“Despair” is the word Gabe Johnson uses to describe his mindset a year ago about playing in a band.
“I kind of took a little time off from being in a band … because I got cynical,” the local guitarist and songwriter said in an interview last week at the office of In The Pocket Artists, his Bend-based national booking agency.
“Every artist goes through periods where they get cynical for one reason or another, and what I got cynical about was I’ve played with some good drummers in town, but I really know what I want in a drummer,” Johnson continued. “And I had not found, yet, (a) drummer that is legitimately funky, who can put on different grooves and play them not just authentically but play them with pizazz and play them in good time.”
Around New Year’s, Johnson expressed his frustration to local musician and producer Brad Jones, a longtime friend. (Jones’ band Floor-Ride used to open for Johnson’s Jive Talkin’ Robots in the mid-’90s.)
“He said we should get a band together, but I told him I’m not going to even step into a practice space until we find the drummer,” Johnson said. “That’s the key. From there, I can build it but I need that guy (who’s) selfless and knows how to kick it all night so that people will just dance.”
Then in February, Johnson received a phone call.
It was Jones, and he thought he’d found the guy: Matt Smith, a Prineville resident who played in a long-ago Central Oregon band called Biddewah Trunk.
“I found my funky drummer,” Johnson said last week, “in Prineville.”
Today, Johnson, Jones and Smith make up half of Elektrapod, an airtight electro-funk-rock band that has spent the past few months playing local gigs and attracting fans. And tonight, they’ll lay down their silky, sizzling grooves at Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend (see “If you go”).
Turns out, Smith was the right fit, a “raw, unpolished gem” who has evolved quickly into the kind of dependable and versatile metronome Johnson sought. His arrival set off a summer of auditions, additions and departures for Elektrapod; the lineup is now rounded out by Craig Brown (bass), Ze Rox (vocals) and Jarrod Donatelli (percussion).
For months, the sextet has been buckling down in its practice space, “obsessed” with finding, capturing and developing nuggets of songs with one purpose in mind, Johnson said.
“The way we’re jamming is to say, ‘Let’s get to a really cool, danceable pocket groove. Let’s come up with some consistent parts (and) hooks and then let it evolve,’” he said.
“We’re figuring it out, but we’re not going jammy, like Phish-style or the Grateful Dead,” Johnson continued. “We’re trying to hone in on the essential kernel of what’s cool about this idea we’re working on. We’re focused on creating something that is strictly being designed for audience enjoyment.”
Indeed, Elektrapod’s bottom line is to make people dance, whether they’re stirred by Jones’ distinctive keyboard parts, a riff or solo from Johnson, a powerful Rox vocal melody or a heady groove anchored by the rhythm section.
“The whole idea from the beginning was to be contagious to the point where it was almost addictive,” Johnson said, “where we create this vibe where people want to get on the dance floor and they have a hard time leaving for more than a (bathroom) break.”
Don’t be mistaken, however: Elektrapod is not just a party band, pumping out covers familiar to the ear. Over the past few months, the band has penned around 20 original songs, with hopes of recording some time next year.
The song ideas come from Johnson and Jones and others, but increasingly, they’re coming from an ever-growing effort to write as a group, something Johnson says happens easily with such strong individual parts.
“I’m leading the band but with a very loose grip,” he said. “It takes a lot of trust in your players to do that.”
But before it even thinks about studio time, the group is honing its live show. There’s tonight’s Volcanic gig, a Jan. 10 show at The Belfry in Sisters, a five-week residency at Blue Pine Kitchen and Bar planned for February and touring after that.
“It’s now taking on a shape and a form (and) I don’t know if this is going to change much for a while,” Johnson said. “It feels like it’s progressed to the point where it’s like this is a solid shape. It feels good, things are working and it’s a shape we can build off of.”
Ask any architect: Building is a lot easier when you start from a strong foundation.
“I got to the point where I was like, ‘I’m never gonna find this guy. Not in Bend,’” Johnson said, reflecting on his despair last year. “I mean, I know 18 of them in Portland, but I don’t live in Portland. I live in Bend. I’m a Bend guy. This is where my family is. So maybe I’ll just never have that funky dance band I wanted to.
“Or maybe when I least expect it,” he said, “it’ll slap me in the face and I’ll finally have found that guy.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0377, firstname.lastname@example.org