Portland, Oregon-based funksters Porterhouse had been selling their
debut album, Thumbs Up, Little Buddy, off the side of the stage at their
shows for over a year before it was picked up by Luaun Records last
year. The extended reach offered by a label resulted in the album
landing in my review stack, from which it promptly jumped onto my Top
Five of 2001 list. When the band, which had morphed from the
Porterhouse Quintet to a quartet called Porterhouse in the meantime, was
booked into Seattle's Rainbow Bar & Grill, the date was moved to the top
of my "must see" list. With fellow Cosmikite Eric Steiner in tow, I
showed up at the Rainbow and had a chance to sit down with
keyboardist/composer Joey Porter and saxophonist Josh Cliburne, the
mainstays of the band through a series of lineup changes that have
featured such notable inclusions as former Leftover Salmon bassist Tye
North, and the cream of Pacific Northwest rhythm players. For the
Rainbow show, the lineup included Joey, Josh, bassist Dan Scollard and
drummer Michah Kassell.
Before a show that featured a fine opening set by Seattle's own Mother's
Milk and a Porterhouse show that more than fulfilled the high
expectations I brought with me, we had a wide ranging conversation about
the band's music, influences and future. I'd be remiss if I didn't say
up front that Joey and Josh are two of the most open and personable
musicians I've had the pleasure of meeting as an interviewer, or in any
other setting, for that matter. I'd be even more remiss if I didn't
tell you that Thumbs Up, Little Buddy is an album you simply must own.
Here's some of the best of what they had to say....
Cosmik: There are a lot of bands that will use some slap bass,
or throw in 4 bars of a JB's sample, and make their music "funky," but
it doesn't make them a funk band. What's the line, the thing that makes
Porterhouse a funk band instead of a band that does funky material?
Joey Porter: Well, they misuse the word funk. If there's any
element in the music, it's not funky. It seems like all the hippie
bands say, you know, "we're funk."
Josh Cliburne: It's thrown around a little bit too much. Like the
Joey: A lot of rock bands are called funk bands too, but they're
rock bands, even if they put a little slap bass behind some heavy
guitar. I think we fall in between so there's really nothing else to
call us. We don't really rock out that much, and we don't do any hippie
kind of music really.
Cosmik: Well, I'm old enough that the first music I think of as
funk is from
the early sixties, soul jazz stuff.
Joey: Right. Really.
Cosmik: There was a time when Jimmy Smith, Ramsey Lewis, guys
could have AM hit singles and they were pure funk, then that faded until
Herbie Hancock brought it back a little bit, and then P-Funk and bands
like that turned funk into a jam vehicle, so it was no longer the 3
minute nugget of funk, but whole albums, concept albums of funk. Which
I guess is how a funk band ends up on a jam band label...
Josh: Well, funk has definitely evolved a long way, just like any
genre of music, you know, classical or jazz...
Cosmik: Thumbs Up, Little Buddy is definitely in that old soul
It reaches back to a time before you were born.
Joey: (laughs) Literally!
Cosmik: So how do you end up playing that as opposed to the
whatever variations of funk that have evolved since?
Joey: Well, I think it's because we listen to the best funk, and
model our music after that. I was born in '72, and that's when all the
stuff I like, the Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, all that stuff,
happened. So we model our music after the right funk instead of, like,
Red Hot Chili Peppers, which a lot of these bands are more like.
Cosmik: That's the kind of stuff that I think of as funky but not
Josh: In our music we actually try to incorporate as much funk
different periods as we can. You know the song Juicy from Thumbs Up, it's very
80's Prince slash
Cameo funk group, then you go a couple tracks down and we're doing soul
jazz off Blue Note break beat stuff.
Joey: We try to take a little bit out of each one. On the next
we have even more. We have some Latin type funk....
Cosmik: You have a guitar on the next record!
Joey: Yeah, we do, but not just any guitar.
Josh: If it wasn't this guy, it wouldn't have been anybody.
Joey: This guy's named Douglas, he was in a Portland band called
Pleasure. They toured around with Cameo, the Gap Band, Earth Wind and
Fire. He's in his forties, and he's one of the guys who helped bring
the style in. A lot of guys now are taking things from him.
