In just under a week, the jazz fusion/groove giants of Ottawa known as The Chocolate Hot Pockets will be releasing their 3rd full album, titled THE FEAST. On October 15, this dynamic band will be celebrating the release with a show at the Mercury Lounge. These guys play complex but infectiously fun music that just about anyone could love. In advance of the release date, I sat down with Alex Moxon, their guitarist, to chat about the album, the band, and discovering the thrill of playing music. You can read the transcript below, with a few videos of the recording sessions for THE FEAST to give you a taste of what’s to come on this album.
Dave: How did The Chocolate Hot Pockets get together?
Alex: The rhythm section and I, so Jamie Holmes (drums) and J.P. Lapensée (bass), we were playing a regular gig at Avant-Garde Bar, which is on Besserer street, and Ed (Lister, trumpet, synthesizers) came to town with his now wife. He’s actually from London, England. When he came to town he was prospecting and seeing what the scene was like, and he came and saw us. He sat in and we just really liked playing with him, so we kept calling and seeing if he wanted to come out, and we started writing tunes and rehearsing.
D: You have become known for the way you blend many different genres into what could loosely be called jazz fusion or groove, how did you manage to mix so many influences into one sound?
A: I think it was just trying to find a middle ground between everything that we listened to. We all have a jazz background, we went to school for music, but we all really like back-beat driven music, like funk, gospel, neo-soul, hip-hop. We really like listening to D’Angelo. But we listen very widely, and whatever inspires us goes through the grinder and comes out in a tune in some way or another. It’s kind of changed lately, because when we started we were writing to what our influences were, and then that stopped and we started writing to what our individual strengths were. I would write a tune because I knew that Ed would play a certain way on it, and that took the music in a new direction. I feel like we’re more self-inspired now.
D: You’ve been playing together for 4 years, how long did it take to get that sense of familiarity within the band that allowed you to write to each other’s strengths?
A: Jamie, J.P. and I all went to music school together, and we’ve had a regular gig every thursday for the past 8 years, so we really knew each other’s playing when Ed got here. Ed was able to lay on top of that, and we were a unit already. It was finding a way to get him in with us and play off him. And he changed the way we played, of course.
D: How so?
A: When you’re playing in a trio, the guitar is the front man, and it was really great to lay back, take the pressure off, and explore different sounds. So I was playing a lot more rhythm guitar.
D: Your pieces are built around a lot of very detailed composition, but every member of the band brings so much of their own character to the music. How do you go about a writing process that requires so much detail and so much freedom for your bandmates?
A: Well we write sheet music, so that’s where the detail comes in. Ed and I split the writing between ourselves. J.P. wrote his first tune for this record, and it’s great! It’s called “SCHCOUT”, and it’s a completely different flavour. Usually Ed and I will write the piece alone, so when we come into rehearsal we have everybody’s charted sheets laid out and clear. I guess we write sections that are extremely detailed and require a lot of coordination, but that can be a straight jacket, so we try to leave some breathing room. We’re a jazz band, partly, so we take solos, and the way you would play chords or accompany somebody else on the drums or on the bass is open to interpretation, except when it’s not.
D: Where do you think the balance lies between composition and improvisation for you?
A: I think groove takes first place. In the past, we were leaning more towards a conceptual jazz direction, and we want to retain that, but we want to do it in such a way that it feels good consistently. The longer we go on, the more we just want to lay it down and feel good. There’s an art to playing in unison with each other, or locking in as a rhythm section, that’s so deep. We’re really going more in that direction.
D: Absolutely, it can be hard to find a group of people that really listen to each other and play together well, and you guys have clearly found that.
A: There’s a lot more trust in a band when you know that your bandmates can play in more than one style. It’s tough to play with a guy that just plays jazz, or who just plays rock, who just plays one genre. When you have that broader awareness, it just enhances each one.
D: Do you find that your sound has been evolving over your 4 years as a band?
A: Yeah, the music just keeps getting crazier and more detailed. On the first album (The Filthy Chapter), the music fit on one page. On the second album (Chocolate Dreamz), it fit on two pages. On this one, I gave Ed a chart that was 7 pages long. So it keeps getting gnarlier and requiring more of us. Now that we know each other so well, we’re all game to go deeper.
D: Do you find that your continued practice and familiarity is also making you go deeper in your improv?
A: Yeah, definitely. If you play jazz, you want to have an original stamp to put on music in general, and so the longer we’re alive on the planet, the more time we can invest in the areas that we’re interested in. We can cultivate our own garden of harmony, melody, rhythm, a combination of all that.
D: How did your new album, THE FEAST, come together?
A: We write at a constant rate. We play a lot, so we don’t want people to be hearing the same songs all the time. We’re either writing new material or we’re adding on to existing material. I think at the time we finished the last album, one third of the songs on this album had been written, and it’s hard to sit on something you’re excited about. We knew at the end of the last record that we would have to record at this time, this year. Right now I’ve got one for the next one, and I’m kicking myself to rehearse again because it has to be perfect. Well, it can never be perfect, but we want to make the most of the music that we’ve been working on over the past year.
D: How did you choose which songs would make it onto THE FEAST?
A: It’s just what we had when we booked the recording session. When we book the recording session we commit to the setlist, but we still continue to write things.
D: Your records do a great job of capturing that live sound, are the tracks live off the floor?
