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«FunCOOLio» — each song as a movie staring vintage music instruments

Evilena Protektore

Cinematographic fusion from the Baltic region: Deniss Gradaļevs about his love towards all things from the past

At the beginning of 2014 Latvian funk music scene had seen the birth of another album — this time from «FunCOOLio» band. First of all, it’s worth mentioning that the previous year was rich in albums in jazz and funk styles. At least that’s the conclusion we come to after observing how many artists had entered the local music awards «Zelta Miktofons» —fourteen albums! Secondly, this album is also interesting from a historical point of view since it features a long-forgotten musical instrument produced by Riga Music Instrument Factory — the electric organ “Pērle”. This, however, doesn’t come as a surprise since the band is well known for loving all things vintage, and its organist Vladimirs Tuzovs not only plays those instruments well but also acquires and restores them. In fact, his personal collection is quite vast! For example, one of the instruments he has at home was acquired from a small church in Denton county, USA; the organ was so massive that Vladimirs had to take out a part of a doorpost to get it inside! This glorious instrument, though, has to stay home, it’s completely immovable, but Vladimirs finds other creative ways to enrich the bands sound; here’s where “Pērle” comes into play, and the listeners can fully enjoy it on «VOL.2», composition titled «Pearl of Riga».

Raitis Zapackis will tell more on the album, but for my part, I decided to do a traditional conversation with almost every new artist that releases their latest album! This time I had a chat with «FunCOOLio» bandleader, bassist, and composer Deniss Gradaļevs.

Raitis Zapackis

«FunCOOLio» iznes pasaulē Rīgas «Pērli»

The release of «FunCOOLio» bands album «Vol.2», which was released under the local «Funcoolio Records» label, has become a new and beautiful occurrence in Latvian music not only due to the album’s enticing compositions played by the main lineup of the ensemble but also because of the number of guest artists taking part in the recording and bringing their unique ideas to the mix. So, the main lineup of the band consists of Jurijs Osipovičs — drums, Georgijs Panfilovs — guitar, Vladimirs Tuzovs — organ, and Deniss Gradaļevs — bass guitar; the guest artists in this album are: saxophonists Fred Hormain and Deniss Pashkevich, flutist Ilya Gusarov, Hammond organist Igors Smoļins and keyboardist Mikhail Kasper. As you can see, the lineup is quite international, but no artist is new to playing with «FunCOOLio» — they all have met on stage multiple times throughout the years, both in Latvia and abroad. The compositions found on this album (which has been released on vinyl and a long-forgotten cassette) are ten instrumental funk/fusion pieces composed by Georgijs Panfilovs and Deniss Gradaļevs. The funk music found on this album gives us a taste of summer, sun, sea, and freedom, and in a very timely fashion since this is when all of us are dreaming of an escape of sorts. «Vol.2» provides us with an opportunity to find such escape in its music.

The music created by the band’s main lineup is already quite a treat to music lovers, but the guest artists a special cherry on top of that fusion pie. Each song becomes a small surprise to the listeners by small nuances from the legendary Hammond organ, «Pērle», an electric organ produced in the 80s in the Riga Music instrument factory. Although the band’s organist restored the latter historical treat, Vladimirs Tuzovs appears in only one composition by Georgijs Pansilovs, «Pearl of Riga». Apart from those two historical instruments, the listener can also find the sound of Rhodes piano, flutes, and saxophones embellishing the compositions. Despite the variety of instruments taking part in the recording, it doesn’t sound too much, like overdone. The music is as transparent as can be, light, and very in tune with the definition of funk music. The lyrical and gentle moments in the album strum this nostalgic heartstring every person has and sometimes even bring back the sense of Christmas mood and a hint of Latvian melodysm and rhythmics; like in the composition «Clock». Probably the best way to describe the genre «FunCOOLio» plays in would be «baltic fusion». Or maybe it’s just me being overly sentimental. Solos played by the musicians are skillful and intelligent and are a great addition to a great album; they help enrich it by adding a piece of their personality to this funk recording.

