It's a buyer's market for jam-band fans as the ranks of musicians with heroic endurance have swelled in the years since the Grateful Dead went belly-up and Phish went on permanent hiatus. Everyone from Les Claypool to that kid down the street is in a group these days. The challenge for today's young acts, then, lies in attracting new listeners (who will inevitably be adorned with kicky, affectionate nicknames) to come to their shows and dance for hours.
With every band in this genre claiming to take listeners on a "journey of sonic exploration," today's emerging noodlers have to come up with new ways to lure audience members. The music of L.A.'s Particle is more organic than that of the Disco Biscuits, less touchy-feely than Sound Tribe Sector Nine's and less ethnic than the Boulder-based Motet's, so the group chooses to appeal to listeners' loins, by designating its sound as "space porn funk." And while it's not technically "funk," the music certainly does the work it sets out to do, which is to get people moving and, more important, coming back for more.
From the outset, Particle has embodied a "nothing but jam" work ethic, playing approximately 150 shows in the eighteen months it has been in existence. The story goes that bassist Eric Gould and drummer Darren Pujalet were playing in a funk cover band with a decidedly un-funky moniker -- Spanakopita -- in October 2000 when they were invited to play a late-night Phish after-party on a boat cruising the San Francisco Bay. They recruited keyboard player Steve Molitz and guitarist Dave Simmons and started writing original pieces. "We wrote our first songs specifically for that late-night boat cruise," explains Molitz. "The songs were received so well that by the end of the night, we all kind of looked at each other and were like, 'Hey, let's keep this cookin', let's write some more tunes.'"
From there, the band began gigging incessantly, until its progress came to a sudden, sad halt. Simmons suffered from severe diabetes, and the physical demands of touring proved to be too much for his body. He passed away on December 8, 2000, just two months after Particle began. "[Simmons] was really a huge inspiration for the band," says Molitz. "He was so good that he forced us to keep pace with him. He was so talented and inspiring that even after he passed away, we all were still running to keep up. Charlie [Hitchcock, Simmons's successor] is the same way. He's such an incredible player that I learn something new every time I play with him."
Particle didn't play again until after the New Year. When the bandmembers returned to performing, they played with renewed vigor and a clear objective: to create an unrivaled live experience, the band's bread and butter. When asked to describe a Particle show, Molitz claims that it's "generally a high-energy experience. We give a lot to the live performance; we really thrive on the intensity generated by the crowd. It's definitely a celebration for us."
What exactly does one celebrate in creating long, improvisational jams? "Just, you know, life and art and emotion, really. The songs are all instrumental, which puts us in the interesting position of having to create an atmosphere without the luxury of lyrics," says Molitz. "We feel like the songs we're playing are sort of stories telling their own tales, and the listener can interpret them however they want."
The opportunities for interpretation change with every gig. Molitz explains that the feeling one gets from a daytime festival performance will be more lighthearted and carefree than a nighttime show, when the band allows itself to explore darker emotions through its music. "We try to keep a really honest spread of emotion in our music. There is excitement and fear and anxiety and tension as much as there is peace and harmony and enlightenment. We really try to offer a wide range of concepts musically, just because we all experience so much of those feelings in real life. Why filter the beauty of life's diversity, really?" Underscoring the concept of diversity are the Puckish multi-media shenanigans of Scott MacKinnon, Particle's own fifth Beatle, who is responsible for the live projections on the wall behind the musicians.
Mixing live cameras, computer graphics and film footage, MacKinnon provides a focal point for audience members who need a little more visual stimulation than four guys jamming on stage. His job is to keep things fresh for both the concertgoers and the musicians. "It's exciting, because he has a lot of improvisational freedom as well, and it keeps us on our toes," says Molitz. "We'll turn around and see NASA footage of a rocket launch, and it'll make us try to pick the pace up and keep up with him."
The combination of dance-friendly jams and compelling eye candy has won over fans, who've come to be known as "Particle People." The band's word-of-mouth campaign, along with its constant gigging, have jettisoned Particle's trajectory. "We're really thankful that the fans of this style of music are so giving and open-minded," says Molitz.
Indeed, there seems to be a willing suspension of disbelief on behalf of the fans who love Particle so dearly. Despite the band's assertion that the styles employed in a live setting range from "high-energy funk" to "ambient psychedelic," there's really not much of musical interest there, no new ground broken. (Maybe this explains the "space porn funk" designation?) While the quartet is definitely funkier than, say, Sting, the music they're playing can't really be considered "funk" in the technical sense: "Funk" music has very precise dimensions and contours that few contemporary acts attempt to replicate (for example, the "on the one" signature, in which the heavy beat is the first beat). Based on today's predominant definition of funk, anyone who employs a certain time signature and syncopation accented with fat bass-guitar licks is playing funk music. So how does Particle stack up to Parliament or Bootsy Collins?
"You can definitely come to a Particle show and get a pure dose of funk," Molitz states confidently. "Pretty much anytime you hear a sound or a song that has that down-and-dirty, gritty 'Let's get it on' kind of feeling, call it funk, regardless of the style it is. It makes you want to dance, makes you want to get down."
After hearing Particle's music, one local funk expert has a lot to say. "I'm thinking using the term 'funk' is primarily music critics' fault. In a pinch to categorize the often uncategorizable, they throw this term, which has come to mean a stylistic mishmash more than a recognizable genre of music," says Mr. Wiggles the Worm, host of Radio 1190's funk show, Music on the One (which airs Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.). "Plus, it's a term that is so much more user-friendly than 'fusion'" -- very clinical, who wants to party to that? -- "or 'avant-garde,'" scary and unmarketable. "'Funky' does not equal 'the Funk.' Lots of very funky things have nothing to do with funk."
But innocent misuse of a highly abused musical term is forgivable enough when it comes to an excited, if somewhat naive, group that is passionate about its music. And as everyone's grandmother used to say, there's a lid for every pot, and Particle does not seem to be wanting for lids. In the short span the band has existed, the venues hosting it have evolved from late-night boats to the esteemed Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, a three-day jamfest featuring headliners Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio, String Cheese Incident and Ben Harper, to name a few.
In addition to the current tour, Particle is looking forward to logging some studio time and putting together a live record. "We all care a lot about making records, because they're just that: They're records of history, recording those moments in time," says Molitz. "We've just been focusing on the live shows so that we can really feel the music out and explore our own instruments as individuals so that when it comes time to record, we know exactly what we want. After a year and a half, we all have a lot cooking and a lot on our minds, and we're definitely ready to put something down."
For the time being, it's more of the same: touring, touring and more touring. Word has it on the ParticleFlux mailing list that the band is incorporating new songs with new influences (including gospel) into the set list, which means that Particle is poised to do some exciting things, musically, which will make the fans' -- and the band's -- journey that much more interesting.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.