In the decade since St. Paul & the Broken Bones came out of Birmingham, Ala., the eight-piece outfit has made a name for itself as a horn-driven neo-soul act fronted by singer and namesake Paul Janeway. And while the pandemic kept Janeway and company from touring, the creative juices continue to flow.
The result is The Alien Coast, the group’s fourth studio album and its debut on ATO Records. And while prior efforts like 2014’s Half the City and the 2016 follow-up Sea of Noise were more straightforward with their R&B and soul-fueled nuances, the band’s latest outing features songs wrapped up in psychedelia and surrealism, with the title being cribbed from a history book about the Gulf Coast Janeway was reading, having just made that area of the country his family’s new home.
He discovered how early settlers were puzzled by their new environs and dubbed it the Alien Coast. It was this kind of thinking that influenced the direction of this new set of songs.
“I really feel like what we did here was along the lines of having a musical fever dream,” Janeway said. “And while I was busy during the pandemic welcoming my first child into the family, I had lots of time to dig into subjects like 17th-century Italian sculpture, Greek mythology and dystopian science fiction.”
Adding to the new approach to the band’s sound were another couple of firsts—the decision to record in the collective’s Birmingham hometown for the first time and team up with Mountain Goats/Margo Price producer Matt Ross-Spang.
“It was a nice change to come home and try something different, especially when we were going down such a different path,” Janeway said. “And what was also great was how everyone in the band came to the session and were able to throw in all these different kinds of ideas that made for some really interesting outcomes.”
Helping lead the charge was bassist/founding member Jesse Phillips, whose efforts found him rafting a beat and bassline he drew out of a newly bought Korg minilogue analog synth for “The Last Dance,” a chugging anthem driven by a hypnotic groove.
Art loomed large for Janeway, who found himself being inspired by 15th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Bermejo and fellow Iberian Pablo Picasso. “Bermejo and the Devil,” a simmering gem paced by a sturm-and-dirge beat and spooky whispered harmonies, came out of the vocalist viewing the former’s “Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil” at The National Gallery in London. Picasso provided the spark for “Minotaur,” a jam soaked in Janeway’s falsetto vocal that undulates over a loop conjured up by guitarist Browan Lollar and inspired by the late Cubist’s habit of using the fictional monster as an alter-ego in his work.
“Man, I got the chills looking at that [Bermejo] painting,” Janeway said. “It was terrifying how clearly you could see the devil in this painting. And with ‘Minotaur,’ it’s all about recognizing inner fear, trying to avoid it and how lonely that can be.”
And while The Alien Coast may mark quite an abrupt musical shift for the band to make, Janeway points to the group’s roots playing in Birmingham clubs as being a prime incubator for what was spawned on the record.
“The music scene is pretty diverse,” he said. “You have hip-hop, indie rock, metal and all sorts of genres of music. So for us, it kind of shaped us because there really wasn’t a certain way to go because there are not a lot of bands out of Birmingham that tour. It’s not a place for that. We were one of the first ones in a while to do that. For me, there was a club in Birmingham called the Bottle Free Café that’s unfortunately not there anymore. It was the place where we really cut our teeth and where I played in the first band that’d I’d ever been in outside of church. It’s where I met Jesse and the whole idea was for me and Jesse to make a record and be good friends and then go our separate ways.”
What was supposed to be a musical lark instead found St. Paul and the Broken Bones expanding beyond their humble beginnings and getting a huge break in opening for the Rolling Stones, something Janeway still shakes his head over when asked to recount that particular experience.
“It’s one of those things that will be written on our tombstones,” he said with a laugh. “You don’t understand the gravity of it until it actually happens. For me, I didn’t grow up listening to the Rolling Stones because I grew up only listening to religious music. To the guys, that was it. It’s a legacy builder. It was one of those things that no matter what happens to us, nobody can take that away from us. You look at the legacy of people that opened up for the Stones and it’s pretty amazing. Prince opened up for the Stones.”
Fast forward to the present day and St. Paul & the Broken Bones are preparing for a run of shows, including the fourth stop of the tour at The Jones Assembly Jan. 31. Janeway and his crew are ready to unleash The Alien Coast on music-starved concert-goers.
“It’s going to be really interesting sharing all the cool stuff we’ve been doing in the studio,” he said. “I can’t wait to see the reactions of all our fans to our brand of boundary-breaking beauty.”