Can’t Fake the Funk | The Story of Vulfpeck’s Start
by Danny Hazan
“I’m gonna play da riddim, it’s very funky. So if you’re allergic, please take whatever medications you have prescribed. I’m kidding. There’s no real danger here of anything like that.” — Mushy Krongold
Jack Stratton, Woody Goss, Theo Katzman and Joe Dart were each prodigious musicians in their own right when they arrived in Ann Arbor within a span of five years of one another as students at the University of Michigan. Their subsequent formation of Vulfpeck in 2011 was a culmination of a series of coincidences, but the funk rhythm section’s synergy is no accident.
Since the band’s inception, Vulf has independently released five* six-track albums — with its first full-length feature due to be released at the end of the summer — and built a relatively small, but equally insatiable fan base in all corners of the world.
Though Vulfpeck is inspired primarily by pioneers of funk and jazz, the band’s originality and distinct sound is an undeniable force that intoxicates most who have come across their music in one way or another — leaving the listener little choice but to groove with each song and keep a smile or affectionate stink-face plastered across the mug on their bobbing head.
“We all have a similar core world view, or something,” Stratton said. “A big part of the formation was that you can just try to link up with the freakiest people in town on a chops level, but this was more of a hang-conscious configuration thinking about sustainability.
“The hanging was good. That’s a key part to any group. So I came up with the concept of the group. Then and now, if you asked me what my ideal musical pursuit situation would be it would absolutely be a rhythm section.”
Stratton, who composes and mixes the majority of Vulfpeck’s records, graduated from the Performing Arts and Technology (PAT) program at Michigan while the other band members were involved in the Jazz program. He led a 10-piece band called Groove Spoon while in college, but said he knew it would remain just a college venture as touring with that size of a band was not practical.
His final year in Ann Arbor, Stratton gathered Goss, Dart and Katzman to play some songs for a friend’s senior thesis on recording on 2-inch tape. As was the case with many projects in the PAT program, someone else wanted to record the session on video. Beastly was one of the songs they played — and slayed — and when it was put on Youtube, Vulfpeck was effectively born.
“Jack actually didn’t even want to film it,” Dart said. “But somebody else had an idea to film it for the thesis, and strangely that ended up what made the band. We didn’t know it was a band, or that it would have a name or that it would be filmed. That first session created the band without even trying. Jack then ran with it.”
“We didn’t even know it was going to be videotaped,” Goss said. “I remember Jack originally didn’t really like it (being videotaped), because he thought it would kill the vibe.”
As the initial videos began to collect views (Beastly currently has close to 373,000 views) thanks to the jam and the vibe emanating from the quartet, requests for the song to be available to purchase began piling up in the comments section. Stratton obliged.
“I deemed (Vulfpeck) successful back in 2011 when I opened up our iTunes and there was a 100 bucks in it, un-promoted and unsolicited,” Stratton said. “I strive to have low expectations for the group, and we’ve easily exceeded them every step of the way. (Vulfpeck) is well beyond my expectations. It feels great.”
Each talented multi-instrumentalists, primary roles in Vulfpeck have been Dart famously on bass, Stratton on keys and drums, Katzman on drums and guitar and Goss on keys. They complement each other seamlessly on time and in support, and each let their voice be heard loud and clear on the instrumental tracks when it’s their turn.
Vulfpeck released its first ablum, Mit Peck, in 2011 through a variety of online platforms, and has been gaining momentum ever since. Given their sound and body of work to date, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Vulfpeck is the band is not the central focus of any of its members.
“In a way, Vulf is sort of an accident in my life, because it was just like these homies getting together and hanging out. It’s evolved into a beautiful thing,” Katzman said.
“The core vision has always been sustainability, and a big part of that is even trying to have other projects succeed simultaneously with it,” Stratton said. “So I think Theo doing his thing, Joe, Woody and me doing our stuff are all important to the sustainability of Vulfpeck counterintuitively.”
