An Interview with Milwaukee band of Tweed Funk: Blues & Soul a great chemistry mixed together that is unique

"If you live long enough you will have the blues, that is the way it was then and the way it is now."

Tweed Funk: A Blues & Soul Blender

Formed in late 2010, Tweed Funk's national ascent has been driven by their horn-fueled, Memphis flavored blues, roots, and soul. This Milwaukee, Wisconsin 6 piece soul-blues revue is fronted by Joseph "Smokey" Holman, who recorded under Curtis Mayfield in the early 70's. Tweed Funk boasts 5 Wisconsin Area Music Industry Wins in the last 4 years for the band and it's members. Tweed Funk has appeared at some of the top festivals and blues rooms in the Midwest, South, and Northeast. Fronted by Smokey's sweet, soulful vocals, audiences can quickly hear how Smokey was a pick to hit the Billboard Soul Top 20 back in the 70’s on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records with the band Love’s Children. JD Optekar’s tasteful guitar lines and roots-rock vocals lend versatility to the band. Eric's passion for Memphis-style soul in the tradition of Donald "Duck" Dunn can be heard in his bass playing. Andrew Spadafora on saxophone, leads a 2 piece horn-section.

Tweed Funk's new 4th album "Come Together" (2016) which consists of 10 new original songs debuts at No. 25 on the Roots Music Report Top 50 Blues Charts. The band made a concerted effort with the new album to focus on writing quality songs as opposed to writing to a formula. Early reviewers are calling this the best Tweed Funk album to date and it is drawing comparisons to late 60s soul icons as well as current artists on Daptone Records. Tweed Funk’s new album and direction is a result of their new line-up including veteran Milwaukee touring and session drummer Dave Schoepke as well as multiple Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award winning saxophonist Andrew Spadafora. Additionally, Eric Madunic, who joined the band in 2012, jumped full-force into the songwriting process for Tweed Funk’s latest effort and contributed bass, keys, guitar, and backing vocals to the recording effort. The resulting collaborative song-crafting effort is catching critics’ ears. Front man Joseph “Smokey” Holman, who is currently battling multiple myeloma cancer, brought the lyrics of guitarist JD Optekar to life - crafting melodic lines that are sweet and soulful. "Smokey" Holman, JD Optekar, David Schoepke, and the old member "MG" Gibbons talks about the band, Rufus Thomas, Curtis Mayfield, the old days of blues and soul.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music and who were your first idols?

Smokey: I was 12 years old, my early idols were James Brown and The Temptations.

JD: In college I was inspired by one of the guys on the track team, Bill Pike who was playing acoustic guitar at a party that got the desire going for me. Early mentors and teachers turned me onto SRV, Albert King, Freddie King,  Jimmie Vaughan, and Magic Sam.

MG: Well my first desire to become involved in music was when I was young at the age of 8. My idols included: Morris Day and Time, Kenny G, Prince, Mint Condition, Shelia E and the list goes on.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

Smokey: The High Chapperelle in Chicago. Can’t Get Next to You (The Tempations) and My Girl (The Temptations).

JD: A local blues band Cross-Eyed Cat was one of my favorites. They had this killer rev’ed up version of the Otis Rush tune Feels So Bad. Early songs on the guitar included tunes like Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and Albert Kings Laundromat Blues.

MG: My first gig I don’t really remember its been some years. I do remember having to learn many cover tunes such as songs from Stevie Wonder (Ribbon in the Sky) to Van Halens( Jump).

What do you learn about yourself from the blues/soul music and culture?

Smokey: That the music was in me, naturally. It is sort of gift that I had within myself.

JD: Sometimes I feel that I can’t make much of difference in the world beyond my immediate family and set of acquaintances – but then I find that our songs touch people. That the music and lyrics can reach a wider audience and make a connection and possibly even affect change.

David: I have learned to think less of myself and more of others mainly family, friends and bandmates/peers.

What does the blues mean to you?

Smokey: It means that I have something to breathe for…to keep living.

JD: Blues is music with feeling, soul, organic – it doesn’t always have to be a 12 bar pattern or lyrical structure as long as the musicianship and feelings are authentic.

David: To me the best blues music means full disclosure of soul and self. Leave it all out there emotionally.

