Grolar Bears find happiness in the pursuit of symphonic funk
|Photo by Joel Menk|
Piñata Records Field Day| Nomad World Pub| Saturday, August 16
Homespun Minneapolis label Piñata Records has a reputation for signing acts with an old-school ethic and a modern aesthetic. Grolar Bears, led by bassist and producer Jonathan Kramer, put a slight twist on that formula, creating a lush, symphonic funk sound akin to the much lauded scores for African-American cinema created by the likes of Isaac Hayes and Quincy Jones during the 1960s and '70s. Synthesizing a myriad of takes by a host of talented local musicians, Kramer spent years crafting a soundtrack for a hypothetical film called Cos in 2012, and has spent the subsequent time forming a group of players to transform his deep, heady recordings into a powerful 12-piece live band.
Grolar Bears are releasing a 7-inch called "Midnight Stew" this weekend at the Piñata Records Field Day party at the Nomad World Pub along with a host of their label mates. Gimme Noise caught up with Jonathan at Diamond's Coffee to talk about movies, and the challenges of his unique style of recording.
Gimme Noise: So, let's talk about concepts first. How in the hell did you decide that soundtrack funk was your musical calling?
Jonathan Kramer: I was in a riot grrrl, kind of Sleater Kinney-esque punk band for a while. We'd just played for years and it was a jamming kind of thing. Then when I got done with college, that didn't go anywhere and we broke up. I wanted to start writing music, and that led to writing instrumental funk because... I can't sing, and you don't want me to come up with lyrics also. So it started with just drums, bass, guitar, and piano. I had all my friends who played at Augsburg come and do a ten-person gospel or a six-person string ensemble kind of thing, and it just kind of kept growing. So it got to the point where I had to say "Okay, instrumental funk... what's like that? That's very... strings, and atmosphere, there's like a Yankee Hotel, there's kind of an element of sonic landscaping...That's like a score!" That was like the "aha" moment. I did my research into blacksploitation and movies, and those are great. Then I figured it would be kind of cool to shoot an actual ten-minute-long trailer.
Are you a big film buff then?
No, all of my eggs are in one basket. I could tell you when something was made, maybe who it was made by, but it wasn't until Dave and Laura from Hymie's were like, "Hey, you should put this out on vinyl," and everything that I was like, "Hey, okay, yeah!"
So then I had a release show with all 22 people that played with us on that record, after that we kind of regrouped with 12 people and slimmed down to a 10-piece. I enjoy David Axelrod, I enjoy the instrumental funk but I realize there's a level of accessibility, and what people want. One of the gospel singers who's a friend of mine, Kjerstin Hagen, kind of stepped up to the plate to be the female singer. So then we spent the last two years writing songs that were vocally centered, and that's the first time we wrote, the second time we wrote was for "Midnight Stew," our new 7-inch.
What about influences? Obviously Curtis Mayfield looms large. I also hear a fair amount of contemporary stuff, and not always stuff that you'd consider funk. You've definitely got some chamber-pop sensibilities and the producer elements remind me of Quantic.
I have a piano player [Dave Afdahl] who helps articulate ideas that I can't, theory-wise. We're big Sufjan [Stevens] fans, and I think you can hear that. The elements of noise and rock distortion kind of came from the fact that I really like Sonic Youth and Sleater Kinney, and Dave came up to me an asked, "Do you know what post-modern is?" He was basically my introduction to everything classical.
How does songwriting play out? Is that all you or does the rest of the band contribute?
Basically on the new record it's written by Grolar Bears... everyone kind of has their own input. I take a lot of pride in being able to, as I say, produce it. I start with the guitar, bass and lay those down, add drums and congas on top as rhythms, add a secondary guitar as form of rhythmic pulse or part-rhythm-part-melody. Then David will come in and lay down these very symphonic, orchestral chords and once that happens it's very easy to be like "Okay, I have this bed, now let's write melodies on top of that. For me, I need that groove, and then I can kind of go off on that.
The process of writing a song is that when the song is done, I'm done recording it. I have like three songs that have drums, guitar, strings, gospel, piano, Rhodes, but no bass, no brass and no female vocals, because I'm writing it. In a perfect world, I would love to be like [Secret Stash house band] the Lakers. Like "Let's meet up, let's jam, and then record it," but I have people that have lives and mortgages.
So if it's something that I want done, then it's kind of like, "Okay, I'm gonna present it to you, I'm gonna take out time next Thursday and devote two hours to record your cello part." So, it's almost like the process... this is going to sound cheesy but it's not the pursuit of happiness, but the happiness in the pursuit. So the act of recording it is what I enjoy more. You look at like Dave Grohl or Trent Reznor and you see the working man's musician. It would be wonderful for women to talk to me after shows, but at the end of the day, I imagine even those men getting up and being like "Okay, let's work." That seems to be such a rewarding lifestyle, you have a day job and then when you're not working, you're doing that.