Five Alarm Funk sparks pyrotechnics, gorilla suits

FIVE ALARM FUNK 2018 by Brendan Meadows BW--web

Five Alarm Funk is even colorful in black and white. The band returned to Reno on Aug. 9.
Photo by Brendan Meadows

You gotta find your tribe in life and I think I’ve found mine: Five Alarm Funk.

Music is something I’ve naturally gravitated toward my entire life, I just always had it in me. Not only that, it’s been the music that’s made me move, that’s made me groove, that makes me dance and feel alive and connected to the moment: that FUNK. That’s the sweetness, that musical G-spot that makes me feel like me.

Wrapped up in that is a love of being utterly and ridiculously flamboyant. If it’s stupid and fun, I’m in. If it’s colorful and sparkly, I’m in. If it’s just for shits and giggles, I’m in. I just want to laugh and look at all the colors, dancing to life’s strange rhythms all the while. Finding like-minded people to join in the fun isn’t too hard, they’re easy to spot in a crowd, peacocking around with all their colors and sounds. We’re a tribe of funky moths drawn to each other’s spiritual flames.

One of the largest gatherings of those types of tribes is Burning Man. For the first time in my life last year, I traveled all the way out to the desert to see my tribe in its most natural habitat, the biggest spectacle of the year. It was there I found Five Alarm Funk — maybe it found me, I don’t know. All I know is that its power-funk mating call was heard across the playa over all the ambient pyrotechnics and core-shattering bass billowing in the desert and I came running.

Five Alarm Funk

Five Alarm Funk’s call was heard across the playa, and the author came running.

I then experienced eight party animals from Vancouver blow up the stage with the most life-affirming party funk and roll music I’d ever heard, all while dressed like space monkeys, disco janitors and golden go-go men. Oh my. I was instantly entranced. It was everything I loved about life embodied into this one group. My tribe now had a house band and it was Five Alarm Funk.

Its live show is the essence of it all, a welcoming ceremony for everyone in attendance and an invitation to join the rambunctious Five Alarm tribe. Fifteen years in the making, Tayo Branston (drums/vocals), Gabe Boothroyd (guitar), Oliver Gibson (guitar), Jason Smith (bass), Thomas Towers (congas), Ricki Valentine (timbales), Eli Bennett (saxophone) and Kent Wallace (trumpet) have grown their tribe year by year, show by show, knucklehead by knucklehead.

This past year has seen the band’s following grow the most. A Juno nomination for its latest full-length album, “Sweat,” and a mini EP release with funk legend Bootsy Collins added exposure to the band and opened up doors previously closed to get in front of more people. The band played the iconic Winnipeg Folk Festival in its native Canada in July and is scheduled to appear at the famed Brooklyn Bowl in September for its first ever show in New York City. It’s been quite the year for Five Alarm Funk, with the horizon only getting brighter.

Five Alarm’s Thomas Towers, the aforementioned space monkey, revealed as much to me over the phone recently. The band had just finished a 22-date tour in 26 days and was leaving the next day to start another strike through Canada, Nevada and California. I got the sense Towers was basking in the quiet and recharging for the next physical assault that is a Five Alarm Funk tour. His voice was relaxed and brimmed with congenial warmness, and he was excited and appreciative for the journey he and his band were on.

I’ve now seem them every time they’ve come through the area since Burning Man, at Halloween in Lake Tahoe and in April at their first appearance at The Saint in Reno. Still left is the band’s victory lap  at Hangtown Music Festival in Placerville in October, bringing my total in just over a year to five shows. I just can’t get enough and once you’ve experienced the raging hurricane of a Five Alarm Funk show, I doubt you’ll be able to as well.

Tahoe Onstage

Five Alarm Funk was back at The Saint in midtown.

Tahoe Onstage: How’s your day been, what have you been getting into?

Thomas Towers: Actually, not too much. I got a haircut finally, it had grown into a nice, shaggy mane out on the road. Finally got that lopped off, it’s liberating and very nice (laughs).

What are your takeaways, both positive and negative, from this latest tour, which was your biggest yet?

Oh man, it was a really amazing tour, though it was a long one. It started out with some amazing highlights that were incredible for us. To fly out to London for TD Sunfest and then fly back to the Winnipeg Folk Fest and just experience both of those immediately. The Winnipeg Folk Fest was a personal high for me and a great way to start off. To go from that and tour through Canada and Quebec.

Getting to play in some places we’ve been before and actually seeing some growth, with people going, ‘Oh, I’ve seen you here before or this festival or with the McNasty Brass Band.’ It’s great to see them bringing out friends and getting some growth in these new places for us. We’ve been doing it a while but it’s taking us some time to break into these markets. Actually getting to witness bigger and better crowds at bigger and better venues with all this positivity for the band was a really nice cap to a long run on the road.

It certainly has to be gratifying. You are not an overnight success, you’ve put in your time and done the dirty work to get here. Does it feel like two different worlds between where you are now and even just a year ago? What’s that contrast like?

Oh man, it feels like a year ago with just this past July, on the road with all the experience you can compress into a small amount of time and playing night after night. I’ve been a part of this band since the inception in 2003 and finally getting into California and in such a big way was a big step in getting out to Nevada. We’ve been just north of you guys for so long. I’ve got family in San Diego and uncles in Orange County. I’ve been down to visit so many times. Such a big state and part of the country with a huge populous, it’s taken us a long time to finally get down there. We’ve really come down a lot in the last year and a half and trying to experience it properly. Reno was just huge in our long excursion into the states.

