Family Groove Company
Family Groove Company came together four years ago at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. But the four members keyboardist/vocalist Jordan Wilkow, guitarist Adam Lewis, bassist/vocalist Janis Wallin and drummer/vocalist Mattias Blanck immediately took to a different approach that was far removed from the music industry standard. That attitude on a creative and business approach led the musicians into the arms of the jamband world.
Shortly after its debut, Reachin’, was recorded, the quartet moved east to Chicago, a more central location for spending countless days on the road. A second effort, The Charmer, came out earlier in 2006. Possessing a stronger mix of grooves, tight songwriting content and a nod to the jazz elements of Steely Dan, the album and subsequent live shows have spread the band’s name to an ever-expanding audience.
JPG: After four years together Jambands has you as the New Groove of the Month. Do you feel that it’s a long time coming or that Family Groove Company is in the right place now to be in the spotlight?
JW: That’s a good question. I’m pretty sure that at no point in the last four years if Jambands had called and said, We’d like to do this profile,’ I don’t think there’s any chance we would have said, We’re not ready for that yet.’ But, with the benefit of hindsight I think there’s a lot of truth to catching something like this at the right time in our career in order to advantage of it as best we can.
The last eight months since our new album came out, we’ve really been on a tear in pretty much every facet of a band’s career. We’ve been working hard, investing a lot more money in advertising, doing the dollar-related things to get word out there, and on an artistic level we’re writing well and playing well. The fans that are coming out to see us, whether they’ve already seen us or because of all the added exposure we’re paying for, when they do see us we’re feeling great about the response. It’s overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
JPG: The reason I bring it up is that if this happened when you started in 2002, you didn’t have all the playing experience together and the development of your live show and songwriting chops. In a way, exposure too early could have hurt you.
JW: I think that’s probably right on. Now, I look back at our stuff from three years ago and I’m able to look at it with a much more objective and critical eye. Not slamming our stuff, but constructively criticizing what we were doing well and not so well. I’m also ready to concede that in a couple years, I’ll be looking at our stuff with the same [critical] eye.
JPG: You’ve released your second album earlier this year and branched out your touring area at summer festivals and other venues, do you sense the band moving forward?
JW: Absolutely. I’ve always felt that this jamband scene of ours allows for more than just luck to play into the game. In Los Angeles, I saw all these musicians trying to make a career out of playing mainstream pop music, and it seemed to me that they were all just sitting around, waiting to get discovered and have their meal ticket handed to them. This is a scene that is particularly supportive of live music…there’s no sitting around and waiting for a record deal with national distribution. You go out and you play, and you take responsibility for your own success.
JPG: It’s interesting that we’re talking about the jamband scene rather than the genre. It seems that more bands are getting touchy about that label. In the press kit, you describe your music as “groove informed jazz/rock.” Still, I can’t see your music being played elsewhere and receive acceptance. If it remained in the jazz world, I’d imagine the sound and grooves would be watered down to the point of it becoming Smooth Jazz.
JW: You used the word acceptance’ and that’s totally appropriate. The audiences are really willing to indulge the artist. They don’t need to be fed two-and-a-half minute radio hit songs. All these major label execs that are putting out the pop records are saying, You’ve got to get to that chorus in the first 30 seconds or they’re going to change the channel.’
It’s a privilege to perform routinely for audiences like this, that aren’t waiting for the next thing to sing along to or the next gimmick. They’re just coming with an open mind and ready to listen.
I can relate to when bands speak cynically saying, I’m not a jamband,’ because nobody wants to be pigeonholed. But there are a lot of great things about performing within this scene. Most of them have less to do with using the word "jamband" to describe the music, and more to do with the scene the word describes – a scene that helps make earning a living as a touring musician possible. That there are so many people that support you is really a fantastic thing.
JPG: When you recorded your debut, Reachin’, the band hadn’t played out much. Did that cause the material to be more concise or?
