"You've got to be born to do this," says Mary Frances, keyboardist for Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty band. She's talking about a number of things — being on stage, being on the road and being the lone woman in a six-piece funk outfit. "You've got to love the journey," she says.
Frances joined the Asheville-based band in 2009. At that point, the group was seven years in, and had already seen changes both in its lineup and its sound. The group moved to Asheville from Boone in 2006 — one of its early iterations included singer/guitarist Josh Phillips who left to form his own band, Josh Phillips Folk Festival. The Booty Band played numerous Bele Cheres, spurring the crowd with high-energy jams — the band pogoing around the stage.
That same indefatigable enthusiasm is still part of the Booty Band but, "since Lee and I joined, it's more of an electronic standpoint," says Frances. She's talking about her partner (both onstage and offstage), drummer Lee Allen, with whom she also shares the band Eymarel. (Eymarel is a mash-up of their first names.)
But from folk-funk and dance-funk to electro-funk, the Booty Band has always been based in the genre. Now it's "funk you can head bang to," says Frances. "More of a dirty funk. I have a Moog Little Phatty — I love to put synth on any song."
That new sound can be heard on the forthcoming sophomore studio album, Doin' It Hard. This is the band's first release since '07s Now You Know, and it comes out swinging. "True Battle" launches with a shout and a snarl of horns and builds from there. (Horns have always played a major role in the Booty Band; sax player Greg Hollowell and trombonist Derrick Johnson, along with Frances and Allen, moonlight in studio players-turned-live-band Asheville Horns.)
Instrumental track "Neat Little Package" showcases what the band can do as a whole, stirring up a party feel and then dropping easily into a silky groove of brass and bass.
There's plenty of adrenaline in Doin' It Hard, and yet, even though the Booty Band is known for its live show, the album was recorded in the studio with little in the way of audience reciprocity.
"We wanted to get in our zone," says Frances. The album was recorded in June of 2010 at City of Progress, the Miami studio of DJ Le Spam. Some of the overdubs took place at Echo Mountain; at press time the record was being mastered (with funds from a Kickstarter campaign) and the band hopes to have copies at its Orange Peel show this week.
The album was recorded to tape rather than digitally. "The warmth of that analog sound really brings you into the room, so you feel like part of the recording," says Frances. "We do a lot of hype tracks inside of the recording, so you'll hear a lot of hootin' and hollerin' and talking from Al [Ingram, bassist and singer] because he does a lot of that on stage anyway."
She says that in the live show, the audience reaction creates "a circle — you give out as much as you give back."
"Lovin'," with its jazz-flute intro and syncopated beat, is an infectious track, one that demonstrates how the Booty Band gets that give-and-take started with its fans. The lead vocal on that song, soaring and lithe, is Frances'. Even on a stripped-down preview video, recorded in a living room, Frances is a powerhouse singer. "I pride myself on being a player," she says. "I love to sing, but I really love to play." Her publishing company is called "Sing a little, play a lot."
"I just want to represent the female aspect, the power of our voice through music," she says. "I get up there and I give it all I've got, every show. If the crowd wants it, I'll take my keytar and get down in the crowd."
Frances says it is special when she meets other bands with female players in the male-dominated music industry. But her own experience touring with the Booty Band is largely positive. "It's basically like having brothers," she says. "These guys are the most respectful guys. Everybody in the band is super-conscious and aware, which is good coming from Asheville and spreading out around the country." Traveling with her partner helps. She says she and Allen are "a team”; there's the sense that Frances truly loves what she does for a living.
"When you stop, you never have to wait in line for the bathroom," she jokes. "Come on! That's the rarest thing as a woman." Frances also points out that it's empowering to be a woman on the road with a band, and she genuinely enjoys tour, from trying new foods and beers to meeting new people. Currently, she lists California and Colorado among the Booty Band's biggest audiences.
And then there are the nicknames. Long hours in the van lend to thinking up alter egos: Ingram is "Sweet Nasty," Allen is "Instafunk," Hollowell (whose middle name is Robert) is "Greg-Bob," Frances is "Mama Funk" and guitarist JP Miller is "Smoke Machine.” But when it comes to tour manager Arieh Samson, nicknames never stick, says Frances.
Johnson more than makes up for Samson's lack of nicknames, however: The trombone player has "like 15 nicknames," says Frances. "Professor Legs" — as smart and jumpy as the band’s sound — is a favorite.
who: Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band (Dopapod opens)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Nov. 18 (9 p.m., $10 advance or $12 doors. http://theorangepeel.net)