Funktronica Jams: An Interview with Freekbass of Headtronics

Freekbass explains the "funktronica" sound and discusses his work with Headtronics, who recently appeared at Moogfest.

Freekbass arrived at Moogfest in October with a different Headtronics trio than usual, which is just part of the footprint for the band. He’s a protégé of legendary funk bassist/singer/songwriter Bootsy Collins, and in Asheville, Freekbass was hanging out with another legend, the “Wizard of Woo” Bernie Worrell of P-Funk. DJ Spooky was enlisted to take the place of DJ Logic but this seemed perfect, since he’s the one who appeared in the Moog documentary along with Worrell. Every show is start to finish improv, all crazy funk with bass, electronic beats and keyboards--no matter who is playing the show.

Are you enjoying Moogfest? Is there anyone you want to see?

Oh yeah, definitely. I want to actually see [DJ] Spooky’s own set. I’m also excited to see Dan Funk who is a Los Angeles DJ kind of musician and I love really where he’s coming from, his whole headspace and what he’s doing. So we’re just trying to squeeze in as much on this Halloween as we can, you know?

Tell me about your Funktronic sound.

Well we came up with that word. There’s obviously the electronica music scene, which is huge, and then there’s the jam band scene. So it’s combining that--a lot of people have been using "jamtronica" for a little bit. But we’re coming from the organic side, from a funk sensibility which is kind of where my roots are obviously. Bernie’s roots, that needs not to be said, and then you mix the electronic in with it too. We started playing a few shows and a little catchphrase started catching on--"funktronica--and I thought that’s a pretty cool word. It seems to really match what we were doing.

And when was this?

Headtronics has only been out touring since April of 2010 so we’re a fairly new band. It’s a side project for everybody. DJ Logic and I were playing a festival together and he had me come up on a set and jam with him. Stephen Molitz, who’s the keyboard player, was there too so he played and we just ended up jamming all the time. We thought, "Let’s go on the road with this". It’s always a logistical nightmare because all three of us have our own booking agents, managers, and stuff, so getting one week where everybody’s scheduled isn't easy. That’s kind of how Moogfest happened. Steve Molitz couldn’t do it because he’s out with his band called Particle so I know Bernie because of Bootsy, so I was like, "Hey, Bernie could you come and do this?" Logic had worked with Bootsy too, so then we had Headtronics with the Logic/Freekbass/Bernie version. When they called about Moogfest, we’re like, “This is great!” You know, of course, Bernie had to be involved with it being about Moog. So I called up and said “Hey Logic, guess what?” And he’s like, “Ah man, I’m out in San Francisco playing a jazz festival out there”. I’m like “Agh!” So long story short, we found out Spooky was here and his beats are sort of in the same sensibility as Logic’s are--it was the perfect storm.

The band as you said is a side project and it’s also set up to have special guests, which is part of the jam sensibility with the funk thrown in. Talk about that structure--does it give you more freedom?

I love it. All Headtronics shows are one hundred per cent improvised. Everybody’s always like, “Come see our show, it will be different tonight!” And with us it’s for real. Then--not to sound cornball--but in a way it’s almost like the audience dictates what you do and how you move. Is a song going to be three minutes or is it going to be twenty? We could play one song for the whole hour set tonight, or we could play three ten-minute songs or whatever. That’s what’s kind of exciting about it. With my own band, I jump around and get a little crazy onstage but with this band I’m a little more centered. But I’ll tell you, I’m worn out after a Headtronics show. In a good way though, because you’re always having to almost think one step ahead the whole time. I love it, because it’s very challenging. I can also start bringing a lot of those sensibilities to in my own band and other projects--it keeps all that fresh as well. It’s just a great thing.

We started Headtronics to do a show here and a show there. Now we’re starting to do shows more and more regularly, and it’s getting more exciting because the band’s getting bigger. With all these different players we have coming in, it’s almost like the Rhythm Devils where it’s Mickey Hart’s project with Bill Kreutzmann from the Dead and then they have a cast of characters that change. It’s a different dynamic each time you go see the band live. And by default Headtronics is essentially me, DJ Logic, and Steve Molitz; that’s the crux of the band. But we can do different variations of it--as long as it keeps in that funktronica sensibility.

Do you see a CD or a recording on the road?

For sure, definitely. Like I said, the show’s all improvised but when you play with the same players you remember that one little idea you had, so certain ideas start creeping into every show. So we’re starting to kind of get certain songs that are kind of quote-unquote songs. In the studio, the one thing Logic and I are talking about is when we do record a CD, we want to try to duplicate what we do on stage. Whether doing an actual live CD, which we haven’t really decided on, or if we do it in the studio, it should sound the same where Logic will start a beat and I’ll do my bass line and Steve or Bernie or whoever’s doing keyboards will add their craziness on top. It needs to really capture that.

Have you always played the bass and how did you pick it up?

Well, I started off as a drummer. So I was a drummer for a long time; it’s kind of my approach even to the bass. Then I moved over to guitar until I saw a bass player and I thought how it’s the best of both worlds! It’s like a drum you can play notes with! I started playing drums when I was about ten or eleven and then picked up bass around fourteen. I still play a lot of drums and guitar, plus a little bit of keyboards and stuff. But bass is definitely my instrument--I mean with a name like Freekbass, it’s got to be bass. It would be kind of silly if I played guitar, now wouldn’t it?