JW: For a long time ambitious ideas is what I was all about. One of the ways I feel I’ve matured as a songwriter since we recorded Reachin’ is an appreciation for being creative within a set of rules. There’s a traditional pop song format of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus. At the time of Reachin’ I felt that the only way to be creative was to throw that form out the window whereas now I’m intrigued by how creative I can be within this construct. A band like Steely Dan is a good example. In terms of their arrangements, it’s pop writing. And what keeps them from being pop music’ is the level of sophistication of the harmonies that they’re using and the melodic ideas and the fact that they’re singing about some really weird shit a lot of times.
The Grateful Dead were my band in high school and I really liked Phish a lot, but I really didn’t have an awareness of how powerful this jamband scene is and how many bands are out there doing it. As the band became more involved in it and I became more involved in furthering our career and seeing what rooms we should play and who are the contacts we should make, I started to become overwhelmed with how many bands are doing this musical formula. For me the idea of putting sections of different tempos next to each other or having a long orchestrated jam go down, there was a clichlement to me. It started to bug me. Phish did a great job of the musical ideas that they’d employ, coming up with them in the first place and then executing them at a high level. And I became self-conscious about not doing too much of that.
Then, I saw these other bands doing kind of the same thing, but not as well. It seemed like this idea of abandoning traditional song structure. And it started to become a hallmark of your typical jamband. Aside from what I think are legitimate reasons to avoid that, and those are the examples of what Steely Dan provided for me, I also had a reaction against that. For example, song length, just about everything on The Charmer is five minutes or less. That was purposeful. I think it’s a challenge to say something in a tight neat package.
JPG: You admit that you had a lot to learn about the jamband scene from an artistic and business standpoint. With the many bands around and how things tie together, do you find it harder or easier to make inroads and move forward in your career?
JW: It really cuts both ways. Certainly what makes it harder is there’s a great deal of competition. There’s all these bands, and it can, at times, prompt a backlash. Occasionally, I talk to talent buyers and they’re like Jambands? No, thank you.’ And I can get where that can be a problem because bands in other genres of music don’t tour like these bands do. There can be X number of jambands and the same number of pop/rock bands, but the jambands will be coming back every six weeks because that’s all they do is tour. The pop/rock guys are out for a couple months and then go back and do whatever they do. So, that makes it tough.
And then I think of Phish in the 80s doing their thing. When you’re not battling all these other bands who are calling the same talent buyers, I feel like you got a leg up. On the other hand they really blazed a trail. When I started putting this band together, part of my confidence stemmed from the fact that there was this model laid out for me the way Phish and other bands did it. So, there was a case to be made that it was possible.
JPG: I read a quote from Janis that the idea at Musicians Institute was to learn your craft and then get hooked up as session players in the studio or on some major artist’s tour.
JW: That wasn’t my plan. My plan was to follow in Phish’s footsteps. I don’t think I had a grasp that there was a clear alternative, to be a freelance musician and make a career of it. Writing music has always gone hand-in-hand for me. When I got to L.A. I got deep into playing jazz. People do compose music in jazz, but the aesthetic is much more about the improvisation over a standard or over a tune that’s already been written by someone else. I really believed that my best shot at success was to pursue this jamband course as opposed to what some other guys in L.A. were doing which was making a demo, not even having musicians just doing it with software on a computer, and then sending it to every record label they can think of and hoping. You play when you get a break and there’s a showcase. You just sit and hope you win the lottery.
I’m not suggesting that there’s no luck involved going the jamband route. But for me there’s much more of the sense that success is what you make it. It’s not about having some guy in a suit pick your song over another guy’s song that are both two-and-a-half minutes; one is this gimmick, one is this other gimmick. It’s about getting as many people as possible to hear you, and if they like you, if you’re good enough, that’s it. And I can control whether or not I’m good enough. So, I’m gonna go out and do it. There’s no better way to do original music. Since then I’ve learned it’s not all in my control the way I had hoped it would, but I still think it’s our best bet. You’re taking luck more out of the equation.