07/12/2013 12:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Smooth Jazz Cruisin': Conversations with ECP's Dane Butcher & Michael Lazaroff, Plus Brian Irving's "Garbage Man" Exclusive



Brian Irving -- aka Rawkus Records and UPROXX.COM co-founder Brian Brater -- drops his debut album Radiant Things on July 16th. Brian, a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, synth and drum programmer, creates a lush atmosphere of conscious lyrics, and lo-fi/hi-fi computerized, neo-psychedelia with recent critical comparisons to Tame Impala, Pink Floyd, and Neon Indian.

Check out this exclusive stream of his new song "Garbage Man" that features delayed guitar glitchiness, drum layers, and airy vocals and synths coupled with a clear environmental message about the dark side of our over-consumption. The song's opening lines, "Garbage Man, may your holy work be damned, Garbage Man, toxic waste is on your hands. What will you do, when the garbage starts eating you," shed light on the environmental and social consequences of our collective waste.

Also enjoy Brian's recently released video for 'Eyes Wide'. It's an animated sufi mind-trip replete with spinning geometries and hallucinogenic fret boards reminiscent of the experimental video work of Stephen Ellison aka Flying Lotus and Captain Murphy.


A Conversation with ECP's Dane Butcher

Mike Ragogna: Dane, your latest Smooth Jazz Cruise, the 2013 West Coast Edition, is coming up in October, and it's going to be significantly different from your other cruises. Can you go over a few of the changes?

Dane Butcher: Yeah, sure. It's going to be fantastic! We've got more exciting things happening this year than ever before. There are more musicians and more performances than ever -- over sixty shows in seven days. We also have a new program called Opening Act, which is a talent show, and the final round is judged by the artists on the ship; Brian Culbertson, Candy Dulfer and Boney James will judge that round. The winner will actually perform on stage with the artists and open our shows at the very end of the week, so that's a new program that we're doing. We're giving private lessons with the artists this year where, if you want, you and up to six people can sit in on a clinic and have a private lesson with the artists. In other words, Jonathan Butler will give you some vocal tips and work with you for an hour on your vocal abilities, Brian Culbertson will work with you on playing the keyboard, or Marcus Miller will teach you to play the bass. And a brand new thing we're doing this year is a new show called Backstage Pass that I'll be hosting. It's a live television program that will be recorded in front of an audience and once it's recorded, it will go on Dish Network sometime in the near future after the cruise. But we're going to be doing interviews and getting real up-close and personal with the artists. It's going to be a great cruise.

MR: You said you're going to hosting it. What is your background in entertainment?

DB: I grew up in Australia and did a few shows down there, then I was entertainment manager for an island in the Great Barrier Reef. I was working on cruise ships as the cruise director, and I've been in cruise production now since 2005 hosting and producing cruises.

MR: So then you know not only talent, but what makes a successful cruise.

DB: The one thing that we really strive for is to cater to the guests. I get on the ship a week before the cruise even begins and I work with the cruise line. We change the menus, we change the drinks, we put together a radio station on board so people can tune-in and listen to radio stations of that genre while they're getting dressed or getting ready for the day when they wake up in the morning. We change the movies, we pick out itineraries, we make sure we walk through every single minute of the day to get the experience and make sure that what we're doing caters to them.

MR: Very guest-focused?

DB: Absolutely. I did regular cruises for years and a lot of cruises catered to the masses, and it's difficult to detail a cruise for a specific group when two thousand people are there for different reasons. On our cruises, everybody's there for the same reason. Everyone's there for the music, the jazz, and it allows us to really tailor those twenty-four hours on those seven days to what the guest is going to experience. I've got Jonathan Butler doing renewal of vows if you're a couple on board. As the sun's setting upstairs, there's champagne, and he's singing and performing and renewing the vows, it's an amazing experience.

MR: Can you go over the history of Entertainment Cruise Productions, like how did it come about and how did it hook up with the cruise ship line that it's associated with?

