Five Alarm Funk on high alert for festival at Squaw Valley

Tahoe Onstage

Five Alarm Funk plays Squaw Valley’s Brews, Jazz and Funk Fest on Sunday.
Shaun Astor / Tahoe Onstage

“Yes sir!” is the booming greeting I receive on the other side of my phone. It’s the lovingly gruff voice of drummer Tayo Branston, co-founder and emotional core of Canada’s best export and America’s favorite import, Five Alarm Funk. Charming, insightful and with a glint of mischief, he’s the core of one of the best live bands in North America.

A rambunctious crew of eight funkateers, Five Alarm Funk has been sharpening its sound for 16 years, forging deranged, left-of-center influences with bruising funk. The band’s music is no joke, a charging musical specimen full of power, grit and dexterity, like the pack of fantastic, strange beasts that adorn the cover of its most well-received album, “Sweat.” That genuine musical sense is coupled with the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of its live show, an off-kilter circus of space monkeys and sharks, with Branston and his gold hot pants acting as the ringleader of it all.

“I was a major fan of Bootsy Collins and Parliament. Holy shit, they are dropping a flying saucer, there’s a guy in a diaper running around, there are 80 people onstage and everyone is having the time of their life. That initial burst of funk and how to have fun and having an exciting and engaging concert was the fuel of the fire in how we wanted to create this band,” Branston said.

With a new album in the bag slated for a September release, a new lineup, and a following that is its most dedicated and ravenous to date, 2019 is gearing up to be the Five Alarm Funk’s hottest year yet, a record it seems to be breaking every year. It’s safe to bet the band won’t be any stopping anytime soon, not until its burnt every stage down the ground. The only way to safely put the fire out is for the crowd to embrace its tribal nature, call upon the party gods as one and let it rain sweat. That’s all Five Alarm Funk players could really ask for and it’s all they want.

Tayo Branston

Your band has built itself on having one of the best live shows around, always delivering an incredible spectacle for people. You recently mentioned in a post on Instagram how Saskatchewan Jazz was festival with Too Many Zooz was was one of the most inspiring shows you’ve ever done. Why was that show so inspiring?

We’ve been playing a lot of incredible concerts lately and feeling lucky to be there. Not lucky lucky, because we’ve worked our asses off to be here. But we’ve played that stage before and not had that many people come out. We’re finally getting to a point where we are playing this massive stage in this beautiful scenic area with a couple thousand there to see us play. We got to headline the night. It really made it special. It feels like the momentum of the band is starting to catch notice and do the things we’ve wanted to do for so long. After that moment I was inspired by all the people that came out and made us feel incredible.

What’s it like to finally be hitting a stride after 16 years doing this band?

We started this in 2003. Since 2010, when we did our first big Canadian tour, we’ve been through it all. We’ve played every night for two weeks across Ontario and Quebec playing to minimal to OK crowds. We’ve been through the ringer, we’ve seen the dark side (laughs) and it is extremely hard.

One of my personal goals is to help bands. Arts and culture should be promoted and be very accessible. To be where we are and to understand how we got here and what we need to do to become a success is true value and knowledge. Being able to show appreciation for that is genuine.

Over the last three years people everywhere started to believe in us, a switched got turned. They believed enough we weren’t just an amazing party band, we are an amazing band.

 What were you like at the very beginning?

We always wanted to be a great funk band that didn’t cater to just funk music. We were a lot of the same when we started out but we weren’t as good at playing together. We didn’t write as cohesive songs, we hadn’t created our brand of music yet. We didn’t know how we wanted our stage show to go. The last 15 years has been the evolution of creating exactly how we want to move, sound and portray ourselves, interact with our fans and make it the best for us.

We kind of got pigeonholed as this ruckus party band that you couldn’t take seriously because we were dancing around with sharks and doing stuff onstage. We’ve just honed it to where it’s now, ‘wait this isn’t just a crazy party band, this is a crazy show that is happening.’

Walking into the new album, did you have a sound you wanted to chase? Did you have a sound that you thought was going to come out?

