All That Jazz and Then Some: An Interview with Defunkt's Joseph Bowie
05 May 2020
Constructed with the intricacies of jazz, charged with the muscular pump of rock, and executed with punk's ferocity, Defunkt remains one of popular music's most intriguing acts. Frontman Joseph Bowie talks with PopMatters about the band's long, colourful, and arduous journey.
Joseph Bowie is one of rock music's most intriguing anomalies. He embodies the spirits of many musical predecessors, ranging from Ornette Coleman and James Brown to Joe Strummer. Yet, he remains an entirely separate and distinctive entity altogether. On stage, Bowie's powers are undeniable. He is a wild, explosive, almost uncontrollable force that pushes sound and movement to its most uncomfortable extremes. That he does it with such liquid-finesse makes it seems like the work of musical hoodoo. As frontman of the punk-funk jazz outfit Defunkt (a rotating collective over the past four decades, with Bowie the front-and-center constant), Bowie has orchestrated works that are constructed with the intricacies of jazz, charged with the muscular pump of rock and executed with punk's ferocity.
Since their proper introduction to audiences in 1980 with their eponymous debut, Defunkt have been an underground New York favourite. Bowie, often a sharply-dressed and persuasively suave presence onstage, can work a room with fever-pitched intensity. His early days found him consorting with New York's No Wave elite, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Blondie, Kid Creole and John Lurie.
Born into a musical family (his late brother is famed jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, who co-founded Art Ensemble of Chicago), Bowie had already cut his teeth on a number of projects in the '70s. His recordings with jazz musician Oliver Lake (best-known for his works with collectives Black Artists Group and World Saxophone Quartet) yielded results which illustrated Bowie's discipline as a musician. Their lone album together Joseph Bowie / Oliver Lake (1976) is spare, with lines of sound scribbled on mainly the trombone and saxophone over a spacious backdrop. Bowie's playing is controlled, but you can hear the fermenting imagination that would be exercised in future projects.
Bowie's most important break came with the emergence of New York's punk scene, later referred to as the No Wave movement. Establishing a musical camaraderie with James Chance, leader of the agit-punk-funk band James Chance and the Contortions, the trombonist now had the platform to finally unleash a creative fury that allowed his talents to rub uncomfortably against the crude improvisations of punk. James Chance and the Contortions are notable for their wry, nervy brand of funk as well as their frontman's volatile onstage behavior. As a member of the horn section in the Contortions, Bowie was learning the art of happenstance and, always one to make opportunity out of the freely flowing creative energy, he initiated the band's second inception as James White and the Blacks.
Bowie's brief dalliances with the Blacks merely bridged his past experience with what was to come with Defunkt, a natural progression that saw the trombonist/singer induce yet another shift in the No Wave movement with a hybridized brand of punk-rock, jazz, and funk. Harder and more aggressive than their like-minded contemporaries the Lounge Lizards (featuring John Lurie), Defunkt was a stepping-out band that demanded people's attention and movement. Their self-titled debut explored a pop gamut of loose, stretchy funk, accents of electronic noise, and the ever-present danger of Bowie's assaultive trombone.
Defunkt (1980) thrilled audiences, though not enough of them; the band remained an edgy curio on the margins of success. Bowie et al. continued to promote their brand of highly-charged funk with a series of impressive live shows that took them across the US and throughout Europe.
For their sophomore release, Thermonuclear Sweat (1982), the band upped the ante and set the funk on fire. The rhythms here are tighter, the grooves taut with tension, and the jazz lines more mercurial. Bowie tests his grounds with braver autonomy, daring socio-political queries on the likes of "Illusion", proving that while it is his intention the listeners have a good time, he also wants them to have plenty of gristle to chew on.
Working the quieter end of the spectrum, the album also produces far more romantic designs, such as "Cocktail Hour (Blue Bossa)", a midtempo sway that gives Bowie's supple trombone playing the full floor. Not unlike the band's previous effort, Thermonuclear Sweat was a crowd-pleaser and a critics' choice, but did little to bother the charts.
A long hiatus from the music industry found Bowie in the Caribbean. Tired of industry hassles and looking to sober up from a drug-habit, the young musician found a day-job as a waiter while discovering new ventures in Buddhism and track and field sports. In 1988, six years following their sophomore release, Defunkt returned with In America.
Smoldering like molten lava and intensely funky, In America stands as one Defunkt's most volatile efforts. On their third LP, the band revs up the guitars to do serious battle with the horn section. Crushing numbers like "Smooth Love", with its midtempo squall of screaming guitars and lacerating horns, and "Change", a hip-hop swing of funk-rock, signal a turn that reveals a band at the height of their powers.
The take-no-prisoner approach also exposes the political edge on the album. On the title-track, Bowie examines the racial and socio-economic divide in America; over a walking funk bassline and overlaid samples of news-talk, Bowie sings of dissention and all its inherent ironies. He allows his trombone to speak rhythms over the number like a political commentator. And on "Love You from Afar", he delivers one of his best vocal performances. As if to drive home the point of the band's new muscular sound, Bowie graces the album's cover shirtless and ripped, brandishing his trombone like a bazooka as though ready for war.
In 1990, the band stretched their creative abilities even further for the more varied Heroes. Offering far more gentle persuasions than the explosive ruckus that was In America, Defunkt's fourth release is replete with atmospheres spun thick from minor keys. On "Poise", they venture into spare, eerie spaces where trumpets mournfully cry and vibraphones accent the terrain with Morricone moodiness. Other numbers mix clever humour with political commentary, such as on "Mr. Bond" and "Debatman", two numbers which respectively borrow from the musical themes of 007 and Batman in ingenious fashion. There are a number of rap-inspired cuts and healthy helpings of funk that round out the album.
