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.

You had trouble with the promotion for the Mastervolt album.

About Mastervolt. Well, I’ve lived in The Netherlands since 2003. I came into contact with an American label (ZIP Records), with offices in both San Francisco and Amsterdam. The record company president, Arthur Herman, was starting his Amsterdam office and had produced a recording by Danish artist Hilarius Hofstede. I performed literary-focused music with bassist Ernest Glerum. ZIP Records was interested in recording Defunkt. There was residual excitement about me here in the EU because they were aware of my history with Defunkt. Many musicians and artists in Holland wanted to include me in their projects. I received lots of work as a “Special Guest”.

At this time, I was writing new music and planning to premiere a new band: Defunkt neu-Soul. We made one live recording and toured throughout Europe. This band’s name evolved to “Defunkt Mastervolt”, and ZIP agreed to produce a quality CD of Defunkt material. I partnered with Hilarius Hofstede to create lyrical concepts for the new songs. Similar to Janos Gat’s rebellious approach, Hilarius is a rebel and artistic revolutionary. Together we created great lyrics. I wrote 13 new songs that focused on the problems in the world at that moment. It is, in my opinion, the finest Defunkt recording because not only was the recording dynamic, but the lyrics were focused directly on current issues, from immigration to mental health.

The Defunkt style has become even more accessible for popular music lovers. I realize how serious the programming by the Powers That Be has affected the thinking of music consumers when they are always interested in what you have done as an artist and not what you are doing presently. ZIP Records released the Mastervolt recording but with no promotion. It was released only digitally in the Benelux countries (the new template of the recording industry). There were only a few hard copies pressed. Everything is now digital, which only hurts the artists receiving royalties. ZIP put a lot of money into a landmark recording for Defunkt. We recorded in a fabulous studio in the South of France in Pompignan with engineer Philippe Galliot, a great friend of mine from Paris since the early ’70s.

For the first time in my life, we had three weeks to do the recording. The band all came to Pompignan, and we lived, ate, and recorded together. This was amazing! ZIP spent a good deal of money and we made a superlative recording. ZIP, for reasons I am not aware of, was not able to do anything promotion-wise with the recording, and it seemed to me that Arthur’s (the label head) hands were tied, and he was not able to promote it as anticipated. Institutional racism?

It was the same case for Allergy for the U.S., the first recording venture with ZIP. I was told by the record company that they could not release it in the US, with no reason given. Luckily, I stipulated in the Mastervolt contract that if, after three years, nothing was done to promote the work, the rights would return to me. That is the current situation, and now I am trying to find new distribution outlets worldwide. I just want the music exposed and promoted!

It seems there’s more of a club vibe to Mastervolt. How has the Defunkt sound evolved in this work? What new elements have you put into this album?

Let’s talk about the formation of Defunkt for Mastervolt. This was my attempt to stay visible in the business and keep Defunkt alive amid the EU promoter’s switching the existing template and making it impossible to bring American musicians to Europe for touring. This diminished income for countless musicians (primarily minority musicians) and deprived the European audiences of the Black American musical flavor.

I had a wonderful booking agent, Dirk Feys, in Belgian. He was an agent who loved music and was a former bass player. He was the first to book this new formation of Defunkt. He introduced me to the great bassist Linley Marthe. Linley became my musical director and identified musicians in France that appreciated the style and would augment the Defunkt journey into the future. Linley worked with Joe Zawinul (of Weather Report fame), during the last five years of Joe’s life. The Mastervolt band included Michael Lecoq on keys, the wonderful Emma Lamadji on lead and background vocals, Jon Grandcamp on drums, and Rocco Zifarelli (who has worked with Ennio Morricone) on guitar. I strive to enlist the best musicians available to manage the music’s diversity. This is the greatest array of musicians I’ve ever assembled together in a group.

Linley’s home is in Mauritius, Jon and Michael are from Paris, and Emma, who is originally from Central Africa, also lives in Paris. Rocco Zifarelli is Italian and lives in Rome. The horns on the recording are Dirk Beets (trumpet), Remko Smid (tenor saxophone), Dutch nationals, and Vincent Brijs (Baritone Sax) hail from Belgium. My granddaughter joined us on the first song, a short hip-hop track offering called “Bring Out the Jams”. This was my ‘shout out’ to the young people to invite them to acknowledge the band and inspire them to listen to the rest of the work. Dirk booked us a few big festivals in Spain, Germany, and Sweden. The audience loved the band and music but I couldn’t obtain regular work with this ensemble for some reason.

