Though he may be best known for his work in the groundbreaking future-music duo Break Science, or as a major cog in both incarnations of the Pretty Lights Live Band, keyboardist/producer Borahm Leehas his hands all over a myriad of projects. A former member of both Kanye West’s and The Fugees’touring ensembles, the classically trained, virtuosic pianist has a packed summer schedule. One of the most talked-about and anticipated endeavors is Breaking Biscuits, the BrkSci collaboration with Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner of The Disco Biscuits. The popular supergroup is performing an ultra-rare engagement at the 11th-annual Purple Hatter’s Ball at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida.
In an engaging discussion with Live For Live Music’s B.Getz, Lee gave up the 411 behind the history of Breaking Biscuits and took us on a nostalgic stroll down Bear Creek’s memory lane. Borahm also shed some light on DUBLDRGN, his exciting new project with members of Dub Trio and Thievery Corporation, as well as J.E.D.I. (Jazz Electronic Dance Improvisation), New Orlean’s Jazz Fest, the late Rachel Hoffman, and more.
Live For Live Music: You were a major presence in the Crescent City this year during another raging Jazz Fest in NOLA. You contributed to a few shows off the proverbial beaten path—most notably the J.E.D.I. show and Megawatt: Afro Dub Soundclash. How do you approach those special kinds of Jazz Fest gigs?
Borahm Lee: With a lot of concern and care. I mean, it’s not just another gig that I am just going in thinking, “Oh, we’ll just figure it out.” Sometimes that’s cool too, but as a keyboard player, there comes a certain connection, particularly a connection between people that haven’t actually met before. Because some of those players, I haven’t played with before [in J.E.D.I.]… I just feel like, you know, a good deal of responsibility to show up and contribute in the best way.
L4LM: Specifically with Megawatt and J.E.D.I., there were no other shows like those, period. Both are bringing a new vibe, and a different, unique thing to Jazz Fest, which we can all admit can become redundant at times.
BL: Yeah, you right! [Laughs] So that was a big thing for us, for me—just trying to bring something to Jazz Fest that’s not offered elsewhere. Some good fresh ideas, sounds, and collaborations. It’s an important part because Jazz Fest encompasses everything—all the styles. We just wanted to bring that freshness to the table, give something that isn’t offered anywhere else, give people the opportunity to take a break from some things that are abundant. I can agree, there is maybe some repetition year after year at Jazz Fest, so we’re just trying to break it up. Break up the vibe, and bring the new vibe.
L4LM: Even with Break Science, you have the live band. Nothing like that is really goin’ on down there either—at least this year. That configuration just rocked for the third consecutive year at Jazz Fest.As I wrote last week, it was the live band’s finest hour, thus far. Man, that One Eyed Jack’s hit on second Saturday late-night—y’all shut it down proper! What are some reflections on that absolutely massive gig?
BL: Thanks man. I mean, as you know, it’s a band of brothers: me and the Lettuce krewe. We have all been working together for so long, especially the Lettuce guys—they are 20-plus years in the game. But, it’s hard to believe that Adam [Deitch] and I are ten years into Break Science now. As long as I’ve known him, I’ve known those Lettuce guys nearly as long. We’ve all been working together and doing gigs in a variety of settings. At this point, it really feels like second nature and super comfortable when we’re all on the same page and hearing what we want—when our goals are aligned. We’ve probably only done the BrkSci live band a total of maybe ten or a dozen times total. Every time it happens, we get stronger. We are gonna stretch it further, too. It’s only the beginning!
Break Science Live Band – One Eyed Jack’s – New Orleans, LA – 5/5/18
L4LM: Speaking of the band of brothers, you team up with another duo, bassist Marc Brownstein and keyboardist Aron Magner, from another much-celebrated band of brothers: The Disco Biscuits.
Borahm Lee: Legends!
L4LM: At the fairgrounds in NOLA, Brownie and I chopped it up about Breaking Biscuits, which is such an interesting combination. He’s very excited for Purple Hatter’s Ball, which is the next appearance for this quasi-supergroup. Can you hip the people to the history behind this exciting collab with those dudes?
BL: Those guys, I’ve actually played alongside them longer than you would even think. You know, my first band in the scene that I was touring with: Topaz… One of the first times I met The Disco Biscuits was Philly at the Pontiac Grille. Topaz was opening up for the Biscuits there, and Aron Magner was carrying his own 88-key keyboards up those stairs. We are talkin’ like 2003-, ’02-ish.
Watching how they’ve been doing it for so many years—their consistency and attention to detail—it’s tremendous. Also, I want to add something about their special connection with their fans, I’ve always had so much respect and admiration for what they have created. As a keyboardist, I’ve always loved Aron’s playing styles, too. We’ve always hit it off and been friends for so long. So when the opportunity to do this came along at Brooklyn Comes Alive a couple years back, it just felt super-comfortable right away, especially with our long-established relationship already in place.
Breaking Biscuits – “Little Fluffy Clouds” – Brooklyn Comes Alive – Music Hall of Williamsburgh – Brooklyn, NY – 10/22/2016
L4LM: So as I understand, it was just kind of like a one-off, but it went so swimmingly that y’all made it a thing?
Borahm Lee: Totally. It went so great in Brooklyn. We knew we had something on our hands that was worth pushing further.
