NYC’s Brass Badasses: Lucky Chops

You’re on a New York City subway, holding on to a pole to balance as the train gets a stop closer to your destination…then BOOM! Coming through the doors is the sound of horns serenading you with a funky medley. This group of musicians has energy and pizzazz and more importantly, has just brightened your day. This is an example of the power of music and New York-based brass band, Lucky Chops, has taken that power from the subway to the world.

Lucky Chops started in 2006 as a group of high schoolers gaining millions of YouTube views for their groovy performances in the subways. They have since cultivated their love for instrumental music onto several continents and educating the next generation of musicians. On tenor saxophone and clarinet is Daro Behroozi, on trombone is Josh Holcomb, on contra is Dr. Reginald Chapman Jr., on baritone saxophone is Adrian Condis, on drums is Patrick Simard, and on trumpet is Joshua Gawel. Lucky Chops is known for their upbeat medleys. But on their self-titled album, Lucky Chops, they give listeners original music that embodies the feel-good tunes fans have grown to love while threading in a mature sound that’s easy to dance to.

I spoke with band members Josh and Daro about how the band has evolved, the writing process behind their most recent album, and what songs have been uplifting them through COVID-19.

When did you all know that you had something amazing on your hands worth pursuing?

Josh: It was once we started playing at shows. Before then, we were playing on the streets and parks. Once we started playing venue shows, which was right after we graduated high school, it was cool to see. It was like wow, we can do this like a real band even though we’re not playing real band instruments. I thought that was unique. I thought maybe we can go for this because maybe it wasn’t really being done elsewhere.

Daro: Thinking back to when we were sixteen playing in the park and getting crowds of dozens of people standing around us was really special. Once I started to realize how special it was, the impact we were having on people and seeing that not everybody has the opportunity to reach so many people with their music, that really helped me understand that it was very special.

Where is your favorite spot in New York to perform?

Daro: I would say for nostalgic purposes, it’s going to be playing next to Tavern on the Green in Central Park, which is where we started. We got our start in the subway, but when we were in high school (and even college) at LaGuardia High School in Central Park on 65th and Amsterdam, we could just walk up 65th to the Park. There’s a nice spot across this parking lot from Tavern on the Green which was across from Sheep’s Meadow. That’s where we played every weekend, lunchtime, after school, during the summers. That’s my favorite place.

Josh: We were a bunch of scrappy kids and we didn’t know how to do gigs or be professional. We had one gig for this south-of-the-French-embassy-type of organization and they wanted us to play on a moving double decker bus on the open roof. That was one of our first private gigs. We did that and it was really dangerous. They had to tell us when to duck so we wouldn’t get decapitated by lights and those kinds of things. That was definitely memorable. Around that same time, we had our first residency at a bar called Battery Harris in Williamsburg, which has since closed. But that was really fun for us because it was the first time we got to build a local fan base by playing at the same place every week, getting people to come, and trying to throw a big party. That was a really good experience for us.

Photo credit: Lauren Desberg

How do you think Lucky Chops has evolved? How do you maintain the core of what Lucky Chops is?

Josh: The thing that’s kept us consistent with our sound and energy is our mission. At first it was, “Let’s just have fun.” As the years went on we were like, “Why do we do this?” We’ve all united around the belief that instrumental music is capable of healing power that could really transform people’s lives and our own lives. We have rallied around this mission to spread this healing power through our music. That has enabled us to do this for as long as we have and to dedicate ourselves to doing this for our careers. We’ve seen the fruits of our labor countless times when people come to us and tell us how we’ve helped them through emotional times or helped them heal physically sometimes, which is a mystical kind of thing. Music does have the power to really heal both physically, emotionally, and mentally. We really try to go around the world and spread that mission.

Also, on the other side of that coin is to help inspire the next generation and generations to come to play instrumental music. We were grateful and lucky to have music education in our public schools in New York City, which is where we learned to play our music but a lot of people don’t have that anymore. A lot of kids aren’t necessarily interested in that anymore. We’re trying to change that and inspire future generations. The healing power of music and our music education initiative is what gives us the consistency and drive to keep going year after year.

