The math of music so rarely adds up. Try this equation:
A drummer who listens to the Grateful Dead, Tool, Mars Volta and seventies fusion ...
Plus a bass-player into jam bands like Moe and alt-country like The Drive By Truckers ...
Plus a guitar player who digs Prince, avant-garde jazz and weird alternative hip-hop like Prince Paul, Bad Brains and the Wu Tang Clan ...
Plus a lead singer with a background in gospel who worships George Clinton, King Floyd and Otis Redding.
What does it equal? The members of Chief Joseph — Bill Panagis, Mike Parks, Chris Lockett and Dwayne McKnight — aren't exactly sure.
It became its own sound, the singer McKnight finally says after a long moment of silence. "I wouldn't be able to categorize it into a particular genre and I wouldn't really want too. We ourselves categorize it into the funk-rock genre, but I'm not sure."
Bassist Parks suggests Hendrix's Band of Gypsies as a good point of comparison.
Lockett, the guitarist, speaks up from the corner. "I have a perfect description of our band," he says, pausing dramatically. "I think we sound like P-Funk mixed by Black Sabbath fronted by Wilson Pickett."
How does that add up?
CHIEF JOSEPH has been playing together almost one year. They will perform at the Roadside Grill in Arlington on June 22, and at Staccato in Adams Morgan on June 30. They formed last August after Panagis, Parks and Lockett lost two members of their former band, Swerve. This band had also had a funk orientation, but was more traditional, and less heavy than their current sound.
"A lot lighter and happier," said Parks, as he sets up for band rehearsals in his basement in the Del Ray neighborhood.
"Definitely a lot happier," Panagis adds.
Many of Chief Joseph's songs begin with bottom-heavy bass lines droning above aggressive drum rhythms as Lockett plays clear-toned and intricate jazz guitar riffs. The music will drop and slow as McKnight drawls out hypnotic, blues-inflected scats. But within seconds, Panagis' drumbeats get quicker and louder. Cymbals crash. Bass-notes burst like bombs. Lockett exchanges his hollow-body for a Stratocaster, and instead of crystalline scales he pulls reverberating shrieks from the strings. Propelled by the noise, McKnight leans into the mike, his headband soaked. His voice drops darker and louder, beseeching and commanding.
But Chief Joseph isn't angry. The band members clearly find joy in pulling music from a dark place, not of angst, but harmony. Despite being pared down to a trio after Swerve broke up, Panagis, Parks and Lockett were committed to staying together.
"I thought the three of us kind of had a rapport with each other and we were really flexible too," said Lockett. "I wanted to keep playing with these guys and see if we could find a singer that could jump in and take us out into the stratosphere. And I think we definitely did that."
McKnight's hyped-up vocals were the catalyst for the band's sound.
"He has a real heavy, powerful voice. So that kind of drove it," said Lockett. The three musicians had actually asked their previous lead singer to return, before McKnight responded to a posting on Craig's List. But after McKnight's audition, they called their former band mate and canceled the invitation.
ALL FOUR MUSICIANS grew up in the D.C. area.
"Both my parents are gospel singers," said McKnight. "My father's a deacon, mom's a deaconess. I been singing in church since I was four years old." He and Lockett have performed on D.C's Go-Go circuit as well.
Panagis grew up in Northern Virginia. He started playing drums in junior high school and studied under Robert Josp at the University of Virginia.
Parks grew up in Stratford Landing. He attended Fort Hunt Elementary and Carl Sandburg Middle School and graduated from West Potomac High School in 1995. After getting a Bachelor's Degree in Economics from James Madison University, he returned to the Alexandria area and formed a band call Ebb with three other West Potomac alumni.
Parks moved into Del Ray two and half years ago, after spending three years in Old Town. His reasons for living in Del Ray are typical. "It’s a nice quiet neighborhood and everyone's real friendly," Parks said.
Del Ray's laid-back atmosphere has been a boon for the band, which practices in Parks' basement every Sunday evening. "All of our neighbors give us compliments and say how much they like the music," Parks said. "None of them complain about the noise."
Although the band got together in August, they did not play their first gig until December 29. "What happened in-between was a lot of practice," said McKnight, "lotta, lotta, lotta practice. We logged a lot of hours trying to blend our sound and come up with a chemistry that suits our taste."
Most of the songs in the band's first show were covers. By now, though, their set is filled almost exclusively with original material. Parks and Lockett arrange and write most of it. They still slip in an occasional Parliament-Funkadelic or Hendrix tune, but though the lyrics are the same, the music is almost unrecognizable. "I don't want to call the songs we do cover songs," said McKnight. "I want to say remake ... We want it to sound as much like us as possible."
But what does us sound like?
McKnight struggled to explain. "I don't know. I'm not good with adjectives. 'Extra stank' I guess."
THOUGH CHIEF JOSEPH has been together almost one year, its members think they have only taken the first steps towards exploiting their potential. As they work through their music on Sunday evenings, they take one another to new places, without ever having to give a direction.
"One of the things I felt [after] first hearing everybody was we didn't have to talk too much," said Lockett. "When you're in a band having to go out on these long-drawn discussions trying to arrive at some conclusion, I think those types of bands don't work. We just play."
McKnight agreed, citing, "the trust factor." This means the trust to follow someone's lead in a jam, but also to speak up critically when something isn't working. "It's kind of funny," McKnight said, "because when one person says something sucks, it all kind of falls into place. 'Yeah I didn't like that either.' There's always been progression. There's always been growth. We just kind of confide in one another to take us someplace we never been in our music."
The funk at the roots of Chief Joseph's music has always been associated with black musicians. But every member of Chief Joseph agrees that the diversity of backgrounds, musical interests, and skin color in the band has only added to the trust they have for one another in rehearsal and onstage. Lockett said he has no concerns about having an all-white rhythm section. "Race is not an issue," he said. "It would be an issue if Mike and Bill weren't funky."