There’s a lot of attention paid–and rightfully so–to the innovation that made The Roots, the legendary hip-hop crew, into the nightly house band for Late Night, and eventually The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In a world previously dominated by traditional, jazzy style house bands led by Paul Shaffer and Kevin Eubanks, Fallon’s show subverted that trope, going instead with instrumentation led by ubiquitous drummer and personality Questlove along with lead MC Black Thought.
Flying under-the-radar, however, is the fact that there’s another band on NBC, just an hour later on the schedule, that’s just as subversive, just as new, and just as daring as the hip-hop giants that precede them. The 8G Band, who compose original music for Fallon’s successor, Late Night With Seth Meyers, before every show, don’t have quite as illustrious a history as The Roots, but whereas Questo’s crew is affectionately known as ‘Late Night’s Hip-Hop Band,’ The 8G Band has made a strong case to justly be known for what it really is: Late Night’s Indie Band.
By the time I arrive at 30 Rock to shadow the band for the day, its members are already hard at work putting together the music for that night’s show, nested in a small practice room found deep in the twisty-turny maze of the building’s eighth floor, just down the hall from the Saturday Night Live studio that brought the show’s titular host to fame.
The band puts together an original song, which the members refer to as a ‘walk-on,’ for each guest, and the process is effortlessly natural. Eli Janney, the show’s associate musical director and The 8G Band’s keyboardist, leads the process, as Marnie Stern and Seth Jabour strum away on guitar, Syd Butler plays bass, and a guest drummer joins for a collection of shows at a time. During my visit, the week’s drummer is Allison Miller, an NYC-based musician who’s worked with the band much in the past, and has a natural chemistry to go along with her genre-ranging roots in jazz, folk, and, of course, rock.
Beginning sharply at 1:00, there’s no real warming up for The 8G Band—it’s full speed ahead from the get-go. From behind the keyboard, Eli serves as a maestro for the entire process; I see him command the room, but still maintain the freedom that brews good work: “I don’t exactly rule with an iron first,” he would tell me later in the afternoon. He’s cornered by his keyboard and a desktop Mac, where he produces the master recordings of the songs they’re working on. He says that there are over 1600 songs saved on the hard drive, with another drive somewhere holding another 1000. A lot of music in any regard, but particularly so for a show that only began back in February of 2014.
As Marnie, an accomplished and critically-adored solo artist in her own regard, closes her eyes to visualize a chord progression for a certain song, Eli jots down a rough pattern to follow for a song on a dry erase board, not unlike a chalkboard in the front of a classroom. For the night’s show, the guests are TODAY anchor Hoda Kotb, Game of Thrones and Narcos star Pedro Pascal, and author Tahereh Mafi. They name each song with a kind-of warped word progression game, resulting in the night’s groovy, funk-heavy walk-ons being titled “UBHoda,” “Pascal’s Theorem,” and “Romano’s Way,” the latter named in a stream-of-conscious manner after I share my own hip-hop leanings with the band (“This is more of a 90’s, West Coast, Tupac sound,” Syd says about “Pascal’s Theorem.”).
The constant creative process is something that each member of the band savors. Even if it’s for a guest’s return appearance, the songs are always new. When they don’t know the guest by name—Marnie reminds the others that Pedro Pascal (a college classmate of hers) was on Game of Thrones—they still make it a deliberate and distinct process to make sure that the sonics and the accompanying person match up seamlessly.
“It’s like someone’s handing me a puzzle, and in such a short period of time, we have to write eight songs,” Syd says just before the taping. “And then we have to show our results to two million people.”
It’s an extremely streamlined process, one that almost certainly happens faster than anyone outside the room could possibly imagine; by 2:00, when close to being finished, there’s hardly any vocalizing in the room. The instruments do all the talking. The only non-music sound is a bit of post-jam small talk, (“This song is greasy,” Seth says. “Super greasy,” Syd snaps back.) quickly subsided in time for the next jam. That speed comes as a stark contrast to most of the band members’ histories, as all have backgrounds making full-length records. Aside from Allison and Marnie, Eli is a member of punk band Girls Against Boys, and Seth and Syd are members of indie band Les Savy Fav; Syd also founded Frenchkiss Records in 1999, which has put out albums from Passion Pit and Local Natives, among others.
“We write so many songs, I think we take it for granted,” Syd says. “I know so many bands that take, like, a year to make a record. I feel like some of these songs could be on someone’s record.”
By 2:15, the composition portion of the day comes to a close, and there’s only a few hours free until the band’s studio rehearsal at 5:00.
The band was conceived as a project of Meyers’ friend and fellow SNL cast member, Fred Armisen. Having had moderate success as a punk rock drummer before his career as the master of weird, eccentric characters took off, Armisen took time out from his various jobs (Portlandia, Documentary Now! and more) to put the group together as a last minute endeavor in every sense of the word (“I got a call from Fred, two weeks before the first show, in the dentist chair.” Eli says over lunch), but for the same reason, isn’t around quite as much anymore. These days, he leads the band about a quarter of the time, but his recurrent absences make way for one of the most exciting things about the band: the rotating drummers.
Lining the walls of The 8G Band’s dressing room are headshots. Not of show guests, movie stars, or action shots of the band, mind you, but rather original headshots of guest musicians—primarily drummers—that have sat in during tapings. When I ask about this, the members are all excited to talk about the times that some of their favorites have joined, including Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Abe Laboriel Jr., the longtime drummer for Paul McCartney. Everyone who plays on the show, though, is there for the same reason: the love of music. “This is like a union gig,” Eli says with a playful smirk. “People who get too diva-ish just don’t come on.”
