Sometimes a band gets caught up in its own secular spirituality and winds up crowding the vibe. It's a delicate balance between message and music. Syracuse's Sophistafunk puts forth a heavy groove that rivals pants-less fun, but there is also a seriousness in the minimalist attack, a sense of responsibility for the privilege of holding the mic. Live, this trio — Jack Brown, vocals; Emanuel Washington, drums; and Adam Gold, keyboards — is like a Chevelle with the hydraulics gone haywire ... that goes the same for in the studio, where the band plans on heading this fall. The funk, as played by these Salt City standouts, is in between the notes it plays: not always heard, but felt down to the bone. Sophistafunk will break your sophistaback, Jack.
Speaking of Jack ... front man Jack Brown sat down to answer a few questions about touring, breaking the bonds of a mental prison, and never faking the funk. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
City: What's new in the Sophistafunk world?
Jack Brown: We are set to record our new album in late September at More Sound Studios in Syracuse. We are gearing up for a return to the Midwest next month and a tour to California in January.
Gimme a little background on the band
We met in 2007 at the Syracuse venue Funk 'N Waffles, which is owned by our keyboard player Adam Gold. We had our first show there with Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. We started playing local music festivals, including Sterling Stage, and became a mainstay from New York City to Burlington, Vermont.
In 2011, we toured Colorado with the Rochester band Thunderbody. By 2012, it was on to California and the Great Northwest. Then, 2013 saw our first trip to the UK with Syracuse native Joe Driscoll. We returned to England in 2014 to play the BoomTown Fair, with more than 50,000 in attendance. Recently, we played a huge Super Bowl Party in Tempe, Arizona, with Kid Rock, and on July 4th we rocked Sioux City, Iowa, with Aretha Franklin. But the highlight of the year was our set at Grass Roots in Trumansburg.
What are your Influences?
We've been described as The Roots meets Rage Against the Machine meets Parliament Funkadelic; but that only begins to paint the picture.
How would you describe your sound?
Vintage soul and funk plus heavy dance, electronic grooves. The last ingredient is renegade hip-hop. Throw in some reggae, rock, acid jazz, jam, and more, just to keep everyone on their toes.
How many records do you have out?
We have two EPs and one full-length album out already. Our most recent is the EP "Freedom Is," but we have another currently in the works.
Are you a live band that records, or a studio band that plays live?
Definitely a live band that records. It's a good problem to have, because a lot of bands that are good in the studio aren't necessarily exciting in person. We pour our hearts out at the live shows every night.
How did you choose your instrumentation?
It just happened. Keyboard maestro Adam Gold plays four vintage instruments at once, including two Moog synthesizers. Drummer Emanuel Washington is hands down one of the best drummers in America, laying down the thickest grooves with an impeccable pocket. I provide the lyrics and flow, with Adam and Eman singing some of the choruses. We've been experimenting with additional guests and instruments, including saxophone. When in Rochester, we love to collaborate with Mooney, Laz, Wil, and Bill from Subsoil.
What did you set out to do? And what have you accomplished above and beyond that?
We set out to create the music we love to hear that isn't out there too much; to keep it real, raw, and funky. Honest lyrics, inspiring live shows, to bring people together. Music is an analogy for life: If we can blend genres with new ideas then we can challenge the old paradigms of race, sex, class, and all of the other mental prisons keeping us divided.
You seem to focus on socially and politically charged themes, do you think music can bridge the gap or at least start a discourse?
Absolutely. It's one of the few times where people stop their busy lives to think outside the box; to challenge old ideas; to wake up themselves and others. We travel from city to city inspiring people to peer into the looking glass. We're ambassadors to the rabbit hole. There are many of us out there, and we make connections one show at a time.
How do you describe a Sophistafunk fan?
Wow, great question. It could be someone who sees hundreds of bands a year but remembers us because we stand out. It could be someone who never goes to see live music but randomly has an unforgettable experience at one of our shows.
It could be a Dead head, Phish head, or underground hip-hop head. A spiritual wisdom seeker, a local activist, someone who loves to dance. A musician, an artist, a music lover, an old school dude with his white hair in a ponytail. A 15-year-old angsty teen, a hula hooper, a gem collector. A former hippie, a current hippie, or (to narrow it down) any man, woman, or child of any background. Or any of those people could watch us and walk away. It's hard to quantify. Catch one show and you'll understand.
Any recent highlights or anecdotes from the road?
We recently did some tracking at SubCat Studios in Syracuse with SU professor Jim Abbott and an incredible group of special education students as part of their summer rock camp. We even had the kids come in the booth with us to help sing the chorus.
What does Sophistafunk do that no other band does?
I'm not sure about that. I like to think we're part of a long line of bards, poets, and instrumentalists who through the eons have utilized music to speak the unspoken language of existence; bending reality with the vibrations of sound. Metaphysical alchemists who explore the boundaries of our conscious and unconscious world, transcending space and time to usher in a new era of peace, love, and empathy. Also, sometimes Eman takes his shirt off.
What's something you'll never do?
Fake the funk on a nasty dunk.