DB: What happened was fourteen or fifteen years ago, Norweigan Cruise Line was going to stop doing their jazz cruise, which was a straight-ahead music cruise. Anita E. Berry, who was the founder of the jazz cruise, decided that she, at the age of seventeen years old, would take her list of people and start up her own cruise ship with Holland America Line. She did that, it sold out in thirty days, and the rest is history. We did smooth jazz, and Michael Lazaroff -- who is the Executive Director of Entertainment Cruise Productions -- is amazing. He and his mom created the company and they've been doing The Jazz Cruise now for fourteen or fifteen years, Smooth Jazz Cruise since 2004, and along with that, we've been able to branch out because Michael's had the foresight of being able to see different programs. We've produced the Playboy Jazz Cruise, we've produced the Soul Train Cruise, Malt Shop Memories Cruise, the Elvis Cruise years ago, and we're doing the Country Cruise in January. It's because of the success of what Anita and Michael created and our eye for detail that make these cruises so unique and so special.

MR: Since you cover a lot of different genres, is there one particular genre of music cruise guest that is more of a repeat customer than others, maybe smooth jazz?

DB: It's kind of funny because our jazz cruise has now been going for fifteen years as a full-ship charter and some of those guests have been on all fifteen. Some of the smooth jazz guests have also been on our Malt Shop Memories Cruise, which is a fifties and sixties cruise they all come on. Even my parents from Australia come on and they love it. Once you get on the ship with people of the same group and the same taste, the experience is unforgettable. You can spend X amount of dollars on a concert, but you'll never get the same experience as on a cruise. If you go upstairs and have breakfast and suddenly you're sitting next to George Benson, it's like, "Wow." It's that kind of experience, up close and personal with an eye for detail where for seven days, you're just in absolute heaven with people that are like-minded. It's tough to beat.

MR: Do close friendships develop as a result of the cruise?

DB: Oh, absolutely! It's the same now for every cruise, and we joke about it. it's like band camp for adults...they come back every year. We've had weddings on board, we've had renewals of vows on board, there are a lot of people who come back and see the same familiar faces. I know when I step on the ship and the guests are starting to come on, I know at least fifty percent of them, and they're there, they're coming up, and I'm like, "Welcome back, what have you been doing for the last year?" It's great to see these familiar faces coming back time and time again. It's so fantastic.

MR: You've expanded from forty to sixty performances for this new voyage. Will it expand even further? Are there other plans to take the experience even further than what will be experienced on the October cruise?

DB: You know, it's kind of funny, this year we've got an extra day at sea which gives me another twenty-four hours to do activities. That being said, I just left St. Louis on Wednesday after we've had meetings there, and we're planning stuff for January and for November next year with brand new shows because we simply don't have enough time this year to do them. We always have full creative control and we've literally got new programs, new activities, and new events for next year already.

MR: So the plan is to keep the Smooth Jazz Cruise expanding in various ways?

DB: Yeah. We also listen to the guests as well. If the guests come up with a suggestion or a thought of something they'd like to see happen or even an artist they would like to see onboard, we do our utmost to accommodate that if it's the right move. To me, I've got the best job in the world because I've got full creative control of what we're going to do on board. It's great when you know these things and you can see it evolving and happening and the guests just love it. And it's the simple things that you never would have a chance to go to. Brian Culbertson and Boney James are two hosts of this upcoming Smooth Jazz Cruise. They're doing a ping-pong tournament because they both play ping-pong. Now where else do you actually get a chance to play ping-pong with the artists you actually came to see?

MR: With all these experiences and success you've had, and now becoming the host of this talent tshow, when will you be hosting the Smooth Jazz spinoff of American Idol?

DB: [laughs] Look, I would love to, it would be amazing. If you've got contacts, then I'll do it!

MR: I'm on it. Got any other news?

DB: Yeah. Each night on our cruises, we always have a theme night. It ranges from "Pajama Party" to "Costume Party" to "Formal Night" to "Hawaiian Night." This month, we thought that October, being national cancer awareness month, we're going to do a night called "Pinktober" where every single guest will get a pink Entertainment Cruise Productions lapel pin, and on the bottom of the tab it's attached to, there will be a perforated section they can tear off and put their name and cabin number down on and hand it in to the front desk. Five dollars from their onboard account will then go to a designated charity for cancer awareness, which is to be announced. For every five dollars a guest donates, Entertainment Cruise Productions will match that. We're hoping that if everybody does it, we're going to raise about twenty-thousand dollars to cancer awareness.

MR: Beautiful. Have you done this before? Are there other fundraisers that you see yourself getting connected with in the future?

