Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds have been on a bit of a hiatus due to Arleigh Kincheloe’s pregnancy and the recent birth of her son. Live For Live Music wishes a happy and healthy congratulations to Arleigh and the entire band for welcoming the newest Dirty Bird! L4LM caught up with sax player Brian Graham to learn more about his current side project, Diesel Lady, as well as to learn more about what he’s been up to over these past few months. Sister Sparrow is well-known for touring and having as many fans as possible catch their shows, so the down time has been able to offer all members an opportunity to compose fresh tracks, pen new lyrics, and let their creative juices flow.
L4LM: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into the industry, and what were some of your influences when you were younger? What brought you to this point?
Brian Graham: I started music when I was a kid. I had very supportive parents that said, “If you want to try something, go for it.” We had a piano in the house and they encouraged me to take piano lessons, so I did. That was in fourth grade. Then I took up saxophone—like every other kid that joins band—and never put it down. Throughout high school, I always played and was always good at it. Then in my junior year, it kind of clicked for me. I had a moment at a concert when I stood up and did a solo and it just felt right. The audience enjoyed it and it was one of the best feelings I could ever describe. That’s when I decided I should try to go to school for music.
I ended up going to The University of Southern Maine for Jazz Performance. During my freshman year of college, I got sick with testicular cancer. That was a tremendously huge life changing event for me. It was a short battle, thank god, but I had to take a semester off from school to have a couple of surgeries. When I got sick, it changed my perspective a lot. You don’t really know what could happen tomorrow, and there’s no reason to not do what you want to do, today. When I went back to school in the fall, it made me work harder. Then I ended up joining a band called Sly-Chi, which was an eight-piece funk band in Portland, Maine. That’s when I really got my ass kicked in music. That’s when I learned how to really play. Everybody in the band was really good. They pushed me to get better. I played with them for a long time. After that, I started in the Fogcutters, which was a twenty-piece big band in Portland, Maine. Then, I ended up running that and co-leading with my buddy John Maclaine.
We created a show called Big Band Syndrome, which is probably one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. We came up with this concept where we took local artists and took two of their songs each. The first year, we did eight artists from Maine. We arranged their songs for a twenty-piece big band. We did this for five years. We had huge support from Lauren Wayne of the State Theater. She was the one that encouraged us to do it. Overall, we did about forty local artists and eighty songs or so. If there weren’t horn lines, we made horn lines. If there were string arrangements, we turned them into big band arrangements. The very last year that we did it was a beautiful collision of my worlds because Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds was the main act at the end of the show. So that was basically my Portland, Maine career.
I was branching out and trying to play with as many different people as possible—to get my name out there and see what could happen. Then, I was in a wedding band on Long Island. There were four or five rehearsals and there was one gig on the books that I went and played. They had promised us a certain amount of money and they didn’t actually pay us that amount of money. I thought, “This sucks and isn’t what I signed up for.” The thing that happened, though, was the trombone player in that wedding band was the trombone player in the Dirty Birds. That was spring of 2012.
I actually saw the Dirty Birds the first time they came to Portland. They opened up for Trombone Shorty. I ended up hanging out with Ryan [Snow], the trombone player. Then they left and I saw them one other time that year. That was all I knew of Ryan, and that’s all I knew of the Dirty Birds.
Fast forward to January of 2013, and I get a phone call from Ryan. He was curious if I was interested in playing some gigs with the Dirty Birds. They were based in Brooklyn and I didn’t quite understand why he was calling me. Apparently, their sax players left the band and they thought of me because of the wedding band. I looked at their schedule and figured I could make it work. I had never gone on tour. That was four years ago.
L4LM: Now that you’ve been in Sister Sparrow for a while, what can you tell about what is in store?
Brian Graham: Arleigh just had her baby boy. They are both healthy. We haven’t been able to see each other too much this year. We are all separate and don’t live in the same town. All of us have been chillin’ at the moment. She’s been writing, and the plan is to go back into the studio at some point. Obviously, it’s not going to be right away. The next thing we have booked at the moment is a sold-out cruise in February. We will be on Joe Bonamassa’s blues cruise, Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea. Right now, we are just letting her get settled in and taking things a day at a time.
