Some bands want to change the world. Five Alarm Funk’s goal is much simpler. They want you to sweat.
That’s been the idea since the first time drummer Tayo Branston, guitarist Gabe Boothroyd and the original Five Alarm bassist Neil Towers met at a Vancouver house party in 2003. Since that night, the temperature in their leafy green hometown began to rise. Other musicians started showing up to jam. The parties led to gigs locally, which led a few years later to grinding bus tours across Canada and into the States. The crowds grew. The grooves burned. A horn section jumped onboard to punch the beat harder. Percussion cranked it up even more. EPs and albums followed, as studios and gear melted down from the sheer intensity these guys unleashed.
No wonder they called their last album Sweat. But believe it or not, Five Alarm Funk is just warming up. To get the full picture, go back to when the future rhythm section first played together. Vancouver was definitely a musical town then, though among its grunge, alternative, indie and even jazz players one genre was conspicuous in its absence. A few young cats were aware of this but didn’t know how to correct the situation until some mysterious force pulled them into the same room at the same time. “We all loved heavy funk like James Brown and Tower of Power” Branston explains. “But we were also inspired by everything from Tito Puente to Antibalas to Frank Zappa. Their fantastic musicianship and the amount of fun they had was incredible. We wanted that for ourselves too … but it just wasn’t going on in Vancouver at that time.”
From that point, Five Alarm Funk took shape organically. They kept jamming, welcoming like-minded colleagues to sit in, and didn’t really think about much more than having a great time through music. They didn’t even write songs in any traditional way; mostly, they picked up their instruments, kicked off a beat and winged it. “It was never a structured thing,” Branston says. “There was no rehearsing, no writing. We were just improvising and having fun. If we ended up stumbling across something really cool, we’d maybe work it out to see if it might turn into a song. But we weren’t thinking about shows. We weren’t thinking about where this might lead us. We were just playing grooves.”
People did notice, though. They started nudging the band to try getting a set together for an actual gig. It took a while but eventually Five Alarm Funk officially debuted at a local place called The Fairview Pub. To nobody’s surprise but the guys in the band, more than 300 people showed up, hungry for funk. “It was a huge success,” Branston remembers. “That lit this fire in us, like, ‘Wow, people are interested in this! This is something Vancouver needs. Maybe we can make this happen!”
From the Fairview, they moved to Richards On Richards, a venerable venue with a bigger capacity of up to 800 people. Five Alarm packed it again and again until closing night. Word spread throughout British Columbia and after that throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan. Now, keep in mind this isn’t at all like some outfit from Philly picking up work in nearby Baltimore or New York. “Canada is huge,” Branston points out. “From Vancouver the closest city is probably three and a half hours away — and those are smaller towns. The closest big city is Calgary, which is about an 11-hour drive.”
That didn’t even slow them down. Grueling van tours turned into even more grueling van tours that eventually grew into a 36-day, cross-continental trek involving some 30 shows from Vancouver to Fredericton. They crossed over to the States a few times too, initially to nearby markets including Seattle, Bellingham and a little later to Portland. They issued albums and EPs too; leading by 2010 to the affirmatively titled Anything is Possible. That’s when things started exploding for real. They pumped their energy across the Pacific, with a performance in Taiwan that promises to be the first of many in years ahead. They also pushed deeper into the U.S., as far south as Chattanooga, where in 2017 they blew the roof off the Riverbend Festival — or would have, had there been a roof overhead.
And now Five Alarm Funk amps up the heat with an ambitious project that involves raiding their own catalog and inviting some of their heroes to join them. Long known for their percussive gang vocals, they’ve have amassed a library of largely instrumental, chant-punched performances. The first of these is a match they might only have dreamed of when they were just starting to rock those house parties. “I’ve been a Bootsy Collins fan ever since I was 15,” Branston marvels. “That track we gave him, ‘Capital City,’ is one of the funkiest things we’ve ever cut. With that experience and our back catalog, you’ll see a lot more of this from us.”
Future releases and reissues with all-star rappers and funksters. Sights set on bringing their magic to festivals throughout the world. More sweat, more dancing … more Five Alarm Funk. That’s global warming as it ought to be.