St. Paul & the Broken Bones

From Barrooms to Ballrooms:
The Mighty Rise of St. Paul & the Broken Bones

Last month St. Paul & the Broken Bones headlined two sold-out nights at the Alabama Theatre, a 2,500-seat restored 1920s movie house analogous to Atlanta’s Fox, in their Birmingham hometown. It was a sweet reminder of how far they’ve come in such a short span, having formed only two years ago, with their debut album Half the City released this past February on Single Lock Records.

For Paul Janeway, the group’s 31-year-old bespectacled power-belter, the turnaround has been even more drastic. Five years ago he was unemployed, living in his dad’s spare apartment, ready to give up music to study to become an accountant. Five years ago was also when he met his fiancée, whom he’ll be marrying this month. “My, my, how time changes,” he laughs. “She stuck with me! That takes a special person, it really does. Because my life has been very, very interesting in the past five years.”

What sets St. Paul & the Broken Bones apart from other recent soul revivalist acts? Well, it’s unlikely that you’d find another that looks like a bigger bunch of goobers, for one! But that just seems to make their instinctual grasp of this sound all the more remarkable. These guys get it. As Janeway points out during our recent phone conversation, “it really is a feeling. I think the one thing that we kind of understand is the spirit of it – just how it’s kind of a raw emotion thing. I don’t think people get that much anymore.”

Listening to Half the City, recorded and produced by Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes, I’m reluctant to even use the term “revivalist” to describe what St. Paul & the Broken Bones accomplish, any more than I’d dismiss a great new rock ‘n’ roll band as “rock revivalists.” There’s simply a classic, traditional manner of performing great Stax/Muscle Shoals music, and the Broken Bones – Janeway, bassist Jesse Phillips, guitarist Browan Lollar, drummer Andrew Lee, organist Al Gamble and Allen Branstetter and Ben Griner on horns – are for the most part adhering to that can’t-lose formula, albeit thrillingly well and with original material that brings a genuine stir to my jaded sensibilities.

In advance of St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ show in Atlanta Dec. 27th in the Fox Theatre’s Egyptian Ballroom, Janeway’s first show as a newly married man, the singer told me about some of the ups and downs that brought a small town preacher boy to the point of picking up the phone to find Elton John on the other line…

Grass Is Greener: “I grew up about 45 minutes outside of Birmingham in Chelsea, Alabama. We moved there when I was like five years old, and my mom still lives there. It was a small little country town, until people started moving there. It was about 700 people when I was living there. You know what’s crazy, though? It’s like 12,000 people live there now. Isn’t that wild?”

That Glow: “When I was about 12, I had a pastor come in who I really liked, and kind of took a shining to, and he kind of took me under his wing and mentored me, and when I was about 15 I started preaching. Not [for] the main event, like Sunday morning – I’d maybe get a Sunday night or a Wednesday night. And I loved it. That’s the one thing – my parents were kinda strict, but not crazy or anything. But I just loved church. I loved going. If the doors were open, I wanted to be there. That was my social circle. To be honest, I learned so much about performance with that than I ever did anything else. I think it’s part of my stage persona. I always tell people what I do onstage is a very gross exaggeration of myself. It’s an exaggeration of all the things I learned in church, or I learned playing in a bar, all of that rolled up into one, and it’s ridiculous.”

Half the City: “I think Jesse played in 16, 17 bands before this one. And none of them had reached a lot of success. We played in the first band I’d ever been in. I’d sang in church, played my guitar and sang and stuff, but never done a band. But Jesse, because he worked at a music store, knew the drummer of this band, so he got involved to play bass. We wrote some songs and played one show outside the city of Birmingham, that tells you how far it went. We were doing like Zeppelin covers, things like that. Which, I didn’t know Zeppelin very well, because I didn’t grow up with it. But me and Jesse just never quite gave up on writing songs with each other.”

Broken Bones & Pocket Change: “I was on unemployment, in a low place, and I just was like, I gotta get a job and go back to school. So I started working at a sporting goods store, went back to a community college, and then decided I really liked accounting. And I was like, well if I’m gonna do accounting, I decided that I was going to work as a part time bank teller. Then Jesse calls me up and he was kinda movin’ on too. But he was like, ‘Let’s make just a snippet of our musical relationship. We’ll always be friends, but one last hurrah.’ We had a guy here that had a studio in Homewood, Alabama, and we went in there, and the first song we did was called ‘Broken Bones & Pocket Change.’ We had it written for a long time, probably four or five years, but we never did anything with it because there was just a lot going on. So we start working out that song, and we felt like, ‘This is not bad.’”

