Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson could be the most visible tuba player in the world right now. He is a member of The Roots, the critically acclaimed American hip-hop band that has influenced numerous rap and R&B acts and has been the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon since March 2, 2009.
Steven Maxwell: Can you tell us about a typical day as a member of The Roots?
Damon Bryson: It’s a great experience waking up and being able to go to work, with six of us all in the same mind frame, working on a great project and working together. We hop on a tour bus at our studio in Philadelphia and ride to New York City to do the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show. We meet each other with special handshakes and such every morning. We sit down and start working on sounds that we want to use for the different interviews that day, you know, the guests that might be on and their special entrance music. So then by about 4: 30 or 5:00 we get dressed for the show and head out to shoot. That would be a typical day with The Roots on the show.
SM: Is that a Monday through Friday gig?
DB: Yeah, we tape Monday through Friday and we usually shoot from 5:30 to 6:00 PM or so. Then we jump back on the tour bus and head back to Philadelphia. We usually get home around 8:30 or 9:00 and then we are free for the rest of the night.
SM: Do you have most memorable moments from the Jimmy Fallon show?
DB: The most memorable moment for me would be the time that I first got my own skit on the show. I had to act, which was really different for me, stepping on the other side of the camera. I had done little roles in little films but to be on NBC was my first scheduled show with my own monologue.
SM: Outside of the show, what other types of touring you do?
DB: Our taping of the show goes throughout most of the year. On the weekends we usually do a little tour somewhere in the states. It might be Saturday and Sunday or sometimes just Saturday. When we are on hiatus from the show- sometimes we have two weeks off or a week off- then we go on tour for twelve or thirteen days and have a few days to be home with family. So Monday through Friday we go hard and then most weekends we have shows, so there is always work. To have some time off and to be able to sit in my house for more than six hours doesn’t happen very often!
SM: Tell us about how everything started for you. Was your family musical? When did you begin playing sousaphone?
DB: It started with my father. He played alto saxophone and my brother played trombone. My other brother also plays drums, so by about age five or six, I was really hearing a lot of music and was just around it! My church, called The House of Prayer for All People, was also a major influence for me from an early age. In most churches you see a lot of string instruments like violin, guitar or piano, but at my church the brass pretty much dominated. There would be guitar at times but it was mostly brass. So my whole life was really surrounded by brass and it really inspired me! By about seven or eight I started playing trombone and baritone and a little bit of trumpet. I really liked to try out instruments and I played on any instrument from a drum and bugle corps, including percussion. By the time I was about thirteen, people started to notice that I had talent on trombone so I really focused on that. I played trombone in high school. My music teacher suggested that I try tuba and so I played around with that. They liked me so much on tuba that they wrote a special solo for me. And from there on, I was hooked on tuba. I never really went back to trombone much.
SM: So how did you transition from high school to becoming a member of The Roots?
DB: I kept playing tuba at my church and I played a lot of gigs and clubs around Philadelphia. After high school I just got myself a regular job ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬and took a break from music. Sometimes you just have to put things down for a while and let things happen the way they are going to happen. So I took about two to three years off from the sousaphone. I did pick up the bass and played a bit and still played around at the clubs. I got into acting and was in a couple of independent films. I got a call from a friend of mine named Jeff Bradshaw. We grew up in the same church and he was around my family a lot. He was almost like a brother. He wanted to put together a band and wanted me to play sousaphone with the band. The band was called Brass Heaven. Brass Heaven was, like its name says, all brass instruments with sometimes an acoustic or electric guitar. I joined and the music we played was anything from jazz to hip-hop, soul, really anything you wanted. The group had a great warm sound that could go onto albums well. Jeff had met Questlove (one of the members and creators of The Roots) and got to know him. Questlove asked us to open for them in Atlantic City. I was used to playing in small clubs and bars, so when we got on stage with about two thousand people out there, we were all real nervous. “Are we ready for this?!” But once the curtains opened, we destroyed the place. The next day The Roots asked for Brass Heaven to open up for them again and we ended up doing three or four show with them after that. We went back to playing our regular shows for a while and then we got a call from Questlove again. He wanted to take four members of Brass Heaven on tour. I was thinking that they weren’t going to take a sousaphone and I was happy for my friends to get this chance to play with The Roots. But [they wanted me] and I couldn’t believe it! When we finally met for the gig I came up to the tour bus with my horn and one of the guys said, “Man, look at that big thing! It’s Tuba Gooding Jr.!” Everybody just busted up laughing and the name stuck. Questlove really encouraged me the whole time. He kept saying, “Keep on doing what you’re doing! Keep on doing what you’re doing! People love you!”
