The word "improvisation" came up several times when I spoke with Bobby Granfelt – drummer/beatmaker/label owner/all-around renaissance man, but for the purposes of this feature, the de-facto leader of the musician collective known as High Pulp – but that word could easily be replaced with "curiosity." Chasing down a muse who has no face to the ends of the earth, High Pulp are not easily categorized; and if you attempted such a laughable feat, you'd have to call them something along the lines of a R&B-free-jazz-soul-funk-samba-vaguely-classical jam band par excellence. At any given moment, the group could have ten members playing music onstage, another running sound, another running lights, and maybe one more filming; and that's not to speak of the guest players, guest singers, and guest artists occupying the stage on a whim. The very nature of High Pulp is deeply rooted in investigating and exploring as many different forms of music as possible while still retaining a signature sound and ethos.
On the heels of dropping their debut full-length Bad Juice last year, the group also released the first installment of their Mutual Attraction trilogy, offering foundational context to the sprawl of their musical vocabulary. Appropriate to the recurring theme of improvising their way to greatness, Mutual Attraction Vol. 1 (out now digitally and long sold out physically through King Underground) tackles three iconic works from exploratory jazz greats Pharoah Sanders ("Astral Traveling"), Sun-Ra ("There are Other Worlds"), and Alice Coltrane (the all-time great "Journey in Satchidanada," which also features Sanders). In the documentary detailing the making of the first two Mutual Attraction EPs, Granfelt explains the group wanted to make something they could proudly present to the original creators of these songs.
Conceptually, each volume of Mutual Attraction contains a richly defined segment of High Pulp's reference base; as Vol. 1 reinterprets African American free jazz, Vol. 2 ventures off of U.S. soil to reimagine works from the great instrumentalists (and crate digger favorites) from France, Brazil, and Japan. Each installment is represented by a different visual artist, and while Granfelt kept the musical details of Mutual Attraction Vol. 3 a secret, he told me the visual artist involved with painting its cover off the record, and believe me when I say it's gonna be a big fucking deal.
Though High Pulp contain enough moving parts to exist in a fully self-contained world, their purpose exists as a community. The Mutual Attraction documentary both explores the environment they've carved out for themselves creatively and invites creative people of all stripes into their sphere of collaboration. Shaina Shepherd, vocalist on 2019 stunner "Broken Little Dolls," rhapsodizes about entering a snooty Columbia City jazz bar and being surprised by seeing all the young people vibing to High Pulp's sound; the music, the players, and the crowd as one entity. Concurrently in our interview, Granfelt explained to me one of the guiding principles of the group is inclusion, which makes me feel the diversity of their sound is just as much a product of the "it takes a village" mentality as it is their reluctance to be pinned down aesthetically. Sitting on his back porch somewhere in Factoria, he guided me through the making of the first two Mutual Attraction installments, its companion documentary, their new record deal, how fucking up provides a little flavor to their style of music, and much more.
KEXP: Much in the spirit of High Pulp, I don't have any questions written down. I'm just doing my best to wing it. Let's start with the roots of improvisation, because I feel as though that's a huge part of High Pulp. Like I feel as though I don't have conversations about the group with anyone without talking about that idea and the fact that you all started with jam sessions in the basement in Greenwood and those residencies at the Royal Room.
Bobby Granfelt: Yeah. I think that, for all of us, playing music that enables you to improvise, allows you to constantly be reaching for something, you know what I mean? And it is just an idea of trying to find that those moments that happen organically and that's where the euphoria is. In the expression for all of us, we all have played in different types of bands and [have] different styles, and playing in certain types of bands where maybe you're playing the exact same thing every night is totally cool.
But I think that for all of us, the improvisation thing is like when you listen to any of the jazz greats that I look up to talk about improvisation and expression -- it's tied in with this meditative vulnerability. It's like sort of like a faith exercise at times. It's like, "Well, I know that this thing that I'm going for could exist." And I know it might not exist. I might fail, you know what I mean? And that's why it's so rewarding to sort of go for it, just putting yourself out there in that way, like there's less makeup that you can put on and be like, "Well, here's who I am as a player on the drums, and I'm going to try to just express myself," and that means that I need to like, really have my facilities in order as a playing the instrument because if I don't -- and I still don't, it's never like a thing you make it to -- but I'm so vulnerable to fall on my face, you know, and that's okay, too, because then you get into the cool parts of messing up and then just repeating the mistake and then that becomes a motif.
