Bill Curtis of Fatback Band (USA) talks the universality of funk, reciprocated partying and the demise of the greats

If we’re talking longevity, Bill ‘Fatback’ Curtis is your man. Trail blazer, lover of music and worshipper of the funk.

Fatback Band’s prolific turnout glorified the amalgamation of jazz beats with New Orleans funk. Their honeyed melodies, slippery rhythms and slick licks offer a hefty dose of eclectic funk.

We spoke to the Bill Curtis ahead of their very first trip to Australia about the current state of music, the universal understanding of funk and the secrets of Fatback and Bill Curtis.

Hello, is this Bill?

Bill Curtis. The one and only (laughs).

(Laughs) How are you?

Oh great, I’m doing wonderful. You’re the first female I’ve had call. You sound good! You don’t have a heavy accent!

That’s good, you can understand my curly words. I actually started my morning with ‘Groovy Kind Of Day’. It was a beautiful start to my day!

Ooohhh!! It’s a groooooovy kind of day! *sings: My kind of day!*

(Laughs) It is a groovy kind of day here in Melbourne. You’re coming out for your first trip to Australia, that’s pretty monumental. Do you have any expectations?

My first visit in my life. I’m excited. No, no, no I don’t know what to expect. I do not know. All I know, you speak English. I can communicate (laughs). I get worried when I can’t always communicate.

But everyone understands the groove though?

They understand the funk!(Laughs) They understand the funk.

What can we await to see on stage at these Australian shows?

You can never have any idea of what to expect.

I’m going to be at Meredith [Music Festival] show having a boogie in the crowd.

We just play the music. We’re a dance band. We play dance music.

I’ll be dancing!

The more you party, the more we get down. The problem comes when you don’t party, then the band can’t party. But when I see you party hard, then I party hard.

Well I will most definitely be partying hard. You played for many, many years before forming Fatback Band in 1971. Did your prior experience inform much of what you went on to do? Or was the band a platform for you to explore completely new things?

Well, when I was playing with other bands, one thing I learnt was how to treat musicians. I made sure I didn’t treat my musicians the way they was treating us at the time [before Fatback formed]. I wanted to make sure my band knew that I appreciated them. The people I played for, they thought that they didn’t need a band. But, you’re no greater than the band behind you. And I wanted my musicians to always know that they were apart of the show and they made me.

That’s really nice.

That’s what I learnt out there with other musicians. But I took all the experience that I had, and put it in my Fatback Band.

Was it a new place for you to explore musically?

No, no, no, I just had so much music stuffed in my head.

So you had to get it out?

Yeah, you know, when we record, we never know what we’re gonna do. We’re recording tomorrow. We go in the studio, set up and say, ‘what we gon’ do?’ And everybody look at me and I start playing, then I start singing and they just start making music behind what I’m doing. When you have a bunch of musicians that are all on the same page, it works right. Like magic.

Is this the new album that you’re going into record?

Yes, we have some new music out. I have a lot of new music out. I have about three or four albums that you’ve never heard before.

Oh wow! Will we get to hear them?

No, you won’t hear any of the new stuff [on the Australian tour] because we have so many tunes that you wanna hear before we get to the new stuff! If we were on the stage for maybe three hours, I would play some new music. I could play for about two hours… it would take me about two hours to get through all the hits.

There are a lot of them!

I don’t have no room to play the new stuff (laughs). If there was a new song that you were familiar with then maybe I would throw it in there. It makes for a dull show for me to be playing new music all the time. People [in Australia] have been waiting to hear the hits for a long time.

How did you get started in music? Was there someone that gave you a push in the right direction or was it always something you were drawn to?

It’s something that I’ve been doing all my life. I have never done anything else. I’ve only done music all my life, ever since the age of six.

What did you play when you were six-years-old?

