Photo from Hardproofmusic.com.
Texas may be known for a lot of things, but derivative African culture is not typically one. Unless, of course, you consider Hard Proof, an Austin-based collective of ten musicians pulling together the roots of sound from sub-Saharan Africa along with the innovation and social legacy of the late great Fela Kuti to make music.
The Afrobeat band began with an inspiration towards funk, jazz and international dance rhythms, and now performs incessantly, taking the stage with the likes of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Ocote Soul Sounds, Echocentrics, The Calm Blue Sea and Cougar. They pay tribute to Kuti’s vestige, putting their own flair on his resounding works, and additionally, they are building a strong catalog of originals stirred by his movement – dark, hypnotic, spirited and transcendental. Their eponymous debut album was released in 2010, and since then, the band has blasted, banged, strummed and harmonized their way to shows around the country, earning a new residency at The Continental Club in Austin beginning this month.
BTR discussed past legends and future makings with Hard Proof and here’s what they had to say.
BTR: How do you keep African music alive in Texas?
Hard Proof: Well, it’s always existed, probably longer than music from anywhere else, right? Somehow there’s an audience for what we’re doing here.
BTR: The group’s pretty big (Stephen Bidwell – Drums, Tommy Spampinato- Percussion, Tony Cruz – Congas, Joe Sokolik – Bass, Aaron Sleator -Guitar, Gerardo Larios – Guitar/Keyboards, John Branch – Guitar, Joe Woullard – Bari Sax/Flute, Jason Frey – Tenor Sax, Derek Phelps -Trumpet) – what’s the dynamic like and how did you all happen to fit together?
HP: For the most part, we were all friends or had played in other projects together before this. Our original keyboard player had Joe Woullard play on his indie rock record; I had played free-jazz with Derek; we all played at a restaurant together regularly and pulled the rest of a band together. Aaron is the only one who came from Craigslist I think, but he was in a band with a grad school classmate of mine by coincidence. So dynamic-wise, I guess we’re like any other band. That might change after a few weeks in a van, but for the moment there’s a good family vibe.
BTR: Authenticity is critical in an international art form – what do you think has helped prove you are astute in this genre of music?
HP: I don’t know that our original music could be called authentic per se, as while we’re attempting to play in African styles, we grew up in many different experiences. We have certainly done our best as a group to immerse ourselves in the music we love, which in this project happens to be from different regions of Africa. So we always play cover material to stay attuned to that, but with the original material, we adapt what we’ve absorbed from African funk and pop music to our own experience. That runs the gamut with this crew, musically and otherwise.
BTR: What are you working on right now and where can your fans find you?
HP: We tracked some new stuff with Adrian Quesada (of Grupo Fantasma) producing last month, we’re still mixing and trying to figure out how to release it. We’ve got a residency at the famous Continental Club every Tuesday in August. The first set will be devoted to an artist or region of particular inspiration to us as a group, and the second set to our own material. We’re also playing with some bands we really admire at Utopiafest in September, and our first show on the big stage outside at Stubb’s the same weekend. We’re slowly getting in touch with other big festivals around the country and trying to figure out how to more out of town stuff with ten guys. Touring isn’t completely out of the question for the future, but will take some finagling given our other projects, day jobs, mortgages, families, etc.
BTR: Fela Kuti is a big inspiration to you – what makes him such an innovator in music? Do you also similarly apply politically-driven prerogatives to your work and life?
HP: Wow. That’s a bottomless question. You’re asking about a man who fused his own music and experience, with elements of more western styles, both politically and musically. So, he was bringing back to Nigeria what he picked up in a British music conservatory, from James Brown records, and from the Black Panther party, and somehow it was all highly danceable and entertaining, yet could incite riots. No wonder we’re all still talking about him 40 years on.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t say our music is overtly political… but it would be kind of hard to pull that off as an all instrumental act. We’ve all got our own causes, and it’s not like we’re just copping the music and ignoring the political history involved in the form. We all have the utmost respect for the struggles that created the music that inspired all of this.
BTR: What’s a good drink to order when coming to a Hard Proof show?
HP: Hmmmm. Depends on the venue. A tallboy of Lonestar and a shot of well bourbon sounds about right, if it helps you get on the dance floor.
BTR: What’s been the best day in the life of your band?
HP: The release party for the first album was pretty great. That was at the ill-fated Ghost Room, which was a great fit for us as far as venues go. I can also remember playing for two straight hours on a boat being a lot of fun. Sharing bills with the Kashmere Stage Band and with Budos Band was pretty amazing. SXSW went extremely well for us last year. We’ve had some great energy at our Continental Club shows thus far, so hopefully we can match that during this residency coming up.
BTR: Who’s someone would really like to perform for – dead or alive?
HP: Miles Davis and Fela himself… so they could both shake their heads and walk out together, probably to go get Heinekens and discuss whatever visionaries discuss when they meet.
BTR: Best lesson you’ve learned in life?
HP: Another bottomless question…I have learned plenty the hard way. Eat right, get a good night’s rest, and drink plenty of water. There you go.
Listen to Hard Proof on your favorite BTR shows all week long! You can also check Hard Proof’s music out on Soundcloud!