At that point, it was impossible for the agents to continue obtaining work for the band. Dirk couldn’t do it anymore. All the agents formerly working on behalf of Defunkt turned their backs on the band. The music industry’s change of template changed the way agents reacted to the artists. My list of agents since living in Europe was extensive: Tomas Stowsand, Gaby Kleinschmidt, Ralph Gluch, Gunnar Pfabe, and Alberto Lofoco. They were all very professional agencies. I couldn’t figure out what the reasons were. I’m not an intellectual or an educator. I’m a natural-born funk man. I’m primarily self-taught, developing my own insight into the development and concept of music. I learned from my mentors. My idea for Mastervolt has been consistent: to merge diverse ideas and genres into a new package. One grooving machine full of pertinent information about life; very funky and danceable.

Regarding the shift to “club sounds”: I’m 66 years old now and feel I must include new genres into my realm of music to reach people. Lots of people expect me to perform exactly as I did 40 years ago, but I have evolved, and so should the audience. I am a bandleader…a groove master. This concept of bandleader is all but extinct. Little credit is given to concepts similar to mine, or I have yet to find basic promotional support. Institutionalized racism? The Defunkt sound has evolved the way of all the great musicians, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson. When you compare their early works to their later ones, you find maturity and innovation developing in their sound due to hard work and performance opportunities. Defunkt follow the same template.

The more we study our craft and learn the creative concept combined with frequent work opportunities, the music evolves naturally. This is a vital element missing from the music scene today. They don’t recognize the value of “long-term” artists that span decades with cultural influence. They don’t want Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, etc. They’re more interested in artists whose careers span five years or less. Then they can earn huge profits from the artist and bring in a new artist. This saves the industry large amounts of money and removes power of decision from the artist.

The new elements I put into the Mastervolt album are trombone electronics to give it a sound unlike anything heard before on a dance record. This is my best songwriting to date, with motifs spanning the globe. The lyrics by Hofstede are poignant and confront the political and social issues the world is facing today. Mastervolt possesses a potpourri of world styles. This approach has been present from the beginning of Defunkt. It has evolved, and Defunkt has evolved to the next level. Let this music be exposed to the world’s masses!

You’ve been a professional musician for close to 40 years now. Are you enjoying or despising the new platform of distributing and marketing music online now?

Actually, 45 years of involvement in the music business is more accurate! When the new template of digital marketing and music sales began, I was hopeful for increased access to markets. But I now realize it’s a serious ploy diminishing the rights and potential royalties of the artists and only increasing the power of the record companies and related businesses. This phenomenon not only affects the music business but all businesses throughout the world. Companies are downsizing, doing away with benefits and health coverage by hiring contractors, etc. It’s a socio-economic template to eliminate the influence of the masses and focus on the wealthy.

I’m searching to discover a method to work through these new obstacles. Defunkt will never enter a musical contest like The Voice to forge a chance at success. I’m trying to adapt to this new paradigm and forge a way forward. I’m not concerned about making a fortune or a big splash anymore. I want this music to be available for people, especially young people who find this approach valid and interesting. Now, I’m searching for a worldwide digital distributor that can deliver Mastervolt to a worldwide audience. I will print vinyl for vinyl lovers. I’m dedicated to expressing truth through music, as long as life permits.

Which of your albums is your favorite?

My favorite album to date is Mastervolt. This recording exemplifies where my music and career stand today. I love all the previous recordings, and my rating has little to do with commercial acceptance or public opinion. Still, my personal evolution as an artist is devoted to developing this sound. The first album Defunkt is a classic masterpiece. These two albums are the bookends of my career.

Cum Funky and One World were important recordings illustrating Defunkt’s fluency in many genres solidifying the band’s cry for change. The live albums are important because they clearly show the concept of Defunkt in live situations: always flexible, changing, and diversified. Defunkt is known worldwide as a “musician’s band” and always had the respect of professional musicians worldwide.

What’s next for Defunkt?

After I get past my medical issues stemming from aging, I will continue promoting this idea of what I call “Diverse Fusion” in pop music. I’m organizing a tour in the US in the Fall for very little money, but this is important to me because America, for what it’s worth, is my home and the birthplace of my creative impetus. I hope we can create interest in the younger population that’s not familiar with the legacy of Defunkt. In the current climate in the business, musicians are basically “paying to play”, but I want to make another march against hypocrisy and musical/cultural injustice. I want to return home to fans that supported Defunkt in the past years to offer an update on my values. They made this journey possible. Let’s continue to teach change – the only constant in life!