It’s PHO time, and we're not talking Argyle. For this week’s Respect The Neighbors, we’re taking a slightly different route by getting in the mind of Minneapolis funk aficionados, PHO. You may not have heard of them, but if at some point in the day you were struck with the chills and an uncontrollable urge to boogie, that may have been their musical message carrying over to you from many miles north. PHO is a live force of nature, a whirlwind of horns, sax, beats, notes and a heaping portion of "etc." They are playing at the Tonic Room Thursday, February 18th for Dunn Dunn Fest, so take this opportunity to buy your tickets and get your mind melted into their delicious sonic stew. Extra spicy.
PHO hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and crucial to the heart of the band is what's called “The Minneapolis Sound”. For the unfamiliar, it’s a funk sound that can be hard to pin down, but one that is characterized by heavy synths, clean rhythm guitar contrasted by crunchy solos, and an emphasis on drums and keyboard in addition to the usual bass. Think the better side of 80's music. It was widely mimicked by acts in that decade, but the man to popularize it nationally was a space-traveling Casanova named Prince. Familiar with a song called “Uptown Funk”, storming the air waves in 2015? It’s referring to the grooves of Uptown, Minneapolis, and most likely there are some aging Minnesotan artists still wondering whether their royalty checks got lost in the mail.
Where does PHO come into all this? While they have frequented the festie circuit, this is not your average jam band. They are furthering a modern crusade for funk and the Minneapolis Sound in a big way, pushing the movement outwards from Minnesota and bringing light to the relevance it has for today's music. In fact, just a few weeks ago they caught the attention of the sub-genre's living royalty and greatest champion, Prince. Many, myself included, are woefully uninformed about this scene from another era that is experiencing a rebirth, but PHO is taking us all to school. Joe Christensen plays guitar, Aaron Levin plays tenor sax; let's find out what PHO and the Minneapolis Sound are all about.
Prince is a fan! How does it feel? Did his response to your music surprise you? His cosign of a Chicago artist named Eryn Allen Kane has been working out pretty well for her….
AL: "I think it’s safe to say we were all surprised…we don’t expect any kind of deals being made with the purple one, but his tweets probably put us in the purview of a lot of people which is more than we can ask for at this point!"
JC: "Feels amazing. Someone who had such a huge impact on funk and modern American music in general blasting our stuff, really no words to say how exciting it was to have that happen. We were all losing it when it started happening. We were pretty surprised! We had even talked multiple times about what he would think of our music, never thought he would embrace it like he did. Glad to hear he's reaching out to other young musicians like Eryn."
Where did you all meet? How long have you been playing together?
AL: "We all went to the same music school and ended up jamming a little bit just before I studied abroad.
When I came back they had gotten another sax player, so I’ll admit I was a little bummed! Not too long after that I got the call to sub on a gig, and the rest is history for me."
JC: "A lot of us met at McNally-Smith College of Music. Our guitar player Spencer knew Luke, our trumpetplayer through his hometown. Our drummer we heard about through peers and asked him to audition, it clicked right away. We formed in 2013 but the line up now has been together for about a year and a half."
With such a large band, how does the collaborative process work? Does Pho have a leader?
AL: "The thing I like most about PHO is how collaborative it really is. Most of the time someone brings in a song idea anywhere from a finished arrangement to a simple chord progression. From there, each part of the band adds their own thing and helps form it into a finished product. For instance, Luke (Trumpet) and
I will often come up with certain horn lines and parts on the spot, but the songwriter usually has parts in mind, or at least a direction. When I bring in a tune for the band, I usually leave some breathing room for
parts to develop naturally based on what each musician brings to the table. That approach keeps things
sounding fresh and lets us sound like “us”."
JC: "It varies, Some songs or parts are written in the moment, some people write songs pretty structured and it's interpreted by everyone uniquely. We don't have a musical leader but we have certain people that work with booking/promoting in the band."
Do you record live? How much of your live performance is improvised / jammed?
AL: "On our last record we recorded all basic tracks live and then overdubbed solos, some horn parts, percussion, and some other fun stuff. Most of our songs are pre-set arrangements as far as form, but there are certain sections – for instance, solos– where things are more open so they van develop organically. I suppose you can call that jamming!"
JC: "We usually record live and then add overdubs and redo parts if need be. but it's important we capture that live feel so we always record everyone at the same time and work from there. There's a lot of improv in our shows but our sections are usually worked out where a horn line or parts will add in at certain times to keep things interesting."
Pho is a funk band, but you can hear psychedelic influences, as well as others – how would you describe your sound, and what has influenced it?
AL: "We messed around with a lot of different textures on the first record, giving it somewhat of a psychedelic vibe at times. As far as influences, every member brings something different to the table. I think our sound stems a lot from where the band started in that we didn’t have a lot of original material and were covering a lot of stuff we loved to listen to. Bands like Lettuce, Soulive, John Scofield, Prince, Gap Band, and Herbie Hancock were some of those influences. I’m proud to say we sound like PHO!"
JC: "We all have very eclectic taste so it happens naturally that other influences outside funk sneak in. We think it's important to keep breaking boundaries musically so we can make something that sounds like PHO, so we utilize lots of different influences to create that. It also helps reach a broader audience."
Sonically, you hear a lot of out-there noises, sounds and effects while listening to PHO. Is this concept of “ingredients” where the name comes from?
AL: "Like I said, we experimented with a lot of textures and synth stuff on the first record, which really added some ear candy for the listener. I think the correlation between the soup and the band’s sound is a happy coincidence!"
JC: "Yeah we like to think of the band as a big bowl of PHO with everything adding up to be delicious. Sonically we wanna keep things interesting, so we add in noise and sounds to keep it unique/unpredictable."
Cash It has one song with a singer ("Moonlit Sky"). Is this something you guys will continue to explore, or is it a one-and-done?
AL: "I wouldn’t put it at one and done yet! We are definitely open to collaboration with guest artists in the future, but I think we’d want it to be something that happens naturally. At this point there aren’t any plans to introduce a guest artist on the next record."
JC: "It is something we will probably explore more. We know some great singers we want to collaborate with in the future. We just are in no rush to make it happen, we'd prefer to keep it a natural process."
You’re a Minnesota band. We’re a Chicago publication. For our readers, what does the wonderful city of Minneapolis mean to you and your music?
AL: "The fact that there’s a “Minneapolis sound” when it comes to Funk music is something that we are proud of. I think an unsaid goal for PHO is to carry the torch forward while making something unique for a new generation of Funk fans."
JC: "Minneapolis funk is a very unique creative sound that we love to embrace and try to push. "Uptown Funk" basically rips off of Morris and The Time/ Prince. So it's cool to see the MPLS sound in the mainstream."
For any Chicagoans traveling up to the Twin Cities, any recommendations of places to check out?
AL: "You might want to hit a winter coat store first thing. But seriously, take a bike around Lake Calhoun during the summer, you won’t regret it."
JC: "Best Pho is at Quang."
Why should folks spend their hard-earned cash on your show at the Tonic Room, February 18th?
AL: "If you want to experience the “Minneapolis sound” for the next generation, we will be happy to oblige you."
JC: "Because we play music for the people, by the people."
Finally, any last shout outs?
"Shout out to Bonzo Terks and Deep Fayd for having us out for the show. Also, Maddy Nyquist for repping us over there. It’s gonna be good!"
You can buy tickets to their show Thursday night show at Tonic Room here!