By Noah Hubbell
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Dave Watts released the reins for the Motet's latest album. According to the drummer and founder of the Boulder-based band, writing and recording tracks for the new record was much different from the creative process on past efforts. Whereas those featured a revolving cast of musicians led by a single, steady bandleader, this new, fittingly self-titled album is the work of a collective in which every player contributes. "I had to do a lot of letting go," admits Watts. "It was definitely a transition."
Indeed, the notion of deferring to the group and cultivating a more singular focus represents a big change for Watts, a Boulder transplant from Boston who started the band in 1999. He was the leader while the Motet built up a following in Colorado and beyond, on tours with a diverse array of acts like the Trey Anastasio Band and the Jennifer Hartswick Band. The group's loose structure carried it through the 2000s and the recording of albums such as Dig Deep, from 2009.
But all of that changed about three years ago, when the Motet's current lineup came together in a way that past iterations hadn't. Musicians stuck around. Live shows started to feature more obscure funk standards as well as a number of original tunes. The band's approach to touring also began to change: Instead of nonstop, scattershot itineraries of travel to cities of all sizes, the group began to focus on specific dates in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
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It was this focused effort that made the bandmembers question the Motet's longtime model. According to guitarist Ryan Jalbert, who joined the band nearly ten years ago, what started as a slow shift eventually ended in a commitment to make a new kind of Motet record.
"We were like, 'What are we doing here?'" Jalbert recalls. "We were playing gigs, having fun, and the music sounds good. Why don't we just go in 100 percent? Let's write a record, make a record, and let things really start to come together. It's a new Motet."
"This is the most devoted lineup we've ever had," says bassist Garrett Sayers of his mates — Watts, Jalbert, keyboardist Joey Porter, vocalist Jans Ingber and horn players Matt Pitts and Gabe Mervine. "In the past, we've had members who've been half in and half out," explains Sayers, who's played with the act since 2002. "We're at a point now where the band consists only of people who really want to do this. This is our career."
After sketching out the basic ideas for The Motet's nine tracks at Watts's home studio, the group laid down the self-produced tracks at Immersive Studios in Boulder and Scanhope Sound in Littleton. The songs hark back to vintage work by funk giants like Parliament-Funkadelic and Motown maestro Stevie Wonder. Songs like "123" feature lyrics praising Colorado's party scene on top of smooth horn lines, soulful bass stretches and syncopated keyboard solos. Even the more experimental, psychedelic sections of tunes like "Rynodub" have a solid anchor in steady 4/4 beats and danceable bass lines.
"It's less world music, less Afro-Cuban stuff," Porter explains, noting the departure from the Motet's past releases, including Dig Deep, which feels more like an experiment designed in and for the studio. On that record, Watts shows his creative signature in the songs driven largely by percussive leads. "That style of composition resonates with me, so a lot of my originals have that African vibe," he says. Some songs from the album never even made it to the band's live shows. "I basically had these guys show up to my house," says Watts. "I recorded them and then put the whole thing together."
But The Motet, declares Porter, "is a funk record. To play funk music, it's not all about being technical. It's about being able to feel the rhythm. Not all musicians have that. In fact, most very technical musicians can't play funk music. It's kind of like one or the other. There are some guys who can shred and play funky, but for most guys who can play funky, that's their thing."
These guys have no problem bringing it, as evidenced by the tunes on The Motet, which have an obvious anchor in the lush musical legacy of late-'70s and early-'80s funk. There are brash horn lines, warm keyboard lines and guitar riffs thick with pedal effects. Add in vocals about throwing up hands and parties that never end, and you get a celebratory, vibrant feel throughout the entire album. What's more, all of the sound contours on this record sound like they've been produced by analog amps, pedals and keyboards.
That final aesthetic, says Sayers, has a lot to do with the musicians' training. All of the players have deep roots in jazz, an art form that demands immediate creation in the form of improv. A lot of the horn lines, guitar riffs and drum fills on this record started that way over the past two years — as spontaneous creations finalized on stage.
"Funk is one of the styles that is not jazz, yet it incorporates improvisation," Sayers explains. "It fits where we're all coming from."