Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Orleans band Papa Grows Funk bringing their own groove to Martyrs' in Chicago


The members of New Orleans band Papa Grows Funk choose not to follow a playlist, making every show feel like a jam session.

That only makes sense, since they came together for the pure love of wanting to play together. Their music has carried the day, as Papa Grows Funk has been able to sell 30,000 combined copies of their first four copies without the help of a record label or distribution deal.

It was only a matter of time before their music caught the ear of New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint, who is working with them on their latest album.

Papa Grows Funk,, will perform July 8 at Martyrs,' 3855 N. Lincoln, Chicago.

Whysowhite also is on the bill. The show starts at 9:30 p.m. and tickets are $12, available at

I had the chance to talk to bandleader John "Papa" Gros about the band and its current activities.

Q - You guys started out as a jam session at Old Point Bar on Algiers Point, as I understand.

That was like 11 years ago. For all of us, we were blowing off steam because we all had other gigs we were doing. 

This was like the non-gig, no responsibilities, no money, just show up and make something happen.

And people started showing up, which was just wild, and we started getting notice nationwide and internationally. Within a year, we decided to put together a CD, because we had a few little grooves that we were working on. 

The CD kind of took on a life of its own and then about two to three years later we had a second CD and then we all decided to take it real serious.

Q - So was there some magic there? Did things start to jell right away?

When we played the first song, granted the first few bars of the song were pretty rough as far as what notes to play and the right rhythms and where we were going with it, but somewhere in the middle of the song we started communicating musically, improving, hitting solos, breaking it down.

We were just kind of doing it off the cuff for fun. Boy, that was magic immediately.

Q - And was that unexpected that you would jell so well together?

It was my idea to call the guys, and I thought these guys would play well together. I thought it should be good. 

We all came from incredible bands that had really good credentials. Our saxophone player was playing with Galactic, myself and the drummer were playing with George Porter Jr., June Yamagish, our guitarist, is pretty known in Japan and was playing with the Wild Magnolias.

We all had our own gigs, and we were doing pretty well with those. So to think that we would be something different and that it would click in a special way, different than those great bands, I never thought that would happen.

It really happened that first night.

Q - I also find it pretty incredible that you guys have sold 30,000 copies of your CDs with no distribution or a record label. 

It's just been word-of-mouth, hard work and persistence.

Q - You guys are working on your fifth CD. What should people expect from that?

It's going to be very different. We have Allen Toussaint and Tom Drummond of Better Than Ezra sharing in the producer credits on this one.

This is the first time where we are going to have somebody else's opinion of the band presented. So that's going to make it neat right there.

The other thing is that with the songwriting for this album, we did a lot of collaborating, whereas before, individuals in the band would bring in songs and we would just kind of work up some arrangements.

So the songwriting I think has improved through the hard work of collaboration. And I think that will make a difference.

Q - How did you hook up with Allen Toussaint?

There were a couple of phone calls and a lot of e-mails. He's such a legend. Pretty much anything I have done throughout my career I've learned from studying everything that he's done.

Q - Had he heard the band before?

He had only heard of us. I don't think he had heard the band playing together at all, at a gig or anything. He liked us, and we really clicked well in the studio.

And I tell you what, it really changed all of our musical lives, as far as learning the things that he does and getting a little bit of what he brings to the table.

Q - I'm sure you've heard your music described in many different ways. How would you describe your music?

I would simply say it's New Orleans funk music. That's a wide open description, but it's very specific to me in that it represents everything that New Orleans music is, all the way back to the days of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

It's a deep responsibility that we carry, and we try to uphold.

Q - Would you say that a show like "Treme" is helping bring back the spotlight to New Orleans and its music?

What "Treme" does is to put a spotlight on our culture. The culture had been going through hard times.

Q - So how is New Orleans doing these days?

I would say we are on an upslope. We had been on a downslope for such a long time. Last year was the first year since Katrina that I felt we had some positive motion and were turning the corner, and then we had this oil spill that happened in the Gulf thanks to BP.

It was another year of negativity just trying to keep us down. We are just waiting it out, and the people here are ready to go. The party's here.

Q - And do you think the music scene has rebounded?

The music scene is at such a high level. There is so much competition for a neighborhood gig, where 10 to 15 years, anybody could find a gig.

The caliber of musicianship is at such a high level these days that you have to be so good and have an audience to be able to get yourself a local Wednesday night gig. It's amazing.

Q - You guys don't use a playlist.

We just kind of make it up as we go. It's kind of like a quarterback making audibles on a football field.

We score touchdowns. Sometimes we get thrown for a 20-yard loss. But that's live music and that's the risk you take and that's what makes it different every single night.