By Taylor Davies
I sat down with Philadelphia’s own Snacktime Brass Band members, Sam Gellerstein and Ben Stocker, to talk about what’s happening on the streets of Philadelphia in Fall 2020.
What does “Snacktime” mean and represent? Where did you get your name?
Beyond music, a big part of our world is food – we’re big eaters. We have a ton of friends in the restaurant industry, and to me, Snacktime invokes a feeling of comfort, warmness, fun, and low-pressure. In addition, Snacktime is not only a brass band. We’re hoping to be an events company where we can curate food and drinks for parties as well as entertainment and community outreach. Snacktime is sort of a catch-all for everything that we like to do.
Because we don’t have all the members here with us today, who’s in the group?
The main group, including Ben and I, is Yesseh Furaha-Ali, the drummer switches between Austin Marlow and Keaton Thandi, and Mike Spearman is usually on trombone. What’s cool is that we have a lot of friends in the area, so Aaron Good and Chris Mele sometimes join in on trombone. A ton of people can sort of jump in and out of this band at any given time, it’s like a jam session.
What kind of music do you play?
We usually do a lot of covers of funk, soul, R&B, and pop music. There is a time and a place for high art, and this is not it. People, I think, at this moment just need to hear things that make them happy and make them dance, so we’re just playing songs that people love a lot while trying to do it in a fresh way. We usually have the framework of the song, but most of it’s improvised; we could play the same song three times in a day and it would sound different every time. We also try to cater to the crowd – an afternoon brunch vibe isn’t the same as Saturday night, people want to hear a specific type of music. Sometimes there’s less or more improvisation depending on what the crowd wants.
Did Snacktime develop due to the pandemic?
It’s kind of hard to say. Yes, I think that the extra time off from our normal lives has given way to pursuing pushed-off projects. Between playing two to three weddings per week among other gigs, you don’t really have time for personal projects. Because all of our gigs have been canceled due to the pandemic, we’re making our own work. Snacktime has been a nice ray of sunshine throughout this sad time. We’ve been talking about forming a brass band for one or two years, so it’s kind of become a running joke where we’d say, “Yeah, we’re gonna do that thing right?”, but we finally did it.
How does being in Philly influence your music? How does making music during a pandemic influence your music?
Due to the pandemic, people haven’t heard live music in so long. Pre-pandemic, if you were downtown and heard people busking, you’d be like “Oh, cool”, but now people set up to watch an entire set because they appreciate it on a whole new level. Because of that, it’s made us take it more seriously and we put on more of a show rather than mindlessly playing music. The other amazing part about Philly is the musicians. If someone can’t make it to a gig, there’s always someone there to fill your set without worrying about the declination of quality.
Another amazing thing about being surrounded by amazing and diverse musicians is when we play sets on the weekends. We’ll have friends sit in with us and they’ll add something we never knew was missing. Every set is different and unique in its own way, which makes each one special. You never know what might happen or come from playing with someone else because the music isn’t rehearsed ahead of time, and that’s exciting to us.
We see that you play on the streets of Philly. Are you going to continue playing on the streets after COVID-19 has passed or will you move toward venues?
We personally feel that we would love to keep doing this as long as we can. We think that COVID-19 is teaching people that we should be a little more spaced out and give each other more personal space sometimes. Hopefully, outdoor dining remains because we would love to continue doing it. If it doesn’t, there are still many people to play for. Playing venues is fun, but it’s almost like you’re guaranteed an audience when you’re playing on the streets. There have been many occasions where we’ve gotten fired up for a show and we’ve prepared everything only to stand on stage in front of an audience of five people. It’s always a nice surprise for anyone who comes in contact with us while we’re playing because it’s unexpected.
We’ve accumulated, over the course of a month, one thousand followers organically and people have started to recognize us on social media and on the street. We wouldn’t say “no” to playing in venues, but we really like the idea of being a street band. It happens in every other metropolitan city, so we think it’s necessary to bring that energy to Philly. Playing on the street also has its networking benefits. Unlike in venues, people have come up to us asking if we can play at birthday parties and weddings, whereas that wouldn’t happen in a venue because the band is more detached from the audience.
Who are your biggest influences?
Sam – “I truly feel as if I’m influenced by the people I love, the amazing musicians that I play with every day, and my chef friends who are figuring out ways to feed people in creative and inventive ways. I’m inspired by everybody.”
Ben – “When we were starting this up I thought, “Oh, I don’t really listen to that much brass band music, maybe that’s who I should be checking out”, and of course musically that’s going to help, but just being surrounded by other musicians influences me so much. Every night I’m learning more and more from the people around me, and that’s invaluable.”
