Roaming the streets of Isla Vista this weekend, partygoers might hear something besides the usual reggae rock hooks and mind numbing electro beats. There might be something different playing from the many open windows. It might not have any auto-tune. It might make you feel strange. It might sound downright funky.
Believe it or not, over the past couple years, there has been a quietly growing funk movement in I.V. This isn’t a couple of stoned teenagers tacking Hendrix posters to their dorm walls and playing the same three chords for 80 minutes. This is a talented crop of young musicians dedicated to playing complex, good funk music; funk that’s slide-y, sexy, moving, daring, and yet always in control. It has elements of jazz, blues, and punk and is layered with many instruments — saxophone, piano, harmonica, even bongos. Good funk sounds like rosters crowing at dawn when they know eggs had hatched chicks the night before — chicks they had fathered.
Boombox Orchestra is good funk. The now four-year-old Isla Vista mainstay also features no less than nine members, including Andy Kushner (guitars), George Boulos (saxophone, keyboards), Eric Wolff (bass), Jason James (drums), Morganfield Burnette (harmonica, percussion), and four revolving MCs. Their music is an upbeat combination of classicism and a new school approach to keeping things funky. The result is often ten-plus-minute jams that allow every instrument a chance to showoff. There’s also a surprising hint of TV on the Radio’s orchestration, but without the depressing lyrics. It is impossible not to nod your head to Boombox’s music, and it takes a good deal of restraint not to break out and dance. Wolff believes that funk is, “all about the bass.” Ask any member of the band and they will tell you the same thing… about their own respective instrument.
The band practices in a dingy basement on Seville Road. This might just be the epicenter of the Isla Vistas funk movement. The room is musky, littered with bottles and Hennessy advertisements. Among the concert and movie posters on the walls, a white board lists the band’s upcoming gigs — they play SOhO’s Funk Fest on March 11 and the Anisqoyo Earth Festival on April 24 — among working song titles like “Get to Steppin.” Burnette is Boombox’s most senior member, and his extensive knowledge of music and the history of funk is a vital part of how the band stays true to their musical roots. He seems a part of the room, like a eccentric chair that can dance and play bongos. Wearing an orange jumpsuit accented by his peroxide-dyed blonde hair, Burnette runs around the room, constantly adjusting sound levels, nodding his head, yelling unintelligibly. Sometimes he plays music. Sometimes he says things like, “Funk is like a ribbon. You white boys try and stretch it out with all that fast playing. You want the furls and curls.”
On the side, Wolff heads another funk band, appropriately titled, Fungk Shway. At a recent I.V. show, the band jammed 12-bar blues in a little room to a crowd of about 60. From there, the crowd went out the door and down the stairs to the garden, where almost everyone was dancing, their heads thrown back swaying with the sound. At one point the show became so intense that Wolff found himself out in the middle of the crowd, dancing and slapping away at his bass.
Elliott Lanam was in the audience that night. As a member of a bourgeoning funk duo himself, Fortuna Lane, Lanam was inspired by Shway’s energy and talent. “I’m just excited to be part of something that’s fresh and exciting. It’s exciting that the radio is dominated by a certain kind of music, but that people still want to get out and dance to this. It’s good music by real musicians and people seem to understand that.” Fortuna Lane’s sound is led by Andy Bender’s complex, fast moving guitar riffs and Lanam’s ability as a multi-instrumentalist. And like much of Isla Vista’s growing funk scene, they are fresh, young, and brimming with potential.
Maybe this recent crop of serious, talented musicians who care solely about the quality of their music — the soulfulness of the sax, the bump and thump of the bass, the way the keys complement the strings — will inspire more young Isla Vista bands to treat their music as if it were sacred. Then again, perhaps Burnette said it best: “Funk don’t know how to be nice. It’s nasty.”