With a team of trumpets and saxophones blasting over drums, keyboards, bass and guitars, the New York Funk Exchange is a powerful new-aged funk band bringing a fresh look at the genre to venues throughout the city.
On stage behind Fortier are Ray Holman (drums and vocals), Matt Fox (bass guitar), Jamey Zebrack (keyboards and vocals), Matty G (guitar), R.J. Avallone (trumpet), Matt Maley (baritone and soprano saxophones), Mike Farrell (tenor saxophone) and Nick Martino (trumpet).
I sat down with Fortier at Variety Café at 145 Driggs Ave. in East Williamsburg, to learn more about the band as they plan to release This Is Your Brain On Funk.
How did you guys become a nine-piece funk band?
It is a lot of pieces. It started out a lot smaller, with six or seven people. A few of us went to school together and moved out here. We were ready to start a band, we had some friends in another band that sort of broke up, combined the two and then picked up horn players along the way. We started with only one trumpet for a while.
Jaime is the keyboard player in the band, and he moved here right after graduation and started playing in a local jam band. They broke up and a bunch of us, friend-wise, graduated from Berkley and then picked up the remaining pieces of the leftover band and built a new band around it.
How did you personally first get into the group?
Well, this was in 2007, and the keyboardist was also my boyfriend. When his new band was looking for a singer, I went and I auditioned. They made me audition (laughs).
Would you say you had a little going in your favor at that rehearsal?
I think so, maybe.
What is your personal background in music?
Well, I went to the Berkley School of Music and I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. I came from a really musical family.
Where did music first start for you?
My mother and my grandmother were both singers. My mom was in a band in Maine called America Now back in the 70’s. She was kind of into classic rock.
Were you able to relate with that genre growing up?
I was always into roots music like blues and folk. I always really liked that, and I didn’t even really know what funk was until I went to school at Berkley and started learning all these different types of music and taking all these classes.
Did you do any singing before you went to college?
I sang in some jazz choirs in high school, I did some talent shows, but it wasn’t really a big deal. I didn’t even really study music. I was just a kid with a voice.
So when you went to college, what did you think you were going to do?
It was my mom that sort of pushed me. I wasn’t really into college. I knew I wanted to go, but I didn’t know what for and she said, “ Why don’t you try going to school for music? It’s one of your passions, why don’t you follow that and see what happens?” I auditioned and when I got in, that was it.
When you got there, did you have any plans for after you graduated?
I was really timid, which is so crazy, especially now when you see one of our shows. It’s so the opposite of what I am now. But I was really timid and really soaking everything in back then.
So what happens when you’re on the stage?
It’s sort of like my alter ego up there. Serena sort of switches off.
So who is Serena and what does she become when she is on stage?
Serena is a little more reserved in a crowd and I really don’t like even speaking in front of a crowd, but when I get on stage, I’m just in your face and out there. I don’t know why, it’s just what happens when I step out on stage.
Are you from New York originally?
No, I actually came from Maine. We moved out here right after graduation.
Why move to New York?
New York is where you want to be, I think for music. There’s just so many clubs you can get into.
With a band that big, I would imagine it being fairly difficult to put together a practice.
It is. Try getting nine people into a room to practice a song.
How does that work?
We try to get together, especially when we’re not playing, at least once a week. We try to assign at least one day out of the week to it. It’s always the same day.
Living in Brooklyn, is it difficult to find a place?
It’s harder, absolutely.
Where do you guys practice?
Kind of all over. We play out at the New York Lounge out in Long Island and then there’s another spot locally that we go to.
That must be equally as difficult when it comes to recording your new album. Can you tell me a little about “This is Your Brain on Funk” that is coming out this year?
It’s a much more cohesive album than our first album. It really grooves. It’s really funky. I like to call it, new-school old soul because it’s got a lot of the aspects from the 60’s and 70’s that we love so much, but it has a new school edge on it.
Our keyboard player uses some synths and we just build the songs in this old school way, with like having a head in each section. A lot of songs now are one chord, and they just go back and forth.
Being a funk band, what kind of influences do you look to for inspiration?
James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, Tower of Power; there’s just so many.
Where did you guys record the new album?
Well, I work at Avatar Studios (441 W. 53rd St.) in the city, so we were lucky enough to record part of our album in Studio A in Avatar. That was crazy to me, like that’s where Bruce Springsteen recorded all his tunes, so that is kind of a big deal for me. Some really amazing music has been made there.
Our keyboard player is an engineer at Chung King Studios (36 W. 37th St.), and they have a brand new building with a great live room we were able to hit up for the other half. So, we kind of split it down the middle at two grade-A studios in the city.