For July’s New Groove of the Month, we decided to feature a band that’s made a substantial impact already on 2005’s summer festival season, Chicago’s Groovatron. With two breakout performances at two of the summer’s largest festivals-Summer Camp and Wakarusa-already under their belts, this Midwestern funk rock sextet has finally arrived on the scene. Well, they’ve been around for more than a minute but this just may be their time to shine.
Groovatron is Andy Dumaresq (drums), Nick Ferrer (guitar), Tony McCullough (sax), Steve Pesich (percussion), Marc Quasliara (guitar) and Tony Qualls (bass). I had the opportunity to chat with Qualls earlier this month to get his take on being an up-and-comer in the jam scene, playing with his some of his influences and how to translate your live sound into the studio, and vice versa.
"We’re one of those rare bands who’ve known each other since we were toddlers," began Qualls. "Actually we were a collection of the students in high school who decided to start a band instead of going away to college."
That’s how the story of Groovatron began. Now still in their mid-20s, they’ve gradually ascended from playing local college bars in the Northwest Indiana and Chicago area to playing significant late night slots at major festivals. It wasn’t a process that happened over night. Instead it was a culmination of several years of constant touring (performing over 125 shows a year for each of the last three years), and steady ambition towards achieving their goal.
What would that goal be? "I want to get in everywhere and be one of those bands. The goal from the beginning was to not turn our backs on any kind of music. I personally couldn’t be in a band that played just one style. I want each show to be completely different. We want just enough money to be comfortable and be able to buy some toys…I just don’t want to work for the Man," explained Qualls.
Work for the man they’re not. Today the band is able to reach a much broader audience that just the greater Chicago area. Possessing an art meets funk meets rock sound that cites Frank Zappa and Phish as its earliest references, Groovatron is one of those bands you have to witness to feel. They incorporate solid musicianship with a healthy taste for songwriting, not to mention all six members sing and contribute to the band’s sizable repertoire. From get-up-off-your-feet funk forays to slow-you-down intertwining vocal harmonies, they shift gears constantly and perform at whatever level they see fit.
And they put on one hell of a live show.
"Anyone who likes music, if you sit through an entire Groovatron show you would like something we did," he said. "It always gets better and never gets worse and I can’t wait to see what we do. There’s no limitations."
Describing the Groovatron sound does pose problems. What they would call schizophrenic rock one could also deem funky art music. Amid complex compositions and six part harmonies lay delicate intricacies and extensive layering. Whereas they’re jumping around on stage like a bunch of bobblehead dolls they can also sit back and situate in a tight groove. That may just be the shining of their influences; Frank Zappa and Phish weren’t exactly the most normal or standard groups of musicians. Groovatron’s quirky stage antics, theatrics and unanticipated setlists draw heavily upon these aforementioned influences, but they’re done in a 21st century fashion.
"We don’t really shun anything and we always try to stay open minded. New ideas have never been a problem for us. We’ve been working on getting crazy with our live shows through incorporating a lot of choreography and skits. It makes it fun for us and for the crowd," Qualls explained.
If you haven’t seen Groovatron live it’s hard to imagine what they would be like from just words on a page. I hadn’t caught them until Wakarusa and I was frankly blown away by the energy and enjoyment glowing from the band’s jovial faces. All night they played as if they there were no tomorrow and once guests like Michael Travis (String Cheese Incident), Kris Meyers (Umphrey’s McGee) and Brock Butler (Perpetual Groove) hit the stage, their eyes lit up tenfold.
On top of that, Groovatron has put together some pretty substantial work in the studio. With three albums already under their belts (the first when the band members were mere teenagers in high school), they’ve been able to translate their sound into the studio and produce a product that was feasible and moreover, good. Yes Have Some, released in 2001 was the group’s first bona fide studio effort, and it gave the band members an outlet to express their burgeoning artistic selves. 2004’s Don’t Mind if I Do offered a much more exploratory product. The album portrayed a band with many faces and many styles, a band who rather easily swung from one mode to another. What it delivered is a colorful painting of a band that’s just waiting to blossom.
"The possibilities with technology and recording have made it so incredible to write (music)," Qualls said. "We have so many songs that we haven’t been able to get to yet. We try to do every single song writing process available. Sometimes it takes three months, sometimes it takes three days."
As the summer heats up, Groovatron slows down to catch up on their lives, spend some time in the studio and ready themselves for a breakout fall. With some regional shows around the Midwest planned as well as a couple small festivals and a short resort town run, Groovatron is setting the gears in motion for what continues to be a very pivotal year.
For Tony Qualls and Groovatron, they just want to keep doing what they’re doing. "In five years I can see us doing three big tours a year, at least one album a year and playing large clubs and theaters. I want to be the band known for having the most material since Zappa."