For 1992's Crisis, the band returned to their punk-rock roots, building on the jittery funk of their early albums and the combustible rock n' roll of In America. Full of skronking jazz, sinewy funk and sly sensuality, Crisis demonstrated Defunkt's strengths as a live act. The band is a sight to behold onstage and the live performances captured Bowie delivering Crisis with fist-pumping bravado. Live shows gave beautiful form to such numbers like the hyperventilating "You Don't Know" and the jazz-rock jam "Hit Me". Elsewhere, the band explored more outré realms, as on the beat-poetic jazz of "Next" and "Groove Fak-ed", a swampy grind of eroto-funk and provocative boho lyricism.
Cum Funky released in 1993, leaning toward and brighter jazz and blues tones. Many of the numbers, including the title-track (featuring a lead vocal by Kelli Sae) are housed in pop structures that give the music a little more radio accessibility. But all of the fiery playing (including Bowie's sirening trombone) is still present, as are the punkishly abrasive guitars.
One World followed in 1995 and this time the band cooled down the fire for more seductive R&B grooves. Defunkt now swayed instead of rocked and Bowie made especial use of his vocals, combining a sort-of beatnik speak with bluesy, throaty croons.
Presently, the band is still active, playing shows whenever the opportunity rises. But much has changed in the musical landscape. Music, in many ways, has been distilled to the flat screens on cell phones, the digital tide bringing revolution to consumerism and our ways of interacting with entertainment and all its ensuing media. For a band that has thrived on the energy of their live shows, Defunkt find themselves in the precarious position of trying to convey the wealth of their talents in a soundbite or a clip. Their live shows, let it be said, are the stuff of legends.
Bowie and company, however, have continued to plug away. Their latest album Mastervolt is a work that has been put on hold for the last of number of years. Originally picked up by a label that left it to languish without any promotional push, Mastervolt was returned to Bowie with full rights. He's eager to find it a suitable home. The album is every bit the soulful and vivacious affair that all the Defunkt albums are, and it marks yet another chapter in the band's long, colourful and arduous journey.
After a life's worth of travels and travails, Bowie has settled in the Netherlands. His drive and enthusiasm are unending and his belief in the band resolute. Defunkt's powers of emotional transmittance are still in effect and Bowie will continue to happily engage with listeners, as long as there is music to share.
Tell us about the very first time you picked up a trombone. What are your memories of first learning to play the instrument?
I began my love affair with the trombone at ten years old. I remember being in the first "school bussing program" in St. Louis, Missouri, which was implemented in 1964 after the Civil Rights Act was passed. I was a student at Ashland School in North St. Louis. At this time, they started to give IQ tests to students to determine the students' potential to becoming assets to the society (ruling class).
My Father, W. Lester Bowie, Sr. was a music teacher in the St. Louis School system. He was one of many Black teachers in St. Louis who taught in the Black schools until the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in schools. This great generation of Black Americans (Negroes) I appreciate now as powerful antidotes to the racial injustice. They cultivated a high level of respect and ideals in their children to do their best to achieve. My oldest brother, William Lester Bowie, Jr. (Lester Bowie), who was 12 years my senior, played trumpet and my middle brother Byron played all the woodwinds, the clarinet and saxophone. He was a great music arranger working with Sammy Davis Jr. and many R&B Act such as the Dells, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin.
At ten-years-old I was enrolled in a new elementary school, Walnut Park. I would go to my Black school in the morning and be bussed to my new school Walnut Park, which was in an unfriendly white neighborhood. We underwent lots of racial abuse and turmoil. My music teacher there was Black and a friend of my father…Mr. Morgan. The Black teachers in St. Louis were a close group of educators because of segregation. It was a relatively small community and colleagues maintained close relations. When I had my first music lesson with Mr. Morgan, he asked me what instrument do you want to play…I thought to myself, my brothers play trumpet and Saxophones…he gave me a trombone. I remember that trombone. It was a student model "Besson" and it had a grayish case (raggedy) but the trombone was just fine. I was so proud to now be an active musician. I thought to myself…now we have the complete horn section in the family. Later we would record together on many Defunkt recordings.
When did you start playing in bands?
At 15 years old and a sophomore in high school we started a neighborhood band with my best friend Petey (Alonzo Peters), who played alto saxophone. The name of the band was the Paramounts. What a life changing experience! St. Louis was riddled with gangs, drugs, and many opportunities to destroy your life. This band gave me insight and a vision of the future…where I wanted to go in my life. This band was myself, Petey on alto sax, Milton Harper (New Yorker) on guitar, Marvin Horn on bass, Rocky Washington on drums and a male vocal group as well as a female vocal group named the Paramettes.
We also had a comedian/actor, William "Stan" Davis performing "Here Comes the Judge" skit. We played all the popular top 40 songs (Black radio). At this time there was White radio and Black radio. The manager of our band was Robert Trice, a barber by profession that loved working with young people. We performed at high school dances and eventually we were playing nightclubs in St. Louis and after hours clubs in E. St. Louis.
My parents allowed the band to rehearse in the basement of our house almost every evening after school. I realized how lucky I was that my father was a music teacher and my mother supported the music. They had no problem at all letting us rehearse as much as we liked. It also kept us off the dangerous streets of St. Louis. This is where it all began for me...the Paramounts.
