What’s Up? at Luigi’s Fun Garden
Sacramento’s musical tricksters What’s Up? move to Portland, induce merriment
There’s a grainy video of What’s Up? online that shows the band—Teddy Briggs (drums), Brian Marshall (bass) and Robby Moncrieff (guitar and keys)—in action at a Sacramento house show. The video is filmed awkwardly from behind Moncrieff, his angular frame bending over the keyboard as his fingers frantically pop to strike every key of the equally angular, swiftly tempoed and wittily titled “Seasoning’s Greetings.” Friends bounce to the music in the cramped quarters; a dancer’s arms flail into the shot right over Moncrieff’s keyboard. Despite the low-fi simplicity of the video, and the very likely chance that there was more than one kind of smoke at this show, it’s no illusion that What’s Up?’s music is as honest, self-aware, serious and merry as the exuberant crowd.
In a recent interview over the phone, the humble Moncrieff—a recent transplant from Sac to Portland, Ore., and a former member of Who’s Your Favorite Son God and the Advantage—talked a bit about his current instrumental project What’s Up?
“This music thing,” he says, “it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
Humility aside, Moncrieff wrote and arranged all of the What’s Up? songs, then he enlisted Briggs and Marshall—who were en route moving to Portland to join Moncrieff during the interview. Still, Moncrieff is reluctant to call What’s Up? “his” project. “[Briggs and Marshall are] involved heavily because of the caliber of difficulty of the songs. I demoed out all the songs and got together with them one on one … kinda coached them through specific parts and rearranged stuff to make it work better for everybody.” Which sounds like an admission to old-fashioned hard work, rather than sleight of hand.
“I actually spend a lot of time thinking about the songs in all sorts of contexts,” Moncrieff continues. And it shows. They’re strong, high-energy instrumental narratives.
“Instrumental music can be really boring, so I try to find a way to make it exciting, give it a little more depth,” he says. He applies effects to a Rhodes electric piano, creating unusual tones, lending the songs a 1980s-era video-game vibe (even though he winces at the comparison, saying he’s “grown to despise the video game and the video-game culture”). The arrangements culminate in storytelling that is striking, with each composition conveying a different level of an exciting journey. The tightly assembled tunes are crafted with serious intent, but at the same time, not too serious: A lightheartedness and enthusiasm exude from the bright melodies and driving percussion. Moncrieff is ultimately very thoughtful about the sound he wants to create.
What’s Up?’s music is effective enough to dupe even a solemn, squinty-eyed David Copperfield type into bopping around with the syncopated sounds. Thanks to Moncrieff’s dexterous digits on the keyboard on songs like “Seasoning’s Greetings,” it’s probably impossible to stand still while listening to the band play. “It sounds fast, but it’s mostly tricks,” he says.
But getting people to have a good time and dance—well, that might be the best trick of all.