Interview: Vulfpeck’s Jack Stratton talks production and confidence in changing sound

Dec. 8, 2016, 9:16 p.m.

I sat down with Jack Stratton, separated by the length of California, for an extensive telephone interview on November 6, ranging in discussion from his production techniques on certain tracks to fan theories about his birth. The bandleader of the funk band Vulfpeck, Stratton comes fresh off of the band’s new record “The Beautiful Game,” a solid record that really advanced his use of post-recording and mixing techniques.

Before even talking about their new album, Stratton detailed Vulfpeck’s rise, which on its own is an inspiring one, especially to college students. Beginning as an off-the-cuff jam session between some separately freelancing music school students, the group has since risen to much greater prominence, playing at the likes of Bonnaroo and “The Late Show” and hitting the Billboard charts with their newest effort. To understand their current rise, we must understand their origin and exposition. The beginning of Vulfpeck is one of simple admiration and college bonding.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Before we get into “The Beautiful Game,” I would love to just start from the beginning and get kind of a brief history as to how Vulfpeck met.

Jack Stratton (JS): Sure. I stayed in Ann Arbor a year after college, which I recommend to all Stanford students, to spend a year in Ann Arbor. I’m just kidding, but it was a glorious year, and that’s when I put the group together. I’ve always wanted to play with Theo [Katzman] and Woody [Goss], and I had been in a band with Joe Dart and made it my life’s mission to spread the good word of Joe Dart from that point forward.

And so we got together for a session, and the school studio put it on YouTube. Someone in the comments demanded we put it on iTunes. I logged in. … There was a couple hundred bucks, and we spent that on the next.

TSD: So that was the song “Beastly”. That was your first jam session?

JS: Yeah.

TSD: Wow. So, did you guys kind of get your start in music in college?

JS: We were all in the music school, doing our different things, and professionally, I grew up playing in my dad’s klezmer band. As far as having my own group really working, it started to really click when I was 25, as far as it potentially being a career rather than freelancing. But yeah I’ve been doing music professionally with my dad for a long time, and everyone in [Vulfpeck] was working, doing gigs and stuff throughout college. We were all itching to get out of college and play music professionally, but it was also where we all met, so it was totally part of the story.

Focusing more on the new record, Stratton not only cites his growing mixing prowess to the new sound on the record, he also attributes the difference in production styles from those of previous albums to just having more money to spend on equipment and session musicians.

TSD: What’s the biggest difference [in sound] between “The Beautiful Game” and your previous records?

JS: I mean I got actual studio monitors [after our last album], so the mixes sound quite a bit different, kind of more studio-monitor-like, you know. That was a big shift, letting go of any idea of cogency stylistically. I mean it’s so hilariously all over the map, just trying to honor any given style vocabulary all throughout. Gotta keep doing crazy stuff, and we’re already thinking of more crazy stuff. … Yeah, I mean there are musicians on here that I wouldn’t have wanted to make them do a session without the proper session fee, so I spent quite a bit more on it. Like with Jamire Williams, you do not want to waste his time. He’s a complete legend. So in that sense, as it’s growing, I’m going to keep doing that, and that’s a big part of what I want to spend the money on, on legends.

Central to Vulfpeck’s greater vision is the idea of the 60s rhythm band, à la Motown. While Vulfpeck has released records showing off their own instrumental expertise, their ultimate goal seems to be to go further than that, to “[provide] instrumentals that can stand on their own, backing up great singers with great songs.” Vulfpeck seeks to become a modern version of The Funk Brothers, the phenomenal, largely ignored backing band of numerous Motown number-one hits.

Rather than resign to liner note obscurity, Vulfpeck is a standalone instrumental band first, both to honor and practice uniquely emulating the 60s rhythm band, and as Stratton and the band have progressed in confidence and sound, they have taken on more “style vocabularies,” bringing on more and more instrumental and vocal guest artists, expanding their reach and stylistic prowess. Though their chemistry as a quartet has advanced to impressive levels, Jack Stratton acknowledges that there is a lot of room to grow, especially in instrumentally accompanying a vocalist.

JS: … Also figuring out what translates is fun, like I don’t think we’ve given Antwaun [Stanley] a proper song yet. He covered “Simply Beautiful” by Al Green and completely destroyed harder than I’ve ever seen any performer, so we need to give him a serious ballad. So yeah, as the records go on, we’re trying to learn the whole A&R of getting people the right song.

However, Vulfpeck’s tall order of properly venerating their vocalists instrumentally doesn’t scare Stratton off from moving in the direction of more vocals.

TSD: Do you think that Vulfpeck is moving towards becoming more vocal-focused, backed by your instrumentation?

JS: Yeah, I want people to perceive it as we put in the time to get tight as a rhythm section instrumentally, and now we’re ready to start backing up these amazing vocalists, provide a nice tight groove for them because we put in the work trying just on our own. I’m very excited about that, and it was kind of a part of the initial vision to be backing people up.

Upon asking what vocalists they’d be willing to back, I brought up a recent mashup album of Vulfpeck instrumentals and popular hip hop songs that has been circulating widely among fans and if he’d be willing to work with a rapper.

TSD: I was wondering if you guys ever considered maybe featuring a hip hop artist or working as a featured performer for a rapper?

JS: Oh yeah, absolutely. We want to do some of that. I always thought we’d be sampled by now, but that’s just not happening. Yeah, I’m a big fan of Anderson .Paak and Knowledge and Kendrick Lamar’s new albums. So yeah, I’m open to it. I’m not too knowledgeable, so it would have to be someone else kind of calling the shots, but definitely.

SD: So if you guys feel comfortable with it, maybe a part of Vulfpeck’s future?

JS: Yeah, we’re trying to get sampled somehow. I don’t know how it works. Some of this stuff, like Fugue State and basically that “Vulfmatic” record, proved it. [Our music] is great for sampling, so hopefully it’ll get in the hands of the right producers.

In Jack Stratton, we see a man who embraces the risk of musical dynamism, a man who is simultaneously and successfully growing his band in three dimensions. He seeks to widen his band’s sound, be it through their openness to new genres and playing styles or their ever-expanding list of guests. Everywhere they widen their sound, they deepen it with their sonic chemistry and their yearning to honor each “style vocabulary” they encounter. In the end, one is left with a Vulfpeck that looms taller than most in the musical industry, casting a swelling shadow that should capture and inspire more and more artists to follow suit.

Contact Dylan Grosz at dgrosz ‘at’

Dylan is a senior majoring in Symbolic Systems-AI and minoring in Economics. He very much enjoys playing guitar, listening to music, and reading FiveThirtyEight. As a Senior Data Team Writer for The Stanford Daily, Dylan hopes to offer his data-driven approach to journalism as a vessel for others to navigate the vast, stormy seas of society. He will also usually do so in an overly dramatic metaphor.

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