Spreading the Groove
Melbourne’s funk scene
The Cactus Channel. © Oscar Strangio
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The funk instrumental ‘Pepper Snake’ is an old-school dancefloor hip-shaker that has never appeared on compact disc. The original 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl single has a pre-metric 1.5-inch hole in its centre and a red-and-black label bearing the inscription “Super Nice Vibe”. Put the needle in the groove and you hear a bubbling electric bass, an itch-scratching guitar lick and an eruption of fatback drumming before the horns blast in with a staccato riff that more or less makes up the tune. Clocking in at a tight three minutes and nine seconds, ‘Pepper Snake’ has been championed by BBC Radio’s resident funk guru, Craig Charles, and a slew of other international DJs. It’s old-fashioned, gritty and down-home soul music – by a bunch of white teenagers from Melbourne.
The Cactus Channel – for that is the band’s name – formed at Princes Hill High School four years ago during the breaks between playing with the school jazz ensemble. Their bass player, Henry Jenkins, had just discovered The Meters, a seminal New Orleans funk band whose classic recordings were made two decades before he was born. Pretty soon the Cactus Channel were doing it to death in the band room after hours, and by Year 10 they had a deal with Hope Street Recordings, a small Melbourne label that specialises in analogue recording using one of the last four-track reel-to-reel tape machines in Australia. Their second 45, ‘Emanuel Ciccolini’ came out in March and this month they release their debut album, Haptics. According to their Facebook page, they already have fans in Greece, Belgium and France.
The Cactus Channel are part of a thriving Melbourne retro-funk scene that also includes The Bamboos, Kylie Auldist, The PutBacks, Saskwatch and Deep Street Soul, many of them releasing their music through international labels, often on vinyl 45s and LPs as well as CDs and digital downloads. That a city whose entire African-American population could fit in a small room is now the funk capital of the southern hemisphere demonstrates (as if we needed another case study) the weirdly transmutable nature of 21st-century pop culture.
It’s doubly weird when you consider that the golden age of funk – which began when James Brown recorded ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ one afternoon in 1965 and ended in the dark days of disco – pretty much passed Australia by. None of the classic funk bands toured here, radio rarely played them, local record companies rarely released them, and when James Brown finally visited in 1978 he played the dinner lounge of the Hilton Hotel (where he decimated the room and left office workers stomping on the tables). It wasn’t until hip-hop DJs began plundering the funk canon for their backbeats in the late 1980s that the genre was exhumed for a new generation. Today its entire history is accessible via myriad exhaustive CD reissues, deluxe specialist magazines like the extraordinary Wax Poetics, thousands of blogs and, of course, the instant gratification of iTunes, Spotify and illegal file-sharing services. Never in history has so much funk been available to so many.
Given that availability – and the fact that hip-hop itself is such a reliably dreadful concert experience – it was inevitable that someone would hit on the idea of reanimating funk’s glory days on stage. That someone was Gabriel Roth, the producer/writer/bass player behind the New York label Daptone Records, a man whose dedication to 1970s black music probably qualifies as a diagnosable disorder. A Gen-Xer with a funk fixation that began in college, Roth built an analogue studio in Brooklyn ten years ago, then gathered together a stable of unknown soul singers and musicians to record old-school soul and funk LPs that uncannily resembled vintage releases. (I once bought an exotic-looking album called Soul Explosion which featured a cover shot of lions and vultures on the African savannah and was credited to The Daktaris, an Afrobeat band from Lagos, Nigeria. It was actually a bunch of white guys from Brooklyn recording for Roth under fake African names.) Roth’s grand dream of reviving funk’s glorious past was sailing close to bankruptcy in 2006, when a relatively unknown British singer called Amy Winehouse recorded half her second album, Back to Black, in the Daptone studio with his musicians. The album’s massive success put the label on the map.
At the heart of Roth’s aesthetic is a fetishistic love of tape and vinyl, the old-fashioned media of analogue recording. His ardour has come to be shared by superstar allies like the Black Keys, the Akron rock band whose oeuvre mimics the overdriven distortion of old blues records, and Jack White, whose Third Man studio/retail complex in Nashville is a shrine to the pre-digital age. For these auteurs it’s not just the sound of analogue recording that sets it apart but the whole lightning-in-a-bottle process of capturing musical alchemy on tape as it happens, without resort to the endless manipulations of digital multi-tracking. Jack White still edits his master tapes with a razor blade, and Roth regards the 12-inch vinyl LP as a case study in perfection: it sounds good, looks good, smells good and feels good and, unlike an mp3, you can roll a joint on it.
