Mad Scientist of Groove
Mad Scientist of Groove
A Q&A with George Hrab
Of the Philadelphia Funk Authority
By Geoff Gehman
The best advice that George Hrab, the drummer in a dance band, ever gave his son, also named George Hrab and also the drummer in a dance band, was to imagine himself driving a stage coach onstage. Treat drumsticks as reins, musicians as horses, rooms as plains. Relish and respect the power to change a gallop to a stampede with a flick of the wrist or foot.
The younger Hrab practices his father’s wisdom while harnessing a stage coach called the Philadelphia Funk Authority, a truly dynamic ensemble equally adept at concerts and weddings. He guides his comrades through agile, whip-smart, authoritative versions of everything from “Boogie Shoes” to “I’ll Take You There,” “Sex Machine” to “Get Up Offa That Thing.” He and his mates are mindfully gleeful whether they’re salsa-fying Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” or making Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” dirtier and loopier.
Hrab, 42, is even more of a mad scientist of groove outside the Funk Authority. He fronts the Geologic Orchestra, which includes PFA musicians and which plays intricate, astral pieces by Hrab and his hero, Frank Zappa. His podcasts are reverent, irreverent revues of music, musical analysis, news, commentary, comic sketches and the ponderings of an atheist (“Readings from not The Bible”) who’s also a skeptic (“Things People Love That Actually Suck”). The programs, which originate from Hrab’s Web site www.geologicrecords.net, allow him to catch up with his mother Myra, who occasionally gets down by reading lyrics by Jay-Z, the renowned cosmologist.
On Oct. 19 Hrab will drive the PFA all over the Mauch Chunk Opera House. In a recent phone interview he discussed everything from dissecting James Brown to his mom teaching him to dance funky.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: The first song that really got me, when I was 11 or 12, was Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.” I remember being so intrigued by the sound, the mechanics, the story, the timbre, the video. I wondered about that old man in the background of the video: Is he the real Thomas Dolby? Is he the man who invented Dolby Stereo? So many rumors were going around our school. [“She Blinded Me with Science”] was a progenitor to my musical interests, the nerd part of me, at a time when I don’t think “nerdy” was even a term. I thought it was great that here was one of us, doing this music thing.
Q: What was the first funk song that floored you, that made you feel that funk could be your calling?
A: I began with pop funk more than straight funk. I liked Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You.” I knew Stevie Wonder played harmonica and that he was an important person. The first sort of funk-pop band I heard was probably Duran Duran, with “Girls on Film” or “Rio.” I really liked this funky bass pattern coming out of these very attractive English gentlemen dolled up in mascara.
At the end of college I was really digging into James Brown. I was dissecting “Sex Machine,” the weird imprecise precision of the component parts. To dissect and duplicate those four-bar grooves in a James Brown record or a Motown record was magically elusive. I spent so many hours thinking: Why do four bars in 4/4 sound so funky?
Q: Did you pick up any valuable lessons about life in a band from your dad George, who’s been drumming in the same group since 1959?
A: My dad was my first drum teacher. He taught me how to hold the sticks and rudimentary things. The best piece of advice he gave me is: You have to remember that as the drummer you’re driving the stage coach ; the horses’ reins are in your hands. Whether you pull back on the reins or give them free rein is what determines where and how fast the horses travel. That image of a Wells Fargo stage-coach rider, driving horses across the plain, is especially appropriate for a funk band; it really rings true with me.
Watching my dad do his weekend-warrior thing taught me that the world of music is a different world. We would be backstage at a festival and he would point out that this is the audience world and this is the performance world and there’s a definite line between the two. There’s still a big part of me that gets itchy when I’m in the audience. It could be an amazing performance but I still want to be out front working.
It meant a lot to me to see my dad maintain that balance between his onstage life and his offstage life. It’s important to remember that although the stage is fantastic, it’s not real. It’s important to be humble and to respect the space where you’re performing. I’m not a religious person but my church is the stage, whether it’s a literal stage or the corner of a bar.