L4LM: So you guys are sort of doing electronic covers and jams. Classic electronic music from the cats that kicked down the door. I was amazed when I looked at some of the setlists!
BL: Yeah, it’s really not much original music. I mean, we are improvising and the vehicles we are using have depth. We are talking about a lot of golden era of electronic music. Stuff going back to the ’90s: Daft Punk, Justice, DJ Shadow, Tosca, The Orb, RJD2. We are looking to bring that material to a live-performance setting.
L4LM: Breaking Biscuits is playing Purple Hatter’s Ball next weekend. I know you’ve played the event before and played at Spirit of Suwannee many, many times.
BL: Yeah it’s been a couple years, but we definitely have hit Purple Hatter’s Ball. I’m also familiar with the park and the festival grounds. Our friend Paul Levine is forever taking care of us. The park itself has a rich history and an intimate vibe. But the focus is always—and should always be—on why everyone is getting together: to remember the late Rachel Hoffman, educate people on that whole tragedy, and bring people together to heal and celebrate her life.
L4LM: Indeed. Very well said, brother. You feel connected to the Suwannee after all the years?
BL: It’s always been something so special. There’s definitely something magical, magnetic, magnetizing about the grounds to begin with, before even any other factors. I think that the Earth is kind of like a human body where there are different pressure points—points of accumulation of vibe, energetic areas, sort of like lay lines. [Laughs] I definitely feel like [Spirit Of The] Suwannee has it… Something certainly magical. You can feel it, and it’s sort of reflected in the nature that is there that’s so very unique—the Spanish moss, the oak trees, that amazing river. I could go on, but you already know!
Whether you are a nature lover or not, it’s a special place. We’ve been playing fests there as long as we’ve been Break Science—I mean, Wanee and AURA too. And the staff at Suwannee is the best; there’s so many great people involved down there. Again, I want to mention Paul Levine, because he is a visionary. He’s been able to organize these events, get the right talent, and draw the best crowds there. Every year for Purple Hatter’s, it becomes a celebration of Rachel’s life. I mean, I’ve been playing there for many years, but I am honored to return for Purple Hatter’s in 2018. I really miss Bear Creek though, and I know you do too.
Break Science Live Band – “Me, Myself & I” – AURA Music Festival 2015 – Spirit Of The Suwannee Park – Live Oak, FL
L4LM: Bear Creek! I first caught Break Science proper at Bear Creek in 2008 or 2009.
Borahm Lee: Speaking of Bear Creek, you may already know this, but I gave up my Kanye West gig to play with Break Science at Bear Creek. I had a choice to make. I told Ye and them prior that I was doing this Bear Creek gig and that it was really important to me. They told me it was fine and to go ahead. A last-minute gig came up with Kanye in Brazil—Rio de Janeiro!—so it was definitely a gig I wanted to do and a place I wanted to be. Wouldn’t you?
But… um… I chose to do Bear Creek instead. Even though I’d gotten the okay, they told me if I did that, I’d get fired. And you know what? I got fired! And it was a great choice. All these years later, it proved to be the right choice for me. Man, what a festival. Bear Creek was the one. But its spirit also lives on at Purple Hatter’s Ball, and even at [Suwannee] Hulaween to an extent, too.
L4LM: Purple Hatter’s Ball has a different meaning behind it though. It has a weightier vibe and a deeper purpose than just rage.
BL: No doubt a different purpose and a different message to it. It’s heavy, with the tragic events that surround it. It’s an awful thing to have happened, and hopefully, we are alleviating some of that horrible energy that went down. Hopefully, Rachel, where she is now, we are helping put her spirit at ease by playing this music for her at this place.
Daru Jones x Borahm Lee – “16 Bars of Freedom”
[Video: Rusic Records TV]
L4LM: Before we jet, would you let folks know what your personal schedule looks like for the summer?
Borahm Lee: Bro, just this week alone I am doing Summer Camp, two shows with Break Science, then flying back early Saturday for Red Rocks with Manic Focus Live Band. Then, Purple Hatter’s Ball is shortly thereafter. I’ve got a Denver jazz gig in between as well. But I got to tell you about a new project.
Dave Holmes—Dub Trio guitarist, plays with Matisyahu—we go way back. He’s a master of textures and guitar pedals like none other. Throw in Jeff Franca (Congo Sanchez), the drummer from Thievery Corporation. We have this new project we’re developing called DUBLDRGN [pronounced “Double Dragon”]. Very dub influenced but definitely more electronic than reggae. We are playing an intimate little festival to debut this project—it’s gonna be at Denver Deluxe with Robert Randolph headlining. After that, it’s back to Sonic Bloom—the festival, not [Eric “Benny” Bloom’s] band. That’s Jamie Janover’s event. He’s partially responsible, along with one other person, for bringing Adam and I together to form Break Science. So Adam and I are looking forward to returning to Sonic Bloom, which is also out here in Colorado.
L4LM: Damn, the life of Borahm Lee… A dozen gigs among four projects at five festivals and across several states. You are doin’ the damn thang!
BL: That’s what I like—keeping my brain active and getting out there and making music wherever possible. I am doing my best at surviving as a musician… Got to keep working!
As Told to B.Getz