DB: Actually, we've done various charities and we've done various donations, and Michael Lazaroff was just in New York at The Blue Note. In honor of his mother, there's an Anita E. Barry scholarship fund that we set up a couple of years ago. But this is the first time that we've done a whole night based on a charity and a theme, and everybody on board will wear pink whether it's a tie or a shirt or a dress or something. We're going to dress the stage up and I think it'll be a really special and unique event.

MR: All right, that sound awesome. All the best with this and future cruises, Dane.

DB: Thank you so much...bye!

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

A Conversation with ECP's Michael Lazaroff

Mike Ragogna: Michael, I just spoke with Dane Butcher about Smooth Jazz Cruise 13, but let's go over more of the history with you, your memories of how all this began.

Michael Lazaroff: Well, we had been doing a straight-ahead jazz cruise for a number of years. As a matter of fact, there was a straight-ahead jazz cruise as early as 1974. It was never a full-ship charter, it was on half of a ship, but it was the S.S. Norway, which is a very large ship. There were about eleven hundred or twelve hundred passengers and back in those days, they had Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Mel Tormé... It was a really cool cruise. Around 1999, they stopped that cruise, and one of the women who was a big seller of cabins on that cruise -- in fact, she sold to five or six-hundred people -- she came to me in late 1999 to say that she wanted to be the first person in the world to charter a whole ship to do a music cruise. She was seventy years old at the time, so I said, "Tell you what, let's have lunch, we can talk about this." About a week later, I met her for lunch and I looked across the table and I said, "Mom, do you really know what you want to do here?" It was my mother. So we began the jazz cruise, and we did a couple of fabulous sailings of that cruise as a full-ship charter. Then I was contacted by some guys that were trying to put together a smooth jazz cruise, so I became the manager and part-investor of that particular cruise. That was the year 2004, and during that sailing, I purchased the rights for the Smooth Jazz Cruise, and we've done eighteen smooth jazz cruises since that time.

MR: You must have at least some love of the music in addition to the good time that's had on these cruises, right?

ML: Well, I love music, but I really, REALLY love this kind of music. It is fun, the artists are extremely skillful, they put on a great show. But they're artists, and I just think it is a tremendous music genre, no question about it.

MR: How did you and Dane Butcher get together?

ML: It is very interesting. The first full-ship charter that we did on the Holland-America line was in 2005. I'm on the cruise the week before getting ready, and I'm working with Holland-America lines' cruise director, Dane Butcher. During that week, we became friends, we talked, and he was indicating that he'd been looking for something to do. He was trying to figure out what he could do other than being a cruise director. I told him by the end of the cruise that I couldn't promise him a full time job, but I could promise him he could work on the cruises and get paid and that would give him a good start towards something else. We did a handshake, and I'm not sure that he really believed me, but within a week, we were working together and that part-time arrangement lasted thirty days. He became full-time and he's been more than full time ever since.

MR: How have the Smooth Jazz Cruises been evolving?

ML: There isn't any question that the biggest difference is the level and sophistication of our production. It is pretty slick right now. We have all kinds of events that we didn't have before, and we are just so comfortable producing this cruise that we can do things that we never would have done before. We are putting guys together that have not performed together previously, and we are creating a lot of interactive events with the artists that we did not do before. It just seems every year, we just move it one or two steps more sophisticated, with more layers of programming.

MR: Would it be fair to say that considering how you're employing and interacting with the jazz artists and they amongst themselves, these cruises might be having an effect on the smooth jazz genre?

ML: Oh, there isn't any question. Our concept of bringing all these guys together and having them mix and match on stage and having them walk on each others' shows and having them then be interactive with the guests has become a formula for a whole bunch of activities within this genre. People have been very kind when they have been kind of unabashedly telling me that they are stealing it.

MR: [laughs] Is it possible that as the musicians are workshopping and basically woodshedding, it's affecting their creativity and artistic vision even off ship, therefore affecting how they approach their next projects?

ML: There isn't any question that one of the cool aspects of the cruise for the artists is that they can hang for a fairly long period of time with very sophisticated and talented fellow artists. There are very few other opportunities during the year for them to actually do that. The number of arrangements and plans and new ventures that have been hatched because these guys have been on the cruise together is countless. And they all get to watch each other perform, which is also something that they rarely get to do, so there is a lot of growth and, interestingly there's a lot of mentoring going on.

