You Missed a Great Band: Who’da Funk It? Smithies steal Iron Horse stage

Jackie Leahy ’14
Arts Editor

It’s Thursday, and if you weren’t at Iron Horse last Friday at 10 p.m., you missed Bess Hepner’s band, Who’da Funk It? Composed of Bess Hepner ’16 on guitar, Sierra Brimhall ’15J on trumpet, Nina Kent on bass, Deja Carr on vocals, Gabe Camarano on drums, Alex Kogut on keyboard, and Katie Ronan and Ryan Mihaly on saxophone, the band started when Hepner, Carr and Kent met at the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen, Mass., one summer when Hepner and Kent were still at Amherst Regional High School.

We spent the next year playing in Nina’s basement and wallowing in adolescent sadness,” says Hepner. “During our second year as a band, we began to play more shows. In 2011 we added our first saxophonist, Tess Domb Sadof, who also went to Amherst Regional High. Over the summer of 2012, we also played with our first male member, Parker Ziegler – fondly called ‘Token Boy’ – who plays trombone.” After graduation, Sadof, Ziegler and another of the band’s original members left the band or the area. Hepner, a former Smith student, noted that at the time, “this left us a band of three, without a drummer or horns.” Camarano and Kogut, both locals, helped save the band. But there were still no horns.

UMass senior, Katie Ronan, answered the band’s long-unanswered prayers for a saxophonist. Hepner says, “When Katie showed up to our band practice, we had no idea who she was, but when she started playing saxophone we knew that the music gods had heard our cries.” After Katie had joined, Hepner says the band was still looking to grow: “we wanted to make Who’da Funk It? an orchestra.” One day Hepner overheard Sierra Brimhall in Tyler dining hall discussing jazz band and Who’da Funk It? found their trumpeter. The band’s final member, Hampshire graduate and saxophonist Ryan Mihaly, met the group at one of their Hampshire College shows. And so the band became a sample of Pioneer Valley: “Two of us from Smith, one of us from UMass, one from Hampshire, two in high school, and two employed in the area,” recites Hepner.

Casting aside the possible band names Brukout, Mojo Fugue and Stone Mason, a former band member’s dad suggested “Who’da Funk It?” and as Hepner says, “it stuck.” This is perhaps because of the group’s iconoclastic relationship with genre. Identifying themselves as a “mixed genre” group, Hepner describes the band’s sound as “a little bit of everything. Sometime in our songs, we’ll have multiple parts that each have a different genre feel to them. Most of the time, a song will be lots of influences overlapping (for example, we will write songs with funk drum parts, ska guitar, and afrobeat horns). The genre is usually a mixing pot of genres.”

Citing influences spanning from Bootystank to Aretha Franklin, the mixed genre group says female rockers such as Tune-Yards; Smith graduate and local artist Erin Mckeown and Nina Simone are special inspirations to them. “The summer camp we met at, IMA, is a camp designed to promote women in rock and roll music by training girls in performing and recording, as well as the history of women in rock and roll,” says Hepner. “Our band was born into this environment.” She describes how, “if you look around at most rock and roll bands, they are either all male or have one woman, usually a singer or acoustic guitar player,” and explains that, as a female-fronted band Who’da Funk It? has experienced sexist dynamics. “I have heard multiple times, “Your band was a lot better than I thought you were going to be,’ ” says Heppner, before describing how borrowing a man’s amp nearly always occasions him “teach[ing] me in great detail how to use it, even when I’m holding an electric guitar in my hand.”

Hepner and the band counter this sexism with constant professionalism, challenging assumptions through their sets instead of their speech. “What we do is just play with the hope that people can see that it doesn’t matter that we’re women. Everyone can play good music no matter their sex,” says Hepner.

The band’s devotion to their music has paid off, earning them a reputation. This is not the first time the band has ridden the Iron Horse. After seven previous Iron Horse gigs as openers for other bands, last Friday’s show was the band’s first time appearing as the headliner. “The main thing we hear about is our energy,” says Hepner, explaining how between songs that are ‘upbeat’ and ‘lively’ the band jokes around, at times “jumping into the audience to dance with our fans. It’s always really sweaty and fun.”

Tune into and for music and information on future shows.

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