You were a member of James White and the Blacks, which you set up. Tell us about your time with this band.
I came to New York City more or less a creative jazz player (free jazz). I previously spent two years in Europe living in Paris with Oliver Lake and the Black Artists Group of St. Louis. Charles Bobo Shaw on drums (with whom I later traveled to NYC in 1973), Baikida Carroll on drums and Floyd Leflore on trumpet…two trumpets, saxophone and trombone...four horns, drums and no bass. I also played conga drum. We toured through Europe for two years.
In 1973 Bobo and I traveled to New York to continue our musical journey. In New York we performed as the Human Arts Ensemble and also played with jazz notables such as Stanley Cowell (Jazz Composers Orchestra Association / JCOA ), Leroy Jenkins, Rashid Ali, Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor, etc.
In 1976, my wife pregnant with my only daughter, we moved to escape the consequences of my drug addiction. In Chicago, I performed with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. My brother Byron, who was highly involved in the R&B scene, got me a job with the Tyrone Davis band. In six months, I graduated to become Tyrone's band director. This was a life-changing experience. I learned and mastered the R&B "show concept" with Tyrone. This was important to organizing the fusion of music in my mind.
In 1978 I returned to New YOrk. This was the period of new wave/no wave. This period was beginning to thrive in New York. James White, a.k.a. James Chance, asked me to join his horn section. Of course, I said yes! This was great and a real lift in my career. A new dimension was opening up to me. This was a big musical movement.
All of the clubs had live music. It was a "cultural movement of protest" against all that was before…this was punk, no wave, and new wave. James was one of the kingpins in the genre along with Blondie, the Ramones, DNA, John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards and many more. James was great. He possessed a special personality and his music was very unique and passionate to frenzy! He played a blend of free-jazz saxophone in the Ornette Coleman style. James had crazy melodies and a polyrhythmic mind. The music danced and jumped! This music was funky yet intellectual, forcing close-listening! For me, it was a blend of Ornette with James Brown as the foundation. I was a member of the horn section and James' compositions were absolutely wonderful, full of surprising interludes and sound excursions. He had a unique vocal concept, utilizing screams and harsh remarks. His body was always pulsating and gyrating with energy and unpredictable movement.
After working in James' band for a while, he eventually said, "Joe, maybe you can help me find some great black musicians to be in this band"; musicians who wanted to be a part of this new wave of musical activity in New York. I brought him horns, drummers, guitarists, bassists…John Mulkerin, Luther Thomas, Ritchie Harrison and others. After a while, I realized that I could form my own band to open for James. I had the chance to bring my band to this emerging scene.
At the time there were lots of dance clubs in New York City -- Max's Kansas City, Hurrah's, Trax, Danceteria, Irving Plaza, Mikells's and more. I formed Defunkt with the valuable assistance of Janos Gat, member of the Squat Theater (Political Exiles from Hungary). The Squat Theater was a very important haven for the development of new music at this time… from Sun Ra to Defunkt and beyond. Defunkt could rehearse there whenever was necessary. We performed there weekly. This is where Defunkt was born! The name "Defunkt" was coined by Alan Platt (in 1980, the year of Defunkt's conception), a writer at the Soho Weekly News. For me, the name meant the "end of what was, and the beginning of what's to come".
Soon James Chance asked us to be the opening act for his show. This was a great window of opportunity and that's when Defunkt entered the scene. James is one of my closest friends and has my deepest respect as a musician, innovator, and powerful personality. In 2014, I brought James to Holland to record Allergy for the U.S. with Defunkt members Kim Clarke, Tobias Ralph, and six of Holland's most prestigious saxophone players, joined by my cousin and occasional Defunkt member Charles "Chazzy" Green.
I owe a lot to James. He further convinced me that diversity in music was vital. Genre fusion was necessary to move the chains of culture…I thought maybe I'm on the right track after all. I was also influenced by James' high-energy stage persona that motivated extreme concentration on the part of the musicians and audience.
You were an extremely influential figure in New York's punk scene during the late '70s and early '80s, which we now know as "No Wave". Please tell us what your life was like during this scene.
This new no wave/punk scene was ideal for me coming from a creative (free) jazz background. My involvement with R&B and love for rock 'n' roll were the perfect credentials. My dream was to fuse these genres into a new genre, which was later dubbed "Punk Funk" by Squats' Janos Gat. I wanted the improvisational freedom, but over a grooving funk/rock template to insure infectious dancing! Defunkt's music differs from standard funk or rock because it's organic in nature. It changes the performance of each song. This is the jazz element that is so important. A song is never played exactly the same way twice. I conduct the entire show to insure spontaneity and surprise.
I remember great shows we did along with Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Blondie, etc. All of the no wave bands were a rebellious family for change. I remember playing at the Peppermint Lounge, then on 45th Street in Manhattan. After the show, I went to the office to get paid and two young guys were sitting there begging for a gig. It was Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We were mostly stoned in those days and often drugs were used as partial payment for the shows.
Later, I saw the young Chili Peppers at Defunkt shows at the Knitting Factory, then located on Houston St. in New York. They loved Defunkt and were in the front row dancing the entire night. Kid Creole and the Coconuts was a magical experience for me. The costuming and fusion with multicultural musical forms was fabulous! This was my dream! The best of pop music merged with funk and jazz. (I didn't realize the music industry had other ideas).
