How Eureka's Jesse Phillips accidentally started up a band called St. Paul and the Broken Bones
Soul on fire
Contributed by Erika Fredrickson of The Missoula Independent
When I finally get ahold of Jesse Phillips, the bassist for St. Paul and the Broken Bones, he and the band are stranded in Texas. That morning, they awakened to a fire alarm and billowing smoke in their tour bus. "It was an electrical fire or some kind of meltdown," Phillips says. "So, we're marooned at this Motel 6 in Wichita Falls until a new bus gets here from Nashville to pick us up and carry us on our way."
Only a couple of years ago-before the existence and increasing popularity of St. Paul and th Broken Bones-the scenario for any one of the musicians would have played out something like this: tour van (not a tour bus) catches fire and everyone hops on a Greyhound to go home, cutting the tour short. But for the Birmingham, Ala. soul outfit, which has been playing sold-out shows in the biggest clubs across the nation, a comfortable rescue mission out of Texas is no big thing.
In 2014, St. Paul and the Broken Bones played 200 shows across the U.S., including the American Awards Festival, broadcast by Austin City Limits, where they shared the stage with names like Loretta Lynn, Jackson Browne, Jason Isbell and Rosanne Cash. But it was St. Paul and the Broken Bones-relatively unknown to the crowd-who brought the audiance to its feet with the dynamic performance of "Grass is Greener," an original song off their album Half the City.
The central appeal of St. Paul and the Broken Bones is frontman Paul Janeway. He looks more like a guy who writes code for computer software than someone who can belt out gorgeous soul. And so when he opens his mouth and sings, it's jaw-dropping.
Phillips, who started the band with Janeway and co-wrote at least half the songs on Half the City, is also an oddity. Born in Grassmere, British Columbia, but educated just across the border in Eureka, Mont., he's the only non-Birmingham member of the band. He jokes that the other members try and keep it a secret that they have a Canadian-Montanan in an otherwise authentic Alabama soul band. He spent his college years in Missoula playing American and rock music in bands like The Pillar Saints and with friends and local musicians Kier Atherton and Jesse Netzloff.
He also worked several seasons in the Flathead National Forest, including a fire-lookout in what he calls a "very Kerouac-ian" job.
"It's lonely work," he says. "But I read heavy novels-the ones I didn't have the attention span for in my normal life. And I had instruments up there to play." In the off season, he struggled to find work-and it was the hard luck of not being able to find a job in Missoula that led him to Birmingham in 2006.
A friend from college, his family owns a chain of mucis stores in Alabama offered me a job," Phillips says. "It was a much better prospect than anything I'd found. So I basically moved there to stave off outright financial destitution. I didn't know too many people. I just started playing music with whomever would have me. I ended up subbing in a band called The Secret Dangers and Paul was in that band."
The band eventually fell apart when the guitarist moved away, but Phillips and Janeway stayed friends, playing coffee shops and writing songs together, without any larger goals for the future of their music. It felt like it was time to move on to to other things, Phillips says.
"Paul was trying to get his life together," he says. "He had a serious girlfriend and was going to accounting school and I was tyrying to figure out what I was going to do with myself for a career."
A friend of theirs who owned a studio encouraged them to do some casual recordings, so they obliged. Over the course of nine months, they wrote and played together on a weekly basis and eventually called in some musician friends to help fill out the recordings. Phillips was new to the Birmingham music culture, but he brought with him an audiophile spirit: raised on his parents' classic rock and outlaw country, formed by Seattle grunge and eventually drawn into classic and obscure vintage R&B. What had started as a weekly lark became a songwriting with a soul spin.
"By the time that was all said and done we had accidentally started a band," Phillips says, laughing. "And before we knew it we had accidentally styarted a version of those old classic soul bands-not as good, but the instrumentation was the same. Then we started going on tour and very quickly got a record deal. And management. And then a booking agent and then a lawyer. It happened very fast once it started moving."
In January, the band played their hit "Call Me" on the "Late Show with David Letterman", where they were treated to an unusual introduction from the host. "The first time I heard this song I was screaming 'til I cried," Letterman said to the band as they stood on the Ed Sullivan stage. "That's what I want. Can you do that for me tonight? Because-and it won't be your fault, but if I don't get that, I'm going to stop the show and we'll do it over."
"We've done some TV before," Phillips says, recalling the show, "but when we got this long off-the-cuff introducton from Dave, it was completely unexpected. And it ended up making the experience superbly surreal."
Janeway and the rest of the band seemed to take the push from Letterman to heart. The performance is a perfect example of why the band is getting noticed. As the horns bleed into Phillips' base line, Janeway yells, "This ain't the heartachethat I thought I knew! This ain't the party that I thought we'd do! You got your limit baby, I got mine. 611-3369," and it's like some old ghost from soul's past is bursting from him.
"It makes me laugh hysterically whenever I read something like 'these guys must be put together with record label" or "there must be all kinds of money behind this,'" Phillips says. "It's pretty much the complete opposite of that. It happened really organically. It's not like we had to say to Paul, 'We want you to do this kind of punk-rock Otis Redding thing.'. He was already there."
Part of the band's charm is its combination of raw talent and humility. Packed shows in clubs lin San Francisco's Fillmore and upcoming appearances at festivals like Sasquatch are glamorous to a band that's just hit the tipping point. But it's when they go home, back to Birmingham, to play for fans and friends who knew them before they gained popularity, that the really realize how far they've come.
"All of this is as much a surprise to us as it is to anybody," Philips says.
Last summer, the band also visited Phillips' home, playing songs from the album to a crowd at the high school auditorim in Eureka.
"Of the 450 people who came I think I probably knew 350 of them," Phillips says. It was my uncles and aunts, cousings and great grandparents, teachers, friends of my parents. It was great." He pauses and laughs. "And it's the only place on planet earth where I am more famous than Paul Janeway."