Like a Mighty River: “I grew up with [soul and R&B music]. That’s all I could listen to, that and gospel. That’s why I sing the way I sing. When I heard Otis Redding, or some of those gospel singers, I was like, that’s what you’re supposed to sound like. And I think subconsciously it kind of leaped into my brain. It’s always what I wanted to do. I just never thought I could do it, to be honest. Because you have to be such a talented musician to pull it off. And luckily, Jesse knew a lot of talented musicians.”

I’m Torn Up: “I knew what I wanted. I knew I wanted to do what I love, and to do kind of a soul thing. Have some horns, and have a Hammond, you know. Groove-oriented R&B stuff. And Jesse, he wanted it to be a lot bigger than that. He loves the Beatles, and he loves bands like Tame Impala, stuff like that. And that’s just not me. That’s just not who I am. And eventually, once we started kind of writing stuff, he was like, ‘Okay, this is pretty cool. Why weren’t we doing this five years ago?’ I was like, ‘I tried to tell you!’ We never, ever thought we were doing a soul revue, or anything like that. Ever. It really just kinda happened. I sing the way I do, so instead of doing weird stuff, and having me sing a song weird or something like that, they just kinda started writing around the music, and I just started riffin’, and, they start feeling it. Some of the horn guys, they’re young, so they weren’t huge R&B fans. They weren’t old school soul fans, really. But they started listening to it, and everybody else started diving in, listening to more deep cuts, and then they started being like, ‘Okay, this music is pretty badass.’ And it is.”

Don’t Mean a Thing: “Jesse thought it would be funny to call me St. Paul. I didn’t want my name at all in the band. But he was a champion of the idea of ‘and the…’ You know – “Blah blah blah and the blah blah blahs.’ And he thought it would be funny to call me that. Because, you know, I don’t drink or smoke or anything like that. The only thing I ever do is I have a potty mouth. That’s about it for me. My release really is going out there and singing. Never in a thousand years did I think I would be called St. Paul. At shows. people ask me, ‘Do you go by Paul or St. Paul?’”

It’s Midnight: “Because we were working with Ben, and because the Shakes were touring all the damn time, we had to figure out a way to get his schedule to where he could come up [to Muscle Shoals] and record this record. And we had a decision to make where we could either wait six or seven months from then, or we had like a month. And for some strange reason, because we felt such a certain sense of urgency, we were like, ‘Let’s do it in a month.’ In three weeks we wrote 75% of the record in a tiny little place that ended up getting condemned when the roof caved in. And then everybody turned around and we recorded it. The vocal takes, we did three takes and then just took the best take. And the best drum take, you know. We did it very much like they would’ve done in the ‘60s. We were like, if we’re going to do this thing, let’s just do it full blown, record on tape and see if we can do it. And, you know, we pulled it off. There’s definitely bumps and bruises on that record.”

Call Me: “Rosanne Cash is the reason we got that call [from Elton John]. She introduced [our music] to him. She’s been a really big supporter of ours. It’s weird how you connect the dots, but she is really close with [Single Lock co-owner] John Paul White of the Civil Wars, so he obviously said, ‘Hey, you should see this,’ and then she introduced us to Elton. She told me, ‘He sees a lot of himself in what you do.’ I was like, ‘What??’ I didn’t know what to say. But he was super-nice, unbelievably kind. He just told me how big of a fan he was. I was like, ‘Man!’ I just kinda said, ‘Thank you, sir,’ and laughed. And it was funny, because I was on the drive to go get my [wedding] ring fitted, and my fiancee’s in the car, and Elton calls, and I’m laughing, and she’s looking at me, like, (whispering) ‘Is that Elton?’ She’s excited, I’m excited, and we get in there, and I couldn’t help but say something to the person we were buying the ring from. I basically was like, ‘Elton John called me!’ And the guy was like, ‘Oh, okay… that’s cool, buddy. Yeah…you have to pay cash for this thing now…’”

Let It Be So: “The thing is, I’m 31 years old now. I am who I am. That’s one thing I’ve realized. It was kinda comforting. I still go to record shops all the time and collect records. I watch Alabama football, and you know, sit around at home. Nothing’s changed on that end. The only thing that’s changed a little bit, people might know who you are, or might not. And I get to travel way more than I thought I ever would, ha ha ha!”

Photos by David McClister.