The music of the duo DJ Russ Randolph and singer/guitarist Zion Rock Godchaux is not necessarily what you’d expect to hear coming out of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Their 2005 debut, Visions of Backbeat, is a hybrid of laid back, grooving guitar riffs and smooth vocals over a driving electronic rhythm. Their live shows are more like a warehouse rave than a rock ‘n’ roll concert.
“Muscle Shoals is all about back beat and the swing of something, the funky bass line and the way it works off the high hat,” says Randolph, who grew up in the iconic music recording town. “Electronic musicians around the world are emulating a lot of the rhythm sections that the Muscle Shoals players were doing in ’60’s R&B. On the surface it may seem different, but in my mind, it’s the evolution of our area.”
Godchaux, who grew up in the Grateful Dead family as the son of keyboardist Keith Godchaux and singer Donna Jean, says the similarities between his music and that of his childhood are also in synch.
“The Dead were essentially a dance band, interested in throwing the best party possible,” says Godchaux. “That scene was a lot like the old school warehouse rave scene, about people being able to get down under one roof, and the party is the talent.”
Together since 2003, BoomBox approaches their music more like a producer in the studio than a live performer. Randolph uses two drum machines on stage, which he loads with around 40 songs he and Godchaux might draw from during the performance. With the exception of a few iconic funk riffs and samples, all of the beats and bass lines are prerecorded by the pair in the studio. They typically play three hours straight — no set break — improvising most of the way.
“We have a prearranged song structure based around the lyrics, but other than that we’re free to do whatever we want to do,” says Randolph. “We’re not locked into a tempo or arrangement. We’ll make it back into the song and chorus, but everything else is a real-time experience within the room. Setlists are our worst enemy.”
Before walking out on stage, the duo normally picks a song that feels right, then flows from there without discussion.
“The song is a reference point to build momentum off of,” says Godchaux. “But all bets are off after that.”
After five years improvising music together, they say it’s sometimes difficult in the festival/jam band community to invite other musicians to play with them on stage.
“The problem is that it looks a lot easier to play to a dead-on click track type thing, a sequence beat, which is like being in a recording studio,” says Godchaux. “The beat is not going to give you much mercy if you’re not playing tight, and it really stands out if you’re not right inside of it.”
“It’s kind of like trying to have a conversation with somebody where they’re on the outside of a building with the doors closed,” adds Randolph. “The random guitar player that walks up is not necessarily in the same mindset or didn’t have the prerequisite that we think is required to play on our stage.”
BoomBox jammed on stage with electronic band Particle, in and out of their sets, on a recent tour, but has generally moved toward tightening up as a duo since their early days.
Their first few years together included friend Kim Hagen, who performed everything from fire dancing to acrobatics over the stage. She’s currently recovering from a tragic car accident, and the band has pressed on.
“We’ve always believed the music stands on its own,” says Randolph. “It’s not a black-and-white concrete thing, but the band Boombox from this day forth will just be myself and Zion. This music is made to thump a big party, and we’re just so blessed that people are actually smiling from something we do. We knew it was definitely going to happen, but it’s still just amazing.”