Drummer and Motet bandleader Dave Watts was enjoying a little pre-holiday chill time when we caught him last week.
The band was just back from a successful long-weekend run through Cali, including a sold-out two-setter at San Francisco’s Independent and a first-ever appearance at Petaluma’s McNear’s Mystic Theater, and the buzz hadn’t yet completely faded.
“Yeah, it was great,” he says. “We had great turnout, everyone was really stoked. It was kind of following up on a run we did back in the summer.”
It didn’t escape our notice that Watts’ alter-ego cover maestro gig from last year, the endearingly unexpected Funk Is Dead set, made an appearance for half of the Independent show. We are talking San Francisco, of course, so there’s possibly a little of the “when in Rome …” thing happening, but we recall Watts conceding a hint of misgiving when he and the band were setting the gig up last year for their now-traditional Colorado Halloween run. Watts is a jazzer and funk ’n’ soul guy at his core; the whole idea of playing Grateful Dead covers seemed to rest across Watts’ shoulders like a slightly ill-fitted suit, especially as a follow-up to 2010’s luminous Earth, Wind & Fire tribute gigs.
“Yeah, that’s so true,” he laughs. “It’s amazing; you know, I can’t deny people’s appreciation of that music. The combo of how we do it and the love that people have for those tunes, it’s pretty lethal.
“I mean, yeah, we have some great material that we’ve been working on, and it’s fun and feels great, and it’s not like we want to be a Dead cover band by any means. But they’re still our arrangements and it’s fun to play these great grooves, so I really can’t complain.”
But for Watts, covering the Dead (or for that matter, any of their trib-cover projects — EWF, P-Funk, Talking Heads) is more than just an exercise in crowd-pleasing earcandy. The Motet have been in the studio off and on in recent months, working on their first release of original material in almost three years, and Watts says that the accumulated exercise in reworking cover material has benefitted their own creative processes.
“I’ve learned a lot by working on these Halloween shows and taking these bands and these songs … and turning them into live versions,” Watts says. “So we’re kind of putting that treatment on our own music, we’re sort of seeing what’s going to work in the studio and what’s going to work live, and realizing that there’s two ways to go about it. … In working with this material, you really learn how to craft a great song, arrangement-wise, melody-wise; I think we’ve gleaned a lot of that knowledge and are applying that to our own material.”
We suspect, with the split-second proliferation of live recordings that Motet and most franchises working the groove circuit can publish through social media, many of the band’s fans probably haven’t even noticed that it has been a long time since the group actually cut a CD. So it made us wonder and ask Watts, who is hosting recording sessions at his home studio — is making CDs even a big deal anymore?
“Heh,” Watts laughs, collecting his thoughts, “in some ways it’s a bigger deal, because you can do it all yourself, so now you have endless options and you really have to try hard to know when to stop. Before, it was like, OK, we go into the studio. We’re going to play the band, we’re going to have an engineer mix it, and I’ll spend time with the engineer, and I only have so much money, and when it runs out, it runs out. Now it’s like, I can do it all at home.
“I mean, it’s really a blessing and a curse.”
This time around, the group is performing funk covers of classic songs. After the Fox run of Sunday and Monday night shows, the Motet kicks off the new year by drifting their way into the Bermuda Triangle aboard Jam Cruise 11, throwing up a set or two and rubbing elbows with the likes of Karl Denson, MSMW, Big Gigantic, Galactic and Mike Dillon, who just brought his band through Boulder a few weeks ago and with whom Motet shares a pre-cruise bill in Boca on Jan. 5.
Nothing like savoring the benefits of clean livin’.
“I dunno what it is, but I’ll take it,” he says.
The Motet plays the Fox Theatre Dec. 30 and 31. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Call 303-443-3399.