Interview: After 9 Years Together, The Funk Ark Marks Its Final Show This Thursday
Interview by Jordan Snowden. Photos courtesy of The Funk Ark.
Since he was a teenager, D.C. native Will Rast envisioned being a part of a band that matched his eclectic musical palette. His penchant for funk, soul and jazz was the foundation of The Funk Ark‘s formation in 2007, a vibrant D.C. ensemble known for crafting groovy, polyrhythmic funk music. On stage, The Funk Ark also delivered larger-than-life shows at just about every big venue in town, from the Kennedy Center to the 9:30 Club (on several occasions).
The group’s hallmark trait was its diversity, with each member bringing a unique skill set to the table that complemented The Funk Ark’s expansive, worldly sound. But the ensemble’s uniqueness was also one factor that contributed to its breakup. As the group got bigger, conflicting schedules and life changes among The Funk Ark’s members began to surface. Last month, after a nine-year run, The Funk Ark confirmed their breakup via Facebook, noting: “This experiment is over.”
Their journey will end with a final show at Gypsy Sally’s this Thursday. Before then, I chatted with Rast about the band’s final chapter and what the future holds.
What led to The Funk Ark’s break up?
Having a band is tough. There is really no easy way to do it. It’s not just that it’s hard, but it’s also a lifestyle that you have to embrace in order to feel comfortable doing it. You have to do it all the time which, logistically, is pretty hard because we all need money to live, right? I guess, to me, that is a deeper and more conflicted question for a lot of people. What do we need in order to live happily? The answer is different for everybody.
I know that The Funk Ark has at least a few fans in every corner of the globe because of our records. What I wanted for myself was to spend the rest of my younger years traveling the world, playing music and growing as a musician and a composer. The way that I have tried to make this happen is to form a collective of individuals, let’s call it a society, that each contribute their talents and time to being a band that works towards being on the road as our occupation.
The theory is, that each time we do what we do, we receive resources (money/fuel/fair to get to the next place/personal funds for our daily obligations/hotels so that we can be rested to perform) so that we can continue to move forward as a band, which means taking even bigger chances! The more resources come in, the more there is to share. Did I mention that I’m a socialist? Ok. This seems like a pretty simple concept. But, the waters become muddy when you think of it from the perspective of someone who isn’t completely invested in the band, or may think of themselves as more of a hired gun, maybe because that’s the only frame of reference they have as a working musician.
I came up in the jazz-for-hire-scene in D.C. I played cocktail piano at places like the Bombay Club and Mr. Henry’s and went to jam sessions to find work. I played weddings, corporate events and parties on Capitol Hill, and the thing they all had in common was steady pay and a clear idea of what you would make, with terms for food and lodging if necessary. These events and gigs had money behind them.
When you enter into the world of original music that has a specific niche audience that you have to dig for, money is harder to come by. The resources to keep the thing going are diminished, leaving some to have to take other jobs that can ultimately prevent them from continuing with the group. In order to make it as a touring band you have to establish a large list of markets (the larger the better) so that you can continually cycle through them to extract income. Once you’ve accumulated a presence in lots of markets, you can make money year round. But, a band’s first time in a town that’s far away from home can be tough. Low attendance, coupled with introductory door deals because venues don’t want to lose money on a new band in town that doesn’t have a proven draw, are the norm. You have to continually hit and re-hit each town on your roster so that you can build fanbases and increase your income from each market. It’s time consuming.
There’s a lot of time in a van, or your car packed with gear. This is the only way I can think of to create a sustainable touring career. By just doing it until it pays. The Funk Ark was continually grounded by members who didn’t have the ability to endure prolonged periods of modest financial gain, so we only did two tours that lasted longer than three weeks in the five years that we’ve been making records. That’s the longest we could be on the road before peoples’ lives would start to fall apart. As a result, we would do maybe three or four dates a month, which is also a great way to make sure you never make any money or have the ability to travel efficiently as a band. Not enough gigs to buy a van. Especially if people don’t see the work they are doing as a means to greater ends. We just couldn’t get there. It was a simple case of a perfectly good seed growing as tall as it could, but ultimately perishing in the harsh environment of the music industry.
Who is taking the news the hardest?