Tell me about the beginning of Tweed Funk. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

JD: Tweed Funk was put together at a jam where founding bass player Donnie Mac invited Smokey and MG to a jam that Donnie Mac and I hosted in early 2010. After getting the opportunity to play with them I knew that I wanted to do a future project with Smokey and MG. In the fall of 2010 that opportunity came together and away we went. The last band I started was named Hounds Tooth (like the fabric), I wanted something that tied things together band-name wise – hence the “Tweed.”  Smokey and MG brought the “Funk”

What characterize the sound of “Smokey”?

Heart and soul.

What characterize the sound of JD?

Tasty single note styles that blend together jump blues with more traditional electric Chicago blues.

What characterize the sound of “MG”?

Now the sound of ''MG'' is a very unique mixture of fusion, gospel, afrocentric, funk, and big band theory/jazz twist. When I play I play with energy and feeling and it has to feel right and be heavy in the rhythm section  and as I would say "DOC THAT IS FAT".

What are the lines that connect Tweed Funk's legacy with Soul, Blues, Funk and R&B music?

Smokey: The lines that connect Tweed Funk’s legacy (and it is a legacy because I am turning 61 years old in May and the guys in this band are many years younger than myself) is that the guys in Tweed Funk are in sync with what the blues is totally about. The blues is a condition and these guys have old souls. They totally feel the rhythm and blues that we sing and play.                (Tweed Funk Band - Photo courtesy of Lee Ann Flynn)

How do you describe Tweed Funk’s  philosophy about the blues and soul music?

Smokey: Taking the blues and putting a soul-spin on it. Take the soul-spin and put the Tweed Funk spin on it.

JD: We bring together our different musical backgrounds of jazz, soul, funk, blues, and fusion – throw it together and come up with something that we feel is all our own. We want the “real” feel and dynamics of that Stax sound in our recordings.

MG: I would describe Tweed Funk’s philosophy as far as blues and soul a great chemistry mixed together that is unique.

How do you describe ‘Come Together’ sound/songbook?

JD: These songs developed organically whether Dave and Eric jammed out a groove and put additional music to me to write lyrics or if a song was brought in to the group and then changes were suggested by the rest of the band. I am not sure we said that we wanted to develop something that screamed late-60s early-70s soul – we just tried to write good songs with contributions from everyone in the band. By working collaboratively and utilizing the strengths of the different band members we ended up with 10 good original tunes. Good songs – that is what this album is all about.

David: The sound of "Come Together" is about as in the moment as writing and making an album can get. There was little discussed in the process and in the end it is a very true and organic gelling of our identities and unified conception of our collective vision.

Are there any memories from “Come Together” studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JD: We flew in Doug Woolverton (Roomful of Blues) from Rhode Island to play trumpet on the album. We a couple nights at the studio booked for he and Andrew Spadafora to get the horns done and one night we had a gig at the House of Blues Chicago. With nothing going on during the day I asked Doug if he would be interested in doing some trumpet clinics in the Shorewood School District – he was game for educating and sharing his knowledge. Doug went and conducted an impromptu clinic at the Shorewood High School, Shorewood Intermediate School, and Lake Bluff Elementary School (4th grade trumpets). Doug was enthusiastic and connected well with all the kids getting them excited about trumpet – such a generous and supportive person.

David: The studio sessions for "Come Together" were fast and furious. The two things that knocked me out were Smokey literally nailing every song live on the floor with only a couple short overdubs. I’ve never in my career have seen that and on top of that with his poor physical condition and heightened emotional state due to worry over not knowing what was wrong with him makes it alone an unforgettable event for me. On a less emotional note, but really inspiring nonetheless, Andrew Spadafora tore forth an incredible performance on sax, one that I had no idea was coming since these songs were written so fast, not all of the horn lines were realized. His writing and performance was astounding.                (JD, Smokey, and Eric - Photo courtesy of Tom Daniel)

Would you like to tell something about making “Love Is” album?

JD: After writing the songs we had a couple of rehearsals and were real thrilled that Greg Koch was willing to come on-board and co-produce the CD. Greg was great in the studio as our ears, motivating the band, providing suggestions and being enthusiastic.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from recording time?

Smokey: Greg Koch’s choice of vocabulary.

JD: Greg would say something like let’s back that off a “skee-noodle” while mixing.  And then turn around to us and say “that is a technical term!”

MG: My funniest moment in the studio recording was when I was reviewing a cd mix and mixing and went to sleep and then woke up and said yeah that sound good when they had went through about 2 songs lol!!!

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the blues circuits?