Daro: It always hasn’t been easy to stay true to that mission. We’ve definitely gone through ups and downs. Especially with getting a ton of attention suddenly with viral videos and touring. It’s hard to adapt to something that comes from a genuine place to an industry that isn’t necessarily always about that. That’s taken us through many different parts of the industry and different experiences within this world. Broadly speaking, it isn’t always conducive with being honest, supporting one another and all the things we value and find in music. I’m really grateful that we’ve kept that as a goal. We’re always trying to figure out what that looks like in this world, the world of music, the world of the music industry and the world more broadly speaking.

As a band that’s adamant about bringing instrumental music to the world, can you tell me about the importance of instrumental music and why we should perhaps have more of it?

Josh: There are so many reasons. First thing that comes to my head is that it’s very intellectually stimulating. It’s good use of our human brains to learn this skill. It’s difficult but it’s valuable. It teaches kids about discipline and about practicing. These are helpful life lessons that you gain. That’s just on a practical level. Once you gain those skills it’s very healthy to pursue. If I didn’t do that, I probably would’ve ended up in some trouble but I had that outlet that really helped me pursue a pure and wholesome career path and lifestyle. On top of that, it’s such a great form of self expression. A lot of times we don’t have the words to say how we feel but it can translate to musical emotion and sound with colors that we can play to express ourselves. I think people have that tendency or natural inclination but it’s never realized so they become frustrated because they can’t express themselves through music when that may be the perfect way to do it.

Since it’s instrumental, we believe that it’s universally understandable. It’s a language that all people can understand. I think that is a powerful tool at this time when it’s an “us and them” mentality. In today’s climate, it can be such a great way to bridge that divide. If everyone was able to speak the same language, we would see through a lot of our differences and convict ourselves as humans at our core. I think one of those deep connectors is instrumental music that could hopefully bridge some of the divides we have in our world right now.

Daro: Music literacy is important and overlooked and undervalued in our educational system and society at large. We learned to read great literature in high school yet it’s just an afterthought if we can learn how to digest, benefit and grow from great works of music. Instrumental music education in particular is a very effective way to develop that music literacy. That doesn’t say vocal music education doesn’t also lead to that but I think there’s a lot of instruments that make vocal music beautiful. So we have to make sure that these instruments continue to be played, studied and taught. Otherwise we’ll lose so much of what enriches our experience as humans.

I think the experience of playing instrumental music, particularly wind instruments, is extremely powerful and has limitless potential on what it can teach us and how we can grow through it. Myself, I’ve experienced immense growth, transformation and developed self awareness and awareness of worlds beyond the material realm that I can perceive through playing wind instruments. I’ve had moments of deep connection with the divine and people that I didn’t know were possible. I think putting your air and your breath and life force into an instrument is really magical and powerful.

How do you balance music and touring with music lessons and outreach?

Daro: On a philosophical level, teaching music and making music are very connected. Some of the best musicians and teachers that I’ve heard of, studied with, seen play, listened to or been inspired by have been both brilliant musicians and educators. Over the past month of teaching, I’ve learned a lot about the instrument through practicing and working on being able to articulate the things that I do and the things that have helped me grow. Ultimately throughout our life as musicians, we are constantly trying to teach ourselves, learn new things and explore those fundamental things about our instrument. That is where we find that core of growth, evolution and change. I think teaching is a great way to stay in contact with that.

Josh: It’s challenging as far as balance goes. It requires you to step back and really work on visualizing things on a grander scale. We have so many things that we want to do. So many different endeavors. It’s just way too much to just go for it and hope that it all happens. The more creative and more ambitious we become with our initiatives [that] we want to start, the more we have to plan better. It’s a good experience to grow in that way since it’s not possible to just do it all.

When you think back to when you first got into music, what attracted you to your instrument?

Daro: I started playing clarinet in the 4th grade in band. I didn’t have much say in the matter. My uncle gave me a clarinet when I was five because he played also. So I had this clarinet lying around. When we were picking instruments for band class, I initially requested a trombone but my mom was like “You have this clarinet so why don’t you check that out?” I just kept playing the clarinet for a while. Whenever I play clarinet, I feel a much deeper connection to it than the other wind instruments I play. Now I play saxophone, which I also have a deep connection with. Clarinet feels like something with a lot of history for me.

Josh: Your mom really helped you dodge a bullet with that one, Daro. For whatever reason, the culture of trombone is very self-deprecating. Trombone is the butt of any horn joke and gets the short end of the stick, sometimes. It’s all in jest. I chose trombone for silly reasons. One, in band class in sixth grade, all my peers and friends were into rock music and pop punk because we were too young to realize that it wasn’t cool. I wanted to be more punk, so I got to play an instrument like trombone, which is totally nonconformist. That was my young preteen angst speaking that chose my instrument at the time. I also liked the way the trombone sounded and that was a connection there.

