Vulfpeck Keeps It Beastly
The band switches up instruments song-to-song (besides “Dart”). You yourself play keys and drums. How do you determine who plays what instrument for each song?
Theo and I have pretty similar grooves on drums. If I feel like I can crush it on drums I’ll probably play it on drums just from a selfish perspective. If it’s a particular piano part like ‘Beastly’ that I’ve written, I’ll do it because I kind of have a drummers touch on keyboard anyway. If Woody wrote the tune, I’ll be on drums because I can’t pick up his tunes like Theo. So it works out very conveniently, the songs are all arranged on the spot so it’s just to maximize efficiency who plays what or who can learn the tune fastest on what instrument.
Vulfpeck has gotten a lot of attention from bassists, they seem to treat Joe Dart as a real discovery.
Joe Dart is pretty obviously the reason why we’re notable in any circle. It’s cool because when you look at the great rhythm sections during the golden age they all had one cornerstone musician who you’d buy the ticket to see. In Detroit, it was James Jamerson on bass; the Meters, you want to see Zigaboo; Booker T and the MG’s, Al Jackson Jr. the drummer I would say. And it’s not to say that you could mix and match all these people and it’ll all still work, but they kind of have one attraction and we kind of defaulted that to Dart. It was like a no-brainer because he’s a rare bassist that can groove and solo and it’s not even the point that he’s soloing it’s just that it’s funky. It’s like Rocco from Tower of Power, it’s just funky, it feels good. Who cares if it’s maybe busier than a stone-cold groove dude? It doesn’t matter.
Instrumental music doesn’t necessarily have the widest potential audience, what’s your approach to pursuing a music career as an analog band in the digital age?
Initially, you think “oh instrumental music, you’re shutting yourself off from a huge community,” but within a certain other community you could be internationally famous because there’s no language barrier. It’s a more engaged community that’s asking about drum tones and posting covers online, so it’s this weird sliding scale of what is popular and what is profitable. I can assure you our band has the least amount of time spent together vs. international success in history, I will assure you that.
I take pride in the lack of emotional commitment the band members have had to put into this, ‘cause that can get really hairy when you make someone give up opportunities to “put the band first, bro.” I’ve been in those situations and we’re definitely not doing that, the focus is on sustainability.
You’ve managed to get a few Kickstarter campaigns funded and you self-publish everything on your own label, Vulf Records. So you’re really taking the DIY route.
Absolutely yeah, it’s certainly our job to make it work. I really don’t like the attitude of the musician who thinks they deserve this much money because they’re this popular on Spotify. Unless you’re on a label or people are working for you it’s your job to – the word monetize is used for these companies that don’t sell anything – let’s pretend a band doesn’t sell anything. You’ve gotta figure out ways to monetize it if that’s your goal and it’s actually really fun – I love designing album covers and screen-printing and printing records and I love good t-shirts. That’s all really fun to me and it’s great when the fans respond. There is this cool rabidness where the demand is higher than the supply right now.
You’re based in LA now, are you courting the labels? Is iTunes and streaming enough to sustain an unsigned band?
In LA, the record industry, we’re not playing that game at all. I’ve smelled it, that’s about it and it’s like “I’m out of here. This is slow and a bureaucracy and you get 1 percent of the money spent on an album.”
The digital thing right now is really confusing, I’ve become disillusioned with streaming and income with that stuff pretty much in the last month I’ve had a total change of heart where I’m seeing what their goals really are, the people in charge of Spotify. I mean our music looks so good on Spotfiy and sounds great and it’s like the coolest-looking Spotify page you know so I’m not taking it off there but someone pointed out in a blog post how they’re not looking to profit off the music, so they’re not out to screw anyone but they have totally different goals as a company.
Last August, your dad had an Op-Ed published in the New York Times where he wrote: “Every middle-class kid from the Midwest is trying to make it in a bigger city. I give my musician son at least five years before I press him to join [the family business].”
The New York Times thing, there’s a second layer of meaning there because that was one of my dad’s most notable creative achievements, that’s the highest literary real estate in the world and each article pays like under a hundred bucks, you know? A great piece of advice I heard was from Kenny Gamble from Gamble and Huff who’s one of the clearest thinkers/businessmen/musician dudes, who’s had something ridiculous like 170 gold records as a writer. He said “get a day job in the early days and never put the pressure on your art to be that initial source of income ‘cause you’ll compromise whatever you’re doing.” So Vulfpeck kind of represents a space where we can achieve stuff independent of any financial risk and it actually is pretty profitable because it’s insanely low cost. I mix it I, release it, I do the design, the videos, and there’s no way I’d rather spend my workweek! It’s so fun, so I’m protecting it to remain that way.
So you’re building an audience by focusing on recording over touring. But the audience has a good sense of your live sound because you record everything live. Do you plan to play more live shows?
We’re really excited to play live more. A few of us backed up a TV star Darren Criss, who’s on Glee. He sold out big rooms and we were on a bus and that was the first tour I ever did. I’ve avoided band touring because it doesn’t work, everyone kinda pretends like it does but people end up hating each other (laughs). People who liked each other.
Once of the catch-22’s of playing live it that it’s much easier to have a good show when it’s sold out. Trying to build a band before you have a fan base is so hard. You get the fan base first, and then these live shows are just cake ‘cause it’s an engaged, packed house – it’s totally different energy. So that’s one arbitrary rule that I put in place is that we’re not playing until it’s sold out, which has been the case for us. This is a really exciting time where live performance can actually pay for the trip. I would recommend new bands try to build an audience on the internet first. Playing and empty room is…I don’t enjoy the feeling of it.
I would say someone like Soulive, their live show is what’s up. They do ten days at the Brooklyn Bowl and they’ve done all the festivals. Ok Go’s thing is really creative music videos. Us, at the moment, our thing is we’re this studio band with live performance videos – that’s probably the first thing people discover.
The song “It Gets Funkier” appears on all your albums in different forms. What is it about that song that makes you return to it?
I still don’t even know if “It Gets Funkier” is hooky enough or if we could throw a melody over it like The Crusaders’ “Put It Where You Want It” (if you Spotify that, you’ll love it.). That for me, it’s the gold standard of a complete instrumental track and “It gets funkier” might mutate another time, like a synth one and a funky Stevie Wonder-like clavinet one and on the first album I remember I told woody to really play the full 88 keys like try to get around the full keyboard on it. It’s probably my favorite bass tone we’ve ever gotten is that first one. So that track being the thread through them all was us saying “nobody’s done this this structure of albums before, let’s pretend like there’s some protocol to how you do this.” We’re just inventing it and it’s really fun Like, 6 minus 4 is 2, 6 times 4 is 24, it’s like making up these ancient number signs about why it’s perfect and hilarious…
The numerology works out.
Yeah, the numerology (laughs). I just love it, I think if I found it as a fan, I’d be like “this is just too weird; one six-track album a year? It’s just too weird!” It’s very fun and you can listen to one of the albums, it’s like a nice car ride length.