Friday, July 11, 2014

Ten Questions With.......Tweed Funk's J.D. Optekar

Tweed Funk (L to R):  J.D. Optekar, Nick Lang, Eric Madunic, Joseph "Smokey" Holman, Kevin Klemme, Jon Lovas
Sometimes when you hear a band for the first time, you really know that they're going to be someth
ing special.  That's the feeling that your humble correspondent had when he heard Tweed Funk for the first time.  They come at you from so many different ways, with a powerhouse blues attack that adds equal parts of soul and funk to the mix.  You get the feeling while listening that these guys would play for free if they had to.  The passion and energy comes through loud and clear, even on disc.  Their second release, Love Is, was one of my favorite discs of 2012, and one I still play quite a bit two years later.

With their third and latest release, First Name Lucky (on Tweed Tone Records), Tweed Funk set out to capture their live shows as closely as possible.  The band was inspired by a recent trip to Memphis and the songs reflect the influence of the Bluff City.  To me, it's as good or even better than their previous release.  Lead singer Smokey Holman sings like his life depends on it and the band does a masterful job, whether playing down and dirty blues, sweaty funk, or silky soul.

Tweed Funk founder, songwriter, and guitarist J.D. Optekar graciously agreed to sit down and answer a few, around ten, questions as part of FBF's Ten Questions With....., and we thank him for taking time away from his family vacation to participate.  I think this band has a bright future and if you give a couple of these tunes and videos a listen, I'm positive that you will agree.  So sit back and take in Ten Questions (and then some) with J.D. Optekar.  When you're done, please be sure to check out their music at their Reverbnation page.

The stylish J.D. Optekar

Friday Blues Fix:  Can you tell us about the first time you ever got the blues?

J.D. Optekar:  I traced my way back to the blues (knowingly) in the early 90s listening to Pearl Jam, then to Zeppelin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  From SRV I dug deeper to Albert King and all the way back to Robert Johnson.  One of the earliest bands I “experienced” was a local band the Pacific Northwest, Cross-Eyed Cat.  They played a lot of the SRV/Hendrix style stuff with their own twist.  When I saw them perform, it moved me – I bought their EP on tape and wore that thing out.

FBF:  What was the first blues album you heard?

J.O.:  I am not sure if I can pinpoint the first blues album that I heard since it all kind of flows together for me.  It was back when CD stores were still around and I could go in and buy 5 to 8 blues CDs at once – probably the album that sticks out the most was Albert King – King of the Blues Guitar.  I was really digging SRV and learned that Albert King was a big influence for Stevie.  When I heard those powerful bends, phrasing, and space in Albert King’s music it was fantastic.

FBF:  What types of music did you start out listening to?

J.O.:  I grew up for the most part on a farm in Utah and Washington State.  The first album I purchased was John Denver’s greatest hits when I was 5.  My dad was into old country music and I used to listen to his old Willie Nelson (RedHeaded Stranger) and Johnny Cash albums.  I started collecting and listening to lots of country music – 8 albums for 1 penny record clubs and stuff.  In about 6th grade I started to rebel against “my father’s music” and bought a Journey album and then right to AC/DC.  During my college years it was a lot of college radio, Grateful Dead, The Band, REM, and even back to country music.  Listening to blues didn’t come until a year or two after college.

J.D. and Smokey Holman

FBF:  When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?

J.O.:  Other than the requisite piano lessons as a kid for a few years, I never thought of being a musician.  I really enjoyed listening to music and enjoyed creative writing, but never thought much more about playing music.  Freshmen year of college I went to our weekly Monday night track team party, Warhorse, and a couple of seniors and a sophomore on the team were strumming acoustic guitars and singing.  I was instantly inspired and had my dad send out his acoustic guitar to me.  I spent a little time practicing but never made much progress.  My last year in college, I woke up in a foggy morning haze of the night before and I walked into a guitar store and purchased an electric guitar and amp.  I made a decision I was going to learn to play.  Progress was slow for awhile and then after college I met a guy who was a really good guitar player.  We got together and he showed me stuff, got me going, and pretty soon we were putting jams together.  I met up with some other players during the first 4 years of my playing (around 1994) and we did weekly jams, some backyard BBQs, and fun free shows.  I was also playing bass in church (and sometimes guitar) at that point I think I decided that I was going keep doing this for the rest of my life in some capacity.  In 1998 I moved from eastern Washington over to Seattle.  I was really focused on my career, getting married, etc.  I never really connected with any players and let my guitar sit dormant for about 4 years until 2002.  Then we moved to Houston for a couple of years and I met some guys that liked to play, we did the whole weekly jam/backyard blues BBQ thing again while I lived in Houston.  When we moved to Milwaukee in 2004 (shortly after having our first kid) I made a decision to not let my playing go dormant again.  So within 6/7 months I started jamming with friends and about 1 year later I put together my first band, Hounds Tooth, which was getting paid to play out.  I think at that point I became an official musician.

