Interview with Wes Stephenson: Wes is Bad! by Steve Gregory
I was gathering up a few things after interviewing Snarky Puppy’s Michael League for our 2012 Bass Musician Magazine interview, when the bassist took my pen and started writing in my notebook:
T-h-e F-u-n-k-y K-n-
I interrupted by exclaiming, “The Funky Knuckles, right?!” Michael smiled and replied, “Wes is bad…you need to check him out!”
I had already heard of Wes Stephenson and the Funky Knuckles and knew Michael to be correct: Wes was (and is) absolutely bad! At the time, I was listening to the As Of Lately, the Funky Knuckles first album. The record features bass-rich tunes such as “Barbosa”, where Wes is funky, explorative, and grooving, all at the same time.
The Funky Knuckles next album, Meta Musica, took the #1 spot for jazz albums on iTunes, on the day it was released. Wes’s playing again anchored the group with his ability to be aggressive without overstepping. “16 Bars”, “Rain Journey”, and “Micro Clown” are good starting points for the uninitiated, each offering a different view into Wes’ bass playing. He has a knack for pushing the envelope, both rhythmically and harmonically, without losing his audience in the adventure.
These funky abilities were honed during time spent in the rich Dallas, Texas music scene. After a surprise diversion toward the instrument, which is best told by Wes in the interview below, he quickly immersed himself in the funky, soulful, and jazzy jam sessions that were available. During this time, Wes developed an apprenticeship with keyboardist Bernard Wright. It should be noted that a similar tale was told in the aforementioned interview with Michael League; the musical guru Wright has obviously placed important fingerprints on those in the Dallas musician community.
To explore further, Wes started The Funky Knuckles with fellow collaborators keyboardist Caleb McCampbell and drummer Cedric Moore. Joined by guitarist Phill Aelony, the quartet began a funky journey of playing constantly and exploring relentlessly.
That journey has now led to the Funky Knuckles’ latest release, New Birth. The album features a “new birth” as a septet, but long-time fans will note that the record sounds like an evolution, also. Wes’ bass still propels, pushes, growls, and sings, while the rest of the group tears through the compositions. The lines between groove and improv are woven together for wonderful results.
If this writer could be so bold to offer; rather, pass along some advice: You need to check out Wes Stephenson and The Funky Knuckles. Wes is bad!
You recently released New Birth, the Funky Knuckle’s third album. This is two years after the last record, Meta Musica, went to #1 on the iTunes jazz chart. Was the two-year period spent writing and arranging?
Well, no, it took two years to save up money to do another record! Most of the material was already there. We have an every-Monday residency that we do here in Dallas. It’s great for us, because we rehearse and get all of the music together and perform it before we record it, so the kinks are kind of worked out.
We are going on tour in September and we got a sub with us because our keyboardist, Caleb, can’t make the first part of the tour. The guy was like, “Man, this stuff is so hard!” It’s like, “Yeah, I know, it takes a minute to get some of that stuff together, ourselves!” It’s good that we have that residency.
Does everyone contribute to the songwriting process?
Not everyone, but it’s open for anyone in the group to write music. On New Birth, five of us contributed music. What we haven’t done yet, is actually write music together as a band. Most of the guys in the band are great writers, so they write this crazy music and bring it to rehearsal and then we learn their tunes.
What do you feel is the mark of evolution for the band on New Birth?
Compositionally, we’re getting better. Hopefully, we’re getting better as musicians. The music is part composition and part improvisation, so hopefully that’s going to greater heights. As a band, we’re becoming more in sync and in tune to each other as improvisers. I don’t know if we’re necessarily trying to do different things, we’re just trying to do better and get better.
Listening to your playing, you stretch both harmony and rhythm when playing with the Funky Knuckles. For example, there are times when you trade “home base” roles with Caleb.
If playing pop, or playing country, or something like that, you gotta play by the rules. But in a situation where it’s wide open to explore, I feel like any note in the chord can be the root. The way that Caleb voices his chords – and it depends a lot on the pianist and how ambiguously they voice their chords – the way Caleb voices his chords always leaves it wide open for me to explore. He jokes about it: about the half the time, actually more than half the time, I’m not playing the root! I’m playing around the root!
I remember that I was on a jazz gig when I was younger and it was [a tune] where it goes to the four, and then four becomes a minor chord. I messed up and instead of playing the minor four chord, I went up a minor third from there. So if it was F major, it went to F minor, but I played an Ab. I was like, “oh shoot – I can do that!” From that point, I started really exploring that.
