No matter what you call them—“Soul Rock,” “Americana,” “Southern Rock with Bluegrass Harmonies”—Richmond’s own Big Mama Shakes is a force to be reckoned with. Their music is fun and captivating, and their live shows are powerful yet personal. Singer/guitarist Brady Heck, singer/keyboardist Elijah Righter, singer/guitarist/mandonlinist Caleb Austin, singer/bassist Peter Cason, and drummer Chandler Matkins have developed an impressive musical chemistry and recently went on tour down the Atlantic coast, stopping to talk with me before their show at NYC’s Pianos. We stood on the sidewalk together and discussed their Southern roots, Northern adventures, and life on the road.
So you guys are from Richmond, Virginia?
Elijah: Yeah, we’re based out of Richmond, but most of us are from Williamsburg, Virginia, about an hour south. Brady, Peter and I went to high school together—Chandler too actually.
Peter: We just threw Chandler on because he knew how to play drums and… why not!
Elijah: But we three were in a band in high school together that went through a number of phases and eventually turned into this. Caleb and I go way back too.
And you just released your new album?
Peter: Yeah, May 5th.
Brady: Cinco de Mayo, baby.
Peter: Cinco de Mama! (laughter)
And this was your first album?
Peter: Our first full album. We had done a four song EP that wasn’t really released—I mean it was on soundcloud—but this is our first big venture into really releasing an album.
How do you come up with your material?
Elijah: Most of it’s Brady, actually.
Brady: Yeah I write half a song, then I go to Elijah and say “hey what order should these parts go in?”
Peter: Elijah does a lot of the arranging.
Elijah: We all come from a broad range of influences, so a lot of that comes out in the music. This is probably the most collaborative creative process that I’ve ever been a part of. Even when we first started working on material it was apparent how every member had something creative to contribute, which is really cool. A lot of the time you just have two people in a group trying to spearhead their ideas, but with this Peter writes a lot of stuff and Chander writes stuff too.
Peter: Yeah we all come from different musical backgrounds, and it all meshes together really well.
That’s awesome. Are you happy with the album?
Brady: We think it came out beautifully.
Peter: We’re very, very happy with it.
Elijah: Yeah we’re real proud of it. A lot of the songs there we’ve been kicking around since high school, so it’s great to see them fully realized here.
Congratulations! Now you guys are touring down the East Coast right now right? How do you like touring?
Brady: Well, we haven’t killed each other yet. (laughs)
Peter: Yeah that’s pretty good. We attempted to grab some dates in between our Portland and Hartford shows, but it didn’t pan out so we just kind of had a mini vacation in Portland with some friends and then went on tour.
Elijah: Yeah the first show in Portland was really successful. We had people hoppin’, we made a killing on merch, so that really kicked it off with high morale.
Brady: But this is the first time that we’ve done this. I mean, we’ve traveled before…
Peter: …we’ve gone to a city to play a show, but we haven’t gone city to city like this before.
What’s your favorite part about it so far?
Brady: It’s a bonding experience, more than anything. I mean, I’ve learned more about Chandler in three days than I would like to have known. (laughs) But yeah, getting to know each other is really fun. I think the most important part of touring isn’t making money, but really for this first tour it’s about seeing how we work outside of our comfort zones, how we work as a unit.
Elijah: I really like seeing the reactions of people. Like, a crowd in Virginia is really different from a crowd in Hartford or a crowd in New York. So the different cultures of people is great, you really get to see who your music resonates with.
Brady: From our experience I’ve learned that Richmond people are head bobbers whereas Maine people go fucking crazy jumping around and stuff.
What’s your favorite city to play in?
Brady: You mean other than our hometown?
Elijah: Maybe New York!
Chandler: DC has always been a great reaction. We’ve never played a bad show in DC, they’re all so much fun.
Brady: I think it’s because the DC kids don’t know what the fuck we are, they’re like “what are these country bumpkins doing here?!”
Chandler: If you’re gonna go anywhere in DC—like if you’re gonna drive from point A to point B—it better be a good show. So outside of Richmond, probably DC.
What would you say is your least favorite part of touring?
Brady: Peter snoring.
Elijah: Yep! (laughs)
Peter: They all bought earplugs. I’m fine with it though, I don’t know what they’re bitching about.
Chandler: I bought a second round because I lost mine and they’re completely necessary.
Of course. So just the hassles of touring: long rides, close quarters, etc.
Peter: Yeah, basically.
Brady: The great part about being with everybody is also the shitty part about being with everybody, really getting to know each other good and bad.
Classic. So you’re going down the coast, you’re ending up at home again, and then what?
