“We’re In It, But Not of It”: An Interview With Greg Paul of L.A. Jazz Band Katalyst

Sam Ribakoff speaks to the jazz drummer about the importance of performing live, finding Katalyst's unique sound, their new album for Jazz Is Dead and more.
By    August 18, 2022

Image via Greg Paul/Instagram

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Sam Ribakoff misses the days when Bandcamp didn’t cater to Fortnite streamers on Twitch.

Venice is one of those neighborhoods that holds a mythologized place in the minds of tourists and locals alike. The beach and the boardwalk birthed The Doors, one of the original Black beach communities in California, the bodybuilding scene, the thrash punk of Suicidal Tendencies, the Beyond Baroque literary arts center, the hyper-local aesthics of the Born X Raised clothing company, and helped birth modern skateboarding. It once fostered a bohemian and mulit-ethnic working class and artistic community, until gentrification, the tech and social media industries, and a wave of real estate and development capital took hold, displacing those artists and working class families and turning the neighborhood into a place of both obscene wealth and punishing poverty and homelessness.

Try as they might though, the bastards can’t completely extinguish the artistic flame of Venice. Wade past the sweaty middle-aged men in Allbirds trying to creep on college-aged women in line for the nightclubs and bars on Windward Avenue in Venice, go down a nondescript flight of dark stairs into the Townhouse Venice [FKA, The Del Monte Speakeasy], and there, every first and third Saturday, is the spirit of Venice reconstituted as a mutli-ethnic crowd from all over the city and county dancing to the gospel, hip hop, and dance music tinged jazz of Katalyst. Members of the nine-person band come from throughout the state and the country, and they’ve played individually with everyone from Michael Jackson to Wayne Shorter, Kanye West to Ill Camille. As Katalyst they bring all that and more together, connecting the history and sounds of jazz artists in the city from Horace Tapscott to Austin Peralta, contemporary hip hop to soul.

Formed after years of playing together in different house shows around the University of Southern California, since 2017 Katalyst has been somewhat of the house band at the Townhouse Venice. Playing shows every Saturday until the pandemic hit, the band honed in on their unique sound through constant shows, constant interaction with different crowds than the crowds that might attend stuffier jazz shows elsewhere, and constant interaction with other musicians and music scenes in the city.

Through that constant interaction and playing with the wider L.A. music scene, Greg Paul, the drummer and composer in the band, started playing drums for Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Adrian Younge’s Jazz is Dead series, playing with jazz legends Roy Ayers and Joao Donato, and eventually being able to Katalyst the opportunity to record their own album for the Jazz is Dead series. Filled with danceable hip-hop influenced grooves, soul-stirring spiritual jazz and gospel melodies, and sun-soaked California funk bass and synth lines, the new record is a great introduction to the band’s sound, but if you’re anywhere near L.A., you gotta get down to the Townhouse Venice to see them play to get the full Katalyst experience.

In this interview, Greg Paul talks about the importance of performing and figuring out Katalyst’s sound live, their new album for Jazz is Dead, and the next album they’re already working on.

I’ve seen y’all live a couple of times over a couple of years and I still find it kind of hard to describe your music. Obviously it’s jazz, but is it soul-jazz? Funk-jazz? Do you call it anything in particular?

Greg Paul: For us, we have one definitive term to describe our music, honest. Playing how we feel, in the moment a lot of the times, especially if you’ve seen us live, it’s just us reacting in the moment. What you’re hearing is just a combination of a lot of what we were inspired by, and our influences over the years, which is, jazz, soul, rap, world music, gospel for sure. In terms of labels it’s up to the listeners, the interpreter, the perceiver, we’re not really hung up on it, or pressed to really define it. It’s just kind of a hodgepodge of what we’ve been inspired by, and when I say we I mean these specific men in this group.

Did that sound come naturally when everybody in the band started playing together, or did y’all have to find that sound?

Greg Paul: I think from the very beginning we recognized a synergy and a gel, but in terms of finding our specific sound, that definitely took some time. Some years. You know, going into the studio, not liking the product, going back to the drawing board, a couple arguments. You know. I really credit the Speakeasy [now called Townhouse Venice], and Carlos Ninos, he’s responsible for getting us down there. Before the pandemic we were playing there every Saturday. Kind of like The Beatles story of them going to Hamburg, Germany for like extended periods of time, like doing 120 shows in a summer. That really became their breeding ground for them becoming who they were. For us, that [Townhouse Venice] is kind of like what that is. Like a testing ground. The people that are coming to The Speakeasy are coming there anyways, so it’s kind of like a built-in audience. At this point we’re gaining new fans and testing stuff out and we’re really able to generate and develop our sound as a band.