The tour finished up and we all went home. A few days later I got a call from them asking what I was doing for the rest of the summer. I was thinking they were going to take myself and the rest of Brass Heaven on tour. They asked if I wanted to go to Europe with them. And I said, “I would LOVE to go,” still thinking that it was going to be all of Brass Heaven. Then Questlove said “No. We just want to take you!” After getting back from Europe, Questlove told me that I opened up a new, brassy sound that they had been looking for and loved. He said this could change a lot of sound in hip-hop and sousaphone. The Roots’s bass player, Owen Biddle, sat me down at the end of the Europe tour and said he thought I would inspire a lot of sousaphone players that put their horns down after high school because they think there is nowhere for them to play. He said, “don’t give up what you’re doing!” They asked me to be a full-time member. I fell on my knees and said, “Thank you God for giving me this chance!”
SM: And now you are one of the most heard sousaphone players in the world!
DB: Its funny. The Roots have really given me the chance to show people who I am and what I can do in music. Growing up, I loved music and loved to play but I did as much in sports as anything because that’s what you did to be a “cool kid.” Sometimes people would laugh at me when I talked about music and sousaphone. The people at church were REALLY supportive and loved it, but the people at school sometimes looked down on it so I never talked about it. I always hid it. I realize now you should never be ashamed of what you do and what you love. When I became a member of The Roots, people would say, “How long have you been doing this?!!” and I would say, “Forever! I’ve been doing it all my life!”
It’s been a blast traveling around the world and letting people see something totally different. Don’t get me wrong, at a lot of gigs you can see trombones, trumpets and saxophones but to be able to walk in with a sousaphone and play with Jay-Z or Kanye West or Anita Baker…it’s AWESOME!
SM: Is there one person or band that you have played with who has meant the most or was most impairing?
DB: Playing with Chick Corea was a “Wow” moment. Herbie Hancock. It’s a blessing to play with so many greats. I try not to take any of it for granted. I understand that any day it can be over, or any day it could go further. I try to stay in the middle and not be too full of myself. My friends come up and ask me how it is being around these people or those people. And I always let them know that they are pretty much regular people just like you and me. It is easy to stay balanced if you keep things in that mind frame. I’ve been so fortunate, everybody I’ve worked with feels like a “Wow!”
SM: What type of instrument and microphone set up do you use?
DB: I use a [model] 20k Conn Sousaphone BBb with short action valves. For a mouthpiece I use a Megatone. I used to use a 24AW but I really like the Megatone. It’s like another wife for me! I use a wireless pack. I don’t know the size of the microphone but at one point when I used to play in the clubs I used a regular [Shure] 57. Now it’s really small and taped to the inside of the bell.
SM: You have played all over the world and in venues as small as clubs and as large as stadiums. What is the favorite size of venue that you like to play in.?
DB: I don’t like the stadiums as much. Auditoriums and bigger clubs are good. Places with a capacity of 5000 or 6000, like Radio City Hall. I like venues that feel like people are at arms reach. I’m a very energetic person. One thing I love about being with The Roots is the energy at our shows. I like to go crazy and jump off a speaker or something and go out into the audience. It’s all about giving people a great show. Being in those auditoriums is great because you can really connect with the crowd. As far as stadiums, you are limited where you can go. I love the outdoor festivals in Europe. There you can be at a venue with fifteen thousand people and still jump off the stage and get into it. It is set up for that.
I love when people look and me and say, “I think he’s crazy running around with that thing!” We finished a festival once and [rock band] The Police were backstage and said we put on a great show. That was a good feeling!
SM: Do you have any advice for the aspiring tuba/sousaphone player that is looking to get into hip hop or pop music?
DB: The first thing I want to say to the aspiring sousaphone player that is already doing it: Don’t stop. It gets hard sometimes and you look at your horn and say “this is not going to work.” But just don’t stop. If you love what you’re doing then keep going. Try to open some doors. That’s what I’m trying to do. Slowly but surely the door is opening. A lot of people like the look and sound of sousaphone. It’s something different and people are always looking for that. Really, if I can do it, you can do it. I’m not different from the next sousaphone player but I didn’t give up and I kept on pushing. It does get rough…your neighbors might knock on the door but later they will be proud of you!