BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
“If you are playing it with your loved one, I’m sure it will make you want to do certain things that I can’t talk about.” According to master musician Tal Bergman, that is the affect his stellar all-star group Rock Candy Funk Party’s new album will have on you while listening to the irresistibly funky 14 original cuts and tantalizing two covers found on the aptly titled Groove Is King. In other words, if you’re not moving and grooving while listening to this sometimes sexy, decidedly danceable and audibly awe-inspiring record, you might want to check for a pulse.
The primary players that serve up the sweet sound of Rock Candy Funk Party include Bergman on drums, ace axe man Joe Bonamassa on guitar, fellow six-string superstar Ron DeJesus on guitar, phenomenal four-string star Mike Merritt on bass and organ and piano potentate Renato Neto on keys. If funk, rock, jazz, R&B, dance, electronica, or all of the aforementioned, is your thing, Groove Is King is the one record you’ve been waiting for your entire life. I recently had the pleasure of discussing the disc with Bergman, who in addition to holding down the beat, also served as the album’s producer.
Well I’ve been playing drums since I was six years old. I studied classical percussion for many years. All the rest of percussion and drums I’m still studying; it never ends (laughs). Originally I’m from Israel and I moved here to the States in 1982.
Give us a brief rundown of some of the big-name stars that you’ve had the pleasure of working with in the past.
I know it’s a long list (laughs).
I know! I’ve played with everyone from Billy Idol to [Austrian jazz keyboardist and composer] Joe Zawinul.
That’s a wide list, and I’ll touch on a few more in the conversation. I wanted to ask you about the great Joe Bonamassa; for all the guitar fans that will read this piece, what makes Joe such a phenomenal player? Is it his technique? His sound? The gear? His vibe? Talk about Joe’s playing.
Well first of all, when he plays, you know it’s him. I know that Joe’s really into all the guitars and the gear and he likes all the vintage stuff, and this and that; in reality, I think it’s all in his fingers. It doesn’t matter what he plays, it’s gonna sound great because it’s the way he touches the instrument, it’s the way he sings and the way he phrases things. He’s the kind of guy that naturally can take a solo for 10 minutes and he’s just gonna keep going and you’re not gonna get bored. It’s like he tells you a story. The chops for him, a lot of times are like the way it should be, are an instrument to say what you have to say. Even though he can do all the guitar hero stuff or whatever, he knows that it’s not about that. He naturally has the full control of the instrument, but he usually chooses wisely what not to do. And he grows all the time; he’s like a sponge, he needs to learn something or work on something. When we’re working with the Rock Candy Funk Party, he has a very, very open mind for stuff, and he comes up with great ideas that you wouldn’t think would be coming from him because people know him from all the blues-oriented stuff.
So I guess maybe in summary, what makes Joe, Joe, and what makes him so special, is the choices that he makes on his instrument.
Yeah! Yeah! I don’t think he even has to think about it because it comes to him naturally; he’s a natural player and he really, really, really loves music.
His passion shows, for sure.
Yeah, and he loves the challenge.
…that you recorded, Groove is King, which features 14 original tracks and two covers. The album opens with the master of ceremonies, “Mr. Funkadamus” Tell us who’s behind that voice.
Well, no other than Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
Absolutely. He definitely sets the mood.
It came about when Joe had an idea about having somebody announce the record, and I thought it was a great idea. So I asked Joe, “Who do you think would be the perfect guy?” So he said the perfect guy would be Billy Gibbons.
Again, Joe making the right choices!
He really has a knack for seeing the whole picture.
I wanna ask you about the video for the song “Don’t Be Stingy with the SMPTE,” but first, for the uninitiated, what does SMPTE stand for?
It’s a time code (defined by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers). It’s what they used to use on tape and in movies; it’s the minutes and seconds. Back in the day when you used to work with analog tape, the last track was always SMPTE. So when you wanna lock one machine to the next, they have to be in sync, and that’s what kept them in synch, was the time code. So, don’t be stingy with the SMPTE is like, you know, don’t f**k with the groove.
(Laughs) There you go! So tell me who came up with the eye candy-filmed treatment for the video? Don’t tell me it was Joe again (laughs).
No, no. It was (director) Martin Guigui. He plays keyboards, he’s a producer, but he’s also a director who does features. But the idea for this video, I thought that instead of seeing again the same bunch of guys sitting in the studio playing and being so serious, especially that track itself which is pretty much an all the way disco track from the late 70s, early 80s instrumental, I thought it would be really funny to just bring in a bunch of good looking girls and have them pretend to play, even though they can’t play to save their ass. And maybe somehow it will pull people in and they’ll get the joke, because it’s a tongue-in-cheek thing about all those videos back in the day. You know, like the Robert Palmer [“Addicted to Love” video] and all that stuff.