I wanted Defunkt to be educational yet emotional and powerful. I saw myself as a musical newsman delivering the message of truth and reality, which was seemingly ignored or forbidden in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. I was naïve and thought freedom of speech applied to all.
Consciousness was a vital part of this period…it was important to expose the lies and tell the hardcore truth. This period was also tainted with drugs and many musicians and artists were affected and devastated. Me included. New York was a drug haven and it was fashionable to use and abuse substances. I understand now this was most devastating to the movement and to my personal development.
I met Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Squat Theater. He would do paintings and drawings during the concerts there. He was also creating graffiti all over New York City. I respected his discipline and dedication to his art. Cool guy… In the film Downtown 81, which stars Basquiat, there's a scene of me performing with James White and the Blacks. My Brother Byron was also in the band at that time. This was a fascinating period, to say the least.
Much has been said about how volatile James White and the Blacks were, much of it down to Chance's sometime notoriously rebellious personality. What are your memories of working in the James White band and what did you learn from them?
James was/is a high-energy and sometimes volatile bandleader that takes no shit from the audience either! He could be sometimes abusive, reacting to unruly listeners. This was a reminder of some of the extreme English acts of the day, i.e., Sid Vicious. James was a rebel with exploding energy. I had deep respect for that power.
James was from Milwaukee and his birth name is James Siegfried. I understood James's ferocity, how he implanted the groove in the band members and audience. Off stage he was quiet and reserved. He had no tolerance for assholes in the audience. He confronted audiences and sometimes it ended in fights, with projectiles being thrown on stage. This was all good for the no wave/new wave persona, for the show.
I had a closer relationship with James because of shared musical likes and desires. We also shared a relationship with drugs (heroin). James, his then-manager and I would frequently get high together... James was and is a man who respected his musicians and always paid everyone after the shows. He communicated his desires with band members, but we were like brothers. Some musicians had problems with his character but, personally, I had no problems with him. Off stage I hung out with James socially, doing drugs and formulating our next musical moves.
What I learned from James was that my dream of fusing the improvisational freedom of jazz with pop music and funk from the African template was possible, but I truly realized this over my 45-year career. The music business has never accepted it. The commercial business element must separate genres for control and income distribution. We were innocently but deliberately trying to tear down the establishment rules and create a new genre of music combining musical tastes. The audiences are -- to this day -- responsive to this approach but we are still primarily ignored by the "Powers that be".
Now I understand why the commercial musical business did not embrace this change…because it's a problem to market multi-dimensional projects. It's a problem for the business entities to determine the future. The artists traditionally did that! In the '60s and '70s there were many bands of different styles and approaches. Gone! There are now only controlled genres and repetition of musical history. My belief in artistic freedom was re-enforced by this underground cultural movement. I learned to stand on my own and be true to my beliefs…until the end.
The band released their debut, self-titled album in 1980. How much of that album do you see tied to the No Wave movement? Do you see that album as an extension of the punk scene in New York? Or is it an entirely singular and separate experience from that?
The first album, Defunkt, was a definitely a powerful statement of what I wanted to do with the fusion of styles. Many others and I thought we created a valid new genre approach to pop music. I was certain we would enter the big commercial market with Defunkt and my dreams would be realized. Defunkt was a part of the no wave scene and proud of its diversity. We were primarily a Black band always with powerful contributors of lighter complexion. At the time we didn't think of race and our musical colleagues didn't, either. We were one of the few Black punk-funk bands on the scene.
Bad Brains was the most notable Black punk band and before them there was the Chambers Brothers and other New York Black rock bands such as Sirius, featuring Ronny, Shawn and J.T. Lewis. Ronny Drayton would later become a Defunkt member for the next 40 years. The first Defunkt album was an extension of punk and brought new elements into the new genre never included before. It was tight! We had punk, jazz and rock with some R&B groove. This was and is a completely fresh approach to popular music. I just listened to it the other night and it still sounds fresh.
What was the audience reaction to your debut album? How well did the album travel outside of New York?
The reactions were incredible in the US and especially in Europe. The band was loved in the UK, the Eastern Bloc countries, and Japan. We had a brief round of touring in the US, performing on stages with the Clash, Talking Heads, Nona Hendryx, James Brown and more. The album did very well especially in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Portugal and is a classic among serious music lovers. Europe is the home of our biggest audience.
You followed up with Thermonuclear Sweat in 1982 and by then you had further developed your live shows. How were things going for you and the band at this point?
We recorded Thermonuclear Sweat in 1982 along with a couple of EPs, Razor's Edge and Strangling Me with Your Love, Revisited. At this time, we were touring all around the world and mostly in Europe, two or three times a year. I was still, however, suffering from serious drug addiction. I grew tired of this lifestyle and it was time to make a critical decision. I decided to take a pause from the music scene and clean myself up.
In 1983, when I reached rock bottom, my first wife asked me to leave. I moved to Brooklyn with my brother Lester for a short period and he bought me a trombone from a pawn shop and a flight ticket to St. Croix, Virgin Islands. This was my 'escape from New York', which would become a life-changing exile in the Caribbean.
Things were going great with the band at that time. We were playing big shows and festivals around the world. This was a new, high-energy style of music Defunkt was performing and I thought it perfectly normal to have a mixture of jazz, R&B, rock, and funk because of my diversified musical background. I believed it was a welcomed addition to established musical genres.
Why was there a six-year gap between the second album and In America, the band's third album?