Rhythmically, I’ve learned so much from Caleb and Ced and my mentor – this guy named Bernard Wright. He’s been a mentor for all of us here in Dallas. I played in a trio with him for four years and that’s where I met Mike [League] and that was a big hub for a lot of people here in Dallas. Bernard played keyboards like drum! Bernard doesn’t drive so after the gig, for four years, I took him home. And I was always, “Hey, what do you think about this?” and “How did you do that?” He talked to me a lot. I think about playing the bass like it’s a drum – I’m just a drum playing with the drums. When I started thinking about things like that, it impressed on me how to play when Ced’s doing all of the drum mathematics. I think, “What can I do, to play through that and make it make sense?”
You’re a Dallas native?
Yes, born and raised!
Growing up in Dallas, what led you to play the bass?
So, I was a punk of a kid, almost to the point where it wasn’t funny. I was headed down an interesting path. When I went into 9th grade, I was going to try to play football. We got done with two-a-days and I was talking with this dude I knew. He was talking about this homie of his that picked up the bass and within two weeks was playing the whole Red Hot Chili Peppers record. We go to this guy’s place – Steven Youngblood, we became friends that day and remain friends – and my friend asked him to show me his bass. He picked up his bass and it was an old Charvel four string. He started playing “Higher Ground” and that was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard in my life! I was like, “I have to do that!”
I left his house and I got hit by a car. It was going 40 mile per hour when it hit me; it was a bad accident! Because of that, I didn’t get to play football. I went down this weird path, but I never forgot that I wanted a bass. I begged my parents and my mom bought me this $100 Memphis bass. Even before that, for about a year I was going to a church and every Wednesday I went to the sanctuary early and played the bass player’s bass, then played the drums, then played the bass again. From that point, I was hooked. I got that first bass and it turned my whole life around. I didn’t even know you could go to college and study music. I had dropped out of school – I went back to school and graduated so that I could go to college and study music.
Let’s talk about the Dallas scene, specifically the music community, mentorship, and learning from others.
One of the community’s heroes – this guy named Gino Iglehart, he was Erykah Badu’s musical director for a long time – he had a rehearsal room where he shedded. He started an independent jam session. There’s an arts high school here that put out a lot of people, Sput [Searight] and that whole Erykah crew. They were super funk, gospel, R&B musicians, but they were also hip to jazz and improvising. That jam session brought them and then kids from North Texas – Mike and the whole Snarky Puppy crew – and a lot of people from a different backgrounds together. It kind of started there. That’s where everyone started meeting one another.
Bernard had a gig with Bobby Sparks, Keith Anderson, and JT Thomas – that was the Roy Hargrove RH Factor band. They would play at this club, maybe twice a month, and a lot of us would go and just go and be in awe with what they were doing. Eventually, we got to play with these people and they took us on. Then going and shedding with everyone, it just became a community. That’s how it all got started.
Who are the bass players from the community that impressed you?
Bobby Sparks is the baddest bass player in the world on a Moog. I have studied everything that he’s ever played bass on. Also Braylon Lacy, who is one of the most incredible bass players I’ve ever heard. Another dude named Nate Robinson, he’s a local guy who is super bad; he plays here, but doesn’t tour.
So, from this scene, you founded the Funky Knuckles?
Ced, Caleb, and I founded it together. I’m the administrator and get things together, but everyone has a voice. But Caleb, Ced, and I started it at our church where we were playing.
The church seems to be a common thread for you – picking up the church bassist’s instrument, meeting the fellow Knuckles there, and so forth. Was the church and the music there a big influence for you?
Yeah, definitely. The church I grew up in was Baptist – a congregational type of music thing. But I started playing in church more in my early 20s. I don’t know how any bass player could listen to gospel music and hear cats like Maurice Fitzgerald or any of those guys and think that’s not cool! I love the music! It’s been a big influence on me.
I think that all of our influences are channeled into the Funky Knuckles. That’s the biggest goal: not to play this type of music or that kind of music, but everything that influences you, let that come out of you in some type of natural way.
So after the initial founding of the Funky Knuckles, what happened?
The first record, Ask Lately, was supposed to be the whole church band. The other two dudes, I ain’t going to say who they and I love them with all of my heart, but they were a little flakey. When the guitar player that was supposed to play cancelled the rehearsal 30 minutes before he was supposed to be there, I called Mark Lettieri. He came over, learned the music, and played on half of the first record. He was the original guitar player, but that was about the time that Snarky Puppy was really taking off and he also wanted to do his own solo thing, so he graciously bowed out. I had subbed in this band called Moosehound and the guitar player was Phill Aelony. He was one of the main writers for that band, too. He was the first person I thought of.
