Trumpeter Allen Branstetter on St. Paul and the Broken Bones' New Album and Working with Alabama Shakes

If Allen Branstetter had been busy on a summer night in 2012, he might have ended up as a lawyer. Just two weeks after taking the LSAT, his roommate and former St. Paul and the Broken Bones trombone player Ben Griner told him the band was recording an EP and wanted some more horns in the studio. So he thought, “Why not?”

By that winter, Branstetter was officially a member of the Birmingham, Alabama-based soul group and realized he had something serious on his hands.

“I sat down to tell my parents I didn’t want to go to law school, I’m going to be in a band,” he says. “That was a real fun conversation to have, by the way.”

So far that decision has worked out just fine. Led by the striking vocals of the band’s namesake Paul Janeway, St. Paul has taken its six-piece act on the road for two world tours in addition to accompanying the Rolling Stones on their 2015 Zip Code tour. The band also has given Branstetter the opportunity to collaborate with fellow Bama rockers the Alabama Shakes on their cover of “Driva Man,” featured on the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack.

While taking a breather in his home town of Fultondale, Alabama, he spoke to Reverb about the band’s evolution on their upcoming second album, his tendency to tinker and what horns bring to a band’s sound.

You started out playing piano when you were a kid, so how did you find your way to the trumpet?

Most every family where I grew up had a piano in their house, so I had kind of a natural gravitation toward it when I was young. But I decided to try the trumpet out in the fifth grade for middle school band. I was entranced by it. I liked how it looked; the fact that it only had three valves on it instead of all the buttons saxophones and clarinets had in my mind made it a bit simpler. And I also liked how loud it was—when you’re 11 years old, you like the loud instruments.

You’re on the Conn-Selmer artist roster and play a Vincent Bach trumpet. Have you always gravitated toward their instruments?

The very first trumpet I ever had was a Bach trumpet, so I’ve been playing those for as long as I’ve been playing the instrument. I experimented with a couple of other brands, but the Bach instruments always seemed to have a bit more character to them.

It feels like I have a bit of a subconscious connection with the instrument. There’s the thought process from thinking of the note to your brain sending the signals for the physical motions that make the note happen. When I find an instrument that’s really special to me, it’s almost like a couple of steps in that process kind of go away and the flow from thought to sound just happens much more naturally. Right now I’m playing a Bach trumpet from around 1977 that I’ve had for about six months.

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What’s your mouthpiece setup?

I keep going back to Warburton. They were one of the first to really popularize a two-piece mouthpiece system, so you can really go through and fine tune all different sizes and shapes of the cup and the backbore until you match it perfectly to you and the instrument for a lesser price point.

Right now I’m making a slight modification. I used a deeper mouthpiece recording what will be the new album, a Warburton 4MD with a KT backbore. That’s the combination I’ve used for nearly three years now, but I’m experimenting with a 5M top and a 4M top, with the same backbore. I’ve always been a tinkerer. Many trumpet players would tell you they’re never satisfied, the same way many guitar players feel about their pedals and amps.

Speaking of the new album, St. Paul and the Broken Bones attracts a lot of comparisons with the Alabama Shakes. Did the band draw any inspiration from Sound & Color for your second record?

I think we’ve gone in very different directions, but the manner in which we evolved is very similar. We both had an EP that got a little bit of traction, a full-length album that was a little bit lo-fi on purpose and recorded with our hair on fire, and then just went out and played as many shows as we could.

When I heard the difference between their first and second album I was really amazed. I definitely think the songwriting got stronger, as it should, but the production quality really stepped up as well. The aesthetic of the album is fantastic, and we’re looking to give our record a step up in the production department just like they did.

One major difference between your sound and theirs is the horn section. What does that bring to your music?

There’s a certain amount of energy that comes with having a horn section that’s really in tune with both itself and the band on stage. It can play so many different roles: On instrumentals the horns are essentially the lead singer, there are songs where they’re more rhythmic like a percussion instrument, on others they can be a support instrument substituting for background vocals.

They can also very easily cross that line into being cheesy, but when used the right way I think it adds another layer, especially when it’s a mixed section. It brings a thickness and a depth to the sound that no other single instrument can really match.

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