It is quite challenging to decide whether to praise each composition separately or simply appreciate «Vol.2» and «FunCOOLio as a single unit. No, I guess the second option is best! This is a complete work, one finished piece of art, one team with a brilliant musical lineup! Ten tunes fly by in a single moment. During his interview with Latvian Radio, Deniss Gradaļevs said: «Such compositions give the listeners a chance to think outside the box — a chance to find out something new about the band, about such genres as funk, fusion, and soul. Each tune on this album is like a small movie, where each musician plays their part.» It’s impossible, of course, for everyone to like everything, but this album struck something in my heart because funk music is among my favorite genres. And «FunCOOLio» band isn’t new to it as well; they have been doing their thing for more than ten years now, with their debut album, «Vol.1», being released in 2014. It is also worth mentioning that their debut album was first presented in Poland during the «Jazz in The Ruins 2014» festival, Gliwice. The band has also participated in various festivals worldwide — in Poland, Estonia, Russia, Lithuania, and the USA. Their latest album, «Vol.2», is available in different formats — vinyl and cassette, but also on every major streaming platform.

Mihail Korolkov

Evilena Protektore

Do you know what I’m holding in my hands? A cassette, Deniss, cassette! I’m shocked! How did you even come up with the idea of doing something like that? Why?

Surprise — that’s exactly the effect I wanted to achieve!

Let me get this straight — you decided to release an album on a cassette to surprise people? But what about the music? I can’t imagine a home with cassette players nowadays; how would people listen to the music…

Well, if you have nowhere to listen to cassettes, there’s a download code in the package, so… But my goal was, as I said, to surprise people. Just as you are right now. And also, I wanted to evoke this sense of nostalgia, longing for childhood. Do you remember the times when all music was on cassettes? The trees were taller, and the grass was greener, the sun was brighter, each new cassette bought in the tunnel on Gogoļa street brought so much joy…

But do you even care for the quality of the sound? Cassettes aren’t that great.

No, in fact, I even miss the whispers and the scratches on the tape.

Did you listen to the cassette yourself? Do you have a player?

In fact, I do! I have bought a boombox by «Sanyo»; I listen to various cassettes on it, also to the radio. Did you know that we have several good radio stations? This boombox actually sounds pretty nice. Sure, it’s not «hi-fi» quality but «lo-fi», but with the added charm of the 70s and the 80s. There’s also an input to plug turntables in, so you can use it to play vinyl! Very authentic!

Wait, you listen to vinyl through a boombox?


But that’s…

It’s fine, really! In fact, I had listened to peppers’ [«Red Hot Chili Peppers»] recordings just yesterday, and it sounded awesome!

Mihail Korolkov

Why do I get a feeling that you have a severe case of nostalgia…

But I like the idea! I could make it easy on everyone and just buy a Bluetooth speaker, but this analog tech it’s just something else. If the player had managed to survive for as many years as I have, 42 to be precise, that, probably, it will hold on for 42 years more. There’s something warm there. We have been planning to release the album on vinyl from the very beginning, but right now, printing is being late — if before you had to wait for the production to be completed for some three months, now it’s close to a year. We really wanted to release the album in 2021, and we didn’t want it to only be in digital format but also on a physical carrier. Since the vinyl is being so delayed, we decided to give cassettes a chance. Vinyl will come later. And don’t discount the people who still listen to cassettes and who love them — they exist! I believe that the rest 99% of the people will never listen to it, but it will be a nice souvenir that will proudly grace their shelves.

Are you planning on releasing the album on a CD?

No. We released our first album on a CD and are almost out of them, but now it’s problematic to even listen to CDs — new cars come without a CD player, people don’t have «hi-end» players at home, so I guess it’s easier just to give them a download link where they can find all mp3 files and listen on their computers. I think that when they buy CDs, they still rip them to save the music on computers, so what’s the point? Some don’t even unpack the CDs; they buy them but then go to Spotify. A CD nowadays is the same souvenir as a cassette. But a cassette is more interesting. And I’m not greedy; let them have a link and download the songs.

So you provide the people with both — a download link and an option to use a streaming platform?

Of course. We don’t want to hide our music from our listeners — take it in any way or form you want. Except for the CD. Even on tape! Although the latter is only on-demand since it’s quite a complicated process. The thing with the tape is that there are two types of those — cheap and expensive. The cheap tapes are played on 19th speed, a regular player that can be bought for an affordable price, and there even are several labels that specialize in such recordings. But there’s also a «hi-end» market where they sell the master copies. Imagine there’s some jazz album recorded in the 60s or the 70s, all the tech was analog, and the recordings are stored on some master tapes. Then the sound is taken from the tape and transferred to vinyl. So there’s this category of people, let’s call them «record purists,» that don’t want to listen to a standard vinyl; they want to have a copy of the master tape. So they are ready to pay thousands for a Miles Davis or a James Brown album’s master copy. They will then proudly enjoy it on their «hi-end» player at home. It’s a particular group of people, elite even.

