If you've seen Funky Unkle in a live setting, you know a couple things. First, they know how to get a room moving. And second, there's a lot of them. Nine members, to be exact. A stage can barely contain them.
The instrumental funk collective met while most of its players were music students at Eastern Washington University, either studying music education or getting degrees in performance. Future Funky Unkle saxophone player Austin Long got the project rolling, and it started when he began transcribing songs by the funk-jam band Lettuce in his free time.
The intention was to start a cover band, he says: "I didn't even really think about writing originals."
"That's why we put it together, because we were all backing [other] people," says drummer Kenny Sager. "We were like, 'Let's make our own goddamn band.'"
Funky Unkle began playing in earnest in late 2016, with their first show at nYne in January of 2017. It was a change of pace for most of them, because they were so used to serving as background players or being called in by other artists for one-off appearances. Now they get to take the spotlight in a band of their own, and they're celebrating the release of their first album, appropriately titled Funkle, this weekend.
Recorded in just three days at the local Amplified Wax Studios, Funkle was the product of the band saving up the money they were making from gigs, and they raised an additional $3,000 through a Kickstarter fund.
"Recording an album is so special, and it's so cool when you get to do that with your friends," says percussionist Bailey Sager. "I wish everybody could experience it."
The album features 10 tracks of original compositions they've accumulated over the years, and it's an audio document of how much they've improved as a group since they started playing as Funky Unkle.
"It's not that our first few gigs weren't good, but if we listened to them now, it'd be rough," Long says. "As we played more together and figured out our style, it got a lot better."
"It was this cool, almost nostalgic feeling," says Bailey Sager of getting back together with old friends. "We were playing in college, all of us together, and then we kind of went on with our lives, then realized that that was something that we really missed. So getting back together, it felt the same as in college. We didn't skip a beat."
Having nine members can prove difficult for purely logistical reasons: When you're setting up a show, for instance, you have to find a date, time and place that works for everybody. But playing with a lot of people also means that the grooves are more locked in, more disciplined.
"You've just gotta know your role," Kenny Sager says. "There's a little bit less freedom in a nine-piece, because three people looking to communicate a new idea is way easier than trying to get nine people on board."
And although the songs themselves are written and structured in advance — Long typically puts the basic parts to paper, then allows each section of the band to play around with them — elements of improv and jamming sometimes sneak in when the band is performing live.
"It's like improvisation in slow motion," Long says.
"We want people to dance. That's how we know we're doing our job," Bailey Sager says. "Funk music, you can't help but move to. So if people are moving to it, that's how I know we found it. If people are just kind of standing there and not doing anything, I know I haven't found the groove yet." ♦
Funky Unkle Album Release with Jason Perry • Sat, Jan. 18 at 9 pm • $8-$10 • 21+ • Lucky You Lounge • 1801 W. Sunset Blvd. • lucky-youlounge.com