JD: I think the funniest thing was the first time we played at Buddy Guy’s Legends.  We had met Buddy’s son Greg when we opened for Buddy Guy at Purdue University. Greg and his sister run Legends. Anyhow, Greg went up to the dressing room and played this trick on our bass player (who didn’t recognize Greg) saying that he was bass player that was filling in tonight. He had our bass player, Eric, totally fooled and confused. Definitely a gas!

This past summer the weekend after playing the Traverse City Area Blues Festival, I collapsed and blacked out while running. Chicago-Slim (Dan Ivankovich) from the Chicago Blues All Stars (who played at the festival with us) saw a post on Facebook about my incident. He sent some information to me that turned out to be the correct diagnosis and my doctor was able to correct the issue with my heart by doing an ablation. I found out that Chicago-Slim is not only a great guitarist and bluesman, but he is an M.D. and a great humanitarian. It was totally great how he reached and helped me out…the Blues Can Heal!

Smokey, are there any memories from Domestic 4, and Marvelous Mack & the Pressure Release Band, which you’d like to share with us?

The Domestic 4 became Love’s Children and we once had the Ohio Players in Columbus, Ohio open up for us. Working with Willie Mitchell, Rufus Thomas, and Curtis Mayfield. Marvelous Mack helped me get back on the music track.

JD, are there any memories from Hounds Tooth, which you’d like to share with us?

Opening for Kenny Wayne Shepherd and playing the Big Bull Falls Blues Festival with Hounds Tooth. Close to 1,500 and 2,500+ fans at each event passionate for the blues.  

MG, are there any memories from BB King's House Band in Memphis, which you’d like to share with us?

Playing and doing gigs with great different musicians a BB Kings as part of the house band was great.

Which memories from Willie Mitchell, Rufus Thomas, and Curtis Mayfield makes you smile?

Smokey: Willie Mitchell and Rufus Thomas saw our band the Domestic 4 in Gary, Indiana because we were opening for Willie Mitchell’s soul revue. They told us that if we made it to Memphis they would record us. We mad the trip to Memphis and I think and smile about the memories of 9 of us packed into station wagon in front of Willie Mitchell’s house. Curtis Mayfield came and sang with our band at practice in somone’s basement in Gary, Indiana.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

Smokey: House of Blues in Chicago. The open blues jam at the Painted Parrot.

JD: Tweed Funk playing the after-hours jams in Memphis at the International Blues Challenge. At one point we had the 2011 Solo/Duo Winner on-stage with us and two of this year’s solo/duo winners along with acts from Germany, Israel, and Canada leading them through an extended version of Sly Stone’s Thank You!  People said that jam was the highlight of their time in Memphis!

MG: Some of my most memorable gigs was playing a concert getting on stage at 2am in the morning and it was packed. I was playing at a convention. My most memorable jam sessions were two: one was for a benefit for a good friend name Larry the Legend; and  the other was one that Tweed Funk did at the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street in Memphis, TN at the International Blues Challenge, it was about 14 musicians on stage just jammin.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

Smokey: Curtis Mayfield

JD: My guitar teachers have taught me a lot. Perry Roper taught me to listen, music is 90% listening. Misha Siegfried talked a lot about feel – relax the shoulders, the blues is like sex. The blues is not about mechanics but listening to others and feel.

MG: I have learned a lot of secrets from a few things of blues through listening to Buddy Miles, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles - they all had different things I could learn, and the blues and soul is always with us.                 (Photo: Tweed Funk and Frank Roszak)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Smokey: Back when I was teenager I wish that I really had an understanding of what it meant to have soul and to have the blues. But I guess knowing now what those things mean and my life journey to this point has made me the man that I am today. 

JD: I would really like to see a counter-culture revolution where young people start appreciating “real music” played by real musicians instead of programmed, corporate, autotune noise. My daughter is 10 years old and she is totally eating up pop-music. She plays sings and plays the piano and I am trying to get her excited about different forms of music and musicians with talent. There are so many hardworking talented musicians out there that I would love to see recognized and able to earn a living off of their art-form.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues and soul is always with us.  Why do think that is?

Smokey: Because it comes from true feelings and Blues is The Truth.

JD: I think the message and the story is universal, because when we strip away the McMansions, fancy cars, clothes, jobs, and all that socio-economic stuff – well at the core we are just people who feel joy, pain, fear, and heartache. To me soul and blues captures those emotions and puts them in a musical form. At the same time I believe that blues needs to continue to evolve to carry the message forward. It has gone through many changes from country blues, to electric blues, to British blues-rock, to guitar driven SRV style blues – lets keep the story alive by innovating while keeping the core of the music intact!

