If rock music was professional wrestling, Refunct guitarist Ben Halperin would be one of the bad guys.
The good guy would stand in the ring in his neon leotard, hacking out the solo from “Freebird” on a red, white and blue telecaster. At some point, the dimple-faced hero would have his amp cut and strobe lights would blast from the rafters. Confused and startled, our hero would look around frantically… until he saw Halperin standing atop the entrance ramp. Ben (or whatever goofy nickname they gave him – think “Benny Hatchet” or “Bend O’lier”) would stroll menacingly down the ramp, mic in hand, while the good guy tried to mask his unease. Upon climbing into the ring, Benny Hatchet would berate the good guy about how god-awful his performance was and what toothless dipshits his fans were.
I know this because that is exactly what Halperin told me while we were watching one of the opening acts at Refunct’s CD release party at Church on Saturday.
Okay, so I made up the part about the Old Glory Fender, but the basic premise came right from Ben. He’s a nice dude, but not too nice to point out the shortcomings of other so-called shredders and, on occasion, have fun doing it.
If you’ve been around enough musicians, you’ve probably met a handful of cocky ones who have no patience for gunslingers without ammunition. As you may have noticed, many of them are just smack talkers who should be keeping their mouths shut until they develop some skills of their own. Others are glossy phenoms who can weave a tapestry on the fret boards at warp speed, but can’t write a simple hook to save their lives and think pop songs are for stupid teenyboppers anyway. Thankfully, Ben does not fall into either of those categories. He’s got the chops to light up a strat in scales that I can’t even spell (much less tell you what notes they include), but knows that his first priority on stage is to entertain the audience, not himself.
Watching Refunct (as in “Re-Funked.” Get it?), I got the impression that similar praise could be handed to all four members of the band. In general, the group emits an aura of restrained precision. I would go so far as to say that they wittingly dumb down their sound to make more accessible music if I didn’t know for a fact that the guys happen to enjoy simple, catchy, meat-and-potatoes rock n’ roll.
“Impolitely narrow is how my music taste is,” said Ben after Saturday’s gig. “It’s awful – I listen to basically five bands. When you have a melody in your ear that may have come from a Beatles song that you listened to obsessively when you were thirteen, that’s gonna come out in your writing.”
Ironically, this is the second band I’ve written about in the last month that could accurately be described as a funk-driven rock group with influences that are older than any member of the band. The funny thing is that the two bands couldn’t be more different unless one of them transformed into reggaeton outfit. One band (North Shore funk renegades The Force) is a pysch ward circus car that floors it in any direction that will bring them over the top. The other is a well-oiled, just-the-rock-ma’am, sleek and smooth hot rod that always gets home without a scratch, even when the driver has had too much tequila. One frontman has a pumpkin-sized afro, the other has a fedora hat. One bass player is essentially playing a slap solo for the whole set, the other will ride a root note for a verse or two before getting his Bootsy Collins on. One band goes for gimmicky thrills like turntable solos and pajama dress codes, the other…well, . . . doesn’t.
Sure, Refunct could probably drop a few more jaws by channeling Primus or 311. But they’d rather trust their rhythm section to uphold the vibe that their name implies while playing songs that are as close to Motown as they are to Funky Town. The music sounds much the way the band looks: tidy, well dressed and with just enough facial hair to avoid having their amps confiscated by the disheveled-rocker police.
Now, before you scream “butt rock,” “frat rock” or (my personal favorite) “cologne rock” do yourself a favor and stop being a jerk for ten minutes while you listen to their songs. The hipster crowd might scoff at it as quaint or generic (“how dare you write catchy rock songs without piling on lots of avant-garde electronic noise – at least have the decency to get some tattoos or grow ironic moustaches, for god’s sake”). But if you can forgive the absence of post-pop pretentions, your reward will be a pantload of quality tunes with a refreshingly narrow range of influences.
Songs like “the Answer” and “Born in the Desert,” put the funk in Refunct. Bassist Todd Ryan, who joined the group last year, thumps out watertight grooves, while Halperin’s guitar flickers above with upstrokes a la “Sex Machine.” The band swaps groove for glitz on lust anthems like “Hey Maria” – a song about a workplace love affair – and “Craigslist Girl” – a song about a cyberspace love affair. These songs get their claws from well-timed vocal harmonies during the choruses, and they will get stuck in your head, so you should get used to them.
Through it all, drummer Rich Wilner is the one that makes the engine go, stop and shift gears. I don’t play the drums, but it must be a tricky feat to rock beats straight out of a Police record with as bare bones a kit as the one Rich had at Church (I mean, have you seen that monster that Stewey Copeland plays nowadays?), let alone sing backup while doing it. I’m convinced that Wilner knows the anatomy of songs like a balding, bespectacled Meredith Grey.
“Rich holds us together,” says Todd. “He doesn’t try to force himself out. He has a great, innate feel for what needs to happen in order for the band to transition smoothly. He constantly plays off of Ben’s guitar solos. Ben will start playing a certain rhythm and Rich will suddenly start working it in to what he’s playing.”
Wilner and Halperin have put in plenty of hours of practice to get those changes tight. The two first jammed together when they were students at Tufts University, where they started the Boston Funk Band. After college, Ben played in a band called Willie May’s Haze, while Rich was in a group called Maverick. Refunct is literally the result of Wilner and Halperin resuming their regime after B.F.B went…you guessed it, defunct.
The one disappointing thing about Refunct’s CD release party was the fact that Amateur Sketch - the band’s second full-length album – has not actually been released yet. Instead, the band gave out free copies of a seven-track EP featuring songs from the forthcoming album and a couple of live tracks. Refunct did, however, play the new album in its entirety (first Mastadon does it at the House of Blues and now this. We can only pray that Metallica isn’t getting any ideas). In this age where auto-tune and other forms of digital perversion can make a diesel engine sound like Queen, the vocal harmonies that highlight many of Refunct’s songs are much more impressive in person.
Ryan Sawyer, who joined the band this year, anchors the trio of crooners. He was the second singer that Refunct auditioned when they posted an ad on Craigslist after parting ways with their previous frontman. Sawyer doesn’t appear on Amateur Sketch (Dave Fountain of Willie May’s Haze filled in on vocals for the recording sessions while the band sought a new lead singer), but his smooth tenor is a perfect match for the band’s pristine style.
With Ben headed for law school in the fall, Rich in the process of starting an online HR company, Sawyer coaching football at Walpole High and Ryan already an engineer for a green power company, the current incarnation of Refunct may have a limited window to retain its functitude (it’s a word. Don’t look it up, just trust me).
…Or, maybe not. Ben and Todd both said that the band would likely play a few cover shows at local bars over the summer, which got me thinking that a band like Refunct could make a killing playing weddings or bar mitzvahs. It may not get them a cover story in Spin, but good money for jamming on your guitar/bass/glockespiel/whatever is a coveted thing among many a player. In fact, one could argue that the most ambitious thing about Refunct is their choice of cover songs and the ways they re-arrange some of them. I mean, it doesn’t take much imagination to turn “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)” into a crushing metal song. Turning it into something that belongs on a porno soundtrack without making John Lennon roll in his grave, however, is a different story.
photos by Pete