Twenty years is a long time, especially in the life of a band. But despite lineup changes, relocation and countless road mishaps, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band has finally reached that milestone. To celebrate, the Asheville-based rock/funk ensemble is performing an anniversary show Friday, Sept. 16, at Salvage Station.
Xpress caught up with founder and guitarist John-Paul Miller to discuss the band’s origin, pivots and plans.
Spin on it
Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band got its start in Miller’s former basement in Boone. “The original concept was to [create] a fun party atmosphere with high-energy, danceable music,” the guitarist says. From its earliest days, the band’s lineup was a constantly shifting roster of top-flight musicians.
“As of right now,” Miller notes, “I’m the only original member left.”
But across two decades of changes, the group’s vision has remained consistent. While covers have always figured into the band’s set list, Miller says that from the very beginning, the group was writing original material. And when they did play other artists’ music, the band showcased its versatility and inventiveness by recasting songs into its own style.
“We’ve covered everything from Fela Kuti to Rage Against the Machine,” he says. “We’ve had full-on throwback ’80s and ’90s hip-hop sets where we did anything from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z. But everything we do, we put our own spin on it.”
The group relocated to Asheville in 2006. Miller says that the band’s early sound reflected the songwriting skills of founding member Josh Phillips; when he left, Miller continues, members went through a brief period where they felt unmoored and “floating around.”
That changed when dynamic keyboardist Mary Frances and drummer Lee Allen — both of whom sing — joined the group in 2009. With the two on board, the band established its trademark sound.
“And that’s when we really started touring heavily,” Miller says, “going back and forth across the country.”
Amid tours and on records, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band has regularly collaborated with guest musicians. “Some of the members of Dirty Dozen Brass Band have come onstage with us to perform their songs, done in our [style],” Miller says. And before his death in 2016, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell joined the group for a performance of his song “A Joyful Process,” during a show in Aspen, Colo.
Along the way, the ensemble has created a formidable catalog of recorded music. In addition to several live albums, the group has released four studio efforts under its own name — 2015’s Funk Life is the most recent — and has played on nearly every recording by kid-hop sensation Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. “He gave us the opportunity to write and record on a Grammy Award-winning album,” Miller says.
The Jimmy V rule
At the height of its touring days, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band was on the road 200 days a year, playing 150-170 shows annually. “We made a lot of good friends,” Miller says. “And we played in every state except Hawaii, plus Jamaica.”
These days, the group stays closer to Asheville, the city that all its members call home. “After a while, the band needed a little bit of a break,” Miller says. “So we decided to step back from full-time touring.”
Miller admits that the Booty Band’s most daunting challenge is its size. “A lot of bands are just three or four people,” he notes. His ensemble, he continues, has featured seven musicians over much of its 20-year run. And when touring, the number grows with an additional three-person crew.
“When you’re traveling with 10 people on the road, it’s hard to even find places large enough for the whole band to stay the night,” Miller explains.
Such impediments have limited where the band can travel. For example, Miller says the group has received offers to play in Europe, but the costs involved in bringing a large band overseas made it impossible.
As far as many of the other challenges Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band has faced, Miller and his bandmates laugh them off; they make for good stories, he says. “We’ve been stuck on top of mountains and behind avalanches,” he recalls. “We’ve had our bus engine catch on fire.”
Other problems, he acknowledges, were of the band’s own making. Around 15 years ago, the group was booked to play a set at the Jimmy V Celebrity Golf Classic, “a prestigious, black-tie event in Pinehurst, N.C.,” Miller recalls. “Not only were we late, but when we started playing, our singer decided we should perform a song that had the most swear words of any song that we played.”
After three songs, the band was told to stop. “They paid us and told us to leave,” he says with a laugh. “It was the most money per minute we ever made!” The experience marked the implementation of what the group still calls the Jimmy V rule. “We’ve cleaned up a lot since then,” Miller says.
Talk of new music
In recent times, the lineup of Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band has stabilized. That, plus the fact the drummer Allen is a recording engineer, means new Booty Band music may be on the way. “Nobody wants to force a record out,” Miller observes, “because that never produces good results. But everybody [in the group] has been talking about recording some new music. When bands get their own studio, that’s when they start getting experimental and really have fun with it.”
And as the band approaches its 20-year anniversary show, the musicians see the hometown gig as an opportunity to look backward and forward at once.
“We’re doing a total throwback set of early material,” Miller says.
The Salvage Station performance will feature the current group, augmented by four members from the band’s original lineup: Phillips, saxophonist Greg Hollowell, guitarist Grady Gilbert and vocalist Suzanna Baum.
“We’ve curated a list of songs that were everybody’s favorite back in the early 2000s,” Miller says. “Songs that we haven’t played in a long time.”
And, of course, the current Booty Band lineup — Miller, Frances and Allen, plus Derrick Johnson on trombone, Jonathan Cole on saxophone, Ben Bjorlie on bass and trumpeter Alex Bradley — will be on hand to celebrate 20 years of deep-groove funkiness.
WHO: Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band
WHERE: Salvage Station, 466 Riverside Drive, avl.mx/bye
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 16, at 6:30 p.m. $25 advance, $30 day of show; all ages are welcome