Interview: Mark Hempe of Earphunk
Fresh off of festival season, New Orleans prog-funk quintet Earphunk is closing out what has been a huge fifth year. The group released their fourth studio album, Sweet Nasty, in August. In the first week, the album had over 550,000 downloads. Last week we caught up with guitarist/singer Mark Hempe to recap.
Let’s start off by talking about the birth of Earphunk back in 2009. Did you guys have much experience playing together before then? When was the first official Earphunk gig?
MARK: We never had much experience playing together before we started jamming in college. I guess it got started after we would get home at night over at Paul (Provosty) and (Michael) Comeaux’s house. They didn’t have any neighbors that worried about it too much. Our drummer, Michael Matthews, and I were working at a bar called Bogie’s in Baton Rouge at the time. One of the bartenders told the owner that we had started a band. The owner looked to us and said, “That’s great. You guys are playing on Wednesday!” We had a bit of an “oh shit” moment and realized we needed to learn some more songs. That’s kind of how it went down and that was technically the first Earphunk gig. We started playing more around Baton Rouge until everyone finished school, then moved it down to New Orleans, and it’s been growing since then.
Deciding on a band name can be tricky. A lot bands run through a couple before the right one sticks. Where did you guys come up with Earphunk?
MARK: That’s a damn good question. I don’t really know. I really just came up with it out of the blue. We needed a name pretty quick. We got thrown into that first gig pretty quick, and you can’t play gigs without a name. At that point in time, we couldn’t have imagined that things would go in the direction that they have gone. Earphunk was the first name we came up with, and it stuck. It’s weird how well it seems to fit now. I never really would’ve thought it would have that ring to it. It’s got that shock value that sticks in people’s minds.
The New Orleans music scene is second to none, with an endless amount of music being played on any given street corner. How vital has the band’s progression been calling New Orleans home?
MARK: Being from New Orleans has always been big for us. If you’re a touring band coming out of New York City or Chicago, you’ll benefit from the reputation of those well-known music towns as well. It’s always been beneficial for us. If someone sees that we are playing, but hasn’t ever heard us, it automatically a sense of legitimacy when they see we’re a New Orleans band. I think when New Orleans’ reputation has that effect. People assume that there must be something there. The city just has that stigma to it.
Who have been some of your biggest influences over the years? Are there any particular guitarists who you have modeled your style of play after?
MARK: Some of my favorites are the old blues cats: Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Guy, and Albert King. I’ve always loved that style. The way I play guitar has always reflected my taste in music, which is really broad. There are very few genres that I absolutely do not like. I’ll just get on a kick with something for a while. Paul and I both have been on more of a churchy, gospel kick lately; guys like Jonathon Dubose Jr. Any given day it could be something else though. I don’t try to model my style after anyone in particular. I think to be a really good player and totally unique, you have to find your own voice with that. Having your influences is crucial for that though. Knowing the type of sound you eventually want to develop. I wasn’t that serious about playing until the band really started picking up. That was when I really started practicing and studying. Playing with Paul has really brought my game up a lot. He’s such a great player. Whenever you play with guys like that, it always ends up bringing your game up.
Last winter’s “Daft Phunk” tour was obviously a big hit. How long have you guys been incorporating Daft Punk cover sets? Do some of those songs still make it into a current Earphunk set list?
MARK: To be honest, we are trying to let the Daft Phunk thing die down a little bit. With the release of Sweet Nasty, we’re really trying to push the original material. Those were definitely really special shows. The Wakarusa show that year was really what set it off. We played an Earphunk set before the Daft Phunk set. There was a huge crowd and they were really receptive to it. But for the time being, we’re distancing ourselves from it. It’s definitely hard because it’s still fresh on peoples' mind. It’s not that we don’t want to play any of it. We are just trying to keep the two entities separate.
The whole goal with those shows was just to further Earphunk; latch on to something that people had already heard of. It’s really the same concept of playing any cover tune. The whole purpose of the cover, and the placement of it, is meant to give that familiarity to people who might not be super familiar with your own material. If they like your take and execution on a song they might know, you’ve got their attention. That was really the whole purpose of Daft Phunk. It all happened at the perfect time too. Daft Punk dropped their album at the same time, and it really built up the hype for it. The album came out early enough that we were able to incorporate several of their new tunes into the Daft Phunk sets.
People really seem to love the talk box effect? How did you get started playing around with it, and do you see yourself incorporating it more over time?
MARK: Yeah everybody always wants me to play it more, so I do feel like I kind of need to. As of now, we only have that one true talk box song. I guess we need to sit down and write more talk box songs. I bought the pedal, and for a couple years and I was just playing it through the guitar. The things you can do with the synthesizer with the talk box are just vastly greater than the guitar. I used to have that pedal in my guitar pedal rig, and I would set up and play it through the guitar. More recently and especially with the Daft Phunk shows, I had to get used to playing it through the synthesizer. Playing this Zapp and Roger gig with Joey Porter and Steve Watkins is probably what finalized that decision for me though; I look up to those guys. They have that same Roger Troutman feel to their sound. They’re all in that same vein. Watching some of the things they can do what was really sealed the deal for me.
