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Charlie Hunter, Skerik and Stanton Moore of Garage a Trois (Photo: Courtesy the artists)When the three members of Garage a Trois hauled their gear into Studio Litho in Seattle for a hastily arranged recording session, they soon encountered an issue that most musicians would consider a serious problem. “A headphone amp wasn’t working right,” says Charlie Hunter, guitarist for the trio, which also includes drummer Stanton Moore and saxophonist-keyboardist Skerik. “I was the one who needed headphones the least, so I didn’t hear myself when I was playing. I just listened to Stanton.”Come again — couldn’t hear yourself? “It was cool, man,” Hunter answers nonchalantly, talking by phone from his home in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Liberating.”Garage a Trois’ new album, Calm Down Cologne (Royal Potato Family), is aural evidence that Hunter indeed did not struggle. Neither did Moore or Skerik, who could hear their guitar player just fine during the session. Hunter’s laissez-faire attitude reflects the core aesthetic of the trio: Keep it loose. Have fun. Improvise. Of the album’s five tracks, only the title tune was sketched out beforehand. The rest were created on the spot by the three on-again-off-again compadres.Calm Down Cologne is all about the funk: fast funk (“The Epic”), faster funk (“No Zone”), slippery funk (the title track), greasy funk (“In-a-Pro-Pro”), sludgy funk (“Numinous”). The tunes, built on spontaneous riffs, are driven by Moore’s limber flow, which provides constant propulsion. Skerik ladles on an array of vintage analog keyboard sounds and effects-heavy saxophone licks — routinely playing them simultaneously. On the opener, “No Zone,” he turns heads with an extended, quicksilver line on both horn and keys.
Hunter, using a Hybrid Big6 with three guitar strings and three bass strings, lays down thumping bottom end and R&B-flavored riffs. He solos sparingly — and briefly — opting to follow the funk blueprint rather than strut his chops.Instead of simply lining up solos, the players interlock for extended sequences, happy just to groove. On “In-a-Pro-Pro,” the trio bites into the rump-roller rhythm and devours it. Skerik and Hunter peek out with random licks and filigrees, while Moore cracks the whip.Garage a Trois’ origins came about as extemporaneously as their music. In the late-’90s, Moore was riding high as a member of Galactic, which was spreading a modernized New Orleans sound throughout the land. Presented with the opportunity to cut an album under his own name, the drummer recruited Hunter and Seattle-based Skerik, whom he had encountered during his travels with Galactic. Several Crescent City musicians played on the sessions for All Kooked Out! in early 1998, but the core trio developed a special bond during rehearsal jams. “Our improvised stuff felt like a different record,” recalls the New Orleans-based Moore, “so [producer] Dan Prothero said, ‘Let’s put it to the side, put out your solo record and revisit the improvised stuff for another record.’”That raw material, far slower and muddier than the current batch, was released as Mysteryfunk in 1999. Its spacey 25 minutes attracted a cult of enthusiasts, and the band revisits that nascent sound on “Numinous,” the latest album’s dubby, downtempo closing track.
Garage a Trois went on to release four more albums, using different personnel configurations, but only the debut showcased just the original trio. Hunter, Skerik and Moore gigged sporadically over the years, but it wasn’t until a three-night stand at Seattle’s Nectar Lounge that the stars aligned for them to record as a threesome again. “Skerik set up the session,” Moore says, in a studio owned by Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard. “I literally carried my drums across the street from the club to the studio. We got some sounds and started playing. I think the session lasted three or four hours. I hauled my drums back to the club for the gig that night.”No biggie. Plug in and play, whether the guitarist can hear himself or not. That’s how Garage a Trois rolls.