Tell me about your signature bass–how did that come about?

The bass itself is what it is called a “one two three up.” The neck is a one and if you can see, it goes into a two and then a three pointing straight up. We actually used to use that symbol, not as a bass necessarily, but on our posters when we first kind of started playing shows. We were playing a show down in Mississippi; I think it was there, where we met this guitar [maker] Luther. He’d done guitar for a couple of guys in Train and did one of Yoakum’s guitars and he was at a show where we were hanging out after the show talking about the symbol we used on our posters. He said how we should make that symbol into a bass. I told him that would look pretty wicked, could you do it? I’ve got three CDs out and for each CD I’ve got a bass “one two three”. So the one on my stage I’m playing tonight is my second one, that’s actually on Junkyard Waltz.

And what about the custom amp?

Yeah, I have an endorsement with this company called Kustom and they were doing this line called Groove Bass Amp. When they launched the amp, they got in touch with me and asked me if I wanted to be an endorser for it, be the crazy cat that would be the guy to help sell it or whatever. I use a ton of effects and sometimes I’m playing higher stuff, sometimes I’m playing lower traditional bass stuff. Not to sound too music techie, but the nice thing about the rig is that it’s got a ton of low end and you also get a lot of definition. It seems in a lot of amps I’ve played in the past, you had to sacrifice one or the other. You could get an amp with a nice warm sound on the bottom but as soon as the rest of the band came in, you kind of lost all your definition. Or the opposite would happen, where you’d have all this nice definition but it would be all “clackity clackity”. The really nice thing I liked when they got in touch with me was it was an honest thing. It has so many EQ options you know, graphic EQ and parametric EQ. It’s got a ton of power--I think the amp is like 1300 watts. Now I don’t use that much power, but a lot of times with the bass it’s not so much that you have that much power so that you can turn it up loud; it’s more about being able to push air. And that’s the thing--so the amp can really handle that. So it worked out great and it’s still being produced.

You’ve been a big part of the Cinci music scene for years and recognized as such. For someone who’s never been there--what’s the scene like and is there anyone we should know about?

First off, the scene itself is weird because it’s a very conservative city. Cincinnati is very, very conservative and segregated, too, in a lot of ways. Now you get inside the city center and it's obviously real hip but anywhere in the suburbs is very conservative. But every generation has some kind of funk thing that comes out of there. King records started there in the '60s. James Brown recorded all his hits there--every big James Brown record was recorded in Cincinnati at King Records. They just put a plaque up and they’re working on turning the studio into a museum. So that’s how Bootsy got discovered because he was playing in the studio when James was there when he fired his band or something. James was like “Hey, come over here!” And then the next thing you know Bootsy was jamming. It was that kind of story. So you had James Brown in the '60s and early '70s, then Bootsy in the late '70s/early '80s.

There’s a twin city called Dayton, which is 40 minutes up the road, and there’s that group called the Ohio Players. Babyface is a big R&B producer and he was in a band called the Deele which was out of Cincinnati. There’s also a label called La Face Records which is home to Pink and TLC--they’re now out of Atlanta. Actually, Bootsy is the one who gave Babyface his nickname too. So it didn’t matter if you were out of the suburbs or the inner city, there was so much rhythmic music there. Ironically there’s a huge bluegrass scene too. Cincinnati is on the border of Northern Kentucky so it’s kind of a Minneapolis/St Paul kind of scenario. My theory is even though you might think that funk and bluegrass are so different, think about how rhythmic the two music styles are. You’ve got this rural area of Kentucky right next to urban Cincinnati, so you’ve got this hodgepodge of rhythm and sounds. Now in terms of current bands coming out of the area, in the '90s there was a band called the Afghan Whigs who were a pretty big group in the whole Seattle Sub Pop scene. And there’s a new band called Heartless Bastards with a gal named Erica who has an amazing voice. She actually moved to Austin recently but they grew out of Cincinnati music scene.

Did you grow up there?

Yeah, and that’s actually how I met Bootsy. One of his singers was a guy named Mudbone. Mudbone had his own group called Sly Fox and they had a big hit called “Let's Go All The Way”. In the mid to late '90s he was trying to put the band back together again and he was doing demo stuff. I was playing in some bands around Cincinnati at the time, and he had me do some demo stuff with him. He said there was a label out of Japan called P-Vine Records. P-Vine Records was doing this Jimi Hendrix tribute record where they had all these funk and soul artists do songs about Jimi Hendrix. Mudbone was doing a song with Bootsy producing and engineering it, so he said, "Why don’t you come out to Bootsy’s?" and of course I was like “Whaaa!” And that’s how we met and we really hit it off, so we started writing songs together. Originally when the whole Freekbass thing started, it was going to be more of a studio project. I thought, "Well, this material sounds pretty cool, so it would be cool to go do some shows". And a couple shows led to a couple more ,and the next thing I know I’m on the road with an agent. That’s kind of the very, very abridged story.

Is there an AKA, can we know what your real name is?

I think my mom even slips every once in a while and calls me Freekbass. My real name is Chris Sherman--my Clark Kent alias, I guess.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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