to be a part of that group, it won’t take long when checking out their sophomore EP Respect My Art to change your mind. 

With an undoubtedly clever name to boot, this funk driven trio out of L.A shows a lot of growth and exploration while expanding on the great sound of their eponymous 2015 debut. After meeting at the Musicians Institute of Hollywood, the band recorded their first album over the course of 6 months while working as freelancing musicians, and the the album produced some great tracks such as “Go by Richard, Not By Dick” and “Please Take me Seriously.” Respect My Art, however, highlights the group’s growing versatility by venturing into big band, progressive rock and some electro all while solidifying their trademark backbone of down and dirty funk. 

We chatted with Trevor Steer, the organ and key bass player for the group and discussed the new album, some of the group’s influences and plans for the future.

The band’s sound packs a lot of punch for just the three of y’all… Who plays the saxophone parts on the new album? Were there any other exciting guest contributors?

Thanks, that was definitely the goal.  We were lucky enough to have some really amazing friends lend their talents and really fill out our sound in some key places. Dave Brandwein (of Turkuaz) played guitar on the first track, “Long Live the King.”  We were already most of the way through tracking the record while we were on tour with Turkuaz in March/April, but we were doing a lot of sit-ins with them on the road and we loved what Dave was doing on that tune so much that we had to get him on the track. 

Our friends Sean Hurley and Theo Katzman (of Vulfpeck) both played on “Got Change for a Nickel?” I actually wrote that song right after coming home from one of Theo’s solo shows, so it was particularly fun to have him guest on a tune that he inspired.  Lastly, our horn section on this record was Sean Billings (trumpet), Woody Mankowski (alto) and Jesse McGinty (tenor).  Horns were a big part of our first record as well as this one.  It’s honestly hard to resist putting them on every track at times, but we try to strike a balance of songs that feel huge vs songs that are more authentic to the organ trio format.

Y’all formed at the Musicians Institute of Hollywood. Is the band still based in L.A? And what were(are) the challenges of coming up in a huge, diverse music scene such as Southern California’s?

Yes, we are still based in LA.  I’d say the biggest challenge is just cutting through the noise.  There is so much music happening in LA on a daily basis that convincing people that your show is the place to be can be tough.  At the same time, we didn’t really feel a lot of that difficulty because we weren’t grinding our way through it the way some bands do.  For most of our existence we were doing this project on the side for fun, so we weren’t overly concerned with things like attendance.  In a sense it feels like we ended up having an easier time attracting people specifically because we weren’t trying.  I think people are very perceptive about when you’re having fun on stage and when you’re up there stressing out.  Eventually enough people started showing up that it became clear to us that this project was something that was worth more of a real commitment. 

The band has a very tight rhythm section carried by Rob’s drums and Trevor’s key bass. It is tough to pull off the bass on a keyboard- Ray Manzarek of the Doors comes to mind. Can you give a little insight into how y’all manage without a traditional bass?

Playing key bass is definitely a trade off.  It’s obviously limiting in a few capacities: we only get two hands, and your brain only has so much processing power, so at any given time one hand is taking a bit of a back seat to the other.  That’s not always a bad thing though, as it gives both parts space to shine in their own individual moments.  Also, because of the tonality of the patches I use and the way they sit in the mix, I’m able to get away with playing things that would get a bass player excommunicated.  Specifically, key bass can usually be substantially busier than bass guitar without feeling like it’s stepping all over the melody or the soloist (which isn’t to say it always should be).

I bet this is a very common question but I had to ask- how did y’all come upon the name Organ Freeman?

It is a common question, and unfortunately lacks an interesting answer.  Brainstorming.  There’s a storied tradition of people giving pun names to organ trios, we just happened across the best one.

Your sound’s foundation clearly rests with jazz and funk classics, but I also hear elements of progressive rock, big band, electro and ska. How would you say your sound has progressed from your first EP to “Respect my Art?

The first record was a collection of everything we had done up to that point, which spanned about 5 years.  We had no particular vision for the release as we weren’t even writing with the intention of creating a cohesive album.  With Respect My Art we had a much clearer idea of which factors made our music unique amongst organ trios, so we were able to hone in on them more specifically.  The biggest points of focus for us were creating effective and succinct arrangements, figuring out the maximum amount of sound we could create as just three people, and incorporating more modern/synthetic elements into the music.   

To expand on that last question– do you find that your musical influences have changed significantly over the years? Who were some of the artists that inspired the new record?

I don’t know if I’d say they have changed significantly.  We all continue to discover and incorporate new artists and songs, but the general framework seems to remain pretty similar in terms of what sort of influences each of us brings to the project.  Erik tends to listen to music with much more of an avant-garde twist than we do.  Rob tends to value succinct song writing, and does a great job of bringing us to a center point of our various interests.  I can’t speak for the other guys, but I personally was listening to a lot of Moonchild and Knower at the time, with some Haitus Kaiyote mixed in. Also a whole lot of yacht rock, as always.

What are the plans for 2018? Will you guys be touring heavily and hitting the festival circuit in the summer?

We’ll definitely be hitting some festivals this next year.  Currently we have some tour dates lined up with Umphrey’s McGee in March, so we’re pretty excited about that.  We’re also starting to work on our next release, which will be a bit different from the two records we have out.  It’s too early to discuss that though, so you’ll have to wait and see…

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