I think Greg and I, probably. We were still into it. We started as eight or nine people, but by the time we pulled the plug, the band had shrunk to four people so that we could afford to further expand our touring routes. Greg informed me that he was moving to L.A., not quitting, but he just wouldn’t be around to work on music at times when we weren’t on tour, which was most of the time, but he was still committed to touring. Just ready for a life change, which I dig. It was Graham Doby (drums) and then TJ Turqman (bass) deciding to quit that made it kind of pointless for me to continue. I had to cancel a few shows, which was a real bummer.
What will you miss most about being together?
These are exceptional people. Regardless of the differences we may have had, or the reasons people had for leaving the group over the years (we’ve had nearly 30 members), I only wanted to work with people whose skills and personalities I could count on.
Every person who has been a part of this band is a remarkable player. Aside from that, they are all goodhearted individuals who I have trusted and depended on for my life at times. I’m going to miss being on the road with these guys on the West Coast; seeing new places with these guys and experiencing new things. There’s recurring tour jokes that split your sides every time, even though you hear them 20 times a day. The things you do to make the hard parts tolerable. The playing was always the easiest and best part.
What is one of your favorite memories as a band?
Camping in Cheyenne, Wyoming, sitting around a big fire. Jumping over the fire a few times and messing around. A lot of laughs. Mylie Durham (drums) was the fire master.
And what about favorite performance?
I think my favorite show was a SXSW ESL Music party on a roof in downtown Austin in 2012. I forget the name of the place, but it was packed. It was a bill with us, Ocote Soul Sounds–which I was also a part of–and Nappy Riddem. I think that it might have been one of the biggest crowds we had played to. We played new material from what would become The Funk Ark’s second record, High Noon. We were so psyched to be in Austin, eating tacos and playing a bunch of pop-up shows. That was a really good time.
Where do you see yourself in the future? What do you all have planned for life after The Funk Ark?
I am still the keyboardist for the sleeping volcano of Afrobeat that is Antibalas. It’s the band’s 20th anniversary in 2017, so we have big plans to release a record and tour pretty extensively. I have started getting into writing some material for them, and I have also got an entire fourth Funk Ark record-worth of songs that now need a new home. So, I have to figure what I’m going to do with those.
I am planning on doing some recording with guitarist, modular synth guru and recording engineer Abe Seifirth in the near future at his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (Transmitter Park). I actually haven’t really spoken to everyone else about their plans too much. I know that Greg is moving to L.A., Matt Rippetoe (sax) and Joe Herrera (trumpet) just did a tour with Thievery Corporation. Graham is building a recording studio in New York.
How did your hometown, D.C., influence your music?
I wanted a way to experience playing in a band that plays Afrobeat, funk, Latin and jazz fusion. D.C. has a great tradition of funky music, in the sense of its own unique genre of American funk. I wanted all these things, and D.C. gave me a deep well of incredible players, but ones that weren’t always schooled in the styles that I was trying to emulate, so everyone had to adapt to these different ways of playing for this project. I think it was a challenge that we were up to because of the great number of high caliber musicians that are able to eke out a living here. Maybe the city didn’t influence us stylistically, but definitely in the sense that there was no shortage of great players.
Anything else you would like readers to know?
Since Thievery Corporation just had their big D.C. run of shows at the 9:30 Club, I think it would be a worthwhile observation to make that three current members of that band are former longtime members of The Funk Ark.
When we released our first record, Jeff Franca was our drummer. On the eve of our first national tour, they invited him to join Thievery Corporation, making it so that we had to find a new drummer in an emergency last ditch effort to make the tour happen. At that time, we were lucky to find Mylie.
Most recently, I had to make the hard decision to continue the band without horns, because our longtime horn section of Matt and Joe were folded into the Thievery Corporation stable of players. It crippled us, and signaled the eventual demise of the group.
I’ve recorded keys on the last two Thievery Corporation records, as well as countless other mini projects, and toured with four different ESL Music recording artists over the last seven years. I know that they are good to work for because of the nice laidback atmosphere that a good paying gig provides. No stress, no worrying about how much the gig is going to pay. A great situation. But The Funk Ark was our thing. I was not a boss. I was a collaborator and nine times out of 10, I was the one driving the van.
Also, Antibalas is doing an anti-inaugural gala at The Black Cat on Jan. 21, with lots of special musical guests and speakers. We’re going to be partnering with charities that give aid to institutions that are being threatened by the GOP’s repressive social agenda.
The Funk Ark will play its last show on Thursday, Dec. 22 at Gypsy Sally‘s.