With an endearing mad scientist-like quirk and eccentricity, Stratton’s personality is reflected when you see him perform live or in Vulf’s music videos which he also creates and edits. Having grown up around working musicians, Stratton was playing at an early age and was immediately drawn to a few styles of music that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“I’m definitely a funk dude,” said Stratton who grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “Oddly, I’m also a pop music lover of the golden era, Top 40 time. Hearing The Meters was a formative thing. Pure Funk Volume 1 was my jam. I actually grew up playing Jewish music, but I’ve always just been a funk dude. It’s embarrassing how little I know about the Rolling Stones.”
Stratton also rattled off Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Earth Wind and Fire and Chic among other musicians he was drawn to when he was younger. However, Bernard Purdie had the biggest influence on his approach to the drums.
“Jack is truly a disciple of funk and R & B drumming,” Katzman said.
“Bernard Purdie is his hero, and he really, really sounds like Purdie. It’s crazy. If you’re ear is developed in that realm and you listen for it, Jack can totally blow your mind with how true to form he’s become with funk drumming.”
Stratton’s ability has come a long way since he was 15 and enrolled in the Berklee College of Music’s summer program, where he thought he’d never go to a music school again.
“It was a soul-crushing experience at the time,” Stratton said. “I was there for drums. It was very humbling, which was a good aspect. You get there and there are people who are way better than you. It puts the level of talent into perspective. But the competitive nature, and the culture with half the students dropping out — I just wasn’t ready for that college-type experience.”
Since then Stratton has flourished as a multi-instrumentalist, excelling on the keys as well as the drums and helped inspire Goss when he’s on the piano, Wurlitzer or Rhodes with Vulfpeck.
“I copied Jack Stratton,” said Goss of a specific playing style. “A little bit before that Herbie Hancock was my biggest influence in the idea of playing the drums on the keyboard. I had known a little bit of it, but when I saw Jack play the keyboard he was doing paradiddles on the piano. I definitely got deep into that, and it changed how I played.
“I honestly don’t know any other keyboard players who do it. Maybe Stevie Wonder or Dr. John a little bit. When I wrote Birdwatcher and A Walk To Remember, basically it was me playing with this drums on the piano stuff.”
As extraordinarily skilled as Stratton has proven to be with his composition, drumming and piano playing, his mixing and mastering ability cannot be overlooked. If Vulfpeck’s sample size isn’t proof enough, visit their Youtube channel for a taste of Stratton’s Sound of Two videos.
And as is the case with independent musicians and bands signed to no label, the members are responsible for everything else that goes into delivering music to the public besides the act of creating the music itself. Stratton also shoulders many of those tasks, and gave Vulf a quick thrust into the national spotlight with the Sleepify campaign. The results were well documented (link).
Dart first picked up a bass guitar when he was 10 living in Harbor Springs, Michigan as his siblings all played instruments as well. It didn’t take him long to be all-in with the bass.
“When I found the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and saw Flea, he was the first bass player I could recognize as a real strong voice,” Dart said. “He’s really melodic, and is just a visible bass player in every way and I definitely gravitated towards him. I learned his sound, and technique and style.”
“I treated (the bass) like my friends were treating sports,” Dart added. “Instead of going to sports camps, I was going to music camps. I went to Flea’s Silverlake Conservatory in L.A. when I was 14 for a week. I went out to Berklee College of Music for a weekend, when I was 16 or 17 for a bass weekend.”
When Dart was still in junior high, he played bass for a high school band which he categorized as a classic Phish-inspired jam band that played blues and funk. He continued with the band when he was in high school, playing gigs at bars, parties and local festivals. By the time Dart, the youngest member of Vulfpeck, got to Michigan in the fall of 2009 he was somewhat seasoned.
When Dart arrived on campus, Stratton’s roommate who hailed from Harbor Springs showed him the Myspace page of the band Dart played in high school with, and Stratton was intrigued immediately. Fresh off the disappointment of losing his bassist in Groove Spoon to a gig on a cruise ship, Stratton invited Dart to come jam.
“That’s when I freaked out,” Stratton recalled. “I actually freaked out in a visible, potentially making everyone uncomfortable, way. I had to take a breather. It was warranted because it was definitely a turning point. I told Theo that this kid was a freak. So Joe then played with us in Groove Spoon.”
