Tribal Tech: Rekindling & Reinventing

An uncompromising fusion band remakes itself on first album since 2000

Gary Willis
Scott Kinsey
Kirk Covington
Tribal Tech

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In the late ’80s, the hard-edged, fiercely uncompromising fusion band Tribal Tech established itself as the heir apparent to Weather Report. Formed in 1985 by guitar renegade Scott Henderson, the group underwent various personnel changes through its first four recordings (with the exception of fretless electric bassist Gary Willis, a charter member). By the band’s fifth album, 1992’s Illicit, the lineup had been solidified with the addition of inventive synth player Scott Kinsey and powerhouse drummer Kirk Covington. They followed with four potent outings in 1993’s Face First, 1995’s Reality Check, 1999’s Thick and 2000’s Rocket Science, all marked by their penchant for wild experimentation and remarkable interplay.

Then, at the peak of its powers, following a European tour in 2002, Tribal Tech dissolved. (Or so it seemed.) While Tribal Tech had cultivated a rabid following both in the States and Europe, the group never made the leap from nightclubs to concert halls the way that Weather Report or Yellowjackets did. Meanwhile, the increasing costs of carrying a ton of gear from gig to gig-at a time when promoters were offering less and less money-made touring impractical. So the players went their separate ways.

Henderson formed a scaled-down blues trio that was easier to tour and more profitable than Tribal Tech had ever been. Willis became an in-demand clinician and, in 2004, moved to Barcelona, where he began playing on the Catalonian jazz scene and teaching at the prestigious Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya Conservatory. His 2007 solo album, Actual Fiction, featured Covington on drums. Kinsey formed his own L.A.-based group, which sometimes included Henderson, and produced albums by other artists. He also got involved in soundtrack work, including scores for Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve. In 2006, he released his solo debut, Kinesthetics, which featured guest appearances by his Tribal Tech bandmates, and in 2008 formed Human Element with bassist Matthew Garrison, drummer Gary Novak and percussionist-vocalist Arto Tuncboyaciyan. Covington freelanced around Los Angeles and also worked with Henderson’s blues trio. In 2008, he formed his own funk-fusion group, Cpt Kirk, with keyboardist Scott Tibbs and bassist Rufus Philpot.

Last year, the four Tribal Tech members met up again to rekindle their chemistry in the studio on X, the band’s 10th effort overall and first recording in 12 years. The impetus for their reunion was Willis’ trip back to Texas to visit his family. “He hadn’t been home in a long time,” says Henderson, “so when he told us he was coming, we called [label head] Mike Varney at Tone Center [Records] and told him we wanted to do a Tribal Tech record. Mike was really into it, so we flew Willis from Texas to Los Angeles.”

For Kinsey, it was like no time had passed at all. “We got together at my place, after all these years, and it was weird because there were almost no hellos. We just came in the room, got set up and once we started playing you realized, ‘This is what it sounds like when the four of us play together.’ If just one person in the lineup is different, it just isn’t this thing.”

Gregarious man-mountain Covington brought his usual disarming sense of humor to the session: “We showed up at Kinsey’s and I immediately started singing, ‘What a diff’rence 4,786 days make.’ And it was comedy all around, like the first week we spent in the van together on tour 20 years ago.”

“Of course, we’ve all grown and changed in our own ways,” adds Kinsey. “But it still has this kind of brand or trademarked thing. There’s just something about it, and you’re not going to find it with any other human beings. It’s like a DNA thing.”

Part of Tribal Tech’s signature sound can be attributed to the rhythm tandem of Covington and Kinsey, who met at North Texas State University in the fall of 1978 and had an instant connection. “We played serious bop, all day every day,” says the keyboardist. “We cut our teeth playing in Top 40 bands, then played together in Bert Ligon’s band Condor. Years later we jumped into the Tribal Tech/Weather Report-esque vibe. And on the first day of this new Tribal Tech recording, it was the same shit. I think we just have the same time concept, where we like to feel it. I never have to talk to him about where it’s at. We just hit it and it’s there, whether it’s funk, fusion or swing.”

Adds Willis, “I suppose there have been rare occasions where it’s been necessary to discuss an instinct or a direction we want to explore, but mostly I suppose it’s the result of having similar but flexible imaginations.”

While the process of recording X involved the same jam-in-the-studio method as 1999’s Thick and 2000’s Rocket Science, Henderson, Kinsey and Willis went back after the initial tracking and altered those spontaneous jams until they had meticulously crafted arrangements that bridged improvisation and composition. As Henderson explains, “On the early Tribal Tech records we were just recording this music that we wrote out, and there’s not quite as much interplay because we hadn’t been touring at that point and we were a real young group. So there’s a sterility to them. Then, when we started touring, we began to realize that if we wrote too much music, things started to sound the same every night. So we went the total opposite way and started jamming a lot onstage.”

That led to Thick, where they went into the studio with no blueprint and jammed spontaneously. “Both Thick and Rocket Science came out too much toward the jamming end,” says Henderson. “It was that Bitches Brew type of thing where it tended to stay in one key and not go many places harmonically. And I think that may have alienated some of the fans that were really into the early Tribal Tech stuff. So on this record, all the elements of jamming and freedom and interplay between musicians are there, but we worked a lot harder on making them into tunes.”

An exception was the harmonically lush ballad “Palm Moon Plaza,” which went down as-is on the basic tracks. “Don’t get me wrong, we can’t read each other’s minds,” says Henderson. “But we’re all in the same control room, within two feet of each other, so we can call changes as we’re playing. … So we kind of lucked out on that one and created this nice ballad from nothing. That was, to me, the biggest achievement on the record, because the least had to be done to it.”

Other tunes required major surgery in post-production. “Gravity” began as an improv between Kinsey and Covington, and Henderson and Willis added their parts later. For “Ask Me a Question,” Henderson says, “I didn’t care for what I played on the basic tracks so I decided to go for something different and added electric sitar-guitar. And when Kinsey heard that, he decided to take it more in my direction by adding the Middle Eastern lines.”

Henderson calls this method risky but fun. “I’m from the old school,” he says, “where you compose a tune, you rehearse it, you go out on the road and play it, then you come into the studio and record it, mix it, master it … and by the time it’s over, you never want to hear that music again in your life. But this way of doing it, everything seems so fresh. We don’t take much away from the jam session, we add to it. It’s like we paint on top of it, adding melodies and harmonies and stuff.”

Given the current global economic downturn, it’s unlikely Tribal Tech will be able to tour in 2012. But fans can check out the group’s next step on X. “I always felt we were way ahead of the game back in the ’90s,” says Covington. “And after hearing this record I’d say we’re still ahead of the game. It went deeper, was way more thoughtful and fresh. But it still sounded like Tribal Tech.”