Tasting the Tonic: An Interview with Medicine Tent

Photo credit: Melissa Fossum

Photo credit: Melissa Fossum

I did it. I tasted the tonic. And I’m not going back.

Medicine Tent, local Phoenix band with funky rhythm, retro style, and quirk for miles let me ask them a few questions. Here’s what happened.

Medicine Tent is:

Nicholas DiBiase – Bass guitar

Michelle Kable – Vocals

Mike Logan – Electric Guitar

Bryan Mok – Saxophone

Brad Stell – Drums (unavailable for the interview)

 ********

How did the name Medicine Tent come about?

Bryan:  I think we’ll all defer to Mike and Nicholas for this one.

Mike:  Nicholas and I originally played in a band together called Rocketship 3D that exclusively played vintage rock n’ roll. Two Novembers ago, we were asked to play Word Camp–a WordPress convention in Chandler–but our drummer at the time couldn’t make it. So, we formed a small lounge act featuring me, Nicholas, Jon Rodis, and Michelle; the latter two were not part of our band at the time. Since the lineup of musicians and the songs we were playing were outside of the typical Rocketship mold, we decided to brand the project differently for that specific gig.

Well, one of the songs we were covering that night was “Walk on Gilded Splinters” by Dr. John, a real atmospheric, voodoo-inspired tune. Incidentally, Nicholas has an alter ego that he sometimes reveals to the public. The character is a loose caricature of Dr. John, complete with Gris Gris (amulets and such) and garbed appropriately in a green polyester leisure suit. Nicholas smartly named this character Dr. Snake.

So, half jokingly, I suggested we call ourselves Dr. Snake’s Medicine Tent to conjure up images of slick snake oil salesmen of the late 19th and early 20th century that used music and shows to lure in customers–and with the hope that Nicholas would revive his Dr. Snake persona for live shows.

After that gig, we reverted back to Rocketship, but the lineup of the band started changing. Michelle began singing lead for most of Rocketship’s shows; we invited Bryan to play sax on a handful of songs as a special guest; our original drummer and bassist left the band. So we did what we could to keep going. Nicholas picked up the bass, Bryan became a soloist during most songs, and we got Brad on board to play drums. With the new lineup, the music shifted, too. We decided that the Rocketship brand wasn’t a fitting description of this new project. So we decided to change names. I forget specifically who drug out Dr. Snake’s Medicine Tent, but it was back, shortened for brevity’s sake, and adopted.

How would you describe the music of Medicine Tent?

Mike:  We make dance music. Music that makes you want to move. Music that makes you want to grab your girl or pull your man in close and dance. It’s music that makes you want to celebrate and have fun. We consciously eschewed shoe-gazing, self indulgent, irony-filled tunes in favor of feel good dance music. A person far wiser than me said, “You can’t be down when you’re singing and dancing and clapping.” We try to set the table for people to enjoy themselves.

So, yeah, taste our tonic.

Who/what are you inspired by, individually and as a band?

Nicholas:  As a band, we’re inspired by RnB and dance music from the early 50s through present day. We have a particular inclination toward New Orleans RnB and funk, circa the 60s and 70s. Myself, I’m a cloned funkateer and lifelong devotee of James Brown, George Clinton, Prince, Ohio Players, and I have a special affinity for contemporary RnB and pop a la Janet Jackson, Chaka Khan, D’Angelo, and Frank Ocean.

Michelle:  Our individual influences are best heard in the original music we perform. You can hear Mike’s love of Louisiana and his appreciation of RnB, Nicholas’s passion for good rock n’ roll tunes with solid lyrics and clever arrangements, Bryan’s jazz interests, Brad’s appreciation of a steady beat, and my love for strong female vocalists with Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Janis Joplin.

Bryan:  Allen Toussaint would probably be our single biggest influence as a band. As the saxophonist of the group, I draw a lot of my personal musical inspiration and influence from jazz giants like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, as well as classic RnB saxophone great King Curtis.

Photo credit: Tony Deschiney

Photo credit: Tony Deschiney

What can people expect out of a Medicine Tent show?

Mike:  So many of the songs we cover are classic New Orleans-style RnB songs from the 60s–”Lipstick Traces,” “Fortune Teller,” “A Certain Girl,” “Mother-in-Law,” and “Breakaway” are all Crescent City hits of our parents’ and grandparents’ era. These songs were the live soundtrack to many fetes and street parties back home in the 60s and 70s–loud, outdoor parties filled with the smells of gumbo and bourbon and camellias! That’s a bit of the vibe we want to recreate with every show.

Nicholas:  Our entire concept is related to the tradition of the earliest societies of using music and dance as a way to get everybody involved in a communal expression of life, love, and raw feeling. A Medicine Tent show is like a high-energy, ecstatic social ritual. The line between us and the audience is completely blurred.

So you can expect serious rump shaking, hormone-drenched dance madness. Bad decisions. Sweat.

Best band moment/biggest accomplishment thus far?

Nicholas:  Every gig we play is our biggest moment right then–though I gotta say, our appearance at Crescent Ballroom was certainly the most memorable, along with our performance at the wedding of a local music icon, Ben Broyles!

Michelle:  I’d say our biggest accomplishment is that after a year of hard work, we’re still making new music, finding great events to be a part of, and getting our name out there.

Bryan:  The best band moment for me was being up on the Crescent Ballroom’s main stage. There was something truly satisfying about playing on the stage of my favorite local music venue and seeing people dancing to our music in the crowd.

Mike:  We’ve stuck together through a lot of setbacks, too, a lot of rearranging of the band. We’ve had tremendous resiliency. And we’re bringing music to the people of Phoenix that is pretty rare and seated in great tradition. That’s a huge accomplishment.

If you could choose one word to describe Medicine Tent, what would it be?

Michelle:  Medicine.

Bryan:  Fun.

Mike:  Tonic.

Nicholas:  Sex.

******

You can taste Medicine Tent’s tonic at the Arizona Epilepsy Foundation’s Gatsby Mardi Gras Gala this Saturday night (tickets are still available!) or Wednesday, February 27th when they play the Lost Leaf alongside Frequent Kings. Check out the Facebook invite for full info.

To tide you over, here’s a musical snack for you all, Medicine Tent covering Ike and Tina Turner’s “You Shoulda Treated Me Right” for Under Cover for the Phoenix New Times.

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