As we were talking about putting all of our influences in, Phill is the exact opposite of a R&B or gospel guitar player! Complete 180. Because of that, I loved his interpretation of the music. From the first time he started playing with us, he’s been an awesome contributor.
So it was a quartet for a long time, but as we were writing more music, it was like, “Caleb only has two hands!” We started adding people. We’ve always had a residency, ever since we started. Frank Moka, our percussionist, played on all of the records, so he’s always been in the mix. Then Ben [Bohorquez, saxophone] and Evan [Weiss, trumpet] started coming out to the weekly residency and playing with us. Those dudes just learned the music! They kind of just morphed into the band.
Two things in your life, the mentor-apprentice relationship with Bernard and the residency that you hold today, are almost “throwback” ideas. How important are they and should be brought back on a greater scale?
For the mentorship, it’s the only reason I am the musician I am today. I had a lot of people hire me for long periods of time in musical situations that I probably wasn’t qualified to be in. Consequently, it allowed me to learn a lot of things about music that I don’t think you can learn by just sitting in your bedroom, practicing.
To tie that in with the residency thing, it’s so important. Playing music with people in a live setting is the biggest teacher. You play with six other guys for four years who are, at the very least at your level, if not better. You’re pushing them and they’re pushing you, in front of people. You can’t help but to get better. We’re always playing music together trying to be the best that we can and to be as sensitive as we can. After doing that for four years, at least once a week, it’s going to leave a mark on your musicianship, I believe.
What’s coming up for the Funky Knuckles?
We just signed with a booking agent, which is incredible because I don’t have to book tours anymore. We have our first West coast tour happening in September. We’re also doing some stuff with Jonathan Scales. We’re going on tour with them in November and he’s going to have Sput on drums and Mono Neon on bass! We’re looking into next year, getting our tour schedule together.
How about for you, personally?
Playing around town and shedding. One thing about Dallas, there’s always a batch of amazing, ridiculous musicians coming up behind you, and it’s inspiring.
What are you shedding on these days?
I think about music as two separate things. There is mechanics: getting your hands to do what your ears are telling them to do. Then, being as creative as possible. I’m not a super technique guy, but I’ve always wanted to play what I’m hearing, which takes a certain amount of facility, which is mechanics. Also being able to hear stuff! When I shed, I just play. I start playing and then when something strikes me that I can’t do, I work on that. I’ve been trying to work on what I was talking about with Bernard, thinking about the bass as a drum. I spent years working on chord-scale relationships, chord changes, and everything, so I’ve been thinking about rhythm and phrasing.
I heard Wynton Marsalis in a concert here in Dallas and then they had an after-hours jam session that he came to. He whupped everyone’s tail, just play root triads – not even extensions, with just rhythm and phrasing! It really made an impression on me. The notes are secondary. If what you’re saying and how you’re saying isn’t slick, or it isn’t funky, or doesn’t have any depth to it, and then the notes don’t mean anything. It has to do more with the rhythm and the phrasing. I’ve working on playing asymmetrical rhythms while the drummer is playing another asymmetrical rhythm and not losing my place and always having a strong sense of the pulse. I’m trying to play comfortably at a super slow tempo or a super fast tempo.
What gear are you currently using?
My amp is the tried and true: Alembic F1-X preamp and a QSC GX7. Alembic is my absolute favorite. Every bass I’ve ever played through it sounds good. That’s what I recorded Mark Lettieri’s record and New Birth, that was my DI. I use a Schroeder 2×12, because I gig a lot and it’s light and it’s super loud. I’ve been in love with CallowHill basses. Tim Cloonan is a Philly dude and a lot of the Philly gospel and R&B guys play them. He just made my first custom bass – it’s an OBS, Owen Biddle plays them. I’m shorter than most of the short people you know and I have big, small hands! My hands are wide, but my fingers are short, so the OBS is awesome because it is comfortable to play really low for me. He makes incredible basses. I have two of them.
In closing, what’s the one unique thing you bring to bass?
The only thing I bring to bass playing is me. My life experiences. I’m not a technique guy; I just try to bring honesty to it. I play what I hear and what I am; I don’t try to do things that aren’t “me”. I just bring honesty to it.
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