This Is Family: Backstage with Richmond’s PumpHouse Blues Band
Blues music is deeply rooted in the past, but its present and future are as wide open as the imagination of those who love it. It’s like jazz in that way. Reinvention is always around the corner, thanks to the uniqueness and devotion of its players.
It’s devotion that drives the members of PumpHouse Blues… to the genre and to one another. That much was made clear when I had the good fortune of sharing lunch with founding member Pete Daniel, who plays bass, and early addition Chris Leitch — a founding member of legendary Richmond group Fighting Gravity, who plays trombone, sings and contributes to PumpHouse songwriting.
They’ve played to crowds numbering in the thousands, at private parties for NASCAR drivers and for the estate of Jimi Hendrix. But, it’s the band’s tight sense of community that keeps PumpHouse motivated to grow and make a name for themselves in the Richmond music scene.
How long has this lineup been together?
Pete Daniel: As we are now, almost two years. But we [Daniel and co-founding guitarist Wayne Chaplin] started about three years ago putting [it] together. It takes time and energy finding the right key people. We had some different drummers and a couple different female singers when we first started [before] we found somebody that gelled. I think what’s neat is not only our age ranges but our life experiences, different backgrounds, and it all comes out when we get together and play.
How did you meet lead singer Lutha Lucas?
Pete Daniel: We really wanted to find somebody who was deeply in the blues or gospel. Somebody who felt the music and could show that [when] singing. Wayne and I went to several gospel churches and listened to people singing, and one day we ended up finding our frontman.
Chris Leitch: [Lutha] lives totally in the present, and if you talk to him, he’s larger than life… He’s totally in the moment. Sometimes what he says, we just go with it. Sort of like James Brown.
Pete Daniel: Lutha is a cross between Lou Rawls and James Brown, and he can swing either way. It’s really cool. He loves it. He feels it. He was an integral part of finding that permanent singer for what we want to do.
Chris Leitch: The lead singer makes it, especially in the blues, because it’s a lot of the similar chords. If you don’t have a singer to pull it off, it’s only going to come across but so good, because the guitar can only play but so much.
Can you describe the type of blues you play?
Pete Daniel: We’re not Mississippi Delta blues. We’re more Chicago, swing-style. We’re rock and roll. We do a lot of covers of rock and roll with a different spin on it. Having the horn section is certainly different. We can use that in different areas… For shows, we’re always bringing in extra people — horn players who are pro guys who maybe don’t fit as a full-time band player, but we like having them in there, and it enhances the horn section… We’ve been able to connect with the 20-something crowd all the way up. They really are digging Lutha. They like his style. They like what he’s doing. That’s been really cool.
What are some of the other ways you connect with audiences?
Pete Daniel: You see a lot of bands out there just standing around. But our band is very interactive. Chris actually will jump off the stage and play his trombone while spinning around… Lutha goes out into the audience and sings to people.
Does it feel like the genre has traction here in Richmond?
Pete Daniel: It’s really tough to get out there, and for bands to expand and do their own stuff. We’re a member of the River City Blues Society here in Richmond. What they do is they’re in charge of keeping the blues alive. They do a lot of school programs, in public schools, to get kids interested in the history of the blues. It’s not all a guy from the 1920s. There’s some great music that has evolved out of the blues, including rock and roll. And they really support bands that are doing their own thing and writing their own music — not just cover bands.
What types of shows have you been enjoying playing lately — gigs where you play covers or opportunities to play more original tunes?
Pete Daniel: We love playing together. That’s the key for us. [Chris has] a family at home. I’ve got a family at home. When we get together, we all love each other. It’s like coming home every time we see each other. Once a week, everybody’s hugging everybody. This is family… When that environment is there, it comes out in the music. And the crowd feels it, and they pick up on it. That’s what we have.
We like playing music together. We don’t care what it is. We love playing. We like to play as [many] covers as we do originals. We don’t have any favorites. What we like is crowd interaction. We want to fill the tables, so we want to interact with that crowd. We’re not there to shove something down their throat. We want to interact with them. And that’s what we’re good at.
Chris Leitch: We also [have] to write a lot more original music. For me, I didn’t come into the band knowing a lot of blues, so all these are originals to me. I’m not always playing what the guy on the record is playing. I’m [taking] my own approach, because I came from a reggae, ska, world-beat kind of thing, and that’s totally different.
What has your writing process been like, given that your background is in genres other than blues?
Chris Leitch: I have to write less. I’m a lyrics guy first. After that, I put the harmonic progressions underneath and build the groove. The lyric is always going to be first. Then, I start throwing chords down and trying to sing the melody over top of that… I’m having to write less [lyrically] to be in this style, because it doesn’t lend itself. It’s more about the space between the lyrics.
To hear PumpHouse Blues, check out their recently released CD entitled PUMPED, which was recorded at In Your Ear Studios here in Richmond. To see the interactive PumpHouse Blues experience for yourself, head to Home Team Grill on Dec. 14. For contact and booking information, visit their website at PumpHouseBlues.com.