Interview: NYS Music Talks to AZTEC SUN

If you like a little soul sprinkled into your funk, and you have a little jiggle in your step, then you’ll love D.C.’s emerging talent, AZTEC SUN.

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This eight-piece ensemble brings funk-groove-improvisation to their performances that is sure to kick dancing shoes into gear; the band is Stephane Detchou, on lead vocals & rhythm guitar, Ryan ‘Catch’ Sarafolean, on keys/organ & backing vocals, Michael Dravone on trombone, Shane Weckesser on bass, Ray Lamb on lead guitar & backing vocals, John Heinze on drums, Adam Kent on trumpet and Dave Klein on the sax.

Originally conceived back in 2013, AZTEC SUN has been steadily evolving and making a name for themselves; and 2016 was a big year for the group. For one, they were voted “Best Original Local Band” by the Washington City Paper, and performed in front of a significant crown at the D.C. Armory for the paper’s annual “Best of D.C. Celebration.”

In the past, they’ve shared the bill with other talented acts such as Pimps of Joytime, Burning Spear, The Suffers, Alanna Royale, Naughty Professor, Major and the Monbacks. AZTEC SUN talks about wanting to “push out their ‘Soul with Funk’ to diverse audiences,” and this year, they have done so at prominent D.C. establishments, like The Black Cat, Howard Theater, Rock & Roll Hotel and Strathmore.

In the future, however, they look to spread their love of funk further, into surrounding areas like upstate New York and Boston, for example; and their dreams extend to playing at bigger venues like Red Rocks, The Gorge, or maybe the Brooklyn Bowl or Fillmore West. Their name is one you’re sure to hear of again.

Their new studio E.P., titled Set You Free, a five-track, self-produced album, will be released tomorrow. The album is a recognition of their accomplishments thus far, and true to the band’s manifesto to “do whatever you can to make them dance,”AZTEC SUN invites anyone in the DMV area to come celebrate their newest project at their E.P. Release Dance Party at the Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe, tomorrow, Sat., December 10.

For more information and tickets, please visit here.

Karina Verlan: What is the origin of the name AZTEC SUN?

Stephane Detchou: Once the founding band members decided to “become a band,” they wanted to come up with a name that would best represent the music they were writing. After a number of different noun pairings, we decided on “AZTEC SUN”: a name which, for us, combined the indelible, fiery presence of Funk with the warmth and energy of Soul.

Ray Lamb: This has nothing to do with how the name came about but in researching about the ancient Aztecs, I learned that they were not one tribe, but multiple tribes unified together. I think our band dynamic and music have similar qualities.

KV: What genre of music do you consider your work to be, and who are your major influences?

SD: We call it “funk with soul.” It generally errs on the side of groove music with a focus on rhythms that will make you move. Our influences are as diverse as our bandmates — James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, Prince, D’Angelo, Ben l’Oncle Soul, Phish, Snarky Puppy, The Meters, Budos Band, Fela Kuti (to name a few)

RL: I agree with Steph. We incorporate a lot of different influences in the music we play. I guess sort of like a funk/soul stew with a sprinkle of jazz, rock, blues, pop, jam etc.

KV: I love that! funk/soul stew… How did you all meet?

SD: AZTEC SUN was initially four guys (two guitars, bass, drums) who started playing together four years ago off of Craigslist. From there, we met and invited new bandmates through personal connections, referrals or random meetings at music events.

RL: I met Steph at a show that we both were performing in. We had a great conversation about music. About a month later my previous band was having a show and I asked if AZTEC SUN wanted in. Steph accepted and asked if I wanted to sit in. I did and they haven’t been able to get rid of me since.

KV: Who writes your songs in your band? Do you typically write the music or the words first?

SD: Given the size of our group (eight+ musicians), most of our songs are written collaboratively in some shape or form. Someone will bring a demo to the group with draft arrangements, structure, direction and we’ll hash out details by playing through the songs in rehearsals. In most cases, we’ll have some words to accompany the music when we start working on a song (especially  when one of our singers brings a demo); but there are times when a song is born out of an organic “jam session” and we’ll write lyrics afterwards.

