Members of the Bloomington-Normal neo-eclectic band Sunday Afternoon said winning a couple Battle of the Bands confirmed their retro sound was finding an audience.
“We went to Tinley Park last year and won this regional little thing that ended up being an opening slot at the (Illinois) State Fair," said drummer Nick Saathoff. “Then we won a slot to open for a group called The Hat Guys up in the suburbs.”
This was after the guys had won a similar battle at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana.
“Before we started playing Battle of the Bands, we’re like ‘OK, we’re doing pretty well,’” added founder, vocalist, and guitarist Austin Willis. “Then if we continue to do well with other battles, we’re not just lying to ourselves and playing games with our heads. It’s like ‘OK, other people think we’re doing well too.”
The floating roster of college-aged musicians is anchored by Willis, bassist Logan Berg, and Saathoff. Willis and Saathoff were geeked to be opening for C.J. Chenier on Saturday night when they stopped by the GLT studios to talk about their music and ambitions.
Willis credits his parents for indoctrinating him into old-school soul music.
“Both my mom and dad are old souls,” said Willis. “Singing at church and around the house always listening to things like Stevie Wonder … listening to Billy Ocean a lot.”
Al Green and Marvin Gaye had to be part of the mix.
“From my few years of experience it seems like trends come around again. We’ve been in this era of techno and lots of stuff made on computer, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Willis.
But he’s certainly attracted to today’s popular neo-soul artists including Leon Bridges, Nathaniel Rateliff and the late Sharon Jones with the Dap-Kings. Band mate Saathoff too is old-school.
“I’m more the classic rock kind of guy,” said Saathoff. “I have Bruce Springsteen on in my car right now. He (Willis) is the soul, I bring the power to the music.”
The opening song to Sunday Afternoon's debut EP “Relationship Status” has those soulful elements, as well as funk and even acid jazz. The infectious groove and light horn accents of “Dance” is not unlike what you might hear on Brooklyn Funk Essentials 1995 album “Cool and Steady and Easy.” It’s a song Willis said was necessary to balance the ballad heavy collection they already had.
“The melody originally came from our keyboardist DiMari (Fennell) the first year we started playing together,” said Willis. “But we didn’t really do anything with it until 2017 when we began putting words and more music to it.”
It’s a great groove for first few minutes, then Willis’ good friend V8 Vast Change (Dominique Stevenson) amps it up with a short rap before returning to the chorus:
Got a lot of people hatin’ I ain’t worried about tonight
Just the right time for me and you to vibe
Something’s in the air, the feeling you can’t compare
You better come prepared for your mind to be blown
Now if the fans got you dancing while you’re dancin’ alone
Get your ladies and my brothers we’re gonna hop in the zone
It’s me and you tonight we’ll go dance to the morn’
Don’t you worry ‘bout what anybody thinks
- V8 Vast Change rap on “Dance” by Sunday Afternoon
“I felt a song like this could use a different element to it,” said Willis. “There are many artists that have pulled in rappers for their songs, some not even hip-hop based. That’s what I was feeling with this. It’s amazing how quickly he came up with ideas. In less than 45 minutes he had the verse down.”
One of the surprises on the album is the spoken word guest appearance by Bloomington singer, songwriter, and guitarist James Montjoy on the ballad “Looking for a Friend.”
“We didn’t know he had it in him,” laughed Willis and Saathoff, of the man who has run open mic nights on Wednesday’s at Emack & Bolios in uptown Normal. As the band was finishing the song one night at Emack, Saathoff said Montjoy caught Willis’ eye and say “keep going, keep going.”
“I thought he was going to make an announcement thanking everyone for coming and telling people to have a good night, but he got up and did the exact thing he does on the album. Jaws dropped and we’re all freaking out at that point, going ‘what did we just hear?’” said Saathoff.
“We couldn’t leave it out,” said Willis.
Open mics and jams have been an integral part of Sunday Afternoon’s development.
“Just getting together and playing with other musicians with all different levels of types of musicians has progressed us,” said Willis.
“He’s the one that keeps going out … he goes out every Thursday, and goes over to the Peoria scene too, and has pulled some of us over a couple nights a month to meet all the guys he’s playing with,” said Saathoff.
“It’s great networking,” said Willis.
Sunday Afternoon will feature songs from “Relationship Status” on Saturday night as the opening band for C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band at the Castle Theatre.
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