Before the show at which Thunderball opened for Bonobo at The Metro in Chicago last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Raskin (the man in the middle of the photo) of Thunderball to talk about the group, their music, the new album, and all things electronic music. Steve was the only member of Thunderball to make the trip to the Windy City (literally, it was VERY windy and freezing!) since Rob Myers their sitar player was touring with Thievery Corporation who were supporting Massive Attack on their US Tour.
We first discussed the origins of Thunderball. Steve is a graphic designer by trade and happened to work on Thievery Corporation’s album artwork. He was also in an indie band “Edsel” that traveled around Europe and that is where he sort of caught on to the electronic music scene that was blowing up over there in the late 90’s (Massive Attack, Air, etc). He came up with some tracks and played them for the guys in Thievery who then agreed to put out their album “Ambassadors of Style” on Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) Records which is Thievery’s own label.
Another huge reason Thunderball exists is because of Rob Myers’ amazing ability to play the sitar. Steve told me Rob ventured to India to study the instrument and is one of the best string instrument players he’s seen and can play anything. “One of the main focuses of Thunderball was really to allow for him (Rob) to be able to do this sitar” he said. “The sitar is very hard to play dynamically, but Rob can do it. We try to have these things that are vehicles for him to be able to do his thing.”
One of the things about Thunderball I was really curious to find out more about was how they usually attempt to play the music in a live concert environment. Steve noted it is hard to perform the music with live instruments with the limited resources they have. They have done Thunderball with a full eight piece band. Frustrating to balance the live vs electronic elements of the music. Sound guys have no idea how to mix it and it can sound terrible. To create music for the albums, he writes music by ear mostly. He tries to find different sounds he really likes such as the big horn hits or flowing string parts. However, when they do decide to use a certain sample, they try to make a point of not looping those parts, especially the sitar. For example, they will bring in the very talented horn players from Thievery Corp and replay the riffs over the loop to give it a more “real” sound. Steve added, “with one real lead instrument on top of it, the illusion of full orchestration is there.”
“The new album (“12 Mile High”) really encompasses everything we have done up to this point” said Steve. He also mentioned he thought of the album as a trip around the world and each song is a stop in a new destination. I thought that was really ironic since I thought the same thing in crafting my review for the album. The hero of the story has different stopping points throughout the “film” and each stop has different soundtrack to it. Steve hit on this point hard as he mentioned a couple of times that “Thunderball makes soundtracks for non-existent movies.” In fact, he said he loves chase scenes in film and TV and a chase scene was the inspiration for the fast paced “I C Colors.” They also wanted to have a vehicle where the entire focus of the song was the sitar, hence the opening track “Enter the Brahmin.” Thunderball had primarily used the song as an intro to their live shows and then decided to mix it and finally put it on an album. In fact, Steve said some pieces of songs on “12 Mile High” have sat around for up to six years but now have been chopped up and used on the new album.
On our walk to the venue, we talked about how Steve describes the “Thunderball sound” to people and he said that he usually says the name of a movie or TV show for the person to have a reference point. I thought for this write-up I would upload another YouTube video that I think perfectly exemplifies the “Thunderball sound” from the show at The Metro which was the groovy “Thunder in the Jungle” off of their previous album “Cinescope.” It has all of those hard hitting horn riffs, a 70’s funk sound along with a great dance beat and makes you think of Danno Williams chasing someone down in “Hawaii Five-O.”
In summation, it was awesome meeting Steve and finding out more about one of my favorite electronic artists. Especially finding out how nice these guys are. I couldn’t have asked for a better first interview! “12 Mile High” is out NOW on the ESL Music label and you can pick it up through ESLMusic.com, Amazon, iTunes, and many other locales. Go get it and support these great guys who make awesome music!