MR: And that mentoring also will be directly with passengers who'll be interacting more and more with the artists, even more than previous cruises?

ML: Absolutely.

MR: I heard you're going to have contests for opening act slots for the main acts as well as filming a television show.

ML: Absolutely. Every day. Yes.

MR: Can you go into the mechanics of how that's going to work?

ML: We're going to let lots of people try out. We're going to have a committee that is going to narrow it down to maybe five or six spectacular artists and performers from our guests and then Boney James and Brian Culbertson, the hosts of the cruise, will actually be the guy that picks the person to be the opening act. They will perform with them before the first and before the second show on our all-star night which I think is the sixth night of the cruise.

MR: It's lasting seven days and nights, and where will this cruise visit?

ML: We're going to leave from San Diego, going to Cabo San Lucas. We're going to stop a whole day in Puerta Vallarta where we have a large number of artist-hosted, off-the-ship excursions. We have a golf tournament, we have a tennis tournament, we have swimming with the dolphins, we have SCUBA diving, all hosted by artists, and then we go to Cabo San Lucas and tour the Bahia Magdalena strait, which is an absolutely gorgeous part of Mexico. We'll be going up and down the Mexican Riviera, so for those folks who have not sailed before, this is a really good opportunity to do your first cruise because we are never at open sea. We are always hugging the coast and nine out of ten times, this means that the cruise itself is very calm and very easy on folks.

MR: You also host other kinds of cruises, not just smooth jazz.

ML: Absolutely. A straight ahead Jazz Cruise that we've been doing forever; we have a Malt Shop Memories Cruise, which is sort of a '50s cruise, and we've got Neil Sedaka, Lesley Gore, Petula Clark, Four Tops, and Bobby Rydell; we have a Country Music Cruise, and we have Vince Gill, Kenny Rodgers, Ronnie Milsap and a whole host of other people; we have a Celtic Thunder Cruise with the fabulous lads from the group Celtic Thunder, which is PBS' number one show; they will be running the cruise. And we have several Soul Train cruises. The one on the West Coast only has Gladys Knight and Earth, Wind, & Fire heading it up, which is just amazing, and then we have another sailing of that cruise in the winter. I also wanted to say that we have two sailings of Smooth Jazz Cruise, one is in October and another is in January, but that one's completely sold out. So if you want to join us, it's the October cruise that you'll need to sign up for.

MR: All right, I'm going to ask you to pick out your favorite child from all your themed cruises. Which is your favorite?

ML: My father, who is deceased, taught me to love music, and he told that there are only two kinds of music in the world -- good and bad. I can point to aspects of each and every cruise that I love and I can point to aspects of each and every cruise that I'm not that fond of, but for me, the important thing about our cruises are the guests. I love watching the guests have a great time. Nothing in the world makes us happier than when guests come up to us and thank us for doing this and they say, "We're going to come back," or they say, "This has been the best vacation ever." That is what this is all about. Music is what gets us there, but the real purpose of all of these cruises is to build camaraderie. That's why we do full-ship charters, to encourage brotherhood. We have tremendous diversity on all of our cruise programs, and to just have a really good time.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

ML: Oh, lord. Smooth jazz artists?

MR: If you'd like, but artists in general, since you've been exposed to so much music, genres and artists.

ML: I think that if I was a new artist, I would dedicate myself to performing anywhere at any time for any money, just to build up that volume of people that know you, places that you've played, and gaining that kind of experience. I sometimes see new artists trying to mimic what the more established guys get or do, and they say, "Well he didn't do this," or "He got that" and stuff. In this day and age, it's all about live music. Back in the old days, it was recording, and then you would do live music to support the recordings. Now it's the other way around. You have to get out there. Nobody's going to buy your CD until they've seen you play. That's just the way it works. So I would perform anywhere that I could at any time.

MR: Excellent advice. What's going to be the October Surprise with October's Smooth Jazz Cruise in October? Should guests be expecting anything additionally interesting?

ML: We are working on one right now, and I think that there'll be one amazing surprise and I will know soon and I will be able to hint at it. We don't have it locked up yet, but boy, we are getting really, really close.

MR: Anything else we need to know?

ML: It's Brian and Boney's first time ever hosting the cruise, and they're just raring to go. They're going to do a great job.

MR: Michael, sounds terrific. I really appreciate your time, thanks.

ML: Thank you, Mike.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne