Oakland-based funk and soul outfit The Grease Traps can trace their origins back through about two decades and two previous projects: Back in 2000, Aaron Julin (keys) answered a classified ad by Kevin O’Dea (guitar), searching for players who were hip to the grooves laid down by Blue Note Records artists like Grant Green and Lou Donaldson. The duo quickly formed Groovement, an act that covered those artists, along with other jazz-funk staples.
When Groovement’s rsax player and frontman moved, Julin and O’Dea switched gears and formed Brown Baggin’, an act that got into the harder hitting funk of The JBs, The Meters, Kool & The Gang, Mickey & the Soul Generation and a lengthy list of others. They increasingly became influenced by the rare funk compilations released by Keb Darge, Gerald Jazzman Short and labels like Harmless, Ubiquity, Soul Jazz and Now-Again, as well as contemporary outfits like Breakestra, The Whitefield Brothers and the Daptone and Soul Fire crews.
Back in 2005 while still with Brown Baggin,’ Julin and O’Dea began to get fed up juggling the schedules of seven band members, who each had their own varying professional and personal obligations. The pair put out a classified ad seeking a bassist and drummer to jam with as a quartet. The first two musicians, who answered the ad and showed up were Goopy Rossi (bass) and Dave Brick (drums). It was clear from those early jam sessions, that the quartet had a great musical and creative chemistry.
Originally intended as a fun side project, The Grease Traps quickly became a priority as Brown Baggin broke up. Performing as an instrumental quartet for a handful of years, the band expanded their lineup with the addition of a horn section and lead vocalist The Gata. Over the years, the band has shared stages with the likes of Shuggie Otis, Robert Walter, Durand Jones and The Indications, Monophonics, Neal Francis and Jungle Fire.
Now, as you might recall, the Oakland-based outfit released their full-length debut Solid Ground through Italian purveyors of funk and soul, Record Kicks. Six years in the making, Solid Ground was recorded at Kelly Finnigan‘s San Francisco-based Transistor Sound by Finnigan and Ian McDonald and at Oakland-based Fifty Filth Studio by Orgone‘s Sergio Rios, live and straight to eight-track tape on a Tascam 388 to recreate that old-school analog sound. The album’s material features guest spots from the Monophonics’ horn section, backing vocals by Bay Area-based vocalists Sally Green and Bryan Dyer, as well as strings arranged by Kansas City-based violist Alyssa Bell.
Solid Ground features a mix of covers and originals. The originals draw from the band’s various influences including funk, psych soul and lowrider soul among others. Lyrically and thematically, the album’s originals see The Gata discussing the pressing issues of our moment — racism, finding hope in a world that seems pitted against you and more. The albums’ covers manage to capture the energy of the band’s live set.
In the lead up to the album’s release late last year, I wrote about album single ”Birds of Paradise,” a strutting synthesis of Muscle Shoals-like soul, The Meters and The JB’s featuring shimmering and arpeggios Rhodes, old school breakbeats, a chugging bassline, wah-wah pedaled guitar, a funky horn line and enormous hook paired with The Gata’s soulful crooning, yelps and howls. Fittingly, the song is focuses on affairs of the heart: the song’s narrator brags, struts and attempts to do anything and everything he could to prove that he’s the man for the woman he desires.
“Roots,” Solid Ground‘s album opener and latest single is a strutting synthesis of Muscle Shoals, Isaac Hayes-like orchestral psych soul and The Payback era James Brown centered around an expansive song structure that includes the song’s underpinning guitar riff, some bluesy harmonica riffs, an alternating verse chorus verse section, featuring a rousingly anthemic hook, a trippy freak out reminiscent of The Isley Brothers‘ “Shout,” as part of the song’s lengthy outro. Lyrically, the song focus on gathering up the strength to face a hateful and brutal world that’s pitted against you at every single turn. But during the outro, the personal struggle becomes universal with the song pointing out that we need to band together and rise up against those who keep us down. Power to the people, indeed!
“‘Roots’ was the last song we recorded for the album in our studio,” The Grease Traps’ Kevin O’Dea says. “It started off with just the basic riff you hear over the verses. While the main rhythm section groove was cool on its own, we knew we wanted to build up the energy over the course of the song. I wrote some horn lines and added fuzz guitar on top which helped, but we still felt like the song needed something uptempo and driving after the darker beginning. After a false ending, we ramp up the tempo with a faster four-on-the-snare soul groove, followed by a breakdown to just guitar and drums, before building up to a feverish pitch on the outro. We decided to convert most of my original horn arrangements to strings which we felt added to the depth of this track. The Gata did a fantastic job with the lyrics, keeping it heavy on the slower verses, but imploring for change and unity during the outro. His harmonica work also lends an earthy poignancy which really suits the overall feeling we were trying to convey. This was the first and only take we did of the song, including the scratch lead vocals the Gata laid down, because the vibe was just right. Sergio Rios of Orgone created a brilliant mix, blending the many elements into one cohesive unit and making it one of the tracks we’re most proud of.”