BY JOHN MCCURDY / MANAGING EDITOR //
Trust me: You want to see Occidental Gypsy at Steve’s Live Music on Fri., Feb. 15.
First of all, I doubt you’ve seen a group with such a diverse repertoire. If you can name another band that does a fantastic rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as well as a touching original instrumental inspired by the story of Holocaust survivor Rudolf Vrba – plus a bunch of other happening gypsy pop tunes in between – well, color me impressed.
Secondly, it’s not often enough that listeners are treated to a tight vocal harmony, foot-stomping rhythm or mean fiddle. All these elements, this New England quintet incorporates beautifully, and each member brings their personal influences (which range from grunge to jazz) to the table.
Third and finally, this will be the first time Occidental Gypsy has played in Georgia, and – besides a performance at Blowin’ Smoke BBQ in Savannah the night after the Steve’s gig – the guys “don’t know” when they’ll be back. In other words, catch them while you can!
The AJT had the privilege of chatting with frontman Scottie Kulman to hear a bit more about the band’s background, inspirations and approach.
Atlanta Jewish Times: Take me back to your musical beginning.
Scottie Kulman: The man who would have been my uncle – my mother’s brother – sadly passed away when he was 16. I’m actually named for him.
One thing about [my namesake] that’s cool is that he played guitar. So there was this old dusty guitar, could barely tune it up but looked really cool, always sitting in the house. So growing up, I identified with him – saw pictures of him, heard stories about him – and [the guitar] was sort of what was left behind for me. It felt natural to pick it up.
The first song I played on it was “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, and I was addicted from there.
AJT: By going to Berklee University, you’re pretty much making the decision that you want music to be your life, your career. At what point did you know that that was what you wanted?
SK: I guess you still wonder about it sometimes [laughs]. It’s definitely a long journey, but it’s my passion, and I feel blessed to know that for myself. I think there are a lot of people wandering the earth wondering what their life’s purpose, or their calling, is. So I’m incredibly blessed for knowing that at a really young age and sticking to it.
And in terms of going to school for it…coming from a Jewish family, everyone’s supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer [laughs], so the least I could do for my poor grandmother was go to college for music. But I don’t regret a moment of it; it was a great experience, not to mention I met the other guys in the band through school.
AJT: I read the “origin story” of Occidental Gypsy on the website – how you and Brett [Feldman, on guitar] met on a park bench. So from there, in terms of meshing together and finding these different parts – it seems almost like it was meant to be.
SK: It’s hard to call it: Chicken or egg, if it was meant to be or if it just worked out. It’s just one of those things that we’ll decide when we write our memoirs at the end of our lives, how it all worked out [laughs]. We’re definitely an interesting and eclectic mix of backgrounds and personalities, culturally and musically. I think that diversity really adds to our sound and our image.
In terms of the changes, where the band started and where it’s gotten to, it’s quite different. We started out as a quartet, called the “Occidental Gypsy Jazz Quartet.” It existed prior to my coming on board, and they pretty much stuck to Django [Reinhardt] tunes and doing covers of some songs as gypsy versions.
Then, when I came on, the proposition became to make our own music and make a record. So that really helped us determine our sound and get started.
AJT: Finally, what is it that you hope audience members feel and take away from the concert at Steve’s?
SK: Well, I really hope they take away a t-shirt and a CD…[laughs]. In all seriousness, we pride ourselves on making sure that everyone leaves with a smile. That’s a big thing about the music we play – it’s charming, upbeat, positive and energizing.
It’s acoustic, so it’s easy on the ears, but it’s energized by the gypsy rhythms and excitement. It’s a really fun mix for people to enjoy, and – I don’t know if I can offer a money-back guarantee [laughs] – but I do think that anyone who comes is really going to enjoy themselves.
My plan is to have fun; we’ll be having fun on stage, and that energy should definitely translate to the audience.
Visit steveslivemusic.com for tickets to the Feb. 15 show; visit occidentalgypsy.com to sample or purchase the band’s new album, “Over Here.”