Five Alarm Funk has been a West Coast institution for nearly a decade. Their Empire of Funk may be based on the quiet, slow coast of Canada, but they're slowly marching on the rest of the world, establishing a New World Order of Fun. I was there to witness one of their highpoints of Glorious Fun at Shambhala where they destroyed the Amphitheatre (Formerly the Rock Pit) and made my good friend and Guide to the Cosmos, Hingle McCringleberry, admit to their live-band greatness. Fuck yeah. Anyways, I was supposed to talk to frontman and guy who surprisingly isn't Animal from the Muppets, Tayo Branston whilst at the festival but I was unable to make it. But luckily we managed to hook up on the phone a little more than a month later and talked about that missed opportunity, the grueling nature of the F.A.F.'s tour schedule and the dangers of spilling on oneself.
This week Five Alarm Funk celebrates 10 years of funking the hell out of fans in Victoria at Sugar Nightclub. Read this, get amped and then get some tickets here.
Tayo Branston: What happened at Shambhala, there? Did you get a little too crazy or what?
Rags Music: I did get a little too crazy. I was looking at my watch thinking “Oh man, I got this many hours and I’m in this condition…this isn’t going to happen. So I went and stood around awkwardly for a bit then thought ‘Ahh, he looks pretty busy, I’m going to go.’”
TB: <laughs> It’s funny. As a band we’ve stopped going up a day early because we’ve had to play the show the next wrecked. So for that it’s like, we go in, set up, play and that night we left at 1:30 in the morning.
RM: Oh wow. In and out guerilla operation. So you guys obviously had fun up there I guess?
TB: Oh yeah, man. It was wicked. That was one of my most favourite crowds of the summer. It was a real treat, such a pleasure.
RM: That’s awesome. How does it feel to win Shambhala? I’m pretty sure you guys were the only act I heard of getting an encore? (I later found out that I saw another encore right after that at GRiZ. I swear that wasn’t as evident.)
RB: Yeah man! We got such a tremendous relationship with the guy that runs the stage. He’s part of the family that runs the property so he runs the Rock Pit stage. For him to come out and give us an encore when we didn’t have time for it was pretty cool.
RM: It was a victory for myself. It was my first Shambhala and I have a tenuous relationship with electronic music and I took my best friend who is a big fan of electronic music and said, ‘You watch these guys. They’re going to kick your ass. I guarantee it.”
RM: It was a victory for me and live music. So, kudos to you.
TB: Wicked. I mean you have enjoyed some of the electronic music, right?
RM: I did. I did. I discovered that I just need some funky bass and I can do it.
TB: I find that when I’m by myself or just at home, I don’t listen to much electronic music. But when I’m at Shambhala…just the atmosphere, the sound that gets pumped out of those speakers is incredible.
RM: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s bloody organ-rattling. I have a very clear memory of the first organ-rattling moment of the festival, for sure. I’ve tried to listen to a little bit of the music since I’ve been back and it’s just not the same.
TB: Yeah, I definitely agree.
RM: So how is the summer tour going? You guys are on the road all the damned time!
TB: Yeah. It’s been our busiest summer ever. It’s really awesome and super-positive for the band because we’re seeing all this work we put in going across the country, just grinding our way and it’s so great because now we’re actually seeing it pay off. We did 35 shows in 42 days all the way to Nova Scotia and back to Vancouver. The amount of people who were repeats from the past and the amount of friends we’ve made…it’s crazy! We’ve had such great crowds all summer. A couple slow nights in the middle of the week but just on a general note, best crowds we’ve ever had. It’s one of the most inspiring things for a musician to see the payoff come and go, “Aw, yes people are checking it out!” And they’re remembering and coming back year after year. That’s the best thing for me as far as the summer tour. It’s also been the most exhausting time ever. We had seven days off in six week and pretty much we had three days that were actually off and the rest were either driving, playing or grinding. It was super-exhausting but it was probably the most inspirational time of my life.
RM: How do you deal with the exhaustion?
TB: The best way to do it is to get the most possible sleep you can in the van. Guys take turns driving. We have a couple of really good, heavy, main drivers and like six pretty good drivers and you just try to rest up as much as you can during the day because you know you’re going to have to get a place, set up, eat dinner, do soundcheck, play and then enjoy the audience and have a little party as best you can.
RM: Sweet. How do you protect your voice?
