Have you ever pictured one of your professors being in a band? OK, now imagine more than one of your professors in a band together. Even crazier, what if said band was a funk band?
Funky Unkle is a funk instrumental band founded in fall 2016. This ensemble has nine musicians, four of whom work as music instructors at Gonzaga.
Kenny Sager plays drums in Funky Unkle while also teaching in his second year at GU. Sager teaches applied drum set, the GU drum line and percussion techniques. Sager’s wife, Bailey, plays percussion for the band. Riley Gray, piano instructor at GU, is on keyboard for Funky Unkle. The band’s guitar player, Mellad Abeid, has taught guitar and jazz combos at GU for the past 17 years. Cameron LaPlante plays saxophone and instructs on campus as well.
While the band was officially organized three years ago, most of the bandmates went to school together at Eastern Washington University.
“We played in the combos and big bands [at EWU] and even lived together for a period,” Sager said. “After graduation, we went our separate ways. Some members played cruise ships, got teaching jobs, played around town backing other artists up or began teaching a private lesson studio. The band was really formed when Austin Long, our sax player and main writer, and I started talking about making our own band and reconnecting with our friends from college.”
In 2016, Long began transcribing music from his favorite funk bands, including covers from the band, Lettuce, for Funky Unkle to perform.
“We got a few gigs and from there, we decided to start writing our own originals and record them,” Sager said. “And here we are today.”
Funky Uncle’s first rehearsal came in October 2016, three months before its first gig at NYNE Bar in January 2017.
“Eventually, we started writing originals, with me writing a skeleton of the song, maybe bassline, chords, horns and bringing it to the group to shape and form,” Long said.
The band name does not have a captivating origin story, according to Sager.
“I remember sitting around the table in my house, hanging out, coming up with random names,” Sager said. “A few members really wanted to name the band Beef Slap. Sadly, we were out-voted and settled on Funky Unkle. However, two of the tracks on the album are named Beef and Slap as a nod to the almost-band-name.”
Abeid said he joined the band when Sager called him and asked him to join, and has enjoyed playing in Funky Unkle because, “It’s challenging music and it’s gratifying music from a player’s perspective.”
The band’s first album, “Funkle” released on Jan. 18.
“Funkle” is an instrumental funk album full of “smooth grooves and tasty horn melodies,” according to Sanger.
The band recorded 10 songs over three days in July. The album was recorded in Spokane, with James Hill, at Amplified Wax Studio.
Long said recording the music was a little ambitious but fun and satisfying.
“We ran a successful kick-starter to raise about half the money for recording, with the other half coming from us saving our collective gig money for around nine months to a year,” Long said.
Funky Unkle plays at least once a month in Spokane. Its past gigs include venues such as Lucky You Lounge (where it plays regularly), The Bartlett, Big Dipper, Red Room, House of Soul and Observatory, as well as Spokane’s annual Artfest and Volume Music Festival in 2019.
According to band members, Funky Unkle seems to attract listeners of all ages, particularly college-aged students.
“The cool thing about this band — and I don’t know if it’s because we aren’t a vocal-driven band — is we have a lot of college kid fans … that age group, 20- and 30-year-olds … but [we] kind of appeal to all ages,” Abeid said. “But definitely younger fans like it. … We get all ages that come out to our gigs, which is fun. It’s cool when you can cross demographics like that.”
Aside from playing live shows, recording an album and rehearsing funk, the group still enjoys being with each other.
“Every time I get to play with these guys is a favorite of mine,” Sager said. “They are all really good friends, so it’s always a great hang.”
Sager’s peers agree.
“The people are awesome,” Abeid said. “I think musically, it is an exciting group to be involved in. It’s a lot of improvisations. Playing live, solos are always different. I think it’s really fun to be involved in original music.”
Funky Unkle will play at John’s Alley in Moscow, Idaho, on Feb. 21 and Lucky You Lounge on March 29.