L4LM: Due to the time off, there are a quite a few side projects happening. We learned of Josh Myer’s project BIG WORDS in his recent interview. Talk about your project, Diesel Lady. How did that evolve and will fans be able to catch the band anywhere soon?
Brian Graham: Diesel Lady basically is the Dirty Birds. The only difference is that we have a guy named Max Cantlin on guitar who’s probably one of my favorite guitar players in the world. He’s that guy that plays all the right notes, and you wonder if there are any wrong notes on his guitar. He just does it and you think, “Yeah, that’s exactly what should happen.” I went to college with him, and he was in my very first band ever. We’ve played in so many projects together, and he’s probably the most in-demand guitar player here in Maine. So that’s the major difference between the Dirty Birds and Diesel Lady.
Why we’ve done this is because we were all just sad we wouldn’t see each other that much anymore. When you live in a van with someone for 200 days a year, you get pretty close. So all of a sudden, going from living 200-plus days a year with everyone to not seeing each other ever, we decided to put this together. I had a bunch of instrumental tunes, as well as vocal tunes, that were my originals, so we learned all those. Josh had a bunch of originals so we arranged and learned all those. Then we put together a list of songs that we just enjoyed cover-wise and learned to manipulate them to make them our own, in a sense.
The other challenge is that we’ve been a backing band for Arleigh for Sister Sparrow. We don’t have our lead vocalist, so what do we do? In a way, it challenged me, Josh, and Max to step up and try and sing some lead—which was really fun actually. I had no idea that I would actually like it. I’m not the greatest vocalist in the world, but I can sing the notes and I can have some fun when I’m doing it. I think that comes across in the show. We’ve also been pushing ourselves musically that make us feel a little bit uncomfortable.
Diesel Lady is just the six of us putting together original songs that we think are funky and fun. It’s a show that the Dirty Birds put on but without Arleigh, which is a huge challenge because she’s such a magnetic force to be reckoned with. We’ve only done three shows so far, and now we’re gearing up for our fourth and fifth shows. Hopefully, we will have some more in the fall. We are just getting our feet under us now.
Musically, it’s six guys that have been playing music together for a very long time. It came together fast. When we started to rehearse, we learned ten songs in one day. We had one day to learn all the music, and we did. There was also preparation leading up to it. We sent around recordings and talked about it via the internet.
The other fun thing we started doing, because we’re all in remote spots and not together, is that we started recording on our own. Dan [Boyden] would lay down drum tracks and would then send it around. Josh would put the bass on it and then each one of us would add our part into it. We are starting to get a few tunes together. We have one that’s done along with a video to go with it. It’s Brady-Bunch style. We did it with our own respective instruments. It’s pretty fun.
L4LM: For a final thought, if there was one musician you could jump on stage and play with, who would it be?
Brian Graham: I have a couple of answers to that question. I think it would be an absolute dream to get on stage with Tower of Power. I would love to play with Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka and Emilio Castillo in that horn section. It would blow my mind. I would love to take Lenny Pickett, throw him back in with the band, and play with them. I think that would be unreal. Tower of Power is one of my biggest influences when it comes to just horn sections and horn bands. They’ve been around for 49 years. Next year marks their 50th anniversary as a band. It blows my mind to think that a band has been around for almost 50 years and tours 200 days a year. I literally cannot think of another band that does that, or has done that, for that long. Every time I see them, it’s like going to a clinic for funk and horn bands. I thought that I was getting there, then I see them, and nope, still not there.
The other band I think would be just fun is Bruno Mars. I’ve been digging him a lot lately. He just puts on a ridiculous show, and it looks like the music is so fun to play. I’d be ok with that.
For more information about Diesel Lady, along upcoming tour dates, please visit their Facebook page.
Check out their break new Brady Bunch style video below for “In Ya Face” below!
Words by Sarah Bourque
Cover photo credit: Matt Roe