I think that improvisation is the energy that is High Pulp, like that is the thing. It's sort of this faith thing where you're like fuck it. "Here we go. I'm naked," you know what I mean? And I think that we found that the music is a little bit more alive when we do that, and it's a little more fun. Also I think that the crowd – playing live is so important to us. And we always have these wonderful connections with the crowd in a way that I haven't had with other bands that are less improvisationally oriented. I think that people can tap into that.
Sometimes I've messed up when we were playing and I'm taking like an open drum solo like – there's this is one [instance], we played Neumos right before the pandemic shut things down. We had a video of it, that's why I remember this specifically; I was in the middle of an open drum solo and I dropped my stick just like [a] big, big, big "uh oh" moment. And I just like I accidentally just let out this scream. Like, "AHHH SHIT," you know? And the crowd – there were like 10 or 15 people that were right next to the drum set. And they just started screaming too. [laughs] And then I just like felt like I got some like super-boost or something, like a video game, and it just pushed through to the end. That sort of thing is cool because it allows you to be vulnerable with the people that are watching you make the music. And I personally like that as a viewer, too, when I'm at shows.
I also like that it helps your chops as a player, too. I feel as though as a writer I have a lot of musical inspiration just because I am obsessed with music and I've been writing about it for so long. I feel as though I don't really have a style because I'm so used to encountering the blank page and just letting it flow. Whether you're talking about any sort of art, it helps your chops to be able to be like, "Okay, I have a style, but I don't have a formula. Here it is." And I think that's the cool thing about High Pulp, is that y'all have so many different styles of music and the improvisational aspect of it helps every style that you pursue because it's just like, "All right, well, we don't really have one style. We're just going out here and feeling it out."
Yeah, it's like a connective tissue that sort of makes it all ... I think about food a lot. I mean, it's like if you have a chef that makes a bunch of different dishes and a bunch of different styles, but you can tell that it's all done by the same chef because of something that's sort of like this underlying thing is, it's not like, "Oh, every time they use cayenne," you know what I mean? It's something that's a little bit more nebulous or subtle than that.
It's more of an emotion than a studied aspect.
And I've grown to appreciate that. I think the more that we've done stuff, the more I try to -- and I think we as a band try to -- embrace the challenge of not being pinned down. It's just sort of, "Okay, how can we keep on going down whatever path it is that we want to go down?" And trusting that because it'll still resonate with people. Because it's still so clearly, hopefully, our vulnerability and our emotion that's in there..
So what was the initial idea for these Mutual Attraction EPs?
It was sort of an idea that I had when I was thinking about how wide the breadth was of people's interpretations of High Pulp. I'd talk to or I hear some people or see somebody write, "Oh, this sounds like this thing. And then this sounds like that thing." And it was sort of like this huge, insane-- it was cool how wide [the base of reference] was. But some of it I was like, "Huh, you hear that? That's wild. I hate that." [laughter] But that's all good. It's no problem.
What I think spurred the Mutual Attraction idea was like, "Okay, yeah, this is sort of a lot to bite off..." Trying to understand the musical DNA of this group of anywhere between-- our collective is [somewhere close to] 20 people within the family, you know what I mean? And I was like, "What if we did a thing that was like a little group of songs that we could gently nudge people in the direction of [our influences]?" This is us saying this is a part of our DNA. So the 60s free jazz stuff: Alice Coltrane and the Sun Ra and the Pharaoh Sanders, [those artists are] hugely influential to us on a musical level and on an aesthetic level.
That's got a theme too, right? Black American jazz, psychedelic free jazz stuff that we are super indebted to. So it made sense that we tried to pay homage to that in some way. And then the second one is Casiopea from Japan, Cortex from France, and Arthur Verocai from Brazil. We don't want to be pinned as just a jazz band. So it sort of made sense for us to bring out a little bit of the crate-digging side of things, where it might be some stuff that's maybe a little less known to people, at least in the States. And also, I like the element that, like, I came to like Cortex through Madvillainy, because Madlib loves that Cortex record and he also loves the Arthur Verocai record. [Writer's note: Madlib sampled Cortex's "Huit Octobre 1971" on "One Beer," originally recorded for Madvillainy but instead appearing on MF DOOM's solo opus MM...FOOD.] I found out about Arthur Verocai because somebody commented on a video of High Pulp and they said, "These guys must love Arthur Verocai.".