I had to relocate, escape from New York…and the drugs and the scene that enabled this behavior. As I mentioned earlier, I moved to the Caribbean against popular advice. The record company and the media wanted to keep me "ineffective and on the run", struggling to survive. I was emotionally and physically drained, burnt out and stressed out from drugs and the crazy lifestyle.
I stayed in St. Croix for almost two years. I cleaned up and worked as a waiter at the Buccaneer Hotel. I started focusing on my health and jogging. Soon I developed into a marathon runner. I was introduced to Buddhism, which remains a mainstay in my life today.
I returned to New York in 1985. Before my self-imposed exile to Sr. Croix, Warner Brothers was about to sign the band in a recording deal, but my priority was to clean up my life. When I returned to New York, Warner Brothers had no further interest. I was clean…but still a rebel.
Maybe this is one of the reasons my resources are limited/difficult now. In between those first albums, I was just rebuilding myself. I returned strong for the next phase. That basically explains it. I was away cleaning up my personal act. I came back strong and revitalized and ran my first marathon in New York in 1986.
There was significant change on In America, and some people argue it's your best work. The album makes a statement; the political themes are up front and center and you appear shirtless, in a fighter's stance, on the album cover. Tell us about writing and recording this album, where you were coming from in its sound and conception.
Our next recording In America was on Hannibal Records, a subsidiary of Island Records. Gene Kraut, who worked at Hannibal, was the producer. This was a nice opportunity, thanks to Hannibal's President Joe Boyd. This is the album that cemented my position as an anarchist and rebel. This is the reason Defunkt is branded as a commercial underachiever, underappreciated by the Gods of the music business.
I was under the illusion that America was the home of the free and the land of the Brave. I believed certainly in free speech. I was under the assumption I could speak freely on all subjects, political and social, and transfer my ideas to the music. In this recording I wanted to comment on the current situations in America, so I chose to protest through the music of Defunkt. I wanted to expose and challenge the faults of the ruling class (the powers that be). I wanted to show the divide in American culture caused by institutional and blatant racism. What I learned in America was there are two sets of rules: black and white.
And, of course, I had no shirt on the cover -- look at that body! I was young, clean and rebuilt. I had been lifting weights and running. I was in great shape and I was very proud that I had overcome the major obstacle in my life: drugs. I was trying to exude strength and energy to exemplify a quest for freedom.
That's what In America is about. We want to be free. The sound of this album has a raw rock appeal with conscience-raising lyrics that inspire change. I utilized two great guitarists, Ronny Drayton and Bill Bickford. Wow! What a terrific sound! The album had rock, hard-core groove with jazzy attitudes. I love Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown. I also love the energy of heavy metal.
From 1988 to 1992, you had a really interesting period of material, such as 1990 album, Heroes. There are some gentler persuasions, like "Poise"; less punk and jazz and rock, more bluesy swing. There's more emphasis on atmosphere here. Looking back on it, what was this album about?
Okay, let me talk about Heroes. This was a Japanese production, produced by my Brother Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble of Chicago for Disk Union Records (a Japanese Label). I think the Art Ensemble saw Defunkt as a pop-appealing group that possessed similar values musically. The members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) were proud of my efforts with Defunkt in merging styles, making my music more accessible to new audiences. Defunkt was hot at that period and Lester and the AEC mentored me.
Lester believed in the concept that there should be 'no genre distinctions'. All music is valid. Duke Ellington once said, "There are only two types of music…Good and Bad." Genre is irrelevant! I grew up in St. Louis under my parents and older brother's tutoring. I believed that as long as music was prepared to the highest level with sincerity, it was worthy to be heard and felt by audiences.
Heroes explores various song genres from hip-hop to R&B with jazzy innuendos. The Japanese label asked me to write a version of the James Bond Theme, hence "Mr. Bond". "Poise" is a pure R&B ballad of atmospheric properties. I grew up listening to Motown and spending time slow-dancing to the wonderful soul ballads. I revisited these moments with "Poise". "I want your Girlfriend" was written acknowledging the emergence of hip-hop in the '80s, as hip-hop emerged as a dominant musical force to reach young people.
My R&B experience began in St. Louis, performing with artists such as Fontella Bass (my sister-in-law), Albert King, Luther Ingram and Etta James (as a teenager I played with Charles Hayes & the Lamontes and Oliver Sain. We would be back-up singers when they came to St. Louis at the Highlander Social Club. These Black-owned clubs were the base of the "Chittlin' circuit" which supported Black acts throughout the US.
In 1975 I moved back to Chicago with my pregnant wife. I was exposed to pure R&B. I possessed a wonderful background of jazz and improvisational mediums gained from my experience with Oliver Lake and the Black Artists Group of St. Louis, and my time performing with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). I put all of this influence into writing and shaping Heroes…a little of this and a little of that…staying authentic within each genre performed.
You ask what was this album about? Heroes? For me, it was about Freedom…freedom to express yourself in a variety of genres simultaneously on record. This was a sort of protest against the thinking that all songs must sound the same, that all the grooves must be the similar. I rejected redundancy in music. I was groomed by my mentors and elders to include surprises in your musical productions, to be unique and develop a distinct sound of your own on your instrument and in your productions.
Crisis (1992) returned you to the more frenetic and high energy of your first three albums. There's a lot more aggression in tracks "Hit Me" and Refuse to Love", and some surprising and frank sexual relays in "Groove Faked". Tell us about this album and how you arrived to this place of bluster and aggression.
