“I sort of approach things with a Frank Zappa attitude,” professes Peace Jones front man Paul DeCirce. He’s talking about the organization of his funk-jam group, but he could also be talking about the art-rock ingenuity underlying the party-hearty hip-hop and reggae-infused cadences. (By the way, it’s unquestionably his project — he writes and produces all the material.)
What’s so arty about Peace Jones, at first glance, is the use of the flute, especially when layered between ’70s-style keyboard solos and quirky spoken-word lyrics a la early ’90s De La Soul (back when they still had soul).
But there’s also the way the group strives beyond its own musical boundaries, aiming to transcend its jam band leanings. “Peace Jones fits into the crunchiness,” DeCirce asserts, “but I like to think we’re still progressive.”
“Aqualung”: the new “Freebird”
Peace Jones got its start in 2004 at one of the Bonfires for Peace productions in Pritchard Park. The grassroots concerts featured up-and-coming area bands, most of which were not yet playing local clubs. While most musical acts have to climb the ladder of open mikes and coffee-house shows before they earn larger, paying gigs, the Bonfire series gave new artists a stage.
“Peace Jones has been [on] a shoestring,” DeCirce notes. “[When it comes to] paying one’s dues, I’m almost the poster boy.”
The musician was penniless when he came to Asheville eight years ago and began busking on downtown streets. He started out as a drummer (and even went briefly by the nickname “Drum”), playing with groups like Paperboy and Scrappy Hamilton while privately honing his guitar and flute skills.
“I’m kind of self-taught in all that,” he admits.
As for what it means to be in front of a band holding a flute — an instrument often connected with symphony musicians and grade-school girls — DeCirce has a lot to say.
“Third-grade girl flautists grow up to be college attendees and part of the music market,” he shrugs.
But all wind instruments aren’t prissy. “There’s a school of music that’s flute and drum working together,” DeCirce reveals. “I associate it with rhythm and drumming, like fife and drum [corps].”
And if those bands historically known for marching ahead of the military into battle aren’t macho enough, there are always flautists-turned-rock gods like Clay Cook and Jerry Eubanks of The Marshall Tucker Band, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (who, it’s worth noting, played not only flute but piccolo).
“Jethro Tull is the main iconic image of the modern rock flautist,” DeCirce agrees. “I get a lot of requests to play ‘Aqualung.'” Which, by the way, doesn’t actually have a flute part.
“But,” he adds, “I do have a lot of trouble pulling [my flute] out at some of the county shows we play.”
A message you can boogie to
There’s more to Peace Jones, though, than the novelty of a guy playing funk on a wind instrument. “Even if you did take the flute away, our sound is interesting on its own,” the front man muses. “I think of the flute as the icing on the cake.”
Listen to a couple tracks from Peace Jones’ EP, Laundry Lady (taken from the soon-to-be-released full-length album, Down to the Bone) and the first thing you’ll hear is an infectious, danceable beat. There’s a definite Friday afternoon feel when audiophiles crank up the feel-good hip-hop, dancehall and reggae. And the EP’s title song delivers on that promise with whimsical lyrics about a crush on a beehived matron of the Laundromat.
But DeCirce isn’t satisfied with being the soundtrack to a party. “I feel somewhat responsible,” he insists. “If you’re going to entertain people and you can make a point in some way, you should.”
His point? It’s in the band’s name. “Some people jones for power,” the flautist explains. “We jones for peace.”
DeCirce continues, “I don’t think there’s a lot in the entertainment industry that speaks to world peace or inner peace.”
So, listen between the beats for Peace Jones to expound on war, the oil crisis and the need for alternative energy, among other soapbox-worthy topics.
“Some people just don’t want to think about it,” he acknowledges. “They just want to have a good time; they’ve been working all week. They don’t want to hear a strange man with a flute talking about biodiesel fuel.”
What DeCirce does — a tactic employed by reggae great Bob Marley — is sneak the message in between a contagious groove and a catchy hook. First, get the crowd dancing, then expand their minds.
Though the flautist doesn’t think the conscious music movement will ever eclipse the Top 40, he points out that jam-oriented festivals like Bonnaroo, which draw many message-toting bands, are beginning to get noticed by the likes of Rolling Stone.
For now, Peace Jones is happily to be gaining enthusiastic audiences at home. “People around Asheville get what I’m doing,” DeCirce says.
Peace Jones plays the Town Pump on Thursday, Sept. 28. 9:30 p.m. 669-4808.