Interview with Daniel Lantz of Beat Funktion

For decades Europeans have taken American music, added their own flavors to it, and returned it to us, sparkling new. Sweden's Beat Funktion flashes back to the '70s, capturing the sweltering grooves of that era's prime-time funk and disco, filtering them through a pool of jazz and soul influences. It gives the group's music a breezy, buoyant vibe, as evidenced on their relentlessly catchy new album Green Man.

Composer/keyboardist Daniel Lantz unveils how Beat Funktion's various elements were glued together.

Q: How did the band's melange of '70s funk, disco, and jazz develop?

A: I guess, before any original material was written, we tried to convert jazz standards into funk versions by simplifying harmonies and translating swing rhythms into straight beats, borrowing feel and attitude from soul and funk artists like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and even Herbie Hancock. Over time, influences came from a lot of different directions, and since I sort of became the chief composer, I am sure that the “melange” as you call it, has a lot to do with my love for very different styles of music. What I write today comes straight from the heart and more or less "naturally." I no longer think about that it has to have this and that ingredient to qualify into the repertoire or that it should sound a certain way. Whatever I write will sound ‘Beat Funktion’ as long as it’s played by Beat Funktion. I suppose many people would call our music 'fusion' in that it mashes up several music styles at the same time into a type of jazz, but I would say that, in comparison to what other fusion bands play, what we do is a lot closer to the urban R&B and soul vein than it is to jazz, actually. That’s why I think it’s surprising that we have charted so incredibly well on “jazz” charts in the U.S., rather than the urban charts. Either way, I find it hard every time to put a label on our music. It contains so much.

Q: Who are all the members of Beat Funktion and what instruments do they play?

A: Well, most of us are jazzers to begin with. First of all, Karl Olandersson is currently Sweden's top jazz trumpet player; he's extremely busy and plays all over the place, very often in national television. Olle Thunström is an extremely talented bluesy tenor sax player who's worked with a lot of big bands as well as smaller bands, jazz as well as blues, and he's more or less a co-founder of the band. Johan Oijen is a fusion guitar player, an exceptionally talented improviser, who, alongside Beat Funktion, also tours internationally with his fusion group Subfive. Pal Johnson on electric bass is perhaps the most experienced and multi-faceted musician of us all, equally skilled in jazz, blues, rock, funk, pop, and soul as well as classical music, as he plays the electric as well as double bass. He has played with most big jazz names around the globe. Finally, drummer Jon Eriksson, is truly a fantastic musician, mostly rooted in pop, soul and funk and is a very gifted producer as well. What I love about his playing is that he plays in a very '70s style, which is perfect for the band. And me, well, being the keyboardist and composer of all the music I guess have a very broad background. I've spent a lot of time doing jazz, but I also spent around ten years doing classical music and folk music, and I have always enjoyed and played soul, rock, pop, hip-hop and electronic stuff as well. I guess that's why Beat Funktion suits me well: an outlet for my crossover tendencies. To me it’s all just music.

Q: What styles of music had the greatest impact on the band creatively?

A: Summing up I'd say "any groovy stuff from the '70s." If you listen to our songs we have funk, we have soul, we have disco, we have a bit of Afrobeat and also a bit of progressive rock and psychedelia. But, most importantly, we have the freedom of jazz, which has always been there since the beginning, and in many respects, it is the jazz improvisations in our music that give you the unique and personal voice of every musician, which in turn makes Beat Funktion's music exciting and unpredictable. If you'd remove the improvisations from the music, then we would sound like any other soul or funk band. As for the compositions, I suppose it's my own influences from here and there that come into play, which, I might add, don't often come from funk and soul artists, but rather pretty unexpected areas to be honest, like classical music, or folk music, for example. In contrast to many jazz bands, I try to write simple stuff. Always. Making stuff tricky or intellectual is not my cup of tea. By writing simple stuff, that's easy on the ear; you leave a lot of freedom for the jazz solos as well.