Katzman was the first capable bassist Stratton had talked to about sitting in the empty chair in Groove Spoon, and remembers vividly when Dart came into the picture.
“Jack said he was auditioning one other guy tomorrow,” Katzman said. “He was like unless he’s a total freak, you’ve got the gig. Then I called him the next day, and was like, ‘Hey, man, was he a freak?’ and he just goes, ‘He was a TOTAL FREAK,’ and it was Joe Dart. So that’s how I met Joe.”
Dart’s bass lines and fills in Vulfpeck bring each song to life, and is an integral part of what makes their collection so memorable. His prowess has begun to garner acclaim in the bass world, and he was even invited to play a clinic then a show at The Tonic Room in Chicago last September with legendary funk drummer, best known for his work with James Brown, Clyde Stubblefield.
While he hasn’t finished his degree at Michigan, Dart has been able to make a career as a working musician playing with a variety of artists and bands. His work with Vulfpeck has gotten him the most attention.
“It’s unreal,” said Dart, who also mentioned Pino Palladino, Rocco Prestia and Verdine White among his favorite bassists aside from Flea. “It’s owed to a lot of lucky factors like Jack’s creativity with building this band from scratch, and the internet and how much our music has gotten around the world. Once in a while, I’ll stumble upon a bass cover or a band covering Vulfpeck — and it’s surreal. It’s encouraging, and amazing.”
Growing up on Long Island (NY) in a musical family with a father who was a bebop trumpet player, Katzman was also exposed to music early on. He said he started with piano lessons when he was seven, but wasn’t too into it and then played the clarinet in fourth grade for the school orchestra. His love affair with music began a couple years later.
“I didn’t get supremely turned onto music until I found the drums when I was 12,” Katzman said. “I just freaked out and got really serious about drumming. I practiced everyday and all that. I was doing sports and all that stuff, but I was putting in a few hours a day on the drums too though. I started to play with other kids, then I started playing guitar when I was 14.”
Katzman was exposed to a lot of classical, jazz and latin music around his house, and began studying Afro-Cuban percussion under Richie Rodriguez (a featured performer on Vulfpeck’s upcoming album). Hearing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Beatles, The Meters, Led Zeppelin and Soulive is what sparked the, ‘holy crap, I have to do this thing,’ fire inside.
Before he graduated with a degree in Jazz and Contemplative studies — which combines jazz studies degree with meditation practices — Katzman made a dent in the music scene in Ann Arbor. When he first arrived he played in a few cover bands, but then joined an electro, dance-rock group called My Dear Disco where he played guitar and sang backing vocals. They toured the country playing colleges, clubs and the festival circuit.
In 2009, Katzman decided to leave the group to pursue his solo career as he had been writing songs since high school — an art he had also developed a passion for. He has put out one solo record so far titled Romance Without Finance, and also done work with top 40 pop artists composing music, writing lyrics and performing on recordings.
Among his contributing highlights, Katzman and his writing partner Tyler Duncan helped co-write and co-produce Michelle Chamuel’s album Face The Fire and he was the co-writer and co-producer on Jason French’s singleYou Just Want My Money which was released in 2015 as well.
Katzman’s work outside of Vulfpeck falls under a different sonic umbrella, however, his versatility on the guitar or on the drums is a key component to Vulf’s identity and he sounds like a natural in the funk realm. He also provided the vocals on one of three Vulfpeck tracks with singers — Christmas in L.A.
“I’m still discovering, and I hope to continue to discover my whole life what I even do,” Katzman said with a chuckle. “It’s always evolving. But I’m definitely comfortable collaborating, and I feel like I bring a lot to the table when I’m collaboratively writing with other singers. Songs are really important to me, but I’m also a player and musician so I think about recording and production. So when I get together with Vulf I’m playing a different role, and it is a really refreshing and good balance for me. Stylistically it’s a lot different than my own music because my solo stuff is rock and folk based.”