FBF:  Did you start out playing the blues or did you gravitate to it?

J.O.:  Early on I was trying to learn Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, and Doors tunes and then I was introduced to the blues.  At that point that was all I really wanted to learn on guitar was blues.

FBF:  Who are some of your influences on guitar?

J.O.:  I really enjoy Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, and Freddie King.

Tweed Funk in action

FBF:  How did Tweed Funk come together?

J.O.:  I was hosting a weekly jam at The Painted Parrot in West Allis, WI with Donnie Mac (bass/keys/vox) and Larry the Legend (drums).  During that time I was playing in a band called Hounds Tooth and we were having a pretty nice run of shows/festivals in the Midwest.  Donnie Mac invited Smokey (Joseph Holman) down to sing one night at our jam at The Painted Parrot and I was blown away.  I thought if I ever put together another band I have got to do something with Smokey.  Larry the Legend had gotten ill and Marcus Gibbons started filling in for Larry on drums.  When I left Hounds Tooth in early September of 2010 I still had a few private events under contract to play.  Smokey, Donnie Mac, Marcus, and myself put together Tweed Funk. We went and shot some video at a jam, put up a website, and we were off and running  playing private events in the fall of 2010.  In early 2011 we started public gigs and releasing our first CD, Bringin' It, in March of that year.

FBF:  Tweed Funk really mixes it up with their sound, playing several different styles of blues, soul, and funk…..what is your favorite brand of blues?

J.O.:  I enjoy all styles of blues – with the horns on-board full time for the last 2 years I really dig jump blues.  Got to meet a couple of guys from Roomful of Blues at the IBC a couple of years ago and just love their stuff.  John Nemeth’s stuff is also amazing – met him at the Marquette Blues Festival last year.

FBF:  Can you tell us about your songwriting process?  How do you come up with song ideas?

This (First Name Lucky) is the first album where the whole group has worked collaboratively in the songwriting process.  Everyone had a hand in the arrangement, the horns wrote their own parts, and each person contributed to the creative process.  This is the most personal album for me as I drew upon my own experiences for certain tunes "Hoodoo Power," "Divided," and "Sippin Misery."  In other songs like the "Deed is Done" I listened to a story that Smokey told me about his son or I took inspiration from Smokey's life story "Blues In My Soul" to write a tune.  Another technique I utilized was to grab inspiration from a Smokeyism (if you can get it up, you can get it on) and incorporate those sayings into a song.  Sometimes I can write a song in a single 2 hour sitting or other times I will take an idea that I had sketched out or worked on 6 months or 1 year in the past bring it back out and finish writing it.  

Once I have a basic structure of the song, chord progression, lyrics, and possibly a hook then I bring it to the group.  Smokey will then come up with a melody and tweak the phrasing; Nick and Eric will come up with a groove for the tune; Jon and Kevin will put together horn parts.  Additionally, the structure of the song along with intros and endings will be tweaked by the band to come up with a final version.  I was really pleased with the process as I think we achieved a synergistic effect in our songwriting and have put together the best group of original songs in my short-lived career as a songwriter.

FBF:  What are some of the blues albums that are mainstays of your collection?

J.O.:  Luther Allison – Live in Chicago; Muddy & The Wolf; Albert King – King of theBlues Guitar; Freddie King – Live at the Electric Ballroom; Buddy Guy and Junior Wells – Alone and Acoustic
FBF:  You manage to juggle being a family man with being a musician?  How has being a parent changed your life and the way you approach your music and career?

J.O.:  Well, we already had our first kid by the time I started playing professionally.   At that point we had already made the decision that I was going to step out of my career in the software industry and stay home with the kids.  So for me - being a parent and taking care of the household (as my wife reminds me) is my first priority.  Now with 3 kids (10, 7, and 6) we are really busy.  The kids are involved in music, sports, and other activities – so I have to balance gigs and any travel with my family commitments.  I am also coaching my son’s soccer team so I have to make sure my assistant coach can handle the team if we are going to be away for a weekend of gigs.   Additionally, with my wife’s career and the cost of childcare if the band does some limited traveling we have to make sure we have a great anchor gig so that I am not losing money when I travel.  Since we can’t tour as some bands are able to with my commitments (other guys in the band have good day jobs) we are trying to grow ourselves nationally by releasing and promoting our records.  The guys in the band joke that soon we will either be backing my daughter and her music career or the band van will turn into a soccer van.

FBF:  If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be doing?

J.O.:  I think I would really get back into my marathon running and would be even more involved in the PTO at school and volunteering in the community.  I might even look at starting up a new business if the right opportunity came along.

FBF:  What’s your next project?  Are there some things you would like to try in the future?

J.O.:  Our focus is to really build off the success of our new album, First Name Lucky, and push it as far as it will take us.  We would love to play more blues festivals throughout the US and possibly traveling internationally.  Additionally, I am hoping to make one more music video for our current album.  I would love to see more blues artists release music videos as I think it might help us connect with a younger generation of music fans.

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