Photo by Max Kitchell
A Q&A WITH PIONEER VALLEY FUNK-ROCK-AFROBEAT BAND WHO'DA FUNK IT?
(This is the first installment of a two-part profile of the band.)
By Brian Canova
March 1, 2013
This week we got a chance to sit down with Bess, Nina, Gabe and Deja, four of Who’da Funk It’s nine band members. Once an all-girl quartet, the original band met at the Institute for Musical Arts, an all-girls performing arts summer camp in Goshen, Massachusetts that aims to get more women into the rock and roll music scene.
Three of the original four remain, and they all came out to Northampton for an off-the-cuff sit-down to talk past, present and future funk.
In December the group digitially released their second EP, We Take it, We Leave it, We Love it (below), and they're gearing up for a busy month. Last weekend they blew away a packed crowd at Hampshire College’s Red Barn, and tonight at 7 they're bringing their funk to Easthampton’s Flywheel Collective. They’ll take the stage Tuesday night at Bishop’s lounge to compete for a spot in Greenfield’s Green River Music Festival, swing through UMass’ Hatch a few nights after that, then headline the Iron Horse on March 29.
When we sat down we noticed they'd rubbed heavy black “X’s” off their hands. Did we mention that Bess is a freshman at Smith College and Deja and Nina are still in high school?
SB: You had a reputation for being an all girls band. How did you make the decision to add males to the lineup?
Bess: It became kind of a necessity. I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but we needed a new drummer, so we said should we look for a female drummer or not worry about gender? There aren’t a lot of female drummers out there, let alone good drummers.
Nina: A lot of people were initially upset that we weren’t an all girls band. Especially because there’s not a lot of all-girl rock bands. It was what people recognized us for. Now I don’t think people identify us for that.
SB: Did the band change after that?
Bess: We’re still a women-run band.
Gabe: It’s a matriarchal society.
Bess: They do what we tell them to.
Gabe: But when we’re practicing I’m not looking at say, Nina, as a woman. We’re all just humans in the room. That’s the key to the music.
Bess: We’re a different sound now. At the Red Barn we had this amazing mass of people on stage.
Nina: We’re more ‘brassy’ now with the added saxophone and two trumpet players.
Gabe: You can write ‘more horny’ if you want.
SB: Do you think the ‘amazing mass’ of musicians you bring to the stage makes the band more memorable? Sets you apart from the rest?
Nina: Yeah. You see a three-piece band and there’s some energy, but with an eight-person band there’s so much going on onstage.
SB: Compared to most of the music scene in the Pioneer Valley, or most performing acts in general, you all are pretty young. Is it hard juggling school commitments while still being taken seriously?
Bess: We all have really different lives and are in really different places, but we all realize the band is a very serious priority in our lives and we’re all committed to that.
SB: What about your parents? What do they think?
Bess: We’ve been in this band for 4 years. When we were in high school our parents got used to the fact that we had to be out until 4 am.
Nina: We’ve had a lot of family meetings when we’ve met with all our parents.
SB: What sorts of things would cause an all-family meeting to be called?
Bess: Mostly just payment issues – are we getting paid and are we making sure we aren’t being taken advantage of.
SB: What was the process like, starting out as a high school band and rising through the ranks of the Pioneer Valley music scene? What’s the trick?
Nina: At first it was hard getting booked at bars that were 21 plus, but once we played and they saw that we could draw a crowd they started being more open to booking us.
Bess: It’s really all networking. We met other bands in the area and they asked us to play with them. There’s a really strong music scene here. At the beginning we used to book by ourselves and seek out shows. Now we either jump on a friend’s bill or someone asks us to play a show. Now, too, that we’re in and around the Five Colleges - we have eight different people [in our band] from eight different places.
SB: Have you had any memorably bad shows?
Bess: All the early ones. The most painful was the one we played at Snowzees in Sunderland. Deja was still 12. It was a bar. It was the afternoon and it had just opened. Everyone was old. And we were these teenage girls who didn’t have their songs together.
SB: So what’s next for Who’d A Funk It? What’s the future look like?
Bess: Everyone’s around for at least another year. We’re going to keep this ball rolling for as long as we can.
SB: Have you thought about signing with a label?
Deja: Sometimes we talk about getting signed and I’m like ‘NO.’ We started when we were so young and it was so organic. It feels weird to put it in someone else’s hands. Sometimes I feel like building this band is like building an empire, but for now it’s easier to just keep playing our music and get it out there.
SB: And finally, the quintessential band-interview question. Influences?
Bess: I’ve been listening to a lot of Bahama Dia lately, some Bessy Smith, and EMEFE.
Nina: Me? Shane Allesio. Oh, and of course I have to say Flea.
Gabe: Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine, Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Mike Shieve of Santana.
Deja: The Tuneyards, I even have their tattoo. Sharky Puppy. Alt- J. Bella’s Bartock.