Cosmik: Among your contemporaries, if someone asked me what you
names that would come up would be like Galactic, or Karl Denson, but
they seem to be more intentionally marketed to the jam band scene.
Joey: Well, they do more of a retro style, like Robert Walters,
that stuff. They're doing stuff from the 70's, all their instruments
are from the seventies. I don't know if you've heard the new Robert
Walters record. It's really good, but it sounds like it's from
We're not trying to be as retro as that. We're trying to say, here's
the old stuff but with a brand new outlook on it. The reason we get
associated with the jam band label, Lauan, and a lot of jam bands, is
only because we improvise.
Cosmik: Sure. I don't know what jam band really means anymore.
One of the
other bands Randy Alexander (Porterhouse publicist) represents is The
Big Wu, and they made my top five list too, but, they really fall into
the Grateful Dead lineage of jam bands, and I'm an unabashed Deadhead,
so I dig that stuff. On the other hand, I was raised in a house full of
jazz and rhythm and blues, that was my Dad's music. So I like real
funk, and when I got the album, I looked at it and said, oh boy, a white
guy who went to school in Eugene, Oregon and has a funk band on a jam
band label. Oh sure...
Joey: (Laughs) That's what I'd think, too!
Cosmik: But I put it on and thought, jeez, it is a funk
happen? Because I know the jam band tag is applied to everything that's
improvisational, but not all improvisational music is really jam band
Joey: We don't really think we're a jam band, but we don't mind
called one because it opens up a whole new demographic. You can't
really fight it.
Cosmik: Are people who come expecting a jam band surprised by
what they get
at a show?
Josh: We get all kind of different reactions. We get everything
people absolutely loving what we do, saying yeah, love that Herbie cover
you did, to people asking us to play Aretha Franklin songs....
Cosmik: Then you hire Tye North playing bass, and I've been to
Salmon shows, and I dig 'em, but they don't do anything like what you
Joey: He just did one tour with us, and now plays a show here and
He's not with us tonight, but he'll be with us at the Leftover Salmon
show later this month.
Josh: He's playing a show in Portland with us tomorrow night.
Cosmik: Well, I'm just thinking that he has his own audience
based on his
association with Leftover Salmon, and if people come to hear Tye, they
might be pretty startled.
[Pictured: Tye North]
Joey: Well, he's never been in a band like our
band before. He's
been in bluegrass based bands. So it was pretty out of character for us
to even consider, but he did a good job so we thought, hey, bring him
along with us. He's a real easy guy to travel with and he nails the
Cosmik: Joey, you're from Nashville.
Cosmik:One of the forms of segregation I associate with Tennessee
Nashville is the ultimate white music town....
Joey: It is.
Cosmik: And Memphis is the ultimate black music town.
Joey: Used to be.
Cosmik: Right, but that's my stereotype. So if you grew up in
ended up playing this music, I'd totally get it, but you grew up in
Nashville and ended up playing this music, and I don't get that at all.
Joey: Well, that's the whole thing. I was rebelling against the
whitebread music scene. When I was a kid, my mom was a dance teacher so
there were dance records around and by the time I was 4 I was already
into James Brown and the Gap Band and all that stuff. But I wouldn't
have been into it if I hadn't been from the south. People just don't
listen to soul music on the west coast that much, it seems to me. So we
sound like a straight funk band because I was listening to it from a
very young age. I was in another funk band, and those guys heard the
Red Hot Chili Peppers first, and went backward from there. I was lucky
enough to start from the beginning and move up from there.
Cosmik: I wondered whether growing up in the south made the
Joey: I think so. I mean, I could have grown up in Detroit or
Cosmik: Right. It can happen anywhere. I grew up in Seattle, but
of the music my Dad listened to, I grew up hearing jazz and R&B. The
second live show I ever saw, in 1966, was a James Brown show and if
there were 10 white guys there, I didn't see five of them. The
difference, though, is that in those days the AM radio stations played
everything. The same station that played the Beatles played bubblegum
and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," and they played it all back to back.
That doesn't exist anymore, so kids don't get exposed. But now you're
working in the northwest, on the west coast....
Joey: The whitest part of the country!
Cosmik: Yeah. A funk band from Portland. Give me a break. How do
build an audience for that up here?
