Bandleader takes an analytical approach to improvisation
A long-running funk group based in Western North Carolina, Citizen Mojo serves up inventive readings of classic tunes, steeped in American musical forms like blues, soul, and jazz. Built upon the rhythm section of bassist Tim Clement and drummer Scott Stinson, Citizen Mojo also features organist Brad Curtioff and band leader/guitarist Stephen Blanton.
Blanton is also a well-known radio host at WNCW. He spoke to Bold Life about “killing it in the moment” while making the groove last forever.
You’ve been nominated twice for the W.C. Handy “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award for your work hosting “Saturday Night House Party” on WNCW. How does traditional blues inform the music that you make with Citizen Mojo?
Suffice it to say that my gig at WNCW has informed my music making, and my music making has informed my work in radio. The music I encounter via that medium — new and old — exposes me to things I might not otherwise encounter. There’s always the element of improvisation in both pursuits. It’s a risk/reward thing in simple terms, but at its most fulfilling essence, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
You describe the band’s sound as “Southern fried funk.” What does that mean to you?
My friend, the late [drummer and music journalist] Robin Tolleson, laid that moniker on the band, and it works. Up until that point, we’d always been challenged to succinctly describe what the band does musically. We cover a lot of influences: blues, funk, soul, jazz … there’s a bit of a rock ’n’ roll sensibility there, too. The band members’ formative music experiences allowed us to find our way to artists who influenced what we were listening to back in the early to mid ’70s. The essence of what we do is of Southern extraction.
The band’s approach owes a debt to The Meters and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. What’s special about each of those groups?
We have the very same instrumentation as those two venerable bands, but I’m not sure that makes anything “special.” There sure is a lot one can do with those four instruments, however. I think that both those groups have tremendous strength in melody, arrangement, and stone-cold grooves — it’s always about the groove. With those elements in thoughtful combination, any band would be wise to follow that formula.
When the band launches into a song, does everyone onstage know exactly where it’s going to go?
Some tunes have an arrangement that remains relatively predictable from performance to performance. Others, while not remotely willy-nilly, are platforms for exploration and improvisation. The circumstances inform that decision. Lots of folks on the dance floor? Stretch it out. Feeling it? Play on! Nine years of playing together gives us a certain confidence that we can do as situations tend to dictate. I like that we’ve reached the point that we just do things without so much as a wink and a nod.
What inspires the band’s original compositions?
Our individual tastes, experiences, and personalities. Someone has an idea and everyone makes a contribution to its ultimate formulation and impact. We think our material is well suited to the other material we play. Our covers can be a bit esoteric on occasion, but it’s okay to be on a “mission” to educate and entertain all in one fell swoop.
What’s been the most unusual gig the group has ever played?
Nothing stands out as unusual, really. Every gig has its particulars. But the ones that really tend to stick with you are the ones where you know you played really well and the audience knew it, too. They let you know in their responses and reactions. I think all musicians live for those moments where, without having to say a word about it to each other, everyone knows you’re killing it in that moment. Have it happen once, and you can spend a lifetime chasing it.
Citizen Mojo plays Saturday, Nov. 2, at The Purple Onion (16 East Main St., Saluda). Show starts at 8pm. For more information, call 828-749-1179 or see purpleonionsaluda.com. For more information about the band, see citizen-mojo.com.