Homunculus keyboardist/vocalist Ben Doepke pulls open his shirt, revealing a wookie-like patch of chest hair.
Perhaps I should explain. I'm interviewing Doepke and vocalist/guitarist Kevin Shima three nights before the local release party for Words, Homunculus' third effort. I comment on the near-immaculate vocal blend these two share. Shima thanks me, and offers that it's his Kermit the Frog to Doepke's Fozzie Bear. When I ask why it can't be the other way around, Doepke, without hesitation, shows me the tactile answer.
"This is why," states Doepke resolutely.
"I got nothin'," counters Shima with a regretful laugh.
I had to ask.
Doepke, Shima and bandmates (bassist Adam Schoen, drummer Chris Ellison and percussionist Jason Barney) will most likely keep their trademark suits on at their upcoming live appearances, both local and not, of which there are many (www.homunculture.com).
Homunculus has reaped a fan base sown from just getting out and workin' it with an exceptional live show full of songs such as "Here And There" and "Your Own Design": hooky Pop music with layers too tasteful to be busy. The character of Homunculus can be found in the groove of Talking Heads' Naked and the songcraft of XTC's Skylarking, with Shima's sweetly pure vocals. This is a long way from its jam-band beginnings in Bloomington, Ind. It was there that Homunculus found itself winning a slot on the 1998 H.O.R.D.E. Festival in Indianapolis. (Remember that final installment, featuring Blues Traveler, Barenaked Ladies and Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, among others?) It was this musical change I discussed first with Doepke and Shima. Talk of Muppets came later.
CityBeat: I first caught Homunculus live in late 1997, along with the Lemmings, Heavy Weather and Ray's Music Exchange. There's been a slow evolution of the band's sound since that show, I believe.
Ben Doepke: Kevin and I were talking about this the other day. We don't do Funk music per se, but being around those guys (original members, guitarist Matt Wilson and bassist Chris Gilmartin) and around their musical tastes really rubbed off. We've taken a lot of the ideas behind what drives Funk, R&B and Soul, which is pocket. How the bass interacts with the guitar. Distributing rhythms. We've taken a lot of the essential components of those genres and tried to transfer that into music with which we're already more familiar. The combination is definitely bizarre, but I think we have a better feeling now of what we want to do. Only in the last several months have we put together a cohesive idea about what we want to do.
CB: For the uninitiated, what's pocket?
BD: This is another time-honored discussion. (laughs)
Kevin Shima: Oh, boy ... The pocket is something we struggle with greatly, I think. (laughs) I think you can define pocket different ways. George Clinton, when he talks about pocket, says if you've got a metronome going, you can either play right on the beat (smacks fist against palm metronomically), or you can go a little behind it. Where you just take a little breath before you hit it down.
BD: But see, he's talking about a funk pocket. I think a broader term is just having a consistent reverence for where the beat is. If you're insinuating a consistent, strong pulse, like there's a force of nature traveling through you, you're emoting that, and people feel that, that reverence for the pulse, that's pocket. You can break it down and try to talk math, the distance between the one and the two.
CB: It's not so left-brained.
BD: No! I listen to Talking Heads. I think the guys have great pocket. It's not laid-back. It's very aggressive. It's very ... (at this moment, he impersonates being strangled by, presumably, an aggressive pocket). Listen to a lot of the Motown guys, James Jamerson. Duck Dunn on Stax. Man, those guys had serious pocket. But it's something totally different. Listen to a lot of that traditional Salsa music, that Cubanismo band.
CB: Kevin, the first notes in the Southgate House ballroom at Popopolis 2000 were yours. How was that for you?
KS: Oh, I loved playing that thing. That was a great night. I'd never really hung out with that crowd before, so it was just a pleasure to go. I didn't expect to play at it. Eric (Diedrichs, Simpletons vocalist/guitarist) was like, "We need one more act, you want to come down and do it?" I felt, really, more at home in that sort of scene than ... we started doing the jam-band thing, but I never felt totally connected. I wanted to be, but I didn't have the guitar chops to do it. I felt a lot more at home at Popopolis than anything I've experienced in Cincinnati so far.
BD: Because it's a song-based atmosphere. And I think we're converting entirely to a song-based band.
HOMUNCULUS next plays in Cincinnati on April 21 for the free, 97X-sponsored Earth Day concert at Sawyer Point.