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.
Hearing you talk about your process, it almost reminds me of the way a hip-hop producer might put together a track.
Exactly, and I've gotten a lot of negative and positive feedback from that. I record basically all myself, but when I need to do more high-end things like drums, I'll go to a place called River Rock Recording. Polica's recording part of their new album there, and it's also where Big Cats kind of works out of. When I was talking to Eric Blomquist, the studio owner, he was kind of like "Do you feel like there's a lack of cohesion because you're doing it part-by-part?" and that's kind of true. You're not playing off of each other, that's kind of the risk we have of doing it. But at the same time, then I can over-analyze everything, so in my mind, perfection is made. It kind of challenges you to be like "Okay, the way that I envisioned it in my mind is not how it was recorded or how it happened, but now I have to embrace the fact that it stopped here."
What can I do? How can I add on? Those little, little textural elements of making music are so enjoyable, and they remain so. Every melody is also a rhythm, so when I'm writing or when we're writing I think "What does part does this play in the grand scheme of this wall of sound kind of thing?" The songs themselves will take six months for about two of them. If you think about writing and recording the specific instrumentation every week. Can you think about a better way to spend your life?
You mentioned that since the release of Cos, your songwriting has drifted into more accessible sounds. Do you see yourself continuing down that path? What are you working on right now?
We have a music video shot, as well as another 7-inch prepped. Greg [Waletski] and Brian [Engel] from Hipshaker are great people to be like "Hey, I need this mood, I'm thinking New York City, a mist of fog, noir. Give me a song," just for inspiration. I see that I've been trying to write more for the 113 BPM and up, so heaven forbid that if they ever wanted to play it at a Hipshaker or Hot Pants night, they could. More dance stuff, more upbeat things. I have a new guitarist in the band who's helping me write, and I'm just gonna keep having fun.
You're very hands-on with your band's writing process, but you mentioned that writing for the voice isn't one of your strong suits. When you're working on vocals, how much input do you like to have?
My input is nothing for lyrics. I can barely talk. They were apprehensive about me coming like "Are you sure you want to be doing an interview where you talk?" At first, when we took a year off from playing live... we realized that if we were going to be playing again we were going to need to have vocals. So KJ [Hagen] wrote some vocal melodies on top of four of the songs on Cos. For "Midnight Stew" and the song that was recorded with it, I wrote my melody with a piano the day of [recording] with the piano player.
But now, with the new songs that we've been working on, [Hagen] lives in St. Paul and she doesn't have her driver's license, she's a hippie teacher, so basically before every practice I actually have to drive out there, pick her up, and come back. So it gives me the opportunity to be like "Hey, look at this, I bounced down a new version of the song, do you want to throw anything on it?" I'm fortunate that those people, they want to be in the band and I perceive them as talented, but I can't force them to have the amount of involvement that I have. So I'm going to work with the situation I have, which is "I have 20 minutes to get to the practice space, anything pop in your head?"
How did your partnership with Piñata come about? What's working with them been like?
Jonathan [Tolliver] from Black Diet was the first person to come up to me after the Cos show to say "Hey, next time you play a show, please let me play." As we saw them rise, we just started playing a few shows with them as well as Southside Desire and it just clicked. It clicked with Trevor [Engelbrektson of Piñata], it also clicked with Dave and Laura from Hymie's, who are really supportive of that label. It's nice to be around like-minded people. You know when you go on dates and you're instantly like "It's not working." With those people, ambitious people, like-minded musicians, you can go out and just talk shop. I like that.
How do you think you fit in with the rest of the roster?
You know how diverse they are as a label. Trevor will never admit this, but it's nice to have a little friendly competition with Secret Stash. I'm gonna throw that out there, bring it on! But these people are my friends.
Piñata Records Field Day set times:
4:00 - Mystery Date
4:45 - Narco States
5:30 - Southside Desire
6:15 - Grolar Bears
7:15 - The Sex Rays
All ages, free. Saturday, August 16 at Nomad World Pub. RSVP.
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