Those who have come to know The Motet as an Afro-centric band should be happy with the band's directional shift on its eponymous new album. While the African influences that gave the Boulder, Colorado, group its footing in the 1990s can still be heard, The Motet has morphed into a full-fledged classic-funk outfit.
"Our sound over the years has been partially defined by our lineup. At one point, we had at least three percussionists in the band. Now everyone who's involved is centered around playing funk music. That became the base from which we built [the new] songs," says founder and drummer Dave Watts.
Originally conceived as a collective in which musicians come and go, the shapeshifting The Motet has both incorporated growing trends and settled on classic styles. But at the base has always been Afrobeat, a blend of funk, Jimi Hendrix-style guitar licks, and indigenous rhythms popularized by Fela Kuti. Of course, reggae, dub, and electronica have played major roles in shaping the band's sound.
However, funk is at the heart of The Motet's latest lineup. Elements of Parliament Funkadelic (and other George Clinton offshoots), Earth, Wind & Fire, Commodores, James Brown, Roy Ayers, and Prince fill the band's new album. It's vintage boogie music that offers nary a moment's respite.
"We've been playing with the same lineup for the last two and a half years. Our strength comes from having performed [during that period] all this music from great '70s funk artists," Watts says of the seven-piece ensemble. "That's our favorite music in the world, and the best thing we can do is bring some of those elements into what we do. It builds our vocabulary up so much around that genre that it feels appropriate to bring it to this record."
The album also builds on the current lineup's relative stability, which has led to tighter cohesion in the studio and greater contribution from band members in the songwriting and production processes. Previously, Watts almost exclusively wrote and arranged the band's songs, many of which were instrumentals.
"We [now can] see the power in a great song that has vocals," he says. "It really feels more like a band than ever. The new album is self-titled for a reason. It feels like a new beginning for us because this lineup feels solid, and we've reached a musical place we've never been before."
The Motet's current tour focuses heavily on new material but also presents old favorites that can be expanded through the channels for free-form improvisation.
"We've always been really good at taking a song and manipulating it to have more interest for the live situation," Watts says. "We're one of the few bands that will improvise from scratch. We'll get into areas where we don't have anything written for the parts. We'll just make things up. Those are the most exciting parts of the night."
Is there any worry about getting lost in the jam or falling off a musical cliff?
"We're not afraid of that," Watts says with a laugh. "We don't know exactly what's coming next, and we all feed off the unknown territory. I think the audience feeds off it, too. It's some of the best music we make."
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The Motet is scheduled to perform Thursday, February 6, at Last Exit Live.