Brady: Then we take a short break…
Peter: We have like a mini southern tour at the end of the month, going down to Charleston, SC, and then up to Boone, NC…
Chandler: …2 shows in Richmond and a show in Charlottesville, at UVA, which should be fun. And then we have a fair amount of festivals coming up in August and September around Virginia. We’ve been playing quite a few festivals.
Do you find that you’re growing in popularity?
Chandler: Locally? Definitely. We’ve had an absolutely amazing reaction and support system from Richmond. They’ve been absolutely wonderful to us. We actually just started selling our CD back home in a record store, a very popular store in Richmond, so that was a cool thing.
Who’s in charge here? Who does the logistics?
Peter: Chandler like 80%, 12% me and 8% the rest of them.
And who’s car?
Peter: Mine and his [Elijah’s].
Elijah: Yeah the gear is in my car and the people are in the other car.
Well, that’s lonely for you
Elijah: Well I have a copilot (gestures to Caleb).
That makes sense. So you drove all the way up from Virginia to Maine? What is that, like 15 hours?
Chandler: 12 or 13 with a little bit traffic here and there. We had a really nice time. Portland was amazing. We went to this river called the Saco River and had a blast rope swinging and jumping off cliffs and stuff.
Brady: Yeah you want to see something great, watch him fall off a fucking cliff.
Peter: Yeah, I didn’t fully extend my arms, so when my full weight hit my arms it snapped the rope out of my hands. My chest still hurts!
Brady: These guys [Caleb and friend] jumped off a 60 foot cliff.
Brady: Yeah, I mean you gotta get the jitters out before the first show.
How long have you guys been a band?
Brady: It will be two years in August. But we didn’t play our first show for awhile.
Peter: We’ve been playing shows since… not this past February but the one before that.
So you guys spent what, eight months in rehearsal?
Peter: For the first six month we were just practicing.
Brady: So when we hit the stage we hit it like we knew what we were doing.
Elijah: Again though, we were in a band since high school. And so we already knew each other. Caleb and I have been playing in bands off and on since middle school. Chandler… the way we actually got hooked up with Chandler was he played in the “other band” when we were in high school.
Peter: Yeah there was our band, and then there was “that other band.”
Brady: To be fair though, this all started with that handshake outside of the gas station.
How do you book most of your shows? Just however you can?
Brady: A lot of them have been people contacting us.
Peter: Yeah, like all of our recent Richmond shows have been people coming up to us being like “hey we want to play with you guys”, and then up here we had a friend’s band that we played with in Portland, in Philly we had some friends that we played with, and the whole last leg of our tour we’re with one of our friend’s bands from DC.
Brady: Are you familiar with In The Valley Below?
Chandler: Yeah, we opened up for them a little while ago in Richmond. They hit us up about it. Well actually the radio station hit us up about it, but it’s basically the same thing. We didn’t go begging for it.
Peter: Tell him about Big Field Day
Brady: We opened up for Incubus…
Elijah: That was the thing, though. That was the thing that got us hooked up.
Do you guys take all the shows you can? Do ever say no to show?
Brady: We’re trying to stop playing Richmond so much, just to not oversaturate it.
Peter: Most of the shows we have to say no to are simply because one or two of us actually can’t do it. Like we turned out a festival because he’s on vacation so… can’t do it.
You guys seem to have a lot of fun together. One question I like to ask is: which of you is the best dancer of the five of you?
Peter: Caleb, definitely. (laughter)
Caleb: Yeah, it’s true. The mashed potato is my specialty.
Brady: He gets those hands going and the ladies just faint.
Caleb: I get a lot of moves from Elijah.
Elijah: We got kind of a duo routine going on.
Do you guys stand next to each other on stage?
Elijah: Well I sit at the keyboard.
Brady: He gets to watch. He gets to judge—he’s the one who holds up the scorecards for everyone. (laughter)
How would you define your sound in as few words as possible?Elijah: Oooh, we talked about this.
Brady: Americana Rock (unintelligible arguing) No, never mind. Strike that from the record.
Peter: Soul Rock.
Elijah: Well we have to have “Southern” in it somewhere… so it’s Southern Rock…
Caleb: What’s wrong with Soul Rock?
Chandler: Soul rock was the moniker we were going by.
Brady: Richmond Magazine dubbed us “Soul Rock.”
Chandler: So Soul Rock would be the best way to put it. We have influences from so many different artists that it’s hard to put a label on it.
Elijah: When we started out it was kind of the Allman Brothers and Leonard Skynyrd, then we picked up The Head & The Heart influences.
Chandler: Yeah it started off super bluesy and Southern Rock, but now also we’ve got our bluegrass harmonies down pat.
Peter: Chandler’s weird hip-hop beats.
Chandler: We’ve got some Kings of Leon in there, Black Keys here and there, stuff like that.
That’s awesome, I’m excited for the show. Anything else you want me to know?
Awesome, thanks so much guys!