How do you choose what songs to cover? What’s the process?

Josh: It’s always been for us, what songs do we like? I don’t think we’ve ever done any covers that we didn’t want to play or didn’t enjoy playing. We never thought about genre or styles. It was “Oh, I like this song.” Then we’d just play it. That’s why our cover repertoire is eclectic and we have stuff going back to classical music to contemporary and techno music and everything in between. We like doing it like that. Whatever song we like, we figure it out and put our own spin on it. Maybe even combine it with another song and form these medleys.

Daro: Some of our initial covers that we did like Funky Town/I Feel Good, that’s when we were doing a lot of wedding gigs. We got requests to play those. That was our first wedding gig ever actually, a campsite in Vermont. We played it hundreds and thousands of times probably and it organically evolved. We’d have some ideas for these medleys and background parts. We’d improvise and try different ways to bridge certain sections of these songs together and sometimes going to sections of other songs. Eventually certain arrangements that we crafted would stick and that’s how we got our medleys.

On your album, Lucky Chops, I read that the songs were written individually by band members. What was that like and how does that work?

Daro: We write them out and may start using the piano or guitar and then we’d write it out in notation software and arrange the parts for instrumentation. We’d spread out the melody, harmony, bass, background and stuff like that over the different voices. We bring them in and play them down. For this album, it was all original songs. We spent a lot of time in the studio crafting the sound of these songs which involved multilayering of different instruments and stacking a lot of different voices on top of each other. We’d record trombone or saxophone on one part to get a cool and exciting big sound. Then we’d use mixing and other forms of audio processing to give it more interesting and captivating sounds as opposed to just recording everything live which is what we did previously. That was the thing that was different, new and exciting.

Josh: It’s fun because we can really dive into our own compositional voices. When we would arrange our covers, we would try to feature our own different playing styles which has helped fans appreciate our uniqueness more than just musicians playing notes on a page. In addition to featuring our playing styles, we were now featuring our compositional styles and unique voices. That was really cool because we all contributed different songs to the album so it has a lot of variety as far as the style of composition, genres of composition and these kinds of approaches. That was another cool layer that I enjoyed from doing this process.

With the global pandemic, what are some songs that make you feel inspired or have exemplified the healing power of music?

Josh: I definitely realized that since this started, anytime I listen to music I’m hit way more than I would be. Normally, I get hit powerfully by music anyway, but now it’s hitting on such a deeper level. I’m feeling music way more when I listen to it than I was before which is powerful. In difficult times I’m feeling the power of music more. There’s a lot of mystical stuff to explore with that. In the morning for the past week or so, I’ve been listening to Louis Armstrong every morning. That’s been really beautiful. Something about the genuine love that comes through his music is so comforting right now. There’s a track by him called “Thanks A Million” that’s very beautiful and cuts straight to the heart. It’s comforting in these times.

Daro: Since we haven’t had much time to play with people, I’ve been returning to some of the things I used to practice that would connect me with musicians on a deep level. When I was studying with a really amazing teacher, Connie Crothers, one of the main things she’d have me work on is singing along to the recordings of Billie Holiday.

Not to only learn the phrasing, melody, inflections and ways that she would tell a story in each note but also to really be in contact spiritually with this force that comes through in Billie Holiday’s singing. In singing along with those recordings, I found that I‘m able to feel deeply connected with the feeling and spirit that underlies the music and the way she’s singing. One of my favorites that I love singing along with are “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I Can’t Believe You’re in Love With Me”. Two amazing Billie Holiday performances of classic jazz standards. That’s been really helpful and centering. It connects me to deep connection and feeling. I think at this time, it’s hard not to feel numb because there’s too much to process. Music that connects me to emotion is important right now.

Also, there’s this Chilean musician who was active in the 60s and 70s named Víctor Jara, who was well known as an activist. He was imprisoned under the [Pinochet] dictatorship in the 70s. Ultimately, he was killed. I’ve been checking out his music. His music for some reason has really been jumping out at me.  His work was about uniting the people to rise up against oppression not only through music but also through other art forms. I think that’s so important right now. There’s so many forces that are becoming more powerful at this moment. It’s important as people that we connect with one another, take care of each other and organize to create a better world on the other side of this.

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