I started playing keyboard, playing piano. My mother played piano. We had a piano in our house. When you live in a neighbourhood and there’s only one piano in that neighbourhood, people who know how to play the piano always stop by your house. I would have a lot of musicians in and out of the house playing. My mother… my mother. She wasn’t what you would call a pianist, herself. She studied and she made sure that the music teacher that was teaching her, started with me when I was six. Music is the only thing I’ve been doing all my life.

I think it’s a pretty good thing to do.

Oh yes! It’s paid off! I love music! I tell the young people, ‘I just hope you respect it. It’s done a good thing for me. Respect it and treat it right and it will treat you right!’

Yeah, I mean, the state of music is very different now than when you were starting out. What do you think about current music and current musicians?

Most of the people that call themselves musicians are not musicians. They just make some beats and stuff. I went to school and music was my livelihood. I realised I had to go and study music. If you want to make a living you have to learn how to read music and write music. That’s what I went to school do to.

Musicians of today, they’re doing good, they’re making some money, but, in music, it’s the long haul. It’s not the short haul. It’s the people who put in that time and those years. Those are the ones that will make it. The short term: that flash in the night, that’s fame. Fame don’t last. If you haven’t put in that time, don’t expect any big rewards.

It’s that long haul. You build your career… there’s a difference between fame and a career, you know? After that one record, when the fame disappears, you don’t have nothing to fall back on. If you have a musical background and an education in music, you can always fall back on that.

A little advice from Bill Curtis! You said in an interview once that, ‘it’s not enough to be good, you have to be great.’ Who are some of the greats of this day?

I can’t think of no great ones. Michael Jackson was the last of the great ones. Stevie Wonder is the last of the great ones… you’d wanna say that. But the new breed, I don’t see any great ones. You’ve either got to be like Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder today, but we don’t have any of those popping up.

You’ve released 50 or so albums over the years, which is an incredible accomplishment. What is your creative process like?

It comes out as it comes out. Whatever it is. Now, I just do whatever pops up in my head. Let’s put it this way, I like to do things that you don’t expect Fatback to play. That’s the kind of stuff I like to do now. You think to yourself, is that Fatback? No, that couldn’t be Fatback! That’s what I like to do now. Matter-a-fact, I don’t even record that much under Fatback nowadays, I record under just the name: Bill Curtis… and friends! I don’t want to confuse. When you hear Fatback you think, funk and soul, but when you hear Bill Curtis, you might hear anything.

What sort of music have you released recently under Bill Curtis?

I have about 15 albums, maybe 10 albums under Bill Curtis and friends. Everything new comes out under Bill Curtis and friends. The new music world, the hardest thing nowadays is getting people to hear your music. There’s so much music to pick from we get washed up in the mix. Everybody gets washed up in the mix. You’ve gotta go looking to find new music.

New music is always exciting!

Yeah some new stuff! My band is new too. I’m the only old member in the band.

Oh really?! Does it feel strange that you’re the only original?

No, no, no most of the original cast, you know, they’re tired. Their health won’t allow them to do it. As long as my health is good I’m gonna be out there doing it. I’m not gonna sit around and not play music when I’m able to play music.

Well I am very excited that you are coming out to Australia and we get a chance to hear the Bill Curtis.

I’m just mad because we’re not there long enough! I hope we can get back there, I hope it’s not our last trip.

Meredith is a very special place to play too! Can you tell me something about Fatback that the world doesn’t know?

Don’t forget my dear, Fatback been around so long, there’s nothing that the world don’t know about Fatback! (Laughs)

(Laughs) What about Bill Curtis?

Bill Curtis been around so long, every time someone say my name, they say, ‘is he still alive?! He’s still alive!! My grandma used to talk about him, is he still here?’ (Laughs).

And you say, of course, the one, the only, he’s still here.

(Laughs) He’s still here. I’m gonna tell you something that they don’t know about. They don’t know that I’m still kicking and I’m still playing and I still love it!

Tour Dates

Thursday 10th December 2015
Oxford Art Factory, Sydney NSW

Friday 11th December 2015
Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC

Saturday 12th December 2015
Meredith Music Festival, Meredith VIC