You mentioned you’ve been with the band since 2003. When did the funk first get in your bones around these guys?

The first time these guys got together to play music (laughs). Right from the start there was something special with (drummer) Tayo (Branston), his personality was magnetic and I know there was something going on. I remember he was really tight with our bass player (Jason Smith) and the two of them would just jam, it was incredible. Whatever this is I want to be a part of it.

Tahoe Onstage

Five Alarm Funk encourages a love of being utterly and ridiculously flamboyant.

I feel the same way when I see ya’ll live, I want to be a part of it. You’ve created such a culture of people wanting to be there. What have you noticed about your fans and the culture surrounding your band? Personally, you are certainly responsible for a part of that.

One thing I’ve noticed is the mindset. Do you like to have fun? Do you like weird, messed-up music, the kind that you don’t know what it is but it makes you want to dance? I think you are going to have a good time (laughs). It just strangely brought appeal, though if you look at what we do at any given moment, it’s strange. It might be a little bit too much for some people just getting into it. But over the course of 90 minutes or 60 minutes or however much time we are given to win people over, from start to finish we are trying to get everyone on our side and jumpin.

Where is your reference with performing and being an artist and putting yourself out there? Who you taking cues from?

Part of it would have to be The Muppets, I guess. Definitely flailing around and stuff. Some of it would have to be David Bowie and costume changes. A big part of it, honestly,  was putting on a gorilla suit and mask and playing. The first time was about 12 years ago, when I first realized this could be a funny thing. Just having that mask on and playing was liberating and freeing. After that I realized I could do so much and not really care as much about what you are doing or what it looks. It is just going to be some ridiculous moment at some show. Is it going to blow someone’s head off (laughs)? Maybe ducking down and reappearing or taking these moments to disappear and appear. I don’t know, maybe there’s something to that (laughs).

There is that, I can tell you from a crowd’s perspective. There is an element of “what is going on? It doesn’t matter, it is fun as hell.” At the same time, you got your man Ricki Valentine on the other side wailing around and being himself. What kind of relationship have you developed and what kind of discussions have you had about the ethos and what kind of performance to you want to put up there for people?

TT: Definitely it was evolved a lot over time. It has really solidified more in the last two or three years. Honestly, just feeding off of the energy of Tayo, our leader, he has enough energy, stage presence and showmanship for a full band. Just his lyrics, these weird visuals you can pull out of it. Weird moves and dances and coordinated stuff that you can draw from what he’s saying. For a lot of these moments, well, there’s a gap here that I think I can fill. All the focus is over here right now, so why don’t I sneak off and go put on a banana costume and sneak back and keep playing again. What can I do to make the show better or more insane? Having Ricki step up a lot of crazy show stuff and creating a lot of moments, that’s really come out in the last little while. It has really cranked the show up. The horns are our voice, our guitars are our groove and crank out the hits, Tayo is our charisma guy. I’m just tagging along with silly stuff (chuckles). It works some of the time, so I’ll just go with it.

How was the wardrobe changed over time? Do you have costumes you just cycle through that are different each tour?

(Laughs) Every time I pick up something new it’s because I’ve burned through something else. I’ve been through more than a couple gorilla suits. The last tutu I had got set on fire onstage accidentally last November. I go through a lot of stuff (laughs), sweat through a lot of things. There’s a lot of experiences put into the things I wear on stage. I was wearing our drummer’s shoes on the last week of our tour. I destroyed mine at show and was like, ‘”Oh, we’ll just stop at the next place.” A week later it was, “anytime we could stop?” But we just had to keep going (laughs). I definitely leave on tour with a lot of things, sometimes come back with more.

I first saw you guys at Burning Man, it was a hell of a show, I’ll never forget it. We are getting close to that time of the year again, people are getting ready.

Oh man, that’s amazing (laughs). I can’t believe you were there, I can’t believe we were there (chuckles). That was definitely a bucket list and then playing right in the circle at the Plaza and playing into the night, having all these art cars blowing fire into the air. The best pyro show you could ever ask for (laughs). That was incredible and we were only there for 36 hours. It was a short, sweet, intense experience.

The whole event itself really underscores what you guys are all about; being ridiculous and doing what you want.

I’m truly thankful for anyone that was there because it made it so special for us. Coming into it we know it’s not our show, but this is what we can add to it. Make it a little more crazy and have some fun and make it a little more special and different for anyone that comes up. Being a live band in that kind of setting with the live energy, is a great environment for us (laughs).

You guys much put out so much energy in your tours and playing live and recording. How do you retreat and regroup from that?

Certainly, looking back at the schedule with 22 shows in 26 days, with those four days being driving for 10 hours a day, there is not a lot of time for quiet or self-care or solitude. My time is a little bit of just walking on by, it’s nice, the sun is shining. It’s been a lot of crazy days on the road and just walking through the neighborhood and seeing familiar sights, it’s important. This is our 15th year and we’ve spent a lot of kilometers on the road, I know what I need when I get home, which is solitude and quiet time. I’m in control of when I wake up and when I go do things. Don’t have to have this time to meet or this deadline. It’s refreshing and necessary.

— Garrett Bethman

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About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

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