The first time I talk with drummer Bobby Granfelt about High Pulp, we are sitting two feet away from each other.
It’s late June in 2021, nearly a year and a half after Covid hit landfall in Seattle, and a sense of renewed life has tentatively settled over the area. By the afternoon the sun becomes a punisher, beating down on bodies like skin stretched taut over a drum. In his baggy tie-dye sweatshirt, Granfelt seems to handle the sun just fine, but I can feel my skin burning, so we’ve taken refuge in the shade of a tall brick apartment housing a coffee shop on the ground floor.
This is the place where our friendship began in earnest. On days when I’d be pulling countless ristretto shots, he’d come in, order a French press, and answer emails at a cramped wooden desk in the corner. Occasionally we’d chat about whatever music drifted through the speakers, especially the stuff we both appreciated: acts like Yussef Kamaal and Alfa Mist that were captivating global audiences for their formidable technicality and entrancing atmosphere – the same music he was, and likely forever will be, in the process of refining.
We’re not meeting just for nostalgia’s sake. Granfelt – along with fellow bandmate Andy Morrill, who gently chimes in at times during our conversation – is in the area to perform a free set of comfy covers for the market’s patrons. As the drummer, Granfelt is not their de facto leader, but he will be their speaker – the only one poised to address the market’s half-engaged throng.
“It’s the first week that they’ve had [live] music since the pandemic,” he says, his citrus-tinged sunglasses obscuring his signature sleepy eyes. It’ll be just a four-piece this afternoon, but the tunes will be simple, and the attention they receive will be beside the point. “We’re just coming out here to play music today. We’re not making money, it’s a donation.”
A free set of music after a year’s worth of tour cancellations and DOA show dates is not just a gift; it’s a sacrifice. Granfelt, along with almost every other musician, suffered during a time when work was virtually non-existent. But as we talk, he professes that playing free sets is just another way to fuel his respect for his community. Even though he’d rather not advertise it, Granfelt lives and breathes compassion for the people around him, whether they’re playing along with him or toe-tapping along to his razor-sharp snare.
“In a way, it’s made me selfish,” he says about the symbiotic effect of playing live. “I leave one of those jams and I feel alive. More alive than I do playing to five hundred people. The most life-giving thing for me in my time in Seattle has been these jams.”
There never seems to be a moment when Granfelt is resting on his laurels. He’s always pursuing some project or practicing his skill, tapping on a pad at home to a metronome. It’s why I’ve come to know him as a terminally exhausted person, his eyes weighed down with contented drowsiness. Music, whether his own or others’, has become his raison d’être. That’s especially true when he’s playing free gigs like the one that’s coming up in about an hour.
“These gigs inspire me, make me vulnerable in a really good way, force me to be transparent,” he summarizes. “It’s a good way to keep yourself in check. It’s like, “Why are you doing this?” I’m not trying to start hoarding this shit, especially when things start going well. Look at how many things have gone really well for a lot of people and then they get miserable and/or start making awful music, and I don’t want either of those things to happen to me. I’m trying to stay rooted, and that’s it.”
We chat about a great many things, but of primary importance is High Pulp, the DIY jazz collective he spearheads. After years of languishing in Seattle’s underground, the band has finally found a home in Los Angeles’ ANTI- Records, a label housing releases by Tom Waits, Mavis Staples, Fleet Foxes, and Wilco. It’s a good fit for High Pulp’s brand of instrumental sonic exploration. The signing marks the first taste of larger-scale success for High Pulp since they started years ago. In true Pacific Northwest fashion, they’ve resisted the call of the industry, but of course, such a move will expose their sound to a much wider audience.
That sound doesn’t have an easy comparison, but it’s based around modal jazz and the “future” monikers it’s received over the last few decades. Like almost all “post-Internet” acts, High Pulp are a wild amalgamation of influences, but they don’t land easily on one particular pastiche. The band bears a few signature sonic elements – twin keyboards and a multitude of harmonizing horns – that fit into a plethora of molds like modular puzzle pieces. Look no further than their Mutual Attraction series, a trio of covers EPs upon which they make a meal out of classics by Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Casiopea, Pharaoh Sanders, and Frank Ocean circa 2016’s Endless. Their originals, meanwhile, bob and weave around the bounce of bebop and the sultriness of instrumental R&B while never quite landing on one style. This is how they’ve come to be defined as an “exploratory” jazz outlet.