And I looked at the band, and none of us knew who Arthur Verocai was. [laughter] Like, "Who the fuck is this?"
And then I started doing a little research and I was like, "This is the shit!" So yeah, [Mutual Attraction is] just about sort of pushing our DNA into certain lanes to let people know, like, "Hey, check this shit out," you know what I mean? Like, if you like us... Don't even listen to us [laughs]. Show love to the to the stuff that really brought us here. Volume 3 is is a secret, but it's going to be something it's it's it's contemporary and it's hugely influential to all of us. And it's going to include strings. It's going to be a 15 piece band.
We're in the process of organizing that right now. But yeah, the Mutual Attraction thing is about trying to pay homage to the things that are influential to us and hopefully simultaneously putting other people on to that stuff.
Was the process of [emphasizing] these different sides of the band and the different volumes of Mutual Attraction intentional at first? Or was it something that was – to bring back the word – improvisational? Did you have the idea initially or were you just like, "Oh, yeah, well, it makes sense to go this direction now"?
It's sort of just a rabbit hole. "Oh, that's cool idea. Oh, what if we do...? Oh, what if it moves chronologically? Oh, what if we have like some geographical element?" And I thought that as you add more volumes to an extent -- three found to be the sweet spot. But if we have three volumes, it sort of reinforces them a little bit as well. And it's not just free jazz covers, you know what I mean? It's completely left, [a] left turn on every one, hopefully.
It was initially only for YouTube, that was the whole thought. It was like, "Oh, let's just do this to hold [us] over." Because we had a record that was done and we were shopping it, and we didn't really want to start writing new shit because it was a little too quick after the record we'd just done. And we wanted to find new musical inspiration and ideas. It was like, "Oh, let's just hold over the time and do this project for YouTube." And it's sort of funny how it just then went, because we started working with a manager who then hooked up with this label and the label was like, "What do you guys have?" And we were like, "Oh, well, we have this this thing that we were just going to do for YouTube." But he's like, "Well, let's put it on vinyl." And then we had the artist that was doing the live painting that wasn't going to be for anything other than just for the vibe of the video. And then we're like, "Well, shit, this is going to be on vinyl. We need a cover." And it's like, "Well, we actually accidentally have this artist already here painting this. Let's do that for the cover.".
So, you know, it's like, when talking about improvisation, I think it's also important to not mystify it too much and talk about it like some mystical thing that's like magic, because it is that, but it's also not that. It's just as much being open and going down the rabbit hole.
Tell me more about the recording of the EP. You mentioned the artist's live rendering, then kind of visualizing this for YouTube. So were you going to film the entire set in the warehouse that you've recorded it in, and then it just turned into something else?
Exactly. And that's what we did like when we signed on with King Underground, which is this super awesome label run by one person in the U.K. We had already done Volume 1 and I think we'd already done Volume 2. I don't really remember at this point, but we had already filmed it and we'd already put it out. We just put it up on YouTube and then they're like, "Oh, let's take it down and let's do this all again." But it wound up being awesome, because now if somebody really likes what they see or what they hear, they can go see it. They can go and watch the YouTube videos.
I like that element because they're all live takes. You know, you're dealing with [audio] bleed and you're dealing with all of the elements of live-ness, you know what I mean? It's like, "Oh shit, Bobby fucked up at the end there and we got to redo it." Or it's like, "Oh, Bobby fucked up at the end there and there is a little bit of spice." Drew Pine is our sound guy. He comes to our rehearsals. We think of him as a full member of the band, so he engineered it all, captured it all live and then mixed it all. And again, I think this whole project -- I sort of touch on it in that in the documentary -- this project is a testament to the community that we have because it's so much bigger than the six, seven, eight, nine, 10 of us that are playing. You know, it's like we have a sound person that's like dedicated. We have a lights person that's dedicated; we have film people. And it's super cool. I feel so lucky and privileged and humbled to have people that are down to follow my silly ideas, you know?
