Listening Room: Vulfpeck

 

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.”

38 Replies to “Listening Room: Vulfpeck”

  1. AvatarChris Tonn

    Not surprising that I haven’t properly encountered Vulfpeck – I’m not one to typically seek out new music. But this story hit me at a time when I had a few minutes to listen…

    Damn.

    I might be channeling brother Jack here, but I’m getting a definite “Millennial Steely Dan” vibe.

    In a good way.

    You’ve sold me, Bark. Vulfpeck will be on my playlist shortly.

    Reply
    • AvatarBark M Post author

      Joe’s pretty clean. It’s more impressive when you realize most of their recording is done in a “live” environment.

      Reply
      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        Almost all music recorded before the widescale adoption of multi-track recorders in the mid 1960s was recorded in a live environment. Les Paul bought the first Ampex 8-track unit in 1957 at a cost of $10,000 at a time when the average U.S. salary was a fraction of that so it took a while for the new tech to become affordable enough for the average recording studio. Most of the Beatles’ albums were done on four-track machines, using the fourth channel for overdubs.

        Reply
          • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

            But it’s not common for musicians to do live recording in 2020.

            More’s the pity.

            Sure, most (?) stuff today is done with a click track for the drummer to make sure they keep time (and time corrected if they can’t) and the vocals are AutoTuned and Pro Tooled to remove any trace of human individuality, but as a musician I’m sure you’ll agree that there is some magic that happens when people play live music together in a room.

  2. AvatarCJinSD

    There were some popular/contemporary/youthful musicians whose work I enjoyed relatively recently, but reality dictates that it was longer ago than adolescence is supposed to last. Our existence is perilous enough that I really don’t want to support a bunch of socialist dolts who can’t wait for China to determine that their music is too subversive and put them down with headshots while they kneel anyway.

    Reply
    • Avatardejal

      Yeah. I don’t like supporting people who hate my guts and would cheer on my execution. And so true, they are too ignorant about the headshots. I go with “Shut up and do whatever it is you do”. You are entertainment. Entertain me. The old media sources and their talent don’t entertain me anymore. The lecture me.

      I’ve completely dumped TV, haven’t bought music year and see no need to subscribe to any. I’d rather watch Youtube videos of a Korean woman in Canada with her semi-domesticated wild chipmunks. The woman has 303,000 subscribers. Started doing videos about her chipmunks Jan 18, 2019 and has 71,533,386 views.

      Reply
      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        Regarding topical songs, I recently bought a boxed set of all of Motown’s singles that hit #1 on the charts somewhere in the world (or had covers that reached #1). One of the songs on the first disc is Stevie Wonder’s 1966 version of Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, more of a pop music arrangement than the song usually gets. Perhaps because of the different musical take on the song, I started to reflect on the lyrics of a song generally considered to be a protest song and realized that rather than calling for an end to all the things that last “so many years”, the song is an existential acceptance that change is indeed very slow. The answer to all those questions is as ephemeral as the blowing wind. Bobby Zimmerman is an even better lyricist than many people think.

        Reply
  3. AvatarJohn C.

    It was interesting to see that fellow in the Apple commercial gradually transform himself into a pimp, even acquiring his swag by CGI generated looting. Surprised he wasn’t driven away at the end in a kimchee limo. America can do better than this. America first!

    Reply
      • AvatarJohn C.

        I know times seem hard. We are not going to make it through the storm by telling ourselves that some lowest common denominator is good enough. Be your best. You will find yourself respected by the others like you who have made it through.

        Reply
        • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

          “Be your best,” sounds rather ironic coming from someone who decries the Ivy League’s acceptance of Asian, Jews, Italians and Poles, changing those schools’ cultures from being finishing schools for the WASP elites to being academic and intellectual powerhouses.

          Which is it, “be your best,” or “make sure there’s a place at the table for my intellectually mid-weight offspring”?

          Reply
          • AvatarJohn C.

            To all those minorities, now a large majority, at the ivy league, it wasn’t theirs. If Asians et all want schools made of gold they should build them for themselves, in the manner of the tradionally black schools of the USA. That is of course hard work. By their own reckoning, the best school in China was founded by the British in Hong Kong, the second best by the Germans in Shanghai. The best school in Poland was founded under the Hapsburgs (Krakow). I am sorry, you may know better, but I know of no world class school in Israel, but if there is one my bet is it was founded during the British mandate. It can’t all be a coincidence.

