"Watching interviews with James Brown is probably one of the biggest inspirations of my life," Jake Berntsen of Beauty Slap muses. "We're going for funkier vibes. We're trying to emulate the big horn sections of the '70s."
It's not surprising, given all the brass instruments in his group. But at the same time, it's a strange reference for Berntsen to make — as a 20-year-old DJ who does his playing in front of a laptop. But this is what makes the group unique: Beauty Slap exudes a big-band brass sound that's mixed and manipulated by the young Ableton guru into electronic dance music. The band has become known in Pittsburgh for introducing funk back to its college-age following by combining it with the dance-style music that populates the charts.
The group formed at Carnegie Mellon, where C Street Brass, a classically trained five-man group, was finishing up a residency. C Street features two trumpets, a trombone, bass trombone and French horn. The quintet got in touch with undergraduate student and DJ Jake Berntsen, a.k.a. Jakeisrain, via connections in the university's recording studio. Together, they released an EP, Wop de Wop, under the name Jakeisrain and C Street Brass, before rebranding as Beauty Slap. The other members, guitarist Paul Crocker and saxophonist Matt Powell-Palm, joined the group shortly after. There's no drummer — the beats all come from Berntsen.
The band, still in its youth, fluctuates as the players continue to grow musically. "We're in that beautiful sort of nascency of the group that will continue to happen for a while, I think," explains Powell-Palm. "It feels like we get something out of every rehearsal and get something out of every show that we straight up didn't have when we walked on the stage."
Since the release of its EP, the group has added more rhythmic and harmonic complexity and has become more dynamic onstage, incorporating bits of choreography, the brass section moving its horns in unison and Berntsen acting as a pseudo-conductor of the group. "There's just more going on," Powell-Palm continues. "We've gotten way more comfortable with using the instruments that we have available, you know? Because when we first started doing it, we were just as surprised as everybody else to be hearing the guitar next to the brass section."
It's easy to forget that the group is only six months old, and that despite its local popularity, Beauty Slap has not yet released a full-length album. The band has been recording in the sound studios at CMU with Berntsen mixing and mastering all of the tracks. It hasn't set a release date, but Berntsen and Powell-Palm say the album will be released by early 2015.
This album is crucial for the travel-hungry band. Beauty Slap has performed at Brillobox, Altar Bar, Schenley Plaza, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, Cattivo, CMU's campus — and many of these places two or three times. Now it's focusing all of its attention on the upcoming festival circuit and will play at South by Southwest this spring. Powell-Palm is confident about broadening the playing field: "Everything else we've already got. ... We just need the tracks and we'll see a nice exponential curve in our activity."
Despite the band's youth, the members of Beauty Slap are by no means beginners in their trade. Berntsen was performing regularly under the guise of Jakeisrain before getting involved with Beauty Slap, and has had the opportunity to study under Grammy-winning composer Robert Aldrige as well as travel to Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions in Los Angeles to study mixing and mastering with Alan Meyerson and Seth Waldmann. C Street is a well-respected quintet in local chamber-music circles and has played in a variety of chamber concert series, including in Corpus Christi, Texas; Baltimore; and the group's own series at Carnegie Mellon. The members come from all over, and have held many positions as members of orchestras or brass collectives, or as teachers.
For many classically trained musicians, the transition to dance music may have stood as a challenge, but C Street was already exhibiting some funkiness in its classical performances, the members memorizing the pieces and moving around on stage.
"It's really way out there and radical for a classical audience, but for this stuff it's kind of on the conservative side," trombone player Gabriel Colby explains. "We feel that we can let loose, be a little freer and have more fun onstage." C Street is still performing regularly as a brass quintet, but the members feel as though Beauty Slap and their classical work have a symbiotic relationship that improves the group's playing and overall performance.
"It works well," says promoter and DJ "Pandemic" Pete Spynda, an integral figure in the local brass-band revival. "What they add is a different dynamic on the Pittsburgh scene."
Beauty Slap is on the cusp of larger recognition, but is also approaching a moment where the musicians have to decide if the project is their priority. When asked about potential conflicts, Powell-Palm and Berntsen at first seem unable to give an answer. "A really interesting moment for me was last year when C Street's residency officially ended," Berntsen says, "and we hadn't even come up with the name Beauty Slap yet, and they stayed in Pittsburgh."
The group formed quickly because the musicians found something that they could all connect with in the music. The passion that they exude onstage is palpable. With more confidence, Berntsen says, "Everybody seems hesitant to walk away at the moment."