Playing with Beirut and Arcade Fire can be a demanding task. Realizing this, Kelly Pratt decided that he should spend his downtime doing something more productive than keg stands. Piecing together songs in moonlit hotel lounges, backstage dressing rooms, and noisy airports, the charismatic Pratt fashioned an album lush with distorted trumpet solos, playful guitar riffs, and meditative piano-driven electronica. The aptly-named Team B consists of a myriad of musicians ranging from members of Beirut and Arcade Fire to LCD Soundsystem and Jealous Girlfriends. Their eponymous debut will be released on May 26 by Tonacity Recordings. I recently had a chance to talk with multi-instrumentalist Kelly Pratt about growing up in Kentucky, the untimely theft of his wife by Beirut, and all the indie rock goodness that is Team B.
Jan: You’ve played with Beirut, Arcade Fire and now Team B. Between all these bands how do you gauge success in indie rock?
Kelly: It’s a weird thing, it’s hard to answer, I would consider myself successful to the extent that I’m playing with bands that I love, and people are listening to it and I’m able to support myself financially doing what I love. In the strictest sense of the word, I’d consider myself a success. Other people may view success as being wealthy, or just being able to play a couple of shows now and then. My true answer may be somewhere between those two. As far as me personally, I feel success is being able to play music for a living in a variety of different genres, that’s very important to me. I don’t just like to play one type of music all the time, I think it gets a little boring.
Jan: Team B puts brass instruments in the spotlight, why brass over strings?
Kelly: Well simply because of that fact that my first instrument, well piano was my first instrument, but my first real instrument [laughs] was trumpet. That’s something that myself and my wife Tracy, who is part of the band, spent a lot of time on and studied in college. It wasn’t until later after I moved to New York that I started picking up other brass instruments. Although, while we were in school both of us had to take the courses where you learn other instruments, so both of us learned how to play strings, brass, woodwind, percussion and of course we were taking piano lessons throughout college as well. As far as brass specifically, that’s what I have the most experience in and that’s what comes easiest to me, beyond that Tracy is part of the band and Jon [Jon Natchez – Beirut], well his big thing is woodwinds but he is also a brass player too, you know it comes from there. It’s not like we specifically said “Okay, let’s make brass the most important thing” but that’s just what we feel the most comfortable with, maybe if we were string players the songs would be the same but there would be new string parts instead of brass.
Jan: You and your wife Tracy know how to play all the same instruments right?
Kelly: Pretty much, yeah.
Jan: I had a good laugh looking at Beirut’s Myspace page as they listed your name and had a side note that you had left to tour with Arcade Fire, so they took your wife.
Kelly: Yeah, tell me about it right.
Jan: Are there any plans for touring with Team B this year?
Kelly: Yeah, we actually just got off our first little four day tour, we went to Massachusetts for a couple shows and then a couple of shows in New York – it was great. I’m going to try and put together a tour later in June, maybe a couple this summer, I’d like to get the band touring since the record [Team B] is coming out in May and Tracy’s teaching until June so I’ll probably hold off until then to get us on the road. Nothing significant, not two months of constant touring because everyone in the band is a little busy for that, but just to get out there.
Jan: Since you recorded most of the album in between shows and on tour through hotel rooms, do you think Team B will always be a side project over the Arcade Fire and Beirut? How do you balance the two?
Kelly: The massive tour with Arcade Fire ended in February of last year, and they did a couple of shows for Obama, but beyond that there hasn’t been many shows. Since I live in New York and they live in Montreal, I’ve seen them every now and then, but haven’t really been working with them. Beirut is something that works out great because we never go on a massive tour for three months; we’ll do a week here and then have a month off. It’s not something that has a specific beginning or end, it’s not all time consuming which makes it easy to plan stuff around Beirut show-wise. I’ll find out a couple of months in advance what we’ll be doing and schedule Team B stuff around that. It is a bit of a side project but it’s something I’m thinking about all the time. I’m not writing significant amounts of music for Beirut so when I’m at home I’m writing stuff for Team B all the time, I suppose it’s my primary creative outlet for writing songs.