Q: As a skeptic and an atheist do you believe that playing music is a form of faith?
A: I don’t know if it’s a faith thing. Faith is the belief in something without evidence. Trust is understanding that things have worked a certain way in the past and almost certainly will work the same way in the future. I trust that [PFA bassist] Vinnie [Puccio] will play the funkiest parts and that Jill [Gaudious] and Alisa [B. Anderson] will sing their hearts out. I don’t necessarily have faith in them but I trust that they’ll do their job.
But it’s completely the ritual that I value. Playing music is a religious event—even though we’re playing James Brown.
Q: Your mother Myra is a regular part of your podcast, where you sometimes have her read Jay-Z lyrics. Is there anything you learned from her that guides you as a musician and/or band leader?
A: Mom is very musical too. She has a great voice. She’s always really good at harmonizing; in church I would hear her making up harmony things on the spot. Mom was a band widow and my sister and I would see what it meant to be alone on a Saturday night. But she never brought it up with my dad; she never complained to him. She knew it was Important to him and also financially important to the family. Her attitude was: Do what you have to do; get the job done. It can be worse—way worse. Her positive, supportive attitude has been very influential .
She’s also a really good sport. On the show she reads a verse or two and I put some beats behind it and we catch up. When the Geologic Orchestra did a DVD, she read Jay-Z lyrics and it was the best part of the night; she just destroyed. It was a real highlight of my genetic heritage, my Hrabness.
Q: What was on your mind in 1999 when you christened the Funk Authority? What needs did the band fulfill?
A: I had left Moravian [College], where I was the music librarian and facility coordinator for the music department—basically, the guy with all the keys. Although it was a cool job I was turning down music work. So I got a job with Vital Link, a popular jazz/fusion group in the [Lehigh] Valley. Then I sort of slid into the PFA, never thinking we’d be doing it for the next 15 years. Early on we decided to play music at weddings that could do the job without being cliched. We thought: Why can’t you have an awesome wedding band that’s known for not being cheesy, that doesn’t do “The Electric Slide” or “The Macarena”—although we don’t put down wedding bands that do those songs. The goal was how can we put our own sense of fun, our own spirit, into a song like “Brick House”? It’s inherently simple but it’s tricky to play it in the right groove, with the right tempo and attitude. To do that, you almost have to refurbish it.
Or take Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” which every band is required by law to play at some point. Most ensembles play it incorrectly. They gloss over anomalous bits in the original arrangement. When we do it correctly, something will register and people will go: Hey, that sounds like the original version.
Again, it’s going back to that reverence. It’s that reverence that keeps you going through all the drudgery: the car repairs; carrying gear through kitchens. I say this all the time: If I have 20 seconds of a goose bump-inducing groove, if all the pins and needles of the locks line up during a four-hour night, that’s a good night. It’s like Willy Wonka says: We’re the music makers, the dreamers of dreams.
Q: Give me an example of one of your most far-out arrangements. I know you like to add “some rice and beans” to Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”
A: Recently we’ve been putting our own spin on Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back.” We perform an arrangement by Dirty Loops, who completely rearrange pop songs by the likes of Adele and Prince and Britney Spears in the coolest, weirdest way. I introduce it by saying: “This is done by a former member of ’N Sync, arranged by three Finnish fusion players, and played by a band from Philadelphia with cheesesteaks on its breath.”
Q: You guys have a massive repertoire, as well suited for a concert as a wedding. I can understand why you play “Hey Ya” and “Moves Like Jagger.” But you have to tell me where “Taxman” and “Jersey Girl” fit in.
A: If we have a gig around tax time, we’ll play “Taxman”; it’s a commiserating song. We’re also all Beatle fans. We used to do an arrangement of “I Am the Walrus” that was really funky, with horns. “Jersey Girl” is one of those wedding staples; we played it just last night during a wedding gig at a club near the beach in Long Branch. We might not pull it out at a PFA event but if you want it, we can do it. We can also do a flute-and-guitar duo or a piano-and-flute duo or a brass quartet. We do everything from ceremony music to the big finale, which could be something like “Love Train.”
