The Chicago doom-funk band discuss their evolution and becoming auteurs.
If you see Maxx McGathey, bandleader of Gramps the Vamp, walking around Chicago with headphones on, there’s a good chance he’s not listening to music. Or a podcast. Or whatever the kids are into these days. When the band was writing the songs that ultimately became their new self-titled album, McGathey roamed the streets, he says, “listening through hours and hours of old-time radio shows.”
No, he is not the “Gramps” for whom his band is named. He is just one man, out of eight (including bassist Kevin Holt, drummer Stevenson Valentor, guitarist Mike Novak, and Peter Gillette on trumpet, Nick Justin Howe on tenor sax, Nick Bush on alto sax, and Eli Wilson on bari sax), working hard to bring you a genre known as “doom-funk.”
Before embarking on this journey of horror and groove, Gramps the Vamp, who play Circle Bar tonight at 10 p.m., were an ordinary house party band. “The band started when I went to college, Loyola University of Chicago, and formed from mostly other students that were at the school with me,” says McGathey. “I got the band together just to play songs, covers.” But their first gig one Halloween night was such a good time that they started experimenting with a more ominous sound. Within a few years, the band’s focus shifted completely. This is where the radio shows come in.
“Once we decided Okay, we’re gonna tell these stories that are sort of like horror, and sci-fi, and darker things, with the music, it really took off running from there. And all these ideas started coming out.” They started thinking of each song as a soundtrack, with an intro, a buildup, and an at times grisly end. To make the music even more cinematic, the band added samples from mid-century radio serials and movies like Night of the Living Dead.
The album, however, rises above its potentially campy premise to deliver satisfying, tight-as-a-rope funk. "Doppelgänger" is slinky seduction with a side of lurking swamp monster toward the end, and "Talisman" could be a horn-powered backdrop to those meddling kids figuring out it was the mayor the whole time! It’s perfect party music, whether your house is haunted or not. And on their next album, coming out next year, the tension is only going to increase.
After contributing four songs to the short film Demonoid 1971, Gramps the Vamp decided to make their 2016 record a full-blown soundtrack. “We’re gonna get into the studio this winter and a lot of the songs we are writing are made as hypothetical soundtracks, and we’re trying to make it more of a cohesive story as if the entire album is a soundtrack to one film with certain themes that come back and repeat.” They’ve even been talking about hiring actors to voice recurring characters. “We’re writing more and more as if we’re writing for film now. So even if we don’t get asked to do [another soundtrack], it’s still a part of our creative process,” McGathey explains.
The band sees itself continuing to evolve in the future, and is happy to provide Chicago with some much needed doom funk. “We’ve been a little bit a part of the funk scene in Chicago, but the more and more we get a little bit over to the doom side of things instead of the funk side if you will, we tend to go more and more into our own direction. And there’s not so many bands that I can think of which I would say are part of our circuit or our scene. Honestly, that’s one of the really rewarding things about making this kind of music is that I don’t think anyone else is doing it. I want to hear this kind of music so, if no one else is doing it, I want to create it.”
But they are also eager to share their specialty genre outside of Chicago. “Hopefully this next record, we can get it out to a much bigger audience next year, and if it breaks us through a little farther than we are, then great. It’s all pretty much gravy as long as we can make it so it’s self-sustaining,” McGathey says. “As long as we can afford to keep doing it, I think we will.”