At Ninkasi, craft beer and music is a natural fusion
Story by Lisa K. Anderson // Photography by Amanda L. Smith
Funkadelic beats electrify the one-story house in west Eugene.
Inside the wood-paneled living room where the band Volifonix jams, concert memorabilia, posters of Jimi Hendrix, and Ninkasi Brewing flyers adorn the walls.
With a just-released sophomore album, Space, the psychedelic funk-rock band comprises two brothers (Trevor, guitar/vocals, and Blake Forbess, drums/vocals), two others (Elijah Medina, bass and Joe McClain, guitar), and a Samurai (Tomo Tsurumi, saxophone and Japanese rap vocals), who are touring their way through the United States this summer.
In the last six years, Volifonix has gone from winning the University of Oregon’s local Battle of the Bands to opening for the rock band Everclear. They’ve performed at Seattle’s Bumbershoot, toured in Beijing, China, and garnered fans throughout the West Coast by playing more than 500 shows.
Following a recent jam session, the band members gathered on the outdoor patio at Ninkasi Brewing Company and recounted how the brewery helped catapult them to the band they are today. Volifonix was one of the first bands to officially become a Ninkasi partner artist, and now Ninkasi partners with more than 35 bands.
As Ninkasi co-founders Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge brewed their inaugural batch of Total Domination IPA in 2006, Volifonix added their fourth member, guitarist Joe McClain, and coined the name Volifonix. In Latin, voli means free will, and fonix means sound: the sound of free will.
Three years later, Ridge proposed that music professional James Book open a recording studio at the brewery and bring his label, Topsecret Records, with him. In early 2009, Book tasted Total Domination IPA the same week Ridge said, “And hey, why don’t you do our marketing, too?”
During his own musical heyday, playing bass and co-writing songs for The Flys, Book produced the top-five chart hit, “Got You Where I Want You,” and recorded the music video with actress Katie Holmes.
Book spent 20 years as a touring musician based out of southern California, but once he stopped touring and began living in L.A. he realized he wanted to move elsewhere to start a family and brew beer. The lifestyle and ingredients in Eugene, Oregon were suited for both.
“I always joke that Nikos baited me with building a studio and sucked me into the Ninkasi tornado,” Book says, laughing. “The short story is [the Ninkasi music scene] evolved organically. We love beer and we love music. It’s just how we live and what we do.”
In late 2008, Book and Jennifer Meyer, who worked together briefly at a radio station, co-sponsored the Last Band Standing series. The elimination-style concert series in Eugene features Northwest artists and is now a keystone Ninkasi music promotion.
Under Book’s leadership, the brewery now sponsors the Last Band Standing series in six cities—Bellingham, Spokane, Boise, Missoula, Bend, and Ashland-Medford—offering winners free recording time at Ninkasi, and promoting a revolving door of 30 to 40 artists at any given time.
Volifonix emerged as the last band standing in 2008, and won recording time in Newport, Oregon with Book for its first album, Oregonisms. After recording, the band gained its fifth member, saxophonist Tomo Tsurumi, and soon after became partner artists with Ninkasi, joining a list of bands associated with the brewery and forming the first defined partnership.
Three years later, music ripples through Ninkasi’s veins and Book is a sort of Northwest pied piper of beer and music, receiving praise from experimental funk-rock bands and Americana musicians for the brewery’s support that has included matchmaking for bookings, sponsorship for pressing CDs, recording time, beer, and swag.
Ninkasi’s sleek turquoise and black headquarters on Van Buren Street in the trendy hipster Whiteaker neighborhood now has its own in-house recording studio within the Blair Alley Vintage Arcade, located behind the brewery. Tonight, five members of Davis- and Sacramento-based Shayna and the Bulldog—a band fusing indie rock and 1960s chamber pop—are recording with Book.
“We’ve toured all around the West and Southwest, and the only thing we all agree on is to visit microbreweries,” says Joel Daniel, bassist and vocalist. “Our tour bus looks like a church van until you open the back and see the brewery stickers.”
The band wrote “Black Heart” for today’s recording session and it will be included in a Ninkasi music compilation featuring West Coast bands. Look for the special download code on the summer four-pack of Ninkasi brews.
During the evening, band members slip between the red- and yellow-walled recording rooms to refill blue cups of Spring Reign, a hoppy pale ale, from the in-studio kegerator. “Usually we’d be
making a Costco run for beer,” Daniel says. “This is a million times fancier.”
The large couches are cushy, the ambiance is relaxed, and Book offers a perfect balance of compliments and constructive feedback during the recording session.
“How’d that feel?” he asks regularly.
He calls Ninkasi’s partner musicians as varied, exciting, and diverse as the brewery’s beers.
In addition to partnering with artists, the brewery sponsors the Northwest String Summit in North Plains, Oregon, hosts the Whiteaker Block Party in Eugene, and spent its second year at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas hosting the Ninkasi Northwest Local Outpost.
One of the bands featured at this year’s SXSW Local Outpost was Rare Monk, a Ninkasi sponsored band that defines its genre as experimental indie-rock.
“It’s nice to have a company behind you that isn’t a corporate entity,” says Forest Gallien, bassist of Rare Monk. “We’re in an interesting place where there’s not a lot of financial opportunities or labels taking chances on bands. It’s amazing to have Ninkasi supporting the arts scene and giving us opportunities we may not have had.”
Tyler Fortier, an Americana, alt-folk-rock musician sponsored by Ninkasi, says, “Beer and music go hand in hand for me. It’s nice to have the association with this really great beer company.”
Along with recording, production, and pressing CDs, Book has, through Ninkasi, helped promote shows, created online marketing campaigns, and of course, sent bands on tour with plenty of Ninkasi beer and swag to distribute to fans.
“We’ve spread the [Ninkasi] word as far south as San Diego, as far east as Park City, Utah, and as far north as Spokane, Washington,” Blake Forbess says.
Laughing, Trevor Forbess adds, “We’ve also played a lot of shows under the influence of Ninkasi [beer], and they’ve turned out really well.”
At Ninkasi, Book says sponsoring bands promotes one of the company’s goals: to create better living for customers, employees, and its partners. “It’s basically a cultural enrichment,” Book says. “Agreements [between the bands and Ninkasi] are typically forged over a handshake and a pint.”
As they finish their pints and exit the patio, Volifonix members run into Book, who has just wrapped up his evening recording session. Each band member gives him a hug and exchanges quick life updates.
“How’s Annabelle?” McClain, the guitarist, asks.
“Annabelle” was one of the songs Book co-wrote with the Flys in the 1990s, but McClain is now referring to Book’s three-year-old daughter. “She’s great,” Book replies with a smile. “I play almost exclusively for her now.”
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