A: Yeah, live off the floor with the occasional fix here and there. For example, Ed plays synthesizer in the band, and often he’ll juggle both roles, but in the studio we like to have a thicker sound, so if there’s a place where it makes sense to lay on another synth patch, we’ll do that. I’d say 95% of it is live off the floor, which you can see on this album. We’ve opted to not release CDs or vinyl. We had our friend, Kim, come in and record everything on video, so you can see the album as it’s being made. What you see is what we kept. We just wanted to get out there, so that people who haven’t heard of us can check it out. All of the music on the album will be available to stream on Youtube.
D: That reminds me of what Snarky Puppy is doing with their albums, if you’ve heard them.
A: Oh yeah, you can’t avoid them. They’re the best. They really were smart in the way that they did that, and I feel like Youtube has become the radio. Or it has, at least, a similar cultural significance, now, to what the radio had for musicians. We just want to get our music heard by an international audience, and it seems that this is the most efficient way to do it. It’s not just Snarky Puppy, Beyoncé released a video album recently (Lemonade). It’s become the thing to do, I feel.
D: I actually have a live recording of the show you played at The Rainbow when you opened for After Funk that was taped by a member of the audience with a full-blown taper rig (this is common in the jam band world), how did that start happening?
A: Oh yeah that’s Brad, and I have to say, I don’t know if anybody has acknowledged it, but he’s really a gold mine of Ottawa music history. His recordings go back a long time. I think initially, he just came out to one of our shows, and he’s a superfan of music. He just lives on music, it’s such an amazing thing. He comes out when he comes out, and he records what he records. I think what Brad has done, and what he’s still doing, is going to be really important. In years to come, if people look back at years of music from Ottawa bands, it’s unbelievable. The people of Ottawa, in 2070, will look back and say “oh my gosh, I had no idea there was so much going on in Ottawa.” And he’s super conscientious. He always asks about recording, and if there’s anything you can’t live with, you can just tell him not to put that up and it’s never really a problem.
(Here’s a link to many of Brad’s recordings on archive.org, including recordings of many Chocolate Hot Pockets shows: https://archive.org/search.php?query=taper%3A%22BradM%22)
D: The Chocolate Hot Pockets play complex, technically challenging music that requires hours of practice to master. What made you pick up a guitar?
A: It was lying around the house, I guess. I come from a musical family. My dad’s a drummer, my uncle is a bass player. I tried drums first, and I learned alto sax when I was in high school, in concert band. I played alto and tenor, but they just weren’t for me. I tried bass too, which was good because playing bass requires a lot of fortitude to hold the notes down in the first place. I decided I didn’t like bass, but I would try guitar next, because we also had it lying around, and since I had been playing bass for a year, I had all the strength built up. It just came really quickly. And I got a Led Zeppelin DVD when I was twelve or thirteen, and I was totally sold. It just went from there. I’ve never had a job other than playing music. I taught at Domenic’s Music Academy and have had gigs since then. I love it man, there’s really nothing else for me.
D: Early on, who really shaped where you wanted to take your guitar playing?
A: In my early days I was super into heavy metal. I still have a soft spot for heavy metal. I like Van Halen and Dimebag Darrel, and this band called Death. But I think I was just a frustrated teenager. That’s why that music spoke to me so much. As I got older, I stopped being so frustrated, so while I still appreciate that music I just got into other things. I used to hate jazz, and then something clicked. It went completely in the opposite direction. I had learned some Dimebag solos, and I used to try to do heavy metal solos note for note. I realized, “I think the act of coming up with a solo on the spot is probably the ultimate thing”. When I got out of music school I took my blinders off and started playing a lot more different styles of music. Now I feel like I can appreciate the beauty in other styles of music a lot more. I can put them all on the same playing field.
D: Were there any particular jazz artists that helped make that switch for you?
A: I think the first time that I ever heard Charlie Parker play double time, I was like “What just happened? I have no idea what that was”, but it was awesome. And Lenny Breau as well. He’s a Canadian jazz guitar player. He just had such a unique approach to playing the guitar, very chord intensive. He found ways of letting out harmony on the guitar that no one had done before or done since.
D: I think that jazz is a genre that can put up walls when you’re first listening to it, and requires someone to listen in a certain way to get a feel for it.
A: It asks a bit of you as a listener. It’s kind of like baseball. Baseball is entertaining no matter who you are, but if you know a bit about baseball, maybe you played shortstop in high school, if you understand it just a little more it’s a much richer game.
D: If you were to get someone to make that switch for themselves to get into jazz, is there anything in particular you would suggest?
A: Come listen to my band! You definitely can’t force someone into it. I would suggest that they listen as broadly as they can. Give something a chance. Don’t wait 10 seconds to change the song, because some things require patience. And then you’re better for it. You have to find something that really lights your fire and you have to come to it on your own terms. I will say, with jazz in particular, it’s much better live. If you have a chance to see a hot jazz band, then go see them live, and let that be your introduction to the music. What you’re seeing is something that will never be seen again, and that’s part of it. This is music that’s just pulled up out of the earth, and it can be really incredible.
D: Once THE FEAST is released, what’s next for the Chocolate Hot Pockets?
A: We’re going to tour. We have no announcements on that front yet. In 2017 we’d really love to do a tour of the States. It’ll be our first tour there as a band. It’s gonna be disgusting.
And that was my conversation with Alex Moxon. You can find out more about The Chocolate Hot Pockets on their website, where you can even have a listen to their last record. Don’t forget to see them this Saturday at the Mercury Lounge, you won’t be disappointed.