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Funky Dawgz on covering Beyoncé, channeling NOLA, new LP 'Vertical'

Rising Connecticut jam crew unpack eclectic funk sound, and mission to bring music into America’s underfunded schools
Vertical album lunch party. Park City Music Hall, Bridgeport, CT. Credit Chris Quinn @mightyquinnmedia

Vertical album lunch party. Park City Music Hall, Bridgeport, CT. Credit Chris Quinn @mightyquinnmedia

By: Ray Chelstowski

If you haven’t heard of Funky Dawgz yet get ready; you soon will. Birthed in (of all places) Connecticut, they bring hip hop and funk together within a New Orleans brass construct. While they have assembled a good amount of original material, they are perhaps even better known for their original takes on modern day hits. 

Their big break came with an invite from the indie/roots band Dispatch to back them on horns at Madison Square Garden. From there they hit festivals, became the house band for the March Madness Tournament Challenge, opened the ESPN show First Take and had their music featured on the Chris Rock FX series Fargo. On the musical front, their full-throttle horns have since livened up the music of Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Galactic, Sammy Rae & The Friends, Lawrence, Vulfpeck, We The Kings, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Snarky Puppy, The Soul Rebels, Lettuce, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Rebirth Brass Band and Twiddle. If that list looks eclectic it is. But what Funky Dawgz brings to each of these projects in a genuine enthusiasm for brass and the impact that their NOLA-infused sound can have on almost any kind of music.

Vertical album cover. Credit: Kelly Walters @brightpolkadot

Vertical album cover. Credit: Kelly Walters @brightpolkadot

Their new album Vertical is out and the title track is a perfect representation of what they do so well. The sound is big, bright, brassy, and capable of bringing a unique kind of funk to almost anything they play. This isn’t a re-imagination of your typical NOLA brass band. It’s what a NOLA brass band would sound like if they recruited talent from the Tower of Power horn section. It’s bold and ballsy, without ever losing its sense of fun.

Perhaps most impressive is what they do in giving back to communities all across the country. Their focus has been on inner city schools and their music programs. They are committed to mentoring and bringing their inspirational story to some of America’s most needy school systems.

Goldmine had the opportunity to have an exchange with Colin Waters (alto saxophone), Tommy Weeks (tenor saxophone), Jon Singngam (percussion), Chris Chhoeun (trumpet and vocals) and Mike Marsters (trombone and sousaphone). Vocalist and trumpeter Aaron Day rounds out the group.

The band is about to finish off the summer with a series of dates throughout New England. Before they took to the road we learned about how they came together, what inspired them to pursue their great work in city schools, and what they set out to achieve with this new record. Finally, for those not in New England, we had to ask if some additional dates in expanded markets might pop up before year’s end. You’ll like what we learned.

GOLDMINE: How does a band from Connecticut become so inspired by the NOLA Brass sound that they commit to forming their own group within the genre?

Tommy Weeks: We were very inspired by the sound of New Orleans brass bands while we were still in college. Our assistant director of bands at UConn and co-founding member Marvin McNeill reached out to us each individually with the intention of starting a New Orleans brass band. He fell in love with the sound while he was on a trip to New Orleans with the UConn pep band for the NCAA basketball tournament. We got together weekly and learned new songs all written by brass bands in New Orleans at each rehearsal; Rebirth, TBC, Soul Rebels, Stooges, New Birth. We even applied for and received a grant to go down to New Orleans and learn firsthand from the musicians about the culture, history, and traditions of the music and the city itself. While we realize how important all that is to our sound; the fact is that we will never be an authentic New Orleans brass band due to the fact that we are not from there. We embrace the city and the musicians embrace us but we write our own music with our own unique identity now. Their influence will always be with us.

GM: When you were building the band, what was the hardest role to fill?

Jon Singngam: We all fill a place from a sonic and energy standpoint that parleys into our signature sound, so while there isn’t one role that was hardest to fill, it’s a matter of the pieces working together in harmony to deliver an incredible show each time we take the stage. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface on the potential of this group from a musical perspective. We all fill an important piece of what makes this band special and to imply something was hardest to fill conveys a feeling that something matters more than the other. We don’t feel that way at all. If anything, the people in this group were easy to find. Having made that be successful now for a decade and for decades more to come is the actual hard part.