Well it’s an effective piece of work. It certainly is eye-catching, and like I said earlier, eye candy, for sure.
Yeah because as serious as we are as players, the idea of this music is really for people to feel good.
Well job well done on that front. Now let me ask you this; you do two covers, Peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt” and, appropriately, “Rock Candy,” a great instrumental track originally recorded in 1969 by Brother Jack McDuff. First of all, what did you guys think you could add to “Digging in the Dirt?”
It’s very dangerous to touch a song like that with an instrumental, while making sure that it doesn’t sound like Muzak. So I totally thought that the groove itself, if you listen to it, it’s very, very funky; the groove of the original is really, really strong. It was actually Joe’s idea. When he threw out that song I said, definitely! First of all, I love Peter Gabriel, and I loved the challenge to try to do something instrumental but with a very, very high production value. We played the melody with an acoustic doubling with an electric and suddenly it worked.
I want to ask you about the last track on the record, which I describe as sonically schizophrenic; “The Fabulous Tales of Two Bands.”
(Laughs) Is that okay to say?
(Laughs) Definitely! Yep!
It features a sample of the 1997 hit “Firestarter” from The Prodigy…
It’s not a sample. It’s the same idea, but nothing is from the original; it’s all done by us. The idea was of the main pocket, like the nastiness of the groove that goes on the downbeat because it’s a nasty groove on that tune. All the drums and all that stuff, those are live; it’s a real band playing.
Great. Thank you for the clarification there, Tal, because I used the word “sample” but I’m glad that you clarified, so again, thank you for that.
Tal, if this song isn’t yet the soundtrack to a rollercoaster ride somewhere, then I’m gonna only need two percent of the cut for suggesting first that it should be. The track is a ride, again, with the different tempo changes and everything. It’s a great one. Obviously it’s one of my favorites on the record.
Mine, too. I love this track because, first of all, the idea of a track like that is to really break rules, and “The Fabulous Tales of Two Bands” shows that even styles that are so opposite from each other – that you would think – can really work together if you embrace those styles, and you’re not going, like, oh, this is too techno, we can’t do that, that’s not cool, or this is going too much like Zeppelin, we can’t do that. We live in a world where everything is intertwined. Great music is great in any style. Pretty much nobody tells us what do, so I want to explore everything. If we can play it, then it’s us. That track and all the stuff is really based on people playing in one room together with an interplay between them.
I’m glad that you brought up the room. I have two more questions; after watching the in-studio Behind the Groove DVD that comes in the package, I was struck by the amount of freedom that each musician had to toss out ideas or add parts to the sound of the record. I assume it must take a ton of trust and mutual respect to work with such an elite group of guys to eventually reach musical consensus, correct?
Yeah, but you know when you have the right people it’s easier than you think. We know that when we go into the room, we leave the egos outside. The idea is that everybody plays what’s right for the music; they’re all playing for the good of the music. And naturally, between Ron and Joe, for whatever reason – because they are different kind of players, but they are both killer players – they have a lot of respect for each other. I make sure that the counter play is really, really good before we go in to tape. But you cannot create it unless you have four or five people in a room who are really, really listening when they’re talking to each other. What’s most important when you play is to listen and you know what not to play. And believe me, if somebody plays a little bit too much, everybody’s looking at them (laughs).
Well it’s definitely fascinating to be a fly on the wall, watching you guys work and construct on the DVD that comes with the Groove is King package. Thank you for shooting those sessions because it really gives you great insight. Final question for you, Tal; in the bio for Groove is King you said, “There are many things that you wanna do when you listen to this record, some of them I can’t mention here. Have fun(k).” How would you like people to listen to this album?
Wow. I would love for them to listen to it at night, when everything is dark, and play it loud and get lost in it. It will take you for a ride. If you are playing it with your loved one, I’m sure it will make you want to do certain things that I can’t talk about. You can do other stuff while you listen to it and it will change the atmosphere in the room when this record is on, because the fact that it’s instrumental music, it leaves a space for your imagination, to put your stuff on top of it.
No doubt. And in addition to all that, you can totally dance to it.
Of course, of course. Look, this record was done for everybody, not just for musicians.
Well, Tal, I promise to do my part to spread the word.
Thank you very much. Thanks. Bye.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Tal Bergman of Rock Candy Funk Party, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.