Of course, Beyoncé’s last digital single probably outgrossed the entire Daptone Records back catalogue, but the revivalist impulse Roth and White have helped kickstart is heading off on intriguing tangents. Melbourne now boasts a 17-piece band, the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra, which re-creates the clamorous Nigerian funk sound of the legendary Fela Kuti, right down to recording on analogue tape (the band’s trumpeter, Tristan Ludowyk, also co-manages Hope Street Recordings, the label which promises that “super nice vibe”). In Sydney, the expatriate Ethiopian singer Dereb Desalegn (who performs as Dereb the Ambassador) recently recorded an album using vintage microphones and tape machines deployed by producer Tony Buchen to replicate the saturated analogue sound of Ethiopia’s crudely recorded 1970s popular music.
On one level these records are acts of homage which reflect a nostalgia for pre-digital imperfection, much like the craze for Mad Men, vintage bicycles and Instagram. Vinyl record sales have been steadily increasing for six years, which suggests that even the iPod generation needs to affirm that music is something more than just a bunch of data in the cloud. On the other hand, all this retro-vintage revisionism would surely be impossible in a non-digital world. It was the compact disc that finally made Fela Kuti’s music available in Australia, and it’s the internet that has enabled many of these old-school funk bands to do their thing.
Take the case of Deep Street Soul, formed in Melbourne six years ago by the bass player Warren Hunter and drummer Agostino Soldati. Working as DJs, the pair absorbed the funk genre so completely that turning their hand to playing it proved no massive stretch. More importantly, they understood that funk aficionados around the world worship the punchy sound of the 7-inch vinyl 45 (the high rotation speed spreads the groove across more plastic, deepening the bottom end and smoothing out the highs). Their first two instrumental 45s under the Deep Street Soul moniker got them instant airplay in Britain and Europe, but it was the digital downloads from their MySpace page that got them a deal with Freestyle Records in the UK.
In 2008, Agostino hatched the genius idea of recording a funk version of ‘Kick Out The Jams’, the raucous call to arms of Detroit’s premier 1960s noise merchants, the MC5. Deep Street Soul recorded it as a driving syncopated instrumental (on four-track tape, naturally) but they realised the tune was begging for a throat-shredding vocal performance by a black soul shouter. Through a musician friend, they heard about a young American R&B singer, Tia Hunter, who played on cruise ships; after tracking her down on MySpace, they sent the instrumental to her in Brooklyn via the internet with instructions to “sing it like Marva Whitney in James Brown’s band, circa 1969”. Hunter took the digital file to a New York studio, nailed the vocal in two hours, and uploaded the finished track back to Melbourne.
The resulting single left European and British funk DJs agog; it sounds like the wildest Detroit funk record never made. Completing the circle, the MC5’s former guitarist Wayne Kramer recently sent a wildly enthusiastic email to Hunter and Agostino – a download of the song had found its way to him via Bruce Springsteen’s manager, and he pronounced it the best version he’d ever heard. Deep Street Soul have since hitched up with local singers, released two albums internationally on Freestyle Records and toured Europe, but to this day they’ve never actually met Tia Hunter. “It would be cool to hear her singing it,” muses Hunter.
So maybe it’s not so crazy to think that a bunch of teenagers from Princes Hill High School could be the latest torchbearers of “raw, loose and nasty funk”. The Cactus Channel are not without humour about their own novelty value: “It’s just like the old days,” says their website, “but so new it’s sporting a badass teenage moustache.” But less than a year after finishing Year 12, they’ve already played the Melbourne Jazz Festival, released their second 45 and supported the veteran American soul singers Syl Johnson and Charles Walker. Walker happens to be signed to the Daptone label, and when he gave them his blessing it was almost a religious moment. Pretty soon they might have to remove the message on their MySpace page that says, “See you at school tomorrow.”