Q: What’s the most satisfying part about being a band director?
A: Few things are as satisfying as putting together a good set of two or three hours of music. Is it an indoor gig? Is it an outdoor gig? What are the demographics? Should the next song be slow or fast? You want to vary the four singers; you don’t want the same singer singing lead on three songs in a row. . It’s like a unique crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube. You’re putting a puzzle together without even knowing about the picture on the box.
Q: What’s the most frustrating part about being a band director?
A: Everyone in the band is so good at doing their homework. They learn their parts from an MP3 posted on the Web site and they show up at weddings totally prepared. You’d be shocked at how little we rehearse. They’re usually so good, it’s phenomenal. But when things don’t work the right way, it can be a little disappointing. Outside influences can be distracting. When someone changes the parameters or changes set times or there’s a bad sound man—that’s difficult. It’s difficult to show up at a gig and learn that we have five square feet and we can’t be louder than an iPod plugged into your car. Well, then, if you feel that way, why would you hire a nine-piece band?
It’s already inherently impossible what we’re doing–nine disparate people performing songs for strangers. But we’re very good at adapting. Two weeks ago at a wedding we set up my drum riser outside the tent. Of course it rained. So I had to cover my head with a huge golf umbrella from my car. The best part was that you couldn’t see it from inside the tent, even though we MacGyvered the whole thing with chewing gum. That was very satisfying.
Q: Are there any ways that the Funk Authority has been infiltrated by your Geologic Orchestra? Do you sometimes squeeze a Frank Zappa tune or a portion of a Zappa tune among the soul and funk numbers?
A: Well, “I Am the Walrus” started out as a Geologic arrangement. And there was one night at the Sellersville [Pa.] Theater where Geologic opened for Funk and we played “Age of the Fern,” which is off my very first [solo] record. We kind of do a Weird Al by doing the final verse of that song in the style of a cover of another song: “Whole Lotta Love,” “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” “Brick House,” “By the Light of the Moon,” “Rio.” See how it all goes back to that first funky bass line that really got me?
Q: Your mom’s favorite tune is Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Did you have a major hand in making it her favorite and, if so, how else have you changed her listening habits?
A: She’ll request that whenever she’s coming to a show. Her fondness for it may have predated my existence; my playing it for her may have brought it back to the forefront of her fondness. What I do know is that her great singing and her great dancing have hammered their way into my heart. Mom was the first person to teach me how important it is to dance inherently funky.
Q: So, George, I have a programming proposal for you. How about pairing Booker T & the M.G.’s’ “Green Onions,” which is already in your wheelhouse, with Steely Dan’s “Green Earrings,” which isn’t in your wheelhouse?
A: And then we’ll do some “Green Dolphin Street’ and some Al Green songs to keep it going.
George Hrab: The Scoop
At age four he was singing and conducting along to a recording of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, essential training for a future band leader.
His band, the Philadelphia Funk Authority, includes trumpeter Andy Kowal, Hrab’s cousin and the son of Ernie Kowal, who in 1959 founded the dance band Tempo with Hrab’s father George.
“Occasional Songs for the Periodic Table,” his 118-part composition, has been performed at a Las Vegas convention and on a boat around the Galapagos Islands
He’s the only extant musician to title a CD “Coelacanth,” a reference to a rare order of fish.
He fondly remembers a Funk Authority gig at the Mauch Chunk Opera House where most of the balcony dwellers boogied onto the first floor and danced their fool booties off. “That was an irrefutable moment of joy and fun.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. This is his first interview with the endlessly intriguing George Hrab, with whom he shares an affection for Frank Zappa and Talking Heads. He can be reached at email@example.com.