Talking to Syd, he says that he sees playing on the show as a “grad school of music,” explaining that they’ve had guests drop in after playing arena shows (Pearl Jam’s Cameron came by just after selling out Boston’s Fenway Park), and previously winning the Grammy for Album of the Year (Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara). I ask if he’s got a favorite drummer that’s joined, thinking that despite the names mentioned, the answer would circle back, eventually, back to Armisen.
“I love when Fred is on the show, but he’s not my favorite drummer,” he says, shutting my suspicion down with quickness and certainty.
He mentions a few of the usual suspects when members of the band talk about those who’ve sat in with the band: Cameron of Pearl Jam, Smith of the Chili Peppers, Laboriel Jr., and Jon Theodore of Queens of the Stone Age. I was particularly excited, however, when Syd went on to single out one specific drummer.
“I was shocked by how much I learned from Fabrizio [Moretti] of The Strokes,” he told me. Being 23 years old and loving rock music, The Strokes have always been important to me, and play a pretty major role in my musical fandom. “He offered up so much right away. He came in with just love in his heart.”
For Seth Jabour, it’s a treat and a privilege to share the stage with some of his idols.
“When I was a teenager, I was listening to their music,” he details. “If you told me as a 13 year old that I would be playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer…” he says before trailing off. He apologizes for not finishing the thought, but that’s simply not necessary; the experience of sharing a platform with a childhood idol is something that anyone can relate with.
It’s not always pure harmony though: he didn’t mention the drummer by name, but Syd said that early on in the show’s run, there was a drummer who didn’t quite click with what the band was doing. This specific drummer didn’t grasp the concept of ‘playing to the show,’ and kept playing after the walk-on was over and the guest was seated. It was a major distraction.
The core members of the band have known each other for quite a while, dating back to their teens or early twenties; it’s part of the reason why they work so well together, because there are so many specific references that they can just jump right into at a moment’s notice (“Do a ‘Pixies’ bassline,” they mention as an example). It’s also the reason why original drummer Kim Thompson, rooted in Jazz, is no longer with the band: she didn’t always catch on with constant references to Indie, Alternative, Shoegazing, and so on.
At lunch, again, the hip-hop discussion comes up. The chat shifts to past Late Night musical guests, and French Montana was the show’s musical guest last night. But the “No Shopping” rapper wasn’t the band’s hip-hop act of note on that afternoon.
“Who was that guy who was really fucking good?” Seth asks the table. “A$AP… not Rocky, but…”
I chime in, knowing that he’s referring to a performance by Harlem’s A$AP Ferg.
“It was poetic.” Eli says. “Totally blew me away.”
The band starts its studio rehearsal around 4:50pm, ten minutes ahead of the scheduled 5:00pm start. Part of what makes the music fit so astutely is the precision with which it operates, kicking in right after the guest is introduced, and cutting promptly as they’re seated. It’s a tricky maneuver, but one that the band is surely accustomed to after 412 shows.
After practicing the day’s music, they quickly jump into a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” which would serve as the audience warm-up song for the full week of taping. The warm-up song is an instrumental tool in getting the studio crowd ready to laugh and applaud their heads off for the hour to come. When they wrap at 5:08, it’s a special occasion. “That’s the fastest we’ve ever done!” Marnie exclaims.
For all of the band’s members, moving into this type of daily grind has been a transition, and keeping the creativity constant has been massively important. A nice perk, however, is the ability to always move on to the next show, the next set, the next day, opposed to the permanence of recording an album.
“The nice thing about it,” Eli says, “is if you fuck up, there’s another show tomorrow.”
After about 30 minutes of waiting in the green room, I’m brought into my seat in the studio where I wait for the show to begin. Shortly following the warm-up comic’s introduction to the audience, he introduces the band, and the members come out to take their places. With their stage now backed by some blue LED lighting, they quickly jump into “Dancing in the Dark,” and look accordingly spruced up; all of them have thrown blazers over their clothing, and Marnie’s slipped on a pair of shiny gold shoes.
When the taping finally gets underway, Seth Meyers emerges to greet the crowd so eager to see him. He quickly introuces the band, before giving a monologue poking fun at Chris Brown, Anthony Weiner, and Donald Trump. Without any pause, at a seemingly-subconscious level, the band plays at the exact correct cues for the exact amounts of time. It doesn’t seem so much a separate entity, but rather that that the band is simply an extension of Meyers. The flow is ceaseless. The chemistry between host and band is indubitable.
With the crowd’s attention focused on Meyers–as Syd said when criticizing the early unruly drummer, Seth Meyers is the star— throughout the show, I occasionally take a second to glance over and check out what the band’s doing during the interview segments. As Hoda Kotb talks about her adventures at the Summer Olympics in Brazil, I see Eli make an adjustment on his songsheet, crossing something out and jotting a note just above it.
It’s a good microcosm of the 8G Band as a whole: a group of natural musicians, rooted in creativity and driven by the constant grind of writing and performing music. There’s no stopping, and no hesitation. Some are musicians by trade only, but this band is anything but that. These are lifers. These are creatives, committing a true act of creativity on a platform that isn’t always expecting to see that. And now, for Late Night with Seth Meyers, they’re something truly exclusive—they’re not just the 12:30 a.m. house band: They’re Late Night’s Indie Band.
Photos: Lloyd Bishop / ©NBCUniversal
The 8G Band will be appearing as a guest at this week’s Taste Talks Brooklyn.