Crisis is a high-energy frantic appeal for change in America. The title exemplifies a nation, a world in crisis politically, socially and economically. The songs reflect awareness of the world situation. The rock 'n' roll guitars made this music available to wider audiences (I thought?). I was a great fan of Jimi Hendrix and hardcore rock 'n' roll. I've always included this classic sound in the Defunkt formula. At this time, I was really fit and had run a couple of marathons in New York and the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington D.C. I successfully re-channeled my energy and was an extreme fitness freak. This was a reverse response to my years of drug addiction. I transformed myself to someone who really cared about health and fitness and humanity. This cover image on the album displayed my new position of strength and control over of myself. My Defunkt formula was realized: a piece of Jimi and a big slice of Coltrane, with some Art Ensemble of Chicago, Miles and James Brown all mixed together in one pot of Defunkt nectar; that together with the vocals and smooth groove of R&B soul.
"Groove Fak-ed" was a funky offering, a deep funk groove with influences of Coltrane and Rashid Ali and the in-your-face sexual lyrics of Janos Gat. I wanted to show the world these genres could be mixed together. "Groove Fak-ed" is talking about reality. At the time it was recorded, it was maybe a bit "taboo" because of the sexual innuendos. Nowadays things are so open…there is no wrong and hardly anything is censored. Defunkt has been credited with predicting the future through past lyrics. We just wanted to be "real". "Groove Fak-ed" talks about "fake love and fake emotional commitment". This is prevalent in our modern society, [the song alludes to] selfishness and arrogance.
Defunkt's studio albums became a little more sporadic after the fruitful period between 1988 and 1992. You had Cum Funky in 1993 and One World in 1995 and then a series of live albums. It wasn't until 2004 that you had another studio album with Journey. How were things with record labels during this time?
The music business at this time began to change dramatically. The template of business/artist relations further denied artists rights and the ability to control their works. I had difficulty finding support, I assumed, because of my dedication to truth and creating new approaches to music. I wanted to say what was on my mind. I rejected anyone telling me what to sing or how to formulate my compositions, with the exception of the artists I worked with. I no longer had a record label. It seemed the larger labels had abandoned or dismissed my efforts with Defunkt.
Enemy Records (founded by Michael Knuth) produced several Defunkt recordings in the early '90s -- Cum Funky (1993) and Defunkt Live & Reunited (1994), which brought together Defunkt members from past formations. This large ensemble included Vernon Reid, Melvin Gibbs, Kelvyn Bell, Ronny Drayton, Kim Clarke, Kenny Martin, John Mulkerin and Bill Bickford. One World (1995) was the last studio production of the '90s. It was produced in the Netherlands. This is a very important album for me. I thought this would certainly bridge us into the pop market. Unfortunately, this record got no promotion. The message is so positive and reflects the woes and sorrows of the world. One of the songs on the album, "People in Sorrow", is my arrangement of a Roscoe Mitchell song, originally performed by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This is one of Defunkt's prime recordings. [It was] some of the greatest music composed by Defunkt members – but with no exposure.
I observed the difficulty in getting commercial support for my productions, so I was forced to produce my own CDs. I produced several live Defunkt CDs. This allowed me to keep the Defunkt legacy alive and continue to tour throughout Europe. The problem with record companies is that they feel they must be in total control of everything, from music input to artwork. I guess I was hoping to develop an alternate reality in the music business. I guess I isolated myself from the mainstream music business with my desire to control the direction of the music. I didn't realize I had positioned myself as a "Radical Musician" bent on enlightening the masses with information that the "Powers That Be" do not want shared with the masses.
I was disappointed with the world condition, frustrated with the music business, and in pain with the racial situation around the world! Not only in America. Institutionalized racism began in Babylon/Rome/Greece, etc. and was spread across the planet by the British Empire. This reality has been present since the beginning of time. It is the template of Western Europe for the preservation of their ideals and race. Criminals were sent to the US from England to colonize America, as well as Australia and other British colonies. I won't go any further with these thoughts, but you get the idea…
In a 1991 interview, you said that Black audiences were not generally familiar with your work because record labels, radio, and media didn't actively market Black rock musicians to audiences in general. Please discuss your frustrations that you felt at the time about this, and how you now feel about the state of Black rock musicians and their relationship to media today.
Black audiences have been deliberately denied exposure to progressive Black rock and any forms of artistic progress, from jazz to painting, dance and poetry. This diminishes the importance of Black contributions to the world. Simply put, if you deny those contributions any exposure, they will be forgotten with time. You find this across the board. The Powers That Be have everything separated and categorized to enable easier control and manipulation. They decide what's promoted and the audiences it will reach. You can only hear what is available. Again, it was my mistake assuming it was a fair playing field.
When I was growing up, I loved Jimi Hendrix and what he represented. I loved Miles Davis, who was also a fan of Jimi and Sly Stone. The thing we all have in common was the exploration and development of musical genres from ancient times to the future. I soon realized how Jimi met strong resistance when he organized the Band of Gypsies or the criticism Miles received when he merged into a new market with the Bitches Brew album. I was frustrated that The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave wasn't that at all, and I was not allowed to freely express myself in the manner I chose.
I think about how things have changed today, going back to the '80s when Ronald Reagan became President. Suddenly American social policy changed. Hard drugs flooded the neighborhoods, targeting low-income people. Today this disease of drug addiction has spread beyond the ghettos to the suburbs and a new host of users. Black and Hispanic young men and women are disproportionately targeted for arrest and imprisonment. It makes me wonder... is it racially-motivated or is it capitalism? The Powers That Be don't care about anybody regardless of color. If you are considered insignificant, they want to eliminate you and remove you from "the game", diminishing your exposure and significance.
