This guy has no flow!” laughs pc muñoz, imagining what hip-hop audiences must think of his sing-speak vocal delivery. In a sense, the statement and all it implies is at the core of muñoz’s avant-funk vision. You see, the San Francisco producer, poet, drummer, and vocalist is gaining renown for his beat-making abilities, and his new live band, the left hook, like all his music, is grounded in an intense sense of groove. He builds tracks like a hip-hop producer, but then layers them with strange sounds and laid-back poetry.
Indeed, muñoz sees himself as separate from that part of the music business, despite the fact that his previous effort, a good deed in a weary world, made it onto the CMJ hip-hop chart. (Indicated, also, by his insistence on spelling many of his projects with lowercase letters.) Many hip-hop groups use a live band, but muñoz’s left hook eliminates the guitars and keyboards entirely, relying on bass, drums, percussion, real-time electronics manipulation, and the vocals of Dave Worm (of SoVoSo) that go from imitating instruments to beatboxing to soulful shouts. The live arrangements are loose and improvisational, allowing the musicians to stretch and explore the nooks and crannies of the grooves.
“I’m not at all concerned with replicating the record when we play live,” muñoz says. “I want people to go, ‘Wow, that was different! They even played it differently from the last time I saw them!’ I don’t use any sequencing or pre-programmed synth live. All the electronics are played. The beats come from the kit and the cajón and beat-boxing.” This is decidedly different from his new record Grab Bag, where, despite the plethora of different drummers, bass players, and other musicians, the overall sound is highly produced. “The Question Is” is the only tune that truly feels like a live band (even though it’s not the only one), and it’s the one that features the left hook. Regardless, every track has some shake-ability: check the drum beat on “Kiss-Off,” courtesy of muñoz himself, which benefits from being a little bit aggressive.
Just as a good deed in a weary world was centered around spiritual optimism, so does kindness thread itself through Grab Bag, which rotates around a love letter to muñoz’s son in “Hurricane Miguel.” The song starts with a slow, spacious beat powered by muñoz’s kalimba, while he intones about how his life has been turned upside down by the birth of his son. From there, the good vibes emanate through the music, even when muñoz is doing his best to be angry, as on the aforementioned “Kiss-Off.”
Much of the variety on Grab Bag comes from the guests. Ingrid Chavez, who’s worked with Prince and Madonna, lends some breathy vocals to offset muñoz’s Franti-ish singing on “Disappear.” Joan Jeanrenaud, formerly of the Kronos Quartet, contributes some brilliant, otherworldly improvisations on “Archery.” Micropixie turns in what could be a female reflection of muñoz on “Chatter and Buzz,” a cyber-meditation on finding humanity in the modern world.
Interestingly, many of the grooves and tunes on Grab Bag live a dual life: they’re mellow enough to chill to, and at quiet volumes they seem designed for relaxing, but crank it up and they can definitely move a dance floor, albeit it a slightly strange future dance floor. But you could also imagine the live group taking these tunes just that bit farther. “I wanted to strip everything down and still get a head-bobbing beat and choruses you can sing along to,” muñoz explains. “But there might be some very unexpected turns. I’m always looking for that.”
A former schoolteacher, muñoz has a calm air of authority, as well as a healthy intellectual sense of self-analysis. He talks explicitly about trying to synthesize the two sides of his personality, the avant-garde and the pop songwriter/performer. His last project, Twenty Haikus, featured, yes, twenty haikus set to improvisational responses by Bay Area musicians. His last band, however, was the Amen Corner. “I was out in front with a zoot suit and stuff like that,” he laughs quietly. “That was a lot of fun!” But muñoz felt a need to bring his love of the avant-garde into his real working-musician life. Thus the creation of the guitar-less, keyboard-less, looser left hook.
As if the meeting ground between art and funk weren’t enough, muñoz is also a staff producer at the relatively new San Francisco label Talking House Productions. “Hopefully, our model for the whole thing is so different that we’re starting a new paradigm,” he says of the difficulty in launching a record label in this day and age. Talking House is a studio and label built around the idea that in-house producers hand-select their talent and record in-house, the art is done in-house, and it’s all locally focused.
As a producer, muñoz is still looking to push the envelope. “I want to find an artist that I think is visionary,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “I’m looking for someone that is doing something that has an interesting twist to their genre. Then I think, can I really get excited about this and help them realize it.” His recent credits include an EP by Bay Area’s Femi, Sweet Water Soul, a suite of six tunes that explore a sensual, smooth neo-soul sound, recorded warmly and with a very organic feeling (notably without the future funk that populates muñoz’s own music).
Can he just do anything he wants, or should it have some marketability? “In terms of the projects you bring in, they’re scrutinized pretty thoroughly,” he grins. “There’s a lot of people with opinions, so you bring an artist in you have to fight for them and say, this is why I think they’re interesting, this is what I think the market is.” He won’t go into too much detail about his next project, only to say that it’s a tribute to Lalo Guerrero, the father of Chicano music. Muñoz plays cajón, but he says his relationship to Latin music is “only as a fan, as an appreciator. As a drummer, I really like that I have the kick and the snare right there. I’m very interested in simplicity and transparency. I like when you have a simple tool to work with.”
The man may have no flow, but he’s truly a modern musician, equally at home with a live band, playing the most organic of instruments, a wooden box you hit with your hands, and hunched over a computer, making beats and working magic with ProTools. He’s versed in the edge of modern classical music and the funk of George Clinton (he even throws in his appreciation for the sludge-metal of Om, going so far as to imitate the slow-and-deadly drum parts). He loves the songwriting of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He had Jackson Browne on his last record, but he also had Dr. Fink from Prince and the Revolution. This is someone that could truly only happen in the Bay Area.