By Allison Babka
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By Dew Ailes
Long-distance relationships are hard on couples, but they can be absolutely toxic to bands. Coordinating rehearsals, scheduling tours and writing music collaboratively is more difficult when hours of driving separate musicians — not to mention that distance makes it tough to build and sustain creative momentum.
The long-distance arrangement and its pitfalls are familiar to Samuel Glover and Nick Jost. As the core members behind funk/rock project the Natural Selection, the duo works around a living situation in which keyboardist/singer Glover stays in Denver and bassist Jost resides in the St. Louis area. And even that's fluid: At press time, Jost is working as an instructor at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Wisconsin and earlier in the year, he traveled to Nepal to teach upright bass for the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. To top it off, Natural Selection's ideal drummer, Sean Mullins, is finishing school in New York.
"It is kind of a ridiculous thing," Glover admits. "We're playing on a small level, we're playing small venues, but we make all this effort to do it."
But despite the deadly obstacle of geography, the Natural Selection is finding ways to refine its already tight blend of synthesizer-driven funk and bouncy pop. The group has been spending the last year and a half working on the follow-up to 2008's Lasers in the Jungle, a process the band feels has helped its sound develop. "We're becoming comfortable with not totally ripping on old-school jams, but finding our unique sound with those influences." Glover says. Adds Jost: "It's nice to see the band come to what it was meant to be."
Citing Chaka Khan and Michael Jackson as touchstones, Glover further describes the Natural Selection's revamped sound as owing less to rock and more to funk and early disco. However, this evolution is yet another phase in the young group's life. Glover started the Natural Selection as an R&B cover band roughly three and a half years ago. About a year into the project, he started writing what would ultimately become the band's self-titled debut. The album's smooth soul sound is indebted to Stevie Wonder, Al Green and Marvin Gaye, three R&B giants who featured prominently in the group's early setlists.
Although the record boasted the Natural Selection name, it was for all intents and purposes a Glover solo album rounded out by Jost and his musically inclined friends. It was only around the recording of Jungle that the band started to resemble its current incarnation. "I wrote a lot of it," Glover says of Jungle, "then right before we recorded it, Nick came in and made some good [arrangement] changes, and I realized it was better and more collaborative." The result was a tight, punchy slice of funk reminiscent of a harder-rocking Jamiroquai with an occasional burst of Stax horns.
The Natural Selection's newest recording is its most group-oriented effort yet, as Glover and Jost have worked on the songs together from the beginning. Naturally, modern technology has proven itself an invaluable aid to the group, especially given Jost's frequent travel schedule: The pair often facilitates collaboration with each other (and with Mullins) through e-mail. Equipped with a bachelor's degree in music for jazz performance from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Jost has found his talent and dedication taking him across the globe. The Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory reached out to Jazz St. Louis for a bass player, and after he discovered the vacancy, Jost applied. He then spent three months there spreading the art of jazz to Nepal as a private instructor.
"Jazz in Nepal only first started being played literally seven years ago or something like that," says Jost. Indeed, he found that not only is the genre of jazz foreign to the Nepalese, but so is the whole Western approach to songwriting. "The main thing I ended up teaching over there was working with drummers," he says. "All the drummers were good, they could play the drums, but they didn't really know how to play songs as far as Western songs are concerned. A lot of Eastern music is all in one key, they use this scale, all the ragas are just five notes, and they play those five notes for a half hour."
The traditional Nepalese drones stand in sharp contrast to Natural Selection's taut, song-oriented approach to music. Both on record and onstage, the band delivers brisk, focused tunes whose grooves leave your ears long before they leave your head. Don't go into a Natural Selection show expecting a robotic replication of their recorded material, though. True, Glover might leave the keyboard and guitar parts to an iPod, but his relentless bopping and Jost's ridiculous dance moves combine with their infectious funk to set bodies in motion on the dance floor.
"The live show is a lot more like: 'We want to have a party.' We want to play music that people enjoy and immediately respond to," Glover says.
Because of Mullins' education, he can't always play shows with the band – and so instead, the Natural Selection enlists its friends to play drums in whatever city it's in. Thankfully, Jost knows many musicians from his time playing with local jazz combos and the Steve Ewing Band. (And no, Nick is not related to Ewing's former Urge bandmate, Jerry Jost.) Jost also frequently calls on a group of horn players to add flair to Natural Selection's St. Louis shows.
The flexibility is nice, but Glover and Jost are eager for the day when the band can live closer to each other and devote more time to the project. "There's no way to keep a band in two cities with a full band," Jost says. Adds Glover: "My hope with this next record is that it could become more of a sustainable project where at least we would be on the road more, so it would be a little more worthwhile."
Whatever the future, the Natural Selection has momentum, slick songs and a killer show on its side that even the miles between its members cannot deny.