Joey: Well, we have a better audience in places other than the
northwest. We do best in Colorado. That's pretty white too, but they
have a really good music scene around Boulder and towns like that,
because people like to go out and pay money to see live bands. They buy
CDs, but they're willing to lay out the bread to go see the live thing.
They don't want to just buy the CD and sit at home, they want to see you
do it live. That's the difference between there and Portland, where
unless you're huge people won't come out. They don't support the local
scene as much.
Cosmik: Well, you told me you've had trouble building a following
Seattle, and frankly, being from Portland doesn't help much, because
here, being local helps. If people are going out, and they have a
choice of five bands to see, they'll pick the Seattle band. But for
national acts, it's the same market. They can't afford to book just
one, they have to book Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.
Josh: A lot of national acts just skip right over Portland
Joey: Herbie Hancock was suppose to play Portland and cancelled
lack of ticket sales. Twice. Once with Gil Scott Heron. But they
didn't sell and he just said fuck it, we're going straight to Seattle.
Cosmik: Well, Seattle has a well established jazz scene, for a
We have Jazz Alley, which will book week long stands, and history. Ray
Charles started here, Quincy Jones is from here, there's always been a
jazz scene in Seattle.
Joey: It's nice you have that option, because we
don't have a
in Portland, we don't have the place for the national acts.
Josh: At the same time, it's better for the local jazz scene in
Portland, where the local scene in Seattle's not as good.
Cosmik: No, it's not.
Joey: I think it's only because we don't have the really cool
artists coming through, so we have to make do with the local scene.
Cosmik: Porterhouse has been through a lot of lineup changes. You
stayed together, but everyone else has come and gone....
Joey: Yeah, we kind of do rhythm section by committee. We have
once in awhile, we used to have trumpet. It's hard when you're in a
band that doesn't make a lot of bread. It's hard to keep everyone
happy. I haven't had any problems with anybody who quit, but they've
got to do their thing...
Josh: When you can do a gig for 50 bucks or you get offered a gig
Joey: Exactly. To play our music, you have to be a pretty good
musician. You have to learn the parts. It's not like a I-IV-V in G or
Josh: A lot of times we're asking these incredibly talented
play for next to nothing, and it's really hard. They like us, and they
like Joey's music, so they do it.
Cosmik: Are you still working day jobs?
Josh: I work part time....
Joey: Most of these guys do. I find odd jobs. Today I was
chopping and stacking wood.
Josh: The life of a rock star! (Laughter)
Cosmik: Joey, you write all the material, and, how many keyboards
are you going to use tonight?
Cosmik: Three. And you used something like eight on the album.
You get a lot of
colors out of your keyboards....
Joey: Well, when you don't have a guitar player, you have to play
two different keyboards at once to make it sound full.
Cosmik: It makes me wonder, when you're writing, how conscious do
to be of leaving space for the other players so it doesn't become Joey
Porter, One Man Band?
Joey: What I do is write the drums and the bass first, then I
where the spaces are and fill the spaces with keyboard parts, then I
write the horn line after that. So nobody's stepping on anybody's toes,
you know? It's better if one guy writes the music, because if
everybody's jamming they'll step on each other.
Cosmik: But not all the parts I hear on the record are
Joey: Not the solos.
Cosmik: So you consciously create space for that.
Josh: It's a jazz formula.
Joey: Funk music is a lot like Afro-Cuban, like salsa.
their part. If everybody decides they all want to jam at once it's
going to sound like shit. Funk music is not about "look what I can do."
It's about "look how I can make you feel." So if you keep it simple,
it's going to be more funky than if you try to be Mr. Fusion Guy.
Cosmik: Well, there are a lot of jazz formulas. In, like, your
group, you've got a front line of a soloist or soloists, who are
blowing, and everything else is done to support that, but funk is
busier, more an ensemble music...
Joey: It can be.
Josh: We try and mix that. We try to mix the ensemble playing of
with the improvisational soloist taking charge, but it's still ensemble
Joey: I think it's a pop song form. You know, verse, chorus,
chorus, bridge, like a regular radio song.
Cosmik: Well, that's it. Songs are real important....
Josh: Oh, songs are very important.
Cosmik: Which may be one of the places you diverge from the jam
stereotype, where songs are too often just a vehicle to get somewhere
else, while for a band like Porterhouse, songs are central.
