defunkt-joseph-bowie-interview

All That Jazz and Then Some: An Interview with Defunkt’s Joseph Bowie

Defunkt’s music is constructed with the intricacies of jazz, charged with the muscular pump of rock, and executed with punk’s ferocity. Frontman Joseph Bowie talks about the band’s long, colourful, and arduous journey.

Much has been said about how volatile James White and the Blacks were, much of it down to Chance’s sometimes notoriously rebellious personality. What are your memories of working in the James White band, and what did you learn from them?

James was/is a high-energy and sometimes volatile bandleader that takes no shit from the audience either! He could sometimes be abusive, reacting to unruly listeners. This was a reminder of some of the extreme English acts of the day, i.e., Sid Vicious. James was a rebel with exploding energy. I had a deep respect for that power.

James was from Milwaukee, and his birth name is James Siegfried. I understood James’s ferocity and how he implanted the groove in the band members and audience. Off stage, he was quiet and reserved. He had no tolerance for assholes in the audience. He confronted audiences, and sometimes it ended in fights, with projectiles being thrown on stage. This was all good for the no-wave/new wave persona for the show.

I had a closer relationship with James because of our shared musical likes and desires. We also shared a relationship with drugs (heroin). James, his then-manager, and I would frequently get high together… James was and is a man who respected his musicians and always paid everyone after the shows. He communicated his desires with band members, but we were like brothers. Some musicians had problems with his character, but I had no problems with him. Off stage, I hung out with James socially, doing drugs and formulating our next musical moves.

What I learned from James was that my dream of fusing the improvisational freedom of jazz with pop music and funk from the African template was possible, but I truly realized this over my 45-year career. The music business has never accepted it. The commercial business element must separate genres for control and income distribution. We were innocently but deliberately trying to tear down the establishment rules and create a new genre of music combining musical tastes. The audiences are – to this day – responsive to this approach, but we are still primarily ignored by the “Powers that be”.

Now I understand why the commercial music business did not embrace this change…because it’s a problem to market multi-dimensional projects. It’s a problem for business entities to determine the future. The artists traditionally did that! In the ’60s and ’70s, there were many bands of different styles and approaches. Gone! There are now only controlled genres and repetition of musical history. This underground cultural movement reinforced my belief in artistic freedom. I learned to stand on my own and be true to my beliefs…until the end.

The band released their debut, self-titled album in 1980. How much of that album is tied to the No-Wave movement? Do you see that album as an extension of the punk scene in New York? Or is it an entirely singular and separate experience from that?

The first album, Defunkt, was a powerful statement of what I wanted to do with the fusion of styles. Many others and I thought we created a valid new genre approach to pop music. I was certain we would enter the big commercial market with Defunkt, and my dreams would be realized. Defunkt was a part of the no-wave scene and proud of its diversity. We were primarily a Black band, always with powerful contributors of lighter complexion. At the time, we didn’t think of race, and our musical colleagues didn’t, either. We were one of the few Black punk-funk bands on the scene.

Bad Brains was the most notable Black punk band, and before them, there were the Chambers Brothers and other New York Black rock bands such as Sirius, featuring Ronny, Shawn, and J.T. Lewis. Ronny Drayton would later become a Defunkt member for the next 40 years. The first Defunkt album was an extension of punk and brought new elements into the new genre never included. It was tight! We had punk, jazz, and rock with some R&B groove. This was and is a completely fresh approach to popular music. I listened to it the other night, and it still sounds fresh.

What was the audience’s reaction to your debut album? How well did the album travel outside of New York?

The reactions were incredible in the US and especially in Europe. The band was loved in the UK, the Eastern Bloc countries, and Japan. We had a brief touring round in the US, performing on stages with the Clash, Talking Heads, Nona Hendryx, James Brown, and more. The album did very well, especially in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and is a classic among serious music lovers. Europe is the home of our biggest audience.

You followed up with Thermonuclear Sweat in 1982, and by then, you had further developed your live shows. How were things going for you and the band at this point?

We recorded Thermonuclear Sweat in 1982 and a couple of EPs, Razor’s Edge and Strangling Me with Your Love, Revisited. We were touring worldwide and mostly in Europe, two or three times a year. I was still, however, suffering from serious drug addiction. I grew tired of this lifestyle, and it was time to make a critical decision. I decided to take a pause from the music scene and clean myself up.

In 1983, when I reached rock bottom, my first wife asked me to leave. I moved to Brooklyn with my brother Lester for a short period, and he bought me a trombone from a pawn shop and a flight ticket to St. Croix, Virgin Islands. This was my ‘escape from New York’, which would become a life-changing exile in the Caribbean.

Things were going great with the band at that time. We were playing big shows and festivals around the world. This was a new, high-energy style of music Defunkt was performing, and I thought it perfectly normal to have a mixture of jazz, R&B, rock, and funk because of my diversified musical background. I believed it was a welcomed addition to established musical genres.

Why was there a six-year gap between the second album and In America, the band’s third album?

I had to relocate, escape from New York…and the drugs and the scene that enabled this behavior. As I mentioned earlier, I moved to the Caribbean against popular advice. The record company and the media wanted to keep me “ineffective and on the run”, struggling to survive. I was emotionally and physically drained, burnt out, and stressed out from drugs and the crazy lifestyle.

I stayed in St. Croix for almost two years. I cleaned up and worked as a waiter at the Buccaneer Hotel. I started focusing on my health and jogging. Soon I developed into a marathon runner. I was introduced to Buddhism, which remains a mainstay in my life today.

I returned to New York in 1985. Before my self-imposed exile to Sr. Croix, Warner Brothers was about to sign the band in a recording deal, but my priority was to clean up my life. When I returned to New York, Warner Brothers had no further interest. I was clean…but still a rebel.

Maybe this is one of the reasons my resources are limited/difficult now. In between those first albums, I was just rebuilding myself. I returned strong for the next phase. That explains it. I was away cleaning up my personal act. I came back strong and revitalized and ran my first marathon in New York in 1986.

There is a significant change on In America, and some people argue it’s your best work. The album makes a statement; the political themes are up front and center, and you appear shirtless, in a fighter’s stance, on the album cover. Tell us about writing and recording this album and where you were coming from in its sound and conception.

Our next recording In America was on Hannibal Records, a subsidiary of Island Records. Gene Kraut, who worked at Hannibal, was the producer. This was a nice opportunity, thanks to Hannibal’s President Joe Boyd. This is the album that cemented my position as an anarchist and rebel. This is the reason Defunkt is branded as a commercial underachiever, underappreciated by the Gods of the music business.

I was under the illusion that America was the home of the free and the land of the Brave. I certainly believed in free speech. I was under the assumption I could speak freely on all subjects, political and social, and transfer my ideas to the music. In this recording, I wanted to comment on the current situations in America, so I chose to protest through the music of Defunkt. I wanted to expose and challenge the faults of the ruling class (the powers that be). I wanted to show the divide in American culture caused by institutional and blatant racism. I learned in America that there are two sets of rules: black and white.

And, of course, I had no shirt on the cover – look at that body! I was young, clean, and rebuilt. I had been lifting weights and running. I was in great shape, and I was very proud that I had overcome the major obstacle in my life: drugs. I was trying to exude strength and energy to exemplify a quest for freedom.

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That’s what In America is about. We want to be free. The sound of this album has a raw rock appeal with conscience-raising lyrics that inspire change. I utilized two great guitarists, Ronny Drayton and Bill Bickford. Wow! What a terrific sound! The album had rock, hard-core groove with jazzy attitudes. I love Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and James Brown. I also love the energy of heavy metal.

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