PHO talk collaboration, intimacy and funk

By Geordon Wollner, Contributing Writer

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Photo by Geordon Wollner

Minneapolis-based PHO like “old stuff.” The seven-piece, nostalgic funk-influenced group blend the old with the new, creatively modernizing iconic sounds of the past to provide experiences that evoke emotion and the uncontrollable need to dance (or “get down”). With a strong support system back home, including that of the late Prince — thanks to Twitter — PHO actively grow and strengthen their community by collaborating with musicians and artists from around the country. Alex Wasily, a trombone player out of Chicago and Dirty Revival, a powerful soul and funk- infused group from Portland, Ore., joined PHO for their third show at the High Noon Saloon here in Madison, Wis. on February 16, 2018.

EMMIE sat down with PHO in the High Noon greenroom to talk beginnings, intimacy, inspirations and aspirations before the show.

EMMIE Magazine: Where did your name come from? Did it come out of something interesting? Or was it just kind of like, “Oh, we’re just going to go with this?”

Joe: Yeah, it was kind of just… impulsive. We needed a band name and we liked it — it’s short. And yeah, it looks good.

Did you have other possible names? Did you have a list you went through?

Joe: Um, no. That was it.

All: It’s ball or bust. [Laughter]

Joe: We were all young, I don’t know. We didn’t really expect to be a band five years later, you know? If I could re-do it, I might. It’s too late now.

Can’t re-brand now.

Joe: I like it, but it’s hard to search sometimes and stuff like that.

So you guys came into the band at different times?

Joe: Spencer, myself and Luke all joined at the same time. And then from there… Aaron was next. And then Pat, then Ryan, then Dan.

You have a pretty good group dynamic going on here.

Aaron: We have a semi-sense of humor.

Have you noticed anything about how you work together? Are there things some of you do well, that maybe others within the group don’t?

Joe: [Motions towards Spencer and Aaron] These two are vegans, so we talk about food all the time. We talk about food all the time.

Spencer: Food and music.

What’s the best kind of food?

Aaron and Spencer: We don’t count.

Pat: Indian food. Since I discovered it, it has always sat super high on the list.

So if you’re really craving something, that’s it?

Pat: Yeah, like a specific restaurant-thing.

Aaron: Curry’s always a good choice.

I’ll take you away from food now and ask you something music related. What artists have influenced you the most? When I first heard you, I thought there was a little “Jam Band” mixed in here — a little bit of Umphrey’s McGee, a little Phish, maybe a little Lotus… Where are you guys coming from?

[Laughter]

Pat: We’re all pretty nostalgic, I’d say. It’s all old school stuff. Herbie Hancock and George Duke are kind of, more of a fusion of funk. There’s the horn, so jazz influence, but also kind of hard funk like Slide and The Family Stone and stuff like that. Consciously we’re thinking about old stuff and however it lines up with other modern bands — we don’t keep up too much with the Jam scene, but we’re active in it, just because it’s instrumental music.

Joe: It’s really receptive. Instrumental, funk music is kind of in the Jam scene. I like Lettuce, another band around that scene…

When you talk about modern and contemporary bands, who are you looking at?

Pat: Yeah, Lettuce, like Joe mentioned, is kind of a modern instrumental funk band. Ah, Soul… Soulive. When this band first started those were sort of the bands we looked up to, like Snarky Puppy and Vulfpeck — all the guys making instrumental music as an outlet.

Joe: The more we write, the more it takes a lot of different influences and styles and the direction it’s going — it’s like a big pot, you know.

Definitely. So, then how do your songs form? Do you write beforehand, do you just get up and start playing?

Spencer: Predominately someone comes up with an idea for a song beforehand. It’s either all the way done and we just learn it or we write it together. It kind of just depends on the song idea and the origin of the song.

Have you ever improvised anything?

Spencer: Yeah, like when we open up we’ll remember certain things like “oh, that horn line was cool, that guitar part was cool, let’s do that again” and then you do it again and later it turns into a song. So yeah. When we open up, we let things happen.

It just happens naturally.

Spencer: Mhm!

Luke: It’s a collective vibe, for sure, when we’re writing together. It’s not like someone comes in and they have it charted out, everything to the T, and we just do it that way. It’s very, the whole process lasts — for instance, one of our newer tunes we’re going to do tonight lasted about 8 weeks of writing and finally finalizing things until it locked in.

Joe: I feel like form gets messed around a lot. Someone will have some ideas, but then it kind of turns into a song through everyone’s input like “ahh, that felt weird, let’s put this here now.”

I’ve always been fascinated with how people are able to put something together in that way. Especially for you, because you’re instrumental and don’t have lyrics or any of that to start from and build off of. It’s interesting how you’re able to take that and still do the same thing and it’s still powerful.

Spencer: Yeah, without a vocalist and with this configuration you can kind of choose what you want to be the lead. Like, you write a song, “Oh, I want this to have a keyboard melody,” so then that is more the vocal element of it — that turns into the vocalist. Or the horns have a melody, so they’re the vocalists and then you compose for that. And it takes more of a melodic perspective.

Joe: We don’t necessarily jam a lot, it’s like here’s this part of this song and then it goes to this part. We’ll jam sometimes, for sure, and that’s really fun, but we’re all pretty quick to be like, “Oh, that felt too long, this needs to build or something needs to happen here.” Because it’s instrumental, you almost have to treat it like you have a singer to keep the audience interested. They need a focus point and something to grab onto.

