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Taking Sonic Cues From Nature, and Keeping a Large Ensemble Cohesive
Washington, D.C. jazz-fusion band The Funk Ark captivates listeners with their high energy and carefully crafted modern sound. Composer and pianist Will Rast talks with Performer about the musical inspiration he draws from his travels and breaks down the band’s creative process behind the recently released album, High Noon.
Less than a year has passed since the band’s last album. What’s different about the way you produced High Noon?
Our previous record, From The Rooftops, was done over the period of six months of studio sessions, editing, and mastering and all sorts of stuff. And we didn’t all play together at the same time. People would come in and record parts; there was a lot of sampling and looping – things like that – and it created a certain sound.
We’re happy with the record, but for this one we wanted to take it into a more live sounding setting. So we all just got together in a room after playing the songs for a month on the road. We landed in Austin and spent a few days there, just recording all together in Big Orange Studios – which is basically a cinder block bunker with some soundproofing and a nice booth. We did maybe two takes at the most with each song and that was the record.
On finding inspiration in nature: “I’m a big visualizer of sounds. To me, sounds often have colors and shapes, like a beat will have a certain shape in my head.”
Do you find inspiration for your music outside of music, like in nature or your surroundings?
Definitely. I’m a big visualizer of sounds. To me, sounds often have colors and shapes, like a beat will have a certain shape in my head. Especially when I’m traveling to different cities I’ve never been before, like when I was in Mexico City this past week, I’m seeing all sorts of new textures and shapes and it’s filing my head with sound. That’s what happens when I’m stimulated by new surroundings. So I’d definitely say that nature and locations have a big influence on my musical thinking.
Has there been a specific location that has sparked a song or an album?
I was 12 years old and I had entered the National Music Teachers Association Young Composers Contest, and I won and got to go to New Orleans and play the piece for a panel down there. When I was in New Orleans, I discovered jazz and Dixieland and also got a feel for the city. There’s definitely a mystical nature about a Southern port town. I think New Orleans in particular is a place that filled me up with inspiration and I wrote a song on my jazz solo record called “The Battle of New Orleans,” inspired by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
Let’s talk about The Funk Ark. The band is huge. How do you keep the electricity alive and carefully blended without it getting out of control?
You would think with that many people on a stage the sound would get cluttered. As with an orchestra, every instrument has its own small part. Not everybody is playing at the same time. I guess I would compare it to the gears of a clock. A beat that we play has a foundation and all sorts of moving parts that keep it moving along. Whether it’s somebody playing a cowbell to an Afro Cuban clave, or it’s a guitar part that’s kind of playing an African highlife-style guitar part. On their own, they’re relatively small, repetitive parts but when you put them all together they create a bigger patchwork sound that connects.
How do you and the rest of the band approach the way that you create music?
For the most part, I write the majority of the songs. I’ve got GarageBand on my Mac and it’s pretty low tech as far as industry standards are concerned, but it works pretty great for me to get ideas down. I’ll come up with a bass line or a guitar part and I’ll construct a demo and then bring it to the band – then we’ll learn the parts in rehearsal. It can take as little as 20 minutes to get down and we have a new song that everybody can play.
On playing with a large ensemble: “I guess I would compare it to the gears of a clock. A beat that we play has a foundation and all sorts of moving parts that keep it moving along.”
Is there a lot of evolution in your songs; do you change things up as a tour progresses?
Yeah – the initial demos are pretty complete, but in trying to flesh them out and give them personality to make them into an actual song, there are changes that happen. When we are working on the songs as a group, everybody is usually full of ideas and cool things to add to it. It’s definitely a group effort.
Do you think your love for funk and jazz makes you a better performer of this style of music, or more critical of it?
It can certainly make me more critical of my own performance and my band’s performance. But I also think that is what makes us better at playing that particular style. Just like jazz, if you’re not dedicated to the kind idiom and the lexicons that jazz calls from, it’s not going to sound like jazz. And then, by that same principle, if you’re trying to play soul, funk, R&B, Afrobeat – if you don’t dedicate yourself to the way that it’s supposed to be played, you’re not going to get that desired result. So I think my respect and appreciation for those kinds of music, all kind of squished together, is what makes the Funk Ark.
Are you afraid that you’ll eventually get burnt out playing what you love listening to?
[Pauses] I don’t know. I think that my tastes change as I grow. I’m not sure that ten years ago I would have been able to predict that I’d be doing the kind of stuff that I’m doing now. So it’s hard to say where my interests are going to lie in another ten years. But what I do know is that my writing style shifts as I move on to different styles and get interested in different things. So I don’t think that I’ll get tired of doing it because I’m going to continually try to reach whatever new plateau I’m going after.
Photos by Alba Seoane