I wrote this down on a whiteboard and I sent them a video. I was like, "What if we do this and this and this?" And everyone was like, "Cool, let's do it." Shit. All right, that's tight. You know, that's cool.
How did you end up selecting the artists that painted live while you all played?
Yeah, I met Eva [Yu Wang], who did the first volume, through AfroSPK. He's a wonderful muralist, an artist around town. He's a good old friend of mine and he's just like super in the scene as far as murals and graffiti and art that's happening with paint in Seattle. [Afro] knows everybody. So he put me on to Eva and I was like, "This is awesome, just do it." And I didn't give her any direction, really. I just said, "Hey, we're going to play and you can just paint." Because again, at that point I didn't know it was going to be for the cover. And then we knew Morgan [Bak] through our buddy Jaycee, who does this really cool graphite shit.
But yeah, it's just all community, you know what I mean? It's all just getting to know people and making things happen. It's all just like the family. It's all the crew. It's not in an exclusive way at all, it's like open door to join the crew. That's sort of the thing that I really want to carry through it, too, because I know how shit can get exclusive, having been on the outside feeling like things are exclusive and being like, "I want to be cool like you guys!" [laughs] I just want everybody to feel like welcome to [feel] like, "Oh, this is this is a crew that I can send my mixes to and say, 'Hey, how's that sound,' or, 'Hey, they might call me to do some painting or whatever.'"
Keeping up with the visual aspect of this project, how did the documentary come about? Was it an idea where it's like, "Well, if we're not going to put these performances on YouTube just yet, should we do this other thing?"
It was Dan's [from King Underground]'s idea. He just was like, "Hey, I think it'd be really cool." Because he knew that had a bigger crew than just the band. He was like, "You guys have like some film people..." I haven't thought about this for a minute. It's actually pretty funny, but he was like, "Yeah, like you should do, you know, just like a three- or four-minute little thing." I got on the phone with him and Phil [also known as P.H. Test] who did the documentary, and the three of us were talking. I was like, "What if we just look at some of these questions and we show some little clips and this and that," And I was like, "It might wind up being like 15 minutes." And he was like, you know, "I really think it'd be better if it's like three or four minutes." And I was like, "Yeah, all right, cool, cool, cool. Like, let me just make an edit. Let Phil just do this thing and make an edit and we'll send it to you." And the first edit we sent was like 18 minutes or something.
So the idea was his, but it was initially to be three minutes. But then we sort of wanted-- we couldn't just be like, "Hey, here's this thing," without, like, adding context. So I felt like -- and Phil felt like the same way -- that to do it, it needed to sort of address like all of the moving pieces and talk about how we even got there and why we're trying to do this.
Yeah, and y'all whittled it down to a solid almost 15 minutes. So yeah, that's cool that it wasn't the sprawling 18 minutes the initial cut was. [laughter]
Yeah. The extra three minutes was just me blabbing, just like talking nonsense. So, you know, it's better without it.
One of the reasons we're doing this interview is because High Pulp is now signed to ANTI-. Tell me how that came about.
Yeah, that was cool. It's pretty wild. Like before the pandemic, we were completely independent. And since then, we signed with King Underground and [Dan] dated a reissue of our first record; he pressed it, remastered it and put it on double LP. And it sounds eons better than the one that we self pressed; it's not even funny. And then he's got all three of the Mutual Attraction [releases]. The second one's coming out sometime soon.
So, like, that was cool and exciting in the first place to be like, oh shit, during this pandemic when everything's falling apart, we're actually lucky enough to have some positive momentum. And then our manager knows Andy, who's the president of ANTI-. Because our manager has done deals for a bunch of other artists with ANTI-, and he sent it to Andy and Andy really liked it and ANTI- is the shit and Andy's the shit, because he didn't care that we only had like two-thousand monthly listeners or something, you know what I mean? I don't know, it seems like a lot of labels won't even look at an artist... And this is not all labels. Like, obviously Sub Pop is the shit. You know what I mean? Barsuk is great. I'm not knocking anything. I'm just saying it was awesome that ANTI- is able to hear a band that they are intrigued by and feel like they want to take a risk.
