Posted On 24 Oct 2018
On their EggHunt Records debut Common Knowledge, Richmond, VA’s Mekong Xpress deliver a timelessly soulful set that incorporates a visionary assortment of stylistic influences. Such infectious band-penned originals as “Games,” “Light On,” “Canyon Road” and the haunting title track exemplify the ensemble’s organic, dynamic approach, echoing the musicians’ shared grounding in vintage blues, funk, R&B and southern gospel while maintaining a bracing, distinctive songwriting voice that’s wholly their own.
Mekong Xpress’ compellingly original stew has been brewing since the ensemble first convened in 2012. The seasoned musicians quickly went from inspired, informal jammers to band-mates when An Mekong, owner of the Richmond Vietnamese restaurant Mekong, encouraged them to join forces after noticing that the restaurant was full of musicians every Monday night. What began as a loose weekly jam session soon evolved into a full-fledged band, and the resulting chemistry is there for all to hear on Common Knowledge.
Prior to pursuing their musical destiny in Mekong Xpress, the future band-mates had experienced all manner of individual and collective musical adventures, accumulating some impressive credits along the way.
“This isn’t a band put together by a person or people with an agenda,” Herrington notes. “We just found ourselves suddenly making music together but, in its own strange organic way, it became something bigger than that and took on a life of its own.”
In addition to playing in Mekong Xpress, bassist Herrington is a noted visual artist, holding a degree in sculpture with a minor in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University; he’s also released an acclaimed solo album, and is a recipient of the prestigious Theresa Pollard Award in honor of his outstanding contribution to the arts.
Meanwhile, keyboardist Ben White holds a Jazz Performance Degree from VCU’s prestigious School of Music, and has performed and/or recorded with the Trongone Band, Former Champions, DJ Williams Projekt and the Cris Jacobs Band.
Guitarist Andrew Rapisarda also maintains a busy extracurricular musical life, and has made music with such icons as George Porter Jr., Karl Denson and a long list of other notable collaborators.
Drummer (and budding pod-caster) Kelli Strawbridge’s numerous career highlights include playing with Savion Glover in front of a crowd of 9,000-plus in Mexico City. On his home turf, he’s worked with a wide assortment of acts including Jason Arce (aka Blood Orange), Devonne Harris and Mikrowaves.
Although it’s an impressively cohesive piece of work that showcases the band’s collective vision as well as the musicians’ individual skills, Common Knowledge came together in piecemeal fashion during rare breaks in the players’ busy schedules, with the band recording at Richmond’s Montrose Studios under the production supervision of Todd Herrington. The resulting performances demonstrate what happens when talented, adventurous musicians share their ideas and experiences to create music that they love.
“We made the record over a handful of sessions,” Herrington explains. “We played live together in the studio, and then added some things on top of that. In some cases, we were creating and recording in real time. There was no pressure, just creative fun. In working that way, we found that we work well together, and can come up with something interesting when we collaborate.”
Mekong Xpress are accompanied, throughout Common Knowledge and often on stage, by their longstanding companion combo the Get Fresh Horns, whose individual backgrounds are as diverse and as impressive as those of the main group.
Mekong Xpress’ members have managed to make a collective mark with Common Knowledge, while continuing to tend to a wide range of other musical projects.
“We’re all currently committed to other bands, or are on the road and recording with different artists, but we wholeheartedly believe in the music we’re making with Mekong Xpress,” Herrington asserts. “We seem to be the band that other bands come to see, which tells me that what we have is worth exploring. With Common Knowledge, we’re hoping to reach people who love music the way we do. At this point, our plan is to keep creating and making music that we find interesting, and hope that people respond to that.”
Learn more about Mekong Express in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! What is on tap for the rest of your day?
Todd-Absolutely. I’m up early today trying to knock out a stop-motion/ animation promo for our “Common Knowledge” single release.
Bob- Rest of my day – just got done a rehearsal with Bio Ritmo, which I’ve been in for 23 years. Then I’ve got a rehearsal with a large jazz ensemble that’s getting together for the first time.
Ben- Out here on tour in the way to Kansas City.
Since we are now at the back-end of 2018, how has this year treated this band? What is one musical goal that you have had for this year? How close are you to reaching it?
Todd- It’s been a great year for this band. Our intent was to birth a record before the new year, & we did that. Feels good & we’re all really proud of the album.
Bob- Good year for the band. We’ve got a record coming out! Goal: put the record out. We’ll reach it in about a week.
Ben- It’s been great finishing up this record for the past year.
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could be in this group together? Was it hard to think of a name that you could agree on?
Todd- I’d say once we figured out we could write well together & enjoyed the process, it became apparent that this was something unique & special. Someone outside of the band actually came up with the name early on & at that point we weren’t taking anything too seriously, so it just sort of stuck.
Bob- Todd called the horns in to do a few gigs with rest of the band 4 or 5 (or 6?) years ago. We did a few and then started playing every week. It was already called Mekong Xpress when we joined. Somebody came up with The Get Fresh Horns and it stuck.
Ben- It took a couple years to solidify a lineup. Once we settled on the lineup we have now, I knew there was potential to be a good band.
How do you think your hometowns have influenced the sound and how you all carry yourselves in this group?
Todd- Our hometown is in our blood. It effects everything we do. Richmond is a special place. It’s really hard to put into words, but from an artistic standpoint, it has a way of shaping the outcome of a project.
Ben- We’ve all been in Richmond for a long time, some of us born and raised, so the band is like a group of friends that happened to play music together.
How has your various musical backgrounds helped shape the sound of Mekong Xpress?
Todd- Yeah I’d say so. We all have a deep love & appreciation of music. We all love the same stuff, but also have just enough different interests to make writing & arranging together interesting.