Green River Festival with the band Galactic. Photo courtesy of Funky Dawgz PR

Green River Festival with the band Galactic. Photo courtesy of Funky Dawgz PR

GM: What was the moment when you knew you had built something special?

TW: When we were asked to perform at Madison Square Garden with Dispatch. We realized that it’s not every day that anyone gets to play at that level. We recognized that we were absolutely cut out for this and it made us work even harder.

GM: This is a multi-cultural band. How do your different backgrounds influence/inform your sound?

Colin Walers: All of our influences come together to form a very unique sound. We all hear music differently and listen to various styles due to our upbringing. One of us might come in with a fragment of a tune and once the rest of the band touches it, it becomes an amazing piece of art.

Green River Festival. Photo courtesy of Funky Dawgz PR

Green River Festival. Photo courtesy of Funky Dawgz PR

GM: How has the band evolved over your 10 year history?

JS: We’ve found ways to adopt the spirit of New Orleans and forge our own identity. It’s rooted in how we collectively bring our diverse musical and cultural backgrounds together to create a product that truly is a one of one. When the road zigs, we have consistently chosen to zag and stay true to what makes music fun. We’re here to make people happy and that can be seen in how much joy we bring every night. The pandemic taught us to treat every show like it could be our last and when you’re in the crowd seeing it, you can feel that right away.

Chris Chhoeun: We’ve come a long way since we met at University of Connecticut 10 years ago. It took years of playing together to develop our sound, and it’s still evolving! Many of the Dawgz are multi-instrumentalists, and we’re ecstatic to add horn effects, keyboards, guitars and bass into the mix.

GM: What were you setting out to achieve with the new record Vertical?

CW: We are using this album to rebrand ourselves. To show the world our original musical output. The last two albums were us still exploring what we wanted our sound to be. Vertical showcases a more mature and methodical approach to the music we want to make.

GM: You are well-known for covers of well-known modern-day songs, how do you know when a song is the right fit for the FD cover? Which is your favorite to perform live?

Mike Marsters: With so much variety across music genres today the songs that stick out are ones that sound energetic enough to make us want to dance. While I may not be the greatest dancer I know that if something gets me moving it will definitely get a response playing to an audience that's looking to do the same. The one cover over the years that fans of the Dawgz always love to hear is Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” It’s one of my favorites because what some people may not know is that we have also infused the classic hit with a New Orleans deep cut from Dirty Dozen Brass Band called “Unclean Waters.” So it’s multi-layered; you have a powerful song from an all-time great artist in Beyoncé being covered by the Dawgz while staying true to our New Orleans upbringing by referencing a crescent city classic! Next time you see us see if you can spot what I’m talking about. I’m positive you’ll bust out a few dance moves!

GM: You have a commitment to community and giving back especially when it comes to music programs in inner city schools, what has been the most rewarding thing/moment that this has produced.

MM: We’ve had the opportunity to work and play with a program through Project Music and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra called the “El Sistema.” It was such a rewarding experience working with kids of all ages. They even learned a couple of originals off of our second album, Place 2 Be (“Don’t Question It” and “Beyond the Void”). The teachers and students took it a step further though and added a new section that we had never heard before! Now that is what music writing is all about: a collaborative experience where the students sometimes become the teacher! I’d also love to give a shout out to a select few students who formed their own brass band called Triple Threat Brass. They’re the future and that is special for us to promote and see their growth as it is that same growth we’ve seen in us the last decade. We owe a big thanks to New Orleans brass bands helping us out along the way.

GM: As you head out on tour what are you most looking forward to?

CC: In the festival circuit, many times we’re playing to people who have never heard our music before. We love introducing our music to new audiences and meeting new fans!

GM: The dates are focused in New England. Is there any chance that new shows will be added in other markets across the US?

TW: We’ve been working with our management to spread our sound coast to coast. We are performing a festival out in the Midwest this summer and are looking to hit the southeast this fall. We will soon be a full on nationally touring powerhouse!