I’d say it is a niche market.

Yes. There’s only some 50 labels that deal with this sort of thing in the whole world. There’s one in Holand called «STS Analog» — they record music using only analog technologies, release their recordings using analog technologies; they have their own logic, ideology even. One recording could cost around 350 EUR, and how many listens you’d have to have on Spotify to earn as much? I can’t imagine. There aren’t many people who listen to music on tapes, but not many labels release such music as well.

But you did the recording the usual way — without tapes and all?

No, we did it digitally, so we’re not really in the flow, so to speak. But it there are people, who wish to listen to our album on tape — why not? Also, I see it as merch of sorts, alongside CDs, vinyl, bags, badges… people will buy merch to support artists they like.

I can see the logic in what you’re saying.

Exactly! Also, I got really inspired by the concept of cassettes after visiting Bandcamps’s Instagram profile — they always publish news about fresh releases, but only those released on cassettes! That’s what their Instagram is full of! I explored their profile and concluded that close to zero funk and jazz albums are represented there. It’s mostly rock and metal. There are no representatives of «easy» music genres whatsoever. That inspired me to make an addition to their collection by releasing our album on a cassette. Also, I’ve arranged for our cassettes to be sold in a store in New York — www.tapeheadcity.com — they sell only cassettes; they sell everything from Britney Spears to fresh metalists, and everything is sold out pretty fast.

Your album is also special musician-wise — you’ve got people from all over Europe, like Fred from France, Ilya from Estonia, Mikhail from the UK…

Ilya is actually from St. Petersburg but moved to Estonia at some point. He’s lived in Berlin, Germany, for the last five years, so it’s safe to say that her a German flutist and composer. It’s no secret that we’ve played various concerts together before, and we have recordings from most of them, so when we decided to record this album, we listened to everything and decided who would sound best in which composition. I recorded everything myself in our studio; Fred recorded himself while in France. I did all the mixing, but Kaspars Putniņš did the mastering. I don’t know if such an approach is good or bad, so I decided to do everything myself…

Mihail Korolkov

You know, if you even did a poor job, you’ll never notice it on a cassette! [laughs]

It’s probably better to delegate things — maybe I should have just stuck with playing the bass, but I really enjoy DIY! I also believe that if you know what you want to do, you can easily do it yourself!

You also have a new logo, do I see an element of a cassette there?

Yes! The design was made by an artist from Estonia, and when he found out that we were planning to release the album on tape, he lit up with enthusiasm and even gound his old player to listen to the album the proper way, how it was meant to! So maybe it can become a new challenge — dig out your old cassette player!

A vintage challenge!

Exactly! Also, talking about vintage, did you know that we have an actual vintage musical instrument in one of our songs — «Pearl of Riga»? The tune was named after an electric organ, «Pērle», produced at the Riga Music Instrument factory! Vladimir found it somewhere on the web, bought it, restored it, and brought it to the studio. It was in a very devastating state, but he did a fantastic job of fixing the instrument. So, we had a tune with no title, and I suggested Vladimir play his part on that organ, and then we decided to name the song after the instrument. All in all, it’s a fantastic instrument, but unfortunately, you can’t take it to concerts — the ecosystem of the organ is very gentle, it’s easy to break something, and it will not sound as good as it’s supposed to. It has a «Leslie» type lamp amp, and it’s easy to break this lamp.

So the album is all about vintage, then!

Yes, we love ourselves some 80s!

Your music has this old-fashioned moon (in a good way). When I was listening to the album on Apple Music (sorry, I don’t have a cassette player…), I got the feeling that it could pass as a recording made in the 80s! And not just stylistically, but also… spiritually, maybe? Time travel in music!

Well, I guess that means that my goal is achieved — the composition structure was intended to sound old-fashioned; I even used the plugins from the 80s in the sound editing process! We’ve been into this for a long time, actually, and I’ve discovered that we’re not alone in this; many artists love the stylistics of the 80s. I didn’t intend to copy music from that period, but I like it a lot, and we tried sticking with it. Also, I think that every composition on the album is like a soundtrack to a movie that was never published. A cinematic fusion from the Baltic region. We realize that our audience isn’t that huge, but I hope that some might like our tunes and will come for more because, well, we are already working on our next two albums!