Granfelt and a handful of friends, including Antoine Martel, alto saxophonist Morrill, and guitarist Gehrig Uhles, founded the band shortly after graduating college and have since added a host of accompanying personnel along the way. Although the band’s on-stage numbers fluctuate wildly between sets – up to 12 people might grace the stage at one point – the decision-makers you hear on the band’s latest come from a few key players. Tenor saxophonist Victory Nguyen, keyboardist Rob Homan, and bassist Scott Rixen round out the main lineup, making High Pulp a band of six core members who are able to democratically work out arrangements and keep each others’ egos in check.
Morrill, for one, vouches for this. “It’s democratic in that we don’t make a decision without getting consensus,” he says. Adds Granfelt, “There’s a handful of moments when it’s like, ‘I’m gonna trust you on that.’ That’s a really important thing. Having six people agree on things happens a remarkable amount of the time in our band.”
While they started their career playing humble sets across the city’s myriad venues, the collective eventually found an opportunity to sharpen their live dynamic. Thanks to Granfelt’s booking job, the gang was able to secure a weekly residency at the Royal Room, a small but dependable venue just down the street from where we’re sitting. Every Wednesday evening, whoever was available to play would set up on stage and jam on the collection of originals and standards in their repertoire. It isn’t Dimitriou’s or The Triple Door – Columbia City is a relative hike away from metropolitan Seattle – but it allows the neighborhood, via word of mouth, to spread what the band was doing around.
After an exhausting day, closing the shop alone and lacking the energy to board the 106 back to Renton, I’d instead walk a few blocks down the street and watch the group work for tips. There you could sit, sip on gin and tonic, and imbibe the subtle differences between each set. They’d start “Serena Williams” with a slower buildup, or they’d extend “Hookai” into a ten-minute jam during which the two keyboardists would duel synths. A slower funky number called “Ezell’s” – named after the celebrated Central District chicken joint – would swirl gauzily around Rixen’s bass intro, the sound floating out the open door like the seeds of the cottonwood trees.
It’s important to contextualize these nights within the humble confines of Seattle’s nightlife. The city’s dearth of 24-hour joints, not to mention the terminally sodden weather, normally hampers its residents’ initiative to enjoy its offerings post-sundown. But you could rely on the High Pulp residency to at least meet other musically-inclined people and to experience a group of talents operating in tandem toward some personal betterment, working on the crowd as if they were a whetstone. One evening while hanging with a couple of familiar faces – a young band manager and a cellist with a private studio in the area – we studied how the band lurch into “Smooth”. During the intermission, the young manager furrowed his brow. “They’re good,” he remarked, “but they’re missing something.”
That was almost five years ago. Since then, High Pulp stopped playing the residency but have established themselves as a Seattle mainstay worthy of the broader city’s attention. Their operations hit a fever pitch in 2020 as they independently released a full-length, burned through a set at KEXP’s in-person studio, and scheduled a spot at SXSW for the first time. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, Covid forced them to retreat back to Seattle and redraw their expectations.
In line with their signing to ANTI- and the eventual release of their first non-independent LP, Granfelt tells me he’s planning on relocating to Los Angeles. Though it makes sense, the news is mildly foreboding. It’s become a dark punchline in this city that “successful” Seattle artists don’t really exist; If they have the ambition and the gift, they simply move to a place like Los Angeles. Several talented performers who’ve previously embraced the city’s identity – Gifted Gab, DoNormaal, and Chastity Belt among others – have done exactly that.
For Granfelt, it’s more about keeping his soul healthy and intact than potentially letting go of his ties to Seattle’s music scene. “The community stuff, man…I dunno,” he says pensively. “It’s cool that you see me that way, but I also don’t even wanna be seen that way. I just wanna be happy and kick it with my friends and make music. I wanna sleep well.”
He laughs. “Honestly I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, this person thinks I’m a good community guy, so I don’t need to do this tonight.’ No, man. You wanna still be in the front row of the show. You still wanna be there for the opener, you know? You still gotta tip your bartender, motherfucker.’”