Artist Close-Ups · interviews

Diandra Interviews Smoke And Sugar: A Rising Band of Influencers

In a world desperately seeking the genuine, Smoke And Sugar arise to show that music is the most important thing to authenticity. Music speaks to an individual’s soul, and, for that, Smoke And Sugar rising as a powerful voice. Fusing every genre, from Latin Rock to R&B, they are a sonic reminder that art is not only about expression but also experimentation. Moreover, they are some really cool people. 

Diandra: How do you feel gentrification has affected the music scene in Brooklyn/ East Village? How do you contemplate or reflect on its effects through your music?

Mari: I reflect daily on how gentrification has affected my neighborhood of the Lower East Side. Often when I visit Williamsburg, Bushwick or Ridgewood I can see where the LES lands on this spectrum. A lot of what makes these neighborhoods blow up is that some successes popularized what started as an experimental art scene. So there’s a funny tension between old venues venerated by transplants and new venues capitalizing on the draw. It can be hard to find what is genuine within all this. In a sense playing with our own sound feels like the first step to reflecting on all of this through music.

Diandra: You went to Cuba to reach out and rediscover artistic communities. What in Cuba do you feel lit the switch that you had to start your own band? Was there a particular moment?

Mari: Cuba was vibrating with soul-satisfying music but there was one moment that inspired me particularly to start a band. I was staying with a friend’s mother just outside of La Habana and was lucky enough to crash her nephew’s band practice. Lazaro plays percussion in the wonderful salsa band “Mariana y La Makynaria”. It was blistering hot but the grooves were impossible not to dance to. My feet took over thinking for me and they said, “What is life if not this”?

Diandra : When you started making music together what is one thing you did not expect from your sound and style that seemed to manifest as you went along?

Band: Our fusion incorporates jazz, funk, rnb, soul and rock with a contemporary edge. None of us knew exactly how they would all come together. All five of us are totally different musicians with completely different influences. I think it’s nice how we’ve blended together. The balance is way easier than any of us expected.

Diandra: What would you say is the foundation of your chemistry? Name one thing you feel each member of the group brings to the creative process?

Band: Smoke and Sugar is a band of warm-blooded, emotional musicians. When we’re playing songs on stage and you see us rocking the fuck out, it’s not really much different from how we are when we rehearse. Also, all of us are comfortable enough with our individual styles that we can think big picture. It’s really easy for us to work toward a goal all together. We’re not too concerned about how our own part is to us. Just as long a it fits and serves the song. We don’t have to worry too much about big egos.

As for creative process, Mari is the lyricist who turns it into the song. She gives it a beginning middle and end. Lex works out kinks for dynamics, add hits etc. Brad does the same thing but more for chordal arrangements. Alex is good with harmonies, chord arrangements and then hits and dynamics as well. Mike brings the licks.

Diandra: Most songs from Mindings is about love, from lack of it to a surge, what have you taught each other about as a band? Who gives the best love advice, and what is it?

Band: In trying to answer this question we realized we don’t really dish out very much love advice! But our music is the kind of thing you bump into when you’re on the path of love. So here’s to those questions that spark the advice!

Diandra: Your music seems to range from explosive to ambient. Who are you greatest influences as artists, and what more do you wish to incorporate into your sound?

MARI: We have a range of influences including Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, James Brown, Hiatus Kaiyote, Lianne la Havas, etc. I’ve always struggled to describe our band to people and I like that. Once you define something it’s frozen. I don’t feel that way about our music. It changes every time we work on something new. It even changes sometimes from gig to gig!

Music has been one of your greatest loves. Name the first time each of you fell in love with music, and how you reacted to your invitation to be in the band?

MIKE: I’ve been listening to the radio since I can remember. I was four years old, I remember the high I got when I heard a certain groove or chorus would come in and I’d be in a trance. I’d diddle around on the piano when I was eight. And then, when I was a teenager, I took on guitar and bass. And the rest is history. I’ve been rocking ever since.

I was fucking happy. I remembered hearing you sing with Big Village Little City and I thought Goddamn that girl can blow. And then when you asked if I wanted be part of this project I was like fuck yes because I always wanted to reach out to her and then never got down to that and then she reached out to me and then she sent me the song I heard the stuff she and Brad were working on and I was like I wanna work with this. It was the edgy contemporary songs I wanna be working for.

ALEX: That’s the first thing I saw of you guys. Yep, that’s the type of band I wanna be in.

When I was an extremely young child, my father would play Santana for me when I’d get upset. For some reason the music of Carlos Santana was always when I felt safe. That was the beginning of my love for classic rock but also latin influenced music. I remember finding comfort in the love of music. Whenever I needed something I always turned to music.

MARI: My dad is a musician / voice teacher / composer and I grew up playing piano and making up vocal harmonies with my sister. It’s impossible for me to remember my first interactions with music, but jazz opened a huge door for the performance and story-telling aspect of music. For the record, before I invited my potential bandmates I believed they were all out of my league. I still feel beyond blessed every time I get to create soundscapes with them.

BRAD: My latent love for music developed while playing video games while extremely young. I’ve since realized that may have influenced what I love to do musically, create an evocative mood or atmosphere through groove or unique chord progressions. Playing music came later (high school) and has awakened my true passion for it. 

I met Mari through a mutual friend at the same time I decided to quit my job to pursue music. I was assured about future collaborations knowing how seamlessly we wrote the skeleton to ‘Runner’ prior to starting the band. My reaction to the invitation itself? I was extremely interested in it’s potential. Seeing these songs truly developed in a band with high-caliber musicians & a band not restricted by genre designations felt like a dream at the time. It’s all real now. 

ALEX: I fell in love with music, in a deeper way, when I started going to this performing arts high school that had a big music library and I would check out CDs at random or by suggestions and I’d go home and listen to them many times over. I was very glad to be asked to join the band as, at that time, I was in the process of moving to New York from South Carolina to try to play music for a living.

Diandra: What has been your funniest/funnest jam session, and how did it help you grow as a performer?

Band: One of our most instrumental jam sessions happened in the Union Square subway station. It was because we played for 3 or 4 hours straight. We had been workshopping our early originals and then brought them out to the rush hour public. After that day we were tight.

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