Before Goss entered Michigan’s Jazz program, he honed his craft as a Jazz pianist in Skokie, Illinois where he was born and raised. Goss said his dad was a piano player, and when his brother started to take lessons he just tagged along. He got his start when he was seven, and began playing primarily Jazz when he was 13 when he was introduced to Thelonious Monk’s work.
“When I was a kid, I think most kids do music because they like the approval from adults — so I did it because they told me I was good,” Goss said. “It wasn’t until later on when I started playing Jazz, I did it because I had friends who I could impress. Eventually, I finally started playing for myself when I got to college.”
“Middle school and high school, Jazz was pretty much my whole world,” Goss said. “Then I got into funk really hard in high school — like George Clinton, Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown.”
Goss admitted when he first got to college, he had no visions for himself in terms of a future career or specific job — he just wanted the education. During his first year on campus in 2008, he took a job booking shows at one of the most intimate, and storied venues in Ann Arbor, the Canterbury House. The experience got him exposed to the business, and also gave him knowledge of all the different bands in town.
He began playing folk and rock with Charlene Kaye, and also played with Katzman in a Jazz combo at Michigan. Goss also helped a band called Honey, which he categorized as, ‘Psychedelic acid jazz and just a bunch of jazz students who were goofing really hard.’
Aside from his work with Katzman, Goss also sat in on a couple Groove Spoon sessions. So when Stratton initially got the quartet together for the first recording, Goss fit the bill of a funky multi-instrumentalist who could shine on the keys thanks to his background.
“It’s so soulful,” said Stratton of Goss’ playing. “He approaches piano very different from me. Where I’m kind of a parts player, he won’t play the same part twice any given take.”
Goss has composed a couple tracks on each of Vulfpeck’s four albums, and said since he began playing with the group he’s become more enamored with its style and setup.
“I’ve gotten deeper into funk because of this band, and deeper into the idea of session rhythm sections,” Goss said. “I saw that movie Standing in the Shadow of Motown, but I started getting more into looking up session musicians and finding out credits of all these different songs.”
An earlier musical influence for Goss could be revealing for Vulf fanatics.
“Ween was probably the biggest love affair I ever had with a single band,” Goss remembered. “I really liked humor in music, and bebop was a lot about that too. These guys were trying to make each other laugh. Ween was about people in the band entertaining each other.”
From the outside looking in, the effortlessness in which Vulfpeck performs could reasonably be credited to countless hours of practice and rehearsal time together. But that inaccuracy is just a testament to their respective individual musical skill and time, as well as their genuine chemistry with each other as humans.
All four haven’t lived in the same state since the band’s beginning.
Stratton moved from Michigan to San Francisco, and now resides in Los Angeles. Katzman moved back to New York City and has since relocated to L.A. Goss has made stops in Ypsilanti (MI), Austin (TX), Springdale (UT) and is now back in Ann Arbor. Dart called himself a nomad, as he’s been touring and working non-stop.
Regardless, their creative process has remained the same. A basis for a song will be presented to the group, typically a chord progression or maybe a melody or groove — then it’s up to each musician to make their part for that song. In most cases, they’ve got their final product after the second or third take.
“It’s not an exaggeration, it really has been natural,” Dart said. “There has never been any thought or design that has gone into it. In fact, Jack goes to great lengths to avoid that. We don’t know the songs until we record them. It’s spontaneous, and super off the cuff. Luckily we all naturally click, that’s why it’s so fun and that’s why I love it.”
Through the release of their albums Mit Peck (2011), Vollmilch (2012), My First Car (2013) and Fugue State (2014), fans from all over the world have fallen in love with the final product thanks to having internet access.
Wait For The Moment off My First Car and 1612 off Fugue State are Vulf’s two songs besides Christmas in L.A. which feature a vocalist. After working with him in Groove Spoon, Stratton invited Antwaun Stanley to sing on Wait For The Moment and 1612. Stanley’s quintessential gospel and soul vocals helped bring Vulfpeck’s music to another level of popularity in terms of impressions.
