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U.S. Pipe gets funkier than an old batch of collard greens

Chris Sauthoff has learned a thing or two from George Clinton.

Working alongside the legendary godfather of funk, first in the studio and then on the road, the U.S. Pipe leader, who goes by the name Citrus, picked up a few studio tricks that he used on his band's self-titled full-length. Brushing off leaves from the stairs of Fat City, the same East Colfax studio in which he laid down guitar tracks for a Clinton tune called "Sloppy Seconds" nearly a decade ago, Sauthoff recounts the experience. During the sessions, Belita Woods was evidently having a hard time singing, so Gary Shider told Gary Cooper to go in the room and "ghost" her.

"I was like, 'What is he talking about?'" Sauthoff recalls. "But that's just what he did. He went and got in the corner, and he just whispered lyrics. And then she's like, 'I just need somebody to be with me.' It just added energy instead of notes, and just the spirit of being together made it cooler."

Sauthoff did the same thing when Missy Gutreuter was recording vocal tracks for the new record. "All I did was go in the room and sat on the floor," he explains, "and I just whispered the lyrics with her. I wasn't singing, but just that energy to be in there. And then she got it pretty quick after that."

Sauthoff began working with Clinton in the mid-'90s, when the latter was in town for a show at the Ogden. During his stay, Clinton stopped by Fat City. After adding his guitar parts in the studio, Sauthoff spent a decade touring with Clinton, handling everything from running lights, tuning and repairing guitars to stage and production managing to working the merch table. And he wasn't just behind the scenes; he frequently performed with Clinton on stage, as well.

Now, ten years later, Sauthoff is poised to be at the helm of the studio where he first worked with the funk icon. After sitting vacant for a number of years, the studio is about to be operational again thanks to owner Darnel Studemeyer, who offered Sauthoff the chance to run the basement recording facility. Sauthoff is just now settling in over at Fat City; before that, he and the other members of U.S. Pipe were holed up in Evergreen working on United Sound Pipe with Chris Cardone at his Area Five Point One studio. While all the rhythm tracks, including bass and guitar, were cut in two days, it took an additional eight months to record vocals and horns and then to mix and master the album. Boulder-based David Glasser, who's mastered more than sixty Grammy-nominated albums, made the album pop and sound a lot bigger.

Glasser had plenty to work with. Taking a few cues from the way Clinton works, the band thickened things up a lot by doubling or tripling parts. Gutreuter sang three different parts on some of the songs. But they didn't just cut and paste parts in ProTools, Sauthoff points out; they fattened up the tunes by actually recording additional tracks.

Although the record marks Sauthoff's recorded debut, the guitarist is a longtime veteran of the scene. Before he began touring with Clinton, he lent his fretwork to Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass. It was the Lord himself, in fact, who coined his nickname.

"He said, 'Man, you play so juicy, I'm gonna call you Citrus!'" Sauthoff recalls. Fittingly, United Sound Pipe is soaked through with Sauthoff's juicy riffage. As he recorded his parts, he constantly thought about what different P-Funk players, like Blackbyrd McKnight or Gary "Mudbone" Cooper or Cardell "Boogie" Mosson, might do. One of the album's standout cuts, "Writa Man," has a part inspired by Mosson.

"I was nodding to all them," Sauthoff reveals, "and to Zappa and Hendrix. I was definitely trying to play like a lot of people, 'cause they all influenced me. I wasn't trying to copy anybody, but I was definitely trying to give some nods out to different people that I love. But those tricks, everything we did, was partially some stuff I learned from P-Funk, like doing the bunch of tracks and not letting vocals just sit there."

Considering Sauthoff's love for Clinton's music, it's not surprising that U.S. Pipe covers his songs live. Just the same, the tunes the band plays are ones that Clinton and P-Funk don't typically perform, such as "Super Stupid," from Maggot Brain, Funkadelic's classic 1971 album. A killer take of the cut appears on Pipe. Sauthoff says the track, which was added at the last minute, is also a nod to Maggot Brain guitarist Eddie Hazel, who passed away in 1992.

"I love Eddie Hazel," Sauthoff declares. "On one of my last tours, I went out to his gravesite and dropped off some chicken, some vodka, some cocaine, some weed and some various things that he liked. Everyone was telling me that I would really like him, and we always had fun together. We just wanted to nod to him."

Clinton's influence also crept into the song "Smokescreen," which rapper Azma wrote, and which Sauthoff said the band went crazy-weird with. "The meaning of the song, to me, reminded me of 'March to the Witch's Castle,' from Parliament Funkadelic's Cosmic Slop," he notes. "It has that feel, so we try to go musically in that direction some.

"The whole 'March to the Witch's Castle' is when the Vietnam War was over and the real battle began," he continues. "He might have been killing people, but his real war starts when he gets home because of the whole smokescreen or whatever. So we added that in there musically."

While United Sound Pipe owes a lot to Clinton's influence, the band also recruited a longtime member of the P-Funk family to play on the record: Local musician Rick Gardner, who also played with Bootsy's Rubber Band, added some mean trumpet playing on "Shookie." Gardner and U.S. Pipe are in the early stages of planning an album that could include former James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley and Prince trombonist Greg Boyer. In addition to Gardner, a few other notable members of the P-Funk family have contributed to the Pipe, including P-Funk drummer Rico Lewis and bassist Lige Curry, who flew in to perform with the outfit when it first formed in 2005. Aside from those three higher-profile players, forty members have been in the group over the course of its existence.

"I quit counting at 38 members last year," Sauthoff says, noting that a majority have been horn players, vocalists or just friends rolling in to jam. It's taken a while, but he feels like the band is finally starting to lock in. "We're still waiting for it to really feel like it's perfect," he says. "It's going to take more communication, sharing, trust and growth, and time and energy." Drummer Chris Murphy says a key to cohesion is dealing with each other. And with eight people in the current lineup, there's a lot of compromising that needs to happen before things get done.

"Now we're just starting to create more together as a unit," says Gutreuter, "whereas before, everyone was bringing in a full song."

The band isn't the only thing that's evolved over the years. The act truncated its previous handle in favor of the current one a few years ago. "A lot of people never understood what it was about," Sauthoff says. "A lot of people asked what it meant or spelled it wrong. It was funny and it was cool, but it wasn't working."

The previous moniker, U.S. Pipe and the Balls Johnson Dance Machine, was inspired by a scene from Next Friday in which actor John Witherspoon, who plays Ice Cube's father, kicks him out of the house. In the scene, Witherspoon says, "You gotta get out, boy. Me and your mom are gonna get crazy buck wild naked in here. My johnson's gonna be one way, my balls the other. It's gonna be the Balls Johnson dance. I'm gonna be free. I'm gonna let it all out,'" Sauthoff recounts.

"That's what this is," he concludes, "letting this all go. Freedom. My musical experience at that time had been knee-deep in 'Atomic Dog' and 'Maggot Brain,' and these real explicit parts that you could not deviate from and that were not mine. I loved it; it was great. I learned a lot. But it wasn't fulfilling. I felt trapped. But this way, I felt free. That's what it meant to me. It didn't mean a stiff dick. It just meant that it was gonna do its thing...let it go."

Sounds like a sentiment the godfather himself would endorse.