The Earphunk catalog has a fairly steady balance of instrumentals and songs with vocals. What has been your approach when writing new songs? Do you find yourself incorporating more vocals than in years past?
MARK: Yeah definitely a little more now. I’ve kind of changed my writing style lately. Before, I was tracking out an entire tune. Laying down the bass. Laying down a drumbeat here and there. I know Paul is kind of the same way, and that’s a good way to have a scratch track to turn over to the band. I’ve changed my approach lately because I’ve felt that the program itself has been dictating too much of the process. Going back with my acoustic guitar and playing out thoughts that I have in my head. Just humming tunes from my head and feeling it out. Making sure the human aspect of it is right. Back when I was tracking everything out, I would write song in a certain key, then write the lyrics, and realize the key might not be the perfect range for that melody. To keep that from happening, I’ll just pick up the acoustic and play it in that natural-feeling key, and that way it always feels a little more right.
I’ve been focusing more on lyrics lately. Paul and I will collaborate with the band on some instrumental tracks, or he will just come to us with an entire instrumental thats pretty much done so I feel like we’ve got that covered. I feel like it’s my job to knock out the lyrical side of it and keep that balance that we’ve always had. The David Byrne book, How Music Works, has really influenced how I am going about writing music. It’s very introspective. One part really struck me is when he talks about visualizing the venue where you’re music will be playing, and how that will subconsciously influence the music you’re writing. If you’re visualizing playing in a punk rock venue, the song will reflect it. The same goes with envisioning yourself playing to a massive auditorium. That theory is really what got me back to the acoustic guitar and doing it that way. He talks about being a human slave to the computer and the BPMs and not getting as creative with as you probably could. It all makes a lot of sense and has given me some new direction.
Earphunk has become a fairly common name amongst the major music festival scene. What was the first major festival spot, and what are a few of your favorite festival memories to date?
MARK: I think Bear Creek was our first festival back in 2011. We had gone for a few years, because we were fans of the music. We finally got to play it in the 3rd year we went. That was the only festival we had played at the time. It’s obviously one of our favorites. This past weekend we had some really special moments. We jammed with George Porter Jr. for the first time and our good friend Roosevelt Collier. The 12-year-old prodigy Brandon “Taz” Niederauer sat in on our set too. That kid is amazing. I love that aspect of Bear Creek. Wakarusa is definitely a favorite. The Daft Phunk set at Wakarusa was probably one of our biggest, if not the biggest, show we’ve played to date. We had probably 5000 or more people watching us in that tent. Electric Forest this year was really cool. We had a Sunday afternoon set. That’s one of the more well run festivals I’ve ever been to. The staff and production blew us away. We still haven’t played a lot of the major festivals, but hopefully that will happen this year.
The new album Sweet Nasty marks the 4th studio release for the band. You guys had a unique approach with this one. You offered the album as a free download upon its release. How did the decision come about?
MARK: Well we’ve released the past couple for free, but this one was different because we went with the whole BitTorrent Bundle approach. That opened all of that music up to an international audience, as well as a larger national audience. We bundled extra video and audio content, as well as the actual album. The idea was suggested to us and it really made sense. We wanted to make sure we had the right approach, because we were so proud of it. Releasing it for free is pretty much the best way to do that. The industry now is so difficult. If you don’t have a strong handful of people waiting on the release to spend 10, 15, 20 bucks on it, you can't expect to make much on an album release. You’ve got to find a way to get it out there to the right people. Unfortunately some people kind of expect music to be free these days, live and recorded. That shouldn’t always be the case, but we feel it was the right move with getting the new album into peoples ears. If we are lucky enough to make a living doing this, then we did something right along the way.
The heavy touring and increased festival appearances have allowed you guys to work with so many great young bands. Who are a few your favorite groups that you continue to cross paths with?
MARK: TAUK. They’re out of Brooklyn. They’re awesome man. They’re one of the more exciting bands I’ve seen in a while. Another band that blew my ass away this weekend was The Main Squeeze. We had jammed with Smiley (keyboards), who is an awesome player, but I’d never seen their entire outfit until this past weekend. Obviously Zoogma, our buddies, they’re doing some really cool stuff. Naughty Professor out of New Orleans is really hitting the road now and making a name for themselves. They’re actually playing some shows with The Main Squeeze and The Nth Power. Nth Power is simply awesome. You don’t see a group of ridiculous musicians thrown together like that and have that kind of chemistry so quick. They’re not even two years old as a band I think. They are technically a 'young' band but everyone in that band is a pro and have been in the scene for a long time.
What can we expect from Earphunk in 2015? Can you share any exciting plans you guys have in store for the New Year?
MARK: I’m not sure what I’m allowed to share right now, but what I can say is you can expect Earphunk to be hitting the road as hard as we ever have. I can say that there will definitely be more festival plays. Hopefully our biggest festival plays to date. There will be plenty of hopping on with other bands that we like. Just hooking up with some of those bands and getting some tours together. We’ll start thinking about the next album pretty soon too. That means we start selecting what we will record and where to do some tracking. Keep rolling on and do what we’ve always done. Balance out the touring and recording. Our stage production has really come together too with our buddy Josh (Travis) running lights. We are looking forward to hitting the ground running come January and hitting it hard.