I just got a text from our manager and he was just like, "I think ANTI- is interested and they want to have a call with you sometime next week." And then that wound up being like six weeks later, [when] we actually had the call. And Andy and I just talked about music for like two hours, maybe. We were talking about old Miles Davis and Stan Kenton and. You know, Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery; we were also talking about Earl Sweatshirt and like some like city pop stuff from Japan. And just like I was like, this dude's knowledge is deep.
So, yeah, it's sort of just one of those like humbling, random experiences that people talk about how that happens in the music industry, like your quote-unquote "break." And it sort of sucks that it has to be that way. At the same time, it can hopefully be hopeful for other bands that are like, "Oh, my numbers aren't here, my Instagram followers... I don't have fifty thousand Instagram followers."-- That at some level, a label might fuck with what you're doing and be like, "Let's do it!"
Final question, where do you see your vision for High Pulp taking you? Not just from a release schedule mindset, but conceptually, is there a vision, or are you just winging it like you do when you go on stage?
It's a mixture of both, I think. I think that some artists that we're really inspired by are like Miles Davis, Radiohead. Frank Ocean. Shabazz Palaces, the Beatles, and the thing that I see all of them having in common, like Alex G – I love Alex G – the thing that all of them have in common, in my opinion, is that they're constantly, like, evolving. Like it's never like, "Oh, here's another Alex G record. Oh, here's The Bends again." Kendrick [Lamar] is another good example. For Frank Ocean to go from Nostalgia, Ultra to Channel Orange to Endless to Blonde to what he's doing now with these singles, that's the thing that we all want to do as far as our music. Just keep our listeners and ourselves on our toes, you know what I mean? And if you lose some people on the way that are like, "Oh, I like Mutual Attraction Volume 1, why don't you do that again?" It's like, you know, that's no disrespect--
You can go listen to it.
Yeah. You know, you can go listen to it. But like, we're not going to do another one. You know, so I think that conceptually it's about pushing the envelope of what we are doing.
I think tangibly, a couple of things that are happening, some of our songs are getting a little shorter. And that's interesting; the next record we do might have three songs that are all 15 minutes. But right now we're writing things that are a little bit more like... There's like a shoegaze element to some of it. This landscape, which I think feels just to me like a little bit of the maturity of the band over the years. Like, there's a little bit more frenetic energy when you just starting and you're like, "Oh, let's do this idea. Let's do that idea. I haven't played with this person before. That thing they're doing is so cool. I want to give that some shine and then I want to do this thing and that." And then here, I think it's sort of aging a little bit more and there's a little bit more patience.
And then I think the last thing is that collaborations are big for us like this record that's going to be coming out on ANTI-. Super excited. We already have a long list of features and collabs that we're excited to have. So, you know, there's enough to go around, that's something that I think I really believe like. There's enough money to go around, there's enough food to go around, there's enough creativity to go around, you know what I mean?
Like in especially in the jazz world, shit gets competitive in a stupid way, just as it does in the punk world. So you've got to wear the right clothes and this and that. Like I was in that world, too. And it's like, we're breaking that shit down; there's enough to go around and I would love to for what we're doing to be like a manifestation of that belief.
Everybody can have a seat at the table.
Exactly! There's enough to go around. I grew up playing at teen centers and then I was doing stuff at Big Building and having a blast sort of in the DIY scene. It's just like everything has is bullshit, right? Every scene has its like holier-than-thou-ness and exclusiveness. It is gatekeeper-ness, you know, whether it's like, "You're not punk and you're not wearing the right clothes, you haven't practiced enough. You don't know this jazz standard," you know what I mean? It's like, dude, damn, so much insecurity! Like, and I'll go out there and say, first of all, I'm insecure too. Right? I'm not coming at this saying like, "Oh, like I'm I'm fucking beyond it. It's like, no, no, I'm not beyond it. I'm like right in the depths of it with everybody. That just makes me feel like it's stupid to do it to everybody else. Ideally, all the music that we are making and as High Pulp is like something even bigger than the music. Like, it's this validating thing which ties back into the first thing you talked about of the improvisation, and that's vulnerability and that's honesty. You need to have this element of sort of self-love to be able to improvise honestly.
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