With George Clinton announcing his retirement, Big Sam’s Funky Nation is ready to fill up the void for those who need to free their mind so their ass will follow.
The New Orleans-based act, led by Big Sam Williams, takes the musical traditions from the members’ hometown – exhilarating brass section, soundtrack for a second line – and adds a good dose of funk, jazz, rock and hip-hop.
“You can go to Julliard and Berklee all you want, but they won’t teach you how to rock a stage. It comes naturally in New Orleans. I’ve been here my whole life and rocking these streets,” said Williams.
For over two decades Williams has been an integral part of the Crescent City’s music scene. As a member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and then simultaneously also taking on the duties of his own band, he played 300 shows a year including gigs at Bonnaroo, Voodoo Music + Experience and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Austin City Limits. He’s also backed up Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews Band and recorded and toured with Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello. Additionally, he had a recurring role on the critically acclaimed HBO series Treme.
“Even during Hurricane Katrina, I drove nine hours from San Antonio every weekend for two years just to play live. The sound out here is unlike anything else in the world. It’s not just a figure of speech—there’s music going all night, literally.”
Following 2014’s rock-leaning Evolution, Williams wanted to “bring the funk like never before,” and “write originals that show how cats like Morris Day & The Time, The Gap Band, P-Funk, inspired [him]—while not just repeating the past.”
That desire to create a new set of party music brings us to the band’s sixth album, Songs in the Key of Funk: Volume One. “We’re going to keep the funk alive. Funk is life for me. Funk is everything. We all need some of it in our lives, so guess who’s here to give it to you?”
On record and in concert, the answer is Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
For the phone interview I catch Williams at his home during a short break in his (nearly) nonstop tour schedule. He admits that after a couple of weeks he feels the need to get back on the road and continue to bring the party to audiences around the world.
JPG: Your current tour must be to your liking.
Big Sam Williams: Yeah, definitely, man. I dig it. The touring schedule, we’re able to come home a day or two. Pretty much, come home, wash your clothes and get back out. It’s kind of that deal. For me, I had twin boys a year ago. I come back and see them.
JPG: Nice. They’ll remember daddy that way. You probably heard that George Clinton said he’s going to retire next year.
BSW: I’ll believe that when I see it. (laughs)
JPG: Well, that’s what he said. I was thinking about that while listening to your new album. With George Clinton retiring, he could hand the funk flag over to you.
BSW: I hope so, man. If he wants to hand over the funk flag to me, I’d be more than happy to take it over. He’s one of my greatest influences, so that would definitely be an honor for me.
JPG: “Pokechop,” “4 da Funk,” the beginning of “I Like the Music” are all very very P-Funk influence on there.
BSW: Yes, definitely. They’re in my top three. If you don’t hear P-Funk in what I do, there’s something wrong with you.
JPG: I remember how you brought it when I saw you play at Bonnaroo at one of the small tents [in 2010].
BSW: Yeah, that was like years ago now. It’s a completely different ballgame now. If you saw what we were like then just think of…things get better with age. I’m growing. The band is growing. We’re all maturing. We’re still really, really finding what we want to be, which, I believe, with this album we found what we want to be on the music scene.
Bonnaroo, man, that had to be at least six or seven years ago. (The band last played in 2014 on the festival’s What Stage) I think I had a completely different band, except for two members. I think it’s been that long.
JPG: I remember it was funky but it was more brass funky and that’s what a lot of people think of when they think of New Orleans funk, brass-led funk. This album, it’s brass but it’s also George Clinton and it’s Prince and it’s Bootsy Collins and it’s probably two or three other things that escape my mind.
BSW: Morris Day and Time, Gap Band, those are all the cats I was thinking about when it came to this album. Like you said, when people think about New Orleans it’s horn-led bands, you think of brass bands, things like that. For me, that’s all fine and dandy. I dig this. I came up playing it.
But this isn’t that. This is like going towards P-Funk, Prince, Morris Day and Time, the Gap Band. It’s going to that genre and that era. People have to identify that and not just put us in that New Orleans brass band box ‘cause that’s not what it is.
JPG: When you were playing with Dirty Dozen Brass Band, you started Funky Nation. Was that your original intent with Funky Nation or did things change along the way?
BSW: That was my original intent with Funky Nation back in 2001. I played with [Dirty Dozen] for about four years. Even though I started Funky Nation while I was still playing with them, I did not pursue it until later on. That was like 2007/8. That was my intent to not lead a band, being a trombonist, being from New Orleans and have people be like, ‘Oh, that’s brass band. That’s second line.’ Nothing wrong with second line music, nothing wrong with brass band music but people have a tendency to put you in that box and treat you a certain way when they figure that’s what you are.
JPG: Back to George Clinton, is it the idea that he basically showed the way that you could be funky but you could be free? That in a sense you could do “Maggot Brain” and you could do “Atomic Dog?”
BSW: Exactly! My previous album, Evolution, I was going more in that direction. But then, for me personally, I was like, “Man, I really want to dig into the funk. I want to see people dancing more.”
When you hear “Maggot Brain,” you don’t see people necessarily dancing, they’re vibing out, feeling the vibe of the song. With the previous album and then this album, Songs in the Key of Funk, I want to see people dancing. I like to dance. I want people to have fun. I want to see people smiling, having a good time. So I was like, “This album defines what Big Sam’s Funky Nation is all about, and that’s where it needs to stay.” At the same time if I want to make a left turn and dig into “Maggot Brain” or “Alice in My Fantasies,” stuff like that. So be it. It’s still going to go over well.
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