The music begins with a jaunty melody, a winding force that slowly grows into the spinal cord of a song. When Ryan "Bruce" Hodson and Chris Walker met and started jamming in the basement, they were just playing. Just for shits and grins, they like to say.
Taking cues from the stuff they listened to, the duo was quick to realize that jam music—full-on improvisation—was incredibly fun to play. They'd jam for hours. In short order, Steve Fade started coming by to play bass. They soon wound up with a gig at the Beachland, but they didn't have a name for the band.
"We were brainstorming band names, and everything kept coming back to something about chopping broccoli," Hodson says. "We were really into that Dana Carvey SNL skit at the time." Walker hit the nail on the head with the goofy but alluring name Broccoli Samurai.
The band as it stands currently—Hodson on keys, Walker on the drums, Fade on bass, and guitarist John McCarron—has evolved quite a bit since its auspicious beginnings. But the sentiment and the goals remain the same. There's that delicate dedication to both the heady, ethereal soundscapes and groovy, makes-ya-wanna-dance melodies.
"We had about a minute and a half of material, but people dug it," Hodson says, thinking back to the first show. Thankfully, their improv chops carried the rest of the set and garnered them their first few fans. Everything's gotten bigger since then.
Broccoli Samurai is set to drop their first full-length album, You Had to Be There. But their show this weekend at the Beachland will showcase the goods in technicolor.
"The first time we ever jammed," Fade recounts, going back to those hazy days in 2009, "we knew where it was going without communicating with each other. There's a connection there that you don't just get with every other musician." That much is true onstage and in the basement practice sessions.
"There's a lot of listening to everyone else—not just yourself," McCarron says, pointing to how improvisation drives the band. He's been playing regularly with Broccoli Samurai for about six months now after first showing up for the band's Christmas show last year. Prior to all that, McCarron had been playing in more straightforward rock bands. Now, the structure is looser. The focus is on the moment at hand.
The band likens much of the songwriting process to a puzzle. There are no lyrics here, so the musicians have to find much more abstract ways to get their messages across. Brandon Goldstein, the man behind the mixing board throughout the studio sessions, agrees.
"A lot of it was taking their basement tapes, you know, their three-hour jams and listening to them four or five times. So after about 12 hours into listening to it, I'd come out with anywhere from 30 seconds of usable stuff to a couple minutes," Goldstein says. "You take pieces and parts. They might jam for 30 minutes on this one riff just to figure it out in the basement—and you take that riff and you listen to a few other jams. So 40 hours into it, you kinda take a little from each piece, put it together, and polish it off to turn it into something real."
The new stuff sounds like an enticing blend of the past and the present. Tucked in among the familiar Broccoli Samurai sound that fans have come to know and love are little blips and nuanced accents. There's both a depth and a breadth to the music that's springing from the foundation the guys have laid down over the years.
The highly rhythmic elements remain, to be sure. And each song has clear portals into open-ended playing that the band is definitely going to pursue onstage.
Goldstein says that the album is structured as more of a rock album; there are clear compositional lines drawn in the music. In that way, there's an accessibility to Broccoli's latest stuff that a lot of jam bands end up missing.
"They can be played as three-and-a-half-minute or five-minute songs, like on the album, or they can be played as 35-minute performances," he says.
Something for everyone. Broccoli Samurai's ethos is built on fun and a deep commitment to keeping those dancing shoes grooving. The latest batch of tunes does just that and offers entry points for both seasoned heads and the uninitiated.
Clearly, in hanging out at shows here in Cleveland, there's a pretty vibrant jam scene unfolding. Hodson and the rest of the band see a big burst of momentum taking place among all the different bands. There's a camaraderie on and off the stage, all of which helps cultivate really freakin' innovative music for the people.
"When we first started, there was a big decline. A lot of the well-known bands in the region were starting to fizzle out. But a lot of the forefront work from bands like the Werks and Papadosio kinda helped a resurgence along," Hodson says. "Recently, I've definitely seen multiple new albums coming out with stuff, whether it's jam-oriented or it's got that jam essence to it. Aliver Hall, Jones For Revival, Boogie Matrix, Tropidelic..."
These days, Cleveland indeed has a terrific jam scene, as the guys in Broccoli explain. There's good music happening all over town nearly every night of the week. And the key has always been that commitment to the free-flowing moment, to the underlying mystery of what lies beyond every note.
"There's always been this fascination of mine to listen to these albums and know these songs in and out," Hodson says. "Then you would go see these live shows and they play that song you know, but it was different. That just always got me." And that's a certain linchpin in the ongoing mission of Broccoli Samurai. Come for the music, sure, but stay for the trip, the odyssey.