Q: How would you describe Beat Funktion in concert?

A: It’s fun! Like many bands we’re a totally different animal onstage than in the studio. Our studio stuff tends to become a bit polished, but when we’re live it’s raw, energetic, sweaty, and unpredictable. A good crowd gets you going, and most of the time the crowd usually gets up on the dance floor after a while. Which is great. I mean, I believe a lot of the music we do is meant for dancing. I would say our music is best live. Also, whenever we have singers guest performing we can usually vary our expression, and the crowd gets more of the good stuff.

Q: How did Beat Funktion form?

A: Well, I guess it was more or less by accident, caused by a last minute decision before a one-off mainstream jazz gig way back in 2007 to take things in a completely new direction. Thing is, we didn't want to play regular old jazz stuff that risked being boring or too "unhip” to a very young crowd raised on commercial radio hits, so we funked up old jazz songs to make things more familiar for the so called "beat generation." Actually, it worked so well that we came back for more shows like that one. The constellation was very temporary back then and with different musicians each time, but a year later I saw the potential in the band and sort of hand-picked musicians who form today’s set constellation. On occasion we included percussionists to add more to the groove. And, over the last few years, we have had singers joining in, as can be seen on our last albums. Overall, today we have a wide expression in our music.

Q: Where did the name come from?

A: In the beginning I suppose we had many different suggestions going round before we decided. I always like plays with words, so I was looking for something that could mean a dozen different things. "Beat" can be used in a variety of musical context to denote for example a rhythm, a tempo, a hit on the drum, and "Funktion" can point to a type of party in the meaning of 'function,' while at the same time meaning ‘purpose', and with a ‘k’ thrown in it could hint at funk without really pushing it. I think it's a great name.

Q: What artists influenced the group growing up?

A: Wow, that’s hard! It’s a long list, and it’s very diverse: Eumir Deodato, Herbie Hancock, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cobham, Lalo Schifrin, Jean Sibelius, Deep Purple, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Maurice Ravel, Earth, Wind & Fire, Cymande, Lonnie Liston Smith, Miles Davis. A lot of film music, too.  I could go on forever. For the last track on our previous album Olympus, I even reused a folk music waltz melody that I once wrote for an old cancelled stage play, and it worked like a charm in a funky context.

Q: What is the indie music scene in Sweden like and how does Beat Funktion fit in?

A: It is exciting, diverse and people aren’t afraid of experimentation. However, it’s also very tough since the venues for indies are few and there’s plenty of competition. Sweden is interesting because it’s a big country but the population is relatively small, around nine million, which means that it’s very hard to find an audience for music genres too far away from the mainstream. A lot of pop and rock bands have a natural scene at festivals and on national TV here, but smaller genres like jazz, folk music and classical are not exposed as much. Which is sad, and is one of the reasons why Swedish musicians within those genres have to struggle, and some, perhaps wisely, seek to enter markets abroad instead where opportunities are not as few and far between. Add to the fact that Sweden’s music education program is brilliant and begins already at primary school, which consequently increases the competitive climate as truly talented amateurs are able to the same gigs as seasoned professionals. Not saying it’s a bad thing, in fact the opposite since it has given Sweden a foundation as one of the biggest music export countries, but it does create consequences locally nevertheless.

I suppose Beat Funktion faces the same obstacles as all the other Swedish performers within those smaller genres, but in a way it’s even tougher for us, since we are a bit off the chart even within jazz. We find it tough to be accepted at some of the more conservative jazz venues as many don’t regard what we do to be "jazz." I think we face the same difficulties as fusion and progressive rock bands; we sort of are too ‘arty’ for commercial contexts and at the same too ‘commercial’ for high-brow venues. So it’s no surprise really that we are more well-known in the States and Canada and elsewhere where there’s a significantly more open climate than in our own backyard. We do get exposure and some airplay here but it’s nowhere near what we get outside of Sweden.