Phat Phunktion got together in 1996, but the roots of their sound stretch back much further, to the funk-laced 1970s. The nine-piece ensemble formed when its members were just UW-Madison music students looking for an outlet for their Tower of Power fixation. Today the group is a major-label act in Japan and a local legend that can draw thousands of fans to the Memorial Union Terrace. They'll perform there Friday as they release a new album, Real Life .:. High Fidelity.
It's the group's first CD in five years. They faced extremely daunting obstacles after their first release on Japan's Groove Time label in 2006. I spoke with the band's singing, songwriting duo, sax player Al Falaschi and keyboardist Tim Whalen, about how the album emerged from tragedy, heartache, a little Terrace sunshine and a whole lot of love.
I know you have a special connection to the Memorial Union Terrace, especially from your early shows. What's it like to play there?
Whalen: The Terrace has been the scene of some pretty cool things for Phat Phunktion. We did a CD-release party there in 1999, and about 5,000 people showed up. We had been working really hard to promote the band and build a following, and it culminated in this huge, fantastic outdoor party that blew us away.
Falaschi: It's the band's favorite spot of all time. The vibe there can be pretty magical.
Fast-forward to the 2000s. So you guys are chugging along in Madison, then you wake up in Japan?
Whalen: I moved to New York in 2003, but I'd come home occasionally and play with the band. I moved back to Madison in 2005, and we started touring the country then. That's about when [Groove Time] picked up one of our albums. That was the catalyst. We toured Japan in 2006 and released an album with them, but all of these bad things started happening. Our trombone player's dad passed away while we were traveling, and that was just the beginning.
What else happened?
Falaschi: I had asked my girlfriend at the time - Kate - to marry me, and she graciously said yes. About a week after we got engaged, we found out she had stage IV colon cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and liver. It was really shocking since she was a 29-year-old woman with no family history of cancer. Needless to say, we stopped touring. I knew that being a musician without health insurance probably wasn't the best thing in the world if my future wife was going to need cancer treatments, so I started sending out résumés and making the switch.
Whalen: The whole band was trying to be there for both of them. I was living in Ohio when Kate passed in 2009, but I came home that summer and lived with Al. We finished basically the whole record. It was a very healing thing.
Falaschi: The record needed to get finished so we could share it with people. In the process, Tim moved to D.C., so we finished up the last couple of songs over Skype. We also employed the help of a friend, Moses Patrou, who lives in New York and is a great songwriter. We had a major case of writer's block, and he absolutely killed it with the lyrics for the last two songs we wrote.
How else did the grieving process shape your creative process?
Falaschi: Memories of Kate - and dealing with the shock and the loss - are all over the record, but there's one song that's especially meaningful. It's called "Dance in the Rain." I had written it to be the first-dance song at our wedding. For the reception, I used a recorded version where I was playing all the instruments. I wanted to put it on the album, but I was worried that it wasn't a very Phat Phunktion-like song. Then Tim said, "Anything we play instantly becomes Phat Phunktion." That convinced me. Now I think it's my favorite song on the record.
Whalen: Although it was written for [Kate], it expresses the beautiful idea that love and faith are stronger than tragedy. There are still people in this world that won't run away from their loved ones when things get tough. Al is one of those people.
What else can fans find on the record?
Whalen: There's "With You," a song about blind loyalty, written from the perspective of Al's awesome dog Onyx, and "Competition," which is about taking care of yourself in this tough, crazy world.