And that focus, is that kind of where the “intimate” comes out of? Your site describes your most recent album, two, as “intimate and soulful.” Tell me more about the intimate. Is it from your personal putting into it or more output?

Spencer: We appreciate all sorts of songwriting. And to me, intimate is like how Stevie Wonder would write a song and how he writes his chords. And we’re not afraid to play a beautiful melody over pretty chords and still make it funky. You know. So that to me is what the intimate means.

Joe: Yeah, I think the songs start with one thing and… it’s just really intimate, almost, when you hear the song start with one guitar playing a low string and then something creeps in and it gets to your heart.

Spencer: Emotion is super important.

Intimacy aside, what do you do when you’re not together or playing music?

Joe: Look at pictures of each other.

Any poetry? Spoken word?

Spencer: I tune pianos. I like to exercise.

Pat: Almost all of us are music educators in one way or another. So, we all teach as primarily what we do.

Aaron: We all do other gigs and stuff, outside of PHO, to stay alive, pay bills. We all just play. Music is what we live and breathe, in general, for all of us.

Joe: I like to cook. Workout. DJ. Vinyl.

But you still get to live in your art. Not a lot of people get to go out and live with and for their art.

Joe: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

Spencer: We’re lucky to have the support of our local music scene. And just the people in that scene.

Luke: Well, just bands in general. People that appreciate our music and enjoy our music and are receptive to it.

Aaron: Also, having people that believe in you, that are willing to work really hard on our behalf and not expect a whole lot in return is pretty imperative. We had a sound guy hop on [and help], a manager… And I mean we pay, but these people believe in the music and, you know, a lot of the time you have to already be successful just to get certain [things], so we’re kind of lucky that we’re still really “grassroots” level in a sense. Like we’re doing cool stuff. But you know. The sky’s the limit at this point and it’s cool that people can see that with you. Can envision that.

Joe: What was the question again? Was it what we do in our free time?

Yeah, it was.

[Laughter]

Spencer: We live and breathe music, basically.

Aaron: That just goes to show —

Joe: We’re just into what we do.

Touching back on that support system within your music scene, what other bands have you connected with?

Pat: We really get along with the guys from The Motet really well. They’re another instrumental band in that scene.

Spencer: Decapod. Super down to earth. Killer musicians.

Luke: Some Chicago musicians. Actually, a trombone player is coming here to play with us tonight. So we’ve just met some musicians our age in different scenes that are kind of just doing stuff and we’re supportive of each others projects.

Pat: And of course bands from our local Minneapolis scene. There’s a lot of bands similar to us. A community of musicians that support each other.

Aaron: Oh, and our moms. Don’t forget about our moms.

Joe: Yeah, our moms are inspiring.

Thanks moms! What’s your favorite, unexpected moment?

Pat: When we had gotten out of rehearsal and had been tweeted at by Prince.

I put “besides Prince” in parentheses in my notes! You can’t use that one. What’s another stand-out moment?

Luke: So, actually, one of the first major tours we did with a major band was with the band Motet and we were only expecting to do a number of dates with them and on the last date we were supposed to do –

Pat: I think it was three, three dates we were supposed to do with them, but then the last day –

Luke: Yeah, their manager had flown in to see the show and just saw us and they were playing a show at Park West in Chicago and they invited us to play. It was a sold out show. In Chicago on Halloween night. Some people had church gigs the next day and people had to be home for stuff and we just, we were just like “we have to do this.” A bunch of us cancelled on people last minute in order to do this gig. It was one of the most amazing, incredible experiences ever. This gig was nuts.

Pat: That was insane.

Joe: Yeah, that was fun.

Spencer: We also got open for Kamasi Washington for a couple days. That was a pleasant surprise.

Amazing. Given all that you’ve done already, what’s something you haven’t tried yet that you want to (with your music or with life, in general)?

Luke: At some point we’d all love to play Red Rocks. It’s an amazing venue we’d like to play sometime.

Spencer: Oh, hell yeah. We’re gonna have some vocal songs on our next record, too.

Joe: Yeah, we’re kind of flippin’ the direction, a little. Not on purpose or anything. Make the next record a little different, you know, turn some heads, different scenes. And it’s naturally happening, which is cool.

You can always tell when it’s forced.

Joe: Yeah, exactly. It’s [the next record] appreciating each other [more] and what they’re putting in.

Luke: The great thing about our music — it’s not one path, it’s changing always. If you listen to our first album and then two side by side, it’s a little bit different, the approach is totally different.

That change would you say that just comes with life?

Spencer: Oh, of course. Our musical influences evolve over time. And what we want to get out of our songwriting and how we want to feel after a song is completed, matures with you and how mature you are as a person. We’re not gonna just play jams all night long. We want to reach people with our music.

Joe: It’s always cool to hear people that say, “Oh, I don’t really listen to that style [instrumental music], but I really enjoyed it.” You can take your approach as to what it means. With us you get to pick your own [approach and meaning to the music]— like the “Pick Your Own Adventure” books. It’s the same thing.

Thank you to all members of PHO, Lindberg Chambliss and the High Noon Saloon.

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