Vulfpeck keeps the funk on its own terms

By Arts & Culture Editor

With a mix of freewheeling funk and top-notch humor, Vulfpeck—the self-proclaimed half-Jewish post-geographic rhythm section—is quickly making a name for itself as one of the most original independent groups to watch. 

Vulfpeck leader Jack Stratton decided to start the band while attending University of Michigan as a hypothetical rhythm section. The band now features multi-instrumentalists Stratton and Theo Katzman, as well as bassist Joe Dart and organist Woody Goss. Thanks to Stratton’s unorthodox sense of business and the band’s humorous videos—not to mention its funky songs—Vulfpeck has garnered high-profile gigs, including a stint on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and a recently announced Bonnaroo performance.

In March 2014, the band released Sleepify—an album consisting of 10 silent tracks. The thinking was that if every Vulfpeck fan streamed the album overnight on Spotify, the band would be able to raise enough money to crowd-fund a free tour. The album—no longer on Spotify—raised almost $20,000 and funded Vulfpeck’s 2014 Sleepify Tour. The band also released its first full-length album Thrill of the Arts in October 2015.

The Chronicle spoke with Stratton about Vulfpeck’s status as an independent band, how he likes collaborating with his favorite artists and how he sees the group’s future.

THE CHRONICLE: How did Vulfpeck get its start? 

JACK STRATTON: I read an article about [producer] Reinhold Mack, and [realized] I was a huge fan of this guy and I didn’t even know it. These kinds of people behind the scenes are the people I really gravitate toward. So, I started constructing this myth that we were his rhythm section. We set up this recording date—a friend of ours was doing a session in the [University of Michigan] studio. I pitched everyone the idea and the name of the band. They probably all thought it was just a one-and-done session. Then the videos started doing well, and we just started to grow and spend more time as the fan base started to grow, which was my plan all along. 

What are the benefits of living in different cities from the other band members?

We’re very efficient when we’re together, and all of our time is pretty much spent recording music or performing. We’ve [able] to perform without rehearsing. That’s a throwback in a way. Most of my favorite songs were recorded that way. They were called “hit sessions,” and that meant you’d just show up to the studio with your instrument and learn the tune and record it that day. That’s how the David T. Walker/ Jackson 5 stuff happened and all the Al Green stuff. We don’t have time to rehearse [during] the year, and we prefer to do it this way, anyway. I was in an improv comedy troupe at [Michigan]. All we’d do was practice, and our shows ended up horribly because we rarely did them. So that’s what I brought to Vulfpeck. We want to be good on stage and react quickly to stuff—not just try to play the tightest possible set and build up the muscle of rescuing train wrecks.

What is it like to play with your favorite artists?

It’s definitely a perk to have these people say they’re up for it. I would try to make it happen before there was a lot of interest in the group. You’d really have to badger some of these artists and try to prove yourself. But now, people like Charles [Jones] or Blake [Mills] or Antwaun [Stanley] are all just an email away. Now we have this fan base, and it’s easier to play with the best musicians in the country—it’s definitely a major perk of growing as a band. It fits in with our identity as a rhythm section where we get to feature whomever we want.

Is being an independent band beneficial?

Bands coming up need to know that owning their master rights is extremely important, especially in the next decade. There used to be money in songwriting, and now the songwriting royalties are really bad on streaming services. If you own the masters, you can do all right on streaming. We proved that with Sleepify. Those songwriting royalties used to be the only equity in a record a musician could fight over. I’m in [Los Angeles] now, and once a month I’ll meet with someone who wants to talk about Vulf, and all these people talk about is Chance [The Rapper] and Macklemore. All the industry people have more respect for the independent people. It’s bizarre.

Is there any type of luxury with being a multi-instrumentalist?

The main complaint of drummers is that they aren’t able to work the stage like a guitarist. You get it all with the ability to move around a bit. A fun tidbit about us is that Theo and myself—our best instrument is bass, but we’ve never touched it with Joe Dart on stage; there’s just no reason to. There’s a short list of bands that can do that. The Band comes to mind; they switched around a little, and I always thought that was so cool.

How would you describe your compression software—the Vulf Compressor—in simple terms?

Compression really is the salt of music mixing. It’s the ultimate tool of a mix engineer and the Vulf Compressor is a really boutique, top-shelf Himalayan pink sea salt. This can really change the direction of a song. It’s kind of a one-trick pony in the best sense, in that it gives our songs a really distinct sound and some people will just put it on the entire track. It’s been a really cool addition to people finding out about Vulfpeck through this plugin. I really believe in it. We would not be selling it or commanding that price if it wasn’t a total game changer.

What is the origin of your character Mushy Krongold?

It’s clearly inspired by The Jerky Boys character Sol Rosenberg who would do prank calls. A roommate and I would do prank calls to pass the time at Michigan. We developed this breathier Sol Rosenberg—a bit higher in the range and not as aggressive. I was talking to my dad about names for the character. He came up with the name Krongold and I had Mushy and I just thought, ‘Oh, the name Mushy Krongold is just poetry.’ I started doing the sketch videos as Mushy. If you look really hard, there’s a failed Kickstarter page for Mushy somewhere out there. It was a little half-baked of an idea, but the idea was that Mushy was going to do these fake documentaries around Cleveland. It’s kind of in his character to have a horribly failed Kickstarter when you think about it. But, it’s all part of the art piece. I’m going to do some more Mushy soon. We had him doing the meditation at the end of [Thrill of the Arts]. He’s kind of going JewBu—kind of Jewish Buddhist. So, we’ll see where that goes from there.

What does the future hold for Vulfpeck?

We want to do an album a year for the next three years and just kind of Wild-Westin’ it. The idea of going out for three months would really jeopardize that record-making. So, we’re going to do these cool festivals and awesome Vulf shows. But, as far as a full-on U.S. bus tour, I’m opposed to that right now. Other guys in the band would like to do that, but we’re all negotiating constantly to try to maintain our enthusiasm, which is essential to the record making.