“You don’t have to be a data scientist to figure that out,” Stratton deadpanned. “That’s not even surprising to me though. I love instrumental music personally, and there was a time when those were hits like Green Onions and Outa-Space. But just looking at the history of pop, great vocalists are where it’s at.”
Historically rhythm sections are set up as for-hire entities, but Stratton mentioned with the upcoming album as well as future endeavors the hope is for Vulfpeck to seek out featured performers they think would be good fits for individual songs.
Joey Dosik, a former classmate in the Jazz program at Michigan and roommate of Katzman’s, has been featured on several Vulfpeck songs on keys as well as the alto saxophone. Dosik, a solo artist based in L.A. who also has his hand in collaborating with other artists as a writer, instrumentalist and producer, broke down two of Vulf’s most redeeming qualities that have little to do with the intricacies within the music itself.
“There are two things,” said Dosik, who composed Vulfpeck’s Kuhmilch 74 BPM (My First Car). “I admire that they have fun. There’s so much (stuff), especially being in L.A., at a show where everyone has a straight face on. You see a lot of music in Los Angeles, but there’s also a little bit of a too-cool-for-school thing. I’ve seen it firsthand when they play in L.A. that they attract an audience that is ready to get past that, but they also do a tremendous job of breaking that wall down and doing their thing — which is having fun.
“Musically, I appreciate when a group of people can make a connection with each other. Those studio rhythm sections that did sessions daily for years made records that were so good because the more you play together, the more you develop a sound and develop a connection. That’s something I appreciate and admire about them.”
Vulfpeck has played under 20 live shows since their existence. Most recently, Vulfpeck played a sold out show at The Satellite in L.A., then played three sold out shows at The Tonic Room in Chicago (with all three shows selling out in three days several months prior) and finished up the mini-tour with a sold out show at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor and a performance at the Short’s Brewing Company 11 Year Anniversary Party in Bellaire, Michigan.
Their live shows, though few and far between, are essential for fans and any person who enjoys music, dancing and smiling. Aside from their growing catalogue of music, Vulfpeck also treats the audience to covers of classics as well as some humorous commentary and audience engagement from Stratton and Katzman.
The authentic enjoyment between the four players on stage is directly reciprocated within a crowd at any given packed club. If music is expression, Vulfpeck’s message of being some funky dudes who love making music with each other and nothing more is simple but manifests itself in a beautiful way.
“It’s totally about the hang as much as it is about the music,” Katzman said. “We feel comfortable with each other, so we can play certain things. The cool thing about Vulf is that everyone is pretty good. I’m blown away by how good everyone else is, and I think we all feel that way. Joe Dart is a miracle, Woody Goss is a miracle and I really mean that. Jack is an insane genius, and his compositions are amazing. I’m just trying to hang, really. I think we all bring a cool element. The fact that we haven’t decided we aren’t this, or we are that, we can still do fun things and keep the shows fun — and lighthearted.”
“Each one of them is the best at what they do, I really believe that,” Goss said. “Past a certain point, there’s not really a measure of someone being better. It’s really just individual differences and comes down to who these people are and what they care about. If a musician cares about playing really fast, then that shows in how they play. If you spend enough time on an instrument, you’ll be able to do what you want to do. I think these guys are definitely all world class musicians at what they do.”
“I just want people to take it however they want, but ultimately we’re just having so much fun,” Dart said. “Whenever I play with Vulfpeck it’s incredibly fun, and incredibly freeing — and I think people get that, and feel that when they listen to it. That’s what I love about it.
“I can’t speak for the band, but for me personally I’m just happy to be a part of keeping live music, and human music alive. Not like we’re a savior, but we’re one of the bands that still plays music that consists of four guys in a room. Everything you hear is being played by the four guys in the room. So that’s really cool to me because I grew up listening to bands.
“I can get into electronic music, or this or that, but I still like four, five or six guys playing instruments together. So the fact that we can do that and people dig it is the coolest part to me.”
Vulfpeck finished recording with some featured performers for the new album in Michigan in early May, and Stratton is back in L.A. in the preliminary mixing stage with hopes of an August release. Most of Stratton’s time will be dedicated to the record.
