Interview: Dave Watts Takes The Motet’s Funk Is Dead East

The Motet does so well in its home-court markets of Colorado and parts of the West Coast that getting the whole, swollen, funk- and jazz-tastic lineup out East usually requires a special occasion.

In this case, that occasion is the resounding success of Funk Is Dead, a funkify-the-Grateful-Dead concept that The Motet intended as a one-off — one of its annual Halloween interpretations, to be exact — but has taken on a life of its own thanks to fan interest.

It’s been the catalyst for finally bringing the band back to East Coast markets it rarely plays. The band has sold out every Funk Is Dead show so far, says drummer Dave Watts, and will finally bring the production to a short run of four East Coast shows – Philly, D.C., Baltimore and NYC – at the end of April.

A production, it is. The Motet’s membership has always been somewhat elastic in the 15-plus years Watts has been running it, and on top of the core – Watts on drums, Garrett Sayers on bass, Joey Porter on keys, Dan Schwindt on guitar and Ryan Jalbert on guitar – the Funk Is Dead shows also showcase Gabe Mervine on trumpet and Matt Pitts on tenor sax, and three vocalists: Kim Dawson, Jans Ingber and Paul Creighton.

Hidden Track caught up with Watts – a Boston-to-Colorado transplant who now lives north of Boulder in Lyons, Colo. — to hear about the Motet’s latest adventures, in Dead-land and beyond. (Of particular note for New York-based fans is that at following the NYC Funk Is Dead show, April 29 at the Highline Ballroom, least three members of the Motet will be also joining the last night of the Kung Fu residency at Brooklyn Bowl on Monday, April 30 – Watts and Porter with side project Juno What?! and Sayers as an announced special guest.)

HIDDEN TRACK: How did the Funk is Dead concept come about for you guys?

DAVE WATTS: Well we do this every year – cover music for Halloween – and typically it’s funk music from the ’70s and ’80s: Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, we did Michael Jackson one time. One of our favorite ones we ever did, though was Talking Heads. With that, the audience knows every song and gets excited and sings the material, and that’s exciting for us because the energy level jumps a couple of notches. With Earth Wind & Fire and Tower of Power it’s great but it’s a handful of stuff that we love and no one really knows, so we were looking to see what group would be ubiquitous, with the audience recognizing all the material. The Grateful Dead seemed to be part of that.

We’re not huge Dead fans, per se, but we figured it’d be a great challenge to take that music and turn it funky, adding horns and three-part vocals and our signature sound. It’s been really successful – people are sort of blown away with our take on it. The music does lend itself well to that format with funk music, so it’s been exciting for us and for the audience.

HT: But none of you are really Dead fans, huh?

DW: A couple of the guys grew up with it – it’s in their history – but most of us, I’ve got to say, haven’t listened to a lot of that material much at all. That was a great standpoint to come to it, because as a blank slate for us, we didn’t really have preconceived notions of how it was supposed to sound. You look at the Dead melodies and the lyrics, and there’s a lot to chew on as far as what you can do with it, and it makes for a lot of interesting arrangements and harmonics. There’s a lot going on there and a lot we can do with it beyond one-chord funk jams.

HT: How did you select material?

DW: We looked at what was popular but what was also fairly easily to manipulate into horns and vocal-related funk material. The Dead have a lot of slower, shuffle-y kinds of songs that I don’t think works as well, but a lot of their uptempo stuff makes sense. There were the no-brainers like Shakedown Street and Scarlet Begonias that we had an easy time turning into our brand of funk.

HT: It seems like it’s been successful.

DW: Every Funk Is Dead show has sold out. People continue to download the live stuff we put out and the videos. We’re not pushing it real hard after this summer, but I have a feeling it’ll continue forth as people continue to hear it.

HT: By that do you mean you’ll keep Dead songs in rotation?

DW: I’m sure there’ll be some of that, but we always get called to do special gigs here and there where we’re asked to do one of our tribute shows. I imagine that’ll get called on.

HT: We haven’t seen you in a while here on the East Coast.

DW: We haven’t been to the East Coast in I think five years. And we stepped up the venues by booking all theaters – about 1,000-seat theater locations this time around – so we definitely jumped up our exposure for bringing this particular show. And we’d waited a long time and been successful with this at home that it just made a lot of sense to bring it as we come back to the East Coast.

HT: Why has it been so long?

DW: Well, we do so well out here and at a few of our spots on the West Coast, and all of us have side projects we really enjoy, so it made sense to pull in the reins a bit and not tour so hard. We wanted to reap the fruits of our labors out here and make the trips to festivals that really wanted us as opposed to schlepping the club circuit for three weeks at a time. It’s given us more time to be creative.

HT: Do you have a favorite Dead song you guys do?

DW: I enjoy all of them, surprisingly, even some that didn’t strike me, when hearing the original, as ones that were going to work well. Being a drummer I like the trickier time signature stuff, so King Solomon’s Marbles, or Estimated Prophet, are up there. Both have odd signatures.

Funk Is Dead – Shakedown Street

HT: Indeed. What would be one that surprised you?

DW: We took New Speedway Boogie, which is a basic shuffle so it didn’t grab me that much necessarily as a drummer, but which we turned into this James Brown-like shuffle vibe that’s super funky. That one in particular transformed in a way that gets me pretty excited.

HT: So what’s next for the Motet?

DW: We haven’t put out a record in a few years so we’ll be getting together to work on that this spring, and we have a home recording situation together now where we can do a lot of tracking right here at my studio. I’m pretty excited to be dedicating time to come up with new stuff, especially since with some of these shows that we’ve done, like Earth Wind & Fire and Jamiroquai, we’ve hit upon some grooves that really resonate. We’ll try to apply some of that to our new record. And we’ve got some fun festivals coming up like High Sierra, and McDowell Mountain.

HT: Lot of festivals now. How do you pick your spots?

DW: We’re a big group so some of them can’t really afford to bring us out but some of the bigger ones like Wakarusa and High Sierra we can get to. Camp Barefoot in West Virginia seems like it’s grown a lot over the past few years, I’ve done that one with the Kyle Hollingsworth Band and this year we’re bringing the Motet and Juno What?!

I don’t know, some festivals do great and some don’t do so well and it’s not easy to figure out what makes some work and some not work. Harmony Fest just announced they’re not going to be on this year – they’ve been around for more than 30 years. 10,000 Lakes passed away, but High Sierra keeps churning along. Bonnaroo and Wakarusa do well. I don’t know the secret formula.

The Motet – Take Me To The River

HT: Will you be putting in more time with the side projects you mentioned, including Kyle and Juno What?!

DW: Kyle I only do when I can because I’m so busy between Motet and Juno What?! It’s tough for us to get out East but we’re also surprised people in Colorado aren’t sick of us. Every time we play it’s a sold-out show. We are definitely blessed that the scene out here is so fertile and consistent and supports the band and side projects.

HT: I’ve never lived in Colorado but everyone I’ve ever met who supports that scene says the same: it’s self-preserving and always vibrant no matter what the time of year or economic climate.

DW: It’s true. I just sort of count my blessings that we have that here.

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