Con Brio is a Bay Area group that falls into the category of funk and soul, but easily stretches the limitations of that definition. Shattering boundaries has been a key cog to the group who reformed in 2013 with emphatic frontman Ziek McCarter taking the reigns. They’ve since performed festivals around the world, including our very own Outside Lands, and recently released their first full-length record, Paradise, with legendary producer Mario Caldato Jr. (Beastie Boys, Beck, Seu Jorge).
In 2014, I was invited to cover the Sly and the Family Stone tribute concert, STAND!, organized by UnderCover productions. Aside from being a Sly fan, I recognized the name Con Brio and was immediately intrigued. When they took the stage, I was introduced to a tall slender youthful man with the voice of a young Stevie Wonder and the moves of the one and only Michael Jackson, and was pleasantly bewildered as they rocked the tune, “A Sex Supreme.” Through all the great acts that night, Con Brio’s performance stuck with me the most through the years, and was excited to see their name deservingly on the bill for Outside Lands.
There was absolutely no denying his star power, and when I interviewed Ziek I noticed a reminiscing chip on his shoulder. The type of attitude that resembled perseverance and determination, and I really didn’t know half of what he had gone through. In 2011, his father, an ex-Army Veteran, died by the hands of the police in East Texas. The night before they headed into the studio, Ziek had a dream and was visited by his father who delivered a powerful message: “Come with me to paradise.” While he’s too young and too talented to join his father just yet, Con Brio honored his father’s wishes by titling their first record, Paradise. A collection of rock, funk, soul and hip-hop anthems, this album should make some noise from earth, to the stars, to the heavens, and wherever paradise exists.
We caught up with Ziek in the midst of a move to Oakland and a break from touring to talk about the new record, his influences and living in the Bay Area. Con Brio plays the Lagunitas Amphitheater on September 26th, and their biggest headlining show in the Bay Area at the UC Theatre in Berkeley on October 14th.
Tell me a bit about the new record Paradise. How was making a full-length album different from the Kiss the Sun EP?
We had more of a musical landscape with more time making a full length. Most EPs are only like three or four songs, so we had more space. I took that momentum with Kiss the Sun and sort of carved out that space. We got into the studio with Mario C, who worked with the Beastie Boys and Beck. He’s a great person. He came in saw what we were doing and took it to the next level sonically and musically.
I really like that Con Brio still has this throwback, vintage funk and soul sound. You could have easily gone in a more Bruno Mars-pop direction but you still pay testament to your inspiration.
It’s just kind of where we’re at. We’re open to exploring that now, but we don’t really have like a set genre, like ‘oh, we’re a funk band or rock band.’ The music gets references to James Brown and such, but I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, Janelle Monae…Our language is pretty diverse.
How did you link up with Con Brio and what were you doing before then?
I was doing my own thing. I had my solo project. I put out an EP a year or two ago and was touring with Afrolicious. I was a student, not really spreading myself thin, but when it was time to write I would write, and when it was time to cover a song I’d do it. I was young and hungry and was just learning. I joined when I turned 21, and then put all my effort into Con Brio.
Having a band cohesively create music can be a lot easier than being a solo musician…
It’s true. You have to have a solid team behind you.
The first time I saw Con Brio with you as the frontman was for the Sly and the Family Stone “Stand” tribute show. You definitely made an impression.
That was an interesting time. That was the beginning of ‘us.’ For a while, we had kind of just been creating, and that was the first kind of moment for us. it was like ‘oh, this is what we’re doing. We’re moving. We’re doing this!’
You got to play your hometown festival, Outside Lands this year. How was that experience?
It was awesome. We had just come off an international tour with Grace Potter before, but to us that was like the end. It was a great homecoming and I’d never gotten to play to Outside Lands before. It was great, but the funny thing is, after all the places we’d been all summer, San Francisco was the coldest. We were walking to the stage and my feet were numb. Then the muscle memory started to kick in and I warmed up.
How do you like living in the Bay? I know you’re moving to Oakland. I’m glad you’re not moving to LA like a lot of musicians do.
I feel very blessed. I’m like not soooo wealthy, but the harmony of our trajectory and how things are manifesting, even though we persevered through tribulations, I feel very blessed. It’s a new space and new energy. I feel good. I don’t know why but moving to LA has never been a thought of mine. I thought of moving to Chicago or New York, but never LA. It just seems so cliche of a move at this point.
There seems to be a great revival of the funk/soul scene in the Bay Area where groups like Sly and the Family Stone and Con Funk Shun made their name. How does it feel to be one of the premier modern-day bands in that genre?
I think San Francisco is just known for really paying respect for the warriors, the artists and figures that have come before us. We have an old neighborhood designated to the past on Haight Street. The Bay Area is full of R&B and Soul, it’s also very avant-garde. My buddy has this project called Alligator Space Walk and he calls it ‘Future Funk.’ So far we’ve created a sound but I wouldn’t limit us to the sound or a representation of the scene, it’s more of a reflection of that time. We have this song called “Honey.” It’s acoustic,very mellow and smooth, and I didn’t see that coming at all. We don’t really try to represent that sound. I try to write concepts and anthems that are timeless that can hit you at any time. When I wanna feel retro, I listen to Leon Bridges. When I feel jazzy, I put on some Kamasi Washington.
Is there anyone that has really influenced you through all this?
I’ve had mentors that didn’t know they were mentors. I had a teacher who taught me piano for a couple months who really influenced me. Mentors have just been my life lessons and magical people I’ve encountered through those lessons. My mother, my grandmother. The nutrients are everywhere.
If you could go out to lunch with any one of your idols, dead or alive, who would it be and where would you go?
I would have lunch with my dad to one of his favorite restaurants or brunch places. Or somewhere else, wherever he wanted to go. He liked to dine and take people out.
+++ Con Brio plays the Lagunita Amphitheater Monday, September 26th and Berkeley’s UC Theatre Friday, October 14th.