Hip-hop entered the scene during this time but now those Powers That Be engineered a new approach to controlling its impact upon society. The hip-hop generation are very talented, creative, and resourceful young men and women who didn't have the opportunity to study music and art in public schools, once these courses suddenly could not be funded by the government... They picked up turntables and created a new idiom: Rap. The Powers That Be quickly labeled the most popular form of rap as "Gangsta Rap", which took the world by storm. This was a negative influence to many young people who only glamorized this gangster behavior, creating countless deaths and, thus, more business for the court system.
They allowed a few hip-hop artists, like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, to reach mega-success, creating a new template for the next generation. The fashion that accompanied this movement lowered respect for women, with churlish behavior and fashion. The influence of this media-input solidified the position of the big hip-hop artists and enabled them to enter the television market, expanding their positive and negative influence on young masses.
Millions of unsuspecting young people, who will never achieve the success of the top figures in the hip-hop genre, wear the clothes, display the behavior, and suffer the consequences of that reality. Now, the genre has an identifying uniform that will identify them next to the rest of the population. The low-hanging trousers, bandanas worn by gangs, and the tattoos make it all too easy to identify people who participate in this genre. This is Institutionalized Racism at its height. The idiom might have been created by the creative efforts of young people, but those efforts were fully exploited and their success engineered by the Powers That Be.
Is this a questionable and destructive practice? Notice the younger generations don't wear suits anymore, don't wear ties. When I was a child in the '50s and '60s, my parents always made sure I got a new suit for Easter. This too was assimilation, but if everybody wears the same attire it's hard to recognize and label social dissidents and revolutionaries. Suits represent the Ruling Class, worldwide. This is the uniform of the Western World. Africans and all ethnicities wear suits, illustrating, to me, total assimilation into the ways of the West. It is The Uniform of Assimilation.
You had troubles with promotion for the Mastervolt album.
About Mastervolt. Well, I've lived in The Netherlands since 2003. I came into contact with an American label (ZIP Records), with offices in both San Francisco and Amsterdam. The record company president, Arthur Herman, was starting his Amsterdam office and had produced a recording by Danish artist Hilarius Hofstede and I performed the literary-focused music with bassist Ernest Glerum. ZIP Records was interested in recording Defunkt. There was residual excitement about me here in the EU because they were aware of my history with Defunkt. Many musicians and artists in Holland wanted to include me in their projects. I received lots of work as a "Special Guest".
At this time, I was writing new music and making plans to premiere a new band: Defunkt neu-Soul. We made one live recording and toured throughout Europe. This band's name evolved to "Defunkt Mastervolt" and ZIP agreed to produce a quality CD of Defunkt material. I partnered with Hilarius Hofstede to create lyrical concepts for the new songs. Similar to Janos Gat in rebellious approach, Hilarius is a rebel and artistic revolutionary. Together we created great lyrics. I wrote 13 new songs that focused on the problems in the world at that moment. It is, in my opinion, the finest Defunkt recording because not only was the recording dynamic, but the lyrics were focused directly on current issues, from immigration to mental health.
The Defunkt style has evolved into something even more accessible for popular music lovers. I realize how serious the programming by the Powers That Be has affected the thinking of music consumers when they are always interested in what you have done as an artist and not what you are doing presently. ZIP Records released the Mastervolt recording, but with no promotion. It was released only digitally in the Benelux countries (the new template of the recording industry). There were only a few hard copies pressed. Everything is now digital, which only hurts the artists receiving royalties. ZIP put a lot of money into a landmark recording for Defunkt. We recorded in a fabulous studio in the South of France in Pompignan with engineer Philippe Galliot, a great friend of mine from Paris since the early '70s.
For the first time in my life, we had three weeks to do the recording. The band all came to Pompignan and we lived, ate, and recorded together. This was amazing! ZIP spent a good deal of money and we made a superlative recording. ZIP, for reasons I am not aware of, was not able to do anything promotion-wise with the recording and it seemed to me that Arthur's (the label head) hands were tied and he was not able to promote it as anticipated. Institutional racism?
It was the same case for Allergy for the U.S., the first recording venture with ZIP. I was told by the record company that they could not release it in the US, with no reason given. Luckily, I stipulated in the Mastervolt contract that if, after three years, nothing was done to promote the work, the rights would return to me. That is the current situation and now I am trying to find new distribution outlets around the world. I just want the music exposed and promoted!
It seems there's more of a club vibe to Mastervolt. How has the Defunkt sound evolved in this work? What new elements have you put into this album?
Let's talk about the formation of Defunkt for Mastervolt. This was my attempt to stay visible in the business and keep Defunkt alive amid the EU promoter's switching the existing template and making it impossible to bring American musicians to Europe for touring. This diminished income for countless musicians (primarily minority musicians) and deprived the European audiences of the Black American musical flavor.
I had a wonderful booking agent, Dirk Feys in Belgian. He was an agent who loved music and was a former bass player. He was the first to book this new formation of Defunkt. He introduced me to the great bassist Linley Marthe. Linley became my musical director and identified musicians in France that appreciated the style and would augment the Defunkt journey into the future. Linley worked with Joe Zawinul (of Weather Report fame), during the last five years of Joe's life. The Mastervolt band included Michael Lecoq on keys, the wonderful Emma Lamadji on lead and background vocals, Jon Grandcamp on drums, and Rocco Zifarelli (who has worked with Ennio Morricone) on guitar. I always strive to enlist the best musicians available that can manage the diversity of the music. This is the greatest array of musicians I've ever assembled together in a group.