TB: Yeah. Every year I’ve had a major issue with my voice. This year we’ve written songs that have way more vocals going on so I was extremely scared about my voice. Our new baritone sax player, Colin Mascel, he recommended, he said he talked to an Indian singer about how they keep their throats nice and fresh all the time and he recommended cloves. So for the first three weeks of the tour I was literally chewing on cloves. Everyday I would stick a wad of cloves in my mouth and I’m not sure if it actually works or it’s psychological but I didn’t lose my voice once all summer. I was really, really happy. It started getting a little faded near the end but I was happy. That was a really nervous point going into the summer.
RM: That’s a pretty intense method, there. Cloves are a potent flavour.
TB: Yeah, cloves and Fisherman’s Friend. It doesn’t help that I smoke and drink. That definitely doesn’t help but screaming every night doesn’t help either. <laughs>
RM: With some of these new songs…you guys must pretty voracious readers or something because there are some pretty amazing things going on lyrically. Singing about the Higgs-Bozon, that’s some wild shit.
TB: That almost came together by accident, but not really. It was last summer, we were on tour and I started thinking about different ways to write songs. Normally we’d go into the rehearsal space, all get together and kind of look at each other and if anyone had an idea we’d all pick at that and see if we could get anything going that way. It started hitting me last summer, imagine if we created a story for a song then tried to write music that went along to that story. That also includes vocals just to help people along with the story that’s being told. It started with this song “Attack!” which is about zombies and basilisks and evil beings coming out of the crowd to fight humanity. It started with that. The more we started writing songs with all of these conceptual ideas we started linking the songs together in this big story. All of the new songs, when they’re played in the proper order that they’re going to be on the next album is this wicked, wicked tale of hallucinogenic ice-cream and the end of the Earth, kind of thing. It’s a really wild story and it’s a way for us to have fun in writing our music.
RM: Well, it’s fantastic. I can’t wait to hear it all together. Do I really have to wait a year to hear this record!?
TB: We’re actually in talks with a guy at a studio in Vancouver and we want to get into it as soon as we possibly can. So we’re thinking fall, late September, October, November, we’re going to be recording the album. We’re going to release it next year when we’re ready. Whether that’s with a big release show in Vancouver or we go on tour, well, we’re obviously going to both of those things, it’ll probably be 2014, some time in the Spring. There’s a lot of things. I mean, you gotta get the album art and all that. You have to make sure you’re extremely happy. And we don’t want to rush this one. All the other albums have been like, “Okay, we have 10 days in the studio. We gotta run in there and smash it out.” We really want this album to be the pinnacle of our recorded career. It’s got to stand out miles ahead of the rest.
RM: It seems like the process has been laying a pretty good foundation for that.
TB: It’s great because we’ve toured with these new songs all summer now and it’s got super-tight with the new songs. It makes it that much easier once we get into the studio, to put that performance together in the studio and get that feel. A live feel but the precision recording as well.
RM: Have the new songs been received pretty much universally well? The two shows I’ve seen have been extremely great.
TB: The thing that I find with them is that they’re extremely aggressive. They’re different from our old songs like that. They’re more aggressive and extremely precise. It’s not as much of a dance-party as it as jump-fest. I think the thing that is going to really knock these songs out of the park when they’re recorded is that people will get to listen to them and form a bond with the song whereas the other songs you don’t necessarily need to bond with because it’s just groove then big horn lines then lots of groove, then a solo, where these ones are very concise and you have to pay a lot of attention to realize what’s going on. <laughs> I think it’s going to be really cool once we have it recorded and people can form those bonds with them and they’ll be able to be as free on the dance floor as they are with our other stuff.
RM: I feel like they’re aggressive but they’re aggressively fun. I feel like if I tried not to dance, I might hurt myself.
TB: <laughs> That is basically the whole point of our band is to have fun and make you move. Just a really a positive, sweaty, wicked time. We’re not here to convey any political or love messages or anything like that. We’re just here to let you free your mind and let you be one on the dance floor and just rip it up.
RM: That in itself is a message of love.
TB: Absolutely. But in no way, shape or form are we ever going to try to convey personal ideas onto people. You’re there for a great time and that’s what you’re there for.
RM: How fun was the ‘We All Scream’ video to make?
TB: Holy crap. That was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had. It was truly exhausting as well. We did four days all together. Two of those days were 15 hour days on the set. That’s make-up and stuff. There’s a lot of action in that video so it wasn’t like we were just sitting there playing. I remember after the ice-cream fight scene I’d never been so gassed. I had a huge cramp in my stomach. But it was really so much fun. We had so many volunteers. Everybody, like 100 people working on it, everybody was a volunteer, just putting in their and their love. You could see it. Even the make-up artist was having fun because they got to make us look crazy. It wasn’t just a normal video. It was such a fun experience. I think the whole band really stepped up to the plate as far as the acting and the craziness goes.
