Drunken Kung Fu blends rock, hip-hop, reggae into unique sound


Photo courtesy of Holly E. Renfro - H.E.R. Photography

From left, Sam Phelps, Jacob Gleason, and Matt Klee make up Drunken Kung Fu. The trio will return to Sac State Feb. 21.

Drunken Kung Fu, an “Afro-beat funk” trio, will be playing a free show at noon on Feb. 21 in the Redwood Room of The University Union.

The Sacramento-based band consists of three members: Jacob Gleason on guitar and saxophone, Sam Phelps on vocals and keys and Matt Klee, the drummer. It has played gigs as far as San Francisco, Las Vegas and Portland.

“We’ve always appreciated the support of Sac State,” Gleason said.

Having played on campus a handful of times before, he said the band is looking forward to coming back.

“There was a time I applied to Sac State but I didn’t have the foreign language requirement so they didn’t take me,” Gleason laughed.

The three met around 2009 while playing for other bands and have tried to develop a unique sound. While Drunken Kung Fu was nominated this year for a reggae Sammie (Sacramento Area Music Award), Gleason said that he doesn’t necessarily see the band as reggae.

“We keep things funky and danceable; we weave in and out of different genres: hip-hop, reggae, jam, classic rock, ’90s music — there’s a lot of different influences at play,” Gleason said. “We’re all jazz musicians so there’s a jazz overtone plus a rock ‘n’ roll rawness to how we play. We make big sound with three people.”

Because of their eclectic style, the dynamics between the three band members are often in flux and they are forced to improvise and make alterations on the fly.

As the lead singer, Phelps said he writes a lot of the music.

“I’ll bring a song to the table as a Sam Phelps song,” he said. “We’ll hash it out and turn it into a Drunken Kung Fu song.”

Phelps said everyone in the band has an equal say and the chemistry between the three is unique.

“There’s moments in our sets that are structured and moments of just jamming and looking at each other like, ‘This is awesome,’ ” Gleason said. “It’s a lot of fun to play with these guys; they’re not just always lost in their instruments like some bands can be.”

Leaving space for improvisation during their performances allows for the creativity to flow, Phelps said.

“We want to take people to a higher place with the energy; you can feel it in the room and just like, ravage and lift off,” Phelps said. “It’s always a risk, doesn’t always take off, but that’s our goal — that’s what it’s all about.”

Even though Drunken Kung Fu typically identifies as an “Afro-beat” band, the trio incorporates many other styles and genres into their music.

“I think the music defies racial boundaries,” Gleason said in response to an inquiry about negative responses from crowds considering the group is an Afro-beat band with no people of color. “I don’t think any person should limit what they listen to or play based on the color of their skin.”

Gleason said the band talks about serious topics in some of their songs, such as politics and war.

“There is a heavy, revolutionary commentary on the political stuff going on,” Gleason said. “Overall, we take opposition on war; I consider myself a conscientious objector of war.”

Looking toward the future, Drunken Kung Fu has some new songs it plans to release soon as well as shows lined up for later in the year.

“We’re currently working on a new record, we have a bunch of festivals lined up this summer,” Gleason said. “We test things out and see how the audience reacts — what it comes down to is how to make the audience dance. Hopefully people feel inspired to dance it out and feel free.”