Bob- We as a Horn section have been playing together in various bands and on recordings for quite a while so I’d say our horn section sound has had an impact on the band. We all came from jazz backgrounds (the horns) but we’ve played together in just about every situation you could think of from salsa to soul to math rock.
Ben- We all have common bands that we love. I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music over the past couple years.
Let’s talk about your forthcoming debut album, “Common Knowledge.” What was it like putting this collection together? Did anything surprise you about the overall process? How long did it take to make it? How will you celebrate the release of it on October 19th?
Todd- We’ve been chipping away at the record since 2014. We would record sporadically when our schedules permitted. Very easy & natural process. We were learning and growing together so everything was a surprise really. We had a hometown early release show on 9/28 & that was beautiful. Lots of friends & just a kind of magical night. On 10/19…we’ll see.
Bob- The record came together over a long period of time but we didn’t spend that much time in the studio at all. It just took us a while to find the time to get together and do it.
Ben- It took a few years to make, but we didn’t actually spend that much time in the studio. I think we recorded all the music in 4 or 5 10 hour sessions. We mixed, mostly Todd, the album a few times over.
While it’s difficult, can you pick out a few of your favorite songs on this album and talk about how they were inspired and then got to be on this album?
Todd – I know we all love “Common Knowledge”. Musically it sums us up, & it’s a pretty personal song as well. Sometime life gets you busy & narrows the peripheral. And when that happens, you can lose touch with people, important people, in your life. And even though you’re busy & maybe haven’t seen them in a while, you still care. We found out a friend was going through some hard times, & “Common Knowledge” is basically a love letter to that person, & a reminder that we’re still here for them regardless.
Ben- We needed one more song for Rap to sing. So me, Kelli, Todd, and Rap all gathered in the backroom of my house. I sat down by my piano, Todd with his bass, Rap his guitar and Kelli, not with his normal drum set, no…this time he had a drum machine app on his phone. We were all a little apprehensive that day. What would we come up with? Would it be good enough to stand beside the other songs on the album? These were questions stewing around in our heads. But when Kelli hit play on the drum machine, something happened. A switch was turned on, not a “Light On”, no. This time, it was “Common Knowledge” that was turned on in our hearts and minds. And we knew exactly what to do with this knowledge.
Why do you think Egghunt Records is the right place for this group and your music today?
Todd – Egghunt has close ties to home, works with bands we all admire, & are our friends. So, that’s a nice place to be with your record company hahaha.
How have you all been able to balance your time with this group and with you other bands? How does the music of them all compare to this group’s sound?
Todd- Mekong Xpress is different than any other project I’m involved with right now. The sound, the personnel, the history. We’re all making our livings with other bands, so this is something we enjoy, & do for fun with hopes that it finds an audience who’ll appreciate what we’ve created. Bob- e generally all stay busy with our other projects but somehow are usually able to get together to do our weekly gig on Mondays.
Ben- Having the Monday night weekly gig is a lifesaver. That’s were we try out new songs. But we also get up and hang/work on music whenever we can.
Where do you think you are all happiest- in the studio recording new music, on stage performing or elsewhere?
Todd- I’d say both as a band, personally I’m enjoying the studio right now.
Bob- I’m happy on stage and in the studio. I’m lucky to get to make music with my friends on a regular basis. I play in multiple groups with a lot a of the guys in this band. I get hired a lot to go into the studio as sideman for other bands and artists and I love that.
Ben- All of those go hand in hand for me.
Do you have any upcoming fall or winter tours planned? Where can fans see you perform next?
Todd- We play every Monday night at The Answer Brewpub in RVA. As I said, we’re all committed to other bands, so that makes touring difficult.
Do you find that all of social media and keeping up with your fans has gotten so overwhelming? OR do you rely heavily on others to take care of that for the band? Which platform would you say that you enjoy engaging with the most?
Todd – Everything we do is in house. We have a great PR team, but the product is all made by our hands. Instagram has been fun.
Ben- We have a couple of publicists but we take care of the instagram for the band and our personal pages.
We are currently living through a very trying and politically charged time right now so I am curious to know how you all think being musicians and in this band still gives you the most joy in life today? Do you find that your music is an escape to all the current events?
Todd- Music is a passion and an escape. It’s very personal, but brings everyone together. I don’t see how anyone could live without music, especially right now.
Ben- I don’t know how to express myself politically, just musically. I don’t have enough knowledge to speak about politics. But people can learn about my belief system through my lyrics, I think.
What musicians would you love to work with in the future? What artists have really been inspiring this group and your music since day 1?
Todd – Personally, I’d like to work with a lot of people in & around Richmond. I think our local art & music scene has inspired us all since day one. There is such a wealth of talent & passion here, it fuels you.
Ben- ‘d like to go on tour with a band or musicians that have been at it for a long, long time and are still making good music and are healthy and learn from them. The melodies of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Mozart, etc. were the first things that I remember liking when I was first playing piano in middle school and high school. And I still listen to and play those songs.
What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?
Todd- I don’t know. Love, happiness, maybe an escape. We hope that people get a sense of the care & love we put into creating this music. We’re living in a polarized time & injecting people with some love & happiness seems like a good idea.
Bob- I think this album has a classic/timeless sound and I hope it gives us a chance to get out there more as a band. Ben- I don’t think there is one underlying message. Personally, I think the best way to answer that is to just refer to my lyrics.
Would you like to share anything else about your music or the history of this band to our readers?
Todd – Just that we were brought together by a guy that has given so much of himself & his love to our community, & it’s an honor to be a part of his story. He’s given us our story, & a home.
Ben- I hope the songs can invoke a feeling in people and maybe they can learn something about themselves or the world.