Linley's home is in Mauritius, Jon and Michael are from Paris, and Emma, who is originally from Central Africa, also lives in Paris. Rocco Zifarelli is Italian and lives in Rome. The horns on the recording are Dirk Beets (trumpet), Remko Smid (tenor saxophone), Dutch nationals and Vincent Brijs (Baritone Sax) hail from Belgium. My granddaughter joined us on the first song, a short hip-hop offering called "Bring Out the Jams". This was my 'shout out' to the young people to invite them to acknowledge the band and inspire them to listen to the rest of the work. Dirk booked us a few big festivals in Spain, Germany, and Sweden. The audiences loved the band and music but for some reason I couldn't obtain regular work with this ensemble.
At that point it was impossible for the agents to continue obtaining work for the band. Dirk couldn't do it anymore. All the agents formerly working on behalf of Defunkt turned their backs on the band. The music industry change of template changed the way agents reacted with the artists. My list of agents since living in Europe was pretty extensive: Tomas Stowsand, Gaby Kleinscmidt, Ralph Gluch, Gunnar Pfabe, and Alberto Lofoco. They were all very professional agencies. I couldn't figure out what the reasons were. I'm not an intellectual or an educator. I'm a natural born funk man. I'm primarily self-taught, developing my own insight into the development and concept of music. I learned from my mentors. My idea for Mastervolt has been consistent: to merge diverse ideas and genres into a new package. One grooving machine full of pertinent information about life; very funky and danceable.
Regarding the shift to "club sounds": I'm 66-years-old now and feel that I must include new genres into my realm of music to reach people. Lots of people expect me to perform exactly as I did 40 years ago but I have evolved and so should the audience. I am a bandleader…a groovemaster. This concept of bandleader is all but extinct. Little credit is given to concepts similar to mine or I have yet to find basic promotional support. Institutionalized racism? The Defunkt sound has evolved the way of all the great musicians, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and Michael Jackson. When you compare their early works to their later works, you find maturity and innovation developing in their sound as a result of maturity, hard work, and performance opportunity. Defunkt follow the same template.
The more we study our craft and learn the creative concept combined with frequent work opportunities, the music evolves naturally. This is a vital element missing from the music scene today. They don't recognize the value anymore of "long term" artists that span decades with cultural influence. They don't want Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, etc. They're more interested in artists whose careers span five years or less. Then they can earn huge profits from the artist and bring in a new artist. This saves the industry large amounts of money and removes power of decision from the artist.
The new elements I put into the Mastervolt album are trombone electronics to give it a sound unlike anything heard before on a dance record. This is my best songwriting to date, with motifs spanning the globe. The lyrics by Hofstede are poignant and confront the political and social issues the world is facing today. Mastervolt possesses a potpourri of world styles. This approach has been present from the beginning of Defunkt. It has evolved and Defunkt has evolved to the next level. Let this music be exposed to the world's masses!
You've been a professional musician for close to 40 years now. Are you enjoying or despising the new platform of distributing and marketing music online now?
Actually, 45 years of involvement in the music business is more accurate! When the new template of digital marketing and music sales began, I was hopeful for increased access to markets. But I now realize it's a serious ploy diminishing the rights and potential royalties of the artists and only increases the power of the record companies and related businesses. This phenomenon not only affects the music business but all businesses throughout the world. Companies are downsizing, doing away with benefits and health coverage by hiring contractors, etc. It's a socio-economic template to eliminate the influence of the masses and to focus on the wealthy.
I'm searching to discover a method to work through these new obstacles. Defunkt will never enter a musical contest like The Voice to forge a chance at success. I'm trying to adapt to this new paradigm and forge a way forward. I'm not concerned about making a fortune or a big splash anymore. I want this music to be available for people, especially young people who find this approach valid and interesting. Now, I'm searching for a worldwide digital distributor that can deliver Mastervolt to a worldwide audience. I will print vinyl for vinyl lovers. I'm dedicated to expressing truth through music, as long as life permits.
Which of your albums is your favorite?
My favorite album to date is Mastervolt. This recording exemplifies where my music and career stand today. I love all the previous recordings and my rating has little to do with commercial acceptance or public opinion, but my personal evolution as an artist is devoted to the development of this sound. The first album Defunkt is a classic masterpiece. These two albums are the bookends of my career.
Cum Funky and One World were very important recordings illustrating Defunkt's fluency in many genres solidifying the band's cry for change. The live albums are important because they clearly show the concept of Defunkt in live situations: always flexible, changing and diversified. Defunkt is known worldwide as a "musician's band" and always had the respect of professional musicians worldwide.
What's next for Defunkt?
After I get past my medical issues stemming from aging, I will continue promoting this idea of what I call "Diverse Fusion" in pop music. I'm organizing a tour in the US in the Fall for very little money, but this is important to me because America, for what it's worth, is my home and the birthplace of my creative impetus. I hope we can create interest in the younger population that's not familiar with the legacy of Defunkt. In the current climate in the business, musicians are basically "paying to play", but I want to make another march against hypocrisy and musical/cultural injustice. I want to return home to fans that supported Defunkt in the past years to offer an update on my values. They made this journey possible. Let's continue to teach change – the only constant in life!
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interview jazz fusion punk jazz dance-punk avant-funk experimental joseph bowie no wave cimp records hannibal records defunkt
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