Going into this record was a little different. We write the songs, we tour them and then we decide what’s going to be on the record. This time we had three songs written and so we knew we had to write and create and then go into the studio without touring. Definitely we took it more into a less aggressive place, very funky and danceable. There’s still a lot of crazy things going on, but there isn’t that heavy-metal edge that some of our earlier stuff has.

It feels like a natural, super-fun sound. Let’s get back to how we wanted to start as a band. Let’s write some funk songs with a little bit of that ska vibe, a little bit of that world and Afrobeat vibe. Super happy with it, definitely our best record we’ve ever made.

 Can you point to anywhere on the album where you grew as a musician? 

Yes, a song called “Big Smoke.” Our guitar player Gabe was in school, so we were running around with a different guitar player on tour. But we came back and he had written this song — he had it all arranged and written. He started playing it and I started thinking about what was something I could play that wasn’t too crazy and could sit in the pocket. There are breaks everywhere and it is extremely technical and super heady and still very vibey. In my head, I’m thinking there is no way in hell I can pull this off and make it tight.

It took quite a lot of rehearsing. We don’t rehearse charts because our mentality is that you never truly learn the song and you get stuck doing the same thing even though something else could be different. Go with the flow, follow your heart and you’ll memorize the tune. It took a decent amount of time for me to get comfortable with. I kinda had the fear the first time I listened to it, though it has now dissipated and it is now my favorite song to play.  Whenever it is coming up next in the set I start to get really excited cause I love playing it.

You are an instrumental band for the most part. Do you think about the personal emotions you are putting into a song or what emotions you think people draw from your songs? You can really only express yourself in music, you don’t have lyrics to convey your emotions.

Generally when we write tunes it is not emotions based, like I’m sad and I’m going to write a sad tune. It is more based on an idea or a concept. Like the song “Freight Train” was based around the idea that the song wants to feel like a train, wants to sound like a train. A lot of our album “Abandoned Earth” was I wanted to sit down and write this psychotic movie of an album, so I came up with these defining points in this movie that was running in my head. We wrote songs that tailored to the visual constructs of that movie.

For these newer tunes, our guitar player Oliver wrote a song called “Chaos is a Ladder.”  His concept for this song is that is starts in total simplicity and builds toward total chaos, so he wrote it in a way that the music takes you on a journey of an idea. We go that route because we write a lot of music together and when we are together we are having fun. It’s not a singer-songwriter type deal where you are delving into a personal matter that you are trying to portray to the crowd. We are portraying fun and excitement. It has to have energy, it has to have movement, it has to pique your interest when it comes to the arrangements and musicality.

You had the opportunity to play for the military overseas in Africa. What was it like playing in West Mali?

It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It’ll last with me forever. It took us three days to transit there. Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to France, France to Senegal and then we were on a military plane to fly us into a warzone.

Once on the base it was helmets off and everyone was very friendly. The Canadian soldiers were so much fun, they were doing karaoke for us and some were smoking good. We felt like a family. There were Dutch and German soldiers as well, I believe.

Our sleep cycles were totally destroyed, we were only on the base for two days. I remember not being able to sleep a wink at night, trying to go to bed at 2 in the afternoon to get a couple hours sleep. I was totally sleep deprived, our stomachs felt weird from the malaria pills. First day we got a tour of the place, kind of got to relax and adjust. Second day we got to play a concert on the back of a semi-truck with a giant Canadian flag behind us. It was pretty unreal. They loved the show. We really brought a light-hearted spirit to what can be a serious situation. —

— Garrett Bethmann

  • The Brews, Jazz and Funk Fest is this weekend in The Village at Squaw Valley.
  • Cover: $10 Beer: $5, there will be 35 craft beers on sale. Well behaved dogs on a leash are welcome.
  • Sunday’s lineup: Five Alarm Funk: 6-8 p.m.; The Humidors: 4-5:30 p.m.; Jelly Bread 2-3:30 p.m.; Reno Jazz Syndicate 3:30-6 p.m. on the First Street Stage

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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