A year ago or so, a commenter on this post by our multiloquent contributor, John Marks, had the temerity to suggest that perhaps there were no great musicians playing popular music nowadays. My brother was quick to reply, “Check out Wulfpeck.” I don’t know if my brother made a typo or if he was assuming German pronunciation, but the band to which he was referring was, in fact, the quartet of pianist Woody Goss, drummer/guitarist/vocalist Theo Katzman, drummer/keyboardist Jack Stratton, and bassist Joe Dart known as Vulfpeck.
It is, perhaps, understandable that on October 9, 2019, neither my brother nor any of the subsequent commenters were particularly aware of Vulfpeck—after all, they had never had a top 100 hit, nor were they even signed to a record label. Hell, they didn’t even have a manager. And yet, less than two weeks previous to that October post, Goss, Katzman, Stratton, and Dart sold out Madison Square Garden.
A remarkable achievement to be sure, and one that is somewhat indicative of the state of the modern music recording industry. Like most overnight successes, Vulfpeck has been around for a long time—since 2011, to be exact. In that sense, their ascent is typical of many underground musical acts. However, the story of those nine years is a bit unique.
After forming as a rhythm section at the University of Michigan School of Music in 2011, Vulfpeck recorded and released three funk-based recordings before ever playing a single live gig together. The first two EPs consisted of entirely instrumental music—it wasn’t until the third recording that the group featured the Detroit-area soul and gospel vocalist, Antwan Stanley, on a vocal track entitled “Wait for the Moment.”
You can see my terrible, Covid quarantine-inspired version of this song on my Instagram here (I do not claim to be a piano player or singer):
As you’re reading this post, “Wait fo the Moment” is likely cresting 30M listens on Spotify. Not bad for a band without a record deal.
The way that Vulf entered the consciousness of many music fans was unique, as well. The band released an entirely silent record on Spotify, entitled Sleepify. Sleepify consisted of ten thirty-second tracks of complete silence, recommended to be played on loop while the listener slept. Based on Spotify’s revenue model at the time, an eight-hour loop of Sleepify would generate $5.88 of revenue for the band. Vulfpeck promised to fund their first tour with revenue from Sleepify, and they did generate nearly $20k of money before Spotify pulled it. The stunt gained the band notoriety from press all over the world, and ultimately led to a change in Spotify’s revenue steam model.
Vulfpeck performed “1612” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with Stanley in 2015 in a well received and reviewed performance that gained them additional attention on the national scale.
But the real moment of awareness came for Vulfpeck when a song from their first full-length recording, Thrill of the Arts, was featured in a national ad campaign by Apple. The song wasn’t just used in the background—the whole minute-long commercial was themed around the song,”Back Pocket” to demonstrate the new Apple Pay functionality.
The commercial was played over 500 times in national ad buys totaling over $22 million. To date, “Back Pocket” is Vulfpeck’s most popular song on Spotify, with over 43 million streams.
Vulfpeck continues to record and tour, with four more full-length records and the aforementioned Live at Madison Square Garden. In additional to the original quartet, recordings have featured artists like Cory Wong, Joey Dosik, Charles Jones, David T. Walker, and Christine Hucal.
Okay, you probably could have learned most of that by reading Wikipedia. Let’s talk a little bit more about the music from an analytical perspective.
The most identifiable component of any Vulf recording is Joe Dart’s bass. As my brother stated in that comment a year ago, Vulfpeck’s musicianship is of the highest caliber, but Dart’s bass is perhaps the most exceptional. Even in vocal tracks, Dart is featured prominently in the mix, above the guitars and keyboards. Rhythm is the focal point of most tracks, with harmony taking a close second. The addition of rhythm guitarist Wong on many tracks accentuates this element—the jam track appropriately titled “Cory Wong” demonstrates the rhythmic focus.
Vulfpeck song form reflects the formal music school education and instrumental focus of the members—rarely is there a simple verse/chorus formula. One of the most popular Vulfpeck songs, “Dean Town,” is largely just a bass solo over a four-chord form with a tutti melody at the end. Observe:
But my particular favorite Vulfpeck song follows a more traditional popular music format, including verse, chorus, and bridge. Theo Katzman provides the vocals here for “Animal Spirits.” Pay special attention to Stratton’s piano here—the chord structure is wildly complicated for a pop song.
But somehow it all works when you put it together.
If you want to dive in more, just search for “This is Vulfpeck” on Spotify. All the (non) hits are there.
Thanks for checking out this edition of “Listening Room.”