            Threatening the founders out of their legacy was not these minorities finest hour, in fact it was the institution’s ruination. Well I suppose we will never see their best, because maybe building isn’t their talent. Usurping and blood sucking is.

          • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

            but I know of no world class school in Israel,

            Undoubtedly American schools dominate the list of the world’s best universities. Still, your cellphone uses technology developed by Technion graduates.

            Much as I admire how the Brits did colonialism well, and have often mentioned how Israel continues to benefit from Palestine having been a British protectorate, as all Anglosphere countries benefit from British culture, the Technion was established, by Jews, in 1912, when the Ottomans, not the British, ruled the region.

      • AvatarPanzer

        Fuck me for trying to reason with him. If he is indeed real, he must only look in the mirror for the source of everything he thinks is wrong with America. It was ‘Great Society’ asshats like him that are responsible for everything that’s fucked with the west in 2020

        Reply
  4. Avatarstingray65

    Great to have you back Bark, especially when it was my comment that inspired both Baruth brothers to help inform a larger portion of the world about the fine musicianship of Vulfpeck.

    Reply
  5. Avatarstingray65

    In line with my earlier comment – how unique is Vulfpeck in terms of having formal university level music education? I can think of no examples off the top of my head of major pop stars with any formal music education beyond high school band or singing in the church choir, but I can easily think of a large number of famous pop musicians who never learned to read music but who could play a guitar (or piano, drums, bass, etc.) just like a-ringing a bell.

    Reply
    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      John Mayer attended Berklee but dropped out to pursue his music career. Herbie Hancock had formal training from age seven and played with the Chicago Symphony at 11. Hancock has degrees in music and electrical engineering from Grinnell.

      If you don’t go to a music school but do take lessons from a teacher, isn’t that also formal music education?

      David Bromberg, Jorma Kaukonen, and Stefan Grossman may not have attended music schools (Bromberg did take vocal lessons to improve his singing *after* releasing a number of major label albums), but they received the equivalent of PhD’s in fingerstyle guitar as musical disciples of Rev. Gary Davis.

      Reply
      • Avatarstingray65

        Taking piano or guitar lessons from a teacher would in most cases be considered the equivalent of vocational school or an apprenticeship to learn a trade, but university music programs often don’t do much of that and instead focus on music theory, history, and pedagogy (and probably a lot of social justice these days). Those with great natural talent as song writers or musicians seem to get by very well without formal training, but I was curious if others could give examples of top talent who were formally trained and so far not much.

        Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

          Pat Metheny attended Berklee before joining the faculty.

          Miles Davis attended Julliard.

          The more difficult the form of music involved, the higher percentage you’ll find of trained musicians. I’d be surprised if any symphony in the world had a concert master who didn’t have a degree from a major school. Furthermore, many of the studio musicians who actually get the records out the door for the “talented” crowd have plenty of formal training. Today’s pop music doesn’t require training — it doesn’t even require that you play an instrument. There’s software to suggest a chord progression, play the instruments in time for you, and wrap the whole thing up in a produced bundle.

          Reply
          • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

            Steve Lukather said he got a lot of session work because he could sight read, but are there even A-list session players these days?

            Somehow, the stories about Walter Fagen using scores of guitarists to get the perfect solo seem more interesting to me than picking out a specific plug-in. I say that as someone who thinks that in a live performance, a Kemper is probably indistinguishable from a ’59 Bassman, certainly for the audience.

        • AvatarBark M Post author

          University music programs do plenty of that—it’s called “applied music” lessons and they’re mandatory for three years for education programs and four years for performance programs.

          Jack mentioned Pat and Miles, but almost every jazz musician you’ve ever heard of who came to light after 1950 has at least an undergraduate degree and most have advanced degrees. Jazz Studies has become a very widely offered degree program, even in rural, regional colleges.

          Reply
  6. AvatarDougD

    I had no idea about Vulfpeck. Listened to the whole Madison Square Gardens concert this week. Thanks for the tip, those guys look to be having as much fun as I’ve ever seen onstage!

    Reply

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