What’s your favorite thing about Snacktime?
Our favorite thing about Snacktime is that although we do get loud, there’s a ton of music happening, it’s not only about super loud playing and smashing. As the tuba player (Sam) I don’t want to sound like a tuba player, I want to sound like the best bass player; I want to sound like Pino Palladino and Anthony Jackson.
We try to vary the song choices and tempos so we’re not defined as “that party brass band”, it’s just like being a DJ for a party. As much as it is a brass band, it’s really just a very good band that’s played by brass and woodwind instruments. We’re really open-minded musicians as well, so someone will take the lead with the feel, and then everyone has a turn to change it up to keep interest. Two weeks ago we called “Purple Rain”, half of us knew it and half of us didn’t, it didn’t turn out well. The following week we played it again and it was flawless. It’s exciting to try new things, and that’s what’s so amazing about playing on the street. If we totally fold no one notices because people are generally happy to hear the music. It’s a low-risk high-reward situation.
Are you planning on releasing your own music anytime soon? What are your plans for the future?
As a musician, my brain wants to produce originals and to keep progressing. For now, it’s on the backburner because although it’s important to us, we want to give the people what they want. We think there’s space down the line to be creating original music with more structure. We want to play staged shows once everything is back to normal, but for now, we’re just having a really good time.
In the future, what we hinted at before was a bigger picture for Snacktime. We have a huge connection within the food industry in the tri-state area, and it’s one of our biggest passions. We think that we have a good read on what is cool, what tastes good, how to throw good parties, etc., so we want to help people coordinate parties in the future while keeping it at a reasonable rate. We also want to pursue community outreach to help the food insecure. We’ve currently been helping with voter registration events as well. We want to use our platform for good and make sure that people can get what they need.
Along with contributing to the community in a bigger picture, we also want to help the community of musicians in a smaller picture. So often we see musicians being taken advantage of by events companies and we want that to come to an end. We know how necessary music is and we know how much it’s appreciated in the city, so we think it’s time that musicians are treated correctly. We all need to have a part in this to take the power back from these companies; they need us more than we need them.
Sam, you graduated from UArts, and Ben, you graduated from Temple. How has getting an education in Philly influenced your music since graduating?
Ben – “I’ve only been in Philly for two years because I went to grad school here at Temple University. First and foremost, the teachers like Dick Oattes, Terrell Stafford, and Tim Warfield became my mentors, and they’re incredible people. Just moving here to go to school, I immersed myself in the community as much as I could to build friendships. I don’t know that it would’ve been the same in another city, so I’m happy and grateful for my experience here in Philly.”
Sam – “When I was 16, I met a couple of campus representatives at a college fair in Fort Lauderdale, which is where I’m from. I was given a full ride to the UArts summer program by the late Richie Genovese, who was an amazing trombone player and helped UArts get through a tough time in the ‘90s. Following the Creative Jazz Institute, I started my bachelor’s at UArts. I could’ve gone to Boston or New York, but every time I spoke to the people here I specifically remember being treated with such respect – it was like a family. I didn’t feel that I was being treated that way because I was going to give them money, but I felt it was a special, familial vibe, and that’s the vibe I get from Philly as a whole. Speaking for the Philly brass community, everyone has each other’s best interests at heart. Growing in Philadelphia with my mentors and peers is invaluable. Every time Ben and I travel somewhere else, we always say how great it feels to come back home.”
What’s your message that you want your audience to know?
What I’ve (Sam) been saying every set, because I really mean it, is “How are you?” We’re living in a hard time right now and it’s been mentally tough for everyone. It’s easy to feel alone, so I like to check in with people. I try to enjoy the moments that are filled with joy and love, no matter how small they are, because it’s all we have right now to keep us going. Let the music take you away from the craziness in the world. Some of the most meaningful times are when people come up to us while we’re playing and tell us how appreciative they are, and that it reminds them of happier times – it reminds us how powerful music can be. Outside of Snacktime, another use for our music and platforms is to fight injustice. Sam’s been using Clarion Call for Justice to spread a positive message for the Black Lives Matter movement. We need to use our platforms for the greater good, so that’s what we’re doing during a time like this.
What’s one piece of advice you want to give to musicians during a time like this?
Though it’s tough, we are going to make it through this. Even if you’re not playing music right now to make money, and even if you have to get another job to supplement your income, no one can ever take music from you. You are valid no matter what you’re doing during a time like this; you are still loved and a valuable member of this community. Stay in touch with your mentors and loved ones. If you can find a safe way to do so, make music. Do whatever you need to do to find happiness.