While toiling away becoming video production pros in Vancouver, Nick Middleton and Duncan Smith (aka The Funk Hunters) were nowhere near performing on the stages of Shambhala. Frankly, it wasn't even a passing thought. But after 13 seasoned years of attending the festival, something was bound to happen. "I was a young 16-year-old who never dreamed of being at the DJ booth, but seeing DJs at Shambhala is what inspired me to do what I do today," Smith tells THUMP. "It definitely has had the most profound effect on us. Shambhala was one the most inspiring festivals in terms of seeing where one can go as a musician."
Long before dips in the Salmo River and brushes with faux-realities in the grips of Shambhala, the duo first met while teaching classes at the Gulf Island Film and Television school in Galiano Island. After collaborating together on video productions, they quickly became aware of their similar tastes in music. Soon after, they started playing house parties on the Island for friends. "Our first unofficial gig was in 2008 and then in 2009 we finally scored our first official gig as The Funk Hunters in Victoria," says Smith. Since their pseudo-residencies at local house parties, The Funk Hunters have played festivals like Burning Man, Wakarusa, and Envision. Along the way, they've built quite the reputation for themselves with their own charismatic melting pot of funk, electronic, and soul. "It sounds so cheesy to say, but The Funk, both in our name and in our music, kind of keeps the fun in music for us. I think that the definition of funk is always changing, as does the music that excites and inspires us," says Middleton. Their inception is earmarked by a handful of remixes of rare classic tunes like Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" and Junior Senior's "Move Your Feet."
"Funk is subjective to your tastes," says Middleton. "I can say something I think is funky and someone might not agree, but that in itself is what it's all about—being confident in your taste in music. For us, that means following through with that mentality in the sets we make and the music we create."
As their confidence progressed, as did their performances. What initially started as a somewhat basic set-up—four Technic SL 1200s, two mixers, Serato, a Trigger Finger and Dicers—has evolved into a six-piece live band. Quite the jump, if you ask us. Their ever-changing live show now juggles a DJ set, live vocals, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, keys, and drums. Piling on top of that is their widely recognized visual set up, which blankets the background of their shows in a kaleidoscope of colourful dimensions—what else would you expect from two former video production geeks. "From event to event, we both take pride in having different tastes in music and totally play different performances from week to week," says Smith. "But somehow, we always come back to this idea of the funk, of this groove. It's this thing that makes you want to dance proudly on the dancefloor. It's not confined to one particular genre. There's definitely a mystical quality to it."
In 2013, Middleton founded Westwood Recordings, which has become a new and on-going challenge for them both. "It's nice that Westwood is flexible. It's not my full-time job and we're not relying on revenue from Westwood as a job, per say," says Middleton. It's good because we can be picky and choosy about what content we want to put out and what artists we want to support. We don't have to think about music with a dollar tag and that's been nice from the very beginning."
As hackneyed as it may sound, it's uplifting to see label owners like The Funk Hunters prioritizing the quality of music first and foremost, letting pay cheques act as merely a bonus. Amidst today's surplus of music labels, The Funk Hunter's mission with Westwood Recordings is genuine. "It's nice not having to place unrealistic deadlines on people," explains Middleton. "We don't have to say, 'We will release your EP, but you have to give us another one in two months.' It's all about quality, not quantity. It's about helping foster the growth of our music and our friend's music at a realistic pace," adds Smith.
Topping off their pile of accomplishments, Smith and Middleton are proud to have worked with artists who have inspired them long before The Funk Hunters was even a blip in their radar—say, Chali 2na of the hugely influential 90s hip-hop group, Jurassic 5. "[We were] all over the country and all of a sudden we're in a studio in L.A. with Chali 2na rehearsing for a two week tour through the states," he says. "Chali 2na is an artist that we have both been inspired by, so it was an amazing way to kick off the tour in itself." Not only that, but they've managed to play at venues that once were once merely a dream to them. "Red Rocks would be a top moment of mine, that was a pretty insane moment. It was a venue that I had heard so much about for so many years," explains Smith. "Just getting to go there in the first place had that wow-factor. Just like the first time we played at Shambhala."
Even after performing in over 16 countries, a ballpark of 450 shows worldwide, and a recent state-hopping tour across North America, the Funk Hunters have not lost sight of their first love—Shambhala. "Even when we first started going, it was the coolest festival. There was no culture around music festivals at the time because music festivals weren't really cool yet—electronic music wasn't cool yet, it was a fringe thing," says Middleton. "Most people's initial association to dance music was raves and candy ravers. Like, people chewing their faces off doing ecstasy without cool art, or stages built in the forest with international acts. Shambhala was definitely the right festival to get inspired by."
Shambhala too stays humble, compared to similar mainstream festivals it rests amongst nowadays. The organizers don't accept corporate sponsors, but rather rely on a massive volunteer base. This has ultimately set the tone for any west coast festivals that's followed in Shambhala's footsteps. "It changed us, and in turn I think it changed everyone on the west coast. There are upwards of ten of these festivals around here now and it's cool to see how one festival can inspire people in different ways," says Middleton.
"The growth is undeniable. Its just permeated the mainstream and we're getting to see that first hand now touring in the U.S.," Smith adds, encompassing the culture as a whole. "I think most people who were really immersed in that culture 15 years ago never really expected this. Like, you can say it's 'cool' now, but I think it's past that point."
Letting the changes of the culture they reside in fall to the wayside, The Funk Hunters will always keep Shambhala in their hearts and, forgive the cheesiness in advance—'The Funk' in their soul. "There's definitely this overall feeling about funk. It goes hand-in-hand with soul, and that's something we try to do with the music we're making. In the end, everything needs to have soul."
Listen to The Funk Hunters' NORTHMIX above, and follow the SoundCloud link for an exclusive free download.
David is on SoundCloud.