The Motet, a funk/jam outfit founded more than fifteen years ago in Boulder as the Dave Watts Motet, is well known around the country for its celebrated Halloween shows, when the band puts on a "musical costume" and plays songs from a classic artist, ranging from Prince to Michael Jackson. This year the theme is "Mixtape 1975," with the group playing songs from 1975 all Halloween weekend, headlining Thursday and Friday night at the Boulder Theater and Saturday at the Ogden before embarking on an extended fall/winter tour that will focus more on original material.Outside of the somewhat insular jam-band scene, the Motet is still a relative unknown, but that's changing as the band refines its vision. In recent years, the Motet has honed its initial sound -- a somewhat spacey, jammy take on Afrobeat -- into a tight, slick version of what drummer and bandleader Watts calls "classic funk."
Over coffee and juice on the rooftop deck of Amante Coffee on Baseline Road, with the Flatirons looming and the bright Boulder sun beating down, Watts and guitarist Ryan Jalbert, who has been with the Motet since 2005, talk about capitalizing on notoriety in a heralded cover band while growing an identity as purveyors of original funk music.
Adam Perry: What do you remember about the Motet's early days in Boulder?
Dave Watts: Our first gig was a Mountain Sun Halloween party, just a little warehouse in Boulder. We used to do a lot of acid-jazz kinda things -- jazz tunes with funk beats. Boulder was different twenty years ago; there were a lot of mid-sized venues, way more of a local scene that I think was growing bands. I think a lot of that's moved to Denver. Things always shift and move different ways. We're just lucky that it hasn't faded out.
We wouldn't be nearly as successful if we weren't from Colorado. It's the good life. The audience here supports music any night of the week. Having this really strong home base has allowed us to go out and play shows and tours, even if they aren't financially successful, and come back and build it up again. That's really important. I knew that when I moved out here twenty years ago, and it's only grown since, especially in Denver.
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How did you decide early on how much of what the Motet would perform would be covers or originals?
We would do a decent amount of original music from various players, and I would write a decent amount of original music, but my forte is really arranging, and putting together material from other people in the band or from my influences. Fela Kuti is one of my biggest influences. So it wasn't really a defined process of how much we were gonna have of this or that; it was just kind of organic.
Now we're trying to keep things a little more focused with what we're going for, [which is] influenced a lot by old-school funk. Our Halloween shows have been a big influence over the years, so that's sort of osmosed into our songwriting. Earth, Wind & Fire is a huge influence. Parliament-Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder -- all that music's kinda crept into our writing.
What's your relationship with the jam-band scene like?
It's hard to say what a jam band is; there's really a jam audience. We're happy to play for whatever audience embraces us. Certainly being from Colorado, playing music where you improvise and playing music that's dance-oriented -- those three things, you're gonna get a jam audience coming to see you. Which is fine with us -- I mean, we like an active, kinetic experience when we're playing; we're into an audience that dances. But we're pretty open-minded to whatever audience wants to embrace our sound.
You've played Jam Cruise a few times. What's it like being, well, stuck on a boat with all those people on drugs?
Ryan Jalbert: You know, there's places to escape to.
DW: It's a big boat.
RJ: There's lots of places to find some solitude.
DW: It's true. The integration between fan and band is more tightly knit than at any other festival, but we're right there with 'em, partying and having a good time. It's a pretty cool experience, because no one's really making a big deal about it, and I think the audience is a little more professional about their partying.It's expensive, right? There must be a lot of lawyers and dentists partying at Jam Cruise.
DW: Oh, yeah, you're not getting the scrappy ones at Jam Cruise.
RJ: For sure. It's professional partiers. People go on the boat with money, and they're just throwing down. And there's really no backstage area for the bands, so it's special like that; everyone's just mixing and talking.
The Motet played Red Rocks a few times this past summer [opening for Umphrey's McGee and serving as Big Gigantic's backing band]. What goes through your mind on stage at Red Rocks?
RJ: With Red Rocks, it's funny; I think it looks bigger from the crowd. It's huge and massive and kind of intimidating, but it's also intimate, which is why I think so many artists love it and why it's so special. Honestly, I didn't really have many thoughts besides, "Wow, this is so fun."
DW: It feels more intimate when you're on stage than when you're in the audience. And it feels comfortable.
How did you get interested in the whole Halloween thing?
DW: Oh, man, that goes back. I think this is our fourteenth. The first one we did was a set of Beatles tunes. We've always picked our favorite songs from whatever artist we're covering. But the year we did Herbie Hancock at the Fox  -- that really made an impression. It was just a great vibe and scene, and we realized we could keep doing it and it was gonna work for us. We didn't realize it would get this over the top, though.
1975 is pretty rich -- how about some Bruce Springsteen, or the Ramones?
DW: No [laughs]. We can be a little narrow-minded, I have to admit, with our choices. So, like, Bruce? Meh -- not so much. Parliament-Funkadelic? Yes. We're gonna lean more toward the funk and disco side.
Have you ever thought of going completely out there and doing something like a Sex Pistols set?
DW: I personally would like that, but it's tough to convince the rest of the band [laughs].
RJ: Yeah, there are seven of us, so our choices are whittled down. Plus, we're inviting people to a dance party, too. When we did "Funk Is Dead," we took some of the [Grateful Dead] tunes that weren't really slammin' dance-party hits and rearranged them to be more like Earth, Wind & Fire. So there are other bands we can kind of rearrange to sort of write new parts for.
Have you learned over the years what works and what doesn't work as far as choosing covers?
DW: Doing these shows has taught us to not only come up with these great parts for classic tunes, but also how to manipulate them for a live experience. You can explore it. For me, as an arranger, it's been really eye-opening. Last year I tried to do a mash-up between "Fool in the Rain" and "Babylon Sisters," and it was just like, "All right, sometimes you just can't mix two worlds together like that." So you try it and move on. I think that's pretty important for growth. We're not so conservative that it has to be perfect every time, and that's true for our original stuff, too.
How do you balance learning all these cover songs with keeping your identity as an original band?
DW: That's tricky.
RJ: Well, one way to balance that is to put out a record, which we did [February's The Motet, the band's first new album in five years]. We did the Halloween shows, which were successful, and the promoters wanted us to take the shows on the road. So we really had to kind of get a record out with our own music, which was influenced by these shows, to let people know what we're really about. But it's just really useful learning all this music and getting inside it and writing our own. I think people respect that.
DW: This is our third time on Jam Cruise, for example, and the first two times, we did covers shows. The first time was Jamiroquai, the second was "Funk Is Dead," and this is our first time on Jam Cruise doing our own stuff. We're moving in that direction, starting to transition.
How does the audience change on Halloween?
DW: Well, there's a lot of eye candy, because everyone's dressing up. That's part of the experience: We're putting on a musical costume, everyone's getting dressed up, and it just adds to a certain vibe for the night when everyone's decked out in funky garb. It creates a certain energy in the crowd. People are super-excited about being there; it's almost like people aren't as focused on the particular artist we're covering, because they just know it's gonna be a dance party.
And here in Colorado, the enthusiasm level is generally higher. People are healthy, so they like to dance and show their enthusiasm vocally and physically. We're a little spoiled like that.
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