Vulfpeck Keeps It Beastly
Vulfpeck is a keyboard-driven four-piece funk group from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Band members Jack Stratton, Joe Dart, Theo Katzman, and Woody Goss came together to create a rhythm section in the vein of The Meters or MFSB while studying in the jazz and recording programs at the University of Michigan. The members relocated across the US post-graduation, but have kept the band together by releasing an EP-sized album with accompanying videos each year (their most recent, “My First Car” was released last December).
Things picked up for the band in 2011 after the video for their debut track “Beastly” got the notice of the bass playing community (courtesy of budding virtuoso Joe Dart’s rapid-fire solos). Since then, without much in the way of press or blog buzz, the band has built a growing cult thanks to hook-driven, toe-tapping, laid back jams recorded with an analog sheen and performed by a band that is, as one commenter put it “so deep in the pocket, they just found your grandfather’s watch.” Watching their videos on YouTube make playing instruments look like one big party. This is a band with obvious talent at the peak of their powers. Fans of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Marco Benevento, and the Greyboy Allstars should take note.
Bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Jack Stratton recently spoke with Jambands.com about influences, instrument-switching, being name-checked in the New York Times, and being a career musician in the post-iTunes era.
How did the band get together?
I read an article in Tape Op about Reinhold Mack, a German engineer who did Queen and ELO and I got the idea that there was the German version of the Funk Brothers or the German Wrecking Crew. It never existed but it was a funny idea. I’ve always been into rhythm sections and wanted to create one. Coming off of being in a band, I knew rhythm sections were way more sustainable, more fun. So I was looking to do a four-piece with classic instrumentation. And then there’s Joe Dart who is just the man. So whatever context I could play with Joe was cool. And Theo and Woody are just really good musicians. I would have Woody sit in on all the gigs with my old band. Theo’s a figure in the Ann Arbor music community that everybody would know. I really went into Vulfpeck thinking about sustainability and joining a band with the right people on the front-end. We knew each other very well and we knew it would work.
You record your albums live-in-the-studio, how did you hit upon that way of doing things?
A lot of it is influenced by great TV performances, back when that was a real thing, on Midnight Special and Old Grey Whistle Test and Beat Club. Live performance clips of Bill withers or Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield…all the great ones. Everything we do is kind of a TV performance in that it’s live. Very seldom we cut different takes, and I mix it to sound like a studio record. Plus any given song we do, we get the video which is fun to watch. That becoming our thing was luck, the first session we did Jake Merkin, who engineered it, brought in a camera crew and I edited it and then people said put it on iTunes, so I put it on iTunes, packaged a 6-track album, which has become another one of our things. I didn’t set out
to do it this way but it’s turned into this and it makes perfect sense with all the tools that are available now.
You studied recording in school and your records really have a unique quality. What engineering techniques or equipment do you use to achieve that sound on your records?
It’s live, so there’s a lot of bleed, which contributes to a certain sound. There’s a certain snare sound I like, which is kind of like an Earth, Wind and Fire sound. I have a few basses that all sound great. I love bass tone. With upright piano, it’s just so fun to record – you just throw 2 mics on it, do the stereo thing and it always sounds good and it just kind of sets the palette for the sounds of the record. When you’re using the real instruments, it makes everything so much easier. I’ll occasionally use tape to give it some character. So it’s all this idea that this sounds studio-like, or artificial. It’s not just two reference mics picking up everything, or a Zoom mic.
What about the drums? Judging from the videos, you’re using cheap, incomplete kits, but it sounds great.
I was listening to a Mike Clark recording and it was the most dinky kick sound ever and it was so funky, like “he is just committing to this dinky kick sound, we’re gonna go in with the smallest kick drum in history!” We got a Ludlow for 10 bucks, used.
I used a lot of felt, I would just cover the heads in felt and put it under the rim and the engineer walked in and was like “whoa, that’s the worst kick drum sound I’ve ever heard” and then it was probably one of the coolest kick drum sound of any of our recordings. Our sound really started to get good on drums when we began separating room sound from the recorded sound of the drums.
As far as the snare we keep it dead, put the felt on to get no stick sound. I love superhuman snares; the best snare sound for my money is the Al Green records with Al Jackson on drums and you will never hear that snare sound in the wild – that is an artificial sound.
Your songs are pretty minimal, there’s more emphasis on groove than melody.
We go into it saying is “pretend like we’re recording this as a rhythm section to have a vocal laid on it later.” It’s pretty simple, minimal, bonehead funk, you know? We’re not particularly athletic musicians – other than Dart, who can shred with the best of them. And if you don’t give all that other information no one’s gonna say “oh man, I wish there was a really nice melody over this” they just get into what they’re hearing because people will latch onto the highest information given. And that kind of informs the playing and the space you allow because I’ve listened to Motown instrumentals – I love ‘em, I could listen to them all day, they’re so funky.
What’s the songwriting approach with these kinds of tunes? There’s some repetition in your songs, but it doesn’t get boring when you dig into a groove. How do you give a sense of movement?
Two of my favorite songs are “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Ooh Child,” which happen to both use the same songwriting trick, where it’s an A and a B section and going into the B section feels like a lift and going back into the A section also feels like a lift. So it’s this circular thing that can keep going. One of my other favorite tunes is “If You Want Me To Stay” and that’s just an 8-bar progression over and over again. So I look for these song structures that are unconventional but are some of the most popular, best songs ever written. When we went into the first album I said I want to do these A and B sections where each transition feels like a lift. So you don’t need this standard classical form structure or the Motown structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge…
How about soloing? There doesn’t seem to a big emphasis on taking solos.
Ordell Kazare, the arranger on “Mr. Big Stuff” and “Groove Me”, he’s kind of the gold standard of minimal hooky funk, where each instrument is sort of contributing just what it needs to – but if it does too much it doesn’t have the impact that you’re looking for. And for him soloing for the sake of soloing is a moral issue you know (laughs). It’s a deep moral atrocity for him and it’s not for me, but I love that attitude and I want to take it even further and tighten up even more. It’s a different type of soloing I guess because we’re trying to arc a tune.