So the sound just came together from playing shows all the time?

Greg Paul: Yep, playing shows all the time, that’s kind of how the band was built. I would get called to put a house show together for these events called The Renaissance. I used to go to USC, and this cat I went to USC with used to throw these events, like cultural events where he would have artists, painters, dancers, musical artists, he would call me to put together a house band. At school I was playing with a couple of cats from the band.

Brandon [Cordoba], the keyboardist in Katalyst, had a band, Ultrasound, which had Marlon [Spears, bassist in Katalyst], [David] Otis [saxophonist in Katalyst], and you know, there was a community of musicians that would come to USC to kind of practice and hang out, and so through that I would constantly see these certain group of guys consistently for these events and from there that’s where we started recognizing the power of what we were doing. When we were playing, just the response we would get from the audience was incredible. We would lay down a groove, and it would sit and sooth, and then the horns would come in with something so transcendent. It was obvious from the response of the audience, just witnessing that, that we should do this consistently, for real.

So everybody went to USC?

Greg Paul: No, we knew each other before then through house parties around USC. Brandon and I went there for grad school and I met him at the grad school orientation. We had a group called 1923 and so me and Brandon were already building this musical understanding. He had this group called Ultrasound, and three or four guys in Katalyst were in that band. What happened was I sat in on a couple of gigs, and we all instantly felt the vibe. Kind of like when you’re out with a girl and everything is just clicking. It was the same thing musically. It was just always fun, so I’d just call these guys whenever I got hit up to form a band for these Renaissance events. Just over years of playing together I just decided to make it official.

Do you think y’all have a particularly “L.A.” sound?

Greg Paul: Not necessarily. It has influences of L.A. for sure, but today’s L.A. sound… maybe because I live here and I hear it all the time, maybe it’s like if you’re from somewhere and you got an accent and you don’t hear it, but you know, it exists. But I really don’t hear the L.A. sound like that, as distinct.

Do you see yourselves as being a part of the L.A. jazz scene?

Greg Paul: 100%. Between the individuals in the group, we’re ingrained into every facet of the L.A. music scene, and specifically jazz. Corbin [Jones, a multi-instrumentalist in Katalyst] orchestrates big band music. Jonah [Levine, another multi-instrumentalist in the band] has his own group playing in big bands and he runs his own quintet, people are doing their own modern and experimental things. As Katalyst, we’re very much present in the music scene, but as Katalyst I think we’re still creating our own lane and staying true to our own compositions and who we are. I think we’re definitely developing our own direction in terms of where we’re heading. I don’t necessarily see us following the Kamasi Washington group. I feel like we get compared to that because of the size of the band. I feel like that’s a completely separate sound and direction. It’s like we’re in it, but not of it.

And I don’t know any other jazz band that plays more consistently, discounting the pandemic lockdown and all that, than your band does, and like you were saying, that’s an important part of the band’s sound, figuring it out live.

Greg Paul: Yeah, exactly. From our arrangements, to performance, to how we address the audience, we’re still working out, and trying to figure it out. We’re definitely grateful to work it out here while we’re at home before we take the show on the road and try and go overseas. That’s the goal. That’s the trajectory.

Is touring more important than recording music? Because I think y’all sound a lot different live than you do on your studio records.

Greg Paul: Oh yeah, they go hand in hand. It’s almost like a different band live. Which do you actually prefer?

[Laughs] I was going to say it’s not like one is better than the other, but I prefer the live sound, but that’s not to say that the recorded stuff is bad, they’re just different.

Greg Paul: I appreciate your answer. There’s something about that, it’s like actually feeling it rather than just hearing it. [When you’re hearing the band live] You’re in the presence of something being created. I was in Singapore with Kamaal Williams and we’re doing soundcheck and I’m playing the drums and this girl starts dancing. I stopped, and she stopped, and then I started again and she started again, and I was just like ‘damn, I’m making this person physically move.’ For me that was kind of like an “ah ha” moment, like of the power of music and the responsibility I have as the producer of these vibrations. It’s almost like a chef. You gotta take the proper precautions. You can’t just take raw meat here, and salt on this, and sugar on this, you know what I’m saying? There’s certain temperatures that you have to cook at, and I want to treat music with the same care.

Was that part of the reason to start playing at Townhouse? People can just wander in not really expecting to hear a live jazz band?

Greg Paul: Right. If you know, you know. And we’ve been there awhile, we’re Venice regulars too. There’s a lot of cats from Venice that frequent The Speakeasy. We’ve definitely developed a little family down there. I mean we’ve been there since 2017, every Saturday until 2020. Every other Saturday since the end of 2021.

Was the band different after coming back and playing together after that break?

Greg Paul: I feel like it’s the same. Our approach is a little more intentional now, not that it wasn’t before, but now there’s a bit more… the fragility of this thing we call music is taken into account now. It’s a little different, but the idea is still the same, honest music. I still trust everybody’s ideas in the group. I really love this group of cats. They’re extremely talented.

What do you mean by “the fragility” of music?

Greg Paul: I mean, one viral disease and it’s shut down for an indefinite amount of time, your whole means of survival and your access to resources and the things you need as it is set up in this country… any little thing, like me breaking my leg, that’s something simple like, it happens, or I get in a car accident, that’s it, I’m out for however long it takes to heal. Or a finger, especially for a drummer, I need all four limbs and my fingers. I just started playing basketball again and if the ball jams my fingers the wrong way, or I fall the wrong way, that’s it. Something simple can change the course of a career, and/or end it. The pandemic got me, and the fellas, to realize that fact.

Because so much of your career, and your band members’ careers, are based on playing live.

Greg Paul: Yeah. A couple of us have ways outside of playing that we can bring in income, but still, this is the main bread and butter. It was really kind of an eye opener [the pandemic]. I really want Katalyst to be this kind of powerhouse for all of our ideas and creations. Cats that’s into culinary arts. Cats that’s into education. Cats that’s into politics. You know, just creating different sectors, different branches. Creating music is just a vehicle. It’s the foundation for where I see this brand, if you will, going.

How did you guys get hooked up with Jazz Is Dead?

Greg Paul: Back in 2016 Drew [Andrew Lojero], the manager of Art Don’t Sleep [A music event promotion, management, and record company that puts on a series of jazz concerts and records called Jazz is Dead] was managing Miguel Atwood Ferguson at the time, and I was playing this concert series at The Speakeasy with Miguel, and that’s how Drew found out about me. Fast forward a couple of years later and Drew ended up calling me for these sessions for Ali [Shaheed Muhammed] and Adrian [Younge], I think it was for some of their records.

I did a couple of sessions, they liked it and they called me back, and that’s when they started… I don’t even think Jazz is Dead was around then, I think that came a little later. They had the idea to reach out to O.G.s and create music with them, but in their style. I played on a lot of those in the series. I played on the Roy Ayers Jazz is Dead, Joao Donato, there’s probably another one, but I played on most of those albums. From following me they knew about Katalyst, and we were playing so much around the city that they kinda just hit us up to be the house band for some of the acts.

And they just released one of your albums?

Greg Paul: Yep. The first one that’s not from one of the O.G.s.

Were those tracks specifically for that album?

Greg Paul: Yeah, they were. A lot of that we created there on the spot.

Most of it was improvised?

Greg Paul: Yeah. Adrian brought in a few ideas and then we just, as a band, started adding stuff. Adding melodies, different rhythms, arrangements. A bunch of the songs were improvised though. I would just start playing a groove and we were just sitting in front of our instruments… and that’s the thing. If we’re just sitting in front of our instruments, it’s soundcheck or something, and I play a groove, or Brandon plays something on piano, and immediately we just go into something. We could create a whole album just with soundcheck jams. There’s so much material there. We would just do that in the studio and Adrian would be like “oh yeah, just keep doing that. Put this over that, or play it slower.” That’s how Jazz is Dead 13 was born.

Is that how the shows go too? Is it mostly improvised?

Greg Paul: No, no. We put a little more thought into it. We have kind of an idea when we’re going to break and what songs we’re going to go into, but other than that it’s mostly off the cuff.

You talked about it a little bit, but the goal for the band is to play more shows outside of the Townhouse?

Greg Paul: Outside of the Townhouse? Outside of the city. Outside of the country. To me that’s short term. One step at a time. We’re working on finishing this album right now.

A new album?

Greg Paul: Yep. This is just a Katalyst release, independent now. I’m mostly focused on the creation of the music now. I’m really excited about this new project. The Jazz is Dead project was dope, but you know, it was a different process. Like we didn’t do too much post-production. We played in the studio, and that was that. You’re really getting a raw, real, stripped down organic product. With this project we’re working on now, we’re taking our time. We kind of slow cooking this. Thinking it out.

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