RM: And it’s just as much fun to watch, so thank you.
TB: It’s totally ridiculous.
RM: If I could wear out the replay button on youtube, I think I would have done it by now.
TB: <laughs> Sweet man.
RM: We were talking about the song-writing a bit earlier, are there any other ways your song writing as a group has developed over the years? Are there one or two guys who have the most ideas, or is it a little bit of everyone?
TB: It’s been a long process throughout our whole career as a band. I mean, we’ve been a band for a decade now. Basically before, like say the album Rock the Sky, most of the writing was done as a full unit or close a full unit, in our rehearsal space, and somebody would say he had an idea and we’d build off of that as a team. Maybe we’d split into smaller sections and come back to the team. But really all the latest material was me and guitar player. We’d sit in the basement and come up with the groove lines for the song and then we’d fill ourselves in over top of that. Really it was me and Dave Boothroyd who did most of that. Ken Wallace, our trumpet player, did write quite a few of the horn-lines, not all of them, but the large portion of the crazier horn lines you hear, he wrote them. It was really nice because normally we go into practice and we do it all together and it takes quite a long time. But to do it through this fashion, we got in there it was like, “We have all the guitar lines and the horn lines, so Neil on the bass, what do you think of this? You’re free to do what you want on it.” But the structure, the vocals, all the precision of the song were totally laid out. It was really nice for the band because we could come into practice and in a couple of practices we could hear the full song that we’d just written, whereas before it would take a month or so to do so. I’m sure in the future it’ll change again. I’m sure other guys will spearhead it. We never close ourselves off to anything in Five Alarm. It’ll happen organically and whatever happens happens. I’m sure our writing style will change again that that will make the album after this one sound that much more different from this one.
RM: It’s probably a symptom of having so many people in the band too.
TB: Yeah, for sure. You look around at what kind of music people have grown up on and everybody is totally different. That’s I guess where you get the Five Alarm style from. For me it’s almost becoming its own genre. You can hear when something is Five Alarm Funk because it’s so ridiculous and out there.
RM: It’s a very Vancouver, west-coast melting pot sort of music.
TB: Absolutely, man.
RM: Do you ever feel left out during some of the antics, being stuck behind the drum kit?
TB: Awwwww, you know what? I do. I do. Sometimes I’m a little jealous because I want to stand up and jump around but I have the gravy spot right in the middle of the stage. I can’t complain about anything. I love it. I love my position in the band. Definitely I would love to get up and headbang once in awhile, throw the whole body into it, but you try as best you can with a pair of sticks on a seat.
RM: Have you ever suffered any drumming injuries?
TB: Not too many. The worst is probably hitting the knuckles on my hi-hat stand. My drums are so tight together and we push Karl very close to me. It’s a very, very tight set up and sometimes when I go hit the rack-tom I’ll rake my knuckles on the front of the hi-hat and blood starts spewing everywhere but you really can’t stop and do anything about it. Other than that, not to many drum injuries.
RM: I bet it looks super badass with the blood coming down your hand, eh?
TB: Oh shit yeah. Spraying everywhere, getting all over the symbols. <laughs>
RM: I’ve read stories about SRV playing until his fingers bled, pouring out on his guitar, so you’re like you’re the SRV of drumming. Nice one. When is the last time that you belly laughed?
TB: Oh my god, when would that be…A time is coming into my head but it was a very long time and I’m sure I’ve done it since but it’s the first one that pops into my head. It was four or five years ago, Nedster, all summer he had this problem he couldn’t stop getting sauce on his shirt whenever we’d eat. No matter how hard he tried. We were in Whistler and he was eating this mushroom cheeseburger. We were talking about it before the burger came out, like, “I’m not going to get anything on my shirt!” When the waitress came out to put the burger on the table it was kind of half on the table and half off the table right over has lap and he was laughing so he didn’t notice and he went to grab it and the whole fucking thing slides down on to him. We laughed for so long about it. It was so great.
RM: I know how that goes, I’m terrible with spilling on myself. Some words of wisdom you’ve picked up over the years. You’ve been a lot of places and done lots of things, I’m sure you’ve got something…
TB: My only wisdom could and would try to impart on anyone would be to other musicians out there, that are starting off and getting their career going, you can never stop. There’s going to be doubt and really great times, too, but if you stick to your guns and practice and believe that what you’re doing is something really great then you can do anything. Being a musician and being able to tour is the greatest experience you can have in life. It opens your mind and you meet incredible people. It’s an incredible way to live. So anyone who’s thinking about becoming a touring musician and struggling with getting that going, stick to your guns because anything can happen.