Jan: ‘Tons of Fun’ and ‘Misma’ from the album have a Holland EP, Realpeople electronic vibe, was that impart of any influence from Zach Condon?
Kelly: Not really, a couple of the songs from Holland are really old, like from when he was sixteen, I had maybe heard one of them [‘My Night with the Prostitute in Marseille’] since that was released early, everything else on that EP I hadn’t heard until I was completely done the Team B record. There is no direct influence, but there is no way of shying away from being influenced by him or anybody that you’re really working with closely. People influence each other in non-direct ways. I certainly love the music that Zach writes, and it does influence me for sure, but not in a super-direct way.
Jan: Is there any story behind ‘On My Mind’, I’ve read it has to do with a failed relationship.
Kelly: Not at all, the way that I write music a lot is that lyrics come last. That was just the way it flew. It definitely has no grounding, nor do any of the rest of the songs on the album. The song is kind of a joke really, about how people can be really messed up and think things are someone else’s fault, when it’s really their own.
Jan: Between playing with Team B, Arcade Fire and Beirut, what puts together a great live show for you?
Kelly: First, I think you have to have talented, flexible musicians. Well you know, that’s not really the case either, in my experience playing with these bands, having talented musicians is certainly key, it’s also learning how to adapt things that work well on paper but may or may not work well live. The easy answer, especially dealing with Arcade Fire’s and Beirut’s music is energy; making the performance feel important, convincing the audience that they are witnessing something special. The irony in that comment is that you know Team B has only played a half dozen or so shows.
Jan: You said that most of the work for the album was done on tour, but was it written and recorded as a band, between the members of Beirut, Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem?
Kelly: Most of the album was conceptualized while on tour and demoed out extensively. Once I finished the tour there was some stuff I had to rerecord. When it came to putting some of my friends on there for things I can’t do myself; it was, in the case of Ritchie [Richard Reed Parry – Arcade Fire] something where he had definitely made an input. We kept talking about doing that track while we were on tour but never got around to it, so when I got home and properly recorded ‘Empty Hallways’ I sent him the track and asked if he’d like to put some acoustic bass on it? He sent me back recordings of the part he had essentially written for that. Also on that song Perrin [Perrin Cloutier – Beirut] plays cello and that was more of an instance of us working off the part Ritchie had written and coming up with the best sort of harmonies that worked well. With Pat [Pat Mahoney – LCD Soundsystem] that was more straightforward, all the songs he played on already had a specific beat that I had in mind. Jon, who I’ve worked with very closely over the past five years, came over and did some guitar and saxophone which was collaborative. We do a lot of work where him and I will go in to a studio with a band and lay down a complete horn section and compose the parts together, so we have a big history of doing that and we did it again with the Team B record. The meat of the songs was pretty much fully realized by myself before working with those guys.
Jan: Zach Condon mentions many of the parts he conceptualizes in his head you can play, how do you contrast that through having a formal musical education?
Kelly: Well everyone in Team B except for Jason [Jason Poranski – Beirut] and Jon went to music school so they have a clear understanding when I say we’re going to go the minor score here. Working with Zach is a little bit different, he is a brilliant musician, being self taught doesn’t hinder him in any way at all. His tone on the trumpet and voice is amazing, with him, I know where he is going harmonically and melodically, a lot of my part with Beirut is coming up with harmonic answers to his melodic lines and flushing things out. If he plays me a melodic line on the trumpet, I can hear the harmonies in his head so to speak, I know what he’s looking for, if that makes sense.
Jan: What inspired the move from studying music in Kentucky to heading out to New York City?
Kelly: I decided to go to the University of Kentucky because when I finished high school I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I stayed close to home and was more concerned with getting out of the house and going to party than really thinking about any solid career choices. By the time I was a senior, I started getting serious about music – specifically jazz at that time. I was practicing and composing a lot, all instrumental stuff, I didn’t start writing proper songs until probably two or three years ago. It was a great experience because it wasn’t a conservatory atmosphere where everybody was at each other’s throat vying for positions, which if you’re a classical musician that’s something you want to have – a healthy sense of competition. For me it was more about working with a close group of friends and trying to find our own sound, a lot of us got into free jazz we were attempting to find our own voice compositionally and musically rather than adhere to some factory vibe that you get at a conservatory.