“I think it could legitimize us in some people’s eyes versus the six-track (releases),” Stratton said. “I think it’s cool that we’ve waited this long (five years) to put out a full-length. We’re continually improving as an ensemble, my mixing is getting better and our fan base is growing. It will definitely be a statement.”
Katzman, Goss and Dart, who toured with The Olllam in the UK during 2014 are currently all in the midst of their respective individual engagements.
Goss said he’s only recently considered himself a full time musician after holding jobs at the Natural History Museum where he kept a colony of flesh-eating beetles alive in order to clean skeletons symbiotically. He was also a wilderness ranger for a season at the Zion National Park in Utah, a mental health assistant in Michigan through Renaissance Community Homes, a care-taker for a group called Right At Home in Austin and a research assistant in the University of Texas’ cognitive psychology and endocrinology labs. He also tutored students in physics, math and the piano throughout.
Besides his work with Vulf, Goss said he’s excited about a soon-to-be-released album he made with Lou Breed in which he played bass, keyboard and a little harmonium. He also plays with Ann Arbor-based band Ornamatik — described on the band website as ‘Traditional Eastern European music with a funky twist.’
When Vulfpeck’s new album is released, Stratton said the band will re-group to rehearse then play some shows. Being completely independent has allowed Vulfpeck total freedom, as well as complete individual freedom, but it obviously comes with challenges besides some members having to fly to meet up.
“The largest challenge which we’ve faced is booking protocol, and trying to be taken seriously and not offend people,” Stratton said. “We don’t really know the politics, or how that’s done. We kind of just email back and forth to negotiate a deal. Our fantasy is to email someone and saying we want to do these dates, hit us with the ticket links. But any given show is 30 to 40 emails whether you like it or not.”
Given Stratton’s track record in every field he’s had his hand in thus far, Vulfpeck will have touring on whatever scale they choose figured out in due time considering Katzman, Goss and Dart also have wisdom on touring with other bands. Stratton definitely wants to play a show abroad, where Vulf’s biggest fan base currently desperately awaits.
“It’s fun to look at the numbers online,” Stratton said. “I consider Bandcamp the best indicator of people who would show up, and London is our biggest city in the world. So we absolutely have to get there. It’s just a matter of understanding their club deals and making it work with the airfare. It’s just a matter of finding when that see-saw tips in the right direction. But playing there is a priority, and it will come down to getting an expert’s opinion on it.”
Vulfpeck is not yet a full-time hustle for any of the members, which is mutually beneficial to the guys and their fans. With each record, Vulfpeck has continued to define its voice a little more each time. And with each record, more and more people from all over the globe are becoming hipped to what Vulfpeck has to say — in most cases, without words.
Whether Vulfpeck ascends to heights where it can pick and choose featured performers, is hired as the rhythm section for popular vocalists, or have its music licensed commercially, their funky beats sampled in Hip-Hop or anything in between is irrelevant to the essence of the band. Sticking to Stratton’s initial core vision for Vulfpeck, and letting the rest happen naturally has worked out so far.
“It’s really amazing,” Katzman said. “It’s inspiring because in a certain sense I didn’t even think it was possible. I really feel like we’re in the first generation of artists, fully in the new era of the internet. With the falling of the old model of the music industry, which is saying that radio, television and print media isn’t the only way to spread information anymore. So to be a part of something that there are people all over the world are into is incredible.
“It gives me hope because one of the powerful things about music is that speak across cultures, and language barriers. Vulf has completely exceeded my expectations and wildest dreams in terms of what’s possible when you do something for fun in your living room then have people in Japan and Chile tell us they love it. It’s really exciting. I see Vulfpeck as the example of what’s possible for an independent organization of creative people, which I feel honored to be a part of.”
Having his work consumed with authentic love by someone thousand’s of miles from his piano also has Goss embracing the moment.
“It’s awesome and a dream come true,” Goss said. “I feel like the internet made possible something that wouldn’t have been otherwise. The internet makes it possible for you to find your people.”
Finding your people is one of life’s most humanizing experiences.
This post was re-published with permission from the author. It originally appeared on medium.com.