Poly Gras: Seattle’s Best Fat Tuesday ShowFebruary 21, 2017
Polyrhythmics is one of Seattle’s finest musical exports. The 8-piece instrumental funk group brings relentless rhythms, heart thumping bass lines and melodic hooks to any stage they find themselves on.
They’re back at Nectar Lounge on Fat Tuesday, February 28 for a special Mardi Gras performance. We sat down with guitarist Ben Bloom to learn more about the group, his New Orleans influences and what people can expect from the best Fat Tuesday celebration in Seattle!
Nectar Lounge: Polyrhythmics is a large group, made up of eight people. How did you all meet, and how did the band get started?
Ben Bloom: Polyrhythmics came together based on a concept that I, as well as our drummer Grant [Schroff] had kind of simultaneously, but without us really being aware of it. We knew each other in the music community, and we both had the same idea to start this large format, polyrhythmic funk band, playing Afrobeat music, playing World music but not necessarily being purists to any of those forms.
We wanted to take that concept for a band and make a record. We were inspired by other groups from other places, a lot of European artists as well as East Coast artists. A label called Electric Cowbell was one that inspired me, and then some artists out of Berlin. Grant had the same idea and we connected on a phone call randomly at a key time where we both weren’t working as much and we both wanted to start something new. He was like, ‘I have this idea for a big funk band.’ And I was like, ‘well I have this idea for a big funk band too! Let’s talk about it.’
We essentially pooled our resources within the Seattle community. We started getting together to write music with the intent of putting out a 45”. That was our goal. What we quickly learned with a big band is it’s hard to get everyone in the same room at the same time. The first time we were able to accomplish that was actually at the recording session. We managed to pull it off and we managed to record a whole EP in that session. Like a dream we realized early on that Electric Cowbell, the record label I was interested in, wanted to put out a 45” for us. So through sleuthing and friends we got our music to them and put out a 45” called Pink Wasabi.
There was also this Canadian tastemaker out of Calgary who picked up on our tracks through Electric Cowbell and said, “hey, I want to put out some music with you guys.” So two other tracks from that session came out on his label called Kept Records. They came in pretty quick succession.
We decided to have release party pretty soon after. So we put on a show at a venue across from Nectar called ToST, which is no longer there. We weren’t trying to be a live band at all, like I said it was impossible to get everyone in the same room together. But one thing that was quickly apparent was that even though we weren’t a rehearsed live band, the style of music was very new to Seattle and it was sort of a match made in heaven. People were dancing right off the bat, the place was packed. It was one of those rare Seattle experiences. Usually Seattle doesn’t dance and usually Seattle doesn’t really show up. So we all gravitated toward that experience and decided maybe it was worth putting some time into the live band scene.
NL: You mentioned when getting this band together, you and Grant had the same idea of starting a funky, polyrhythmic group. Why was that? What was your inspiration and why do you think you were driven toward that genre?
BB: I had been playing a lot with a NW funk artist named Lucky Brown, and we had put out a lot of vinyl and music in Germany. But we had very little success in the US as a touring band. I wanted to take a lot of the influence I had from that band but focus it more on a specific style of music, Afrobeat and West African music. I was also ready to be a bandleader at that time. I think that Grant wanted to explore the bigger band concept like Tower of Power. It was sort of serendipitous. I don’t really know exactly what his line of reasoning was, how that came to be, but it was weird that we had that concept at the same time.
NL: Seattle is a city known for it’s music, known for it’s local scene. How do you think that being in this city affected Polyrhythmics as a band?
BB: I think all of the players in our band have sort of gravitated to our project and become more committed whether consciously or not because we’re different than most of the music here. Seattle’s always been a very talented music community and also a very experimental music community. A lot of jamming, a lot of loose ideas and exploring live. But what we wanted, what we were strict about, was the idea that we’re not jamming. There are going to be individual parts that make up Polyrhythmics’ music so everybody has a specific role in the groove or the song. I think that’s why it was successful early on, because it was refreshing. People noticed it was well rehearsed, there was a lot going on and there was something in it for everybody.
NL: So you guys compose all your own music. How does a composition session usually go, is it one idea that then gets built on or does everyone bring their own stuff to the table?
BB: Interestingly, Grant and I have different perspectives on this, as does everyone in the band. Over time, as the band solidified and became the eight core members, everybody became involved in the writing process. My approach initially was to write skeletons of ideas that I would then give up to the group to shape. I wanted to collaborate with other artists in this particular project. Everything I’ve written for this band has been in that particular spirit.
Grant and some of the other writers in our band like Scott [Morning] are sometimes different, where they want to bring fully composed music to the band. Other songwriters like Nathan [Spicer] are in between, a little bit of both. Nathan will come in with a song that’s almost done but needs a bridge or something and then we’ll collaborate on that. Over the years we’ve explored all styles of composing. The only rule we have is: everything we want to try we will try.
NL: It’s been over a year since Octagon, your most recent record, was released. Are you working on anything new right now?
BB: Yeah we’re working on a lot of new things. We’re actually going in the studio starting tomorrow (February 8) to record our fourth full length. The Nectar show will be our first show after being in the studio so there’s a lot of new material on the table.
NL: So do you think people will be able to hear some of these new songs at the Nectar show on February 28?
BB: You know, anything’s possible! We’re definitely going to debut some new Polyrhythmics music as well as probably some New Orleans inspired things.
NL: You’re playing on Fat Tuesday, so it’s a Mardi Gras themed show (appropriately named Poly Gras). What type of celebration can we expect? Will there be beads flying from the horns?
BB: I hope so! New Orleans, out of all the cities in the US has had the biggest impact on every member of our band. We’ve made a real commitment to go to New Orleans every year to perform Jazz Fest. Really early on we got the opportunity to perform at Mardi Gras and that was one of the more powerful experiences that solidified our band. So there’s a lot of joy and privilege in playing music from New Orleans. We’re going to be pulling a lot of influence on this show. And we’re going to have some special guests and a whole lot of surprises!
NL: What’s one of your favorite aspects of playing live? And what makes up a perfect live show?
BB: A perfect live show consists of a dance floor packed with people dancing, and people smiling. I’ve always been a performer, and I think all of the members of our band have always been performers. The idea that this was only going to be a recording project was a really dumb idea. We really enjoy, to a guilty fault, playing instrumental music for people and them liking it. It’s one of those things, instrumental music isn’t really regarded on such a high level in American culture, so when we see people really resonating with the music, we feel really lucky to be in that place.
NL: What’s next for Polyrhythmics? What’s your goal right now?
BB: We’re going to release our new record likely at the end of the summer or in the beginning of fall. This summer we’ve got a lot of festival plans so we’ll be trying to get to as many of our favorite spots in the country as possible. We’re going to tour on our record release, but our new goal is to go international a little bit more this year We’ve been spending a lot of time in Canada but we’re really hoping to get to Europe and South America and Japan and Australia.
NL: OK, last question: In your own words, why should people come to the show at Nectar Lounge on the 28?
BB: Well, for one, this will be the last Polyrhythmics club show in a while. We won’t be in Seattle playing with clubs for a bit, so this is our first and last one for a while. We’re going to be playing a whole bunch of new music that we haven’t tried out on anyone yet. But most important, there’s not going to be a better Fat Tuesday party in all of Seattle. If you have any interest in celebrating Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras, then Nectar is the place. Plus we have Cecil Moses and the SGs opening up the show which is another amazing local group! So you all should come!
Catch Polyrhythmics and Cecil Moses and the SGs on Fat Tuesday, February 28th, 2017 at Nectar Lounge. Tickets available online or at the Nectar Box Office.