RL:  Yeah it’s really a cool process with this band. You can bring in an idea and you have seven other minds to help develop it. It’s quite a luxury. Also listening back to jams is great because there are eight different instruments that you can listen to get new ideas from.

KV: Very cool. How has your music evolved since you first began playing music together? What’s your ultimate direction for your band– are you seeking fame and fortune?

SD: Our first batch of music was more like funk-rock (think some of Red Hot Chili Peppers). As we added horns and keys (piano + organ), our sound naturally expanded to include a dimension of classic ‘70s soul we could add to the danceable funk we were already playing. At this point, our band’s goal is to continue sharing our music and our live performance with new audiences within and throughout the DMV and add to the funk & soul movement in D.C.

RL: In the two years I’ve been in the band, I think  we’ve all become better friends, which in turn helps with the music becoming tighter. We listen better and trust each other more. Fame and fortune might be a stretch.  However, if it comes, that would be awesome. But that’s not our goal. We want to keep having fun and get as many people dancing to our music as possible. I think we want to ride the train as long as it stays on the tracks.

Ryan ‘Catch’ Sarafolean: We want to continue to push this as far as it can go, at this point, it feels like this project has a lot of growth left still in it and we’d all like to see where we can take this music. Outside of the D.C. area is our first step from here.

KV: Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge for offering financial or emotional support?

SD: So many people have helped us accomplish what we’ve done so far. In terms of emotional support, probably all the friends and family who have been coming to our shows to support us, no matter how many times they’ve seen our live set.

RL: I’d like to thank family, friends, and old band mates.

RCS: I’d like to also thank all of our neighbors and roommates for dealing with our music into the wee hours – you all are the best!

KV: Haha. So, what advice do you have for people who want to form their own bands?

SD: Be honest and collaborative. Being part of a band is an opportunity to express oneself creatively, but that also means remembering to keep an open ear for others’ expressions and ideas.

RL: Have fun! I think that’s why most people play music to begin with. When you’re having fun, people can tell and it’s infectious. If you read about why most bands break up, they state that they stopped having fun.

RCS: Push yourself outside of your comfort zone, I’ve found that is where the most amazing growth comes from.

KV: What are your dream cities to tour? And who would you like to tour with, in an ideal situation?

SD: AZTEC SUN is from D.C., but we aren’t all “from” D.C., so we’re going to be working on touring in cities closer to home: Montreal, upstate New York, Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago… And in terms of tours, it would be great to share a stage with any of the artists that influence our music.

RL:  Touring is great. It’s always nice to play in front of new people.  I’d love to play Red Rocks, The Gorge, The Fillmore West, Brooklyn Bowl, Electric Factory,  Fox Theatre, Madison Square Garden (hey, gotta dream right!).  As far as bands, Alabama Shakes, Vulfpeck, Trey Anastasio Band, D’Angelo, Turkuaz to name a few.

RCS: I’ll say it – it would be great to play at the 9:30 club, here in our backyard. That venue is continually rated as the best venue to go see live music in, and damn would it be a fun place for some funk. I’d love to open for Galactic, or Trombone Shorty, or Rebirth Brass Band – anyone out of New Orleans would be dope.

KV: Do you find it hard to balance music with your other obligations at this point in your career?

SD: At times, definitely. We try to balance a very accurate shared calendar that keeps track of everyone’s schedules which helps us determine whether or when we can book gigs. On top of that, we’re all working full-time — which can mean very late nights/tough mornings when we’ve got a couple of shows in the same week. We also need to ensure we’re taking our time to check with our families, partners and friends etc (and not just inviting them to our gigs)… so it can get to be a very busy time. But we really enjoy playing and creating as AZTEC SUN, so it’s worth it.

RL: It’s definitely hard but music always manages to make itself a priority in my life.