Vulfpeck’s The Beautiful Game: A New Era of Funk
by Quinton Hubbell (Engineering), published December 7th 2016
In 2011, four University of Michigan students Jack Stratton, Woody Goss, Joe Dart, and Theo Katzman first met providing backing music for a mutual friend. The four discovered they made quite the jam band, and started creating grooves in their spare time. Stratton conceived the idea of creating a faux German funk group inspired by the studio musicians of the 60’s and 70’s, and thus, Vulfpeck was born.
Relying solely on instrumentation and one-take style recording, the group’s first EP Mit Peck was released the same year as their formation. With funky keyboards and foot-tapping basslines, it was brimming with potential. When listening through it, you can’t help but notice the rawness and mediocre mixing of it all. Songs like “It Gets Funkier” and “Rango” sounded like grooves that weren’t fully fleshed out. The group at this time started to gain recognition, with bassist Joe Dart getting his own feature on a bass-specialty magazine for his insane solo on the track “Beastly”. Nearly everyone listening to them, myself included, actually bought that the group was a bunch of funky Germans doing their thing.
A year later, their second EP Vollmich dropped. It showed Vulfpeck was open to collaborators, with Joey Dosik making light work of his saxophone on the intro track “Outro”. A more polished sound can be heard compared to their debut, and the piano licks from Woody Goss are brought higher in the mix, showing off his versatility over Dart’s this time. The EP also featured a revised “It Gets Funkier II”, bringing in a moog synth to give it more personality.
On Vulfpeck’s 2013 EP My First Car, you can hear the group experimenting with new sounds outside of their comfort zone, diverging away from the classic funk they had been working with into a genre of their own, which Vulfpeck calls “German Pop”. It was the first release to feature vocals on a track, with gospel/R&B singer Antwuan Stanley on “Wait for the Moment”. Many fans, myself included, thought this was a masterful choice, seeing it as the natural progression in the band’s career. The music video for “Wait for the Moment” became massively popular overnight, and yet another version of “It Gets Funkier” can be found at the tail end of the record. At this point the group finally started performing live shows, creating animated and lively sets that would soon solidify them as indie live staples for their jams.
Each song on their most recent EP to date, 2014’s Fugue State, has its own personality, with the title track reminding me of the older Vulfpeck and the new hit “1612” showing their more recent side, with Stanley making another appearance. I like to think of this EP as a sister release to My First Car. They might be a year apart in release dates, but you can hear the striking similarities in songwriting and instrumentation.
The unspoken beauty of Vulfpeck is that they have never played by the rules. At a time where most artists come at their work from a hyper-seriousness angle, Vulfpeck goes out of their way to make their music fun for both the creator and the listener. The majority of their tunes have no lyrics, and when there is singing, the lyrical content is over-the-top childish and silly. On “1612”, the words are complete gibberish, with names like Ford Taurus and Frank Sinatra coming out of the woodwork. The song title itself is a reference to an AIRBNB access code. The band refused time and again to sign to a label, preferring to stay independent and have complete creative control.
While preparing for their Fugue State tour, Vulfpeck pulled another stunt just to say to the music industry “we can be successful by our own rules”. Instead of booking set venues and using the revenue from the audience to pay for the band’s expenses, they came up with Sleepify. Exploiting the payout system of Spotify, the band released a “silent album” that fans would play on repeat while they slept. The plays would rack up over time, and Vulfpeck could raise money while seeing where people were listening to them the most. They then plotted out a tour route hitting all the locations and made all the shows free for everyone. The stint raised over $20,000 and Spotify had to change their artist revenue policies.
By late 2014, Vulfpeck announced that they were ready to release their first studio album, and in October 2015, Thrill of the Arts (TOTA) was released. One of my favorite albums of the year, TOTA was catchy, witty, funny, and self-referential, with musical motifs from every EP making a guest appearance somewhere on the album. It was packed with humor and playful songs like “Back Pocket”, which tells the story of elementary school crushes. Callback tracks like “Rango II” rewardingly added elements that were missing from older versions, like the first Mit Peck version of “Rango” introducing a key instrument: the slide guitar. Every song makes you want to dance (even if you don’t know how, I guarantee you’ll be two-stepping by the end).
A performance on Stephen Colbert gave the world a taste of their ridiculous live shows, with band leader Jack Stratton jumping about, never touching a single instrument. Vulfpeck made a statement with Thrill of the Arts; our music will reignite that childlike love for funk that you didn’t even know you had. Teeming with powerful features and creative songwriting, I knew that their next album had to be big.
Then, it wasn’t. About a week ago, I wanted to play some Vulfpeck for my friends, so I looked them up on Apple Music. To my surprise, I noticed a new album had been released. Now, I was in a room with five other Vulfpeck fans, ranging from the avid (me) to the “I only listen to the hits”. We all freaked out when we learned a new album had dropped. Then we were suddenly concerned. How come we hadn’t heard about the drop? Is the album that forgettable?
Those hesitant thoughts quickly disappeared when we played the first song off The Beautiful Game. Unlike every other Vulfpeck release, this one started off with a two-minute clarinet solo. This caught us off-guard; nobody in the group plays clarinet to begin with. If you weren’t familiar with the band, you might be asking why it’s even on the album, but I knew immediately that I was in for an experience filled with delightfully weird tunes.
Consisting of ten tracks and lasting only 35 minutes, The Beautiful Game is by no means a lengthy project, but you can tell Vulfpeck went for quality over quantity. The tracks “Animal Spirits”, “1 for 1, DiMaggio” and “Daddy, He Got a Tesla” exhibit the quintessential Vulfpeck lighthearted spirit. Lyrical versions of TOTA’s “Conscious Club” and My First Car’s title track are present, showing how the group can take an already amazing song and put a new spin on it. Utilizing a more guitar-heavy sound with the help of longtime collaborator Corey Wong, the songs sound fresh but familiar. Personally, I love the track “Aunt Leslie”, putting Antwuan Stanley’s heavenly voice and Joey Dasik’s horns front and center to create a funk jam that is in a league of its own.
Vulfpeck has fashioned another album that creates funk tunes in a roundabout way, meeting the listener’s expectations in ways no one would have guessed. The beauty of their music is the sheer spontaneity of their one-take recordings. Their sound is ever-changing, with every new album featuring revisions and edited versions of previously released songs. The new versions aren’t ostensibly better, because they aren’t designed to be. The Beautiful Game isn’t a cut above Vulfpeck’s other releases, but it perfectly captures the lovely, off-brand style of funk they have slowly mastered over the years.