Rolling the Fuzzy Dice: Porterhouse brings the new funk, gets “Neo-retro”
Thirty seconds into Thumbs Up Little Buddy, the debut effort from Portland, Ore.’s jazz/funk outfit Porterhouse, listeners are quickly transported to a different place. A place where fuzzy dice swing joyfully under gas-guzzling road behemoths, a place where you can make shag carpet snow angels on your living room floor, a place where bean bag chairs dominate the domestic landscape and “Starski and Hutch” constantly slide sideways against the television screen.
Joey Porter, the 29-year-old keyboardist who wrote, produced and performed on Thumbs Up Little Buddy, has led the group out of the dried up jazz/funk gardens of the Pacific Northwest into the forefront of any conversation regarding the best of the 2nd generation jazz/funk groups. Porter has navigated his ship through constant lineup changes and is preparing the release of the band’s follow-up to Thumbs Up, where fans can expect some slight departures, but still the same maddening head-bobbing, butt-shaking, groove-thick salvos flying wildly out of your speakers, soaking you and your furniture with choppy funk flavor reminiscent of the score from the b-grade pornos hidden behind your VCR.
Ok, so these guys are good, real good. But how will they keep their heads above the waters of the flooded jazz/funk genre?
“It’s saturated with a bunch of real mediocre stuff,” says Porter. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad people are interested in jazz/funk, that people are starting to get into it. But I think most of them lack songwriting skills, too eager just to jam out, the songs just are meandering musical ramblings. It’s better when you have a song than a one chord jam,” he said. “The song has to say something. But I’m glad there’s a lot of funk bands out there, it’s just when you have a lot of something, you lack quality.”
Porter asserts it’s simply the songwriting that is the main advantage Porterhouse holds over the rest of the up-and-comers. “It’s more interesting. When bands do too much straight funk, it seems like their shit gets boring. When they’re too avant-garde, it goes too much the other way with weird time signatures and bands you can’t dance to, can’t party to. We’re trying to be between where you’re interesting to dance to but cerebral enough to be called jazz,” Porter said. “We want to shake.”
This, he continues with a laugh, helps to prevent a common catastrophe witnessed in the smoke-filled jazz dives across the country each night. “We want the jazz lovers and the chicks to dig it. Too much jazz turns into a sausage fest, you know, we’re an equal opportunity band,” Porter assures us. Amen to that.
Interestingly enough, while Porterhouse has enjoyed repeated praise from the traditional jazz community, it’s the neo-hippie jamband world that has equally embraced the band, an uncomfortable but welcome phenomena for Porter. “What also separates Porterhouse (from the rest of the jazz/funksters), is that most of those bands come from hippie, jam-based origins. There’s nothing hippie about us. We come way more from the soul and r&b side than the Grateful Dead side. We get compared to hippie bands all the time and it makes us feel funny,” he said, though some comparisons are welcome, it seems. “The only thing we have in common with hippies is that we like to get high,” Porter states through another laugh.
While Porter may not claim residence on the dready side of the tracks, he’s quick to appreciate this large and quickly expanding sector of his fanbase. “I’d say at least half the crowd or more at our shows are hippies. I think they’re great, they appreciate the music most of all. The hippie wants to see the real band play, not the DJ, they know what you’re doing on the stage,” Porter said.
Joey Porter first began playing keys at about age 17, quickly making his way out of his home in Nashville to making a real dent in sparse jazz scene in Portland. He traces these roots and influences to rest as one of his stronger musical assets. “I’d say Herbie (Hancock) was the biggest influence on my playing. I’m really into Stevie Wonder, probably the best songwriter ever for funk music. But being from Nashville, I’ve got that down home in me. It comes from listening to soul music as a kid, my parents liked the right kind of shit. My mom was a dance teacher and I grew up in the 70’s, so that disco shit was all around me.”
This is obvious, you think as you listen to Porterhouse’s “Juicy,” a fifth-gear funk fixin’ that will immediately have you digging through the attic for any sequin-drenched KC & the Sunshine Band one-piece jump suit while forcing you to remember how to layer your hair.
“We’re not trying to be retro,” Porter says surprisingly. “Like Robert Walters, he’s more retro. We’re trying to play the old instruments in a whole new way. Neo-retro,” he said. Nice. “We’re not trying to be Blue Note (Records) 60’s. Maybe a little on the last record (“Thumbs Up”), where we were into shameless disco beats. Not cheezy beats, just taking away more from a fusion record. The new record is more into a funk direction, just straight funk. I mean, we’re playing 70’s music but most of us matured in the 80’s, we’re trying to take all that stuff and put our own spin on it,” Porter said.
There is also one very notable difference in Thumbs Up and the upcoming release, a lead guitar. Yeah, there is not a single note from a guitar (other than a bass) on Thumbs Up. Upon learning this, myself on behalf the jazz guitar addicts across the country, nearly pulled out the welding torch and had my way with dastardly musical mistake. However, you don’t miss it. In fact, when you’re in the grips of a Porterhouse groove and trying to figure out where all the bones in your body ran off too, it’s easy to see why he went the no-guitar route for Thumbs Up mood.
“When I first started my new band, I was so tired of playing other people’s music. I said I don’t want any guitars, guitars are everywhere. I mean, I knew I could cover the (guitar) leads on my clavinet. I’ve got two hands, I can make two separate sounds. The guitar doesn’t even need to be out there. Too noodly,” Porter said.
“But on the new record, this really funky guy named Doug Lewis is in on three cuts. He used to play with a great band called Pleasure. He’s super-funky. This cat’s still in Portland, and he’s the best funk guitar player I’ve seen. If it wasn’t him on the record, it wouldn’t be anyone else,” Porter said.
Also especially relevant to jam-freaks, is the recent addition of ex-Leftover Salmon bassist Tye North to Porterhouse’s current touring lineup. Porter met North at a Motet show in Portand, where they jammed and became friends. North was incorporated into the Porterhouse vibe while Porter, in turn, will be sitting in with North’s star-laden Theory of Everything project on stage in January.
“I had no idea Tye was going to be so funky. I heard he played with Leftover Salmon and I said, Oh Hell,’ but he turned out being real funky,” Porter laughed. “Two or three times a night, we’ll just make up a song on the spot. When I start a jam and it gets meandering, I usually just end the song or drastically change it. Tye has a way with his huge improv vocabulary, that makes a song real interesting. He may change the feel of the song where nobody has to take a solo, we’ll just be groovin’ along,” he said.
The new record will be out in March, Porter says, giving most who haven’t heard the news yet time enough to happily disintegrate to “Thumbs Up” and regroup in time for the new record. While the band tours almost exclusively on the west coast and Rocky Mountain states, an east coast swing is in the works, though Porter believes the band will have to “lose their ass” on the first tour, hopefully sharing the bill with an east coast heavyweight.
This may be selling himself short, I think, as I sit at a North Carolina stoplight nodding my head in delicious time to “Marination,” a soupy-sick offering on Thumbs Up, scoping around my fuzzy dice toward the oncoming traffic, anxiously awaiting the live arrival of the new groove.
Ben Williamson is a freelance music journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, who is quickly, through trial and error (mostly error), learning the intricacies of the 1969 Volkswagen Van engine.