Over the course of four albums, St. Paul & the Broken Bones have nimbly shifted from retro-soul to futuristic funk and beyond, rarely settling in one spot for too long. Though the Alabama band is calling upon different musical traditions, it’s not unlike the constantly shapeshifting work that David Bowie did throughout his career.
“Someone like Bowie, they’re ever-changing,” says the group’s frontman Paul Janeway, calling during a brief stretch back at home in Birmingham. “And Prince — I love Prince. You have to push forward, if you do the same thing over and over – there’s nothing wrong with that, but at the same time, I’m the kind of person that would rather throw the grenade under the house and blow it up and try to rebuild it than to just add on to the house.”
St. Paul & the Broken Bones pay homage to fellow grenade-thrower Bowie with a new cover of “Moonage Daydream,” which he recorded in 1971 and released the next year on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In true St. Paul style, the group locks into the groove and gives Janeway the space to show off his voice. In the middle section, they cleverly flip the guitar solo to be a feature for the horns, generating a soulful interstellar swirl by the conclusion.
“Alabama has a lot of space history, so anything to do with that informs a lot of what we do artistically. I think it’s honestly kind of the idea of wanting to escape at times,” Janeway says, nodding to the state’s association with rocket science. “I’m always attracted to the weirdo, artsy, the space element: everything about Bowie speaks to me.”
Janeway and the band embrace those ideals on their 2022 album The Alien Coast, blending their grooves with heavy guitar, psychedelic atmospheres, and even industrial textures. He found inspiration in reading about pre-Colonial America (the album title was an early explorer name for the Gulf of Mexico) and, like with their previous album Young Sick Camellia, in works of visual art. The dreamlike “Minotaur” references a figure in Picasso’s art, while the eerie “Bermejo and the Devil” was inspired by Bartolomé Bermejo’s Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil.
“Growing up in rural Alabama, you’re not exposed to much,” Janeway says. “I went to community college and I took a few art history classes and it really spoke to me. Music inspires me, but going to see a great work of art, not in a musical sense, really draws something out of me.”
A popular and thrilling live act, St. Paul & the Broken Bones have been back on the road regularly since 2021. Janeway admits he still has some apprehension about the risks of Covid in live venues — for a while, he refrained from his characteristic fourth-wall-breaking trips into the audience — but he feels he doesn’t have a choice when it comes to canceling gigs.
“I’ve got people coming to see the show and I can’t not do the show,” he says. “We’re following local [health guidelines] and if it’s really bad maybe we put in some precautions. But it’s been so hard to navigate that I think you get on the road and it’s your bubble, so you go, ‘Oh yeah, everything’s fine.’ You can get sucked into that.”
With a string of dates coming up through late August and September, St. Paul will be busy bringing the new album to audiences. When it comes time to thinking about the next record, he says it won’t be like the old-school soul of their debut Half the City, nor will it be similar to The Alien Coast. Janeway wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Every fuckin’ thing we put out, I hope people love it. I hope it gets universal praise and all that stuff,” he says. “But that is a secondary thing for me. The first thing is, do I like it? Do I enjoy it? Because I’m gonna have to play it a lot.”