Joey: Absolutely. We're not a groove oriented band, we're a song
Josh: Unless you're John Coltrane, you shouldn't be playing over
chord. One chord jams are for people who know what they're doing.
Joey: That's the problem with acid jazz and a lot of that stuff,
don't have the songs. Their grooves are cool, but they can be kind of
Cosmik: Right. I think of a group like Martin, Medeski and Wood,
respect them enormously as musicians, but I don't really get that much
enjoyment from listening to them, because the song is so secondary to
what they're doing.
Joey: Right, it's all about the trance. Their earlier stuff is
songs, it's the more recent stuff that's like that.
Cosmik: Yeah. But as the audience, sometimes they seem to be
they do mostly for themselves, and I want them to do something for me.
I appreciate what they do, and that they can do it. I think it's
amazing what they can do, but I don't think it's particularly
Joey: Well maybe you'd be more self absorbed if you were as good
keyboard player as John Medeski is.
Cosmik: Right. That's true.
Josh: Of course, a lot of the direction they've taken with their
is the result of the ecstasy generation. A lot of the continuous, ever
evolving jam is the direct result of ecstasy.
Joey: And the more they've changed to the more
audience has gotten bigger and bigger. There's no question of why they
changed their music, it's money. Because they definitely didn't get
bored playing all that crazy music. It's hard as fuck to play that.
It's not like they said "This is getting boring. Let's just jam on
Cosmik: Well, like I say, I'm in awe of what they do, but for me
not that entertaining. Maybe because it doesn't hit me on the physical
level. A lot of my enjoyment is based on does it make me want to move
my ass. That's why I loved old Memphis R&B. It made me move my ass.
Which MM&W doesn't do, and Porterhouse does. At the same time, you guys
have great jazz chops.
Joey: Josh does. I fake it. You notice on the record, I don't
any solos. I palm those off on the horn player.
Cosmik: You palm off a lot of parts on the new album. There's
vocals, a Porterhouse I've never heard before.
Josh: It's a lot different music, for sure.
Joey: It's less fusion style, more straight funk.
Cosmik: What's that mean to you, straight funk?
Joey: There's the James Brown style, and the 80's style, Prince,
stuff like that. Anything where the main objective is to make people
dance, that's funk. Pre-90's. If nobody's dancing to your funk, you're
Cosmik: That's where I worry about the jam band crowd you draw.
How are the
twirlers gonna do their thing to your music?
Joey: They can do that thing, they just don't feel it like
Josh: I've had some people tell me it's hard to dance, which I
understand with some of our songs.
Cosmik: Well, your stuff makes me move, but I can also get caught
up in the
solo and forget. So the groove is there, but sometimes you have to pay
attention and stay in your body without getting all caught up in the
head stuff. So what else will we hear on the new album?
Joey: It's a kitchen sink thing. Anything that has funk in it.
Cosmik: Move your butt is the bottom line
Josh: We try to find the funk in other kinds of music, too. Jazz,
Afro-Cuban music. Afro-Cuban music and funk are almost the same music,
Cosmik: Well, people have been talking about funky music at least
boppers, over 50 years ago. George Clinton didn't invent the word,
though some people think he did.
Josh: Right. It evolved.
Cosmik: And ultimately, well, funk means sex, doesn't it?
Joey: All music means sex.
Cosmik: Not all music. Yanni is still making records.
Joey: And John Tesh, too. But all my music does.
Since doing this interview, I've had a chance to see Porterhouse again,
opening for Leftover Salmon at Seattle's Showbox Theater. Tye North was
on hand for that occasion, with the rest of the band from the Rainbow
show. The change in lineup only confirmed that with songs as good as
the ones Joey Porter writes and frontmen as tight as Joey and Josh play,
Porterhouse is a killer live band no matter which of their exceptional
roster of rhythm players they bring along. A new album, Prime Cuts, is
due in the spring, and will almost certainly be the occasion of a tour
that you should not miss. Meanwhile, I'll take one more chance to plug
Thumbs Up, Little Buddy before thanking Josh and Joey for their
cooperation, and Randy Alexander of Randex Communications for his
assistance in setting up one of the best nights of conversation and
music I've ever enjoyed.