As far as moving to New York, when I was graduating I still had no idea what I was going to do and I had spent the previous summer in New York interning at Virb Records so when I was about a month from graduation they called me with an open position to work. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t ready to move to New York musically just to be thrown in this humongous pot of talent – but it was either that or maybe go play on a cruise ship [laughs], so I decided to move to New York. I took the job at Virb and didn’t know a single person, I would work in the day and practice trumpet at night. At this point, I was still very much just a trumpet player. I played a lot of jazz and little by little got the nerve to go out to concerts and meeting people in between jam sessions here and there. It probably wasn’t until three or four years after I moved here that I started looking more deeply into other types of music, I joined an afrobeat band and this other band called The Silent League which was my first group improv experience. There was certainly no great desire in the move to New York to have people hear my music, it was much more “Well, I got offered this job, let’s do this.” I quit that job to do Arcade Fire.
Jan: On that note, with your jazz background, what kind of influences have played a part in recording for Team B are there any other genres you’d like to explore?
Kelly: I haven’t been a big part of the jazz scene as of late, I never was a real jazz virtuoso. I spent so many years involved with that music through college and working at Virb so I’ve had a few years now that I haven’t been listening to that much jazz. As far as being influenced by other music, recently I’ve gone back to listening to Antibalas a lot lately, I think they’re a really good band and also I guess the Animal Collective release is a little old now and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is great too. In the same breath, a couple of my friends in Beirut are constantly getting into the new records and as much as I like that idea I feel like sometimes I just don’t have the time to sit around and listen to music.
Jan: Between all these musicians, is there anyone in particular that you would like to collaborate with or someone that you would enjoy playing with live?
Kelly: Oh yeah, we did this one track on Zapotec, it was actually recorded in Mexico but it didn’t really turn out the way Zach wanted it to so I kind of rearranged it a little bit and we recorded it at the Grizzly Bear space in Greenpoint. Chris from Grizzly Bear engineered it and as they were putting the finishing touches on Veckatimest at the time, and he was like “Man, that euphonium sounded great, I’d love to put some of that on the new record” but they were pretty much already done, so it just didn’t happen. I really enjoy them a lot. I think they’re one of the best bands around right now, it would be nice to do some work with them. Though, I’m kind of happy taking it as it comes right now too, I don’t actively seek out people and say “Let’s work together.” It’s mostly just working with my friends, occasionally, I’ll get calls to do horns for people. I just did some horn work for this lady Amanda Blank and Jon and I did some work demoing stuff for Norah Jones. The little things like that here and there are great, but a lot of times those aren’t true collaborations. The song is there and half the time the artist is not, so we’re just trying to come up with stuff on our own and see if they like it.
Jan: What kind of direction do you feel like you are taking with Team B that makes it a unique project?
Kelly: I feel like a lot of the stuff on the Team B record, tempo wise is a little slow, and the stuff that I’ve been working on recently has been faster. I’ve learned playing shows that it always helps having songs that are upbeat, it gets people moving. It’s not that conscious of a decision, but the music I’ve been working on lately is definitely more up-tempo and danceable. I pretty much focused on synth stuff, that’s where my heads at, like the song ‘Misma’.
Jan: I danced my pants off to ‘No Purchase Necessary’.
Kelly: [Laughs] That’s a fun one to play, it’s a rocking song, if you listen to it the tempo is pretty slow, although you don’t really feel it because the instrumentation is so different, the beat is real heavy.
Jan: The stuff that you said you have been working on recently is strictly Team B work or recordings of your own and toying around with new things?
Kelly: It’s a mix of both, I’ve been in the initial phases of working on songs and I’ll see if it’s appropriate for Team B or if I’ll work on it with somebody else like Zach.
Jan: Any plans for the summer, think you’ll have a chance to visit Toronto?
Kelly: There’s going to be some Beirut stuff and a few festivals, no real solid plans at this point. I’m looking at doing a tour in June and Toronto is certainly on the list of cities.
Jan: Well thank you, I think we have all the bases covered unless you want to get into the meaning of life.
Kelly: [Laughs] You’re asking the wrong guy.