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

Smokey: The band members that I have now – they are more a family and I don’t have much family in the Milwaukee area.

David: I have been fortunate to work with a number of fantastic musicians in my career one who I still tour and record with is Willy Porter. He has taught me a ton about song craftsmanship and dynamics. I am a better drummer/musician because of my 14 years with him. I have had numerous drumming mentors over the years and I am thankful for all the advice they've given me, but two fellas here in Milwaukee Steve Davidson and John Beaster have been people in my career that I could always lean on for incredible insight. I will always be in their debt.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Smokey: Don’t give up.

JD: I asked our drummer Dave Schoepke about what he learned most playing on all the albums and with some great musicians and he said “play to the song.” It’s not about cramming as much of your chops/noise/effects into the tune it about playing to what the song needs to make it a good song.

David: Best advice I’ve ever received was to always make my decisions in music for the music, not money or career advancement. In the end you will always have what you want. To play the music you love the way you want to. To me that is the single most important thing in this business and its kept my happy, optimistic, satisfied and proud.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues/soul of past?

Smokey: It was everywhere in the past and nowadays you have to look for it.  In Gary, Indiana we had one good station playing this music. The Chicago stations were great.

David: I miss the unique qualities that came forth from the different places the music was made. We've lost those identifying qualities with new technologies and changes in the industry.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Smokey: That the blues doesn’t die – we need young people to take it up and pass it on.

David: I am hopeful that we can steer folks back to live music and originality…I am fearful that we are too far gone from that.

Smokey, is there any similarity between the soul blues nowadays and the “SOUL BLUES OF THE OLD DAYS”?

If you live long enough you will have the blues, that is the way it was then and the way it is now.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Smokey: Persistence!

MG: The advice I would give to a musician pursuing the career in music is stay humble, also study different music and practice and educate and learn the business.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Smokey: The best moment was being signed by CurTom Records. The worst was leaving Love’s Children because of personality conflicts.

JD: My favorite moments are when we are playing an original tune and I see someone in the crowd singing along with it, either because they know the tune or it is catchy enough they can just pick it up. The International Blues Challenge in Memphis was great, leading a 14 piece all-star band through Sly Stone’s Thank You at an after-hours jam was awesome!

MG: The best moments in my career were when I started getting multiple calls for gigs of different styles of music. My worst gig in my life was playing with a bunch of boring musicians that I met and committed myself to for some fill-in gigs.

“Smokey”, how has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
It is more regulated now which is a good thing.

What is the impact of the Blues/Soul music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Smokey: For one thing soul music has been very political all the songs Curtis Mayfield wrote - the words are still holding true today.

JD: I think if worked together in our society like musicians do especially if you looked at Stax and how blacks and whites worked together to make good music – our problems might be solved. We can learn from each other if our minds are open. Milwaukee in some senses has a segregated music scene – Smokey and I met because people were willing to step outside the comfort zone and “Come Together” to help create art.

David: I try not to analyze music too much and get caught up with political and sociological slants. Too much of what people vehemently say at one time in their lives turns to ironic hypocrisy at another. I take music with those leanings with a grain of salt. Plus I always am more interested in good music before lyrics. If the music is good I check out the lyrics, if I don’t like them then I ignore them. Lyrics don’t make or break a song for me.

(Photo: Smokey and JD on stage at Sioux Falls Jazz Fest - courtesy of Sioux Falls Jazz Fest)

What touched (emotionally) you from the old-school Soul?

JD: If I listen to someone like Marvin Gaye today – his message is still relevant. There is still a lot of work and bringing community and our people together. His voice is so beautiful – his music so inspiring – sometimes listening to him brings tears to my eyes.

David: Old school soul that had/has an impact on me is Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, The Band (I call them soul), Al Green, and Aretha Franklin. Every one of those artists have brought a tear to my eye. They are the only ones who have.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

JD: Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981.  Just look at all that talent in the house band and the special guests.  Oh yeah and the Stones were there too.

Smokey: I want to Columbus, Ohio 1971 after a show where the Ohio Players opened for Love’s Children – we had a great party and I thought “watch out Jacksons, we are here” but that only lasted for 5 minutes.

JD: Take me back to Stax in the 1960s and just let me be a fly wall.  I would want to see the history of American music unfold right before my eyes.

David: I'd say sometime in 1973 when Stevie Wonder was recording Innervisions and to be in the studio with him an entire day watching him work would be a lifetime of lessons in supreme musicianship and humanity. The man is truly touched. Plus, his drumming is from outer space and I love it!

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